52 Ancestors: #8 My Most Frustrating Brick Wall – William A. W. DEMPSEY

When I made the decision to participate in Amy Johnson Crow’s challenge 52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks I chose to begin with my father and work my way back through the generations of my paternal line. I’m starting on his great-grandparents with this week’s contribution. They’ll take me through another 8 weeks!

52 Ancestors: #8 My Most Frustrating Brick Wall – William A. W. DEMPSEY

My father’s first cousin Geraldine Dempsey Workman (1931-2007) was the first person I know of who worked on our family tree. I have so much respect for the work she did pre-internet. In 1995 she wrote “This project started when Laura my youngest daughter had a mini course in high school at Midland Trail. The paper work was passed onto Earldine my oldest daughter. She tired of the project when the information was scarce. By that time I picked it up as a hobby. I took a night class taught by Laura’s teacher in high school. I began at our courthouse, then ventured onto other courthouses in other states.”

Geraldine was a recipient of the West Virginia History Heroes award in 2001:

Geraldine Workman of Lansing has worked tirelessly and quietly in the fields of genealogy, historical identification and preservation. She is a charter member of the Fayette and Raleigh County Genealogical Society and held numerous offices. As archivist she spends many hours researching and answering inquiries that are directed to the society. She co-authored four census books for Fayette County, invested 20 years in the preservation of the records of hundreds of cemeteries, and as a member of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, helped identify 20 unknown Confederate soldiers buried in a local Civil War internment site. Nominated by Genealogy Society of Fayette and Raleigh Counties.”1

William A. W. DEMPSEY (b. ca. 1820-1822 d. ca. 1867)

William A. W. DEMPSEY’s parentage has remained a mystery for the nearly 20 years that I’ve been doing genealogy. I need a key to open the door in this brick wall.

Not only do I not know who his parents were, but it’s also been nearly impossible to prove family tradition. He was seen on the 1841 tax list of Rockbridge County, Virginia, and the 1850 and 1860 census in Fayette County, (West) Virginia, with his wife and children. However, a marriage record hasn’t been located.

Part of the family tradition is that he served during the Civil War and died in a logging accident after the war. No documentation has been found to confirm when he died or his cause of death.

My paternal great-great-grandfather William A. W. DEMPSEY lies in a grave marked with another man’s name! This error could lead other genealogists down the wrong path. However, we are uniting to get this corrected!

Wm A. Dempsey, Pvt Co C, 7 Va Inf, 1822-1867

I’ve suspected for several years that Geraldine applied for and placed a Civil War marker on William’s grave in the cemetery in Chestnutburg on Ames Heights Road, 1.75 miles off Route 19, Fayette County, West Virginia, for the wrong veteran.

My respect for Geraldine and her work kept me from bringing up the subject of the Civil Marker marker. I placed a remark in William’s notes in my GEDCOM file noting the possibility of error. Then I decided to go public and posted this photo with my findings to my Facebook page in December 2012.

I have a tiny obsession with old doors. Before I started blogging, I would post my brick walls to my Facebook page. These have been moved to this blog and William’s can be found here.

This past week, while preparing to write this entry for the Challenge, I contacted Geraldine’s daughters. Laura confirmed that she removed the information about William’s serving in the 7th Virginia Infantry from her Ancestry.com tree last year. Laura and her sister Earldine, a member of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, have talked about correcting the error. Earldine’s mother told her that she may have had the wrong Dempsey long after the marker was set. However, at the time it was no longer a priority as Geraldine was diagnosed with cancer.

In search of William’s parentage, I studied all of the Dempsey families in the Virginia/West Virginia area during that period hoping to make a connection. I had help from Norma Dempsey who in 2001 sent me copies of everything she accumulated in the search for her husband Richard’s Dempsey line [he descends from my other Dempsey line]. I checked on the 7th Virginia Infantry. To make a long story short, I found enough information to show that William A. DEMPSEY of Orange County, Virginia, was the man who served in Company C of the 7th Virginia Infantry and not our William A. W. DEMPSEY of Fayette County, West Virginia. His only child died in infancy and there are no descendants to claim his Civil War marker.

US Census 1820, 1830, 1840

Without the names of his parents, it is impossible to locate William A. W. DEMPSEY in the U.S. Federal Census before 1850.

The wall is beginning to crumble!! (Part I)

At least that is what I thought on 10 November 2007 when I found William A. W. DEMPSEY listed on the 1841 tax list of Rockbridge County, Virginia.2 Were people taxed at the age of sixteen, eighteen, or twenty-one during this time in this county? Assuming that it was age twenty-one, William would have been born in 1820 or earlier. Initials seen on the tax list are the same as on the 1850 census in Fayette County, (West) Virginia. Does William’s being in Rockbridge County mean that he may be related to Tandy DEMPSEY of Rockbridge (whose son John W. DEMPSEY also lived in Fayette County) and in turn to the DEMPSEY’s of Amherst County?

