The mystery of Sarah Locke

Sarah Locke, from 1810 Sarah Smith, was my great-great-great-grandmother. There’s no doubt about that. First, there’s a clear paper trail through her daughter, her grandson, and her great-granddaughter who was my grandmother; and second, there’s also clear DNA evidence that I am related to other descendants of her daughter, another Sarah, which generally means that I should be descended from Sarah Locke as well. (Even though she was Sarah Smith for most of her life, I’m going to call her Sarah Locke here to avoid confusion.) The marriage certificate, a 1905 transcript of the original, is the most solid document we have about her life. (The date, 5 March 1810, is not on this document but is noted elsewhere in the records of Dover, New Hampshire.)

Marriage certificate between John Smith, born 14 November 1784, and Sarah Locke, botn 27 July 1783, transcribed by Fred E. Quimby, 28 September 1905.

The date of birth given in the marriage certificate is 24 July 1783, which makes her 26 on her wedding day, and 16 months older than her husband; and there is a birth certificate, also transcribed by Fred Quimby, the town clerk of Dover NH in 1905, which gives the same date.

Birth certificate of Sarah Locke, born 27 July 1783, transcribed by Fred E. Quimby, 14 September 1905

But the 1850 census gives her age as 57 – she is living in Boston with my great-great-grandparents, her oldest daughter Sarah, and Sarah’s husband William Charlton Hibbard, and their baby daughter (who died in 1852, before her third birthday). And the 1860 census gives her age as 67 – now she is living in St Louis with her youngest daughter Mary, Mary’s husband John Deming, his parents and a teenaged Irish servant. (John Deming is rather a romantic figure; as a riverboat pilot he trained with Sam Clemens, later Mark Twain, and ran the Confederate blockades on the Mississippi during the Civil War.)

1850 census return for Sarah Smith, aged 57, Sarah A. Hibbard, aged 35, Mary Hibbard, aged six months and William C. Hibbard, aged 36.
1860 census return for John Deming, aged 44, Mary Deming, aged 34, Sarah Smith, aged 6, Ralph Deming, aged 70, Lucretia Deming, aged 70 and Anna Powers, aged 16.

So it looks like Fred E. Quimby, the town clerk of Dover, New Hampshire, made the same mistake twice when transcribing the birth and marriage certificates in 1905, and Sarah was actually born on 27 July 1793 not 1783, making her 16 years old when she married John Smith on 5 March 1810. (Their first child was born on 21 September, so she was probably ten or eleven weeks pregnant on the day of the wedding.) This is also mildly supported by the age of the youngest daughter, Mary, born in January 1826; 42-year-old mothers are not unknown, even in the early nineteenth century, but 32-year-old mothers are a lot more common.

Sarah’s husband John Smith melts away into the early nineteenth-century mists of people with the same name. My grandmother suggests in her memoirs that he was an alcoholic (though he would have died long before she was born in 1899). I’ve had correspondence from another researcher who thinks that he was in a bigamous marriage with a woman from Massachusetts and raised another family with her in upstate New York. In any case, he drops out of the picture at some point after Mary was born in 1826. I do not know when or where Sarah died, though obviously it was after 1860.

Edited to add: I now have good DNA evidence that Sarah Smith’s biological father was not the John Smith who Sarah Locke married, but a Benjamin Cleveland who was born in Massachusetts, and was living in upstate New York in 1814-15.

There is a further mystery associated with Sarah Locke’s birth: who were her parents?

When first adding her to my family tree on, I found that another user had tagged her, though with no supporting evidence, as the child of Joseph Locke (1759-1837) and Tirzah Arms (1768-1838), both of whom were born and died in the Connecticut River valley in western Massachusetts. This is not exactly next door to Dover, NH, where Sarah was born and married, but it is not impossibly far either. If the 1793 birth date for Sarah is correct, she was born two days after Tirzah’s 25th birthday, and Joseph would have been 34. It seemed plausible enough, and I moved on to other details.

