William D. Butterworth (1849-1937) – who’s your daddy? (Solved)

So a huge part of my genealogy hobby as an adult has been going back and redoing all the haphazard research I did at 14. (And I don’t beat myself up about the fact that 20+ years later I’m nowhere near finished with this project. See “Online Family Trees or ‘How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Live with Bad Genealogy.’“)

The Lazy Genealogist’s Hypothesis

Today I was feeling kind of lazy. I wanted to work on some genealogy, but I also didn’t want to immediately get mired in a rabbit hole with the oh-so-common Dunn and Wests. So I had the bright idea to browse through my family tree for uncommon names. And aha – it jumped out at me – Butterworth.

Butterworth fits the lazy genealogist’s criteria:

  • There probably aren’t 9000 ways to spell it
  • It’s fairly uncommon

In fact, according to the 1990 census, Butterworth was the 8,076th most common surname in the United States. Most of the other names I have to work with break the top 200.

So I dug in and started trying to cite some sources.

My Beginning Assumptions

This is one of the family lines I’ve never looked into very much, but I’ve had forever that my 3rd great-grandfather William D. (possibly Decatur) Butterworth was really truly my 3rd great grandfather. (Tl;dr I knew my great-grandmother, who knew him, and we have this picture of him with his second wife.)

William D Butterworth and Luvenia Cobb c. 1890
William D. Butterworth and his 2nd wife, Luvenia Cobb Butterworth

I’ve also had forever that his parents were John Bevel Butterworth and Martha Center, and that John B.’s parents were Isaac Butterworth and Parkey P. Hix. However, I wanted to make sure all that as proven out by records.

All of William’s entries in the census, as well as his death certificate, showed that he was born in Georgia, so I was feeling pretty sure about that, too.


I’ve been working in timelines lately because they tend to show discrepancies pretty easily.

For example, if I see a male ancestor married to a woman named Mary on every US Census between 1850 and 1880 it’s easy to assume she’s the same Mary. But when working with timelines, it’s easier to notice that “Hey, Mary is suddenly 15 years younger and there was an 8 year gap in children in this family.” Which leads me to research whether, instead of being married to the same woman for 30+ years, that guy really liked women named Mary and married two of them.

Today, I started with William D. Butterworth, since I was sure of him.

First, I realized that William D. died in 1937 in Georgia, which meant that he should have a death certificate readily available online. Now, I am known for my love of death certificates, but I also know to take historical info in them with a grain of salt, especially when the informant is a child or an even more distant relative. So that’s why I was surprised, but not overly surprised, when William D. Butterworth’s father was listed as “William Butterworth” instead of “John Bevel Butterworth” like I expected.

William D Butterworth Death Certificate
William D. Butterworth’s Death Certificate

But, moving on, I set about finding all instances of William D. Butterworth in US Federal Censuses and transcribed them into an Evernote Note.

This was when things started getting a little weird. I started on Ancestry, and I immediately noticed that I hadn’t found William D. in many censuses yet.  So I started working backward. But starting in 1870, things got hinky.

I found 21 year-old William D. Butterworth living in Cherokee County, GA in 1870 with his older sister Elizabeth (23) and his younger brother Henry (19), but the adults in the house were William Center (70) and Elizabeth Center (59.) Oh no! Were they orphaned and living with their grandparents? (I had assumed that William’s mother was named Martha Center, after all, so while not total verifiable proof, it would stand to reason that this new couple – at least the 70-year-old William Center – would be grandparents.)

I was drawing a curious blank in 1860, so I decided to come back to that one.

In 1850 Lumpkin County Georgia Census, I found a John Butterworth, age 29 and born in South Carolina, living with his wife Martha (22 & b. Tennessee), and Georgia-born children Elizabeth (3) and William (2) all living in the Martin’s Ford district, with John working as a miner.  (Lumpkin County was the site of the Georgia gold rush, but my ancestors were sadly late to the party.)  The names and ages of children William and Elizabeth seem to match with the 1870 William and Elizabeth.

I decided to look for William and Elizabeth Center, and sure enough, found them in the same county in nearby town of Auraria. (Now a really cool and tiny Georgia ghost town.) William Center was also working as a miner.

Auraria Georgia ghost town
Auraria, Georgia in 2018 (Photo by Jennifer Dunn)

And that’s when things that were hinky became interesting. When I found William and Elizabeth Center in the 1860 Hall County GA Census, who was living with them but Elizabeth Center (13), William Center (11) and Henry Center (9)?! After doing a bit more research, it seemed clear that these kids, though listed as Centers, were the Butterworths. At this point, I’m drawing the conclusion that something horrible has happened to John and Martha Butterworth. Mining disaster!? They decided to try their luck in California and left the kids behind? My mind boggled. That census was taken on 14 June 1860.

However, I then felt the dark pull of an Ancestry hint.

The Ancestry hint: Beware it’s seductive thrall

According to a census taken on 2 July 1860, a J. Butterworth was shown was head of house working as an “Overseer” in Talladega County, Alabama  along with an M.A. (Martha?!) Butterworth (30),  and children E. Butterworth (15 – female), A.B. Butterworth (13 – male), M. Butterworth (11 – female), J. Butterworth (9 – male), and J. Butterworth (1 – male.)

