In October of 2003 I succeeded in discovering the origins of the Thomas family in Wales, a research challenge I had been working to solve for several years. This essay that follows highlights the chain of events and the trail of records that led to the discovery.
My quest for the origins of the Thomas family began with a chance trip to Scranton, Pa. in late 1986. Parthene (my wife) and I were visiting my parents in Towson, MD during the Christmas holidays, and had spent time during the visit talking to my grandmother Dorothy Thomas-Kott and her sister Anne Dawson about family history. Afterwards, instead of returning to Raleigh, we decided to head up to Scranton. As it turns out, this chance trip would have be the first in a chain of events that would eventually lead to the discovery of the Thomas family in Wales.
I wasn’t exactly sure what we would find in Scranton, however my gut feeling was that there was something of vital interest waiting for us there. In fact, my only definite plans were to revisit the cemeteries where my grandfather and great-grandfather (Thomas) were buried. Having visited both cemeteries several times as a child, I felt fairly confident that I could find them again. I remembered that the cemeteries were not exactly in Scranton, but rather just outside the city in the towns of Chinchilla and Clark’s Summit. Although I had never driven to Scranton, somehow I found both cemeteries and both family plots with relative ease.
Having secured a hotel room for the night, it was my intention to call it a day, but Parthene kept insisting that we call relative Betty Barrett. Betty was the daughter of my grandfather Willard Thomas’ sister Elizabeth. Because Elizabeth separated from her husband, Betty and her sister Eileen spent a lot of time growing up with Elizabeth’s sister Blanche and her husband Wilfred Harris. In his later years Uncle Wilfred compiled a genealogy of the Thomas family, work that was supposedly lost after he died in 1983. Nevertheless, my grandmother Dorothy had told us that because Betty was close to Wilfred and Blanche, there was a possibility that she knew something about the origins of the Thomas family in Wales.
At Parthene’s urging, I called Betty from the hotel room, and she and her husband immediately invited us over to their house. Betty and her husband Mike Barrett knew both my grandmother and my father Lee Thomas, who had lived in Scranton as a child, and they welcomed us into their home long lost family members. We soon began discussing Wilfred’s Thomas family history. I mentioned that it was a shame that Wilfred’s second wife had burned all of his papers, and she replied that she hadn’t and that she was in possession of Wilfred’s original Thomas family tree. Once the shock of this had passed, I asked if I could see what she had, and was soon holding in my hands the document that, while not necessarily critical in the search for the Thomas family in Wales, nevertheless, formed the basis for my own Thomas family genealogy. Most importantly, the tree indicated the names of my immigrant ancestors who had come from Scranton to Wales, John J. Thomas and Elizabeth Davis. Anxious to have my own copy of Wilfred’s research, Betty agreed to lend me the tree so that I could make my own copy.Betty also told us that John and Elizabeth Thomas were buried in the old Washburn Street cemetery in Hyde Park, a section of Scranton that was largely settled by the Welsh. She said that she had been to the grave and that the wife’s name on the tombstone was Elizabeth Morgans, Morgans being the name of the man she remarried after John J. Thomas died. She also told us about other Welsh ancestors buried at the cemetery, Civil War veteran George Hares, his wife Elizabeth Williams, and Elizabeth’s parents William C. and Mary Williams.
The next morning before we left Scranton we stopped by the Washburn Street cemetery. In a pattern that has been repeated many times since, we entered the large cemetery and almost immediately found the grave of John and Elizabeth Thomas. In addition a few rows over we found the graves of the aforementioned George Hares, his wife Elizabeth Williams, and Elizabeth’s parents William and Mary. We left Scranton shortly thereafter, knowing that this spur-of-the-moment trip had produced momentous results.
For the next several weeks I studied Wilfred’s tree listing all the known descendants of John J. Thomas and Elizabeth Davis, paying particular attention to their children. My plan was to try to identify the Thomas family in the census, in order to discover dates of birth for the Thomas children. (Wilfred’s tree provided dates of birth and death only for the family of John and Elizabeth’s son William Henry Thomas, my great-grandfather.) I began my search for the family in the 1850 census. I knew that I would be looking for a John and Elizabeth Thomas from Wales, along with their first-born children, born in Pennsylvania. After searching from some time, I came across the family of a John and Elizabeth Thomas in the 1850 census of Providence Township, which at the time incorporated Scranton. Present were John, his wife Elizabeth, who were listed as being born in Wales. In addition, children Hannah and John were also there, the first two children listed on Wilfred’s Thomas family tree. The ultimately critical piece of information contained in the return, however, was the presence of 3-year-old daughter Elizabeth, who was shown as being born in Wales. There was no such individual listed on Wilfred’s tree. By checking the 1860 census and finding Elizabeth again listed in the family of John and Elizabeth Thomas, it became clear that this was a daughter that Wilfred had not know about. The implications of the find became immediately clear. John and Elizabeth had married in Wales, and their first child had was born in Wales. More importantly, since Elizabeth was born in Wales ca.1847 and their next child Hannah in Pennsylvania ca.1849, that meant that the Thomas family emigrated to the United States sometime between those two dates. It was at this point that I realized that this new information could possibly lead to the discovery of the Thomas family in Wales. Still, at that point the odds were still decidedly against me, and more research was needed.
