The Perils of Careless Recordkeeping

The 5th in a Series … Volume II

Prompt: Oops!


The climb up the family tree is just one misplaced footfall away from an inconvenient “Oops!” An incorrect date can throw off an entire lineage. A misspelled name or wrong location can yield a labyrinth of erroneous information or plummet us into an endless search for someone who doesn’t even exist. Seems to me that careless record keeping is the source of all “Oopses!.”

Case in point … the apparent mystery regarding the death date of my sixth great grandmother, Rebecca (Downer) Sumner born February 1, 1739 in Bolton, Tolland, Connecticut, to Samuel Downer (1699-1799) and his wife Phebe Bishop (1700-1787). Rebecca married Thomas Sumner (1734-1820), June 7, 1761. The book American Loyalist Claims describes him as follows:

Source: American Loyalist Claims (National Georgraphical Society, 1980
(Coldham, Peter Wilson; Haigh, Sally Lou Mick; Great Britain. Public Record Office. Audit Office)

Note the mention of a memorial, (presumably to Rebecca and which, to date, no one seems to have been able to locate).

In another document I received some years ago from a fellow Sumner researcher there’s a conflict of dates for Rebecca’s death. This document now appears to be widely circulated online. In this 1983 paper on Thomas Sumner, Col. Robert S. Sumner first writes:

This information is corroborated in a document from the Public Records Office in London, Ontario, in which this statement by Thomas Sumner appears:

“I arrived in St. John in May, 1783, with my wife and six children and being totally in want of the comforts to which my family had been accustomed my wife is since dead.”

It’s worth noting here that their last child, Sylvia Americana Sumner, born ca 1781, would have been a babe in arms at the time of her mother’s death in New Brunswick.

Further, from Land Petition #212 at Kings County, New Brunswick; at Provincial Archives, Fredericton, New Brunswick:

Source: A biography of Thomas Sumner by Robert Hansen

Here we can see a discrepancy in the number of children compared to the previous document which might be explained by the fact the two oldest boys, William Augustus and Azor Betts were in their late teens at that time and possibly more independent.


So, this is where we get into the death date discrepancy for Rebecca. Later in Col. Sumner’s document the following appears:

Could this single document be the source of the confusion? Was the notation of Rebecca’s death as 1820 a major “Oops!?” Other records assume that Rebecca’s place of death was Toronto which is where her husband is said to have died in 1820.*

There are family files all over the internet that show the conflicting dates 1783 and 1820 for Rebecca’s death. As well, there are files that state she died 7 June, 1761, the day she and Thomas married. This makes no sense since all nine of her children were born between 1762 and ca 1781. Another confusing “Oops!” which suggests a lack of attention paid to details on the part of family historians. If it were true that Rebecca died in 1761 her many descendants, including me, wouldn’t be here.

The Final Word

So which is it? 1783 or 1820?

For my part, and based on Thomas’s own accounts in the two separate documents noted above, my feeling is that Rebecca (Downer) Sumner did indeed pass away shortly after the family landed as refugees in the untamed wilderness of New Brunswick. As a magistrate’s wife she would have been used to finer things, and no doubt the toil of the Revolutionary War which robbed them of everything they owned must have taken its toll. Add to this the raising and managing of a large family in challenging times and circumstances, as well as witnessing her husband’s persecution, and there appears ample reason to believe she could have succumbed to the new hardships. We cannot know her constitution, of course. A woman who could bear nine children in 18th century New England and live to tell the tale must have been strong indeed. Still, even strength has its limits. Is it possible post-partum depression of some kind played a part in Rebecca’s down turn? My vivid imagination is throwing spaghetti at a wall here, but having read some staggering accounts of the Loyalists’ lives after coming to Canada I believe anything is possible.

Supposition is a dangerous thing. Still, “Oops!” or no “Oops!” I’ll be laying flowers for Rebecca (Downer) Sumner in New Brunswick until someone can prove she rests elsewhere.❦

©Dorothy E. Chiotti … All Rights Reserved 2023 … Aimwell CreativeWorks

* It’s possible “Toronto” means anywhere from Middlesex Co. (where Thomas had property) to York Co.. It’s also possible the location of Thomas’s gravesite may never be located.

2 thoughts on “The Perils of Careless Recordkeeping

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