Saturday, June 13, 2009

Benjamin Merrill is not my grandfather?!?

Libertarian that I am, I was somewhat disappointed to discover that the semi-famous Regulator Benjamin Merrill may not be my ancestor after all. Sentiment about government aside, it's just plain sloppy genealogy. During my trip to North Carolina for the NGS conference in Raleigh last month, I did quite a bit of personal on-site wandering. I mean researching. Since the Merrill family was among the list of neglected North Carolina ancestors I decided this was the perfect time to make amends.

Also researched during this trip were the Hill, McClelland, Clark, and Lowe families. Stanfield, Bennett, and Smith were also on the list, but these were women’s lines which required investigation into their husbands first. (Lowe, Clark, and Merrill respectively.) I’ll write about each of these families later.

The trip began with getting lost. As usual. Actually, the trip began with the sudden realization that my flight was in two hours and frantic packing and phone calls while waiting for the taxi. But that is another story. Upon my arrival in Greensboro, I picked up the rental, bought a map, and pretended to know where I was. The drive from Greensboro to Asheboro and Asheboro to Lexington was very scenic along the back roads and I imagine that based on the sheer volume of square acreage covered and number of u-turns performed, I saw much of the territory my ancestors explored anyway. So it was ok.

First I went to the Guilford County Courthouse battle site. As usual, I was deeply moved to stand where so many men took bullets so that I could be free to appreciate their sacrifice. I had hoped to find a list of men who fought in the battle such as the series compiled by Bobby Gilmer Moss which I purchased at King’s Mountain and Cowpens a year or two ago. But no one has done that for the North Carolina battle sites yet, so I put it on a mental list of things to do.

From there I went to Asheboro, visited the library, tromped around in cemeteries quite a bit, and generally spun my wheels and achieved no measurable result other than happiness. Next on the list was Salisbury, the seat of Rowan County. I highly recommend the Rowan County Library in Salisbury. The librarian in the History Department upstairs was extremely knowledgeable about the area and founding families. She recognized Benjamin Merrill's name right away and confirmed what I knew about his death. Which is that he was hung for being a Regulator.

In order to appreciate Benjamin’s death, an understanding of his life is required. In 1763, following the French and Indian War, the British crown found itself feeling rather broke. To their minds, they had just spent ghastly sums of money defending the Colonies, and the Colonies should therefore pay for it with taxes. To the Colonists, they had paid with blood, sweat, and tears. And anyway, they were broke too, especially on the frontier. Many families found themselves starving in the face of outrageous tax bills, while men such as Governor Tryon built luxurious houses and threw lavish parties. (which to the Governor’s mind was a pitiful attempt at maintaining the lifestyle he was born to) Adding insult to injury, corrupt government practices such as over-charging for marriage licenses, deed filings, etc. were rampant, unavoidable, and arbitrarily enforced.

Underscoring this was the fact that the people had no say in their government. There was no representation in parliamentary affairs in far-off London. By about 1764 the Carolina people had had enough, and wisely or not, they decided to regulate the government. Thus the Regulators were formed. Things came to a head at the Battle of Alamance in May 1771, where the Regulators were ultimately defeated and disbanded. Wikipedia even states “Delays prevented approximately 300 reinforcements under Captain Benjamin Merrill from arriving in time to help the rebel cause.” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Alamance)

And so the life of Benjamin Merrill came to an end. He was hung, and although he surely thought that his name would go down in history as a disgrace as he stood at the gallows, I feel exactly opposite. I’m proud of him...whether he’s my ancestor or not.

And here is where my blog pertains to my genealogy. I had previously believed that Benjamin Merrill had a daughter named Nancy born about 1756 who married Joseph Clark about 1778. After Joseph Clark’s death about 1793, Nancy remarried to Benjamin Mendenhall.

I believed Nancy was the daughter of Benjamin Merrill and Jemima Smith because published sources said so. Oops. I will name, and go into detail about necessary corrections to these publications, after I’ve finished and documented the correct ancestry of my Nancy Merrill.

At the Rowan County library I found a book Captain Benjamin Merrill and the Merrill Family of North Carolina by William Ernest Merrill, M.S. (which I probably had in Salt Lake all along, but that is beside the point. The point is that I failed to verify what was printed elsewhere). According to this source, Benjamin was married to Jemima Smith, as I had believed, but they did not have a daughter named Nancy. Uh-oh.

Since it was interesting, I went to the Jersey Settlement near Lexington anyway. (http://www.tamu.edu/ccbn/dewitt/mckstmerjersey.htm) Although it was looking like Benjamin might not be my ancestor after all, I was right there. Couldn’t pass it up. Again, I tromped around the cemetery happy as a clam and took pictures of the remaining Merrill family headstones just in case.

From there I went North working on other lines, but several days later stopped at the historical site of the Battle of Alamance on my way over to Raleigh. (http://www.nchistoricsites.org/Alamance/alamanc.htm)

Aside from being such an interesting place, the man there was incredibly helpful.

He pulled out a vertical file on Benjamin Merrill and although his photocopier was not working well, he made a copy of the whole file for me on his ink jet printer. What a pain for him, but I’m so super grateful and I promise it will not go to waste.

The documents in this vertical file include:
  • Family Group Sheet of Capt. Benjamin Merrill compiled by B.J. Patterson in 1990
  • “Captain Benjamin Merrill: A Pre-Revolutionary Revolutionist,” New York Genealogical and Biographical Record, Vol LIX 1928, pages 215-217.
  • “A Narrative History of Merrill Ancestors” by Thea M. Fabio Merrill of Houston, Texas. This document directs to other Merrill sources online including http://genealogy.patp.us/bio/davidson.aspx, and another site which was hosted at geocites but whose link is now broken.
  • Transcribed manuscript of letter 16 Jul 1844 in Ripley County, Missouri, possibly written by Elizabeth Merrill (maiden surname unknown), second wife of Douglass Merrill. This letter documents the known whereabouts of Merrill family members at the time of its writing. The file copy source is undocumented. It appears to have been addressed to Jacob Malone of Illinois State, Fulton County, Cuppola [illegible]
  • Descendants of Richard Merrill (printout from Genealogy Software) contained in email to Battle of Alamance Historical Site from Suzy Parker on 1 Apr 2006, as well as another email from Suzy with same date.
  • Photocopy from “The Regulator Papers” page 528-529. (No cover page showing publication information; title printed on page header.
  • Contact information for various descendants of Benjamin Merrill who have visited the site.

Based on the information contained in this file, it does appear that Benjamin did have a daughter named Nancy, but she did not marry Joseph Clark. This Nancy married Boyd McCrary. Not Joseph Clark or Benjamin Mendenhall.

So, I have my work cut out for me. What can be gleaned from this trip is that Benjamin Merrill was probably not my direct line ancestor. There were several Merrill family members in the area; my job is to figure out which of them really was mine. Benjamin was probably an uncle or cousin. Although he’s not my distant grandfather, I still appreciate him and look forward to setting the record straight.

More adventures still to come. It will be expensive, I’m sure, but there’s really not much I’d rather be doing.

1 comment:

Taneya said...

wow, what a fascinating story. Well, at least you got to see quite a bit of the region! I'm from NC and found your blog through Geneabloggers. I've subscribed so that I can keep up with you. I look forward to reading more!

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