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  • Writer's pictureTheFormidableGenealogist

Signs

One of my three main goals in continuing my mother’s ancestry research was to find out more about Elizabeth Sarah Miller Rhoads. Joseph Rhoads and Elizabeth Miller were married in December 1839 in Adams Co., IL, when she was a young teenager. That’s the earliest she seemed to have existed. Census records are inconsistent regarding her age but suggest she was born around 1825, making her about 14 or 15 when she was married. Censuses agree that she was born in Virginia.


A couple of years ago, my husband and I had just moved to another state for his new job. I was fortunate to not need my own employment for a few months, so I took some time for research trips. I spent a week in the Virginia state archives in Richmond for every minute they were open. I searched for known family first, not wanting to waste precious research time searching for random Millers of Virginia. At night in the hotel, I compared each day’s research to what I already knew about my many other Virginia families and then formulated the approach for the next day. But I also worked on my hypothesis about Elizabeth.


Midweek I learned a little about a John Miller who died in Montgomery County, Virginia, in Sept. 1824—around the time Elizabeth is estimated to have been born. I increasingly believed the narrative that no one knew anything about her life because she was her parents’ only child, she was born after her father died young, and her mother somehow made it from Virginia to Illinois to start a new life. It was a theory. How could I increase my confidence that my theory was not incorrect?


During the week I was in Richmond, the city was preparing for a huge bicylce race. The course would go all through the downtown, where the archives were. Each day, more and more streets in the downtown were being fenced off. So while every day I took the bus from the same stop at the hotel to the downtown area, every day I would have to walk progressively further from the archives in another direction to find a bus stop whose route would take me back to the hotel.

On the Thursday of that week, with one day left at the archives, I was walking a long way to find a bus stop that was outside the blocked-off area of the city. I was zig-zagging through parts of the downtown area where I had never been yet, thinking about Elizabeth Miller Rhoads. How would I know I was on the right track with my theory about her? Would I be wasting my remaining research day if I kept looking for information on this family that I thought was hers? As I wandered and looked for an in-service bus stop, I sent a wish into the world about how I wanted a sign from Elizabeth to let me know if I was on the right path to find her family. I asked her for a sign, but would I recognize the sign if she sent one? I just needed to cross the street to get on the other side of the race's viewing stands in order to get out of the downtown. I finally found a place to cross, and I looked up:


This is a former department store. Now it’s an apartment building. I stood on the sidewalk and looked up at it for a long time. I recognized the giant sign as a sign that I was headed in the right direction—in terms of Elizabeth Miller Rhoads, anyway, and not necessarily in finding an operational bus stop.


I turned on the TV when I got back to the hotel and found the first channel airing the national news. I had been traveling much of the year both around the country and outside it. I was now in Virginia, visiting from Nebraska, having moved from Iowa a few months before. I’d spent about 17 years in the same little city in Iowa before we had moved. My brain was still adjusting to the first time I had lived somewhere new in a long time. Our household had made several huge changes all at once and with little notice, moving [slightly] west for new opportunities. More than once since the move I had felt completely disconnected from my earlier life. And now for another fraction of a second, it seemed the universe was commanding my attention again. On the news was a reporter, standing in front of the window to the university office where I had worked for the decade before moving from Iowa. Election year was coming, and a notable presidential candidate was visiting campus. News crews had converged on this picturesque spot to broadcast. Just outside the office window from my old life. When the weirdness of the previous 30 minutes settled, I was convinced that these were the signs I had asked for.


I spent my last day in the Virginia archives, buoyed by the universe’s encouragement, gathering what I could about the Miller family. Elizabeth Miller married Joseph Rhoads in 1839. That’s all I knew before this. It remains one of two cases where I don’t decry the lack evidence. The puzzle pieces fit perfectly even though they are circumstantial.


My narrative is that Elizabeth Miller Rhoads was born in Montgomery Co., VA, in late 1824 or early 1825. Her father John Miller died about eight months after his marriage to Elizabeth’s mother, Margaret Whitt, the daughter of Abijah Whitt and Elizabeth Elswick. John Miller may or may not have known before he died that his wife was expecting a child. He died without a will, probably not expecting to die before age 30. His widow Margaret “Peggy” Miller refused her right to administer his estate. In 1835 Margaret Miller married David Hunsaker in Adams Co., Illinois. The groom had been a widower, and the bride would have been about 35 years old at this marriage. The Hunsaker and Rhoads families had been intermarrying for several decades across several states. That is likely how Jacob Rhoads, a widower with a young son, married a teenage Elizabeth Miller. Elizabeth had no full siblings but would have two Hunsaker half-sisters in Illinois. Among Elizabeth’s sons, the eldest has the same name as her father John, and two share the names of her half-sisters’ husbands. I’ve been able to identify all of Elizabeth’s grandparents and other branches of her family, going back to her 3x great-grandfather—my 8x great-grandfather— who died in 1759.


Thank you for the signs, Elizabeth.


The Library of Virginia website is a great resource if you can't spend a week visiting them in person.

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