Lesson Learned: Finding the Correct William Shaw

While cleaning up my tree on my maternal Kelly line, I managed to create a whole new pandemic project for myself. Le sigh.

Yet another case of multiple guys with the same name

I realized while tidying the family of my 3g grandfather, James Logan Shaw, that I had no actual proof that he was the son of William Shaw in Sumner County, Tennessee. Logically, he could have been William’s son, and apparently, that had been enough proof for me 10-15 years ago when I first built out that line. But, especially after sweating over Dickens and Smiths, I am a lot more careful.

Now that I am a much more experienced researcher, I look for more than mere correlation. I want evidence. And I could not find it. Not in deeds, will, or probate files. Furthermore, Ancestry’s Thrulines showed exactly zero matches with a common ancestor past James Logan Shaw. In fact, searching my matches for “Shaw” led to multiple fourth-cousin links to people with other Tennessee Shaws in their trees from the same time period. This was not looking good for Sumner County William Shaw.

The clues

Fortunately, I was not completely without hints. I knew for sure from Bible records and censuses that James Logan Shaw had been born in Tennessee in 1808. Therefore, his parents had to have been in Tennessee at that time, and likely in or near Sumner County.

I knew that James’ son’s name, Thomas Taylor Shaw, likely included a family surname, perhaps that of James’ mother. 

And I knew that James Logan Shaw’s wife, Marinda Harder’s, sister Mary, had married an R B Shaw in Sumner County 1837. It was therefore highly likely that this R B Shaw was James Logan’s brother, giving the marrying habits of that time. It was very common for multiple siblings from one family to marry siblings from another. However, I could not find R B Shaw on the 1840 or any subsequent census.

Then I got lucky. Another well-researched family tree included Mary Harder and documented her three marriages and many children. Most importantly, these records led to the name of Mary’s first and only son by R B Shaw, Robert B Shaw. Therefore, “R B” was almost certainly Robert B Shaw Senior. So, James had a likely brother, but he died between 1837 and 1840, not leaving much of a paper trail. I made a note of this and moved on.

Following up on other trees–with a healthy dose of skepticism

Ancestry family trees are frankly pretty dodgy. I never copy any information from them without confirmation of a source. Some of these family trees had James Logan Shaw as the son of a William “Alsey” Shaw who married Susannah Taylor Wray in Davidson County in 1807. (Davidson County is next to Sumner County, and in fact James Logan Shaw later lived in Gallatin, very near the county border.) But there was no real proof of the relationship (hello, other Ancestry trees are not actually sources…)

But maybe I could find the proof. I started researching William Shaw in Davidson County. Censuses didn’t tell me much, however, I did notice that there was a William Shaw living next to a Thomas T Shaw in Davidson County in 1820 and 1830. Could this be another Thomas Taylor Shaw? I ran some searches on him and found out that yes, indeed, this man’s full name was Thomas Taylor Shaw, likely uncle to James’ son Thomas Taylor Shaw. Now I was getting somewhere!

On to probate files

I knew that Davidson County William Shaw was gone by 1840. So, I moved to Family Search and started looking for a probate record between 1830 and 1840. Sadly, I did not find a will, but I did find some scraps of information in Davidson County probate court files. William Shaw’s estate inventory was submitted to the court in July of 1835. His administrator was Thomas T Shaw (bingo!) And Robert B Shaw bought a blanket at the estate sale, and was given a “receipt” at some later point by Thomas (bingo!) It was definitely looking like Davidson County William Shaw was father to Thomas Taylor, Robert B, and James Logan Shaw.

Shaw, William I July 1835 inventory recorded

The deep dive into land records

Deeds and land grants are definitely not the most exciting things to research, but next to probate records, they are the best way to untangle lines before 1850. Davidson County land records are available on Family Search. There were two William Shaws in Davidson County at the turn of the 19th century (of course!) but fortunately, they owned land in completely different areas. So, I didn’t waste too much time on the wrong William, who was based in downtown Nashville and owned land and ferry rights right on the riverfront. (Too bad I didn’t inherit some of that real estate!)

