Sic transit

“Rochester in 1812,” from Ulysses Prentiss Hedrick, A History of Agriculture in the State of New York (1933). Courtesy of the New York State Agricultural Society

I have been struggling with a dilemma for months – how (and if) to tell the story of a loving father whose actions would lead to unintended and tragic outcomes for his family. When encountering very unusual and difficult family information in your research, what do you choose to publish? In seeking community comment and guidance, I will outline the core issues, but use pseudonyms and avoid other identifying information. I am aware of no genealogy on-line or in print that encompasses this family; it is not in my direct line, but related.

“Edward Winston” and his family, then consisting of a wife and four sons, moved to western New York early in the nineteenth century to newly-opened lands in “Genesee Country” to carve a farm from the wilderness. I suspect that Edward’s wife, “Betty,” died in the hard years following settlement. Old family records identify some of the unusually-named children of this family, which enabled their definitive identification in land and census records. There was, however, one child in census records not identified in family history: in 1850, the census (and each to follow) revealed why that may have been – a son, “Jesse,” the first born, was recorded as “idiot.” The other children had by then married and moved further west.

Born abound 1820, probably of a second wife, a girl was enumerated who seems also to appear in 1830 and 1840 censuses. In the 1850 census, in addition to the first identification of Jesse, above, there were two additional surprises. Edward, then 83, had recently taken a new wife, “Sandra,” age 34; the girl, who (would have then been 30) disappeared and a previously-unrecorded son named “Harrison” appeared … of the same age. No other record of any daughter has been found.

Edward wrote his will around 1853, and died at age 90 in 1857. At a time and in circumstances when there was no institutional care, he had devised a strategy for the care of his disabled son, Jesse. Sandra was to care for Jesse In return for one-third of his estate; the other two-thirds went to Harrison with the same condition, that he would care for Jesse for the rest of his days. At the time, probably to clear title, the two other living sons, “Clark” and “Edmund,” long since established on their own farms to the west, were grantors of their father’s land to Sandra and Harrison.

At a time and in circumstances when there was no institutional care, he had devised a strategy for the care of his disabled son, Jesse.

Such loving plans of a father for care of his firstborn were, however, to have a dark outcome for others. Research unwound painfully; the next event in the saga was Harrison’s death in 1864. Further research uncovered a local newspaper article about the gruesome circumstances of Harrison’s death – he had been found … naked … hanging from the rafters of his home. It reported the results of an inquest concluding that he had attempted suicide a year earlier, and had been despondent following the remarriage of his step-mother Sandra. Given the apparent switch in gender in the census, and the circumstances of his death … was Harrison transgender, before there was such a cultural construct?

With his death (and perhaps earlier, following his attempted suicide in 1863) the remaining brothers stepped in. The 1865 New York State census revealed that Edmund and family had relocated back to his father’s farm; Clark was appointed executor of Harrison’s estate.

At this point, circumstances and events come together to raise questions that invite speculative conclusions. The 1865 census in Edmund’s family also enumerated an infant son named “Stephen,” born in 1864. Later records relate that Stephen was a half-brother of Edmund’s other children. If Edmund initially returned alone in 1863 to deal with the crisis caused by Harrison’s attempted suicide, who was the mother of Stephen? Sandra? She could not be found in the 1865 or subsequent censuses; she would have been of questionable child-bearing age.

Family turmoil was likely why Jesse was found living away from his father’s home, the only time, in 1865, seemingly with another relative. He was back at his father’s farm in 1870 and 1875, living with brother Edmund and family. Stephen died at age 11 in 1875; Jesse died in early 1880, at the age of 80, certainly a long life under the circumstances, an unusual story of family care and love. However, the census of that year also revealed the dissolution of Edmund’s marriage – his wife had left and moved to Ohio.

While I may later choose to publish these events, I will value and weigh comment.

