Friday, June 26, 2020

Scotland Saints

More of my posts these days are to report on small DNA matches to me who also have GILLESPIE in their family tree. No matter how small the DNA match, I check what I can of the match's family tree to see where the Gillespie name might fit in. Even though I have yet to confirm with genealogical proof that the Gillespie surname is the source of the DNA matches I mention here, these slim matches have nevertheless lead to some unexpected, interesting, and even amazing stories. Here is yet another.

This story starts in 1820 in western New York with a man named Joseph Smith. Smith had a religious vision that lead to the establishment of a new American church in 1830, one called Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, and known by the public as Mormonism. By 1838, two native Scots living in Ontario, Canada, converted to the new religion, which they then introduced to Scotland on a trip back to visit family. They began preaching in Glasgow in 1840, and one decade later, several thousand Scots had joined the new religion.

Now for the Gillespie matches. The family trees of two small DNA matches to me trace back to Robert Easton (b 1751) and Ann Gillespie (b 1760). This couple apparently lived in New Monkland, Lanark, Scotland, an area 11 miles northeast of Glasgow and part of a municipal burgh called Airdrie. Large beds of coal and ironstone were mined from this area throughout the 19th Century. Here is one description of nearby Coatbridge in the 1840s:

"There is no worse place out of hell than that neighbourhood. At night, the groups of blast furnaces on all sides might be imagined to be blazing volcanoes at most of which smelting is continued on Sundays and weekdays, day and night, without intermission. From the town comes a continual row of heavy machinery: this and the pounding of many steam hammers seemed to make even the very ground vibrate under one's feet. Fire, smoke and soot with the roar and rattle of machinery are its leading characteristics; the flames of its furnaces cast on the midnight sky a glow as if of some vast conflagration. Dense clouds of black smoke roll over it incessantly and impart to all the buildings a peculiarly dingy aspect. A coat of black dust overlies everything."

Robert Easton and Ann Gillespie had a son, Robert Easton, Jr., born in 1796. In 1814, Robert Jr. married Elizabeth Laird, and they had 10 children before Robert Sr. died in 1849. According to the 1841 Census of Scotland, his occupation had been in the coal mines.

Now comes the amazing part, or the beginning of it. On 2 Mar 1850, a ship called Hartley sailed from Liverpool with 109 Latter-Day Saints on board, including Elizabeth Easton and two of her children. On 2 May 1850, the ship arrived in New Orleans where the passengers then traveled up the Mississippi River to St. Louis. There they met other of Elizabeth's children who had departed for America earlier. The family worked in coal mines as they had in Scotland until they had what they needed for the trip west to establish Zion. They traveled on what is now called the Mormon Pioneer Trail, which extended 1300 miles from Nauvoo, IL, to the Salt Lake Valley in Utah.  Some of the Eastons settled in Utah, and others continued to California.  Elizabeth Easton died in Gilroy, Santa Clara, CA in 1860 at the home of her son, George -- over 5000 miles from the coal mines of Monkland, Lanark, Scotland.

So for all my wondering about the religious associations of our Gillespie clan, we have never considered that a faith started in America might have also contributed to Gillespie migration away from Scotland. But maybe converting to Mormonism was more about existing religions of the time giving little help or hope to those living in poverty and despair, while a faraway vision espoused the idea that earnest goodness was enough to recognize simple people as saints. Whatever the true impetus for launching such a remarkable journey, the power of believing in something better had everything to do with finding Gillespie DNA traces among LDS descendants today.

Reflecting on this story gives me pause in our own trying times. With or without theology, what is it that inspires us to endure the worst and believe in the best, to reach beyond ourselves and our circumstances into the unknown? If the only promise of life is that being alive makes a difference, then the ancestors embraced that promise with their own determination. I want to be in that number.

Friday, June 19, 2020


This post comes about because of a faint DNA match between me with 0% African ethnicity and somebody with 75% African ethnicity. Her family tree points to a direct ancestor named Gillespie, and while the reason for the match between us might not relate to that surname, the story I am uncovering is beside the point of how we are related. This story is about all of us, and for that reason, the story deserves much more detail than I can put in this blog post. But today is one of those days, and I want to talk about it.

