A client called and said, "I'm trying to find the ancestry of my
grandmother, Etna Briggs, who was born in 1848 in Wisconsin and
who died in 1910 in California."
"I know she was buried in Santa Cruz in 1910 but I don't know
anything else about her life except her father's name was H. H.
Briggs." Although the information was sketchy, we set out to find
Etna's family, leaving the client to locate other family records.
We knew we might need to contact her again later for other specific
A visit to a Family History Center (FHC) in a neighboring town
allowed us to search the California Death Index,
and it gave us the exact death date of Etna Briggs Iliff. If we
were lucky the parent's names and places of birth might appear
on the death certificate. The California death certificate does
request that information, but did the question is whether or not
the informant knew that information? It could take from 6 to 12
weeks for the death certificate to arrive, however, so we continued
searching other records. We began with the 1850 census
index CD, because Etna should appear as a 2-year-old
child on it with her parents.
we were lucky the parent's names and places
of birth might appear on the death certificate.
Several Briggs families were located, but it only took a few
attempts to find Etna Briggs with her parents, Harrison H. Briggs
and Electa, on the 1850 Milwaukee, Wisconsin census. Her two siblings,
Orion, age 6, and Vesta, age 5 months, as well as Etna, age 2,
were born in Wisconsin, while her father was listed as being born
in Ohio and her mother in New York.
A search of the 1860 and 1870 existing federal census index
CDs revealed a Henry Briggs in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. A search
of the actual census revealed this to be a different "H. Briggs" than
Etna's father. The family seemed to have disappeared from the state.
When nothing turned out positive in the census records, we turned
to available county records for Milwaukee. We found in a county
history of Milwaukee, Wisconsin that H. H. Briggs and
Mrs. Electa Briggs were among the founding members of a Congregational
Church in 1847.
The phonedisks gave us the phone number of
the Grand Avenue Congregational Church of Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
We called the church and requested any information on the couple.
A few weeks later we received Historical Sketch Grand
Avenue Congregational Church of Milwaukee 1847-1907. Pages
7 and 11 indicated that the Free Congregational Church of Milwaukee
was formed in 1847 by members of the First Congregational Church
and the Presbyterian Church because these two churches would not
allow meetings in favor of abolition of slavery. There were about
twenty enrolled at its organization, including a Mr. Ansel Briggs.
At the next meeting, on Feb 4, 1847, several names were added
to the list of charter members, including H. H. Briggs and Electa
Briggs. The church was sorry to inform us that they had nothing
else on the couple. No death or burial records were located in
While waiting for the church record to arrive, we turned
to land records (available at the Family
History Library in Salt Lake City and to its FHCs on interlibrary
loan) to see if they could tell us how long the family remained
in the county, if they had come much earlier to the area,
and to ascertain any neighborhood connections (people who
they might have associated with in case we could not find
records of H. H. Briggs in the future). We found a mortgage
between Rufus Chaney Jr. and Harris H. H. Briggs in 1850
and other mortgage records up to 1854 when H. H. Briggs
stopped appearing in the records. No records could be found
prior to 1850 in Milwaukee.
turned to land records to see if they could
tell us how long the family remained in the
We decided there might be some connection between the Ansel Briggs
who joined the same church as H. H. within a few weeks of each other.
An Ansel Briggs, age 21, single (no birthplace given), was found on
the 1850 federal census index CD in Milwaukee. This younger Ansel could
be the 1847 church member, as no wife was mentioned in connection with
his joining the church, and other new communicants included wives' names
(including H. H. and Electa). However, this young man in the census
would only have been about 18 years old at the time of the church founding,
yet the list calls the new member "Mr. Ansel Briggs," an unusual title
for a young man, at that time.
Another Ansel was listed in the census index. He was 27 years
older than H. H. (which was determined in the 1850 census) and
had children born in Ohio, which is where H. H. claimed to have
been born. We felt the older one would have most likely been the
one referred to as Mr. Ansel Briggs in the church records. He
lived in Walworth County. Even if the younger Ansel was the name
in the church history, this still suggests a connection to H.
H. Briggs: Since the given name Ansel is uncommon, and the population
was not large at that time in this area, it would seem likely
that Ansel the younger would be the son of the older Ansel.