The next step was to head to the Luzerne County courthouse in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., to see if I could find a naturalization record for John J. Thomas from Wales. Having narrowed down the time frame to between 1847-1849, I soon came across the only entry for a John Thomas matching all the necessary criteria. The first certificate in the file was the crucial one. It stated that a John Thomas arrived in the port of New York on May 10, 1848. The second certificate was his actual citizenship paper. With this information I was able to go to the National Archives in Washington D.C. and look for the Ivanhoe passenger list. At this point there was no guarantee that the John Thomas I had found in the courthouse was the same John Thomas I had found in the 1850 census. What I needed to confirm the match was to find John Thomas, his wife Elizabeth and their baby daughter Elizabeth on the Ivanhoe, with ages corresponding to those found in the 1850 census. Having been to the National Archives on previous occasions, it didn’t take long to find the Ivanhoe’s passenger list, and on the second to the last page of the ship’s log, I found what I was looking for. There was the 25-year-old John Thomas, his 21-year-old wife Elizabeth, and their one-year-old daughter Elizabeth. As important as this discovery was, the real breakthrough was the fact that the list showed that John and his family traveled with a Mary Thomas, Thomas Thomas, Charlotte Thomas, and Jeremiah Thomas. However, it was the order in which these names were presented on the list, that provided the next crucial breakthrough:
Mary Thomas: 56
John Thomas: 25
Thomas Thomas: 19
Charlotte Thomas: 17
Jeremiah Thomas: 12
Elizabeth Thomas: 21
Elizabeth Thomas: 1
Although I was new to genealogy, I knew that this arrangement of names likely meant that Mary was the mother of John, Thomas, Charlotte and Jeremiah. This is clearly indicated by the fact that Mary is listed first (as the head of the family) while the two Elizabeths are listed last. It took only seconds to realize that, not only had I found John, his wife and daughter, but I had likely found his mother and brothers and sisters as well. Although I had always entertained dreams that one day I might be able to discover the origins of the Thomas family in Wales, I realized that I now had the key that could make that dream a reality. Little did I know that it would take another decade to finally solve the riddle.
The problem was, although the ship’s passenger lists provided valuable information, the passenger records did not indicate where the family came from in Wales, only that they came from Wales. I knew that my best chance to locate the family in Wales was to look for the family group I had found on the Ivanhoe (minus the two Elizabeths) in the 1841 census of Britain. But, where to look? I knew that John Thomas was a coal miner from south Wales, but that statement covers a lot of territory. After consulting with genealogists both here and in Britain, I was told that my task was impossible unless I was able to determine the parish in Wales my family had belonged to prior to coming to America. In Britain, parishes are a sets of local regions that comprise the larger shires. Within a few months I hired a British genealogist to search for the marriage record of John and Elizabeth in Wales, in the hope that their marriage certificate would tell me what area they came from. This proved a useless and expensive folly, so I made up my mind to try another course of action.
In the U.S., local LDS Family History Centers have the ability to order British census returns on microfilm for viewing in their libraries. I decided to test the waters by ordering a single real for the 1841 census of Carmarthenshire. I chose Carmarthen because I knew it was a coal mining region, and because a survey of the Washburn Street cemetery had noted that several Welshmen interred there had been born in Carmarthen. When I ordered the reel from the library, the enormity of the task ahead of me became depressingly apparent. The single roll of film I ordered would take several days to search, and was only one of many for the shire. Plus, I still had at least two coal-mining shires to consider as well, Glamorgan and Monmouth. When the film arrived it indeed took several visits to the library to search the reel, all to no avail. Although I again examined census returns for Carmarthen during our first trip to Wales in 1992, I knew that I was basically wasting my time. I would have to find some other way.
