Sunday, November 14, 2010

Can Gravestones Be Trusted?

(click on photograph for larger image)


When conducting genealogical research, just who (and what) can be trusted? We know that mistakes can be made on gravestones, both by those providing the information and by the stonemason. Examples of both, while not common, are known to exist in Caswell County cemeteries. Thus, gravestones, while usually helpful, are not considered a primary source.
However, it is somewhat unusual to find a gravestone on which the information has been amateurishly altered (really butchered) after the interment. Recently, we obtained this photograph of the gravestone of Sophia Ann Lea Willis (buried at Lea's Chapel United Methodist Church in Person County, North Carolina). The second "8" in "1882" has been created from a "2. Note the distinct difference from the first "8." See the above photograph.

Here is the grave marker before it was modified:

Query why anyone would want to go to this trouble. Why would anyone want to suggest that she lived only seventeen years and create an inaccurate record for those who follow? We know that she was born much earlier than 1882 because she married Thomas Jefferson Willis in 1841. And, several census records indicate she was born c.1822. Thomas Jefferson Willis apparently died in 1879. Based upon this butchered gravestone, he would have died before his wife was born! Thus the "1822" was modified to show "1882."

Note that some researchers show this Sophia Ann Lea to be a daughter of Solomon Lea and Sophia Ainger Lea. However, that is believed incorrect. A consensus of researchers believe that Solomon Lea married Sophia Ainger in 1837 (with one claiming 1836). Their oldest child was born in 1838. See the following marriage record for the Sophia Ann Lea. Thus, she would have been only around three years when married in 1841. We do hope that this gravestone was not altered in an effort to attach one's family to Solomon Lea. But, if that was the goal why change the birth year to 1882? Solomon Lea was still alive, but his wife died in 1866.

Sophia Ann Lea of this modified grave marker may be a daughter of Archibald Lea and Lucinda Hendrick Lea, who married 1821 in Caswell County, North Carolina. However, this has not been confirmed and is based solely upon the 1850 census record set forth below in which Cornelia F. Lea is found in the household of Thomas Jefferson Willis and Sophia Ann Lea Willis. If Cornelia F. Lea is a sister of Sophia Ann Lea, they share as parents Archibald Lea and Lucinda Hendrick Lea. Researchers are advised to proceed with caution in this area as much misinformation has been published with respect to the parentage of Sophia Ann Lea.

North Carolina Marriage Collection, 1741-2004
Name: Sopha A. Lea
Spouse: Thomas J. Willis
Marriage Date: 1 Mar 1841
Marriage County: Caswell
Marriage State: North Carolina
Source Vendor: County Court Records - FHL # 0478484-0478488
Source: County Court Records at Yanceyville, NC & Family H

1850 United States Federal Census
Name: Sophia A Willis
Age: 27
Estimated birth year: abt 1823
Birth Place: North Carolina
Gender: Female
Home in 1850 (City,County,State): Caswell, North Carolina
Family Number: 335
Household Members: Name Age
Thos J Willis 34
Sophia A Willis 27
Nancy Willis 8
Mary Willis 6
Sidney Willis 6
William Willis 1
Calvin Groom 4
Cornelia F Sea [Lea] 14

1860 United States Federal Census
Name: Soph Willis
Age in 1860: 38
Birth Year: abt 1822
Birthplace: North Carolina
Home in 1860: Caswell, North Carolina
Gender: Female
Post Office: Yanceyville
Household Members: Name Age
Thos J Willis 44
Soph Willis 38
Jno Hendrick 20
N A Willis 18
M F Willis 16
W A Willis 10
C H Willis 8
N Willis 6
W W Willis 3
V J Willis 3

1870 United States Federal Census
Name: Sophia Willis
Birth Year: abt 1822
Age in 1870: 48
Birthplace: North Carolina
Home in 1870: Anderson, Caswell, North Carolina
Race: White
Gender: Female
Post Office: Anderson
Household Members: Name Age
Thomas Willis 54
Sophia Willis 48
Nannie Willis 28
William Willis 21
Charles Willis 18
Hattie Willis 13
Virginia Willis 13
Bettie Willis 7
Ella Willis 4

Note the following from Wilhemina Lea, daughter of Solomon Lea and Sophia Ainger Lea:

“My father attended a country school near home for a number of years, preparing himself for college, meanwhile, by hard study. He was sent, as were his two oldest brothers, to the University of North Carolina. His health failing, his studies were interrupted for a time; but an active outdoor life restored him, and he went back to complete the course, graduating in 1833 with fair honors. He then began his life work as a teacher at Warrenton, N.C., where he taught for two years. It was while teaching there that he met the lady whom he married a few years later. She was a teacher like himself.

“My father was married in 1837 to Miss Sophia Ainger, an English lady of marked piety and intelligence. She was a most congenial spirit and a great help to him in his work as a teacher. She died in 1866. The world little knew how sadly he missed her companionship and what a void was in his heart. Eight children were born to them, six daughters and two sons. One of the latter died in infancy. Two married daughters have passed away.

Source: Miss Wilhemina Lea (1843-1936), daughter of Solomon Lea and Sophia Ainger Lea: Interview by N. C. Newbold: "Rev. Solomon Lea," The Trinity Archive, February, 1898, by N. C. Newbold.

Birth date seen as 2 September 1822, Anderson Township, Caswell County, North Carolina, but without supporting documentation. Death date seen as 5 November 1899. See the above unmodified grave marker. She is buried at Leas' Chapel in Person County, Solomon Lea and Sophia Ainger Lea are buried in the Leasburg Community Cemetery (Leasburg, Caswell County, North Carolina).


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