This story is set in Wayne County, Kentucky in the 1800s, in the years surrounding and including the American Civil War, 1861-1865, which still stands as America's bloodiest conflict. Kentucky was a border state between the North and the South and when the War Between the States broke out, the KY governor issued a proclamation of neutrality in the spring of 1861. But a shadow government favoring KY secession was formed, which then was accepted by the Confederacy in Dec. 1861 as the 13th Confederate state.

The dual governments in KY caused many family divisions with some sons fighting for the North and some for the South. About 100,000 Kentuckians served for the Union, and between 25,000-40,000 for the Confederacy.  In January 1862, the Confederates were defeated in the Battle of Mill Springs, which is geographically at the heart of the story being told here. 164 souls died there that day, another 611 were wounded or missing.

And now to the Gillespies. From my research, two Gillespies, James and Robert, both white, came to Wayne County just before 1820. They may have come from either VA or NC, and why they settled in Wayne is unknown. Based on a study of the records, I surmise that James and Robert were probably brothers, or they were otherwise closely related.

Robert Gillespie had a son named William, 1808-1855, who married the daughter of James Cowan, Nancy. This William Gillespie left a will which named the slaves apparently in his possession at that time:
  • Perry & his wife Rebecca, and their children Isaac and William
  • Rose & her son Louis
  • Lucinda & her child Green (?)
William's will stated that these slaves should go equally to his sons and daughters upon their mother's death. William also gave some additional instruction about the slaves:  "regarding the negros comfort and well being it is further my will that the negros belonging to me be kept in the family as long as they behave well and if any should become refractory and ungovernable, then it shall be the duty of my executors to hire such refractory slaves for the best price that can be had until they make amends."

At this point, I can hardly bear to continue this research because of the painful reality of white Gillespies directing so casually the fate of black Gillespies, who never chose the Gillespie name to begin with. But white William Gillespie gave us some important clues, the given names of his slaves. Do these names tie into the family tree of the black DNA match?

The black Gillespie family tree goes back to William Gillespie, born abt 1846 in KY; married to Lucy Jane, and by 1870 (post Civil War) appeared living in Mill Springs. In 1880, his children included Mary C., Rebecky J., Marthy T., Lueverney, Eddy J., and William P.  Lucy appeared in 1900 as a widow with two children: Perry, age 20, and Otho, age 18.  Lucy was last enumerated in 1910 at the age of 72 living with two sons, Perry W., 32, and Issac O, 23, and two grandsons, Ira M., 7, and Odis, 4.

Here's what I think. Given the names that appear in the black Gillespie family group, I believe the name patterns are repetitions from the slaves named in white William Gillespie's will in 1855:  Perry, Rebecca, Isaac, and William. If this is true, the child slave named William, the one recorded in white William Gillespie's 1855 will, was the same black man named William Gillespie who was free after the Civil War and then started his family with Lucy Jane.

Can we back this idea up with evidence?
  • The 1850 Slave Schedule for white William Gillespie does not show a male slave who would have been the right age to be black William Gillespie, and yet by 1855, white William Gillespie recorded a slave child, William.  Here's how I think that happened.  Remember James Cowan, father of William's wife, Nancy Cowan?  The 1850 census showed that Cowan had 11 slaves, one including a male around the age of 5 -- just the age of the slave William we are looking for. Cowan's will specified that his slaves should go to his wife, and after her death to his sons-in-law James R. Wilhite and William Gillespie. I contend that white William Gillespie probably inherited the slave child named William from the Cowan family.
  • The 1860 Slave Schedule for white Nancy Gillespie (widow of William) recorded 9 slaves, including one male, 15, mulatto. I contend this might have been black William Gillespie.
Oh, but there is still more. After April, 1864, African American soldiers were recruited and about 24,000 black Kentuckians joined the fight for their freedom.  I found documentation dated 1 Aug 1864, showing one William Gillespie, age 20, black, farmer born in Wayne, KY enlisted for 3 years. In the remarks we see "Owner Billy Gillespie." This black William Gillespie served the duration of the Civil War in the 6th US Colored Cavalry.  There is also an index entry for a pension application made by Lucy Gillespie for a William Gillespie of the 6th USCC. That William Gillespie was declared an invalid in 1891 (which is maybe why he was not enumerated in 1900), and Lucy was noted as a widow on 8 May 1906. Thus ended the life of a remarkable man named William Gillespie who had been born into slavery, and was known by an owner's name. But no matter the origin of his name, black William Gillespie joined the ranks of those fighting for freedom, which he ultimately gained and independently lived for another 40 years.