I decided to attack the problem by searching for the obituary of John J. Thomas at the Albright Library in Scranton. I thought that perhaps his obituary would mention his place of birth in Wales. The library has a wing dedicated to genealogy, that features birth and death certificates, census returns, and old newspapers on microfilm, among other records. I was in luck because the library had the Scranton Times on microfilm for the time period I was interested in. Unfortunately, the paper failed to turn up any mention of the death of John J. Thomas, who, according to his grave marker, died on February 13, 1876. I did eventually find an obituary for his wife Elizabeth that mentioned only her residence and the details of her funeral.
So far I had been frustrated in my search for the Thomas family’s Welsh origins. I spent the next couple of years collecting census information, deeds, obituaries, directing listings, etc., hoping to locate some shred of information that would lead to the answer. Although in doing so, I was able to assemble an impressive collection of family records, none provided even a hint as to the family’s Welsh origins.
By this time it had been several years since that fateful first trip to Scranton, and I decided to give the problem a rest and concentrate on other family lines. After a couple more years of research, I decided to give genealogy a rest and pursue other interests. Nevertheless, Parthene and I still returned to Scranton every other year or so to see if there was any additional information to be found at the library. Although such trips always resulted in at least some new family information, none helped with what I was really after – that is, until our trip of July 2003.
Parthene and I had decided to spend the first week in July, 2003 relaxing and engaging in a little family research in the Pocono Mountains of Monroe County Pennsylvania. Most of my Boorem and aligned family ancestors were from Monroe county. Since Scranton is only about 30 miles from the Poconos, we decided to budget a day and a half to for Scranton. I had recently found information that two Boorem family members were buried at Forest Hill Cemetery in Dunmore, and we also wanted to return to the library in Scranton once again. With the help of the cemetery caretaker, we were able to eventually locate the graves of Sarah Robbins and Samuel Boorem in Forest Hill Cemetery, and with that considerable success behind us, we turned our attention to the library in Scranton. As is always the case, I went straight to the drawer containing the microfilm for the Scranton Times. A wave of subdued excitement rushed over me as I immediately noticed that a second Scranton newspaper, The Scranton Republican, had been added since our last visit. I immediately pulled the microfilm covering February 13, 1876, however I was once again frustrated in finding any mention of the death of John J. Thomas.
After looking for other family obituaries, it occurred to me that I could also search the Scranton Republican for the obituary of John’s wife Elizabeth, even though I had found mention of her death years ago in the Scranton Times. Selecting the reel for July 1896, I soon came across Elizabeth’s obituary in the July 22, 1896 edition of the paper, the day following her death. The obituary reads as follows:
"Mrs. Elizabeth Morgan, wife of Isaac B. Morgan, died last evening about 8 o'clock at her home, 508 North Hyde Park Avenue."
These were the same ho-hum details I had found in the Scranton Times. However, the Republican’s write-up was more substantial, and the next line of the obit caused my heart to leap the way it had when I first saw the Ivanhoe passenger list years ago:
"Deceased was born in Bryn Mawr 68 years ago."
Finally, here was the break I had been waiting for. The rest of the obituary was unimportant, because there, staring me in the face was information confirming that John Thomas’ wife Elizabeth was born in Brynmawr, Wales. I did a double take, a triple take, and then pinched myself to make sure I wasn’t dreaming, as the implications of the find began to sink in. The first realization was that that I now had a specific research area to focus on in south Wales. The second and more important realization was that, since Elizabeth was from Brynmawr there was a better than average chance that her husband John J. Thomas was from Brynmawr as well. Although Parthene and I made many important discoveries during that week of research in July, all were eclipsed by that single, simple sentence, and the discovery caused an overwhelming sense of relief. The endgame was finally in sight, as I realized I had just discovered the most important piece of the puzzle.
Of course the first task was to find out about Brynmawr itself. It turns out that Brynmawr isn’t in Carmarthenshire, Monmouthshire, or Glamorgan, but rather in Breconshire. I set about studying the history of the region and the Welsh system of parishes and civil registration, in anticipation of looking for John and Elizabeth in the 1841 census. After several months of study I felt I had gained enough knowledge of Welsh records to take the next steps. Fortunately, just as I reached this necessary point of enlightenment, (October 2003), Parthene discovered that the most of the 1841 census for Wales had just been released on CD ROM. This was especially good news because it meant that I no longer had to order and view film at my local LDS library; I could instead search the 1841 census from the comfort of home. Still not convinced that John Thomas was from Brynmawr, I prudently ordered the census CDs for Breconshire, Carmarthenshire and Monmouthshire.
