A Minor Mystery Solved

A more appropriate title for this post might have been “The Many Wives of James Casbon.” However, I’ll stick with the current title because it was finding the answer to the “minor mystery” that prompted me to write the post.

This is a cautionary tale. The caution is that one should be very careful about trusting “facts” that are listed in online family trees unless the evidence supporting those facts is documented and credible. In this case, the facts in question are the identities of the women who were married to James Casbon (~1813–1884).

When I did a search on Ancestry for James, listing his parents as Isaac and Susannah (Howes) Casbon, I found that he was included in 66 family trees. Six different women were named as his wives in these trees. Some trees only listed one of them while others listed up to five. A few of the trees simply said “unknown spouse”—a safe and reasonable approach. Several of the trees were private, meaning the names of James’s wives could not be viewed. Here are the names of the women, in order of frequency, in those trees I was able to view.

Elizabeth Waller             26 trees
Mary Cooper                   17 trees
Mary Payne                       7 trees
Mary Harper                     5 trees
Mary Jackson                    5 trees
Ann Mitch                         5 trees

How many of these women did James actually marry and which ones? I can say with confidence that only three marriages have been documented. I have copies or extracts of the marriage records of James to Elizabeth Waller in 1835,[1] Mary Jackson in 1866,[2] and Mary Payne in 1876.[3] There is no evidence that James married Mary Cooper, Mary Harper, or Ann Mitch. In the family trees where they are listed, no sources are provided other than other family trees. One could posit that James married another woman in the interval between Elizabeth’s death in 1852 and his marriage to Mary Jackson in 1866, but there are no records to support this (and no children born during this time listing James as the father).

Census and birth/baptism records show that all of James’s children were born to either Elizabeth Waller or Mary Jackson. (Alice Casbon’s birth in 1871 is not registered but given that it occurred just one month after the arrival of James and Mary in America, there is no reason to believe that anyone besides Mary Jackson was her mother.)

The marriage of record of James Casbon to Elizabeth Waller at Meldreth, Cambridgeshire, 25 July 1835; Meldreth parish records (Click on image to enlarge)
The marriage record of James Casbon and Mary Payne, Porter County, Indiana, 15 January 1876; Porter County Public Library (Click on image to enlarge)

So how did these other women come to be listed as James’s wives? There are several possible reasons. In the case of Ann Mitch, it is a matter of mistaken identity. There were two men named James Casbon in the early 1800s, both born in Meldreth, Cambridgeshire. One was born 7 September 1806.[4] He was the first cousin of the James of this post. The elder James married Ann Hitch (whose name has been incorrectly transcribed as Mitch in both Ancestry and FamilySearch) at Steeple Morden, Cambridgeshire on 15 December
1827.[5] Ann died in 1833 after bearing James one child (Alfred Hitch Casbon). It can be easy to make mistakes in family trees when two people have the same name. Although the younger James would have been only about 14 years old when the marriage to Ann Hitch occurred, some family historians have gotten around this discrepancy by assuming that there was only one man named James. However, this is not supported by later census records.

The case of Mary Cooper is harder to explain. James’s older brother William married a woman named Mary Cooper in 1829.[6] My best guess is that the name of William’s wife was incorrectly attached to James in a family tree and the incorrect information was passed on to others.

That brings me to Mary Harper. Where did the name come from? This was the minor mystery I learned the answer to this week.

I was updating some of my documentation and came upon the marriage license application of James’s and Mary (Jackson’s) daughter Alice Hannah Casbon to her second husband, Charles Hicks. Alice and Charles applied for the license at Starke County, Indiana on 4 March 1936 and were married the same day.[7] The application requests the names of the bride and groom’s parents. Alice wrote “Mary Harper” as her mother’s maiden name.

The marriage license application of Alice (Casbon) Edwards to Charles Hicks, 4 March 1936, Starke County, Indiana; FamilySearch (Click on image to enlarge)

This naturally raises the question: Wouldn’t Alice know her own mother’s name? In fact, there is good reason for her not to. Her mother died before Alice was 5 years old, and probably much earlier than that. (The date of Mary (Jackson’s) death is not recorded). Her father, James, died when Alice was 13. Mary Payne, her stepmother, might not have known the correct maiden name. Alice might have been told incorrectly that her mother’s surname was Harper or she might have misremembered what she was told.

At any rate, it appears that Alice herself was the source of the misinformation that was included later in family trees.

As I said earlier, one must be very careful about accepting genealogical “facts” at face value. Once incorrect information is made available in an online family tree, others might copy it to their own tree and it takes on a life of its own. A useful rule of thumb is to carefully review the source attributed to any “fact” in an online tree. If there are no sources attached or the only source is another family tree, one should not accept the fact as proven unless more reliable sources can be found.

Unfortunately, I must confess that I am one of the guilty parties here. I saw the names of Mary Cooper and Mary Harper in family trees many years ago and included them in my own tree. I even included them as possible wives in my first blog post about James in 2016. When I posted my tree to Ancestry I was still a relative beginner at genealogy and did not yet understand the need for careful source documentation or how easily misinformation could be spread. I kept the names in my tree for much longer than I should have after realizing that I had no evidence to support them. It’s likely that others copied the information from my tree and perpetuated the misinformation. I am much more diligent now.


[1] Cambridgeshire, England, Meldreth Parish, Register of marriages (1813–1867), p. 34, no. 100, 25 Jul 1835; accessed as “Parish registers for Meldreth, 1681-1877,” browsable images, FamilySearch (https://www.familysearch.org/search/film/007567609?cat=210742 : accessed 29 August 2017), image 363 of 699; citing FHL microfilm 1,040,542, item 8.
[2] “Stretham Marriages 1558 – 1952,” PDF extract, Cambridge Family History Society (https://www.cfhs.org.uk/tokens/tokpub.cfm : downloaded 2 September 2017), >Casben >Stretham >Stretham Marriages 1558 – 1952, 3 Nov 1866; citing Stretham (Cambridgeshire) parish records.
[3] Indiana, Porter County, Marriage Record, vol. 4 [Sep 1871-Jan 1875], p. 348, 8 Jan 1876; browsable images, FamilySearch (https://www.familysearch.org/search/film/005014495?cat=608739 : accessed 8 Apr 2020) > Film # 005014494 >image 693 of 928.
[4] Cambridgeshire, England, Meldreth Parish, Register of baptisms (1806–1812), baptisms 1807; accessed as “Parish registers for Meldreth, 1681-1877,” browsable images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/search/film/007567609?cat=210742 : accessed 28 April 2017), image 137; citing FHL microfilm 1,040,542, item 3.
[5] “England Marriages, 1538–1973 ,” database, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:N2QC-7QV : accessed 19 October 2015), James Casbon and Ann Mitch, 15 Dec 1827; citing FHL microfilm 990,377.
[6] Cambridgeshire, England Melbourne Parish, Bishop’s transcripts for Melbourne, 1599-1847, (marriages beginning 1814) unnumbered page, no. 160, Wm Casbon & Mary Cooper, 14 Mar 1829; browsable images, FamilySearch (https://www.familysearch.org/search/film/007672882?cat=1109075 : accessed 12 Jul 2016) >image 529 of 682; citing FHL microfilm 2,358,010, item 2.
[7] Indiana, Starke County, marriage records, v. 10 (June 1934-January 1937), pp. 392–3, marriage license application; imaged in ” Marriage records, 1850-1957″, browsable images, FamilySearch (https://www.familysearch.org/search/film/007742312?cat=574765 : accessed 27 Mar 19) > image 392 of 716; citing FHL film 2447544, item 3.