In Search of Your Ancestors?
A column on genealogy by George Farris

October 17, 2008

16. Tracking One Specific Ancestor

Most of the previous columns in this series have concentrated on specific information sources - generally with several examples from my own family history research. This column will take a different approach - looking at a variety of sources in an attempt to learn about one specific ancestor. In this case, many of the common sources were not useful - and it was necessary to search rather diligently over a period of years to find enough information to develop a general understanding of where and how the person lived. While the result has been very much like looking at a jigsaw puzzle with many of the pieces missing, nevertheless, a general outline of the person's life and family has emerged.

William Farris

As I researched my, Jeremiah Farris, an obvious question was: who were his parents? I had learned about his family and about some of his brothers and a sister, and, although this provided clues as to where they had lived, nowhere did I find a specific reference to his parents. To date, I still don't know who his mother was - but have identified his father - William Farris. After the fact, with what I've learned, I've been able to put together an outline of William Farris's life - although with many blank spaces. But, getting to that point required finding and sorting though a lot of pieces of information to determine which applied to him and which didn't. The starting points were that some of the Kansas descendants of Jeremiah Farris knew that his father's name was William - and, through records in Fulton County, Illinois, I had learned that the Farrises came to Fulton County from Franklin County, Illinois - beginning in about 1827.

The normal next step would be to search the Franklin County records for all the information regarding Farris marriages, deed records, will and probate information, tax records, etc. - and that's what I did. The result was zero - there were no county records existing regarding the family. That's when I came to realize that all the Farrises had left that county prior to 1843 - when a courthouse fire had destroyed almost all of the records for the period 1818 (when the county was formed) through 1843. Since the courthouse records didn't exist I next visited the local library and the Franklin County Genealogical Society in West Frankfort, Illinois - the original county seat. This resulted in a few fragments of information - enough to at least confirm that I was on the right track. Items that I found were:

  • Illinois state census records for 1818 at the time the state was formed - with the families of John and William Farris listed

  • Federal census records for 1820 - with the families of John and William Farris listed

  • An item in the Franklin County History listing early settlers - including William Farris in about 1814

  • A list from the original land entry book from the Shawneetown U.S. Public Land Office showing that William Farris entered the NW 1/4 of section 36 in Frankfort Township on October 14, 1816

  • Some early church history summaries that included William Farris as a member of Town Mount Prairie Baptist Church in 1828 and 1829

  • A WPA compiled summary of Franklin County government officials - including William Farris as Judge of Probate in 1825 and as County Commissioner in 1830
Illinois State Archives records
Because few Franklin County records existed prior to 1843, I went to the Illinois State Library & Archives in Springfield to see what else might be found there. There I found the following records regarding William Farris:
  • The Legislative Journals show that on January 12, 1825, a joint session of both houses of the Illinois State General Assembly elected the Illinois Attorney General, the State Treasurer, and the Judges of Probate for the several counties then existing in the state. William Farris was elected Judge of Probate for Franklin County - and received his commission for that position on January 18, 1825.

  • The Illinois Executive Record documents that William Farris received commissions as Justice of the Peace for Franklin Co. on December 9, 1821, January 14, 1823, August 10, 1826, August 10, 1827, and July 19, 1828.

  • In an election on August 5, 1822, William Farris was an unsuccesful candidate for Sheriff of Franklin County

  • On December 24, 1828, a special election for Justice of the Peace was held to replace William Farris, esq., who had resigned that position.
    Note: There are no state records for the August general election of 1828 for Franklin County - but it seems apparent that William Farris was elected County Commissioner - and therefore, resigned his positions as JP and Judge of Probate. On January 23, 1829, a new Judge of Probate was elected to replace Farris in that position.

  • In the general election on August 2, 1830, William Farris was re-elected County Commissioner for Franklin County.
Documents in Other Localities
As mentioned in a previous column, in researching my, Rosannah Estes, husband of Jeremiah Farris, I had searched the probate file of her father that I found in Callaway County, MO. Among the many documents in that file were several Powers of Attorney for Rosannah and her siblings. Four of these were for residents of Franklin County, IL - and all were prepared and acknowledged by William Farris, J.P.

