The Really Old Man

How do you research a really old man? I mean a really old man. Really old.

I inherited a family story about my Williams immigrant, Matthew Williams, who came from Wales into New Jersey. He was a British soldier that joined the American Revolution. And he died at 124 years old. Like I said, a really old man.

What I know… or think I know

According to the family story, written down by my great-grandfather's sister, Grace Williams (1883-1939), Matthew's obituary in 1814 tells his story. The obituary has been reported in several history books based on the claim of his age so it wasn't that hard to find.

The Sussex Register of Newton, Sussex County, New Jersey was a weekly newspaper that happened to be active when Matthew died on January 14, 1814. The obituary reads as follows:

Died in Frankford, Sussex County of New Jersey on the 14th inst. Matthew Williams at the advanced age of 124 years. He was born in Wales (Europe) in Jan. 1690, was a soldier during the reign of Queen Anne and was at the taking of Minorca from the Spaniards, and in almost all the most memorable battles of the last century, to the taking of Quebec under Wolfe; after which he settled in this country, but losing his wife, by whom he had two sons, he at the last revolution in America joined the service of the war, since which he has lived in this country until his death. He was upwards of twenty years on the sea service, and more than that time in different services as a soldier on the land. His recollection was admirable until a short time before his death. He could repeat the different transactions of his life from his early days and give a most distinct account of the different engagements he had been in.

This obituary has a lot to take in and his age (124 years!) is just one part of it. I mean he is really old but, then, he could just be old by others' standards. I also found a Matthew Williams in Frankford township on the June 1793 tax list.

It was not unusual for boys of 14 to join the British army. They usually started off with the rank of "boy" and ran errands while they finished growing and learned to become a soldier. Enlisted men were usually not mentioned by name in reports so it would be easy to remain unmentioned.

What does this obituary say?

  • He started life in Wales.
  • He was born in 1690.
  • He finished his life in New Jersey.
  • He died in January 1814.
  • He served during Queen Ann's War (1701-1714).
  • He was at the Battle of Minorca in 1708. If his birth is accurate he was 18 years old.
  • He was at the Battle of the Plains of Abraham (the "taking of Quebec") in 1759. If his birth is accurate he was 69 years old.
  • He service in the British army on land and sea at least 20 years. Maybe more.
  • He married late in late and had two sons. But, of course, they're unnamed.
  • His wife predeceased him but, of course, she's unnamed.
  • He joined the American Revolution and seved through to the peace in 1783. If his birth is accurate then he was 85 when it started and 93 when it ended.
  • When he died he was receiving a pension from the United States government. He didn't have bounty land, he was receiving a pension.

If this story is true then he's really, really old. Older even than most people today.

The tax record

The June 1793 tax list included Matthew Williams in Sussex County, New Jersey.  I haven't seen the original, just a transcription at ancestry.com (collection: New Jersey, Compiled Census and Census Substitutes Index, 1643-1890).

What Grace Williams said…

Grace, Emme Steinbig, and Lucy Williams Steinbig wrote a letter that included the following:

Matthew Williams of Frankford, alluded to on page 24 of B. B. Edsall's address at the first Centenary Celebration in 1853. Matthew Williams a native of Wales, born 1690, who served in the British Army & Navy for thirty years, and was in many engagements. After retiring from British service he came to this country and settled in Frankford, Sussex Co., N. J. He did not marry until he had attained the age of 70 years. At the age of 86 he enlisted in the Continental Army, and was with General Wolfe at the taking of Quebec, after which he retired from Army Service. Located on the farm known as the Coleman Snook Farm where he lived the remainder of his days, dying at the remarkable age of 124 years.

Now many historians, incuding B. B. Edsall, accepted the obituary at face value. Or, at least, appeared to. So it's unclear if anyone used more information than published by the newspaper.

This letter tells us a little more:

  • He married when he was 70 years old, which would be 1760. A year after the Battle of the Plains of Abraham. So he must have left the British army soon after the French and Indian War ended. That's a quick move from war to marriage.
  • He lived on a farm that came to be called the "Coleman Snook Farm" in the latter part of the 1800s.

What I have not found…

I have not found any British military records that identify Matthew Williams as a member of any regiment. That's not too surprising since records from this period are not that extensive.

I have not found any American military or pension records that indicate Matthew Williams served the cause. I have not found any other records, in fact, than the obituary and the 1793 tax list.

I have not found Matthew Williams in a U.S. census… because New Jersey didn't keep track of that paperwork until the 1830s. That is, the 1790, 1800, 1810, and 1820 census for New Jersey might exist in fragments here or there but not where Matthew lived.

Was he a really old man?

I do not know. Family history says that one of his sons was Alexander Williams who was born about 1770. Alexander married Julia Ann Hagerty (c1770-c1839) March 12, 1797 in Frankford township. One of their sons was John Williams… a summary of the lineage to Grace, our family historian that kept the story alive, includes:

  • Matthew Williams (1690-1814) married (unknown) about 1760.
    • Alexander Williams (c1760-bef1839) married Julia Ann Hagerty (c1770-c1839) 12 Mar 1797.
      • John Williams (1818-1892) married Sarah Dugan (1819-1874) before 1842.
        • Albert L. Williams (1842-1922) married Harriet Rutan (1843-1927) 17 Oct 1864.
          • Edward R. Williams (1868-1886)
          • Joseph Franklin Williams (1872-1908) married Sarah M. Huff (1874-1940)
          • Grace A. Williams (1883-1939), never married
          • John Edward Williams (1886-1959)
    • (unknown) Williams (male)

Next Steps

So what's next? Do I believe Matthew lived to be 124 years old? I don't know. I can't prove, or disprove, the story. I think I need to step back and work back up the tree to see if I can find any records that connect Alexander and Matthew. Then, maybe, I can find more about Matthew.

Also, there was a Matthew Williams that lived in Sussex County after the subject of this story died in 1814. I cannot place him; that is, I haven't found who his parents were. Maybe he's the other son?

 

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