dna, pennsylvania

A Brick Wall Down: Jacob Wilson’s Parents

In my last post I wrote about the brick wall in my family tree that got me hooked on genealogy – a brick wall that remains today, over a decade after I first encountered it. Today I’m going to talk a bit about a brick wall that I was very pleased to see crumble years after I hit it. This was made possible by analysis of DNA results, and then the appropriate document-based research to support the hypothesis I formed in light of the DNA analysis.

For years, I was unsure of who the parents of my maternal 4th great-grandfather, Jacob Wilson, were. Jacob married his wife Harriet Keener just in time for the 1850 census, and my 3rd great-grandmother Hannah Barbara Wilson was an infant in his Londonderry Township, Dauphin County household in 18501.

Jacob Wilson’s young family in the 1850 census

By 1860, the family had moved across the river to East Pennsboro Township in Cumberland County2.

The distance between East Pennsboro (red) and Londonderry Township (yellow) is about 14 miles on the Susquehanna River.

Jacob was a ‘Laborer’ in an unreported industry in both censuses. Of course, shortly after 1860, civil war broke out. Jacob, a hale and hearty man of 35, enlisted, and joined the 38th Pennsylvania Militia, Company C, in 1863. At the end of the war, his position was Sergeant in the 9th Pennsylvania Cavalry Regiment.

The 1890 Veterans Schedule3 summarizes the service of Jacob Wilson, as well as that of his son-in-law, my 3rd great-grandfather, Albert Smith, who lived next door with his family until his death two years prior to this census.

After the war, Jacob returned to his work as a laborer, and in the 1880 census, when he was 53, we finally learned that he was a “stone & brick layer”4. This census also offers the tidbits that his father was born in “Ireland” and his mother, “Pennsylvania”. These parental birthplaces were repeated in the 1900 census5, in which 63-year-old Jacob was still working as a stonemason in East Pennsboro.

Jacob Wilson and wife Harriet in the 1900 census

Jacob died in 1908 having lived a long life for the time, at 81 years of age. As to his origins, a warm obituary printed in the local newspaper6 provided only the hints that Jacob could recall the start of construction of the Pennsylvania Railroad in 1835, and was in vicinity of Harrisburg in 1846 to witness the effects of the terrible flood that year. I had already assumed that much, but it was nice to have an extra degree of certainty.

Jacob’s Wilson’s obituary in the Harrisburg Telegraph

Jacob’s death certificate7 featured information provided by his son-in law, John Neidhamer, who stated that Jacob was born in York County and his father was also named Jacob. He couldn’t provide any information about Jacob’s mother.

I spent a long time searching for an appropriately aged Irish-born Wilson who lived in York, Dauphin, or Cumberland Counties, and presumably closer to the river, from 1830-1860. I eliminated the only two candidates I found by close examination of the records left by them. It wasn’t terribly common for Irish immigrants to settle in this region in the first third of the 1800s. I considered that he wasn’t actually Irish-born, but ethnically Scots Irish, as so many in these counties were. I wasn’t sure where to go from there, though. I didn’t know anything else about Jacob’s family. So I let the case sit for a bit.

Years later, after receiving my mother’s DNA results, I spent weeks carefully poring through her matches and highlighting well-defined clusters to study. One such cluster consisted of descendants of a man named Peter Sipe, who spent most of his life (1828-1900) in Lower Allen Township and the borough of Mechanicsburg in Cumberland County. Eventually I tackled this cluster and built out the family tree of Peter Sipe. Of particular relevance is that this cluster of Sipe descendants shared in common matches with fellow descendants of my 3rd great-grandmother Barbara Hannah Wilson, daughter of Jacob Wilson, and her husband Albert Smith. Sipe was a prominent enough man to be featured in a biography in the 1886 tome History of Cumberland and Adams counties, Pennsylvania8, and that account stated the following of Sipe: “was married, February 29, 1848, to Miss Caroline Wilson, born in New Cumberland, this county, daughter of Jacob and Sarah (Warts) Wilson.” Ding ding ding ding!

