Friday, July 29, 2011

The Hunt for Isabella's Parents

It's been almost two years since I found Belle Greer buried nearly in my own back yard, at the Fairmount Cemetery in Denver, CO. Finding her buried in Colorado prompted ordering her death certificate, which uncovered that her mother was somebody named Isabella Gillespie. We have since been able to determine alot about Isabella Gillespie - that she came to Michigan from Orange County, New York and married John Greer, they settled in Bloomfield township, acquired quite alot of land, and raised 16 children, all of which seems stunning. But so far, we've not been able to determine who Isabella's parents were (there are lots of votes on that she is a daughter of William Gillespie and Isabella Houston, but I have not found any evidence to support that theory - my research notes for that can be found attached on ancestry).

So one of my primary goals for my recent trip to Michigan was to find an answer to this burning question. I'm sorry to say as I write this, the answer still eludes me. But here's what I found (and did not find):

I have been primarily focused on why I have not been able to find a death certificate for Isabella. Death certificates were issued in Michigan by 1891 and they often listed parents. Why can't I find one? At the Michigan State Archives, they have a register of deaths for the entire state by year, organized alphabetically and by county. There were no Greer or Gillespie deaths recorded anywhere in the state in 1891. So this means one of two things:

a) Isabella did not die in Michigan, but in this case, her body was brought back - presumably - and buried in Michigan. We should actually check the cemetery records personally - they might have some other info. It should be noted that this very thing happened to Jane Gillespie Greer. If not for the probate record which said she died in Henderson, KY (we still don't know what she was doing there), we wouldn't know where she died because she too is buried in Michigan (presumably).

b) Isabella did die in Michigan but for whatever reason it was not recorded at any official level (county or state). It should be noted, however, that I did find a death announcement in an 1891 Pontiac Gazette which noted that Isabella had been ill and quoted a poem at her passing.

I was pretty discouraged at not finding any death record. But on my last day in Lansing, I started thinking about what other documentation would list a person's parents, and I wondered about a marriage certificate. I had found one source that said John and Isabella were married in Wayne County, so I started hunting. Lo and Behold! There is both a religious and a civil record recorded in Wayne County on June 13, 1833. This information was recorded by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) in 1936 as part of the Vital Records Project of Michigan (a copy of what I found is attached on my research website). Because all this happened before Michigan was a state, the actual record, if it still exists, is somewhere in a Detroit storage room. Should I admit that I have my hopes pinned on this slim chance?

And here's one other little thing: John Greer and Isabella Gillespie Greer were officially registered as Oakland County Pioneers in 1903, interestingly AFTER they both had died. Although some have survived, the original forms for Greer's application are not found at the Oakland County Pioneer and Historical Society. Clearly one of their many descendants recognized they were pioneers and made sure they were registered. More Michigan pioneers. More history than we ever knew....

O Pioneer!

I just returned for a nine-day trip to Michigan. I'm going to be uploading some of my research notes to the my Gillespie/Greer research site, but want to add some highlights to the blog here.

Sometimes it's easy to forget the character who started all the research excitement in 2010: Elizabeth Gillespie, half-sister of my ggg-grandfathers James and Robert Gillespie. While I was in Lansing at the Michigan State Archives and the Library of Michigan, I was reminded of those who first bought land from the U.S. Government while Michigan was still a territory. The one and only person with the Gillespie name in that time and place and circumstance was Elizabeth Gillespie of Orange County, New York. In April of 1833 she purchased, in her own name at a time when women were elsewhere not entitled to own land or even be considered guardians of their own children, 78 acres in Oakland County in the township of Bloomfield. Elizabeth was single when she bought the land but soon after in 1834 she married Peter Gordon. Curiously though, by the 1840 census she was living alone. And of course it's interesting to note that Elizabeth's gravestone in Franklin Cemetery names her a Gillespie not a Gordon.

At the end of long library days, I like to save time for wandering the aisles because somehow I am always lead to something I am supposed to look at. So I ended up in an aisle with Oakland County records, and I pulled Divorce Records for Oakland County, 1839-1865. No reason, just did. What I found was a divorce petition filed by and granted to Peter Gordon in 1850, ending his marriage with Elizabeth Gillespie because of HER abandonment shortly after the marriage (the actual wording of the petition is located in the library of documents on my website). In addition, the witness who was deposed was named Charles Lemon. The name LEMON pops up because one of the daughters of James Greer and Jane Gillespie Greer, Eliza, married somebody of the name Lemon - a fact I got from Jane's probate record. Jane died in 1868, so clearly the LEMON family knew the Gillespie's quite a long time.

So. Miss Elizabeth Gillespie. A woman before her time, it seems, owning land, becoming a divorcee, a woman with no children. When she died in 1857, relations headed to probate court to divvy up her pioneer land. If not for those records, we would probably never know that Elizabeth was ours. And she was. Even though mystery still abounds as to who Elizabeth's parents were, and when and where she came to America from Ireland, she is no less a key character in our family history.

Any way, let's **toot**toot** the horn for Elizabeth, for as far as I can tell, she is the FIRST Gillespie in our lineage to own land anywhere in Michigan. She is also the ONLY original Michigan pioneer with the Gillespie name and she deserves all the credit for establishing the Gillespie family for generations to come upon Michigan soil. Cheers to Elizabeth, o pioneer.