A search of the vital records (birth,
marriage, and death) of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, from Family
History Library records revealed nothing, so we undertook
a search of the surrounding counties, starting with Walworth
because of the elder Ansel Briggs. This turned out to be
effective as it produced the maiden name and marriage date
of Etna's parents. The marriage of Harris H. Briggs and
Electa Harrington was duly solemnized at East Troy, Walworth
County, Wisconsin Territory, 21 Jan 1844 by Gaylord Graves,
Justice of the Peace. Mr. Graves didn't get around to registering
the marriage until 3 months later.
search of the vital records of Milwaukee, Wisconsin,
revealed nothing, so we undertook a search of
the surrounding counties
So far, no documentation linked the two Briggs (Harris and Ansel)
together, but we found several other Briggs families were living
in Walworth county. Indeed, that was Ansel's county of residence.
Following genealogy clues means we are always asking ourselves
questions, like: "Why would Ansel be joining a church in Milwaukee
county in 1847 if he appears in Walworth county (one county away)
in the 1850 census?"
While a connection between Harris and Ansel seemed probable,
it was wise to seek additional proof before spending significant
time learning Ansel's ancestry. The problem was that neither Ansel
or H. H. Briggs appear in later Wisconsin records. The 1882 and
1912 histories of Walworth county did not mention them, nor did
the 1894 collective biography or the 1860 census. The Milwaukee
city directories available at the Family History Library listed
Harris H. H. Briggs as a painter in 1847-48 and 1848-49, but not
later. The only other Briggs individuals through 1855 were a Reuben
and Uriah F., names not even in the 1850 census. It appeared the
family, if they were connected, had moved in the early 1850s.
With a brick wall appearing in the foreground, we asked
ourselves other questions. How did Etna get to California?
When did she come? Could her family have moved because of
the gold rush? When did she marry? Could her marriage provide
us with clues? Coming forward on the family line is a tried
and true technique for genealogists when something stops
the progress backward in time.
A call to the client who had been gathering together other
family clues from relatives revealed that her grandfather,
James N. Iliff, was born in Kansas in 1841. She assumed
her mother and father were married there. Her grandfather's
birth year made him the perfect age to have served in the
Civil War. A search of the Civil War Pension File
Index revealed this to be the case, so we obtained
his Union Pension records from the National
Archives in Washington, D.C., through our associate there.
forward on the family line is a tried and true
technique for genealogists when something stops
the progress backward in time.
The pension records proved invaluable for all the clues and facts
The marriage of James N. Iliff of Lecompton, KS, age 26 and
Etna Briggs of Centerville, Kansas, age 19, 26 Dec 1868, at
Oskaloosa, Jefferson Co, KS; John W. Day, Probate Judge. [No
witnesses listed on the marriage license.]
Each residence of James N. Iliff from the end of the war
until 1907 was provided. His places of enlistment and discharge,
and individuals who signed as being acquainted with him were
The death record of James N. Iliff and the residences of
his widow were provided.
The location and verification of the sister of Etna Briggs
Iliff who in 1910 stated she was Vesta B. Boynton speaking
in behalf of her sister. Vesta also gave a clue that she was
raised in the same neighborhood as James N. Iliff in Iowa.
A state which had not as yet been searched.
- Finally in Selma, California, 14 Jun 1910, an O. W. Stearns,
who was born in Iowa in 1854, spoke in behalf of Etna Briggs
so she could receive her widow's pension. He said she had lived
with his parents from the time he was too small to remember
until he was 10 years old. He said that Etna was about 5 years
older than he and that she was like a sister to him. She left
his home when she was about 16 years old. After she had been
gone about two years, he learned by a paper notice of Etna's
marriage to James N. Iliff. The Stearns family had kept in correspondence
With these new clues, we searched the CD census indexes and records
for the Stearns family. We found Etna on an 1860 census in Iowa, Fayette
County, Westfield Township living with the Winslow Stearns family. Both
Winslow and his wife, Phoebe, were born in Vermont. Living with them
was Orvil W. Stearns (the O. W. who had given testimony in 1910), his
one-year-old sister, Oran Briggs age 15 born in Wisconsin; and "Edny"
Briggs (as she was enumerated) age 12, born in Wisconsin.
Now that we knew where two of the children had gone in
1860, we began to wonder what happened to their parents
and the other sibling. We found Etna's sister, Vesta, on
the 1860 census in Iowa, Fayette County, living with the
Hoyt family. Mr. Hoyt's wife Juliaett, was born in Vermont.
Vesta was listed as 10 years old and born in Wisconsin.
Perhaps these Vermont families were related to Etna's mother.
