Friday, April 20, 2012

Abigail Willoughby, 1822-1880

An incomplete story with a sad ending

Abigail Willoughby (b. 1822, Pennsylvania) appears as one of my great-great-great grandmothers in every family tree related to me that I've seen online. She was married to my great-great-great grandfather, James C. Vining (b. 1812, New York). James and Abigail are on my dad's side of the family. They were my paternal grandfather's maternal great-grandparents, to be exact. (I know it's confusing!)

Vague and missing info

Abigail Willoughby and James Vining are "brick walls," as family-tree researchers often say. Their branch of the family tree ends with them, because no one yet has learned the names of any of their parents. Abigail told an 1880 census taker that her parents were born in Massachusetts.

I like the sound of "Abigail Willoughby" -- it's almost poetic. But I don't know if Willoughby was really her maiden name or not. Most family trees say that Abigail Willoughby was born on 15 Feb 1821 in Tioga County, Pennsylvania, and that she married James C. Vining in 1838 in Lycoming County, Pennsylvania. But where did my fellow researchers get that information? Was it in a family Bible or passed down in family letters? Or was it just an estimate and a guess, copied from one family tree to another? I haven't found any birth or marriage records at all.

Fairly reliable data

Here are some things I do know about James and Abigail:
  • James Vining was living in Tioga County, Pennsylvania, at the time of the 1840 census with a total of three people in his household. The exact date of the census is not given, and only the head-of-household is named. 
  • My great-great grandmother Martha Almeda Vining was born in 1839 in Pennsylvania.  Her sister Abigail Christine Vining was born in 1840 in Pennsylvania. They gave this information on multiple census records.
  • In September 1850, the James C.Vining family was living in Henry County, Illinois. James was married to Abigail, and they had a new baby boy, Robert Henry (b. 1848, Illinois). 
  • James and Abigail had six more children between 1850 and 1868 in Illinois. Then between 1868 and 1870, they moved to Cloud County, Kansas, where they were some of the earliest settlers.
  •  James Vining died soon after they moved to Kansas. The 1875 Kansas census shows Abigail widowed and living with four of the children on a farm in Cloud County. 
  • Before 1880, Abigail married Silas Zenus Waters. He was a farmer,  ten years older than her. The 1880 census shows them living in Norton County, Kansas, (about 150 miles west of Cloud County). Two of Abigail's children were still with her, listed as stepchildren of Silas Waters. One of Abigail's sons (James W. Vining) was the Norton County sheriff from 1879-1883.
  • Family trees say that Abigail died in 1880. The date usually cited is December 4, 1880.

Willoughbys and more Willoughbys

I've been especially curious about Abigail Willoughby because of a series of marriages that took place in Illinois before the family moved to Kansas. The two oldest Vining girls, Martha and Abigail, married Mapes brothers. And a William H. Willoughby married a Mapes sister. Were William H. Willoughby and Abigail Willoughby related? They probably were, but I haven't been able to prove it.

I've looked at a zillion census records and family trees and I still can't prove how Abigail Willoughby fits into the Willoughbys who lived in or near Tioga County, Pennsylvania, where people say she was born. The generations aren't right. She's either too old or too young for those families.

I've entertained a weird theory that maybe Abigail's real father died and then her mother married a Willoughby, so Abigail wasn't really a Willoughby by blood. And I've explored an alternative (but similar) theory that maybe Abigail was married to a Willoughby before she married James Vining, and that her real maiden name wasn't Willoughby at all.

Most recently, I've decided that she might be the daughter of Elijah Willoughby who appears in the 1850 census in Delmar, Tioga County, Pennsylvania, living with his daughter Laura and her family.  Elijah was born in Massachusetts, so that matches. Elijah's mother's name was Abigail -- hmmm. And Abigail Willoughby (my Abigail, not Elijah's mother) named one of her daughter's Laura -- possibly after her older sister?

Betsy Who?

Lately, I've renewed my research efforts, and I've turned up two pieces of information about Abigail that I haven't seen on anyone else's family tree or read in their notes. Both of them shocked me.

First, it turns out that Abigail may not be a blood relative to me. A brief family history (on the middle of p. 202, Genealogy of the Hannum Family by H. F. Temple, 1911, West Chester, PA ) that I found for Louisa V. Mapes (my great-grand-aunt,) states that her grandparents were James Vining and Betsy Ann Murphey, of New York State.

James Vining and Betsy Ann Murphey? I had to think about that! But upon examination, it makes sense. Maybe James was married to Betsy, had two daughters, became a widower, and then married Abigail several years later. That would explain why no children were born for about eight years after the first two girls.

