Friday, February 12, 2016

The Mysterious McNabbs

Normally, I like to tell you what I know in these posts, but today I'm going to talk about how much I don't know. Hopefully, you'll understand why by the end. We'll take a look at two of the Ferguson daughters - Mary (1833-1895) and Elizabeth (1835–1898) - and the very confusing family they married into.

But first, a few words about research!

There are three "eras" into which the majority of my research seems to fit: the "Old Books" era, the "Census" era, and the "Google" era.

The Census Era is pretty straightforward. When I'm looking for people born before 1940, or people who would have been in their parents' home after 1850, I can usually find them in the U.S. Census and tease out the clues I need to develop their story. With people who appear on the Census, I usually get enough data points to start matching them up with other kinds of records; if I have a name, birth date, and place of birth, I consider that to be good enough to call it a "match." (There are exceptions, of course.)

People who were born after 1940 won't appear in the Census; until 2020 when the 1950 Census is released, I have to rely on the kinds of records that I can dig up on Google to develop my leads. Usually, this involves finding someone who died recently enough to have an obituary online. If they died after the late 1990s, I tend to have decent luck finding obits on the wild internet; before that, I use (and hope they don't have what I need locked up behind their paywall). That puts these more recent folks in the Google Era.

Then there are the pioneers who settled the U.S. Midwest; those are the folks who I hope to find in the "Old Books." There are a few resources for this kind of research. Heritage Quest is free and available online with my library card (they also provide access to Census records); Google Books has a lot of old public domain local histories available; and the Internet Archive has a similar collection.

Reuben McNabb (1829–1911) is one of those people who almost falls into the cracks between the two earlier eras. Born before 1830, he is grown and out of his parents's home by 1850; and that makes him too young to be considered an "early settler" in the eyes of the people writing the old local histories. It was a real challenge to track him down.

Considering that the Callin Family History only names him as "R. McNabb," I was lucky to find a marriage record listed in the Indiana Marriage Index documenting his marriage to Mary Ferguson that gave his full name. (It's only an Index record, so I still really should find the original at some point.) From there, I had to chip away at the databases looking for matches, because he and his family were never quite where I thought they were going to be. But, thanks to some luck, persistence, and a combination of clues found in the Old Books and the Census, I think I can safely claim to know a bit more about his family history than Cousin George gave us in the CFH.

John McNabb was born in Pennsylvania in 1792, making him about the same age as the United States Postal Service. He married Mary Young about 1815, and according to one Old Book, they moved their large, young family from Centre county, Pennsylvania, to Ashland county, Ohio, in the year 1833. The McNabbs remained in that county until around 1845, when a number of them moved again to De Kalb county, Indiana. John and Mary remained in Vermillion, Ashland county, which is where John died in 1860.

The family of James L. and Eliza (Callin) Ferguson, as we saw in last week's post, made their move from Ashland county to De Kalb county around 1849; depending on when the McNabbs left on their journey to Indiana, the Fergusons may have gone with them. Their oldest daughter, Mary Ferguson, would have been about 17 when they left Ohio; and the youngest of John and Mary McNabb's children, Reuben, would have been about 21.

For the longest time, I only had circumstantial evidence tying Reuben to John and Mary McNabb, but John's 1860 will, registered in Ashland county, named his ten children: "John McNabb, the heirs of Margaret Shrader, William McNabb, Nancy Dunfee, the heirs of my son James McNabb, Mary Ann McNabb, David McNabb, Ebenezer McNabb, Robert McNabb, Reuben McNabb."

I haven't proven this out completely, but based on the birthdates for these individuals that I have been able to find, this list seems to put the ten McNabbs in order from oldest to youngest; and I have to assume that two of them - Margaret Shrader and James McNabb - were deceased, as John left his estate "to the heirs of" those two. (That assumption may be important in a few paragraphs!)

Reuben married Mary Ferguson in DeKalb county on 16 November 1854, and they, too, had ten children:

  1. George Washington McNabb (1855–1922)
  2. James M. McNabb (1859–1938)
  3. Eliza J McNabb (1860–1869)
  4. William C McNabb (1861–1918)
  5. John Goldsmith McNabb (1864–1943)
  6. Ellen McNabb (1866–1891)
  7. Martha Jane McNabb (1868–1891)
  8. Marcus Ebenezer McNabb (1868–1937)
  9. Mary E McNabb (1871–1911)
  10. Oliver Otis McNabb (1874–1931)

After his father's death in 1860, and after the end of the Civil War, Reuben packed up his young family, and moved from Indiana to Eaton county, Michigan around 1865. Reuben worked as an engineer in the saw mill, and he and Mary put their children through the local school. Once in Michigan, they had their daughter, Ellen, and the twins, Martha Jane and Marcus Ebenezer - the latter likely named for Reuben's successful older brother. According to the Callin Family History, a fire took the life of Eliza in 1869, when she was only nine years old. The couple had two more children.

Reuben continued to work, as a painter and a carpenter; as his sons grew up, they were listed in the city directories, usually boarding at the same address as Reuben. Mary Ferguson McNabb died around 1895; after that, Reuben seems to have fallen on hard times, appearing in the 1910 Census living in the poor house in Reeder, Missaukee county, Michigan, and dying on 5 April 1911.

Now, while that is certainly a lot of good information to know, there are two rather large mysteries that came up while I was trying to put it all together:

     Mystery #1: There are two residents of Grand Rapids, Michigan named "John McNabb," and I don't know for sure which one is the son of Reuben McNabb. Both men left behind documentation indicating they had parents named Reuben McNabb and Mary Ferguson.

