Adventures in Genealogy Myth-Making

Now that I have traced Edmond J. Gifford’s lineage back to Quakers of Massachusetts and the pilgrims of the Mayflower, it’s time to explore some other lines in my family tree. Recall that Edmond J. Gifford married Nancy Ann Renfro in Rock Island, Illinois in 1858. Her ancestry is very interesting but a bit tricky to follow. First of all, they couldn’t agree on the spelling, using Rentfrow, Rentfroe, Rentfro and those variations without the “t”. And, as one of my father’s correspondents wrote, “[u]forntunately, the Renfros had large families, and tended to name the children without much originality.” To make things worse, Renfros tended to marry cousins as a rule, rather than an exception.

You Don’t Always Get What You Want

My Renfros hail from Virginia, Kentucky and Illinois. But they, and other American Renfros, do not descend from Scottish royalty. It is generally asserted among amateur Renfro genealogists that American Renfros are direct descendants of “Baron James Renfrew” of Scotland, an illegitimate son of King James V. Beginning in 1404, the title of Baron of Renfrew was bestowed on the heir-apparent to the Scottish crown. There was a James Stuart, not Renfrew, who was an illegitimate son of King James V of Scotland. Being illegitimate, he was ineligible to inherit the throne and so never was Baron of Renfrew. Instead, his half sister Mary Queen of Scots became queen. He was a fascinating man and worth reading about, but his children were Stuarts, not Renfrews, and even if he changed his name to Renfrew, he only had daughters anyway. That’s it. No connection American Renfros.

So instead we will start with William Rentfro, who was born in 1702 in James City County, Virginia. James City County was first settled at Jamestown in 1607 and is one of only six original “shires” still in existence in Virginia. It includes Williamsburg and is too rich in history to go into much detail here. 

We are interested in one of the many William Rentfros who had a son who was one of the many James Renfros. One of them made a bit of a splash in Kentucky, the Virginia county and the future state, though only one person seems to remember why. To get to what and why, let’s first look at some history of colonial place names and boundaries.

Before the Revolutionary War, each of the 13 colonies claimed quite a bit of territory in the “frontier” east of the Mississippi River. The Colony of Virginia included what became the states of Kentucky and West Virginia. These territorial claims were ceded to the new Federal government partly in return for the assumption of the states’ Revolutionary War debts. 

In 1776, the new state of Virginia created Kentucky County, which looked a lot like the State of Kentucky today, which become a state until 1792. Then four years later, this county was broken up into three new counties, one of which was Lincoln County, named for Gen. Benjamin Lincoln, a military commander in the Revolutionary War. Too early for old Abe. However, Abe Lincoln was born only two and half hours away (by car).

It was here that our story of the Renfros begins. William Rentfro married Elizabeth Cheney in 1726 in Botetourt County, Virginia and they had ten children, including James. The Cheneys had been extensive land owners in Virginia, but little else is known about them. In a “History of the Renfros”, by Delores S. Willey, we are told that the “Rentfros” were important people in Virginia, owning land and serving as “Mayor, Officers in the Militia, Superintendent of Elections”, surveyors, sheriff’s and magistrates. Willey goes on:

The Baird family ancestry tradition tells us that the farm of William and Elizabeth Rentfro was located next to that of the Washington family. That young George Washington and young William Rentfro, the 6th child of William and Elizabeth, played together as children; fishing and hunting over the farms. Both wanted to become land surveyors and learned the trade from William’s older brother, James.

“William Renfro, 1734-1830: Some descendants, relatives, and allied families,” by Josie and Delila Baird, 1973.

The Washington farm mentioned here is “Ferry Farm” (its modern name) where young George grew up. It is across the Rappahannock River from Fredericksburg, Virginia and about forty miles south of Mount Vernon. If this is true, then theRenfros would have lived near the Washingtons along the Rappahonnack River during George’s childhood between 1738, when Augustin Washington acquired the farm there, and 1751 when George surveyed land with Lord Fairfax.