The federal land sales records for Illinois show that William Farris bought 80 acres of federal land on 27 February 1828 - the W 1/2 of the NE 1/4 of section 24 of Denning Township, now a part of the city of West Frankfort.
Note: The November 22, 1834, issue of the Illinois Journal and State Intelligencer, published at Shawneetown, included a "list of lands lying in the County of Franklin on which taxes remain due and unpaid on the 1st day of September, 1834." This included the above 80 acres - and is an indication that William Farris had died or moved prior to 1834.

On June 2, 1834, John Farris, age 77, of Franklin Co. IL (probable brother of William), filed a pension claim for service in the revolutionary war, 1779 - 1782, while a resident of Hanover Co. VA. Since William had been a county official, it is significant that he was not involved in John's pension claim (the claim was signed by all of the Franklin Co. Commissioners). This is further indication that William Farris must have died or moved before June 1834.

Records from Kentucky
While it was obvious from later census records that most of the known children of William Farris were born in Kentucky, it was not obvious where to look for records of the family there. There is no lack of Farris records in Kentucky. Beginning in 1780 many members of the well documented Ian Esom Farris clan arrived in Kentucky and spread throughout the state. But, from much research and communication with other researchers of that Farris clan, it had become clear to me that my Farris lineage was separate from that of most of the Farrises who left so many records throughout Kentucky. However, over a period of years I had isolated a few records that didn't match the Ian Esom Farris descendants - and I concentrated on those. Some of these also ultimately led to other unrelated Farris lines. Of the records that were left, some of those in Green County, Kentucky seemed the most promising.

The 1810 Green Co. census records for the William Pharis and John Pharis families were consistent with the 1818/1820 census records for William and John Farris previously found in Illinois. In a research trip to Green County, KY, I did find a few county records of these families - mostly tax records, all with the Farris spelling but obviously the same families found in the federal census as Pharis. These documented the William Farris family in Green County through 1813 and the John Farris family through 1815. The later tax records, after William had moved on, showed John with all the land that both families had owned previously. From this and the Illinois records I deduced that the William Farris family had first moved into the Illinois Territory about 1814 and was later followed by the John Farris family in about 1816.

While the above data seemed consistent, there were so many other Farris families that it was not conclusive that these records were for the same people. However, as documented in a previous column (7. Military Records), a War of 1812 bounty land claim file for a John Farris, one of the sons of William, proved that the Green County, KY Farrises were the same families previously documented in Illinois.

Earlier Records
I have found other records in Kentucky, prior to 1810, that I believe are for these same Farris families - in Mercer County and in Franklin and Woodford Counties (Franklin Co. KY having been formed from Woodford in 1795). While these are consistent with the later records, I have not yet been able to verify that they are for the same Farris families.

The Revolutionary War pension application by John Farris of Franklin County, IL in 1834 provides a good deal of information about his military service - but only some meager clues regarding where the families lived in Hanover County, VA. The Hanover County records for the colonial period were probably among those that were moved to Richmond for safe keeping during the Civil War - and were destroyed when Richmond burned in April, 1865. Researchers have compiled a psuedo census for 1782 for the county from tax records. From this, it appears that John and William were probably sons of a John Farris, Sr. who is listed in that "census". The Farris families in that part of Virginia were mostly descendants of Richard Ferris who came to the colony from England about 1634.

For some ancestors like this one verifiable data is meager. As a guide for continuing research, it's OK to speculate about the person's life for periods prior to the available information. But it's probably not a good idea to publish such speculation - since others may latch onto it and use it as though it were proven - without any caveats. In this particular case, I've shared what information I have about my William Farris with a few other family researchers. Some have subsequently published family ancestries tying him into other families - without any verifiable data. Sometimes we have to just accept that what data we have is all we will ever know about this particular person.

Previous Columns in this series

1. Beginning your search
2. "Source Data"
3. More About Data Sources
4. Additional Data Sources
5. LDS and Data From Other Countries
6. Census Records
7. Military Records
8. Land Records
9. More About Land Records
10. Land Records as a Source of Family Information
11. Wills and Probate Records as Sources of Family Information
12. Biographies, Obituaries, Old Newspapers, and Family Lore
13. Sharing Family History Research
14. Some Genealogy Web Sites to Use With Caution
15. Genealogy & Local History

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