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The Ancestors of Emily Penicia Fisher, My fraternal great-grandmother

How a hunch lead to a discovery

Finding my Great-Grandmother’s Ancestors
David Tharp

The family knew with great certainty that my great-grandmother was Emily Penicia Fisher. She was, after all, the wife of John Allen Tharp, Jr, and the mother of my grandfather, Simeon Stanley Allen Tharp. But when I began to get serious about my genealogy, I had no more than her birth date and death date, her birth place (Louisiana), and her burial place (Elm Grove Cemetery in rural Roddy, Texas in Van Zandt County). I knew she was buried with her husband, and in addition to my grandfather and grandmother, several of her other children were also buried there.

But as to the parents of Emily Penicia Fisher, I had nothing. And so my search began. Because we knew from census records that she was born in Louisiana, that is where I started my search. I first found an 1860 census for East Carroll Parish. Emily P Fisher, age 12, was living with Penicia P Coyle, her mother, Joseph A Fisher, her older brother, and William J Coyle, a younger half brother. There was no sign of a Mr Fisher or a Mr Coyle. This census gave Penicia’s age as 38 in 1860, and showed she was born in Kentucky.

This still left me with no maiden name for Penicia P Fisher Coyle, who had presumably taken a second husband, and had a son by this second union. But what had happened to Mr Fisher, Emily’s father, and where was he in 1860? Had he died? Had there been a divorce? Or had he deserted his family? It was too early for him to have been killed in the Civil War? So where was he?

As I stared at the census page thinking of the various possibilities, and wondering what to do next, I suddenly saw that living right next door to Penicia P Coyle and her three children, was a William J Cottingham and his wife Emily P. [On the 1860 census, the name was spelled Cottenham, but I later learned the correct spelling was Cottingham]. It was the “Emily P” that caught my eye. It was the same first name and middle initial as my great-grandmother, Emily P Fisher. When I looked further, I saw that Emily P Cottingham was two years older than Penicia P Coyle, and was also born in Kentucky. So it occurred to me that there was the possibility that Emily P Cottingham was the sister of Penicia P Fisher Coyle, and that Penicia had named her only daughter after her older sister. When I discussed this theory with relatives and librarians, I was discouraged. “You can’t make that assumption! Emily P Cottingham could be an aunt or a cousin, or just a neighbor that Penicia was particularly fond of.”

Having searched in vain for several months, if not years, for a marriage record in both Louisiana and Mississippi (since one census record indicated that Emily P Fisher’s father was born in Mississippi), for the marriage of a Mr Fisher to a Miss Penicia ___?___, I decided to look for the marriage record of Penicia Fisher to a Mr Coyle. And that I found. Mrs Penny Fisher married John G Coyle in East Carroll Parish, Louisiana on 13 March 1851. I eagerly sought a copy of the marriage document hoping to find some clue to Penicia’s maiden name, but the hand-written record in the Parish marriage book yielded nothing I could put my hands on. I did, however, begin to think that perhaps the maiden name for both Penicia P Fisher Coyle and Emily P Cottingham started with a P since both ladies, and hopefully sisters, had “P” as a middle initial.

I searched and searched and thought and thought, but found nothing and finally ran out of ideas and avenues to pursue.

Some three to four years later, I found myself sitting at a computer at the Dallas Public Library, and I decided to show Mr Lloyd Brockstruck, well known author and distinguished director of the Genealogy Department, the 1860 census and ask him his opinion. “Oh no, you can’t make an assumption like that. Emily P Cottingham may not be a relative at all. But where is Emily P Fisher in 1870?”, he asked. Well I knew immediately the answer to that question. Emily P Fisher was now Emily Tharp and living in Kaufman County, Texas having married John Allen Tharp there on 28 July 1868, and was the mother of Ella Penicia Tharp. Lloyd kindly offered to think about it, and went to his personal computer to do some searching on other data bases.

I decided to call up the 1870 census just to look at it one more time as it was a census I considered myself to be familiar with. But I just wanted to look at it again. Actually, I was thinking I might find Emily’s mother, Penicia Coyle living near by, thinking she may have come to Texas with her daughter.

As I looked at that page, it was as if I had never seen it before. No, Penicia Coyle was not to be found, but at the very top of the census, perhaps five or six residences before John and Emily Tharp, was William J Cottingham and his wife Emily. Now I was more certain than ever that there was indeed a connection between Emily P Cottingham, Penicia P Fisher Coyle and Emily Penicia Fisher Tharp.

When I got home that evening, I pulled up the Genealogy web site for Kaufman County, Texas. Knowing now that William J and Emily Cottingham had lived there, I wanted to see if I could find anything. I typed “Emily Cottingham” in the ‘search’ block, and to my amazement the following was the first thing to appear:

“Kemp Cemetery, Cottingham, Emily P, 04 Dec 1818, d/o Joseph and Sabrit
Dunklin, Cottingham, William J, 1818.”

Could this be true? Was it possible that not only had I found the burial place for William J and Emily P Cottingham, but that her headstone was giving me the elusive information I had been seeking for years….not just the maiden name for Penicia and Emily, but both their parent’s names?

I could barely wait to jump in my car and find Kemp Cemetery and the headstone. Kemp, Texas is about 40 miles southeast of Dallas. The cemetery was easy to find; the headstones took more effort. Neither the local funeral home, nor the person with the cemetery records was able to direct me to the location of the graves. The cemetery records did not go back that far. But having identified the older section of the cemetery, I began my walk up and down the rows and rows of sometimes beautiful, and sometimes too-faded-to-read markers. But after a good forty-five minute walk, there they were, in good condition and they read just as the web site had indicated.

Now, my task was to prove that Emily P Dunklin, daughter of Joseph and Sobrit Dunklin was the sister of Penicia P Fisher Coyle. But at least I had a maiden name I could play with. It did not take long. Using the names Fisher and Dunklin, I found a marriage record for Hiram G Fisher and Penicia P Dunklin in Hinds County, Mississippi on 30 March 1845, the year before Joseph Adam Fisher, Emily Penicia’s older brother, was born. This marriage record, by the way, was witnessed by William J Cottingham.

Next, using “Familysearch.org” and "Ancestry.com", I found well documented family trees for Joseph Dunklin and Sabrit Perkins. Her parents were Adam Perkins and Penicia Davis. The Dunklin line was even better documented, going back several generations, and showed that Joseph Dunklin’s brother was Daniel Dunklin, Governor of Missouri.

Everything was very neatly falling into place. It would appear that Penicia Dunklin was named for her grandmother, Penicia Davis, and that Penicia had named her first son, Joseph Adam Fisher after both her father, Josheph Dunklin and her grandfather, Adam Perkins. The “P” in both Penicia and Emily’s name, was for Perkins. Penicia Perkins Dunklin had in fact named her daughter for her sister, and her second son, William J Coyle, after her bother-in-law, William J Cottingham.

So not only did I end-up finding the maternal ancestors of my great-grandmother, Emily Penicia Fisher, I found her father, Hiram G Fisher.

The lesson learned is that when you have a hunch, stay with it. Stay with it against all odds and in the face of skepticism, stay with it until proven wrong or until it proves you right.

Linked toPersonal Library and Photo Collection, David Tharp; DUNKLIN Pernecia Perkins; FISHER Emily Pernicia; FISHER Hiram G; FISHER Joseph Adam

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