The map below was made between 1736 and 1746. The Washington farm was next to the Ball farm that belonged to Martha Ball Washington’s family. There are no Renfros on the map and there is no other documentation for this claim, either.

A map of the Northern Neck in Virginia : according to an actual survey begun in the year MDCCXXXVI, and ended in the year MDCCXLVI


A map of the Northern Neck in Virginia : according to an actual survey begun in the year MDCCXXXVI, and ended in the year MDCCXLVI

However, James Renfro would have been a good surveying instructor. Later in life, James’ skill as a surveyor was officially acknowledged:

JAMES THOMPSON appointed Surveyor, Jan 1782. JAMES RENFRO was appointed deputy Surveyor Feb. 1783, and DANIEL BOONE Aug. 19, 1783. From 1780 to 1787 Surveyors were in great demand because of the immense amount of bodies of land taken up. These were among the first surveyors.

History of KY, Lewis Collins (typescript) Court Order Books, Lincoln Co.

James made good use of his surveying skills by moving further west into Lincoln County which was still part of Virginia. History books would have you believe that the only way for James to get to Lincoln County from James City County was along the Wilderness Trail blazed by Daniel Boone from 1769-71 through the Appalachian Mountains. West of the Cumberland Gap, the trail became the Wilderness Road. Whether James was a part of Boone’s expedition is not known because no records seem to exist concerning the other members of the party. 

However, there is strong evidence that a number of pioneers had created settlements in the future state of Kentucky long before Boone blazed the famous trail. James Renfro’s marriage to Lydia Harris in 1761 and the birth of his son James Renfro, Jr. in 1768 both took place in Kentucky County. These events predate Boone’s expedition. Although there is some controversy about who and when and where the trail was blazed, it happened because of the demand of settlers to move into rich land that had already been discovered and settled by a number of earlier pioneers. 

Unfortunately, I know very little about Lydia, James’ wife, except that she died young, at age forty. She bore James seven children and died in 1780, three years after the last one was born. They spent their nineteen years together in Lincoln County.

However, I found a typescript document in my father’s Renfro file containing excerpts from “Renfro Valley: Then and Now” written by John Lair in 1959 and printed in “History of Renfro Valley”. The excerpts focus on the role of James Renfro in this history. The description of the terrain and roads are illustrated in the map below, which I was amazed to find somewhere. Lair tells us:

The original Renfro Valley settlement had it’s beginnings in Feb. of 1791, with the building of the first cabin on Renfro creek. Although the cabin was built, and lived in for many years, by John and Lulu Renfro, neither the creek nor the valley were named for them. Old land grants to James Renfro, show, in 1788 the stream as a boundary line, and is written in as Renfroes Creek. Little is known of James Renfro, beyond the fact he was a busy speculator in Kentucky land for some years following the Revolutionary War.… Local folklore has it that this James was struck by lightning and killed, while searching for Swifts silver mine, this mine is a well known legend in Renfro Valley, Kentucky.

John Renfro, probably secured his land from James, what relationship, we do not know. John had come into Ky. through the Cumberland Gap with a large group of settlers, he dropped out of the party to visit relatives there at that time.… [In] 1790, John Renfro set out with a man named Lavender, they followed a well marked trail to the Hazel Patch, and there the trail forked, one path leading up Roundstone Creek, and on towards the Boonesboro settlement, crossing the mouth of Renfro Creek, at what was later known as Langsfords Station. The other fork was the old Wilderness Road, which crossed Rockcastle River and went towards The Crab Orchard, passing by the big cave at the head of Little Renfro. At the forks of the trail, they were on land belonging to James Renfro, and from time to time crossed other tracts of his, regardless of which route they took. To have followed Boones path toward Boonesboro would have made easier traveling, once they had cut through the dead brush hell. This route was less traveled and less likely of Indian attacks, but was more thinly settled, and they would find themselves without a nearby station if they should be set upon by savages. To choose the Wilderness Road meant they must travel through the Rockcastle Hills, a stretch of country, where in even that day, when all of Kentucky was a wilderness, was known as The Wilderness. The Wilderness was the most dread part of the whole journey, to and from the settlements in the interior. Less then 14 miles from where they stood, was Stephen Langfords Tavern or Station, which is present day Mt Vernon, Ky. and not more then 2 mi. from the head of Little Renfro. Between Langfords station and the Crab Orchard, the road was patrolled by Col. Wm. Whitley. Farther along, they came to other James Renfro holdings, lying along the Wilderness road, and extending to the big cave, following down the stream, they came to the site of an ancient encampment and battle ground of the Shawnee Indians, from which the creek got it’s first name, soon they came to a larger Renfro Creek stream, they followed it and in the early afternoon of a late summers day, they came to a place where the valley opened out to it’s greatest width–here they settled and this is present day Renfro Valley, Kentucky.

