Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Major Breakthrough: How Searching for a Surname Solved Two Big Mysteries and Revealed an American Revolutionary

The March to Valley Forge (1883) by William B.T. Trego

I learned two important things this week.
  1. In genealogy the answer is often right in front of you.
  2. One small discovery can create a chain reaction of secondary discoveries.
Also, sometimes you go looking for an ancestor and unearth a connection to some of the most important events in American history.


I was looking for a Davock family in Buffalo, New York.  My second great-grandmother, Annie Dickson, had an older sister whose middle name has always puzzled me.  Elizabeth Davock Dickson was clearly named for someone, but Davock wasn't a surname I recognized.  It appears nowhere in my family tree.  Earlier this year, I discovered a 1865 census record that showed Elizabeth Davock Dickson's parents, George W. Dickson and Mary Elizabeth Bellangee, living with a Maria Davock and her children in Buffalo, New York.  I guessed that perhaps Maria and her family had been special to George and Mary for some reason, and they had named their daughter in this family's honor.  Still, I had no proof of this or knowledge of their actual relationship.


Concurrently, I was looking for the parents of my fourth great-grandmother, Amelia Brown Bellangee.  Amelia was the mother of Mary Elizabeth Bellangee and grandmother of Elizabeth Davock Dickson.  She has caused me no end of headaches over the years, as her lineage simply could not be uncovered.  I knew that Amelia was born somewhere in the vicinity of Buffalo, New York and likely died in Cincinnati, Ohio, but searches in New York and Ohio turned up no credible leads for her parents.


I've been writing about my Dickson ancestors for most of this year.  Recently, I profiled my fourth great grandfather, William Dickson, in a series of blog posts.  While reading through a biography of William Dickson written by his son, William Dickson Young, one line stopped me in my tracks.

"He [George W. Dickson] married Mary Bellangee of Milwaukee, Wisc., a niece of Mrs. Davocks [sic] who lived on Delaware Avenue, in a house where the Westminster Parish House now stands."

I'd read this biography in the past, but for some reason, had never picked up on the mention of Mrs. Davocks.  Why had I never recognized the significance of this surname?  Immediately, I started researching.  Who was Mrs. Davocks?  Was she related to Maria Davock?  How were they connected to the Dickson and Bellangee families?


My first step was to do some research on Maria Davock.  I went back to the 1865 New York census and found Maria Davock living on Delaware Avenue in Buffalo with her five children, John, William, Ella, Harlow and Hattie.  There were George Dickson and Mary Elizabeth Bellangee Dickson in her household, just as I remembered. Since no husband was listed with the family, I guessed that Maria had been widowed prior to 1865.  Online family trees suggested her husband was John W. Davock, a tanner who had died in 1853.  I made a note of this and continued to look around for proof of Maria's family relationships.  Fortunately, this family is fairly well documented.  I found multiple census records and city directory listings that confirmed their location and relationships, plus a cemetery photo showing John W. and Maria's shared headstone, complete with full names and dates. Everything was coming together.  The record that finally made all the pieces snap into place was an unusual one, though.  In the Sons of the American Revolution Membership Applications 1889-1970 database, I found an application submitted by Maria's son, Harlow Palmer Davock.  In paperwork requesting membership, Harlow listed the names of his parents, maternal grandparents and maternal great-grandparents.

Harlow Davock named his parents as Maria Brown Davock and John W. Davock.  That's right, Brown! William Dickson Young had claimed that Mary Bellangee was a niece of Maria Davock. This means that Maria Brown Davock was the sister of Mary's mother, Amelia Brown.  Suddenly, multiple branches of my family tree collided.  It makes sense that the Dicksons, Browns and Bellangees all knew one another, but I'd never been able to put it together until this moment.

Harlow Davock did me another favor by listing in his application the names of his maternal grandparents and great-grandparents.  This allowed me to corroborate his claims using census records and published histories of Connecticut and the Brown family.  Amelia and Maria Brown's parents were William Brown, M.D. and B. Palmer Brown.  I later determined that their mother's full name was Bridget Palmer.  William Brown's parents were Joseph Brown and Elizabeth Gary.  Joseph Brown was the ancestor that Harlow Davock knew would gain him membership in Sons of the American Revolution.