1841taxlist
1841 Rockbridge County, Virginia, Tax list

1841 Rockbridge County, Virginia, Tax list
Name: Dempsey, William A. W.
43 – Nathaniel Gaylor’s to Cumings and Carter’s, intersecting Gilmore’s Road. Others who lived in the same road precinct:
George Agnor, Jacob Agnor, Sr., Jacob Agnor, Little Jake Agnor, John Agnor, John H. Agnor, David Entsminger, Albert Gilliat, and William T. Ruley

William’s Marriage and Children’s Naming Pattern

William A. W. DEMPSEY married Sarah Ann WOOD, daughter of Elijah WOOD and Rachel HONAKER, most likely before the Mexican-American War which began 25 April 1846. A marriage record has not been found. Their first child Elizabeth Rachel “Lizzie” was born about 1846. Following the end of the Mexican-American War on 2 February 1848, their second child and first son James Alexander “Buck” was born on 1 April 1848. Their first daughter’s middle name was the same as Sarah’s mother and grandmother. Is it possible that their first son was named for William’s father and/or grandfather?

US Census 1850

1850census
1850 U.S. Federal Census > Virginia > Fayette > 14th District >Sheet 336B

1850 U.S. Federal Census3
Fayette County, (West) Virginia
The 14th District, Sheet 336B
Enumerated by me on the
25th day of July, 1850.
T. B. Hamilton, Ass’t Marshal.
HH #85-85
Wm. A. W. Dempsey 28 M Laborer VA
Sarah A. Dempsey 22 F VA
E. R. Dempsey 3 F VA
Jas. A. Dempsey 1 M VA

US Census 1860

In 1860 the family was living in the household of the widower John A. McGRAW and his three motherless children. John’s deceased wife Nancy M. McGRAW (maiden name McGRAW) was the double first cousin once removed of Sarah Ann WOOD. The families may have been living together so that Sarah could help care for the widower’s children who had lost their mother in 1855. The families may have been living together for several years. Both families had sons named James. William’s James was seen with only his middle name, Alexander, possibly an attempt to avoid confusion as the boys were close in age.4

1860census1
1860 U.S. Federal Census > Virginia > Fayette > Sheet No. 365
1860census2
1860 U.S. Federal Census > Virginia > Fayette > Sheet No. 365

1860 U.S. Federal Census
Fayette County, (West) Virginia
District 3, Page No. 55
Enumerated by me on the 3rd day of
July, 1860. P. Morton, Ass’t Marshal.
Pleasant Hill Post Office, Sheet No. 365
HH #408-368
John A. McGraw 45 M Farmer $2000 $100 VA
Margaret McGraw 17 F Day Laborer VA
James McGraw 11 M VA
N. J. McGraw 9 F VA
Wm. Dempsey 40 M Farmer $0 $30 VA
Sarah Dempsey 36 F VA
Elizabeth Dempsey 14 F VA
Alexander Dempsey 10 M VA
Mary V. Dempsey 8 F VA
Eunice J. Dempsey 7 F VA
John Dempsey 3 M VA

The wall is beginning to crumble!! (Part II)

The American Civil War began on 4 February 1861 when William was about 41 years old. In December 2012 I found William A. W. DEMPSEY in the Union Provost Marshals’ File. What is this and why is it important?

The provost (pronounced provo) marshals served in territorial commands, armies, and Army corps as military police. I found two databases: “United States, Union Provost Marshal Files of Individual Civilians, 1861-1866” and “Union Provost Marshals’ File of Papers Relating to Two or More Civilians” on FamilySearch. From information about the files and their content, I learned that some cross-reference slips in the first database are stamped “PROVOST MARSHAL FILE” and show the name of a civilian and a number that cites a document in the second database.5

MRIN08669 William A. W. Dempsey
Provost Marshal File, Dempsey, William A. W., 2323, Rebel

The number 2323 cross-references to this set of documents in the files for two or more civilians:

MRIN08669 William A. W. Dempsey 2
2323, May to Sept /62, Cits
MRIN08669 William A. W. Dempsey 3
List of Prisoners with their Own Statements: George W. Gibson, George W. Commer, Washington B. Woods, Marion Commer, William Ellison
MRIN08669 William A. W. Dempsey 4
List of Prisoners with their Own Statements: William Ellison cont., William A. W. Dempsey, Presley W. Gill

On the last image:6

“William A. W. Dempsey – citizen residing on Dogwood Ridge, Fayette Co., farmer, left home on the 18″. Started when they heard firing at the Court House, came down to get work in the Valley, refers to Simpson Wood, Styris Wood, and G. W. McVay, of the Oil Works, (brothers-in-law of his). Knows Hamilton as Hamilton of Hawks Nest.”

The dates mentioned in the other statements in the document allowed me to conclude that the 18th was in the month of May. James Simpson Wood and Elijah Stuart “Sty” Wood were William’s wife Sarah Ann WOOD’s brothers. George Washington McVEY (of the Cannelton Oil Works) may have been mentioned as a reference as he was an outstanding citizen. He was not a brother-in-law but lived in the same area as the Wood families.