This fork in the road is clearly visible on the map. Apparently, James Renfro owned land all along and between these roads.  At the fork in the Wilderness Road, John Renfro stood on James’ land and no matter which fork he took he would cross more tracts of James’ land. 

After the American Revolution, an act of Congress established the Land Office. Under the act, a person could purchase as much vacant land as desired for £40 for each one hundred acres. The treasurer issued a receipt, this was presented to the state auditor, who then issued a certificate. The certificate could be taken to the register of the Land Office to get a warrant authorizing any surveyor to “lay off” the amount of land specified on the warrant. You can even see digital copies of the original land patent (under British rule) or grants (under United States jurisdiction) and transfer documents. For example, below is the survey, page 3, for survey no. 6342 signed by James Renfro and James Thompson. It includes a small diagram of the tract of land. However, locating this tract of land is not as easy at it was in Illinois (see Hicks Gifford). There, the tracts were clearly labeled portions of clearly identified sections which were identified by townships and ranges. In Virginia, as in the other colonial settlements, this is not the case. Instead, parcels were, and still are, defined by meets and bounds. 

For example, the survey above says “Beginning at A an elm and ash in the line of Rentfros Survey thence South …”. I can’t make out the rest. On the little map on the document, “A an Elm & Ash” mark the beginning. Then one follows the directions and distances that make up the meets and bounds to identify the property. By following a chain of title through successive deeds one would find new surveys identifying neighboring properties. This is a complicated process and requires a visit the the county court house to dig through the deed books I’m too old for this so I gave up trying to locate James’ holdings this way. So I did a map search.

I was very confused by Lair’s description of following the Little Renfro until it meets the larger Renfro Creek. That’s because there’s a lake in the way. Then I realized why this lake isn’t mentioned in Lair’s account. IT WASN’T THERE THEN. Here’s Renfro Valley today, most of it now under water in a lake created by a dam under I 75. This reminds me of a movie, something about a lost brother.

Renfro Valley


Little Renfro Creek empties into the lake from the south and Renfro Creek comes in from the north and now trickles down from the dam along Hwy 25 and then off to the right. There is a tiny town of Renfro Valley just below the dam. But there is no longer a valley in Renfro Valley. 

But that’s not the end of the story. John Lair wasn’t just any old Kentucky hillbilly. He was a great Kentucky hillbilly. He was the founder of Renfro Valley Entertainment Center.

This is the real deal. I won’t try to write his biography here. It really has nothing to do with us except for Lair’s decision to keep the Renfro name alive in that part of the country. Just one more in a long line of Renfro myths. James lived to a very old age of 73 and died in Renfro Valley. His grave is probably under water.

James Renfro Jr. and Margaret Jackson

One of James’ sons, James Jr., was born in 1768 in Lincoln County, Virginia and moved on from Kentucky with his family to Illinois. His most remarkable recorded accomplishment is having 15 or so children. Well, they were actually his wife Margaret’s great accomplishments. None died in infancy and most lived a full life. What records we have indicate that they were all born in Lincoln County, Kentucky between the years 1782 and 1814. In 1810 James moved with his wife and many of his children to Madison County, Illinois. In my father’s files there is the following:

The family spent the winter of 1810-11 in Ridge Prairie, three miles south of Troy, a short distance from Downing’s station, a fort erected for the protection of the settlers against the Indians….