Summarizing this story does not provide half the justice due to the black Gillespies, nor does it answer all the questions. Even if the white Gillespies inherited the black Gillespies as slaves from the Cowans, where did the slaves come from originally? Who were their families and what were their stories? Is it still possible to find out? And what about Billy Gillespie, the owner who let black William Gillespie enlist to fight for the Union?  As far as I can tell, Billy must have been the son of white William and Nancy Gillespie, William K. Gillespie, 1844-1905. But it's still hard to piece this puzzle together. White William was about the same age as black William. And certainly Nancy was still alive in 1864, and I'm not sure that William K. at age 19 or 20 would have been able to authorize the enlistment of black William, especially given that there was no signature of the owner on the enlistment papers. I haven't found any evidence that the white Gillespies served for the militia of either side, so we don't know where they stood. Were white William and black William friends, having grown up together? Or did white William enlist black William for manumission and thus expect some compensation for black William's service? Or maybe black William just ran away to join the Union army. So many questions about what really happened.

And then there's the slight DNA match between the black Gillespie family and mine. Whatever that means, surely it includes my own desire to atone for the captivity and degradation and violence forced upon generations of black Americans, then and now. Most importantly for today, Juneteenth, I write to raise my voice in a flawed and still struggling America to honor the memory of all our ancestors and to strive for the continuing realization of what it truly means, freedom for all.

NOTE:  See also my related research on Mixed Race DNA matches.

Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Sweet Spot

I've been taking a bit of break from my NY Gillespy mapping project, but there's never a shortage of side topics to get my curiosity. Because the last place I studied was Walkill Precinct, I was reminded of a long-time mystery Gillespie, Robert Gillespie 1774-1857 who married Lea Crans. So I decided to reacquaint myself with Robert's life, and see if there's anything new to add to his story. You know, just for fun.

Who knew that following the genealogy trail to Susquehanna County, PA could be so much fun? There I found a deed between Robert's grandson, Joseph W. Gillespie, and Gilbert O. Sweet for one acre in Gibson, PA. Curiously, Gibson was the place where Almon C. Sweet lived with his wife, Caroline Foster. Caroline Foster was the daughter of Susanna Gillespie, ~1786-1829, who was in turn the daughter of James Gillespie and Mary Brown Bannerman, who in turn we can associate with the Rensselaer Gillespie family group. Much of my recent research has been devoted to the question of whether the Rensselaer Gillespies were connected to the Ulster/Orange Gillespies, as I believe they were. Now this little side trip to Susquehanna, PA gives us even more insight into all the possible connections.

All of which comes from recognizing the SWEET surname, (were their ancestors confectioners?), which in turn lead to another rather interesting discovery. Harford, Susquehanna, PA was originally a settlement called Nine Partners, Luzerne, PA. The settlers were nine families from Attleboro, Massachusetts, which seems to be the place of origin of the Sweet families I've been studying. One Sweet family intermarried with another Attleboro family: FOSTER -- the very same Foster family to which John Foster was directly related -- John Foster having been the husband of Susanna Gillespie and the father of Caroline Foster who ended up as the wife of Almon C. Sweet.  Read here for more details of my findings.

The complexity of this situation with all the nuances of myriad genealogical interconnections is almost beautiful. It could be that, like the Gillespies, seemingly, everybody was somehow related to everybody else. How sweet it was, is, and shall ever be.

Sunday, April 26, 2020

Stewart State Forest

According to, the 6700 acres of Stewart State Forest was set aside as a buffer zone for an expanded Stewart International Airport just west of downtown Newburgh, NY. The idea was to insulate the noise coming from what was then expected to become NYC's fourth major airport.