My William Shaw was based just north of Nashville, on Whites Creek in the area of present-day Goodlettsville. He made things easier for me by selling several tracts of land to his son, Thomas Taylor Shaw. And guess who witnessed some of these deeds? Robert B Shaw and James L Shaw. Bingo again!

Susannah who?

All the Ancestry trees I saw had William’s wife as Susannah Taylor Wray, due to the aforementioned 1807 marriage record of a Susannah Wray. A published family history concluded that this was Susannah Taylor, daughter of a Thomas Taylor, with a previous husband named Wray. However, this made no sense! If William married Susannah in 1807, then why would William’s son, Thomas Taylor, acquire that name at his birth in 1798?

A 1796 deed answered this question. William and his wife, Susannah Shaw, sold land on Whites Creek to William McCoy. Her brother, John Taylor witnessed the deed. Therefore, William was married to Susannah Taylor before 1796. The William Shaw who married Susannah Wray in 1807 was a different person. In fact, an apparently unrelated  “William Shaw Junior” appears on deeds around this time: he may be the “William Alsey Shaw”who keeps appearing on Ancestry trees as the father of James Logan Shaw.

Susannah Taylor is therefore the mother of Thomas Taylor, Robert B, and James Logan Shaw, and of another son as well, William W Shaw, born about 1799. He is found on the 1830 census living between William Shaw Senior and Thomas Taylor Shaw, and deeds show that he lived next to them. He also named a son James Logan Shaw!

DNA evidence

I am a kindergarten-level DNA researcher, but I can spot the obvious. I had no DNA connections to Sumner County William Shaw when he was on my tree. When I replaced him with Davidson County William Shaw, I immediately matched up with descendants of William W Shaw and four of his sisters whose identities I have yet to independently verify.

Next steps

I am trying not to think about the drastic pruning job I will be doing on my tree over the next few days. This discovery means the removal of many individuals on one more my more interesting lines, into which I have put a good deal of effort (including their records of slaveholding). I certainly don’t want to see all that work go to waste, so my plan is to unlink those individuals and load them as a separate family tree onto Ancestry for others to use. I’ll also go back and note on my blog posts about the relevant individuals that they are not in fact my relatives, while leaving them online as a resource.

However, on the positive side, my “new” William Shaw was a Revolutionary and Creek Indian war veteran from the southwest Virginia frontier who left a detailed pension application in 1832, complete with a personal account of his military service. His father in law, Thomas Taylor, was also a Revolutionary soldier and early settler of Davidson County, so there is no doubt plenty of interesting information to be uncovered there as well. 

Finally, as the name James Logan Shaw has popped up three times so far in the family tree (my James Logan also named a son James Logan Shaw), I’m wondering if we may be connected to James Logan, a Scots-Irish figure of historical significance in early Philadelphia.

I do look forward to learning more about these ancestors. Onward!

One thought on “Lesson Learned: Finding the Correct William Shaw

  1. Fascinating read! I inherited my genealogy paperwork and never verified the sources. It was typed up, in part, by a Willis McGarry Shaw. There are a few handwritten notes. He states he roughly compiled the genealogy of the first, second, and third generations of William and Sally Ann Shaw, and Jacob and Elizabeth Sarver Harder.
    One of his written notes refers to a “Taylor’s Hill” located in Goodlettsville, TN It is located adjacent to Skyline Hospital. Years ago, my husband and I walked the lower part of the area and found a gravemarker. I can’t recall the name on the stone. I want to say “”Mary”, but that’s probably justa wisp of memory. memory. Months later, we were driving south on Dickerson Rd, just before you get to Skyline Hospital, and I noticed a fairly good sized cemetery up on Taylor’s Hill. We tried to figure out how to access it, but eventually gave up. Could these be the Taylor’s who married into the Shaws?
    After your post, I too wonder if I too need to prune the family tree. Since Willis Shaw mentions in his research that William Shaw was married to Sally Ann Shaw, instead of Susannah Taylor, I just don’t know which branch to cut.
    Regarding DNA, I am more of a novice than you. We gave an Ancestry DNA test as a gift to our son, but he has not sent it in yet. Here’s hoping it will help strengthen the boughs of our lineage.

    Liked by 1 person

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