As the months passed, flagged up a couple of genetic connections on each side – people for whom there is a paper trail to show that they are descended from siblings of Joseph and of Tirzah, and who also share some DNA with me. Obviously there is always the possibility of other lines of genealogical connection which I missed in the records, or indeed which are not recorded, but this strongly supported the idea that Sarah was Joseph and Tirzah’s daughter.

Then I got a note from another researcher, asking why on earth I had made this connection, and referring me to The Book of the Lockes: A Genealogical and Historical Record of the Descendants of William Locke, of Woburn, published in 1853. The entry on Joseph Locke is potentially devastating for my theory of Sarah’s parentage.

Joseph [Locke], b. May 1758; m. Tirzah Armes, of Greenfield, 1809. He removed from Wendell to Hadley about 1787; was a farmer and also master of a freight boat running from Hadley to Hartford, Ct; was a soldier in the war of the Revolution; Capt. of the Militia, and was “a worthy and much respected man.” He had no chil. but adopted Stephen Lawrence, a relative of his wife, who inherited his property and d. at Hadley 1850, leaving a wf. and one child. Capt. Locke d. Dec. 16, 1837, a. 79 yrs. and 7 mos. and his wid. d. Oct. 12, 1838, a. 70 yrs. and 2 mos.

There are a couple of trivial errors here. Joseph’s birth is clearly recorded in the Shutesbury town records as 1759, not 1758, and his marriage with Tirzah in January 1806, not 1809. (And their adopted son seems to have died in 1851, not 1850.) But even taking all of that into account, it is a bad look for the notion that Sarah was their child; the family records – written only fifteen years after they died – say that Joseph and Tirzah had no biological children, and the official records (if I interpret them correctly) show that their marriage took place twelve and a half years after Sarah was born, 200 km away in another state.

Map of Massachusetts showing Greenfield, Wendell, Shutesbury, Hadley and Boston, also Dover NH and Hartford CT.

And yet. On their wedding day in 1806, Joseph was 46 and Tirzah 37. That’s on the older side for a first marriage even now, and more so then, especially for her. There also remains the fact that I appear to have independent DNA connections to both of them. And there seem to be no other potential parents for Sarah out there. What if…

Maybe Joseph and Tirzah had been a couple since around 1790; maybe she fell pregnant with Sarah, and went to stay with friends or relatives in New Hampshire to give birth in 1793, and Sarah was brought up there, acknowledged as Joseph’s child with his surname by the folks in New Hampshire; maybe by 1806, circumstances had changed and Joseph and Tirzah decided to formalise their relationship at last, but too late to acknowledge their twelve-year-old daughter among their western Massachusetts friends and relatives, for the sake of his reputation as “a worthy and much respected man”?

And it is a nice coincidence that Joseph Locke was the master of a freight boat on the Connecticut River, and his theoretical granddaughter Mary Smith married a Mississippi river pilot, a decade after he died.

There are other possibilities. Joseph had four brothers and five sisters. Tirzah had two brothers and three sisters who survived to adulthood. As I said before, there may well be other lines of genealogical connection which I missed in the records, or indeed which are not recorded at all. But the above theory is the best I can offer right now. Occam’s razor can sometimes shave in strange patterns.

PS: Tirzah is an unusual name these days. It’s biblical of course; she was one of the five daughters of Zelophehad who asked Moses for justice (Numbers 26-27). William Blake’s poem ”To Tirzah” is one of the Songs of Innocence and Experience published in 1789, when Tirzah Arms was 21. In 1880, Lew Wallace gave the name Tirzah to the sister of Ben-Hur, played by Cathy O’Donnell in the 1959 film. It is also the name of a present-day British musician.

A fictional Tirzah Locke is the subject of a grim fable published in Boston in 1840, about a young girl who transgresses God’s law by reading after bedtime and is blinded as a result. (Reprinted in shorter form in 1853.) It must surely be a coincidence that her name is the same as the married name of my possible 4xgreat-grandmother, who had died in 1838.

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1 Response to The mystery of Sarah Locke

  1. RF99 says:

    I can think of various other ways you could be related to one or the other, but I think yours neatly solves how both.

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