Thursday, March 2, 2017

In Search of David Hollister

One of the joys of family research is discovering lines of ancestors that you had never heard of. In my search there have been a few of these, mostly from my paternal grandmother’s family. I did not have much information on her and so there was a lot waiting to be found. One of these families, the Hollisters, started out in colonial Connecticut and ended up, via New York, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, in far western Iowa.

The Town of Dansville, Stuben County, New York;
where David Hollister spent his youth?

I did not know anything about this family but have found that they are a fairly well documented group. This might be due to the fact that they were active in society and seemed to leave a mark (or at least a trace) as they proceeded across America. In each of my family lines there are plenty of interesting people but every once and a while, someone stands out. David Hollister is one of those individuals. He is not famous, instead, he is rather ordinary, except for the fact that he had a large family, set down roots in a number of places but also seemed to be constantly on the move and his life spanned the entire 19th century.

You might say that I have been enamored by David Hollister from the first time I discovered him. Born to a colonial family, he ventured west and lived, for a time, very close to where I was born and raised but he ended up much farther west as he grew to old age. Pealing back his history has been a lot of fun but there was just one problem with the whole thing. Noone seemed to know exactly where he came from and who his parents were. I wanted to connect him back to a man named Lieutenant John Hollister, the first Hollister in America, but at every turn, there was a dead-end.

This post is not about the adventures of David Hollister, instead, it is about my adventure tracking him down. The process of finding an ancestor, the research and all of the trials and tribulations is what I am writing about. In the case of David, the process was messy, confusing and required a bit of luck to succeed. We might all hope that discovering one’s genealogy would be an organized and systematic process leading you back in time to uncover all of your family history. I have found it is much more difficult, something more akin to a scavenger hunt. Often there are pieces of information and clues but the final arrangement of the puzzle is a mystery. You come across individuals who look like they might belong to you. There is just enough information to make a case but they are hiding something. Further investigation reveals the obvious truth, they are not a match. To make matters worse, the emotion of the whole thing can get in the way of discovery and sometimes contributes to these sloppy results and erroneous assumptions. Even the professionals make these mistakes. Late 19th and early 20th century genealogies on some of the most prominent families in America have information and claims that have later been proven false.

An excerpt from the 1850 United States Census. David Hollister and family
 have arrived in Wisconsin; settling in the Town of Ridgeway, Iowa County.
In the Beginning

I have always been interested in family history but as a child, I only had oral information, shared by my parents or others and covering just a few generations. I started collecting some data in the late 1980s (pre-internet) but it was a very modest undertaking, consisting mostly of photographs and it stayed modest for a number of years. Around 2000 the effort picked up a bit but was still not a serious endeavor. It wasn’t until 2007, when I found a colonial connection, that I hit the ground running and really started gathering information. In 2010, this blog came online and that opened up another avenue to receive and share information.

It was around that time, 2007-2008, that I discovered the Hollister family and David. My sister had pulled the birth certificate for my Grandmother, Grace Holcomb. That led to her mother and grandfather’s names: Stella Hollister and Thomas Jefferson Hollister and eventually to Thomas's father, David Hollister. Within about a year I was on AncestryDotCom, looking at census records. There are many resources on the web but at that time, Ancestry was (and I believe still is) one of the best. Still, searching those records was not always easy as the transcription software they were using made a lot of spelling mistakes and so searches would often come up empty. I have noticed that the quality of handwriting of the census takers in the 19th and early 20th century varies a great deal. Couple that with the fact that the records are degraded by the microfilm process and that leads to information that can be hard to read. So names can easily get garbled in the translation.

In looking for David, one of the early hurdles was to find a place called Adamsville, Wisconsin – not townships named Adams or incorporated places named Adams or Adams County but Adamsville. Turns out, it was just down the road from my hometown but I didn't have a clue. Located at the border of the Town of Brigham (originally the town of Ridgeway before Brigham was formed) and the Town of Moscow. Adamsville does not exist in the present day. At its peak, the settlement boasted a mill, store, cheese factory, church, school, post office and cluster of homes and farms but that is all gone now. A small breakthrough occurred when I found a short entry for Adamsville (identified as a place-name) online at the State of Wisconsin Historical Society and that led me to old township maps and finally I found it. Knowing the township and county it was in helped me narrow down the census files. Once found, I had names, dates of birth and locations of birth of some of David’s children and then I could dig up earlier and later census records. In the case of David, I found records from 1850 to 1880, all in Iowa County, Wisconsin.

Adamsville at the border of the Town of Ridgeway and the
 Town of Moscow in Iowa County, Wisconsin, 1877.

David Hollister's homestead on Section 9 in the Town of Ridgeway (now the
Town of Brigham) shows up on the 1870 Atlas; he is directly north of Town of
Moscow and the settlement at Adamsville.