There were several directions we could go at this point:
we could pursue the Harrington family of Walworth County,
Wisconsin, or go further on the later family clues which
were proving so fruitful. Professional genealogists have
learned to exhaust the records of one area and more current
time periods before moving backward in time where records
become more and more scattered and scarce.
genealogists have learned to exhaust the records
of one area and more current time periods before
moving backward in time where records become
more and more scattered and scarce.
Why would Etna have left the Stearns home at the tender age of
sixteen? By going to where her could her parents be located? Since
Etna had married in 1867 in Jefferson county, Kansas, we pursued
several records there. The 1870 census indicated a Henry H. Briggs,
age 53, a farmer, born in Ohio living in Perry Borough, Jefferson
county with a wife Rebecca (41, born Ohio) and a son whose name
appears to be Charm (age 7, born Kansas). If this were Etna's
father, Rebecca appears to be a second wife. She is about 10 years
younger than Electa, and not born in New York, as Electa was.
The likely scenario was that Electa died shortly after 1850 and
Harris sent his three young children to live with other families,
as he could not take care of them.
Since the pension record of James Nelson Iliff
mentioned Etna Briggs' early years in Fayette county, Iowa, we
turned there for clues to prove Harris' connection to Ansel. One
volume of cemetery records for Fayette county did not include
the Briggs family, but the volume is incomplete. The county histories,
however, included several significant comments about the Briggs
family, as well as the Iliff, Hoyt, Stearns families, with which
Ansel's children were living in the 1860 census.
The 1878 History of Fayette County listed the soldiers
who served in the Civil War, and included Orion Briggs, Etna's
brother, as well as George S. Briggs, Harris's potential brother.
It did not mention the two children, but notes that the Sterns
family was from Vermont and that they were members of the Congregational
Church, which could explain the children's presence in their home.
Having learned that Harris' son apparently served in the Civil
War, we checked for pension records. The index indicated that
Orion Briggs served in Company F, 9th Iowa Infantry (which matched
the 1878 history) and that he received a pension in 1890 in Kansas.
We requested his pension file, because it might
indicate more about his early life and suggest where else to look
for his father Harris H. H. Briggs, as well as Ansel.
With limited new information in Iowa and Kansas, we focused
on seeing if earlier records about Ansel could document
his marriage and children. With a birth in Massachusetts
(according to the 1850 census) and children's births in
Ohio, those became the most likely states to seek his marriage
to a Susannah within a few years after 1810. Fortunately,
the marriages for both states are well indexed in the International
Genealogy Index (IGI) at the Family History Centers.
The Massachusetts IGI listed an 1814 marriage of an Ansel
Briggs to Susannah Allon (sic) in Bernardston, Franklin
county. This was an important lead as this seems surely
to be the Wisconsin couple, and likely parents of Harris
H. H. Briggs, so we began searching records of that area.
limited new information in Iowa and Kansas,
we focused on seeing if earlier records about
Ansel could document his marriage and children.
The 1902 history of Bernardston did not mention Ansel, but it
did discuss the Allen family of the town. However, its comprehensive
genealogy of that family did not mention Susannah. The only Briggs
entry was a notation that Owen Briggs, born about 1758, served
in the Revolutionary War in 1780. Clearly he was the right age
to be Ansel's father, so we set out to learn more about Owen Briggs.
The vital records of Bernardston were extracted and entered
into the IGI, and since Ansel did not appear in the IGI, we reviewed
the printout of the birth extractions. The births showed no Briggs
entries, nor a birth for Susannah Allen. Two family histories
about Briggs descendants did not include any reference to Owen
or to Ansel Briggs. Since the history of Bernardston claimed that
Owen served in the Revolutionary War, we checked for a Revolutionary
War pension for him and found that indeed, both he and
later his widow received a federal pension for his service. The
abstract of his pension files indicated that he also lived at
Leyden, Massachusetts, that he did have children, but only Thomas
was mentioned, and that he later lived in Lincoln county, Vermont.
This lead sent us to records of Addison county, where neither
the history of his town, Lincoln, nor the probate records mentioned
Owen or his children. Backtracking to Leyden, where he also served,
we learned that Leyden was created from Bernardston. Although
the history of Leyden mentioned Owen's Revolutionary War service,
only one child was mentioned, a son Owen. It also alluded to a
Zadock Briggs, a Revolutionary soldier. With the New England states
possessing numerous town records, the Briggs family was located
in extracted IGI entries. Owen Briggs, noted in Leyden records,
married Margery Brown and had eight children between 1787 and
1802, but none were named Ansel. As this is the very period in
which Ansel was born (about 1790), it seemed to rule out Owen
as his father.
