Will the real Cornelius Durant please stand up?

Faced with the declaration, straight from the horse’s mouth, that Maria Cornelia Durant Ritchie was the only child of Cornelius Durant v.1732, I’m distinctly flummoxed. This was not what I was expecting.

V., our museum guest, is descended from a woman named Melinda Durant Oldham of Indiana. Indiana became a state in 1816, and Melinda Durant’s parents moved to the state shortly thereafter. Melinda was probably born in 1819 (it’s what’s on her tombstone), but I don’t have a birth record for her from Indiana or anywhere else, and the ages listed in the Censuses are not consistent (as is often the case). Funny thing about Melinda’s kids, though? She named the fourth one Edward Durant Oldham.

According to V., Melinda’s parents were one Cornelius Durant and one Betsey Hawley Durant of Berkshire, Massachusetts, recently arrived in Indiana. She has this from family histories, but I’ve been unable to confirm it, probably because Melinda was born in the very first few years Indiana was a state. V. believed that this Cornelius Durant was related to the Edward Durants of Boston/Newton, and that’s what brought her to our museum.

I thought I’d solved it. I felt sure Melinda’s father was Cornelius v.1787 — the one Cornelius v.1732’s will says doesn’t exist.

There just aren’t that many Cornelius Durants documented in Massachusetts. Two legit individuals I can identify in Massachusetts Town and Vital Records:

  1. Cornelius Durant v.1732 (1732-1812) — We know this Cornelius exists in Boston and surrounding areas, and we know his parents were Edward Durant II and Judith Waldo Durant of Boston. We know he was married at least once, to Maria Fenno in Medford in 1786, and we know they had a daughter, Maria Cornelia Durant, in 1789. We also know Maria Cornelia’s mother died when Maria Cornelia was an infant, and we know that Maria Cornelia married Andrew Ritchie in 1807 and is listed in her father’s will as his only child.
  2. Cornelius L. Durant (1801-1883) — This Cornelius Durant was the son of Dennis Durant and Bathsheba Ward Durant. He’s buried in Palmer, Massachusetts, outside Worcester (Hampden County), the same town in which he was born.

And two question marks:

  1. Cornelius Durant born 28 December 1776 — This Cornelius’s parents are listed as Anna and Ebenezer Battle, and his hometown is listed as Dedham. I have no idea why his surname does not match his parents’. There’s only one entry for his birth, while Massachusetts Town and Vital Records often have multiple entries for the same individual, which leads me to believe this could be some form of typo. I have the image from the original documents, but I still need to scour it to see if I can read it any better than the scanner could.
  2. Cornelius Durant v.1787 (baptized 26 August 1787 in Medford) — If this Cornelius was the son of Cornelius and Mary Durant, who are this other Cornelius and Mary (if it isn’t Cornelius v.1732 and Maria Fenno Durant)?

But what’s interesting about all these Corneliuses is that none of them are from Berkshire. Palmer is the furthest west of the four, and it’s still 35-40 miles as the crow flies from there. There is no listing in the Massachusetts Town and Vital Records for the birth of any other Cornelius Durant. There’s also no listing in the Massachusetts Town and Vital Records for the marriage in 1816 or thereabouts of any Cornelius Durant to a Betsey or Elizabeth Hawley anywhere in Massachusetts, let alone in Berkshire, as V.’s family’s story goes.

Nor, for that matter, is there a listing for the birth of Henry Durant, the ostensible first child of Cornelius Durant and Betsey Hawley Durant, in the 1816-1819 range in Berkshire or anywhere else in Western Massachusetts. In 1816 a William Henry Durant was born to Reuben and Hannah Durant in Littleton, Massachusetts, but that’s clear across the state. In 1821, a Henry Durant was born in Pepperell, Massachusetts, also clear across the state, to John and Mehitabel Durant. By 1821, too, V.’s ancestors were in Indiana: the 1820 U.S. Federal Census records the presence of one Cornelius Durant in Ripley County, Indiana, and lists in his home five people — a free white male 26-44 (presumably Cornelius), a free white female 16-25 (presumably his wife), a free white male and a free white female both under 10 (presumably Henry and a sister), and a free white male over 45 (father? father-in-law? renter?).

So which Cornelius Durant is which? In my next post, I weigh the possible explanations.

(Bibliographic Info in the Comments)



And then I found Cornelius v.1732’s will

It’s silly, really — I should have gone straight for his will. I had suspected at some point that it was probated in St. Croix, but there it was in Suffolk County Probate listings. It was probated 11 May 1812. It contains various interesting tidbits I’ll unpack later, but what stands out is this:

“I desire and bequeath the same to my only child Maria Cornelia wife to Andrew Ritchie Jun. of Boston…”

My only child Maria Cornelia.


Cornelius Durant – v.1732 and v.1787

Just over a week ago, a woman walked into the museum where I work (it was my day off!) and explained to my boss M., our house manager, and my buddy S., a fellow museum educator, that she was a descendant of one Edward Durant who lived on our property. She knew a lot about the Durant line, but she was confused to find no record in our exhibit of the ancestor to whom she had traced herself. M. took her name and contact info and told her that the educator who specialized in these things was off that day — and gave her my name and email.

Finding out about this the next day, I determined pretty quickly what the problem was — she appeared to have confused Edward Durant III, whose family tree is in our exhibit, with Edward Durant II, builder of the house. Her ancestor wasn’t Edward Durant III’s son — it was his brother.

Cornelius Durant was born 7 June 1732, the third Cornelius born to his mother and the lucky Cornelius who finally survived. An infant born with that name in 1718 had died just shy of five months old, and another child born in 1724 with that name died sometime before his 8th birthday, possibly well before. His mother was Judith Waldo Durant — her father and brother were both named Cornelius, and both Cornelius Waldos were wealthy and well-regarded merchant/traders in Boston society.

