Week 34: Timeline

This snip of an Ancestry tree shows the relationship between my 8th great-grandmother Catherine Madison (red circle) and her grand-nephew James Madison, the 4th president of the United States (green circle).  The surnames in this part of my family tree are among the most well-known in colonial Virginia history, and it was exciting to find this possible link.

While I was wandering around in the history of my family in colonial Virginia about six years ago, I came across what looked like a link to the Madison family.  I came across some evidence that suggested my 8th great-grandmother could be a women named Catherine Madison,.  My antennae went up:  Madison is a big name in Virginia history.  James Madison was the 4th President of the United States and his uncle, also named James Madison, was the President of the College of William and Mary from 1777 until his death in 1812.  My parents lived in Madison County, Virginia.  I had visited the Madison home in Orange County, Montpelier, several times while I was growing up in Virginia.  A connection to the Madison family would be cool.

The connection with the Madison family first appeared as I was researching a branch of my family that settled in the 1640s in Gloucester County, Virginia – not far from my home in Williamsburg on the shores of the Chesapeake Bay.  It appeared that my immigrant ancestors of this line, Thomas Todd and Anne Gorsuch, had a daughter named Isabella who married a man named John Madison II.  I was able to connect John to President Madison’s lineage; therefore, Catherine (the daughter of Isabella and John) was also related to President Madison.  And that means I was related to President Madison.  Pretty cool possibility, right?

This is where the timelines come in.  I couldn’t get the generations to fit.  Here’s the problem:

I have conflicting dates – and Catherine is the major problem.  If Catherine was born in 1683, as some records suggest, then Isabella probably wasn’t her mother – she would have been only 13 at the time.  But if Catherine was born in 1693, as other records suggest, William couldn’t have been her son, because Catherine would have been only 11 at the time.  Some online trees have fudged this by putting Catherine’s birthdate as 1683/1693, but that doesn’t really help.  Neither of these dates can be accurate if this lineage is to be proven.  She needs to have been born in between these dates – around 1688 or so – for this to work.  No records give 1688 as her birthdate.

Then I had to acknowledge the confusion about the dates of Catherine’s marriage.  All three of the possible marriage dates – 1700, 1703, and 1724 – are supported by some records, although the support is weak.  If she was born in 1693, she would not have been married in 1700 or even 1703.  But the 1724 marriage dates is way later than the birth dates of her “children,” including my ancestor William.

NOTE:  Records from colonial Virginia are notoriously sparse and unreliable. I knew this would be a problem as I tried to pin down this relationship.

Finding all of this out made me question what I “knew” about Catherine’s heritage.  I wanted her to be the daughter of Isabella Minor Todd, because that connection took me back to the Gorsuch family – a gateway ancestor to a signer of the Magna Carta.  But the more I looked into this, the more I came to recognize that I had a lot of questions about Isabella herself.  Todd family records – particularly wills – don’t identify a daughter named Isabella, and the ubiquitous inclusion of the middle name “Minor” was also confusing.  People were not routinely given middle names in the British colonies in the 17th century, so her name suggests that her birthname perhaps was “Minor” and that she had married a man with the “Todd” before she marries John Madison II. 

This, of course, presents another problem.  It always does.  There doesn’t appear to be a family named “Minor” in Virginia at the right time to have a daughter of Isabella’s age.

In exploring this question on a genealogy Facebook page a few years ago, I linked up with someone from central Virginia who had DNA connections with the Madisons.  I sent him my GEDMATCH kit number and he ran my DNA against his.  We were a match, so I’m definitely connected to the Madison family of Virginia, and probably through Catherine.  But until I can sort out who her parents were, I can’t connect with the Todd and Gorsuch families.

My conclusion:  even very simple timelines are a good way to document what you think you know in order to find out what you don’t know.  When you lay the stark facts out before your eyes, it’s hard to persist in believing something that “ain’t necessarily so.”

Author: iseekdeadpeopleblog

I am a retired high school history and government teacher. I've been doing genealogy research since I retired in 2012. I define what I do as "constructing a plausible narrative about the past." I don't claim to know everything about the ancestors whose stories I tell, but I try to imagine myself in their lives. I sometimes call it "creative non-fiction." I try to differentiate between what I know for sure and what I "think" I know.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: