Saturday, May 28, 2011


© Kathy Duncan, 2011

Two researchers contacted me within the last week asking about the deaths of Martha (Sales) Duncan and her son William who apparently died on the same day. Their deaths on the same day suggest illness or an accident. Either would make for an interesting story. Maybe they died in a house fire or overturned wagon? Maybe they died in an epidemic? After sifting through my information, I’ve come to the conclusion that they did not die on the same day. No interesting story.

According to find-a-grave, both Martha and her son died on October 9th, Martha in 1869 and William in 1865. Both years are incorrect.

First, let’s look at the records of Martha (Sales) Duncan. Her tombstone in Coop Prairie Cemetery in Scott County, Arkansas was broken before this picture was taken in the late 1970s to early 1980s. The damage runs right through her year of death. In Cemeteries of Sebastian County, Arkansas, Wanda Gray transcribed Martha’s date of death as 1865. Larry Duncan who lived in Waldron and was a frequent visitor to Coop Prairie also transcribed Martha’s date of death as 1865. Since Martha’s husband Isaac Duncan married Susan P. (Reese) Hodges in 1867, Martha’s year of death would need to be well before 1869. Therefore, 1865 seems like an acceptable date of death for Martha. We can guess that the death years for Martha and her son William may have been transposed on find-a-grave.

Next, let’s consider what is known of William Duncan. His records are more problematic, and an easy conclusion cannot be drawn at this time. Currently, find-a-grave links a tombstone for a William W. Duncan as the son of Martha (Sales) and Isaac Duncan. The entry states that William Duncan was born 6 Jan 1859 and died 9 Oct 1865. However, the photograph of the tombstone clearly shows a death date of 2 Dec 1875. We could chalk that up to a recording error, but it is still not easy to link this William Duncan to Martha (Sales) and Isaac Duncan. The birth date on the tombstone is in conflict with two other records. The first conflict is with the birth date for William’s older sister Sarah Ann Duncan. Her tombstone states that she was born 7 Jan 1859. Were they twins born one day apart? No. Sarah’s birth date is consistent with the 1860 census which states that she is a one-year-old. This leads us to the second conflict. William’s age on the same census is 5/12 months; his age is off by one year from the birth date on the tombstone. In order for the tombstone to be William’s, the year on the stone should be 1860, not 1859. Granted, the tombstone could be William’s if the stone was carved incorrectly. Was Isaac Duncan too overcome with grief to remember the exact year of his 15-year-old son’s birth? Did he write the date incorrectly or eligibly so that the tombstone mason refused to correct the error?

In order for the tombstone to belong to Martha’s William, we also need to be able to prove he was still living in 1870. The 1870 Sebastian County, Arkansas census lists a ten-year-old William living with his father Isaac and step-mother Susan Duncan, so the stone could be William’s.

Note that neither census provides a middle initial for William Duncan while the tombstone provides a “W.” as a middle initial. If William were still living in his father’s household in 1880, it would be easy to decide if the tombstone belonged to him. Indeed, the 1880 census does not list a son William living with Isaac. That might suggest that William was deceased before 1880 except that there is 20-year-old William Duncan, born in Arkansas, boarding with George Taylor in Palarma, Faulkner County, Arkansas. No birthplace for parents is provided with this William Duncan’s entry, so it is impossible to rule him out as Martha (Sales) Duncan’s son.

We are left with questions. Is William Duncan’s tombstone in error? Did he die shortly before his 16th birthday? Or did he live well beyond 1875?


  1. Sarah (Duncan) Knight called "Sallie" was my great great great grandmother and I know her and her sister Rebecca were the only childern who lived to be adults from what I was told. I never heard she had a twin brother I believe those dates were wrong. Martha (Sales) Duncan was called by her family "Patsie"

    1. Which dates do you think are wrong? Are we on the same wave length? Good to hear from you again.

    2. Adam, I've added a link in the text to the photograph of William Duncan's tombstone on findagrave so that it is easier to see what I am talking about.

    3. I was talking about William and Sallie being born a day apart that does not add up I have Sallie's death certificate that states she was born December 20 1859. So it is very possible William was born in 1860 but the date was just written wrong. William could of been 5 1/2 months old and Sallie could of been 1 close to turning 2 at that time.

    4. Another thing to think of is peoples human error not recording dates correct back then time and dates weren't recorded as well as they are now. I do have a cousin I will call regarding William hopefully he can provide some answers about this matter. It was good to hear from you.

    5. Adam - My point was that they were not twins. Death certificates are secondary sources where birth information is concerned because they are so distant in time from the birth. So what to think in this instance? If you look at Sarah "Sallie" (Duncan) Knight's birth information on the 1900 census it is given as Jan. 1859. She is age one in 1860 and age eleven in 1870 which seems consistent. Her age would have been expressed in months on the 1860 census if she had been under a year. If Sallie had been born in December of 1859, then her birth is too close to William's. He seems to have been born in January of 1860.

  2. I see what you mean there's not enough space in time for the two birth's if she was born in December 1859. I have always struggled on this side of the family tree with anyone who is related to the Sales there are lots of mystery's and brick walls. I was blessed a couple years ago with pictures of Sallie it was nice to find some seeing how I could never find any of Martha.


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