Now, this sort of fit but sort of didn’t. Could Elizabeth, William and Henry been staying with their grandparents in June of 1860 but then went to live with their parents by July of 1860? I mean, sure, I guess they could have made the trip during that time and been counted twice.

Also, “E” could be Elizabeth Butterworth, just listed as a couple of years older than we’ve previously seen her. The same could go for “J” aged 9. (I had also somewhere in there learned that the Henry we see living with his grandparents in 1860 was actually named James Henry, so the J initial worked.)And they were all listed as being born in Georgia which, except for my previous census record of Martha Center Butterworth, fit. Of course, “A. B.” didn’t quite fit with William D. And where did this 11-year-old “M” come from?? (But hey, people do foster children and things like that.) I stuck that one in my shoebox for further noodling.

Things stayed hinky. In 1870, William and Elizabeth Center had moved to Cherokee County Georgia, and guess who was living with them? Elizabeth (23), William D. (21), and Henry (19) Butterworth. There was no sign of A.B., M, younger J., etc. from the Talladega Census entry.  That sort of led me to believe that The Butterworth Kids had stayed with their assumed Center grandparents rather than go off to Alabama to live with the mysterious “J.” and “M.A.” Butterworth.

At this point, I was thinking that something happened to John Butterworth and Martha Center Butterworth between 1851 and 1860, and the kids stayed with their grandparents. Or, I had another thought that maybe Martha Center Butterworth died and their dad John left them with their grandparents. This would not be the first time in my family history that I’ve found older children with dead mamas living with grandparents while their fathers happily start a new family.

And then I realized I had a death date and Find a Grave entry for John Bevel Butterworth. 1898. And that John Bevel Butterworth had served in the Confederate Army in Alabama. Ooof. Maybe I was right about him.

That led me to marriage records. I found where John Butterworth married Martha Center on 20 June 1844 in Lumpkin County, GA (where I first found them together in the Census). So that essentially checked out. Plus, it made a bit more sense to be looking for gold in 1844 than it did in 1850 when the Georgia gold was pretty much played out and folks were heading to California instead.

And then I found in the same Georgia marriage database where John Butterworth married Christian Harriet Jones on 11 May 1856 Hall Co. GA.

Now this would make my “new wife, new kids” theory make sense. Martha Center Butterworth died and John Bevel Butterworth remarried and started up a new family.  It also turned out that John Bevel and Harriet C. began appearing in Hall County, GA censuses together. Only, the 1860 Talladega Census wouldn’t really make sense if “J” were married to “C. H.” or “H. C.” rather than M.A.

So, knowing that John Bevel Butterworth had served in the Confederate army in Alabama, I poked around Talladega some more. And that’s when I came across:

Also in Talladega County in 1850 lived J. Buterworth (38 – M and I was wrong about not mangling the spelling of this name), H. Buterworth (28 – F), V. Buterworth (4 – F) and [blank] Buterworth (2 – F). The initials were right, and when compared with the 1870 census I couldn’t help but notice that John Bevel Butterworth and Harriet Christian (or Christian Harriet) Butterworth then had a 13-year-old named Viola (there’s that “V” initial), though they did not have an 11/12 year old female child in the house.

At this point I was at my wit’s end. So was John Bevel Butterworth even really the father of William D. Butterworth and his siblings? Or had those people truly died between 1850 and 1860 and we’ve had the wrong parents for or Willam D. all these years?

That’s when I started Googling “Butterworth” “Hall County Georgia.” And wouldn’t you know it? I came across a 2002 transcription of a Bible record that seems to answer all my questions.

Now, before I tell you what I figured out, two disclaimers:

  1. This is a 2002 transcription of a microfilm of a Bible record. I need to see that microfilm for myself. (I’d love to see the Bible for myself, but I have no idea where it is yet. Maybe the microfilm will help me.)
  2. This was almost way too neat and tied up in a bow, but sometimes that genealogy serendipity works for you.

Here’s the John Bevel Butterworth family Bible transcription that I found.

Lo and behold, the first children of John B. Butterworth listed are Elizabeth Butterworth, Thomas Butterworth (who only lived a few months), William D. Butterworth, and James Tev Butterworth (possibly James Henry) with birthdates that closely match census records.

I also finally learn the tidbit that Martha (Center) Butterworth – mother of Elizabeth, William and James Henry – died Apri 21, 1854. Which means John B. Butterworth would have been totally free to marry Christian Harriet Jones in 1856.

Now, I still have some sleuthing to do, but it looks like the “new wife, new kids” theory holds up. But hey, I guess at least the older kids got their names in the family Bible. And – as always – we can’t judge people from nearly 200 years ago by our own standards, so I’ll strive not to judge my ancestor. Because, even though I do have a bit more work to do, I’m pretty darn sure now that the answer to “William D. Butterworth – who’s your daddy?” is “The guy we always thought it was.”

And last but not least, there are a couple of hints in records that show that maybe the oldest three Butterworth children were a-okay with their grandparents. We can’t forget that relatives reported William D. Butterworth’s father as “William,” meaning that maybe he told people, or people believed, that William Center was his father. And, in the 1880 Cherokee County Georgia Census, Elizabeth Center is now a 70-year-old widow living in the household of her granddaughter Elizabeth and her husband Moses Asberry Hughes. She’s listed as “living with daughter.” And that’s pretty sweet.

Have you ever had an up and down roller coaster with a relative? Tell me about it in the comments!




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