Cornelius Durant v.1732 was 8 years old when his father, Edward Durant II, died. Cornelius’s eldest brother, Edward Durant III, had been living on the family farm out in Worcester, Massachusetts. Edward III was 25, 17 years older than Cornelius, and had a wife and small children. With their father’s death, Edward III took possession of the family home in Newton, Massachusetts. Cornelius, his 10-year-old brother Thomas, and his 12-year-old sister Elizabeth moved with their widowed mother Judith back to a house in Boston.

Besides granting the Newton home to Edward III, their father’s will granted Elizabeth and Thomas (as well as their mother Judith) each homes in Boston, and it granted Cornelius the farm in Worcester. Being only 8 years old, though, this didn’t mean much to him in 1740.

What happens next is a little unclear. In 1751, though, Thomas Durant (Cornelius v.1732’s brother) marries Ann Hunt in Boston. When she dies in 1761, he departs Boston for St. Croix, in the West Indies.

Back in 1748, Ann Hunt’s brother Richard had married a woman named Mary Tothill in Boston, but by the mid-1760s, it’s not entirely clear what had happened to Richard Hunt. There’s a Richard Hunt buried in Bellingham, MA with an indeterminate date of birth and death, but I don’t really think that’s him. According to the Waldo Family genealogy, though, Mary Tothill Hunt (widow? divorcee? unclear.) may have married Cornelius Durant v.1732, possibly in Boston, possibly in 1766.

At least one source, though, suggests that Cornelius Durant v.1732 had a significant presence in St. Croix before his brother’s arrival in 1761, operating as a merchant/trader, and that Thomas relocated to join him in partnership. Tellingly, in 1754, Edward Durant of Newton and Cornelius Durant “of Boston” advertised in Boston newspapers for the sale of the farm property in Worcester that had been left to Cornelius in their father’s will. I’m inclined to believe that Cornelius — unmarried and 22 in 1754 — probably never lived on the property. With his grandfather and uncle (the Cornelius Waldos) as established merchant/traders, Cornelius v.1732’s entry into the family business would make a lot of sense. The Waldos may have been slave traders (among other things), but any mercantile operation would have involved ties to the Caribbean that might explain how Cornelius v.1732 found his way to St. Croix — where, between 1774 and 1781, he was listed as purchasing African slaves, according to Hoff and Holsoe.

Then, on 20 May, Massachusetts Town and Vital Records note his marriage to Maria/Mary Fenno in Medford, Massachusetts, the same town (just north of Boston) in which his mother, Judith Waldo Durant, had died in September 1785. Then, on 26 August 1787, without any original corresponding birth record, Cornelius Durant, son of Cornelius and Mary Durant, is baptized — also in Medford, Massachusetts.

This Cornelius Durant, v.1787, is at least as much of a mystery as his father.

I’m inclined to think Maria Fenno Durant is the mother of Cornelius v.1787, but it isn’t entirely clear. One set of records indicates he was born in August 1787, but that may be more of an extrapolation from his baptism date than an actual birth record. Children (including Cornelius’s cousins) were not necessarily baptized as infants — some were not baptized until as late as their teens. It’s possible he was born before 1786 and that his baptism record reads “Mary Durant” because his mother was Mary Tothill Hunt Durant, but unless this was an adult baptism (something early traditional American churches weren’t really doing at this time), his birth would have come at a relatively advanced maternal age. It seems at least as likely that “Mary Durant” is Maria Fenno Durant — or “Mary Fenno” as she’s listed in at least some town records of her marriage — and that Cornelius v.1787 was their first child, after Cornelius v.1732’s first marriage produced no offspring.

What leaves this open to question, though, is that the Waldo Family genealogy lists only one child for Cornelius and Maria Fenno Duant — Maria Cornelia Durant, born in March 1789. Her mother, Maria Fenno Durant, would pass away in August of that year. It includes exactly zero reference to Cornelius v.1787. Since that genealogy includes even infants who died at a few weeks old, the absence of Cornelius v.1787 is striking.

In December 1789, Cornelius Durant “of St. Croix” (v.1732) advertises in Boston newspapers in search of an enslaved teenager named William who has escaped. In 1794, Boston newspapers take note of a charitable donation by Cornelius Durant “of St. Croix, now on a visit to this town.” On 27 March 1807, Cornelius Durant v.1732’s daughter Maria Cornelia marries Andrew Ritchie in Roxbury, MA, and when Cornelius v.1732 dies in Boston in 1812, it is Andrew Ritchie who hosts his funeral and becomes executor of his estate — not Cornelius v.1787.

So where was Cornelius v.1787?

Our museum guest provides a potential answer, but not one I can document until about 1820. In my next post, I’ll explain her story. Meanwhile, if anyone has tips on getting 18th-century vital records out of St. Croix, let me know…

(Documentation/bibliographical info will appear in the comments.)

History Puzzles

I’m a genealogist with an M.A. in History who works as a museum educator in a Boston suburb. I’m presently chasing the history of more than a few families besides my own, and now and then I run up against things I just can’t sort out. Sometimes these puzzles are work-related; other times, they’re personal. But when they’re this vexing, it’s nice to have a place to a) write out and organize what I do know and what I don’t yet/still need to know, b) seek help when I hit a dead end, and c) scream and curse and vent when there’s no way past a dead end.

Beyond that, it’s nice to be able to catalog what I found in some of the rabbit holes I go down, sticking a pin in them, with key questions suitably jotted down for posterity, until I can come back and solve the puzzle.

And at the most meta level, I have my fingers crossed that somehow, maybe, by putting these stories out there, I help forge connections to history I didn’t even expect. 🙂