Genealogy Mistakes: Detangling Two Separate William Wests

I’ve been doing genealogy as a hobby since I was a 14-year-old sending queries to Rootsweb mailing lists. About ten years ago, the hobby bit me again and I set about untangling the mess that was my old family tree. After all, a 14-year-old isn’t exactly the most methodical researcher. Oh, and citing sources? HA!

So, on “do this family three thing right” round two, I, again, thought that I was really on top of it this time. I kept a research log (…mostly.) And now that I had a history degree from Kennesaw State under my belt, I felt pretty good about my ability to do original research and cite sources. 

Y’all, I was STILL so green. 

Every time I read an article by the incomparable Elizabeth Shown Mills, or listen to a webinar over at Legacy Family Tree Webinars or attend a lunch-and-learn with the Georgia Genealogical Society, I learn something new. 

Now with that pile of excuses out of the way, I want to detail for y’all how I completely conflated two William Wests for years and only just these past few months realized the mistake I had made. 

For Reference: The Family I was Researching

George W West, b. Abt. July 1818 in Spartanburg District, South Carolina, and died 12 May 1895 in Forsyth County, Georgia. 

He married Jennett Cowan, b. About 1816 in Northern Ireland (possibly County Antrim) and died between 1888 and 1891 in Forsyth County, Georgia.

They married about 1840 in Spartanburg or Union District, South Carolina. Their children were:

  1. Lightner West was born about 1842 in Union District, South Carolina. Died October 1862 in Tazewell, TN as a confederate soldier. He married Sarah E Moore on 10 Jan 1862. Their only son, Lightner Leander, was born on 16 Jan 1863, after his father’s death.
  2. Sarah Jane West  was born May 1843 in Union District, South Carolina, and died in 1905 in Logan County, Arkansas. She married Andrew HH McClure on 21 Mar 1861 in Forsyth County, Georgia.
  3. Paschal P West b. Apr 1845 in Union District, SC. He died about 1921 in Yell County, Arkansas. He married Rebecca Westray in 1865.
  4. William Russell West b. 1847 in Union District, SC. Death date ??? (Keep reading!)
  5. George W West b. Jan 1848 in Union District, SC. He died between 1920 and 1930, and was last known living in Yell County, Arkansas in 1920. He married Margaret Coloma Redman on 29 Jan 1874 in Forsyth County, Georgia. 
  6. Edith West was born 24 Jul 1850 in Union District, SC and died on 16 Jul 1891 in Forsyth County, Georgia. She married Zachariah Taylor Harris about 1869. Despite having children with Harris, she always lived with her birth family, and her husband abandoned the family and moved to Kansas in the late 1870s.
  7. Leander West was born about 1854 in Forsyth County, Georgia. He died on 29 Oct 1891 in Forsyth County, Georgia. He married Clara Hill on 24 Aug 1873 in Forsyth County, Georgia.
  8. Elizabeth West was born about 1855 in Forsyth County, Georgia and died 26 Jun 1882 according to a letter written by her sister Edith West Harris. She married William O Humphrey shortly before on 18 Dec 1881.
  9. Monroe West was born 21 Jul 1857 in Forsyth County, Georgia and died on 6  Jun 1891 in Forsyth County, Georgia. He married Phoebe Glass on 15 Aug 1880 in Forsyth County, Georgia.
  10. Mary Ann West was born on 21 Jul 1860 and died 11 Oct 1863, both in Forsyth County, Georgia. 

The Big Mistake

When I first began researching my West ancestors, I went to the Forsyth County (Georgia) Historical Society to have a peek at their vertical files. These Wests only lived in Forsyth County for about 40 years in the latter half of the 1800s, so this file was thin. However, there were two newspaper clippings from the Forsyth Baptist Leader, a long-gone newspaper that has not, that I can find, ever been recovered and/or digitized in more than just a few scattered clippings. 

One talked about the death of Monroe West. Jackpot! He was a relative, and this information matched the name and date on his tombstone at Concord Baptist Church where he is buried in the same plot with other known relatives. This was almost definitely my Monroe.

The other talked about the death of William West. The news item, from 11 Jun 1891, was part of the social pages for Ball Ground, Georgia, which is in northeast Cherokee County but very near to where the West family lived in northwest Forsyth County. (In fact, some areas near to where the Wests lived today have a Ball Ground address.) 

It simply read: “Mr. Wm. West, a good Christians citizen who has been sick all this year, died.”

Jackpot again! I was sure that was Monroe’s brother, William Russell West.  Like the aforementioned Monroe and a whole passel of other Wests, the newspaper article reported that he died in 1891. I was already beginning to suspect that my West ancestors came down with some kind of illness, perhaps there was an epidemic, and that was why several people in the same family passed away in 1891. 

So far, all of this was conforming to what I already knew about the West Family. 

Except I’d already made my mistake. 

Perhaps it was the proximity of the two new documents. Both newspaper clippings were in the same vertical file. The first names matched. The 1891 death date confirmed a strongly held belief I had that many of the family had died in some sort of tragic summer/fall 1891 wave of illness. 

I happily took the new information I had learned about William Russell West from this Forsyth Baptist Leader clipping and chiseled it in stone in my family tree. 

And I was totally wrong.

William West vs. William West

For the past few months, I have rededicated myself to solving the “George W West: Who’s Your Daddy?” mystery. 

