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School of Hard Knox

By Daniel Hubbard | August 14, 2011

“Aunt Debbie” has been my nemesis for a while now. I’ve mentioned her before as I’ve tried to decide if she is a red herring or an important clue for a client. I know of her from letters that don’t tell me whose aunt she was, let alone how she might be related to one of the letter writers. Whose aunt was she and what kind? Mother’s sister? Father’s half-brother’s third wife? Something in between? Just a very close family friend? Just a made up name thrown in to confuse future family historians? I’ve gotten rather close at times to believing the last option.

Red Herring Served up Aunt Debbie-style?

Finally, while rereading a letter, I found another clue. The key to it all really. There were some scratched out words, faded parts,  a change of line and, of course, no punctuation to help in decoding. The first time I scanned through the letter, I thought this part was two sentences. The first about “aunt debry” and the second about someone else whose name began with an “N.” It wasn’t two sentences at all. Eliminate the mess and reinterpret the odd grammar, take a good hard look at the letters after the “N” and voila, two sentences become one and the N name was “Nox.” She was being called Aunt Debbie Knox. Two odd sentences became one much more coherent sentence.  In one precious letter she had a surname, and an interesting surname it is.

There was a Knox family that I only knew of from the maiden name of the grandmother of one of my letter writers. I have no information about that woman’s past. Now, I had a clue to a female line and that is nothing to take for granted. How did she fit? I found a Deborah Knox in 1870 in the correct town. A good start. I could find a Deborah Knox with a matching husband and children in 1860 but rather far away in a place that told me nothing about how she might be related.

None of this helped with figuring out whose aunt she was or even how it was possible that she was an aunt. After all, the Knox name entered the picture in the wrong generation for a Knox to be the aunt of one of the letter writers. Also, it would have to be her husband that was the blood relative and he is never mentioned in the letters, with or without a surname. It certainly is not impossible that she would be mentioned multiple times without ever mentioning the man that made her a relative but it does feel somewhat odd.

An interesting name, an odd feeling and a mismatch in generations. This was either going to be fascinating or totally uninteresting. It was either going to be important information or totally useless. Now how to decide whether or not to turn on the lights and sirens and continue the pursuit?

Aunt Debbie Defeated

Enter the 1865 state census of New York. I went through the town in which the letters implied she might be living. When I found her. I found my answers. She was listed as having been married twice. So was her husband, so the oldest Knox children might not be hers. The children that were over ten years old in 1860 don’t imply a problematic marriage date before 1850. In fact, with one interesting exception, they turn up with a different mother in 1850. That was interesting but it only made clearer the bigger find. There were children with the “wrong” surname listed in the household. I knew that surname. It was the married name of a suspected sister of one of my letter writers’ fathers. That suspected sister just happens to be one of many Deborahs that I’ve had to choose from. I recognized the names of the children. Suddenly “Aunt Debbie” fit into the generation that one would expect. She wasn’t a relative by marriage but by birth, just as it seemed from the letters. She is important. She helps to confirm the reconstruction of a family because of a direct statement of relationship made by a known relative.

So, what happened to the name “Knox” that was so interesting in the beginning? It seems to have been the red herring in all of this. Perhaps it is a total coincidence. On the other hand, in small towns in the hills, where settlers are channeled to and from other small towns by the lay of the land, it isn’t so strange for the “right” name to pop up for an irrelevant reason. Somewhere there probably is a Knox connection but it might only be through the first Knox to settle up there in the hills or it might go back generations before that.

Another thing that I had to ponder was why a widow’s youngest children were not living with her and her second husband when they had been married only six or so years? Five years later a child and even a grandchild of the dead first husband were living with them. Looking back at 1860 told me what had happened. The ages of the Knox children were not suspicious. Nevertheless, one of them had not been born a Knox. What looked in 1860 to be children only of type “theirs,” looked like some of  type “his” and some of type “theirs” with help from 1865. Comparing the names and ages between all the records told me that the 1860 family really was his, hers, and theirs. Double checking their separate families in 1850 confirmed it.

The family as it appeared in 1860 and again in 1870 did not tell me who they were and there was no reason to believe that some time in between it would be so clear, but it was. The family as it was in 1865 told me enough to move on. So good-bye for now Aunt Debbie and thanks for the help. You weren’t such a bad nemesis after all.

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