Sunday, November 24, 2019

Timeline of a Colonial-Era Death

Timelines are an import tool in genealogy.

Laying out the chronology of an ancestor's life enables family historians to surface patterns, gaps, or inconsistencies. This visual approach to mapping research helps flag problems that may otherwise be overlooked.

Evidence-informed timelines can also help frame milestones like births, marriages, and deaths, providing narrowed time periods for when a life event likely occurred.

For example, my current research is focused on Joseph and Sarah Kirk who lived in Berkeley County, Virginia (now West Virginia) during the latter 1700's. I speculate that they were my sixth great-grandparents [see A Genealogy Cold Case Heats Up].

Curiously, some researchers have decided that this Joseph Kirk moved to Kentucky where he died in the 1830's. The Kentucky Joseph Kirk proliferates in Ancestry's public trees and is now appearing with alarming frequency.

Despite his growing dominance, the public trees for the Kentucky Joseph Kirk include no substantiating evidence. Actually, that's not entirely true. There is one source that appears.

That's right. The sources for the Kentucky Joseph Kirk are other family trees with no corroborating facts.

Realizing what I was up against and eager to set the record straight, I turned to Berkeley County's few surviving Colonial-era documents. I created a timeline that helped determine when my Joseph Kirk died and, in turn, built a factual case that dispelled the myth propagated by these contagious family trees.


  • 1773 April 9: Joseph Kirk made his first appearance in Berkeley County, leasing 100 acres from George William Fairfax in a "land lease for lives".
  • 1773 September 22: The lease was proved and recorded in Berkeley County Court.
  • 1780 September 20: Joseph Kirk served as a court witness for Isaiah Hoskinson and was due 300 pounds of tobacco as remuneration.
  • 1781 April 3: Joseph Kirk submitted a Revolutionary War Public Service Claim (a receipt from the local authorities verifying Joseph provided six bushels and a half of wheat to supply provisions for the use of the Continental Army. In exchange, he was entitled to 130 pounds).
  • 1781 November 20: A charge of trespass was brought against Joseph Kirk by John Coplan, a local constable and operator of an ordinary (tavern) in Martinsburg, Berkeley County.
  • 1782 September 21: Joseph Kirk served as a court witness for John Evans and was due 125 pounds of tobacco as remuneration.
  • 1782: Personal Property Tax Records 
  • 1782: Land Tax Records
  • 1783: Personal Property Tax Records
  • 1784: Personal Property Tax Records
  • 1784 August 18: George William Fairfax brought a petition (Replevy Bond) against Joseph Kirk for falling behind on land rents.
  • 1784 August 21: Joseph Kirk didn't appear in court for the Replevy Bond. Instead, he was represented by his wife Sarah and likely brother-in-law John Beard. Why didn't Joseph appear in court?
  • 1784: Land Tax Records
  • 1785: Land Tax Records
  • 1786: Land Tax Records
  • 1787: Land Tax Records
  • 1788: Land Tax Records with the first mention of Joseph Kirk's "exrs" - executors, confirming that he was deceased by 1788.

Drawing Conclusions

From this timeline, I could narrow to a period of a few years when my Joseph Kirk died based on what the records said and even pinpoint the specific year I think he died based on what the records didn't say.

The records definitely said Joseph Kirk was in Berkeley County for a decade beginning on April 9, 1773, when Joseph first signed a land lease for lives (meaning the land lease could be passed on to Joseph's heirs in the event of his death) until 1783 when he paid his personal property tax.

Things began to look dodgy in 1784.

On August 18, 1784, a petition was filed against Joseph Kirk, which summoned him to appear in court for a Replevy Bond (a legal procedure used to return property to the owner, suggesting that Joseph fell behind in payments to the farm's landlord, George William Fairfax).

Excerpt of Berkeley County, VA court orders 18 Aug 1784
George William Fairfax vs Joseph Kirk on Replevy Bond

However, Joseph Kirk didn't appear in court to answer the petition. Three days later, on August 21, 1784, his wife Sarah and John Beard (a man married to Joseph's maybe sister Margaret Kirk) appeared in court.

