Elusive sources

From time to time while researching someone’s family history, I incidentally come across a piece of information that catches my attention or leaves me intrigued. Recently I found myself in this situation while researching a family in the town of Lee, Oneida County, New York. As I often do, I searched local histories for this area of New York State to try and gather more clues for further research.

Our County and its People: A Descriptive Work on Oneida County, New York, edited by Daniel E. Wager, mentions a Colonel Alpheus Wheelock and his wife Rachel. This source claimed that Rachel was actually “a famous female physician.”[1] However, a search of the rest of this source showed no additional information about Rachel. This stuck with me and I sought to find more information about Colonel Wheelock’s “famous” wife.

According to this history, Colonel Alpheus Wheelock and his wife settled in Elmer Hill, a village within the town of Lee, in 1792. They were migrants from Rhode Island, and Colonel Wheelock had established the first tavern in the area.

An article from The American Genealogist entitled “Glocester, R.I., Removals 1783–1786,” by Charles W. Farnham, gave me some more information about this couple. In 1786, “Alpheus Wheelock of Uxbridge, Mass., and his wife Rachel … quitclaim rights in 60 acres of land in Glocester, a farm now owned by heirs of Joseph Armstrong of Glocester.”[2]

Vital records of Uxbridge show that Alpheus Wheelock and Rachel “Armstron” were married about 28 November 1785, which was the date of their marriage intention.[3]

Based on this and the land record found in TAG, Rachel Wheelock’s maiden name was Armstrong and she was originally from Rhode Island. She may have been the Rachel Armstrong, daughter of Job and Julia Armstrong, who was born at Glocester, Rhode Island on 18 November 1763.[4]

While I have only just begun looking into Dr. Rachel (Armstrong) Wheelock, my search of general genealogical sources such as vital, census, land, and probate records, local histories, genealogies, scholarly journals, newspapers, and military pension records have not revealed a possible source for this information. I am left with the familiar question we as researchers encounter when using uncited sources: Where did this information come from? The proof could be tucked away in a local historical repository under manuscript collections, family papers, bible records, and/or diaries. Of course, this may be one instance where we simply cannot corroborate the statements made. For now, we can take this 1896 publication with a grain of salt yet still believe that Rachel (Armstrong) Wheelock was a well-known physician in late eighteenth-century New York State, perhaps reminiscent of Martha Ballard, the focus of Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s book A Midwife’s Tale. Only future research can tell.


[1] Daniel E. Wager, ed., Our County and It’s People: A Descriptive Work on Oneida County, New York (Boston: The Boston History Company, 1896), 462.

[2] Charles W. Farnham, “Glocester, R.I., Removals 1783–1786,” The American Genealogist 45 [1969]: 26.

[3] Massachusetts: Vital Records, 1620–1850.

[4] Rhode Island Vital Extracts, 1636–1899, at Ancestry.com.

About Michelle Norris

Michelle holds a master’s degree in history from Salem State University, where she specialized in women in colonial New England. She completed her bachelor’s degree with concentrations in history and gender studies from the University of Massachusetts, Lowell. Michelle has a background in public history and has worked with the National Archives and Records Administration in Waltham, the Beverly Historical Society, and the Sargent House in Gloucester, Massachusetts. Her research interests include women’s history, society and culture, early America, and the American Revolution.

6 thoughts on “Elusive sources

  1. Perhaps she was someone like one of my great-grandmothers. She had a certain amount of medical knowledge, and people called her when they were sick, so she could tell them if they needed to call a real doctor (which few of them could afford) or suggest other remedies they could use.

  2. Indeed: “A little after them came
    Alpheas Wheelock and Rachel, his wife, the
    most famous and useful female physician ever
    in this section. She was a sister of Oliver
    Armstrong, who opened the first inn west of
    fort Stanwix in 1794.”

    A start, anyway. I wonder, though if the term female physician might have been used to refer to Rachel as a midwife and “physician” to women. If so, she may not have had a doctorate in medicine. I have heard of women, though, who were allowed to study at medical schools; but were not allowed to receive the diploma. It is also possible that she studied under another physician, and became a physician that way. If she was very well-known, though, it might be possible to track down where/how she studied and if she was indeed Doctor Rachel Armstrong Wheelock. I hope you can find evidence that she was.

  3. Michelle, you probably realize that most doctors at that time received their education by working with someone established in the profession, and a woman certainly would have had no opportunity for formal education in medicine. The term “Dr.” is inappropriate here and way too modern. Look for possible associations with physicians, in RI probably. This reminds me of the Sweet family of RI, who were known as famous bone-setters, but it would probably take a lot of digging into things like letters and diaries to get at the source of the tradition. Good luck, and do publish your research when you’ve found some answers.

  4. The Salisbury’s and the Wheelock’s were much closer than Wager mentions. Alpheus’ older sister, Rowena Wheelock married Nicholas Salisbury, the oldest of Edward S. Salisbury Sr’s sons. The 1792 tax lists have the Salisburys close to Alpheus Wheelock. In addition, Marcus Wheelock, son of Alpheus and Rachel, is named on the same gravestone as Nicholas and Edward Salisbury in “Rural Cemetery” in Adams, Jefferson County. I believe these two families, and perhaps one or two others, moved together from Rhode Island to Oneida County under the leadership of Edward Salisbury Sr because of his like for the area from his being stationed at Fort Stanwix in the French and Indian War.
    Since Rachel was born in 1763, she would have had enough time to establish her physician credentials in Rhode Island. Her skills would have been unquestionably useful in the frontier areas.

  5. Hi Michelle, Have you contacted Edna Kent the historian for Gloucester, RI. the number I have for her is 401-568-8967


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