Week 9: Gone Too Soon

Grave marker, Bruton Parish Church, Williamsburg, Virginia (https://www.carolshouse.com/cemeteryrecords/brutonparish/

This is my “favorite” grave marker at Williamsburg’s historic Bruton Parish Church (only genealogists have favorite grave markers). Ann Burgess is not famous, although many famous people are buried in this cemetery.  But her story touches me.  I’ve built a narrative around this grave marker — this is what could have happened although I can’t prove all of it.  Ann was the wife of a pastor (Henry Burges) who served a church in Isle of Wight County, across the James River from Williamsburg.  She was raised in Williamsburg and came home to be with her mother as she gave birth.  Things went badly; Ann and her infant child died and are buried in this location (this type of grave marker is called an “altar tomb”) beside the front door of the church. 

Ten minutes of internet research helped me flesh out her story.  Her maiden name was Ann Geddy – daughter of a well-known Williamsburg family.  Ann’s father was James Geddy, a gunsmith and metal worker who came to Williamsburg from Scotland in the 1730s.  His son, James Geddy, Jr., continued the family business and expanded it to include a silversmith and jewelry business.  The James Geddy House across Palace Green from Burton Parish is one of the surviving original buildings in Williamsburg and is open to visitors.

Ann’s husband Henry John Burgess was also a significant figure in the early history of colonial Virginia.  Prior to the Revolution, Henry represented Isle of Wight County as a member of the committee of safety.  Henry was an active supporter of the Revolution, and he was captured by the British at Suffolk after the town was burned by the British in 1779. Legend has it that he was saved from hanging only by the interventions of Martha Dandridge Custis, a widow whom Washington had married in 1759.  The Custis property was only a block away from the Geddy House, so the families knew one another. Henry married two more times and he had two children with his third wife. 

This family left a legacy – there are at least 19 people with the “Geddy” surname living in Williamsburg today, and there are hundreds of people with the “Burgess” surname in and around Isle of Wight County.  I knew a man named Geddy when I was in college here in the 1960s. My 17th-century Burgess ancestor (my 8th great-grandmother Elizabeth Burgess) is descended from the same Burgess immigrant as Henry John Burgess.  They were 2nd or 3rd cousins so far as I can tell. So that connects me to this story in some fashion I haven’t quite pinned down yet. I think Ann Geddy Burgess and I are something like 4th cousins 8 times removed. More or less.

So it is not surprising that the graves of Ann Geddy Burgess and her infant (unnamed) daughter are featured so prominently in the churchyard.  Her family and her husband’s family were important in the City of Williamsburg, and her death must have dealt a crushing blow to her widowed mother.  Her mother died in the late 1780s at the age of 77.

Ann Geddy Burgess represents millions of women over the centuries – women who die in childbirth or as a result of complications from childbirth.

One such woman is my 3rd great-grandmother Elizabeth Bilyeu (1808-1834).  She was born in Tennessee, but her earliest immigrant ancestor Peter Billiou (1620-1708) arrived in New Amsterdam in 1661. 

This plaque is interesting at a number of levels. The “Pilgrim Fathers” were in Leyden before they came to Massachusetts in 1620. The Billious were French Huguenots who had come to Leyden seeking the same religious freedom sought by the Pilgrims. However, they (quite rightly) assumed that if they moved to Massachusetts with the Pilgrims they would lose the religious freedom they had sought. So they went somewhere else — New Amsterdamwhich was more tolerant of religious diversity.

The Billiou family (they finally settled on the spelling “Bilyeu” by the middle of the 18th century or so) moved from New York through New Jersey, Maryland, and Kentucky before settling in Tennessee in the 1820s.  The Bilyeus did not travel alone – other migrants from New Amsterdam, including the Workman family, moved to the same places at the same time as the Bilyeus.  The family members occasionally intermarried, but in my direct line, the family lines come together when Elizabeth Bilyeu married James Workman in Tennessee in 1826. 

At first, their life proceeded normally enough in their frontier community.  They soon had two children (the first child was my 2nd great-grandfather James Abraham Workman), but tragedy overtook this family when Elizabeth died after the 1833 birth to their third child, a boy named Samuel.  Elizabeth was dead by 1834.  The records of Overton County Tennessee are sparse and rudimentary for this time, and I can’t find any record of her death.  But it was likely due to complications from childbirth, although I’ll probably never be able to prove it.

James needed a wife – and he soon found one, in the person of Elizabeth’s sister Lydia.  Lydia served as a mother to the three children, although she and James didn’t have any children together.  She died in 1844, and James promptly married again – this time to Eliza Rayburn, who was about a year younger than James’s oldest son (my 2nd great-grandfather).  Eliza had her first child with James in 1844, and went on to have eight more children over the next 20 years. She apparently survived all of their births — she didn’t die until

Meanwhile, my 2nd great-grandfather James Abraham Workman (James’s oldest son), married and began to have children.  He married his first wife, Jemima Kitchens, in 1848 and they started their family.  Jemima bore six children in 10 years; she died (at the age of 28) less than a year after the birth of her sixth child.

The randy old goat wasn’t through with women yet.  He quickly married – this time to a 13-year-old named Adeline Buck – and they had 10 children over the next 20 years.  Adeline died (at the ripe old age of 26) less than a year after the birth of her 10th child.

I can give you another example of this from my family tree.  My third great-grandfather Johannes Georg Ilgenfritz (1750-1831) outlived two of his three wives.  His first wife, Margaret Mumment, died 10 years after the birth of her last child – but she had had six children in ten years (no twins), and that has to explain something.  She was only 40 when she died.

Then Johannes remarried – to Keturah Clark, who was 20 years younger than him.  She died at the age of 42 as a result of complications from the birth of her 11th child in 17 years – including two sets of twins.

But wait, there’s more!  Johannes married a third time – to Permilia “Milly” Jarvis, who was 46 years younger than him.  She was the same age as his oldest grandchild.  Milly had five children in 10 years – no twins – and Johannes (finally) died at the age of 81, leaving five children under the age of 12.  Milly outlived him by 29 years.  So far as I can tell, he wore out two wives (killing one of them directly).  His third wife was saved only because Johannes died after fathering 22 children over the course of 39 years.

They were all gone too soon – Elizabeth, Jemima, Adeline, Keturah – just four out of the millions of women across history who died as a result of childbirth. The saga of the American frontier is replete with stories like this – women beyond the reach of adequate medical care, bearing more children than their bodies can handle, their ensuing deaths, the grief-stricken and broken families they leave behind, and a quick remarriage. 

Lather, rinse, repeat.

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.

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