Records, Reading, and a Healthy Dose of Skepticism

This timeline was one I previously posted on Young and Savvy Genealogists. It's a feature I love, and I need to make more use of it. Be sure to pass by Timeline JS to check out how you can use this timeline on your blog and website too!

Timelines are especially important in situations like that of John M. P. Clark. The man's life has been turned into the stuff of legend. You don't need to look any further than his page to see the testimonies to his greatness.

Civil War veteran, a magistrate and judge, a Freemason, even a member of the House of Representatives for the state of Tennessee. While these accomplishments would certainly make for an impressive life, it doesn't mean that all of them are true. It occurred to me some time ago that some myth busting on this man's life was probably necessary. But I had no idea the full scope of the situation until I found this page dedicated to John Clark on Rootsweb.

There is enough confusion in these two people's version of events, in direct contradiction to the evidence, that some serious correction is in order. So at the risk of being mad at people on the internet, I'm just gonna let it out.

His Parents

Rootsweb alleges that John Clark's parents were John and Susan Clark. The FindaGrave page lists Elisha Clark and Margaret Vandeventer. Since they can't both be right, I set out to figure out who was wrong.

Because Elisha Clark is documented to have lived in Lee County, Virginia on the 1820-1840 censuses, I began searching there for a marriage record between Elisha and Margaret. There is no record of a marriage for them in Lee County. Nor is there one to be found in any of the other counties in Virginia. Or Tennessee. In fact, no amount of searching on or Google can even prove there WAS such a person as Margaret Vandeventer. Not from the time period in question, with a connection to Elisha, John, or Mildred Clark. It's like they just made up a person, slapped a name on her, and put her on the internet.

The page on FindaGrave mentions that this Margaret Vandeventer could have a connection to Sullivan County, Tennessee. In which case, the marriage records before 1863 do not exist. Birth records for Lee County, Virginia also do not begin until decades after both John and Mildred's births. Because no evidence of any kind can be presented to testify of Margaret Vandeventer's maternity to John or Mildred Clark, it is much more factually sound to say that their mother is unknown.

I can confirm with certainty that Susan Clark is not John's mother.

Elisha Clark was married to Phebe Jones on 29 October 1846 in Claiborne County, Tennessee. They're listed in the same household in the 1850 census, aged 52 and 50 respectively. John Clark and his sister Mildred are also listed in the household. You'll also see three Jones in their late teens and early twenties working there as laborers, no doubt connected to Phebe's family.

Susan Clark doesn't show up until the 1860 census, with her birthplace listed as North Carolina. If you observe all of the census record entries for John Clark from 1880 and beyond, he gives his mother's birthplace consistently as Tennessee. John and Mildred's mother is a women who predates both Susan and Phebe. And because women were counted as tally marks the US federal census before 1850, we may never know her name.

His Work

Both FindaGrave and the Rootsweb page perpetuate the myth that John Clark was a member of the General Assembly in Tennessee. The FindaGrave entry even gives the sessions to which he was supposedly elected, 1893-1895 and 1901-1902.  I hate this myth more than any of the others combined. I correct people on this one every chance I get.

Why? Because it was such an easy thing to fact check. I'm serious! One Google search. Two minutes. Two minutes to prove that people don't believe EVERYTHING they read on the internet. But instead, there are a lot of stubborn people that now have to be told the obvious in way that can only be highly embarrassing.

Why is it obvious? Because there was no session in the General Assembly from 1893-1895. That time period covers two entirely different sessions of the House. What this person is saying is literally impossible.

According to the official archive of Tennessee's House of Representatives, the 48th General Assembly was in session from 1893-1894. The 49th General Assembly was in session from 1895-1896. You will notice that John Clark's name is not on either list.

The 52nd General Assembly was in session from 1901-1902, but John Clark wasn't a representative then either. And before you get excited, I also checked this alphabetical list of all the Tennessee state Senators.

John Clark was never a member of the Tennessee General Assembly. For good measure, let's also rule out the federal government. As you can see, John Clark does not appear on either list of former members of the U.S. House of Representatives or the U.S. Senate. This myth is thoroughly and irrevocably busted.

