I would argue that all family historians have unicorns in their family tree.
I define a unicorn as an ancestor that shows up at the end of any given family line carrying nothing more than a name. They are usually female but can be male. They appear out of thin air, fully formed – like Athena springing from the head of Zeus. We have no idea where they came from, why they were here, or where they went. Yet they existed because we are here.
I have more than one unicorn in my family. Probably my most challenging, and most frustrating, is that of William Washburn and his wife Desire Girard.
I know they existed.
Charity was the name of my second great grandmother on my paternal side. She was the wife of Hezekiah Walker Cole (see my blog post here: Descendant of James Cole, Plymouth). I know Hezekiah is my direct ancestor because I can prove that his son Orange, a Civil War veteran, had a son named Frederick. I can also prove that Frederick, who married Rose Dattler, had a son named Howard. Howard was my father. I also know that Hezekiah was married to Charity because I have a copy of her obituary from the Oswego, New York Palladium. It says that Mrs. Charity Cole, wife of H. W. Cole, died December 1, 1889. It also lists her children, one of whom was Orange.
Charity’s obituary does not speak to her maiden name, however.
It just so happens that Hezekiah is a direct descendant of Richard Cole. Richard, who was born about 1745 in Swansea, Massachusetts and died 1816 in Richfield, New York, was a veteran of the American Revolution. His name is registered with the U.S. Sons of the American Revolution (SAR).
Using Ancestry.com, I was able to locate a SAR Membership Application from 1949 that contains Richard’s descendants to Hezekiah. The application, accepted by the SAR and presumed to be correct, said that Hezekiah was the husband of Charity Washburn.
Note I used the term “presumed to be correct”. The application notes Charity’s date of death as December 1, 1890. However, this conflicts with what the Palladium said. I trust the newspaper and believe the person submitting the SAR application simply transcribed the year incorrectly since the month and the day matched.
Anyway, the SAR application provides neither a Washburn lineage nor source reference material. My only course was to keep digging.
The earliest United States census record that contained a complete list of all household members was the seventh in 1850. Census records before 1850 did not include the names of household members. Instead, they recorded the name of the head of household only and used tally marks to indicate other household members by age group and gender.
In 1850, Charity was already 41 and married to Hezekiah. The two of them lived in Oswego, New York with five of their eventual six children. Hezekiah was a farmer and we can be relatively certain Charity was a housewife since she was not recorded as having an occupation. Having been established as Mrs. Hezekiah Cole in 1850, she was clearly married before that. As a result, finding her specific name any earlier using census records was slim.
I was right.
On the other hand, there was always the chance she and Hezekiah became caretakers of her aging parents. This was a common practice in the nineteenth century so perhaps her father, mother, or both were resident after 1850. I checked the 1860, 1870, and, for fun, the 1880 census records.
All were silent.
I caught a break when I stumbled across the work of Ernest Byron Cole.
In 1908, Mr. Cole published The Descendants of James Cole of Plymouth. His book traces all known Cole family members from James Cole, early settler of Plymouth Colony who arrived in the 1630s. On page 273, he writes that Hezekiah Walker Cole, born in Scituate, Rhode Island on July 21, 1808, married Charity Washburn, born July 14, 1809. The two took their vows on January 1, 1832. He also says that Charity was the daughter of William Washburn and Desire Girard.
At this point I was reasonably sure that Charity’s surname was Washburn. But, like any good detective, I needed verification.
I found it when both William and Desire appeared in the 1914 The Genealogical and Encyclopedic History of the Wheeler Family in America. Compiled by the American College of Genealogy under the direction of Albert Gallatin Wheeler, Jr., I found William Washburn and Desire Girard on page 727 as parents to Julia A. Washburn. Julia was born in Westchester County, New York and was the wife of Luther A. Wheeler. Luther and Julia were married March 1, 1829.
Charity, it appeared, had a sister – an older one at that.
According to the Oswego Daily Times from February 1894, Julia was born November 26, 1805 and died February 20, 1894 in Scriba, New York, a small town near Oswego on the shores of Lake Ontario. She was 89 years, two months when she passed. Unfortunately the newspaper obituary did not include the names of her parents or any siblings.
Despite the dead end, I felt extremely confident that the names of both my third great grandparents were correct. To further support this, subsequent research into Hezekiah and Charity’s children found that one of their daughters was named after Charity’s mother. Desire Girard Cole was born May 6, 1840. She eventually married Eben Hubbard in 1858.
With this new information, it was time to make some educated guesses and try to locate William and his wife Desire in historical record. It is here that my unicorns began to take shape.
I focused on William first since he would have been head of household and listed by name in early census records. I approached my research assuming that since Julia was born in Westchester County in 1805, her father most likely resided there for some time. I also assumed that William was probably between the ages of 25 and 35 when Julia was born. I also assumed Julia was their first child. This would place William’s birth year between 1775 and 1785.
With these criteria, I began my search using census records.
The first thing I found was that there was a William Washburn living in Hamburg, New York during that time period. However, the two census records listed (1850 and 1860) showed him married to Hannah, not Desire. This suggests that either I had the wrong William Washburn or that he remarried before 1850.
I expanded the scope to include neighboring states.
This time I found additional William Washburn’s in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Canada. None had the correct spouse. Again, either these are the wrong William’s or he remarried.
As a last resort, I expanded to include all states and all name variations. I added a few William’s – including one who lived in England in 1861 – but none came close to matching my William.
At this point I had no choice but to deem him a unicorn. Without supporting documents that clearly link William to his wife or to either of his daughters, he will have to wear that mantle.
I took a turn looking at Desire. The only Desire Washburn I found was the daughter of Benjamin Washburn of Massachusetts. The only Desire Girard I found died in France.
Welcome to the unicorn realm, Desire!
My research was far more expansive than what I wrote above. I took the liberty of abridging hours of work. In reality, I looked through hundreds of records at Ancestry.com, FamilySearch.org, Fold3.com, Newspapers.com, and FultonHistory.com (and an odd Internet search or two for good measure). These included everything from birth, death, and marriage records to probate record lists (which are useless in terms of establishing identities without the actual will) and military records. Nothing I found clarified the identities of William and Desire Washburn.
Anyone researching their genealogy will eventually end up with a family tree peppered with unicorns. It’s the nature of the beast (no pun intended). Our challenge is to do our due diligence and try our best to discover the answers. If we can’t find them – and I know this is a tough nut to crack – accept that there may not be an answer.