One is a John C McNabb who married Inez M. Atkins in 1912 and moved to Battle Creek, Michigan some time before 1918; he died there in 1932. Their marriage record lists the names of both of their parents. When John died, Inez provided the information that appeared on his Michigan death certificate, and that included his birth date (September 1860, in Indiana) and the names and birthplaces of his parents (Rubin McNabb, Glasgow, Scotland and Mary Ferguson, County Clair, Ireland). There are some discrepancies here. Obviously, we know that Reuben and Mary were not born in Scotland or Ireland; but Inez may not have known that, as Reuben and Mary were deceased when she married John. But there are several records that list John's birth date in 1871 - the 1920 and 1930 Census records, and (most compelling) the marriage record from 1912. (Making things even more complicated: I believe Inez was this John McNabb's second wife, and that he had several children by a first wife - but I can't confirm that at this point.)

The other is John Goldsmith McNabb, born 24 December 1864 in Auburn, De Kalb, Indiana. He married Ida Ann Sack (1872–1953) in 1894, and they had four children - the first in Wisconsin, and then the others in Michigan - before heading out to California in about 1905. They had two more children after settling in Chico, California, both of whom died in infancy (one in 1907, one in 1912). The couple then divorced in the 1920s. Eventually, John applied for a life claim on his Social Security in January 1943, and died that December in Alturas, Modoc county, California. His Social Security application lists his parents: Ruben McNabb and Mary Furgson.

I am inclined to believe that the second of these - John Goldsmith McNabb - is the actual son of Reuben and Mary McNabb, based on the birth dates. There is a 6-year-old John McNabb listed in Reuben and Mary's family in 1870, and the strongest evidence says that he would be that John McNabb. However, we still have the mystery of who John C McNabb is, who his real parents are, and why does he claim to be Reuben's son?

     Mystery #2: Mary Ferguson's sister, Elizabeth (1835-1898) also married a McNabb. The Indiana Marriage Index helpfully tells us that a James McNabb and Elizabeth B. Ferguson were married in DeKalb county on 8 February 1858. The CFH tells us that they had six children:

  • Ella McNabb 1859–
  • Margret McNabb
  • Mary McNabb
  • Charles McNabb
  • Eliza McNabb
  • Emma McNabb
But... after finding what I believe to be the only appearance of this family in the 1860 Census (with James, Elizabeth, and 1-year-old Ella), they seem to fall between all of the cracks in the databases. I have not been able to find them in 1870 or 1880, even with very broad searches. Here's what I know:

1. This James McNabb is NOT Reuben's brother. I base this on the assumption that the Indiana Marriage Index and the 1860 Census are showing us the right James and Elizabeth - meaning that James is alive in 1860, his birth date is around 1834, and since the couple will have five more children, that this James McNabb will survive through the 1860s. Reuben's brother was mentioned in John McNabb's 1860 will, but the estate was willed to "the heirs of" James McNabb, suggesting that Reuben's brother had died before 1860.

2. This James McNabb MIGHT be Reuben's nephew. Again, if the James McNabb married to Elizabeth in the 1860 Census is our guy, he's only about 5 years younger than Reuben. He's living in the household of a William McNabb who I believe to be Reuben's older brother. William is not this James McNabb's father, either. William's son, William James, is listed in the same household on the 1860 by the name James - as confusing as that is, it's a mercy to be able to rule him out!

Here's a quick table to illustrate how ridiculous this puzzle is:

Reuben's brothers:                            Their sons named James:
Rev. John McNabb (1811-1889)            James, born 1842
William C McNabb (c. 1814-1876)       William James (1846–1924)
James McNabb (c. 1815-c. 1859)          (Haven't found any information about his heirs, yet.)
David McNabb (1819-1887)                  James, born 1844
Ebenezer McNabb (1823-1902)             James J, born 1847
Robert McNabb (1826-1893)                 (No son named James.)

Just based on their birth dates, I would rule out these nephews, leaving the most likely possibility that he is the son of Reuben's brother James McNabb who was deceased before 1860. Failing that, he could well be a cousin from family left behind in Pennsylvania - but that's just groundless speculation.

As I said, I cannot find an 1870 or 1880 record for James, Elizabeth, and the children listed in the CFH. But if you refer to last week's post, you will note that James Ferguson's will refers to Elizabeth as "Elizabeth Reed." The CFH tells us that Elizabeth's second marriage was to a Mr. Reid, and that they had one son; James Ferguson's will, dated 1885, would indicate that Elizabeth married Mr. Reid in the early 1880s at the latest. I have found no records to pin any of this down, either.

Ella McNabb, the daughter of James and Elizabeth listed above, grew up to become the mother of an Alta McCorse, according to the CFH, but I have not been able to find any records with these names, either.

So, I am left with a lot of information, but no conclusion. I don't know who James McNabb was, nor do I know much about the fate of Elizabeth Ferguson or her children. As new databases come online, and new information (hopefully) comes to light, perhaps these mysteries might be solved one day.

But we do know enough about Reuben and Mary Ferguson McNabb's children to tell you a few more stories, starting next week. As always, if you have any information that can help sort out some of these Mysterious McNabbs, please drop a note in the comments below!


  1. This is incredible, thank you SO much for this information!!! I'd been searching everywhere for info about the parents of Rev. John McNabb forever and I found this blog and BINGO!

    1. Awesome! I'm happy you found it... AND found it helpful!

      I keep hoping to turn up some new document that will answer some of these questions, but these folks are still such a mystery.