Sunday, April 9, 2017

Jane P Thompson Burt Billings: An Estimable Lady of Oberlin (52 Ancestors #28)

(warning: this story takes a turn (or two) through a rabbit hole)

Jane P Thompson Burt Billings was a huge brick wall for me for quite some time. She is my 3rd great grandmother on my maternal grandmother's side. When I inherited the big box o' genealogy after my grandmother's passing she had stopped short with Jane's daughter Ella ('funny' story - I'll get to that later) listing her father only as 'Captain Burt (army)' - nary a mention of a mother. I set that aside for a time while I worked other lines; there was a good amount of research that had been done and I wanted to get it all entered into my computer program and have a good look-see. As my grandmother's maiden name was Potwin(e) she had done extensive research on that family and I busied myself with that line for quite some time.

Curiosity finally getting the better of me, I began to wonder who Ella's parents were. I was writing my 52 ancestors piece on Ella and wanted to find out more. When I sat down to write about Ella I did not know her parent's names. My research began and ended in Ellington, New York where Ella had met and married M A Potwin. Yet Ella had been born in Ohio, that much I knew. And I had one bread crumb, family lore said that her family was in the woolen or milling industry in Cleveland. Long story short, searching for Ella alone as a young girl proved difficult. There were three 'Ella Burt's on the 1860 census in or very near Cleveland. Without knowing her parents the trail ran cold.

Enter Facebook!

I posted my dilemma to an Ohio research group and received copious amounts of wonderful information. The woolen mills were a good tip, and the fact that 'Mr Burt' was in the army brought some great results, an indexed widow's pension was found; but the fact that Ella married M A Potwin was the tipping point I think. One researcher pointed me to an old book of Burt family history and genealogy and the flood gates opened!

Mr Burt was Hermes and he had married Jane Thompson!  I was able to work my way back on the Burt side with ease. (of course the Thompson side was a brick wall - did you expect it would be easy at this point?!) I followed the genealogy in the book back to Henry and Ulalia Burt, then it hit me. These names were familiar. Too familiar. In my tree already familiar.

Thank goodness for computers! I punched in the names and yes indeed, they were in my tree. Way, way back, but they were there. I followed them forward ........ just guess where they led? Ha! M A Potwin! What? A little more work and I was able to link the family. Turns out Henry and Ulalia had, among others, two children David and Dorcas. Hermes descended from David while M A Potwin followed Dorcas' line. What?! The family was hiding there all along. My grandmother had already discovered half the story!

But this here is the story of Jane.

So Jane continued to lay low, leaving just enough conflicting information to make moving further prohibitive. For a while I believed her name was actually Pamela, it appeared as such on her son's birth record. I set off to work on other areas and just left Jane alone.

Then just last week, as I was preparing to write Jane up for my Brick Wall series, I decided to have another go at her. I like to make sure that I am sure that I have exhausted all possible avenues of research available to me before I go and put it out there for all to see.

Guess what?

That indexed widow's pension? Wasn't just an index anymore. The entire packet, 50+ pages had been digitized and put up on Fold3. - Holy moly! Got it all! Parent's names, siblings names, place of marriage, place of residence - and a bonus second husband! Armed with all this new information I was able to easily go back two more generations. I believe I can go back farther without too much difficulty, but seeing as I was just after Jane's immediate family I stopped for the moment.

So, let me now introduce you to my 3rd great grandmother, Jane P Thompson Burt Billings.

Jane P Thompson was born in rural Sangerfield, Oneida Co, New York on October 20th 1829. There was some confusion as to exactly which county, seeing as Sangerfield lies exactly on the county border of Oneida and Monroe. Two decades earlier it was part of Chenango County, which added to the confusion. At any rate, Jane was born to parents Permelia Bush and John W Thompson. She appears to be their oldest child. I suspect the 'P' might stand for Permelia.
New York Counties

The young family was on the move. By 1832 they resided in Ellington, Chautauqua Co, New York; where they would remain. Jane would eventually have seven siblings, five sisters and two brothers. It was through her sister Frances that I learned so much about this family.