Also, Louisa Mapes was 53 years old and in her right mind in 1911 when that family history was printed.  Surely she was the one who provided the facts about her family. She was 22 years old when Abigail died. She would have remembered Abigail clearly, but she didn't name Abigail as her grandmother!

Abigail's death

My other discovery is very sad. Last week, I learned that Abigail Willoughby committed suicide. This tragedy was mentioned in a short biography of James W. Vining, (p. 172, The History of the Early Settlement of Norton County, Kansas by F.M. Lockard, 1894, Norton, Kansas), who was one of James C. Vining's and Abigail Willoughby's sons.
[J. W. Vining's] father died in Cloud County in 1868. His mother married S. G. Waters in 1874; they came to Norton county in 1876 and settled near Edmond, their domestic life was unhappy which caused Mrs. Waters to commit suicide. Her remains were taken to Clyde [in Cloud County, Kansas] and buried beside her former husband. Mr. Waters died in 1889.

The county history where this account appears is criticized for containing gossip, but there are two unhappy facts here, whether or not they are related: (1) Abigail's marriage to Silas Waters was thought to be miserable, and (2) she killed herself.

There is nothing new under the sun -- didn't Solomon say that? I suppose that unhappy marriages have been around ever since marriage was invented. And I've seen dozens of stories in old newspapers about people committing suicide. I just didn't expect to find such a happening in my own family tree.

About fifteen years ago, a member of my husband's family committed suicide. I know how deeply we grieved about that. I also know how I grieved when my parents died. Abigail's children must have been devastated.

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This article was written by Genevieve L. Netz and originally published as a blog post at Copyright 2012 Genevieve L. Netz. All rights reserved. Permission is granted for attaching this article to Vining and Willoughby family trees as long as this entire notice is included. Any other use requires written permission.


Collagemama said...

This was very interesting because of the open admission of suicide. In my family tree there is a man always referred to as having "abandoned his family". It turns out he abandoned them by committing suicide.

Genevieve said...

F. M. Lockard, the guy who wrote that Norton County history, told a lot of stuff in his book that some people probably wished had been kept quiet. It's quite a book.

Regarding Abigail, we'll never know what was happening in her mind. Was her mental state caused by the unhappy marriage, or was the marriage unhappy because of her mental state? It's not easy to live with a person who's suffering from depression. Or maybe Silas was a real beast to live with, and Abigail could not imagine any other means of escape. It's impossible to know or understand.

Not always, but often enough, suicide is the ultimate act of revenge -- "Look what you drove me to do!" Friends and family naturally feel guilt and shame for not preventing the suicide somehow, which is exactly what the person who killed himself planned in his poor, sick mind for them to feel.

Collagemama said...

I hope Abigail's family members rose from the tragedy as my great-grandfather's family did.

Anonymous said...

I would think also that Abigail could be a daughter of Elisha and Lucia Willoughby. My 6XGGrand mother is Hulda Willoughby b.abt 1777 m. Samuel Griswold b. 1775. I have Hulda and Samuel in Owego, Tioga Co. (just across the NY boarder from Delmar) 1820 census and living next door to them is Truman Willoughby b. abt 1790-1800, I believe this could be Hulda's brother or nephew. I find Truman again in Delmar Tioga Co. starting in the 1830s. In the 1860 census he has his mother Lucia (widow b. abt 1780 Mass.) with him. You might check out a Josiah Willoughby in Groton Tompkin Co. New York b.1734 in Conn. He has ties to Mass. Thats what I am doing. Just a thought!! If I find a ref to Abigail I'll post it here. Good Hunting!! Denise Griswold-Hill

Genevieve Netz said...

Thanks for the hints and ideas, Denise. Abigail is an ongoing point of research for me. I review what I have on her and look for new stuff every now and then. Maybe more of her history will eventually be revealed.

And, even though I know very little about Abigail, I know even less about Betsy Murphey who was probably my real grandmother.

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CONTENTMENT: Keep your heart free from hate, your mind from worry, live simply, expect little, give much, sing often, pray always, forget self, think of others and their feelings, fill your heart with love, scatter sunshine. These are the tried links in the golden chain of contentment.
(Author unknown)

IT IS STILL BEST to be honest and truthful; to make the most of what we have; to be happy with simple pleasure; and to be cheerful and have courage when things go wrong.
(Laura Ingalls Wilder, 1867-1957)

Thanks for reading.