There is an account of this area of Illinois during this time. 

In 1810 there was a regular line of forts…. It was the business of those rangers to be always on the march and occasionally visit all those forts and see that everything was right. Most of the time they were kept on the frontier watching for Indian signs and whenever they discovered any signs of Indians they followed up. If they could overtake them, the rangers invariably chastised them and sometimes wholly exterminated small bands.

This is a small, sadly common commentary on Indian affairs during the settlement of the West. 

However, to say that James and Margaret lived in Madison County doesn’t tell us much. When the county was initially established in 1812 it took up the northern three quarters of the state. Then the county boundaries seemed to change annually. In the “History of Madison County”, James and his sons, especially Jesse, are described as prominent citizens in the early years of Madison County. In 1813, James was chosen as a member of a commission 

To fix the permanent seat of justice of Madison county,… to meet on the first Monday in February, 1813, — they shall proceed to designate a convenient place for fixing a county seat for the erection or procurement of convenient buildings for the use of the county….

The book also describes how James brought his family, including sons Jesse and James III, to Madison County: 

Jesse Renfro … is one of the oldest residents of the southern part of the County. James Renfro [III] removed with the family to Illinois in 1810. In the spring of 1811 his father [James, Jr.] settled in township three, range eight, and died in 1814 while on a visit to Kentucky. 

This narrows things down some. We know about townships and ranges and sections. James and Margaret settled in the area that became Collinsville. However, James Jr died shortly thereafter.

In addition to this information, my father received a letter from Eva Renfro dated 1981 in which she describes a land purchase in 1818 by James Renfro of Sec 24 T3N R8W. Since this is 2 years after James Jr’s death, this land must have been purchased by his 27 year old son James III (more of that original naming). This became the family homestead where four generations of Renfros lived. Eva, the letter writer, was the last Renfro to live on the land and the last of her line. 

The town of Collinsville sprouted nearby. This is Collinsville in 1873 “Maps of Madison County” showing Renfro land in Section 24 on the right edge two thirds of the way down. The J. J. Renfro is James’ son Joseph. Some of the original purchase had been sold.

Here is a drawing of the house, the home of James’ son Joseph J. from the same book.

After James, Jr died in 1816, his widow, Margaret, had to sue for custody of her youngest children, the “orphans of James Renfro”. Not only did women have no rights to property, they did not even have rights to their own children. Among the fifteen children of Margaret and James Jr. was their youngest son, Absalom Foley Renfro. Absalom was an infant when James Jr. and Margaret moved the family from the wilderness of Kentucky to the Great Plains of Illinois. Since James Jr. died so soon after arriving in Madison County, it is reasonable that his widow Margaret and the younger children lived with one of the older children. But before 1850, only heads of households are listed in the census. Then, in 1825, Margaret married Jesse Conway in Edwardsville, but he died in 1840. Then we lose sight of Margaret. Therefore, we don’t know where Absalom and his mother lived after his father died. But Absalom would eventually make a move that would bring the Renfros in contact with the Giffords.

Absalom Foley Renfro and Elizabeth Cormack

Once Absalom was fifteen he was probably apprenticed out, probably to a cabinet maker. In 1830, he married Elizabeth Cormack in Madison County, Illinois. Absalom was then a cabinet maker on his own. But when histories of Madison County were written, Absalom was overshadowed by his older brothers, Jesse and James, who were Baptist ministers and, thus, very well known. But Absalom and Elizabeth followed the family tradition if having a large family, thirteen children, one dying in infancy. By 1850 they had all moved to Rock Island, Illinois, a very interesting place.

Since we have come to Illinois in the mid 1800s, we have come to the impact of the Black Hawk War, which took place in 1832. It was at the future site of the town of Rock Island that Black Hawk broke the treaty of 1804 (remember, this is written by the victors, not the vanquished) by crossing the Mississippi from Iowa back into Illinois after agreeing to cede it. 