With Owen no longer a candidate, we focused on Zadock who
also served in the Revolutionary War from the same area
where Ansel later married, and whose age made him an excellent
possible father for Ansel. According to the DAR Patriot
Index, a Zadock served from Massachusetts and died in
Ohio in 1823. Since Ansel's children were born in Ohio (if
indeed he was Harris H. H. Briggs' father), this was encouraging.
The index to Ohio probates shows a Zadock
Briggs will in Washington county in 1823. This will, and
the accompanying probate papers revealed much about his
family, including the fact that he had a son Ansel, along
with several other children.
Owen no longer a candidate, we focused on Zadock
who also served in the Revolutionary War from
the same area where Ansel later married, and
whose age made him an excellent possible father
In his will, Zadock named his wife, Sally as well as five sons
and three daughters. Henry, the eldest son only received a dollar,
apparently having already received his share of his father's estate.
The balance went to the other sons, at one-quarter of the estate
each, but each had to give a legacy to a specific sister. Son
Ansel was to give $100 to his sister Asenath Jacobs, son Zara
was to give $110 to his sister Sally Haynes, and both Marcus and
Franklin were to give their sister Polly Very $40 each. Ansel
was named the executor. An accompanying list of Zadock's estate,
and who bought what items, revealed he possessed many goods. Ansel
bought many items. Similar items, and amounts, were purchased
by the other sons, sons-in-law, and others. Clearly Zadock had
With this record proving that Zadock had a son Ansel, the evidence
was mounting (in particularly two areas) that this was the Ansel
who later settled in Wisconsin: An Ansel in the same area as Zadock
married Susannah "Allon" in 1814, and Zadock's son Ansel later
lived in Ohio, where the Wisconsin Ansel was having children.
We therefore set out to learn more about Zadock.
He did indeed serve in the Revolutionary War, as the comprehensive
Massachusetts Soldiers and Sailors in the Revolutionary War
and the Daughters of the American Revolution Patriot Index
notes. He served from Northampton, a neighboring town to Leyden.
Knowing he died in Ohio, we checked the Official Roster
of Soldiers of the American Revolution Buried in Ohio,
also by the Daughters of the American Revolution. This reference
provided much about him, including alleged birth dates for many
of his children, including Ansel in 1790, which matches the 1850
That reference included a source citation to the DAR Magazine
which included information from a descendant of Zadock, Mrs. Willis
Wagener, of Palo Alto, California in 1950 seeking information
on his birth and marriage, as well as information on many of his
To explore Zadock further, we examined the research files of
Walter Corbin (The Corbin Collection), a professional
genealogist who specialized in Western Massachusetts during the
first half of this century. His files included a fifteen-page
file on the Briggs family, most of which is correspondence from
Mrs. Wagener in 1948 seeking Zadock's ancestry. Fortunately, she
provided detailed information on the descendants she already knew.
She appears to descend from Ansel Briggs, as she names his twelve
children, including many we had not noted in the Wisconsin records.
She seems to call Ansel her great-grandfather and implies access
to family records or memory. In any event, this served as sufficient
proof of the connection to Harris H. H. Briggs, whom she names
as "Harris Henry Harrison" Briggs. She also identifies Ansel's
wife as Susannah Alton, not Allen or Allon.
Based on this research, it will take some time yet to determine
Zadock's parentage. He may be connected to Owen, and to other
Briggs who settled in Western Massachusetts. We will have to search
many original records, including land and probate records, to
find the connection.
We briefly explored the female lines. Susannah Alton, based
on the IGI, seems to be the daughter of Amasa
Alton and Silence, born 1795 in Vermont. The Ancestral
File included several generations of Amasa Alton's ancestry,
notably that of his mother, Susannah Blood. This conflicts with
Mrs. Wagener's statement that Susannah's mother's maiden name
was Blood (not her grandmother) and will have to be explored further.
Indeed, this entire portion of Harris Briggs' ancestry needs to
be verified in the published literature as well as original records.
Zadock's wife, Harriet Seymour should also be identified and
may trace back to the earliest New England settlers. We look forward
to pursuing these families further.
As the saying goes, "To a person with a hammer, everything looks
like a nail." An amateur genealogist uses only the tools he possesses
(such as a knowledge of one record group the federal census
records), while the credentialled genealogist has developed the
expertise to use many other sources. Especially those sources
most likely to give the information in the fastest time possible.