“Dam humbug”!

Frank Stratton
Frank Stratton

Among my husband’s family papers is a letter, dated 25 October 1873, from John Dill to his mother, Susan (Berry) (Dill) Gibbons. John had left the family home in Springfield, Illinois, earlier that year to work on the railroad in Texas, and he was alarmed about the impending marriage of his younger sister, Ida Dill:

This thing of Ida getting acquainted Courting and marrying all in about a month I do not believe in and more than it is a dam humbug. . . . How do you know what that fellow is or has bin you cant find out so much in such a little time.

Within two weeks, John was dead, likely of yellow fever. During that time, Ida’s courtship weighed heavily on his mind. In a letter to Ida dated 8 November, John’s friend wrote to tell her the particulars of John’s death and then added “one more woard”:

this he said on his daying bead that if the sister knew how sick he was she would think of every thing elcs but marieing.   

John’s sister was Ida Alice Dill, my husband’s great-grandmother. The dreaded groom-to-be was Frank Stratton. You can tell by my surname that the marriage took place: on 18 December 1873.

Despite John’s misgivings, Frank and Ida had a long marriage, producing two children. And in terms of knowing where Frank “has bin,” we were lucky to have a detailed backstory that Frank gave his son, my husband’s grandfather. He had grown up on a little plantation outside Columbia, South Carolina, son of Franklin and Marian (Marion) Stratton, who was the granddaughter of Revolutionary War General Francis Marion. Franklin and his other son, George, fought for the Confederates and were killed at Gettysburg. Frank himself fought with the 2nd South Carolina and 11th Mississippi.

Unfortunately, just about every detail of that backstory is unprovable – and one detail is absolutely false: General Marion had no children and therefore no grandchildren.

Before Frank shows up in Illinois and marries Ida in 1873, we can find absolutely no trace of him. No permutation of the name Stratton, no search of records North or South, has revealed a clue. Was he a nineteenth-century Don Draper, taking another soldier’s identity? Did he change his name, or have we just not yet hit on the right spelling variation? Are the Southern stories true, and all the records destroyed or disappeared? Why, it’s a “dam humbug”!

About Penny Stratton

A veteran of the book publishing industry, Penny Stratton retired as NEHGS Publishing Director in June 2016; she continues to consult with the Society on publications projects. Among the more than 65 titles she managed at NEHGS are The Great Migration Directory, Elements of Genealogical Analysis, Genealogist’s Handbook for New England Research, and the award-winning Descendants of Judge John Lowell of Newburyport, Massachusetts She has written for American Ancestors magazine and is a regular poster on Vita Brevis. With Henry B. Hoff, Penny is coauthor of Guide to Genealogical Writing: How to Write and Publish Your Family History; she is also the author of several Portable Genealogists on writing and publishing topics.

6 thoughts on ““Dam humbug”!

  1. I ask you to look at the question of Francis “The Swamp Fox” Marion having no children again. According to our family records, Francis married Mary Esther Videau (1737-1815) and they adopted a grand-nephew Francis Marion DWIGHT, who legally changed his name in 1799 to Francis Dwight MARION – after “The Swamp Fox” had died. He married two of the Kirk sisters. First Charlotte (who died in childbirth) and Harriett, who bore him eight girls, six of which lived to adulthood. It is interesting that “The Swamp Fox” mentions Francis Dwight in the opening paragraph of his will, with instructions to take care of him until reaching maturity and to cover his schooling expenses (college – if I remember correctly). It is also interesting that one of the signatures validating this will was of a Gideon Kirk Esq. – father of Charlotte and Harriett Kirk. Adoption (as in changing one’s name) became legal in this country in 1799. So it would stand to reason Francis Marion DWIGHT, would change his name to Francis Dwight Marion. So this fellow ….may have been told he was indeed a grandson (or great grandson) of “The Swamp Fox.”. Oh … and the plantation was … Mt Pleasant. Again – just submitting this for your consideration and further research. Respectfully.

    1. Dave, thank you for your suggestion! I’ll have to look into this possibility. That was one thing I hoped would come from this post. If I find a clue there, I’ll write another post. Thanks again!

  2. I thought Frank Stratton spent some time in San Francisco. I doubt this weak recollection from a story I probably heard 50 years ago is of any help, but I thought I’d mention it just the same. Hope you can break the case wide open soon!

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