Museum Find Uncovers Lost Family History

 by Rick Smith


A recent discovery in the collections of the new Museum of Chincoteague Island has shed new light on several early Island families.  In Fall 2010, Bill Borgess, Executive Director of the Museum, while sorting through miscellaneous books in a display case, discovered two personal Bibles from the 1850's and a small book of the plays of Shakespeare.  Also in the collection was a large family Bible dating from the mid-1800's.  An investigation of these four books has now provided new information spanning four generations extending from an early Assateague/Chincoteague family, Isaac and Anna Mariah (Holloway) Lewis.  Deed records show that this branch of the Lewis family initially lived on Assateague and, later, owned land on Chincoteague in the vicinity of the southern portion of Eastside Dr.


The oldest of these four books is the small, 1790's volume of four Shakespeare plays.  A lack of writing paper apparently led one early family member to use every blank space to practice writing and record precious family data.  The earliest entries are the births of children of Aaron and Mary Holloway: Mary 3/9/1787, Suca 7/10/1789, Traney 4/22/1795, Aden 11/7/1799, and Anna Mariah 4/16/1802.

Following his marriage to Polly Watson in 1808, widower Isaac Lewis married Anna Mariah Holloway (of Aaron) in 1820.  The births of their children are recorded in this book as: Polly (Mary G.) 5/9/1821, John E. 7/31/1824, Elizabeth C. 9/22/1827, Aden M. 12/7/1830, and Trany (Trephenia) 11/18/1833.  A earlier child by Polly, Evins E. 3/3/1810, is the very first entry in the book.  The deaths of three of these children are also recorded: Aden 12/7/1837; Mary G. 9/24/1852; and John E. 7/15/1863.

The identity of the authors of the family history inscribed in this book is open to debate.  The penmanship varies from very crude to highly proficient, clearly showing that several individuals recorded facts over the years up to 1888.  The very back of the book was used to practice writing letters, and some entries throughout the book are in this beginner's hand.  Given that the siblings of Anna Mariah (Holloway) Lewis are included, but those of Isaac are not, it appears that she was the earliest scribe.   Since she died 3/31/1866, clearly someone used the book after her death, which happens not to be recorded in this book.

On the last pages, there appear a puzzling series of time span calculations.  All three compute the number of years, months, and days between the same date, 10/22/1871, and the date of the births of three different individuals, William Lewis (son of Selby and Mary Lewis), John E. Lewis, and Rev. William P. Thornton, the first minister of Union Baptist Church.  The significance of this date and what these three individuals share in common is an unsolved mystery.  Likewise puzzling is why, at the very end of the book, is found the inscription: Samuel H. Mathews hand.

The two 1850's personal Bibles bear the cover page inscriptions "John E. Lewis" and "Comfort," respectively.  John E. Lewis, the son of Isaac and Anna Mariah, married Elizabeth Whealton in 1854.  They had one son, George C. and a confusing entry in the Shakespeare volume might give his birth date as 9/26/1858, though the Census gives his birth as Feb 1855.  John E. Lewis' Bible records his own death as 7/15/1863.  When John E. Lewis married Elizabeth Whealton, she was a ward of the first Baptist minister of Chincoteague, William Parker Thornton.  Rev. Thornton's close ties to the extended Lewis family may explain why his birth date also is found in the Shakespeare volume, though incorrectly recorded as 3/28/1815 (correct year, 1814).


Research suggests that the "Comfort Bible" was owned by Comfort (Birch) Mason, wife of James Mason.  Her Bible lists their children: John Thomas 8/14/1846, Mary M. 5/15/1849, and John R 11/18, 1833.  This Bible ties to the Lewis family in that it contains a list of the children of George C. and Traney (Lewis) Birch (married 1860): Thomas Burton 8/4/1861, Mary Maria 11/26/1862, George Glenmore 11/26/1867, and John S. Kinsen 3/21/1870.  The familial relationship of this Mason family to the Lewis family remains unclear, but in 1850 the Masons were living with the James E. Lewis family.  That fact at least provides explanation of how these two Bibles came to travel forward together.


The final book in the collection is the large family Bible of John B. (Jr.) and Mary M. (Birch) Whealton, who were married 12/25/1888.  Mary (Mamie) Birch, her birth recorded as 11/26/1862, was the daughter of George and Traney (Lewis) Birch.  The children of John B and Mamie are recorded as: Harry W. 4/17/1891 - 8/23/1891, Lawrence B. 6/27/1893 – 9/9/1893, Horace Lee 12/13/1894 – 7/10/1918, Elwell B. 8/6/1897 – 1/11/1959, and Vernon D. 12/2/1899 – 2/24/1976.  The last entry explains how this collection of books came to be in the Museum, where records from the 1970's show a donation of a series of books by V. Whealton. 


Putting together family histories prior to the 1850's is extremely challenging because of wide gaps that exist in, at best, sketchy records.  Vernon Whealton's thoughtful donation to the Museum made it possible to reconstruct a missing piece of the history of one of Assateague and Chincoteague's oldest families.


The Lewis Family Bibles are part of the collection of the Museum of Chincoteague Island, 7125 Maddox Blvd, where a transcript of the entries in each of these books may be viewed.  Surnames include (number of individuals): Lewis (25), Birch (16), Whealton (14), Mason (8), Holloway (9), Fassit (3), Thornton (2), and Carpenter (1).