Aside from the interesting history of the airport, the Stewart State Forest is now a vast preserve for naturalists and outdoor recreation that is somewhat unique in the northeast. Besides the abundance of flora and fauna, there are also the old farmlands and wide gravel roads of yesteryear. These lands were once occupied by our ancestors, including Gillespys.
  • Matthew Gillespy, 1740-1797, had married Jane Neely in 1766, and they had made an agreement with Jane's father, James Neely Sr., to help care for the elderly parents and the Neely farm in New Windsor. The farm of James Neely was located on the north side of Little Britain Rd. (today Route 207) probably between Ridge Rd. and Giles Rd. Matthew lived there probably as early as 1781 (he was an Assessor in New Windsor), and he continued to live there after his wife's death in 1788. The 1790 census shows that Matthew was living near to Henry McNeely, thought to have been a brother of James Neely Sr. Matthew remarried around 1791 and moved to NYC where he became a grocer. Matthew died in 1797 and a subsequent legal dispute involving the Neely farm was eventually decided by the NY Supreme Court in 1814
  • James Gillespy, (dates uncertain, but I'm speculating ~1739-1810), sold his lands near Gillespie Street south of Pine Bush in 1788 and together with his wife, Mary, subsequently bought 50 acres in Little Britain. The land of James was part of the Andrew Johnson patent, and from the property description, it was also north of Little Britain Road, probably between Ridge Rd. and Maple Ave. -- maybe along a dirt road today called Scofield Lane Trail Orange. I calculate that James and Matthew lived just over 2 miles apart. We can see from the 1790 census that James' neighbors included the names of many officers in New York's Revolutionary military command: Belknap, Moffat, Dubois, Burnet, Scott, Humphrey, Alexander Denniston, General James Clinton, and the widow of Col. James McClaughry. There is, in fact, a historical marker at the corner of the Route 207 and Beattie Rd. to mark the one-time residence of James Clinton. But even though surrounded by NY's military elite, James Gillespy had to mortgage his Little Britain property in 1791, which was later paid in 1794 by John McMickle. We must assume that James Gillespy had moved on by that time.
Still in all, I think we're looking at the heart of some important connections. According to New York Colonial Muster Rolls 1664-1775, Volume 2, pp 736-737, in 1763, Capt. James Clinton's company was enlisted to guard the western frontiers of Ulster and Orange counties; Lieutenants included William Stewart, Alexander Denniston, Matthew Smedes, and James McNeal (likely Neely). Among those enlisted were James Gillespy, age 24 (b abt 1739), born in Ireland, came from Capt. Neely's militia. In the same company was Samuel Gillespy, age 19 (b 1744), born in Ulster, came from Capt. Graham's militia.

What is all this telling us about our Gillespys? We know that Samuel Gillespy and Matthew Gillespy were brothers (by Samuel's will), and I'm building the case that this James Gillespy was also a brother. I would love to wander the woods and meadows of Stewart State Forest to see if the winds of history have some long forgotten tales to tell about this Gillespy family.

Friday, April 24, 2020

Gillespie Street in Pine Bush

In my recent quest to map Gillespie locations in New York, I finally came to the hamlet of Pine Bush, found in the town of Crawford. I personally visited Pine Bush in 2012, and even stopped in at the town library, just to say that I did. But what I really needed then was a tour guide because I couldn't fully appreciate where I was at the time. Now after mapping the homestead of Samuel Gillespy on the eastern outskirts of Pine Bush, I realize this locale was the home for several generations of Samuel's descendants.

But were Samuel's descendants the only ones to live in and around Pine Bush? We know now that Capt. John Gillespy and his grist mill were only 5 miles outside of town on the Dwaar Kill. But John sold his properties outside the Pine Bush area in 1785 and moved his family to New Windsor, and it doesn't appear that any from his family remained in Pine Bush. Did any other Gillespies spend time in Pine Bush? I contend there was at least one other, James Gillespy. Upon mapping the location of James' property as described in 1788, it was interesting to see from a modern satellite map that a corner of the property is bordered today by Route 48 on the south and Gillespie St. on the east, and 2.5 miles east of Burlingham in Mamakating Precinct where I recently discovered other Gillespy properties. I'm obviously still catching up to what other Gillespie researchers already know about these locales, but learning is half the fun.  You can read more about finding Gillespie Street here.

Now that I am getting my bearings, I think of a line from a Seamus Heaney poem:

If self is a location, so is love: 
Bearings taken, markings, cardinal points, Options, obstinacies, dug heels and distance, 
Here and there and now and then, a stance.

