Unraveling the Mystery of Mary Frances Simpson

One of the things I love about genealogy is trying to make sense out of those parts of your family that just don’t make any sense.  According to Ancestry, Mary Frances Simpson is not related to my family.  Yet, she is in many of my family pictures and in fact, I have just as many pictures of her family as I do of my own.  Some of my family grew up with her family but when I check the “relationship to me” status…she’s not related.

Great Uncle Bentley and Great Aunt Martha

Great Uncle Bentley and Great Aunt Martha

An even more fascinating aspect of exploring family history is learning the sociology of a specific time period and region.  Depending on where and when the family existed, you will find certain qualities and attributes throughout the line.  This was especially true with one such person who played a large part in my own family history…Mary Frances Simpson.  So, who was Mary Frances (Knowlton) Simpson and why did she raise my great aunt and great uncle?  Why her?

 When my great grandmother Emma Tiffany died in1905, she left behind three small children.  My great grandfather Joseph was a traveling salesman for Standard Oil.  Both Joseph’s mother and Emma’s father were already in their 70’s and were too old to care for young children although newspaper reports do show that Emma’s father did take care of the children immediately after Emma died for a very short time.  After much discussion, it was decided that Mary Frances would take the younger ones.  For the time being, the oldest would be raised at the orphanage.  And one day…with the help of Mary Frances, they would all be reunited again.  Tell me again, who was she and why her?

My grandfather with his sister Martha and brother Bentley

My grandfather with his sister Martha and brother Bentley

What I knew about Mary Frances was that she was born Mary Frances Knowlton in Wilbraham, Massachusetts and was reportedly related to William Knowlton of England.  I first tried discovering more about her by starting at the top of the line…working my way down.  It was exhausting work and I wasn’t certain I was going in the right direction.  Besides, my interest in her was her connection to my family, not where she came from.

The only other thing I knew was that she was related somehow to Emma Tiffany (my great-grandmother) but distantly.  The paternal Tiffany line had been well documented and she was not listed there, so I left that side of the family alone and began working on the maternal side which was Moultan.  My first thought was that the names Moultan and Knowlton were very similar and wondered if it was simply a typo or altered spelling.

Through Ancestry, I was able to determine that Mary Frances had a younger brother named Charles, her father’s name was Francis Knowlton and her mother was Nancy Norcrof Fay.  As luck would have it, both families were listed in genealogy books and the parentage was confirmed as were the their deaths.  Mary Frances was only 15 years with both of her parents listed as dead, having died in Massachusetts by 1871.  So Mary Frances and Charles, who was a few years younger, have been orphaned.  I found that to be quite interesting because my grandfather and his brother and sister were essentially orphaned when their mother died.

The next time I can locate Mary Frances is on the 1880 census and she is listed as a teacher in Indiana, PA.  This is where my grandfather was born and his side of the family is all from this area of the country.  I already know that Indiana, PA is well known for their many newspapers so I start searching for more clues as to who Mary Frances is related to and I eventually found her obituary. I gained many answers but at the same time, the obituary posed even more questions.

After the death of her parents, Mary Frances came to live with her brother-in-law Bela Tiffany (my great great grandfather).  That was a big clue…Bela’s wife, Josephine Moultan was Mary Frances Knowlton’s sister!!  There’s that name thing again.  So, checking out Josephine’s parentage I once again discover more questions than answers.  Josephine’s father is Dwight Moultan and her mother is Louisa Shaw. They have completely different parents…what?

I decided to see if Mary Frances’ brother could clear things up and discovered that he too was living in Indiana in 1880 and he was living with Estella Moultan…listed as his half sister on the 1880 census.  So now that I have confirmed the sister relationship I need to track down the connection.  Another name…let’s see what Estella can tell us about Mary Frances.  Estella Moultan’s father is Dwight Moultan, which makes her Josephine Moultan’s half sister.  But the interesting part which cleared up the mystery of the sisterhood is that Estella’s mother was Nancy Norcrof Fay…Estella was also Mary Frances’ half sister.  By now I was starting to get answers but with so many names and parents it was still confusing so I plotted the families on a chart.  In doing so, I noticed that every single person on the chart had been born and raised in the same part of Massachusetts.

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Now, back in 1864, Josephine Moultan had married Bentley Tiffany in that same Massachusetts county and they had had one child.  But, by the end of 1868 and before the death of her father Dwight, she and Bentley moved to Pennsylvania.  When Nancy Fay died 2 years later, Josephine was the only living relative able to care for her half siblings and so they all moved to Pennsylvania.

I had never seen a “man of the house” in all of the family photos and wondered about Mary Frances’ husband, Thomas Simpson.  After all, when Mary Frances agreed to take on guardianship of my great aunt and great uncle, she already had five children of her own.  It wasn’t long before I discovered that Thomas had died a few years earlier of blood poisoning. Despite all of her own personal loss and struggle to support her own family, at the age of 50 years, she took on two more young children who had just lost their mother.

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Children of Mary Frances and Thomas W. Simpson

As I looked back through the various transfers of parental responsibility it was easy to see the pattern of “family” taking care of family.  It seemed only natural given Mary Frances’ family history that she would take on the role of guardian for her sister’s grandchildren.  Josephine actually never got to see any of her grandchildren as she died before the first one was born and in actual fact, there is no blood connection from my family to Mary Francis Simpson.  Though, if you asked my great aunt Martha who Mary Frances Simpson was…she would reply…my mother.

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Mary Frances Simpson with her children and grandchildren about a year before she died. My great aunt Martha is the young lady sitting on the far left.

I did get one added bonus while gathering the photos for today’s post…I found the house where Mary Frances and her brother Charles spent their youth.  It’s at least documented back to 1850 when her father owned the house and it is still standing today…though it has had several additions.  These two pictures are of the house as it looks today, the second one has been edited to reflect what it looked like when Mary Frances would have lived in it.

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The Francis Knowlton House – today

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What it looked like in the 1850s

No matter how you look at it…Mary Frances was family…in the purest sense of the word…and she lived in a really old house…that’s still standing!

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