But it was the creation of Rock Island County in 1831 that provoked this return of Black Hawk to Illinois because the new county included one of the last remaining Indian villages. These two versions of wrongdoing lead to the Black Hawk War. Although it lasted only three months, it put Rock Island county in the national news. Paradoxically, white settlement increased dramatically. The town expanded from the exploding trade along the Mississippi River in the 1840s. Then came the first “iron horse” in the 1850s and the railroad’s choice of Rock Island as the site for the first bridge across the Mississippi River.

The route of the Chicago and Rock Island Railroad (what’s that song?) was chosen because the Mississippi River was easiest to cross at Rock Island, where there was literally a large rock island in the middle of the river. This map, and the illustration above, shows the first railroad bridge crossing from the town of Rock Island in Illinois to the island of Rock Island and then across to Davenport, Iowa. The Rock Island line ran from Chicago to the Pacific, running through Rock Island City. It also ran from Chicago to New Orleans.

Undoubtedly, the booming economy of Rock Island was a draw for a cabinet maker like Absalom Renfro and his wife Elizabeth and their dozen hungry mouths to feed. A growing settlement meant new businesses and homes which required new furniture. This is where their second child, Nancy Ann, was born and raised and met and married A. J. Warren, who worked as a sawyer, in 1851. Shortly thereafter Absalom died, leaving Elizabeth to care for their youngest children. In 1860, she was living with the three youngest, James (again), Laura and George. One of Granddaddy’s correspondents says that Elizabeth ran a boarding house at Beaver Street near Rock River in Rock Island. 

Undoubtedly, the booming economy of Rock Island was a draw for a cabinet maker like Absalom Renfro and his wife Elizabeth and their dozen hungry mouths to feed. A growing settlement meant new businesses and homes which required new furniture. This is where their second child, Nancy Ann, was born and raised and met and married A. J. Warren, who worked as a sawyer, in 1851. Shortly thereafter Absalom died, leaving Elizabeth to care for their youngest children. In 1860, she was living with the three youngest, James (again), Laura and George. One of Granddaddy’s correspondents says that Elizabeth ran a boarding house at Beaver Street near Rock River in Rock Island. 

Meanwhile, Warren and Nancy and their infant daughter Lila moved to Bloomington, Muscatine County, Iowa in 1856 and also took in boarders. One of those boarders was E. J. Gifford, who was also a sawyer. As you know, this coincidence is critical to our story. Also in the household were A.J.’s mother, Nancy Warren, Nancy Ann’s little sister, Mary, 13 and brother Innes, 8. Here is the 1856 Iowa Census:

As you can see, both Warren and Gifford were sawyers. I have never met a sawyer or known what one was so I looked it up. Before there were electric saws and machines that could pre-cut wood to different lengths, anyone wanting to build a house, furniture, fencing, barrows or wagons, say, needed to obtain wood custom cut. Unless there was a sawmill nearby, the only way to get wood was to go to a sawyer. 

As I recounted earlier, the living conditions in Bloomington resulted in Nancy divorcing A. J. Warren and marrying Edmond J. Gifford. Their son, Edward H. Gifford would marry Netty May Roundy. We turn to the Roundys next.

Of Absalom’s and Elizabeth’s twelve adult children, 5 died in 1919, including Nancy Ann, and a sixth died in 1918. I couldn’t get any details on any of the causes of these deaths and there were no obvious disasters, except for one, the influenza pandemic, something we have all learned a great deal about recently. It began in the Fall of 1918 and spread throughout the world. Ports and railroad hubs were particularly vulnerable because the disease spread quickly among mobile populations. Rock Island was both a Mississippi River port and was located on a heavily traveled railroad. It is estimated that 675,000 Americans died of the flu from 1918-19. Nancy Ann, at 86, was the eldest of the five siblings that died during the year of the influenza and the elderly and young were most vulnerable to it.

Nancy Ann Renfro

And this brings us to the end of our story of the Renfros. They were not descended from Scottish royalty, may not have been friends with young George Washington, and lost the valley named after them. 

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