Saturday, December 1, 2012

The Elusive Nathaniel Mills

Elusive Nathaniel Mills,
born circa 1800 in New York,
nothing more is known
about him.
This is how I refer to my 4th great grandfather, Nathaniel Mills, because despite having a large oil painting of him (left), I have yet to find any records of him. I only know his name because this is who my grandmother said he was. I have no BMD (birth, marriage death) dates and zero records. All I know of him is what I know of his son, William Henry Mills. He was born in 1832 in New Jersey so that would put Nathaniel's birth somewhere around 1800, give or take ten to fifteen years. It would also mean he probably lived in New Jersey in the 1830's. According to census records of William, his father was born in New York but of course, I have to take this with a grain of salt since census records are notorious for inaccuracies.

What's especially strange about this is that I have yet to find a census record of William in 1850. He would have been 18 and may have still been living with his parents, assuming they were still alive. I don't even know Nathaniel's wife/William's mother's name but you'd think that knowing William and Nathaniel's names I would be able to find the family quite easily, especially with a simple name like Mills, which would be unlikely to be recorded incorrectly. According to my grandmother, William had two sisters named Belinda and and Mary so theoretically, this should make the family even easier to find. So why I can't I find them on the 1850 census?

There's a few possibilities. One is that my grandmother got their names wrong, perhaps his name isn't even Nathaniel. Alternatively, he could have died before 1850 and/or William might have been living with another family. I considered that he could have been apprenticing but he later became a Railroad Agent and I'm not sure that is something you apprentice for, since it's not really a "trade". His sisters could have been older than him and already married. My grandmother's information says Mary married a man with the last name of Morton and Belinda married Beals. But again, I can find no conclusive records, especially considering I don't have defined birth years for them, don't know the first names of their husbands, and have no idea where they lived.

This brings me to the point that William moved around a LOT as an adult. The first record I have for him is his marriage in 1855 in Ohio (no parents names listed). So already he'd gone from where he was born in New Jersey to Ohio at some point before he was 23. Within only five years, he shows up on the 1860 census with his young new family in Illinois. By 1870, it's back to Ohio but a different county this time. 1880? Still in Ohio but yet another different county. By 1900, they're in Kentucky and by 1910, William is an old man living with one of his daughter's and son-in-law in Tennessee. He finally moved with them to Alabama, which is where he died in 1919. I have his death record and there are no parents names listed.

So knowing that he moved around a lot - even before he turned 23 he had migrated at least once across a few states - that could place him virtually anywhere in 1850. And who knows where his potentially already married sisters could be. This makes it really difficult to narrow things down. It's even possible the family was simply unrecorded because they were literally on the move when the census was taken which means I'm wasting my time looking for the 1850 census.

This has been my most difficult brick wall, I have gotten literally nowhere with it since the start of my genealogy research. At the moment, my only hope is of finding a birth record for William but not knowing where in New Jersey he was born (and being born in 1832, before state issued birth certificates) makes that almost impossible to track down.

So I'm putting this out there in hopes someone else is searching for the elusive Nathaniel Mills or one of his family members and can help me out. Or if you just have any tips at all, I would be grateful!


  1. I've had problems similar to this with the census records. One family member was a brick wall for more than a year. I was so focused in Pennsylvania where he had lived, that I didn't look in California where he was. Actually I had "another set of eyes" go over my research and they found it.

    With another family the census taker spelled their name Stillman instead of Tillman. I found them by going through the town census page by page.

    You've probably already done this, but is there an obituary for William? I had death certificates on two ancestors and didn't think to look for obituaries. Last week I received the obituaries and they gave me invaluable information, as well as some interesting stories. Good luck in you research.

    Regards, Grant

    1. Thanks Grant! I'll look around for Huntsville, AL obituaries.

  2. Found a Nathaniel Mills obituary listed in New York times obit circa 1800's

    1. Thanks Ruth, I had a look at your suggestion but I didn't find anything conclusive. However, I have since been able to pretty much confirm that William's father was James R Mills, not Nathaniel. I'm not sure where the name Nathaniel came from, but James R Mills had two daughters whose names/marriages line up with what I was told about William's sisters so I'm pretty confident it's the right family.