Sunday, April 12, 2020

Deed Mapping

This past week, I've been following the Gillespy trail using two of my favorite sources, historical maps and old deeds. These sources often contain genealogy surprises, but they also teach us alot about compass bearings and distances measured by chain lengths. (See Life of a 1700's Surveyor for some great details.) Translating those old property descriptions onto Google Earth satellite maps could and does occupy me happily for days. Given that I am "sheltered in place" during the COVID-19 pandemic, it's a good use of my time.

This time around, my deed-digging lead me to recognize property that was near to James Gillespy who, in 1770, sold his Shawangunk property on the west side of the Walkill River. That lead to learning more about the Gerarrd Beekman Patent of 3000 acres where the Gillespy land was located. That lead to reviewing the property descriptions of the Gillespys in that patent, where I soon realized a mistake made in my earlier reading of them. I love finding my own mistakes and correcting them because that almost always explains something I couldn't quite understand before. See my latest article about Gillespy and Hunter homesteads in Shawangunk.

Oh, but once on a roll with maps and deeds, why not go on? My next task was to study more closely the deeds of Capt. John Gillespy. That lead to learning about the 10,000-acre Schuyler Patent to the west and south of the Shawangunk precinct, land located in the precinct of Walkill-then Hanover-then Montgomery. In the end, we discover that Capt. John resided on the Walkill/Hanover/Montgomery side, but his grist mill was just across the precinct line in Shawangunk on the farm of James Hunter. See my other latest article about Capt. John Gillespy living on the line.

So all in all, it's been a good week for understanding precisely where some Gillespy characters lived. I think the key to understanding relationships is to understand individuals. One by one, we are getting to know the Gillespy characters of early Ulster/Orange, NY. Eventually, I believe their relationships to each other, and to us, will reveal themselves.

And so ends my genealogy report on Easter Sunday 2020 when a spring snowstorm is blanketing Colorado as I write. It seems fitting that my world should be under a snowy hush given that, because of COVID-19, there was no sunrise service up on Flagstaff mountain this morning, there are no easter lillies being delivered, no easter egg hunts around the neighborhood, no gatherings of scattered family and friends except via Zoom. But then I realize that our Gillespy ancestors were also likely in their homes on their Easter Sunday. It seems most of the early colonists did not celebrate holidays, especially this one, in the way we do today. They were in their homes, resting and reflecting on a Sunday. Just as we are doing now.

Saturday, April 4, 2020

Case Sensitive

Last fall, I ran across reference to a complicated legal case involving two Gillespy brothers which was heard by the NY Supreme Court in 1814. The case report stated specific Gillespy family relationships, i.e., who married whom, and names of children, which is information most often received by a genealogist as a dream come true. But as I have continued piecing together the Gillespy family groups of early Ulster/Orange, NY, the genealogical details from that NY Supreme Court case just don't fit with other evidence, which is not to say that I haven't really been trying to MAKE them fit. For Pete's Sake, the source is a case report from the NY Supreme Court, so it must be right! But alas, it would seem that every source, every single one, must be critically examined and corroborated. I think this particular case report was probably mistaken in some of the key details pertaining to Gillespy relationships. You can read about my analysis here.

Meanwhile, the best way to really corroborate any of the details in the NY Supreme Court case report is to find the minutes pertaining to the Gillespy case from the lower courts. This Gillespy case was apparently heard several times before reaching the NY Supreme Court - in the Ulster County Court of Common Pleas as well as the Orange County Circuit Court, and maybe others. But locating those records is easier said than done, especially knowing that other interested researchers have tried with determination and failed to locate these records. But are the negative search results because the records no longer exist, or because the records are simply not indexed (which effectively hinders any search), and/or they have been mislabeled or misfiled and/or they have been restrictively stored some place that is physically and/or financially inaccessible to the public? I'd love to hear from anybody who has experience or advise about successfully locating early (pre-1800) court records in Ulster or Orange counties, NY.

At this point, I'm going to give a plug to support any genealogical or historical society whose volunteers are attempting to index records and make those indices available online. Even better, support Reclaim The Records. This organization has made phenomenal progress, especially in New York, using the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to see that public records are released to the public domain. The job of discovering and untangling our family history should not be hampered by government restrictions. My two cents.