About Ross Williams

Retired from a Human Resources management position with a major corporation, Ross has degrees in Economics from Binghamton University and Industrial Relations from Cornell. A long-time family genealogist, his American ancestry is early British Isles immigrants—all ancestors born after 1800 resided in rural Washington County, New York. His current focus is on documenting this little researched line of the Williams family that migrated from New England to the Argyle Patent in Eastern New York after the Revolution, and on to Western New York and beyond in succeeding generations.

24 thoughts on “Sic transit

  1. Descendants deserve to learn the facts, which could be relayed without conjectures. They can decide what to conclude from the outline of these lives. I would not, in any case, refrain from reporting what you have found in the records.

  2. Very interesting but I don’t think there’s any need to give pseudonyms to people that died over 150 years ago. If people can’t handle facts, that’s on them and not you.

  3. We had a “Jesse” in our family. Her name was Alice. I believe no family escapes who they are or what they have done. The stories of Jesse and Alice and their families are the stories of Everyman. They deserve to be told. Their souls deserve to be cherished. But we cannot do that until we have heard the story. I treasure my two Alices, both my great Aunt who was disabled and her namesake, my Mother.

  4. Since genealogy generally results in a collection of records, the said records are basically a stake in the ground for later researchers to build on or discount the results based on newr evidence or records not available when the older records were searched. A sad fact is that most of the work in usually left to a later generation whose curiosity is sparked by what seems and incomplete story that deserves to be finished

  5. If the girl and Harrison are the same person, another possible explanation could be a medical condition called ‘ambiguous genitalia’. In this uncommon condition, a hormone issue causes gender confusion at birth. As I recall in some variations, the genitals change at puberty causing gender reassignment. When I learned of this in the 1970’s they talked of how in the past genetic males would be assigned a female gender initially only to have it changed later. With the advent of more understanding and better testing, this condition is handled much differently now. I can only imagine in the 19th century, the initial appearance was a cause of concern that was only magnified if it changed in time. There is more detailed information about this on some reputable medical websites.

  6. When viewing a tragedy that happened over 150 years ago I would feel free to write and publish it. I have tragedies in my family too. We all do. The important part is to deal with them sensitively, trying to understand the circumstances and all the bits and pieces we can gather. I am lucky to have the original papers prepared for my 2nd great grandfather who charged his one son with the responsibility of taking care of his special needs brother in exchange for property. From the stories told he discharged his duty quite well. When I read and know of the struggles and tragedies of the past it puts our current lives in the greater context—and it builds resilience to know that others have had their own challenges.

  7. We are, in some ways, a kinder culture than 150 years ago. If the descendants of this family are culturally progressive, they might appreciate the truth. If they are not, the family’s history could be written factually and non-judgmentally, and a way found to put it in some type of trust for future descendants.
    If the story is there, in the records, available to future family historians, the weight of being the only person currently knowing the facts, and putting them together with an expanded cultural knowledge, is less of a responsibility.

  8. History, no matter how painful, is part of the American fabric and brought to life through genealogy. I also have stories that are sad to read but need to be told. I believe you should publish it and help to enlighten this period of history.

  9. Isn’t it possible that the change in genders was simply a mistake made by the census taker? Certainly a transgender person is a possibility, and given today’s acceptance of a multitude of gender identities, it makes for an interesting story. I would continue to seek further details before publishing anything with actual names. JMHO. Thanks for sharing, it was interesting reading!

  10. Right from the beginning of your post, you establish the dilemma in describing this complex family. Many families, if they are honest, encounter past complexities among their ancestors that they did not think would happen in their tree. The importance of your narrative is how you have threaded the tale and what it reveals about how you come to terms with the unexpected. That is a story worth telling.

  11. That hits home. I have a similar sad situation in the family of my Daniel Richardson, Newbury MA, 1692. The story of his deaf daughter was discreetly told in public records found by Vaughn Simon, in his “Descendants of William Richardson and Elizabeth Wiseman. We can only too easily imagine the heartbreak that family must have felt, especially when we face similar situations even today.