I was inspired to do this after reading Thomas McEntee’s The Genealogy Do-Over Workbook. In the book, Thomas comes clean about the genealogist’s dirty little secret–that we’ve pretty much all made mistakes when it comes to climbing our family trees. It provides a step-by-step guide to both throwing all your research out and starting over, or a modified version where you can recheck all your research. I went with Door #2. 

From there, I started attempting the methodology from Research Like a Pro: A Genealogist’s Guide by Diane Elder and Nicole Dyer. I found this mother and daughter genealogist duo through their Research Like a Pro podcast, and their soothing and sensible style plus their step-by-step guide to asking and answering genealogical questions appealed to me. (I’m  even joining one of their RLP Study Groups in the fall through their website, Family Locket. Though full disclosure this post is not exactly RLP methodology. I’m still a work in progress!)

As part of the genealogy do-over and RLP processes, I went back and double checked everything I knew about George W West and his children. 

Here was what I knew about William Russell West:

  • According to the 4 US Federal Censuses in which he appears and the birthdates and birth orders of his siblings, he was born between 1846 and 1848, likely in 1847.
  • He went by William West, William R West, WR West and sometimes “Russell West.” For example, two of his sons list him as Russell West on their future Social Security applications. 
  • He married a Mary A Walker or Higgins (an area for more research) and their first known child was born in 1868.
  • In Georgia property tax digests, He is enumerated in the same militia district, Hightower, Forsyth County, Georgia for all extant years from 1774 until 1887, except for 1875 where I have not found him yet in any of his known locations.
  • In the 1890 Georgia property tax digest, he is enumerated in the Mullins District, Cherokee County, Georgia property tax digest. The Mullins District is only about 10 miles southwest of the Hightower District, and along both the Etowah River and a common migration path for Wests and future West widows of the time. (In fact, my family still lives in the modern-day Mullins District!)
  • He left an 1891 will in Cherokee County, Georgia, listing his wife Sophrona as his executor and providing for the care of “Mama West” 

Oops. That last one didn’t fit at all. 


  1. In my experience, this particular family of Wests didn’t leave wills. They died intestate and let the courts figure it out. (Sometimes to disastrous results.) 
  2. William Russell West’s known wife was not named Sophrona. And William’s wife Mary outlived him and is enumerated in future censuses as living as a widow with their children in Cherokee County, Georgia, which is also his last known address. 
  3. There was no need to make provision for “Mama West.” William Russel West’s mother, Jennet Cowen West, died after 1888 and before 1892. But his father George W West outlived his wife and didn’t die until 1895. Under property law at the time, as silly as it sounds to our modern ears, her husband would have been responsible for her “maintenance.” 

With a sneaking suspicion, I looked up William Wests near Ball Ground, Georgia in the 1880 Cherokee County census. And guess what? There he was.

Another William West. Married to Sophrona. He lived in Ball Ground (Cherokee County), which is admittedly just a hop, skip and jump from Hightower (Forsyth County), but this family composition was totally different. Add that to the fact that my William Russell West’s family was enumerated as still living in Hightower in that same 1880 census let me know that there were not one but two William Wests. And the 1891 will, with the wife “Sophrona” and the fact that he owned land lots in Ball Ground, almost certainly belonged to that Ball Ground William West. (Ball Ground Billy West if you will.) 

I confirmed this with property tax digests for Cherokee County. William West is listed as living in Ball Ground in Cherokee County for many years before his 1891 death. Most telling of all, both William Wests are listed as living in Cherokee County on the 1890 Cherokee County, Georgia property tax roll.

It was confirmed. They are definitely different men.

And now I was back to square one. When did my 3rd great-granduncle William Russell West die? 

Seeking William Russell West’s Death Date and Place

In a stroke of luck, I came across what I now believe to be William Russell West’s death information by researching other Wests. In Cherokee County, Georgia, we are lucky enough that prolific researcher John Carver has published a book titled Annotated obituaries from the Cherokee Advance, Canton, Georgia, 1880-1938. (There’s also a companion volume for later obituaries. Hint: Always go look at the original newspaper copy. You can find the Cherokee Advance up to the early 1920s over at Georgia Historic Newspapers.) 

Since the Cherokee Advance was my home county’s paper of record during a time when there weren’t a lot of vital records available, I’ve probably looked at this book a dozen times over the years, seeking out different family members.

However, because I’d never properly researched “William R. West,” and because I thought I knew when our William Russell West had died, I had previously discounted an obituary for “Russell West.”

Source: “Orange,” The Cherokee Advance. (Canton, Ga.) 10 Mar 1893, p. 3, col. 3; database with images, Digital Library of Georgia ( : accessed 11 Jul 2023).

This is the danger of thinking we have a fact settled when we haven’t analyzed all the available information. Not only did I have erroneous information in my tree, but it also led me to commit the cardinal sin of discounting new evidence that conflicted with my current source of truth. 

So, did I find it? Did William Russell West instead die at Ft. Buffington in Cherokee County, Georgia in 1893? 

Well, I don’t know quite yet. 

He’s not the William West (Ball Ground Billy!) who died in 1891, but this single short newspaper article doesn’t give me enough information to definitively conclude that “Russell West” from the newspaper clipping was the same William Russell West from my family tree. 

That means further research. I’ve checked probate records and 12-month’s widow’s support records in Cherokee County with no luck, but new information–a newspaper article, tombstone, family bible, or old letter–may yet come to light!

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