Jane married Hermes Burt on June 9th 1847 in the home of her parents. Both of Jane's parents and Hermes' sister Aurelia were witness to the ceremony.

The couple left for Pittsfield, MA shortly after their wedding. Their first child, Hermes, was born there in 1848. Pittsfield was the ancestral home of the Burts, and although the Burts were living in New York for a time, Hermes father Titus had returned to Massachusetts by 1840.

Sometime between 1848 and 1850 Hermes and Jane left for Cleveland, Ohio. Hermes was a clothier by trade and the family became involved in the woolen mills there. At one point Hermes had an interest in Burt, Clarke & Co, commission merchants in wool, hide and pelts.

Their second child, Ella (remember Ella?) was born in Cleveland in October of 1850.

The family settled into their new life in Ohio, having two more children, a son in 1855 and a daughter in 1856. They had a home on Bolivar in the city of Cleveland and things appeared to good.

Civil War Field Hospital
Then the Civil War erupted. Hermes joined the Union Army as a commissioned officer on July 10th 1862. The war took him to Frankfort Kentucky where he became ill and on December 4th 1862 died of Typhoid Fever. His body was brought home to Ohio and buried in Oberlin, a suburb of Cleveland, where one of his brothers was living.

Jane, 33, was left a young widow with four minor children to care for. Two of whom were under ten years old. She applied for a widow's pension in Ohio in July of 1863; by 1865 she was back in Ellington NY residing near her sister-in-law Aurelia.

Jane remarried in 1866 to the widower J Warren Billings, a man 12 years her senior. The following year she gave birth to daughter Frances.

In 1866 J Warren petitioned the court, as guardian of Hermes' minor children, for an increase in the minor's pension the children were receiving. The increase was granted.

J Warren and Jane Billings continued to live in New York, moving from Ellington to Randolph in Cattaraugus Co and finally to Ellicott in Chautauqua Co. The family goes missing after 1875.

I got to thinking and on a hunch I searched the cemetery (on Find A Grave) where Hermes is buried. Guess what? There's a Jane Billings buried in the same plot as Hermes! Further research led to the Westwood Cemetery database and this entry. There are three stones in the plot; Hermes, Jane and 'James'. I believe this is a mistake. 'James' is really Jane. The small stones read 'father' and 'mother', the third stone is US issue for Hermes war service. The notation on the memorial for Jane cites a newspaper clipping. First I found this:

What was Jane doing in Oberlin? Did she move back after 1875? Did J Warren move with her? Surgery in 1877? (I don't even want to think about it) I contacted the Oberlin Heritage Center and they quickly responded with a City Directory listing for a Mrs J B Billings living at 49 East Lorain in 1877. There was no listing for a Mr Billings. At least not her Mr Billings. Curious.

The Heritage Center  also sent this - - - -

Oh no! Poor Jane. Can you imagine such a surgery? Chloroform, no masks or gloves, reused instruments ..... I was quite saddened to learn of Jane's fate. I had hoped it would have turned out differently.

Jane died at 48, on the operating table, while undergoing a critical surgical procedure for a fibroid tumor.

Such tragedy to befall this family.

By the looks of the obituary Jane was residing in Oberlin for a while. Long enough to become involved with the church. Highly respected and beloved. What happened to J Warren?

Was theirs merely a marriage of convenience? What about baby Frances?

I found J Warren's grave, he's buried in New York with his first wife. He died in 1887. I still can't find any trace of him after 1875 .....

So many unanswered questions ......

postscript: this is not my typical 52 Ancestors story. Jane was not a typical ancestor. She remained hidden for over a century and remains elusive even now.

Oh the 'funny story' about Ella? Her name wasn't really Ella. It was Ellen. My family never knew that. It was right there in the widow's pension packet, written in Jane's own hand.

©Anne Faulkner -, All Rights Reserved

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