Monday, July 03, 2017

Was My Ancestor a Deserter?

On a weekend when we're celebrating the birth of our country and honoring ancestors who served in the American Revolution, it seems ironic to be writing about an ancestor who may have deserted. Recently prompted by some DNA matches that appear to connect to my elusive PECK line, however, I have determined that I need to share a records discovery that may pertain to my brick wall ancestor, Nelson H. PECK.

Very, very little is known about my 4th-great-grandfather. To begin with, I have no primary source material, so I am relying on secondary or tertiary source material, at best.  Here's a timeline I have put together for him:
  • About 1819: born in New York, Pennsylvania, or England. His birth date comes from a newspaper extract about his death, filed with the Potter County (Pennsylvania) Historical Society, which states he was about 30 years old on 15 April 1849. His possible birth locations come from his daughter's census record information: 1875 Minnesota State Census (Pennsylvania); 1880 Federal Census (New York); 1884 Michigan State Census (England); 1900 Federal Census (England); 1910 Federal Census (England). The thing is, we have no idea who supplied this information to the enumerators. Was it his daughter Viola, or her husband, Charles Robbins? They were not witnesses to his birth, obviously; so how did they know this information? Did Viola learn it from her mother? Again, Viola's mother would only have had second-hand knowledge, even if she knew her husband's family well.
  • About 1847: married Lura Ann Jackson, probably in Coudersport, Potter County, Pennsylvania. This is based on the date of their daughter's birth; obviously, they could have married earlier...or even later, if Lura was "in the family way" when they got married. I have listed Coudersport as the probable marriage location, since it was typical in those days for a woman to be married at or near her family home. I do know from the Jackson family genealogy, census records, and the county history that her family lived in Coudersport at the time. There is also a possibility they married somewhere else. Regardless, neither Potter County, nor the state of Pennsylvania, nor the bordering counties and state of New York kept vital records at that time.
  • 1848: resident taxpayer and carpenter/joiner in Coudersport. Both the History of the counties of McKean, Elk, Cameron and Potter, Pennsylvania....which was compiled by Michael A. Leeson and published in 1890 by J.H. Beers & Co. of Chicago, and Early History of Coudersport; Pioneer Families of Coudersport, published in July 1949 by the Potter County Historical Society in Coudersport, Pennsylvania mention Nelson briefly on pages 11 and 1057, respectively.
  • 14 April 1848: daughter Viola Gertrude Peck is born in Coudersport.  Her 18 February 1918 Oceana County, Michigan death certificate provides her date and specific place of birth, which aligns with all the state and census information during her lifetime.
  • 15 April 1849: died. This date comes from a newspaper extract about his death, filed with the Potter County (Pennsylvania) Historical Society, the entirety which reads: "Nelson H. Peck of Coudersport, died Apr. 15, 1849, age abt. 30 years. He was a carpenter."  There is no reference to the title, date, or page of the newspaper. Note this date was a day after his daughter's first birthday.

As you can see, only the years 1848 and 1849 provide definitive events in the life of Nelson. Over the years, I've looked closely at the other PECK families in the area, but have been unable to come to a conclusion about whether they are related, especially since they were adults born after Nelson's death and came to Potter County later in their lives.

Recently, provided me with some hints about a Nelson Peck who could possibly be my ancestor.  He served in the War with Mexico, and was listed as a deserter. Below, I have created a timeline of this man:

  • 31 May 1847: enlisted at Galena. From, "U.S. Army, Register of Enlistments, 1798-1914"; 1847 Jan - 1849 Jun, Mexican War enlistments: Nelson Peck; age 25 [b.c. 1822]; blue eyes, light hair, fair complexion, 5 feet 5 inches tall; born in Hume, New York [in Allegany County, which borders Potter County, Pennsylvania on the north]; laborer; enlisted 31 May 1847 at Galena by Lt.[?] Hall; 1st Infantry [U.S. Regular Army], Company A; deserted 29 November 1847. No other information is given, including under the "apprehended" column. Galena is not identified further. Was this Galena, Illinois?  Or was it the village of Galena, which is in Chenango County, New York?
  • 14 September 1847: Transfer to Fort Leavenworth from Jefferson Barracks, Missouri. From, "U.S., Returns from Military Posts, 1806-1916"; Missouri Jefferson Barracks, 1840 Jan - 1851 Dec.
  • 22 September 1847: Arrived at Fort Leavenworth, Missouri [as it was known then]. From, "U.S. Returns from Regular Army Infantry Regiments, 1821-1916"; 1st Infantry 1844-1848.
  • 29 November 1847: deserted from Fort Leavenworth, Missouri. From, "U.S. Returns from Regular Army Infantry Regiments, 1821-1916"; 1st Infantry 1844-1848.