A Database of Information Grows

At the same time, general searches for David pulled up some additional information. For example, I found out that he had been one of the original investors in the mill at Adamsville and that he was married twice, his first wife being the widow of his brother Abraham. Abraham was a piece of the puzzle that would help later. I also found that Abraham and his wife Celinda (Giddings) were living in western New York and then David and Celinda were living in northern Pennsylvania. Later I found a published book on the Colonial Giddings family that confirmed this information. More importantly, I discovered that others were looking for information on David as well. Queries that had been floating around on the web from the late 1990s and early 2000s (they never seem to go away) were seeking David. The great thing about these queries was that they might also provide me with some new information. This is one of the ways I found out that David had moved on the Iowa in the late 1880s and that solved the mystery of his (and most of his kids) disappearance from Wisconsin census records. Using this info, I could once again grab census records right up to his death. Of course, while I was doing all of this, I was also collecting records of the children (whenever possible). Many of them had gone to Iowa as well, including David's son (Thomas). I found another good source of information to be the personal (but public) geologies on AncestryDotCom. I do not take these as gospel because it is not always clear if the info is accurate but they are a good starting point and in this case, they did confirm some of the information I already had.

Eventually, I would find some marriage, death, military and land records of the family. David’s final home, Mapleton, Iowa is a small place so it would be easy to assume that he would be mentioned in local history and he was, but mostly just short mentions and not much detail. An Iowa database of cemetery records came on-line and coupled with Find-A-Grave led me to many cemeteries including the one that David was buried at. As time went on, I would happen across some more information (and I mean it was usually new information that came to the web). In the early days of the web, we were all scrambling around trying to find the same information but ancestry on the internet was new phenomenon and information was still sparse. This lack of information is what led to all of those early queries. That would change and continues to change as new data is added every day. It is important to continue to search because there is always new information coming on-line. This is a tedious process because you will tend to come across the same information found years before but there will be new discovers as well. For example, in 2012, I found a history of a nearby town in Wisconsin that had recently been scanned into a local website. That history had detailed information on Adamsville and helped me understand its place in the world in the middle of the 19th century.

Town of Maple, Monona County, Iowa. The
Village of Mapleton is in the center of the map.
As I stated earlier, the search can be difficult at the start but each new piece of information will give you clues and help the process along. Eventually, I found David's obituary (also in 2012) and a series of records on he and his children. But one thing continued to elude me and it was eluding a lot of people include those who were making queries in the 1990s. Where was David actually born and who where his parents? What we all did know was that he was born in New York in about 1802, probably western New York. The stated location of his birth in Livingston or Genesse or other places in New York did not help the search, if fact, they just made in more frustrating. The vary nature of the development of New York State was part of the problem. As the state's population grew, new counties were carved out of existing ones and so places where easily confused. To add to that there is more than one Livingston and Genessee in New York (just as there was more than one Adams in Wisconsin).

Help is on the Way

I was pleasantly surprised when I started receiving inquires on my website. These came in the form of comments or more directly via one of my "contact" buttons, which allows someone to send me an e-mail. I started the blog as a platform to write about my genealogy and family history. The point was to get away from paper and be able to share easily with anyone but specifically my family. Little did I realize that folks would come from far and wide to my site. Like me, they were searching the web for their ancestors and some of those searches led to me. Not only could I share with them but also receive. Information, stories and most importantly, photographs of distant (and not so distant) ancestors began arriving in my e-mail. This was an amazing development, it changed the course of my quest and substantially increased my knowledge of the family. Yet, despite all of this: more and more info on the web, personal contact from others and my growing base of knowledge on this subject, David still eluded me. Who was he?

The key lay somewhere in the vast stretches of rural western New York, which had been opened to settlement after the Revolution. Many of the next generation of the descendants of Colonial America headed into the New York wilderness looking for land as all the "good land" in New England was running out. It could be hard to track these people; early genealogies tended to loose them and census records from the first half of the 19th Century provide no detail on the families or where they came from. As an example, spouse and children's names, birth dates and birth places were not listed in census records before 1850. Though I was finding a lot of information, it was now 2012, almost five years after I first discovered David and I didn't seem much closer to finding his parents.

The Hollister's travels across America (1640 - 1890)
The Breakthrough

The blog was the key to the breakthrough but it came from a most unlikely source. I started to find people who claimed to know who David’s parents were (a Hollister family that settled Milwaukee, for example) but these claims could be proven wrong, and so I kept looking. Eventually, I found a couple of genealogies on AncestryDotCom that listed a John and Elizabeth Hollister from Steuben County, New York as David’s parents, however there was no source information or backup. I even contacted the owner of one of the genealogies to ask about the information. That person could not tell me where they got the info and had no sources. This led me to speculate that the other genealogies listing John and Elizabeth were all borrowing the same information and none of them had any real proof. This is a very common phenomenon, you find the same information at a number of sites and assume that it must be valid as it is in so many locations but that is no guarantee  . . . sometimes that same bad information is copied over and over. Still, this was the best lead I had found and could not be easily disproven like some of the other claims.

