A Photograph Crumbles a Brick Wall

11 Dec 2012

Sometimes clues for your brick walls can come from interesting places. Over years I’ve done some research on my friend Ruth’s family. She is an interesting mix of old Yankee and 19th and 20th century immigrants. In fact, it was her family that got me started on my Franklin book, as she is a descendant of Benjamin Franklin’s niece.

One roadblock I had hit with her family was her geat-great grandfather William Roger Marchant. His marriage and death records indicated that he was born at Dennisport (a section of the town of Dennis), Massachusetts. His parents’ names on both records were given as Joseph W. and Louisa. By 1879 he was living in Providence, Rhode Island, when he married there Elizabeth Honeyman. She immigrated from England with her family in 1872.

Image of William Roger Piper Marchant and Louisa (Marchant) Piper, taken around 1870, from William J. Upper’s RootsWeb page.

Statewide registration of vital records began in 1841 in Massachusetts and while spotty in the first decade, is fairly complete and accurate by 1850. I could not find the birth record for a William Marchant anywhere in Massachusetts in the years around 1859. Nor could I find a birth for an unnamed child of Joseph and Louisa Marchant.

No marriage record for the couple was found in Massachusetts or Rhode Island. Initial census searches for Massachusetts and Rhode Island showed no sign of William, nor could I find Joseph as a head of household. The trail seemed to grow cold, and I laid that research aside. It has been a couple of years since I looked at this problem.

I have been asked to write a specific type of article for a journal, and I was looking for a good problem to write about. Last night I took a look at the William problem again. I found a tremendous clue on RootsWeb in the form of a collection of photographs.

It turns out that one of Ruth’s relatives uploaded some photographs of “William Roger Pfeiffer Marchant” to RootsWeb. Among the images were one of William R. and Mother Louise ca. 1870; Marchant Home, Dennisport; Grandmother Marchant; and Great-Grandmother, Woonsocket; and Aunt Rena Marchant, ca. 1920. The images were said to have belonged to Olive Marchant, a daughter of William.

Image of Cyrena “Rena” (Marchant) Baker taken shortly before her death in 1917 from William J. Upper’s RootsWeb page.

Thinking that Pfeiffer might be Louisa’s maiden name, I checked the Massachusetts vital records for a Louisa Pfeiffer marriage. No luck. No Pfeiffer families in the right place in the census either. But I did find an online family tree that showed William Roger Pfeiffer Marchant to be the son of Joseph Marchant (son of John and Abiah (Fisher) Marchant) and Louisa Pfeiffer.  Unfortunately this provide incorrect, as that Joseph married for the first time to Puella Cleveland in 1865.

I decided to see what I could discover about the Aunt Rena. Rena is often a shortened form of Serena or Cyrena. I searched for Serena first and hit the jackpot. In the 1860 census for the town of Dennis I found:

Betsy Marchant, 47
Joseph Piper, 21
Louisa Piper, 18
Wm. R. Piper, 1
Betsy A. Marchant, 18
Isaac Marchant, 14
Alexr Marchant, 12
Serena Marchant, 10

Suddenly the brick wall crumbled, and the solution was there. William’s mother was a Marchant. His father was a Piper, and he himself was born as William R. Piper. My presumption was the Joseph died young and William was raised by his mother’s family, eventually taking her surname. This was close to the truth. Apparently Joseph and Louisa separated and divorced. Joseph married for a second time in 1865 and went on to have another family with his second wife. William’s mother Louisa never remarried and died in 1870, leaving her 11-year old son to be raised by her mother. William eventually took on the Marchant name as his own.

This situation is much more common than we might at first think. Prior to the late twentieth century, changing your name was as simple as actually using a different name. As long as you weren’t doing it for illicit purposes, your name would be legally changed. Keep this in mind with some of your brick walls. Perhaps you are dealing with someone raised by his or her mother’s family, or that of another relative. Try switching names around when searching. You never know what you may find!