The Wrong Duncan!

Duncan: Ruth Anne Duncan Sheffield Butler
Ruth Ann Duncan at about age 40, when she married Alexander Butler.

Several years ago, I had researched the family of Ruth Ann Duncan, my great-great-great grandmother. I thought I had easily located her as a “Ruth M Duncan” in the household of a Jonathan Duncan in Henry County, Tennessee in 1850.

This Jonathan Duncan was frankly a pain to research, since he wandered all over three states and had many children by three wives. But I persisted, and completed a fairly extensive line on him going back to Virginia. I also traced Ruth Ann’s presumed mother’s Gregory line back quite a ways.

Fast-forward to this week. As I was going back over the Duncan line, cleaning it up as I went, I noticed something odd.

Ruth Ann’s first husband, Washington Sheffield, moved with her to Izard County, Arkansas by 1860, and then went off to fight on the Confederate side in the Civil War, dying in 1863. Ruth then married Alexander Butler, my great-great-great grandfather, in Carroll County in 1870. But how did she end up in Carroll County?

I went back to Ruth’s first marriage, thinking maybe she had joined Washington Sheffield’s family there after his death. I looked for Sheffields in Carroll County. Nope. But something did catch my eye.

Ruth Anne and Washington’s marriage certificate, dated 31 July 1850, clearly states that both of them are residents of Madison County, Tennessee. How did this work with Ruth being found in Henry County in that same year?

I went back to the 1850 census and noticed that for Jonathan Duncan’s district, the census is dated August 31, 1850. A month after Ruth Anne was married! So her name shouldn’t have been Duncan, and what was she doing in Henry County, anyway?

I then looked up Washington Sheffield, who is found on the 1850 census for Madison County, dated September 30, two months after he married Ruth Ann. He is living in the household of another family, probably as a farm worker. Ruth Ann is not with him, even though he was married by then. Ruth Ann was therefore either left off the census by mistake or living somewhere else, most likely with her own family.

A search for Duncan families in Madison County showed a David Duncan with a “Ruthy Shuffield” in his household. Her age even fits in nicely with the rest of the listed children.


Well, so much for all that research! I detached the 160+ person Jonathan Duncan/Elizabeth Gregory line from my tree and started over with David and Eleanor Duncan.

A search of deeds showed that David Duncan moved to Carroll County by around 1856. I also found his estate sale from 1866 at which “Ruthy Sheffield” buys a pot and kettle. This places her in Carroll County four years before she married Alexander Butler. David Duncan lived in the same district as Alexander–they even had the same post office.

So, this is clearly the correct Ruth Ann, and she must have moved back to Tennessee to join her family after Washington Sheffield went to war or after he was killed.

Interestingly, Ruth Ann was first married to a Confederate soldier, then to a Union veteran. Alexander Butler served with the 7th Tennessee cavalry, eventually surviving Andersonville prison. I plan to write up more about him later. Ruth was the third of his five wives. He was an interesting character.

I think it’s possible that David Duncan was related somehow to the Jonathan Duncan line because Ruth Ann’s sister also married a Gregory. It may be that they trace back to the same Virginia Duncans and that some of my original research will tie in later. Time will tell, I clearly have a whole new project now.

The moral of this story is, read the actual documents, especially the dates! And definitely don’t believe anything you see on an Ancestry public tree without correlating it yourself with primary sources. My Duncan line was up there for years before I noticed this tiny error that had thrown it all from the beginning.

Experience is a great teacher, isn’t it?


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