Monday, April 12, 2021

Genealogical adventures with Grandma Mary Clair

This is the tombstone of a maternal great-great-great-grandmother of mine, Mary Saunders Clair, in the Columbia Cemetery --- located not far north of the Lucas-Marion county line in Marion. Yes, I know the inscription reads, "Clear," but that's all part of the genealogical adventures and misadventures that have focused on Mary and her husband, William, over the years.

I've written about this pair before, but having frittered away several hours over the weekend establishing exactly where Mary came from --- with a reasonable degree of certainty --- I'm going to do so again.

Mary and her husband along with their youngest son, James Wayne Clair (my great-great-grandfather), settled just east of what now is Columbia during 1847 after living for several years in Shelby County, Illinois. An older son, Zolomon Jones Clair, joined them a couple of years later. Before that they had lived in Ohio and upstate New York. Both, according to the 1850 federal census of Marion County, were native to Rhode Island. Both were in their 60s when they arrived in Iowa.

William Clair died during January of 1853. At the time, there was no cemetery in the immediate vicinity and so he was buried on a hilltop on family land south of Columbia, just over the line in Lucas County. That spot is known today as the Clear Pioneer Cemetery although its sole occupant is William Clair. Mary lived until 1877 and by that time there was a Columbia Cemetery, so she was buried there rather than beside her husband.

The variance in names can be traced to my grandfather, William Ambrose Miller, who during the 1950s set out to erect tombstones at family graves previously unmarked or marked with badly deteriorated stones. And to William Clair's will, examined by my grandfather when he climbed into the tower of the Marion County Courthouse at Knoxville where probate packets of original documents were stored at the time.

As you can see, the will --- written within a couple of weeks of his death --- is signed in a clear hand "William Clear," the only occurrence of that spelling in any record related to the family located before or since. Did William actually write and sign the document? Or is it a transcript and the spelling "Clear" a clerical error? I don't know.

Whatever the case, Grandpa ordered up new stones for William and Mary and directed that the surname be spelled "Clear" upon them. He also ordered a new stone for two of their grandsons, William Richard and Jasper Sylvester Clair, buried beside Mary, and had the name inscribed "Clair" there. 


Granddad also had some information about Mary, source unknown but perhaps written down by his mother or one of his Kansas aunts or uncles, including her maiden name, Saunders, a birth date, Jan. 6, 1793; and a death date, Nov. 10, 1877. So he used those years of birth and death on her tombstone.

That birth year is at variance with her age as recorded by the 1850 census-taker --- 63, producing a birth year of 1787, give or take. She grew progressively younger by a year or two when the 1856 and 1860 census enumerators called.

Over the weekend, following a trail blazed by a couple of other researchers, I followed Mary via my subscription to the fifth volume of James Newell Arnold's massive 21-volume "Rhode Island Vital Extracts, 1636-1850," and found her recorded there among the children of James and Elizabeth (Crandall) Saunders, with date of birth given as Jan. 6, 1787.

There's other circumstantial evidence suggesting that this is indeed our Mary, so I'm happy about that. Now if there were similar information about the origins of William Clair/Clear, my day would be complete. Sadly, that is lacking.

And although I've wished at times that my grandfather had stuck with the usual spelling of their surname when he had those tombstones erected, I'm grateful that he had the stones erected at all.

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