The CDs arrived on October 28, 2003. Although I thought that I had a pretty good shot of finding Elizabeth in Brynmawr, I was far less certain about my chances of finding John Thomas and his family. (John and Elizabeth would not yet have been married in 1841.) Again, just because Elizabeth was from Brynmawr did not mean that the Thomas family was from Brynmawr as well. Having been frustrated for so many years, I knew better than to get my hopes up. Besides, even if I wasn’t able to find the Thomas family, I could still take great comfort in at least knowing that Elizabeth was born in Brynmawr, and one out of two wasn't bad.
Still, I knew that if I was going to find the Thomas family in the 1841 census, I would have to find the same group that traveled together on the Ivanhoe seven years later in 1848, minus John’s wife Elizabeth and daughter Elizabeth, and here the key was finding Charlotte and Jeremiah with the family. That’s because while Mary, John and Thomas were and are very common names in Wales, Charlotte was far less common, and Jeremiah was downright unusual. I therefore needed to find a Mary, John and Thomas, in the same family with a Charlotte and a Jeremiah. Only this exact combination of individuals would provide a valid match, validate the information found on the Ivanhoe passenger lists, and finally reveal the Thomas family in their native Wales. As I began going through the first part of the CD for Llanelly Parish (Brynmawr is part of the parish of Llanelly) I first came across the nearby community of Clydach and their iron works villages. The town of Brynmawr followed Clydach. I began my survey of Brynmawr having already encountered several instances of Thomas families that included a John, a Mary and a Thomas. I therefore tried not to get my hopes up when I saw the following entry at the bottom of page 31, listing residents living on Somerset Street:
John Thomas, 45, occupation Collier
Mary Thomas, 45
John Thomas, 20, occupation Collier
With subdued excitement, I pondered the likelihood that this family would (1) be continued on the facing page, and (2), if so, that the remainder of the family would include a Thomas, a Charlotte and a Jeremiah. I then proceeded to the top of the next page and saw the following:
Elizabeth Thomas, 15
Thomas Thomas, 10
Charlotte Thomas, 5
Jeremiah Thomas, 2
Game, set, and match. Not only had I found the Thomas family in Brynmawr, the census also identified Mary's husband John, who likely died before the family came to America, and an unknown daughter named Elizabeth. Here finally was my match with the Ivanhoe's passenger records. The census even named the street the Thomas family lived on. As I sat staring at the entry, barely believing what I was seeing, I was engulfed by a tremendous sense of excitement and relief at having finally solved a family mystery that some had said would likely never be solved. It was about 10:30 PM and I quickly rushed into the bedroom to tell Parthene, and we celebrated by cracking open a bottle of good champagne! Needless to say, I had great difficulty sleeping that night, as the implications of the discovery along with some 15 years of research flashed before my eyes.
In the end, tracking down the Thomas family’s Welsh origins represents a remarkable chain of events and discoveries, aided by persistent and solid research. The decision to go to Scranton in 1986 and visit Betty and Mike Barrett was critical, because it uncovered Uncle Wilfred’s Thomas family tree and led us to the final resting place of John and Elizabeth Thomas. The 1850 census was important because it demonstrated that John and Elizabeth were married in Wales, and had a daughter named Elizabeth who was born in Wales. This information enabled me to narrow the time frame of the family’s immigration to the U.S., which led to the discovery of John’s naturalization record at the courthouse in Wilkes-Barre. The naturalization record provided John's date and place of arrival in America. That in turn led to the discovery of the ship’s passenger list at the National Archives in Washington D.C. The ship’s passenger list provided an unexpected glimpse of John’s extended family, and provided a blueprint of how the Thomas family should have appeared in the 1841 census of Wales. Persistence in visiting the library in Scranton paid off in July of 2003 when I discovered Elizabeth’s obituary in the Scranton Republican. Finally, the timely release of the 1841 census of Wales on CD ROM allowed me to quickly and easily locate the family in Brynmawr. However, had it not been for Charlotte and Jeremiah and their less-than-common names, we may have never identified the family in Wales. Remove any one piece of this research equation, and the results may have been quite different. Solid research, persistence, and just plain luck, had finally conspired to solve our family riddle.
Having replanted our Thomas family roots firmly in Brynmawr, I’ve moved on to the next research phase, with the goal of finding further evidence of our family in Wales and perhaps discovering earlier generations of ancestors. So, while one chapter of the Thomas family has been closed, a brand new chapter has been opened. Now the focus shifts to Wales, where further progress will be difficult, or perhaps impossible. Then again, I have recently learned to disregard notions of the latter.
Jeffrey L. Thomas
Next: the Davies family is discovered in Brynmawr
Learn more about our immigrant ancestor, John J. Thomas
Return to the main page at the Thomas Family Web Site
Text and photographs copyright © 2003 by Jeffrey L. Thomas, with all rights reserved