  12. I didn’t find your dilemma about publication as challenging as you seem to think. I understand that a suicide is sensitive, but Harrison’s death was many years ago. As to Harrison’s gender, many of us have seen “gender change” in the census–in this case a mark in the wrong column, but I have even seen it change from an “m” to a “f” in subsequent decades–but it could easily be due to enumerator error. In Harrison’s case, the idea that he was transgender is not a known fact, so you don’t have to voice your thoughts–let readers do their own speculation. I didn’t see any other dilemmas in your post. I would think hard if I had proof of bigamy, rape or incest, but descendants are not responsible for the actions of their relatives, and any stigma should fade the further back in time the event occurred.

  13. I have a similar individual in my maternal tree, a first cousin 3 times removed, Zophar Huntoon. Zophar was born in Rhode Island to William Francis and Mary (Manchester) Huntoon. Zophar is listed in the 1850 census for Providence Rhode Island Ward 3 as Zophia, female, age 9 months. Zophar is listed in the 1860 census for Aurora, Kane County, Illinois, living with aunt Betsy (Huntoon) and husband John Holbrook. Zophar is called Jaspar, male age 10. The 1870 census for Paterson Ward 4, Passaic, New Jersey, lists Zophar as Sophia, female age 19, living with parents William and Mary. Zophar is listed in the 1880 census for Providence, Rhode Island, as a male, age 29, employed as a clerk. Zophar died 21 May 1894 in New York City. A brief obituary in the NY Herald-Tribune on 23 May 1894 states that Zophar was the son of Mary and the late William Huntoon. Funeral services were held at the home of Zophar’s sister, Florence (Huntoon) and her husband, George B Hurd. I have a photograph of Zophar, pictured as a young man with a mustache. I think Zophar was born with sexually ambiguous characteristics.

  14. If wife Sandra was 35 in 1850, she was born around 1815 and definitely not able to be mother to the female born around 1820 or the male Harrison, same age. In the case of both these children, they might have been out of the house before 1850, she married and Harrison working elsewhere, perhaps married. She may have died childless, thus not named in father’s will. Is it possible she was a step-child, daughter of an unknown second wife by a prior marriage? Could Harrison be a child born to this second wife and Edward?

  15. I wouldn’t have thought about Harrison being trans-gender because I’ve seen too many census records where the gender of the same person varies. If Harrison was despondent over his step-mother remarrying, I would be more likely to think he had a relationship with his step-mother.

    1. For anyone reading these comments, I commend to you the link that Kelly Wheaton provides to her first blog … read the brief blog, then go to the bottom and click on the pingback: “Listen to Your Ancestors: What Story do they want you to Write?”, and you will get the benefit of the great advice and perspective she shares on this topic.

      Many thanks, Kelly. I enjoyed reading your blog and congratulate you on the approach and the writing.

  16. Ross, Great job in seeking a way to tell your family’s story with empathy and accuracy. I’m certain you will do well!

  17. NY marriage records in the early 1800s are scarce, so it is quite possible that the daughter on the 1840 census got married prior to 1850. It seems that her father remarried too and it is quite possible that the Harrison shown as his son was either adopted, or (more likely IMHO) was perhaps Sandra’s brother (census records are rife with errors). I would definitely share this info which could provide valuable avenues of research for future genealogists, but perhaps emphasize that some of your conclusions are speculative.

  18. Hi Ross, My opinion: Tell the story of these individuals’ lives as found. I have an ancestor 1700s who also left instructions for care of a son with disabilities. My eldest son, now an adult with multiple disabilities due to brain trauma of preterm birth at 6 months. Life challenges us — History of social norms provides insight into human progress or decline. provides us the ability to view: U.S., 1880 Federal Census Schedules of Defective, Dependent, and Delinquent Classes. Wow! Have times changed! Individuals with intellectual disabilities… My opinion. Write it. (: Tracie

  19. I have seen so many Jesse/Jessie, Frances/Francis, and Jane to James confusions. The thing is, those census records, written out for us in ledger sized volumes using dip pens, were probably copied from smaller sheets, as the census taker was out on horseback in the rural areas. Zopher to Zophia? Same number of letters. And listings with the first name one year and the middle names they were called for everyday another. I don’t think you have to speculate here. Just report it as written.

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