Joseph Brown, my newly-discovered sixth great-grandfather, was a farmer in Killingly, Connecticut. When tensions reached their peak between American colonists and the British in 1775, he fell firmly on the side of the rebels. After the opening shots of the Revolutionary War were fired in Lexington and Concord in April 1775, Brown joined a hastily-assembled Connecticut company that marched north to Massachusetts to support the colonists fighting there.  Brown served in Elwell's regiment only a short time during the Lexington Alarm, but his participation in these early days of the American Revolution was an exciting revelation for me.

I'm a history buff who has been to Lexington and Concord and stood on the spot where the first shots of the American Revolution were fired.  I still inexplicably remember every word of "Paul Revere's Ride" by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, decades after being required to memorize it in elementary school. This is a period in time that has always captivated me.  Discovering that my ancestor volunteered immediately after the skirmish at Lexington, and participated in the opening salvo of what was to be the Revolutionary War, was thrilling.

When the British troops, after a night of marching, reached the village of Lexington, they saw through the early morning mist a grim band of 50 minutemen-armed colonists-lined up across the common. There was a moment of hesitation, cries and orders from both sides and, in the midst of the noise, a shot. Firing broke out along both lines, and the Americans dispersed, leaving eight of their dead upon the green. The first blood of the war for American independence had been shed. 
The British pushed on to Concord, where the "embattled farmers" at North Bridge "fired the shot heard round the world." Their purpose partly accomplished, the British force began the return march. All along the road, behind stone walls, hillocks, and houses militiamen from village and farm made targets of the bright red coats of the British soldiers. By the time the weary column stumbled into Boston its losses totaled nearly three times those sustained by the colonists. 
The news of Lexington and Concord flew from one local community to another in the thirteen colonies. Within 20 days, it evoked a common spirit of American patriotism from Maine to Georgia. [source: The Society of Colonial Wars in the State of Connecticut]

Joseph Brown was swept up in that spirit of American patriotism.  After the Lexington Alarm, he reenlisted, serving in Captain Joseph Elliott's company.

In 1777-1779, Joseph Brown served as an ensign in the Fifth Regiment Connecticut Line Formation. He fought in the Battle of Germantown in October 1777, a devastating American loss which resulted in the city of Philadelphia temporarily remaining under British control.  However, recognizing the American effort in this battle, the French resolved to more strongly support the colonial army.

That the battle had been fought unsuccessfully was of small importance when weighed against the fact that it been fought at all. Eminent generals, and statesmen of sagacity, in every European Court were profoundly impressed by learning that a new army, raised within the year, and undaunted by a series of recent disasters, had assailed a victorious enemy in his own quarters, and had only been repulsed after a sharp and dubious conflict. [source: History of the American Revolution Volume IV by Sir George Otto Trevelyan]
Having survived the Battle of Germantown, Joseph Brown was assigned to Huntington's Brigade and spent the winter of 1777-1778 in the infamous winter camp at Valley Forge.

That's right, my sixth great-grandfather was at Valley Forge.  With George Washington.

This was the turning point of the American Revolution.  When we think of Valley Forge, most of us think of those bloody footprints in the snow, the starving and freezing men passing a bitter winter without sufficient food, clothing and shelter.  But of course, Valley Forge was also the place the colonial army regrouped and became better-trained soldiers.

The suffering and sacrifices of the American soldiers at Valley Forge are familiar, iconic images, but there is another side of the picture. Valley Forge was where a new, confident, professional American army was born. Three months of shortage and hardship were followed by three months of relative abundance that led to wonderful changes in the morale and fighting capabilities of the Continental Army. France would enter the war on the side of the new nation. Valuable foreign volunteers and fresh replacements would trickle into camp. Most important, it was at Valley Forge that a vigorous, systematic training regime transformed ragged amateur troops into a confident 18th century military organization capable of beating the Red Coats in the open field of battle. [source:]

My family tree gained several generations this week.  I wish my grandmother was here to discuss this discovery with me, because I know she would have been thrilled with the breakthrough and the connection to some of the most important moments in American history.  This makes all these years of fruitless research on Amelia Brown completely worth it.  Rarely in genealogical research do you experience a breakthrough quite this rewarding.  I'm savoring this one.

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