Caroline was born in 1825, about two years prior to the birth of my 4th great-grandfather Jacob Wilson. This would be just the right age for a sibling, and her birthplace in New Cumberland on the bank of the Susquehanna River in Cumberland County fit my beliefs about Jacob’s birthplace well (it also sits atop the York County border, which may partially explain why York is recalled as Jacob’s birthplace for his death certificate). Caroline’s father was reportedly Jacob Wilson, as was the father of my 4th great-grandfather per the account of his son-in-law on his death certificate. Figuring this was certainly a lead worth following, I tore through Cumberland County records to learn more about Caroline and her parents Jacob and Sarah (Warts) Wilson.

After many hours of obsessive digging, I found just the sort of confirmation I sought in the Orphans’ Court of Cumberland County.

A docket entry from 15 January 18339:

Upon the petition of Jno B Klein, esq, Guardian of the persons and estates of Caroline Wilson and Jacob Wilson, minor children of Jacob Wilson decd. late of [New] Cumberland in Allen Township Cumberland County, To the Court therein stating —
That the said Jacob Wilson lately died intestate and Leaving a widow named Sarah (who is since dead), and issue Elizabeth, Caroline, and Jacob the two last of whom are minors under the age of fourteen years That upon the settlement of the admin. acct. of said deceased there appears to be but a small balance in the hands of the admin. to wit fifty dollars and thirty, That the said Jacob Wilson at the time seized in his demesne as of fee, of in and for two Lots of Ground Nos 46 & 47 in the town of [New] Cumberland[…]with a small house thereon erected that the balance of the personal estate is wholly insufficient for the payment of the debts and maintenance of the said minors, and the estate is growing worse, and would be of very little value at its present situation to the said minors And praying that the Court to award an order to sell the said two lots of Ground[…]

In short, a John B. Klein was the guardian of Caroline and Jacob Wilson, both of whom were under 14 as of January 15 1833, and were children of Jacob Wilson, deceased, and his wife Sarah, deceased after Jacob, all of whom were previously residents (and owners or heirs to two lots) of the town of New Cumberland. Jacob was presumably the youngest child, given that children are customarily listed in birth order in probate records, and this squared with my knowledge that my 4th great-grandfather was 2 years younger than his hypothesized sister Caroline. It all fit.

With this knowledge, I sought out a little more information on Jacob and Sarah. Through probate records I determined that Jacob died in January of 1830, so unsurprisingly, I found Sarah as a head of household in the 1830 census in Allen Township10, with three children matching the known ages of Elizabeth, Caroline, and Jacob. Although, Elizabeth was enumerated as a boy, or else she had been ‘swapped’ for a boy in the household! Sarah died shortly before mid-May of 1832, though I don’t know of what, or precisely when.

Sarah Wilson, in the bottom row on this cropped page of the 1830 census, was only briefly head of her household before her children were orphaned.

With further research I was able to confirm DNA connections to earlier generations of both Wertz (Warts, in the biography of Peter Sipe) and Wilson families. Jacob Wilson the first, as it turns out, was indeed not a native of Ireland. He had been born in Pennsylvania, and his family were Scots Irish who had settled in southern Cumberland County in the 18th century. Sarah, as her maiden name Wertz (common in the area – notice ‘Wertzville’ in the upper left corner of the map shared at the beginning of this post!) would suggest, was from a Pennsylvania Dutch family that settled early in York County. It made sense that Jacob the younger was unable to correctly identify his father’s birthplace, because he was a toddler when father died, and it wasn’t a family member who took custody of him and his sister after they became orphans upon their mother’s death.

While DNA results alone weren’t sufficient to provide proof of the relationship, they pointed me in a direction I might never have found otherwise, and the records I found as a result allowed me to break down a brick wall that had stumped me for years. The potential of DNA results to break down brick walls is far greater than this, however, and I hope to write about an even more complex case in the weeks to come.