Excerpt of Berkeley County, VA court orders 23 Aug 1784
George William Fairfax vs Sarah Kirk & John Beard on Replevy Bond

Where was Joseph? Why was he being represented by his wife? The records didn't say.

During the next four years - 1784 through 1787 - Joseph Kirk's name appeared on land tax records for the 100-acre farm, suggesting that the Replevy Bond was satisfactorily resolved.

In 1788, though, the land tax records confirmed what I had speculated. Joseph Kirk's name appeared but, for the first time, was followed by the abbreviation "exrs" or executors. 

The land tax was levied on the executors of his estate. 

Berkeley County, VA land tax for 1788
Joseph Kirk's Exrs

Joseph Kirk was in fact deceased by 1788. This record single-handedly undermined the family trees alleging that he died in Kentucky in the 1830's. Thank you for playing. Next!

But I was sure I could do better and further refine the window of time in which Joseph passed away. The absence of his name in certain records helped, I believe, pinpoint an exact death year.

Narrowing the Window of Death

Berkeley County's personal property tax lists survive and date to 1782. Joseph Kirk appeared in the records in 1782, 1783 and 1784. However, his name disappeared from the tax lists in 1785. 

Was this further evidence that he was deceased? 

If Joseph died before August 1784 when he didn't appear in court for the Replevy Bond, he would still be liable for personal property tax for whatever portion of that year in which he was alive, right?

His death mid-way through 1784 could explain why his name appeared in that year's personal property tax list but then not the following year, 1785.

But how to explain why his name continued to appear in the land tax records?

I believe it was reasonable for his name to continue to appear in land tax lists from 1784 through 1787 while his estate was undergoing probate or the lease for lives was being transferred to his widow Sarah (which tax, land, and court records suggest eventually happened).

Collectively, I believe the records support the theory that Joseph Kirk died in the first part of 1784. 

Of course, the answer would be more definitive if Joseph Kirk had a surviving probate record. He does not, according to the West Virginia State Archives. Strike one for the Kirk Curse!

Furthermore, Berkeley County's Court minutes documenting all legal petitions spanning February 1779 to October 1785 are missing, so there's no court notation of initial probate proceedings. Strike two for the Kirk Curse!

Out of an abundance of caution, I'm trawling through every single page of Berkeley County's surviving court minutes and order books to ensure nothing has been overlooked, even the vaguest hints that may shed light on Joseph Kirk's estate. 

While the painstaking search goes on, the genealogical timeline has dispensed with a false family history and narrowed the timeline for Joseph Kirk's death.

That's a remarkable victory and cause for celebration!


  1. Excellent work and I'd say you've definitely proved your case!

  2. I love reading your research on the Kirks! It is inspirational.

    1. The Kirks are my obsession...a real passion project! I'm glad you're along for the ride, Diane.

  3. Seems like a solid, well-justified conclusion to me. Doesn't it drive you crazy to see dates on trees without sources?

    1. Public unsourced trees are maddening! I like to give people the benefit of the doubt (who knows, maybe the date was passed down through family lore and the person didn't know how to source that), but sometimes it's like they just reached into a bag of names/dates and pulled one out and ran with it.

  4. Excellent work! We have to keep faith that good research and the ability to share images of historic records will eventually lead others away from the unsubstantiated speculation that we see in some trees.

    1. Agreed! And I think it will eventually pay off - folks are more apt to copy and spread trees that have pictures (even of documents) attached to them. At least the records have that in their favor.

  5. As Marian noted, your posts will help to correct the erroneous trees. I know this from experience! My many hours of going through Bas-Rhin records to document three generations of Rupp families paid off. The trees are now reflecting my research.

    1. Now that's encouraging to hear. Good, well-documented research wins out in the end. Congrats, too, on turning the tide with your Bas-Rhin research, Cathy!