However, the misinformation does have a grain of truth to it, as a lot of misinformation does. John Clark was never a part of the General Assembly. But the idea that he got a law passed in Nashville is true.

Available on Google Books is Acts of the State of Tennessee Passed by the Forty-Ninth General Assembly from 1895. And on pages 391-392 of that book is an act to change the boundary of Claiborne County to include all the property of John Clark, John Epperson, and William Farmer from Hancock County. And if you look at the page of the 1900 census where John Clark appears, one of his neighbors that appears on the same page is William Farmer.

So maybe someone got confused and decided that John Clark trying to change a county boundary automatically makes him a state representative. I don't know. What I do know is that a little critical reading would have avoided that mistake.

His Three Wives

John Clark was in a relationship with three different women: Elizabeth Manning, Sarah Elrod, and Nancy Bray. In that order, and not concurrently. Not sure why people try to make John Clark into some kind of womanizer. Maybe they think it's funny. What I don't think they get is that womanizing in the form of bigamy wasn't cute to anyone at the turn of the century. It was a crime. You went to jail.

The Rootsweb page alleges that Elizabeth Manning was first, then Nancy Bray, then Sarah Elrod. But if we go to the census records (see timeline above) we can see that's a royal load of nonsense.

Elizabeth Manning came first. They were never married, and according to the census records they never actually lived together. In 1860, John Clark was living with his father Elisha (head), his stepmother Susan, and Sarah Elrod with her infant son, John Elrod. Sarah is listed in the household as a domestic, to delineate her as a servant. She will remain in the household in that position for the next 20 years.

Elizabeth Manning lives next door, and has three young sons; Henry (5), William (3), and Andrew (1). By 1870, she will add 5 more children to her brood: Mildred, Martha, James, Sarah, and Noah. If we can believe the transcription of John Clark's will on the Rootsweb page to be genuine, John Clark will eventually include Noah and William Manning in his will.

A closer inspection of these children's birth dates in comparison to John Clark's Civil War service record reveals an interesting set of circumstances. If John Clark is the father of some, most, or all of these Manning children, and he enlisted on 3 October 1862, then Elizabeth was 6-7 months pregnant with Martha Jane Manning at the time he enlisted.

FindaGrave lists four more children to this couple, born between 1871 and 1877: Andy, Elisha, George, and Albert. But when you compare the children listed in Elizabeth Manning's household in 1880, there is no child named Andy.

Several of the Manning children and their mother will eventually be buried in the Clark family burial plot with John Clark. Clearly he feels a duty and obligation to these children which would logically follow his being their father. But how many of these children are his and why he never married their mother is a mystery he appears to have taken to his grave.

By 1880, John Clark and Sarah Elrod are married. They appear on the census together, and Elizabeth Manning is no longer living next door. She took her children and moved about 10 doors down, as the census taker walks. John and Sarah appear on page 39, Elizabeth Manning appears on page 40. Considering these are farming families, the next page of the census could be anywhere from 1-10 miles away. According to headstone in the Clark Cemetery, Elizabeth Manning dies in 1882.

What happens between John and Sarah after 1880 is also a mystery. The Rootsweb user has a few more transcribed documents dated May and June of 1890, signed by John and Sarah as husband and wife. But she and her son are not included in the transcribed will, and the FindaGrave user suggests that Sarah Elrod dies in Missouri in 1929. By 1893, John Clark is married for the second time to his third wife, Nancy Bray.

Nancy Bray already has 3 children at the time she marries John Clark: Mary, Joseph, and Madison. Josie, Tilimon, and Laura are also labeled as Griffin step children on the 1900 census. However, given that they were born after Nancy's marriage in 1893, it's safe to say they're John's natural born children. John Clark effectively adopts all of Nancy's children and raises them as his own after Nancy's death. A few of the older children keep Griffin as their last name.

On the 1910 census, we see that John and Nancy have two more sons--Hobert and General Clark. John Clark dies in 1912, and is buried in a cemetery which is presumably on his own land.

So the moral of the story is...

If your ancestor married a bunch of people and has larger than life accomplishments attributed to their name, be very skeptical. Especially on Rootsweb. In fact, don't believe anything that anyone ever tells you on the internet. Nope, not even me.

Because all of us are wrong sometimes. And you will be too if you don't check your facts.