Assuming my ancestor Viola was a full-term baby, conception for her 14 April 1848 birth would have had to occur around July 8, 1847.  If Nelson-my-ancestor and Nelson-the-deserter were the same person, how much time would it have taken for him to travel from Coudersport, Pennsylvania to Jefferson, Missouri?  Was it possible for him to leave Coudersport in early July 1847 and arrive at Jefferson Barracks before he then transferred to Fort Leavenworth on September 14? Train travel in 1847 was very limited; between east coast cities, mainly. "Swift" travel in those days meant river travel, and a likely route would have involved the Ohio River to the Mississippi River and then to the Missouri River.

I've tried to find Nelson-the-deserter in records after 1847, such as the 1850 and later Federal censuses.  I haven't been able to come to come to any strong conclusions that he is or is not any of the men I find.  I realize his birth year given at the time of his enlistment doesn't quite match the birth year given for Nelson-my-ancestor; but then again, my ancestor's birth year is also an estimate.

I've also looked for every Nelson Peck in the 1840 Federal Census, and have come up with exactly six. One of them--and the most likely, given the distance to Potter County--was living in the Town of New Berlin, Chenango County, New York, which borders the Town of North Norwich, where the village of Galena is located. There are three people in the household: a man age 20 to 29 [b.c. 1811-1820], a woman age 20 to 29 [b.c. 1811-1820], and a female child under the age of 5 [b.c. 1835-1840]. This man could be Nelson-my-ancestor with a first wife and child, rather than my ancestors Lura Ann Jackson (b. 1826) and Viola Gertrude Peck (b. 1848). It could also be Nelson-the-deserter.  Finally, it could be both Nelson-my-ancestor and Nelson-the-deserter.  There are no adult Nelson Pecks in Chenanco County or adjacent counties in 1850.

It would be easy to dismiss Nelson-the-deserter as not being Nelson-my-ancestor, except for one detail: family lore has a story about a Mexican War serviceman who "took off." In the early 1930s, Nelson's son-in-law, my 3rd-great-grandfather, Charles H. Robbins, was interviewed about his life, and specifically his Civil War years. Charles talked a little about his father, Joseph Josiah Robbins, who also served in the Civil War. One of the things the article stated was that Joseph had also served in the Mexican War:
His father, Joseph Josiah Robbins, was a veteran of the Mexican war in which he had been an artilleryman.  He came home in 1849 after having started to California during the big gold rush but decided to come back to his family.

The thing is, I have never been able to find evidence that Joseph enlisted during the Mexican War. I can't find Mexican War-era service records for him or locate him in lists of Mexican War veterans in New York or Pennsylvania. He did draw a pension for disability from his Civil War service.  His pension application and related records never mention service from an earlier time prior to the Civil War.

The interview of Charles is full of inaccuracies, probably due to the ramblings of an old man with dementia. In every case where the information is inaccurate, there's been evidence that it was touching on an actual event, and a plausible explanation of the inaccuracy can be given.  The part of the Mexican War service has been the only exception. Or has it?

Could Charles have been confused and been talking about his father-in-law, rather than his father? Could the "going off to the Gold Rush" have been a "cover" for Nelson's desertion?  It could not have been an actual cause, as Nelson deserted on 29 November 1847 and the Gold Rush at Sutter's Mill started in early January 1849.

There's a lot more research and analysis that need to go into both Nelson-my-ancestor and Nelson-the-deserter before I can come to a reasonable conclusion about either one of them, much less determine if they were one and the same. But I wanted to publish my theory and get it out to the public so that I can reference it while working on Nelson-my-ancestor and my PECK DNA results.

Are you a PECK descendant? Were your ancestors from Upstate New York or Western Pennsylvania, particularly the Twin Tier Counties? If so, please contact me at

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