1890b map highlighted
1890 New Map of West Virginia; Rand McNally & Co., 1890; from Rand McNally & Co.’s Family Atlas of the World

The documents show that William was taken prisoner by the Union army between May and September of 1862 and his statement proves that he was a citizen of Fayette County and living at Dogwood Ridge. Generals John B. Floyd and Henry A. Wise were in charge of the Civil War encampment known as “Camp Dogwood at Dogwood Gap” which was placed high on Dogwood Ridge, where the surrounding plateau could be easily watched. There is no mention of William’s being a member of the Confederate army.

Importance of Middle Initials

William A. W. DEMPSEY was seen with double middle initials in 1841 on a tax list, in 1850 on the census, and in 1862 on the Provost Marshals’ List. I am convinced that these initials were very important to him.  Alexander may have been one of his middle names as it is a name that was passed down through the generations. Multiple middle initials might point to his having been named after a relative or an important or famous person.

Did William resemble his sons?

Elijah Lewis DEMPSEY (1866-1923)
William Henderson DEMPSEY (1860-1941)

(no photo)
John Henry DEMPSEY (1857-1930)

Jessica Bartrum Taylor wrote, “We don’t have a photo of John Dempsey. My grandmother, Lucille Geraldine Hess Bartrum, described him as having a big handlebar mustache and being a big, tall man with black hair.”

(no photo)
James Alexander “Buck” DEMPSEY (1848-1909)

I have no description of “Buck” from his descendants.

The description of John Henry fits his brothers Elijah Lewis DEMPSEY and William Henderson DEMPSEY!

Killed in a logging accident?

Following the end of the Civil War in 1865 and before the 1870 census William A. W. DEMPSEY died. Geraldine wrote, “….as fate would have it Wm. A. would not live to see his family grown. We’re told by family members he was killed in a logging accident about 1867 or 1868.”

No proof has been found to date to support this family tradition concerning his death.

Next week I will discuss his wife Sarah Ann WOOD, their seven children, and what became of the family after William’s death.

This Post Was Updated on 20 February 2022: Missing source citations were added, images were watermarked, and some corrections were made to the text and format.

© 2014-2022, copyright Cathy Meder-Dempsey. All rights reserved.


  1. Meet West Virginia’s History Heroes For 2001; West Virginia Division of Culture and History; online http://www.wvculture.org/history/hisher01.html : accessed 20 February 2014. 
  2. Oren F. Morton, B. Lit, A History of Rockbridge County, Virginia (The McClure Co., Inc., Staunton, Virginia 1920), pgs. 380, 552, 1841 Tax list of Rockbridge County, Virginia, “43 – Nathaniel Gaylor’s to Cumings and Carter’s, intersecting Gilmore’s Road: Dempsey, William A. W. Others who lived in the same road precinct: George Agnor, Jacob Agnor, Sr., Jacob Agnor, Little Jake Agnor, John Agnor, John H. Agnor, David Entsminger, Albert Gilliat, and William T. Ruley.”  (https://archive.org/stream/historyofrockbri00mortrich#page/380/ : accessed 10 November 2007). 
  3. 1850 U.S. Federal Census (index and images), Ancestry (https://www.ancestry.com/search/collections/8054/), citing Seventh Census of the United States, 1850 population schedule, National Archives and Records Administration, Washington D.C., NARA microfilm publication M432, 1009 rolls, Virginia, Fayette County, District 14, p. 336B, lines 5-8, HH #85-85, Wm A W Dempsey household (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 18 January 2016). 
  4. 1860 U.S. Federal Census (index and images), Ancestry (https://www.ancestry.com/search/collections/7667/), citing Eighth Census of the United States, 1860 population schedule, National Archives and Records Administration, Washington D.C., NARA microfilm publication M653, 1,438 rolls, Virginia, Fayette County, District 3, p. 365 lines 35-40, p. 366 lines 1-5, HH #408-368, John A McGraw household including Wm Dempsey family (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 18 January 2016). 
  5. “United States Union Provost Marshal Files of Individual Civilians, 1861-1866,” images, FamilySearch, citing NARA microfilm publication M345 (Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration), Film 1527375, DGS 4600990, Dej-Den (NARA Series M345, Roll 71) > image 874 of 1785, (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:939X-XF9V-VJ?cc=1834304&wc=M6Y2-LP8%3A162217301 : accessed 4 December 2012). 
  6. “United States Union Provost Marshal Files of Two or More Civilians, 1861-1866,” images, <i>FamilySearch</i>, citing NARA microfilm publication M416 (Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration), Records by Number and Date > 02132-02398, Sept. 1862 (NARA Series M416, Roll 9) > images 722-724 of 1041,  (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:939V-MKHK-D?cc=1845948&wc=M6KL-Y38%3A165419801%2C165561201 (link of image 724) : accessed 4 December 2012). 

Author: Cathy Meder-Dempsey

When I’m not doing genealogy and blogging, I spend time riding my racing bike with my husband through the wonderful Luxembourg countryside.

8 thoughts on “52 Ancestors: #8 My Most Frustrating Brick Wall – William A. W. DEMPSEY”

  1. I enjoyed this post. It really got my attention when you mentioned John McGraw. I also have McGraws in my tree. My “branch” of McGraws ended up in Indiana and they used the same names: James, William and Margaret.

    Like

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