  1. 1850 U.S. Census, the Township of Londonderry, Dauphin, Pennsylvania, p. 203a, line 6, Jacob Wilson; image, Ancestry.com (http://www.Ancestry.com : accessed 22 Sep 2022); citing National Archives and Records Administration microfilm M432, roll 774.
  2. 1860 U.S. Census, East Pennsboro Township, Cumberland, Pennsylvania, p. 196, line 18, Jacob S. Wilson; image, Ancestry.com (http://www.Ancestry.com : accessed 22 Sep 2022); citing National Archives and Records Administration microfilm M653_1101.
  3. 1890 Veterans Schedules of the U.S. Federal Census, Camp Hill and East Pennsboro, Cumberland, Pennsylvania, p. 3, line 31, Jacob S. Wilson; image, Ancestry.com (http://www.Ancestry.com : accessed 22 Sep 2022); citing National Archives and Records Administration microfilm M123, RG 15: Records of the Department of Veterans Affairs.
  4. 1880 U.S. Census, ED 064, East Pennsborough, Cumberland, Pennsylvania, p. 7A, line 27, Jacob S. Wilson; image, Ancestry.com (http://www.Ancestry.com : accessed 22 Sep 2022); citing National Archives and Records Administration publication T9, roll 1121.
  5. 1900 U.S. Census, ED 0008, East Pennsboro, Cumberland, Pennsylvania, p. 8 (penned), line 8, Jacob Wilson; image, Ancestry.com (http://www.Ancestry.com : accessed 22 Sep 2022); citing National Archives and Records Administration microfilm T623, roll 1400.
  6. “Jacob S. Wilson Dead”; p.2, col. 2. The Harrisbug Telegraph, PA, 28 Aug 1908. Newspapers.com (https:/newspapers.com : accessed 22 Sep 2022).
  7. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania Bureau of Statistics, death certificate, 76840 (1908), Jacob S Wilson; image, Ancestry.com (http://www.Ancestry.com : accessed 22 Sep 2022); citing Pennsylvania Department of Health, Record Group 11, Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, Pennsylvania (State). Death Certificates, 1906-1968; Certificate Number Range: 074401-078200; Death County: Cumberland.
  8. Durant, P. A., Richard, J. F., & Bellman, B. (1886). PART II. HISTORY OF CUMBERLAND COUNTY. PENNSYLVANIA: CHAPTER XXXIX. BOROUGH OF MECHANICSBURG. In History of Cumberland and Adams Counties, Pennsylvania: Containing history of the counties, their townships, towns, villages, schools, churches, industries, etc. ; portraits of early settlers and prominent men ; biographies ; history of Pennsylvania, statistical and miscellaneous matter, (pp. 435–435). Warner Beers, Chicago.
  9. Dauphin County, Pennsylvania, Orphans Court Dockets, vols. 8-9, 1825-1835. “Pennsylvania, U.S., Wills and Probate Records, 1683-1993,” images, Ancestry.com (http://www.Ancestry.com : accessed 22 Sep 2022), Dauphin County Orphans Court county courthouse, Pennsylvania.
  10. 1830 U.S. Census, Allen, Cumberland, Pennsylvania, p. 111 (penned), line 19, Sarah Wilson; image, Ancestry.com (http://www.Ancestry.com : accessed 22 Sep 2022); citing National Archives and Records Administration microfilm M19, roll 150.

1 thought on “A Brick Wall Down: Jacob Wilson’s Parents”

  1. That’s GREAT news!! DNA is such a tremendous help, I agree! I too opened a brick wall recently for a friends’ tree, though not through DNA. I couldn’t find parents of a man and ended up finding them in a delayed birth certificate of the man’s brother. The informant was the man’s wife and she listed herself as ‘sister-in-law. 😀

    Liked by 1 person

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