The Family Bible of John Hollister and Elizabeth Van Scoter. The photo is
 a bit blurry but the names can be made out. Abram is the second from the top
 in the left column and David is the second from the top in the middle column.
I started looking for information on John and Elizabeth and found an entry in a published history about Elizabeth’s family. In that book she is listed as married to John and all of the children are also listed. Two of the children are Abram and David. I already knew that David had married his brother Abraham’s wife Celinda after his brother had died. I also knew that Abraham had died around 1825 which corresponded to the information in the book. One other clue, the book noted that David went west, never to be seen again. Unfortunately, there was no information in this publication on either Abram or David’s marriages or families and of course it listed his brother as Abram instead of Abraham. It also had David as being born in 1805 rather than 1802 as most other sources indicated. Still, I felt that this had potential and once again it could not easily be disproven. I added the Steuben information to the Hollister story on my blog but with the caveat that it was only a theory and had a ways to go to be considered accurate. Not too long after that, something amazing happened.

Seemingly out of the blue, I received a comment on my Hollister family post from a women in Missouri. She ran a small bookstore and had come across a bible that belonged to the Hollister’s of Steuben. The bible named the children of John and Elizabeth and those names matched up with the listing in the book on Elizabeth’s family. A possible breakthrough but the names alone proved nothing as it was the same information I already had. But there was more, in the bible were a number of papers, mostly deeds and other legal documents. Two of these documents had significance. One of these was a will from John but that did not mention David at all but the other was a partial letter from non-other than David Hollister to one of his brothers. The letter described the great opportunity in Wisconsin, encouraged the recipient to head west and check it out and was address from David Hollister of Adamsville, Wisconsin. A stranger, no connection to the family, buys an old bible, searches for information on-line, finds my website, makes a comment and asks the question.

The end of the letter from David Hollister, found in the Bible of the
 John Hollister family of Dansville, Stuben County, New York.
Now I suppose there is still a chance that David is not the son of John and Elizabeth but I feel confident that he is and I hope to find additional documentation to seal the deal forever. There have been a lot of exciting moments in my quest to find out about my ancestry but this find may trump all of that. After reading through numerous inquiries from people, desperately look for David, I never imagined that I would be the one to find him. Don’t get me wrong, it would not have happened if I had not come across those websites that listed John and Elizabeth (but without any proof) and got me thinking about them or if the young women from Missouri had not contacted me. It often takes many individuals each going in some direction to put together a find and this one is no exception. I am just happy that I had a role in the process and that I could actually contribute to the knowledge base that is out there. By the way, I recently made a connection with another Hollister descendant who has a lot of good information, including more of those precious photographs. One of those pictures, faded and grey is of the old man, David Hollister, and so as one part of the search ends, others go on . . . the hunt continues.

David Hollister, pulled from a granddaughter's album. He is old, the picture is faded
and a bit hard to make out but I am willing to except all of that to finally see his face.  
Post Script . . . Now that I have found David, there are still some loose-ends hanging out there. For one, I am not 100% sure of the connection from David's father, John, back to the first Hollisters in Connecticut. I have a theory but still need more evidence. In addition, little has been found on Caroline Wheaton (David's wife and my 3rd Great Grandmother). I recently came across some information on her and her parents but there is conflicting data and I am not sure of the accuracy. Finding where she is buried is especially frustrating. Assuming she died in southern Wisconsin in 1881 (+/-), one would think she would be in a local cemetery but I have not found her. Finally, I have found good information on Elizabeth Scoter's (David's mother) family back to colonial times in the eastern New York frontier. The family book was the start but there is also other info on the web.

Go to my History Page to see the lost mill at Adamsville, David’s Iowa County Wisconsin land purchase record and his gravesite at Monona, Iowa.

Additional Information:
For the three-part story on David and the Hollister family, go
here . . .

Read about another Mapleton, Iowa ancestor, Francis O'Neil, here . . .

Research Notes:

Information on David and the Hollisters had been compiled from data found at AncestryDotCom, IowagravestonesDotOrg, Find-A-GraveDotCom, other web based sources and from cousins who have contacted me and helped fill in the story. In addition . . .
   -Elizabeth Van Scoter (wife of John Hollister) was found in "Concerning the Van Bunschoten or Van Benschoten Family in America."
   -Celinda Giddings (wife of Abraham and then David Hollister) was found in "The Giddings Family or the Descendants of George Giddings."
   -The colonial Hollisters can be found in "The Hollister Family in America, Lieut. John Hollister of Wethersfield, Conn. and His Descendants."
   -The history of Adamsville, Wisconsin can be found in "Weehaukaja or A History of the Village of Barneveld and the Town of Brigham."
   -A personal family history at a website called TribalPages was also helpful but I am now having trouble finding that site (that is why it is a good idea to copy these records off the web as website can come and go).

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