Saturday, April 5, 2014

52 Ancestors #14: I'm Sorry Great Great Grandma!

Ancestor Name: Margaret (Semple) Muir

I'm not sure what the rules are about writing about the same ancestor twice during the 52 Ancestors challenge, but I felt it was important for me to do so. In Week #4 I all but accused my great great grand mother, Margaret (Semple) Muir[1] of being a hussy! She did have an illegitimate child before she married James Muir; but in light of what I know now, I prefer to think of that as a youthful indiscretion.

Janet "Jessie" Semple birth registration courtesy of ScotlandsPeople

Thanks to the wonderful research collaboration with my New Zealand cousin, I believe we've got the real story behind James Muir not being with the family. My cousin's first genealogy book was about the Scottish Semple family. The book is now out of print, but she sent me the chapter on Peter Semple and his family. Peter Semple was Margaret (Semple) Muir's father. The chapter provided a description of the life the family lived in Dalserf, Lanarkshire, Scotland, in the mid- to late-1800s, the birth dates, death dates, and information about spouses and children.  Margaret's husband, James Muir, supposedly died in 1926 at Mystic, Appanoose, Iowa. That made sense to me because Mystic was located in Walnut Creek Valley, which was one continuous mining camp at the time James died. What didn't make sense when I saw the death record index citation was his date of birth -- listed as 1894. That was 50 years too late; so I discounted the information and left his date of death blank in my tree.

What I did learn after looking up the birth registration records for all of Margaret and James Muir's children born in Scotland, was that James Muir was the informant when his son, Peter Semple Muir, was born in 1886. So I was feeling a bit better about Margaret's reputation!

That still didn't explain why the available documents were silent on the question of James Muir's possible immigration to the United States, the two children born in the United States or why Margaret didn't follow the Scottish naming convention for the son she should have named after her husband. Then my cousin found a passenger list record for James Muir. He immigrated to the United States on 6 June 1887 aboard the steamship Ethiopia, which meant he arrived three months before his wife and children. With all these new discoveries, my thoughts about Margaret were evolving.  I now believed all of Margaret's children (except the oldest daughter) were James' and they separated after the youngest was born. But how to prove it?

Passenger list for Anchor Line's Steamship Ethiopia courtesy of

As I've progressed in my research abilities, I've developed a step-by-step research process that I go through for every ancestor I enter into my tree. New steps get added as I get smarter, and I realized I'd last really investigated James when I was a beginner and there were several things I hadn't done. So I took a "Mulligan" (golf speak for a do-over) and started over. Once I verified all the information I did have and ensured I had at least one source citation for every known fact, I clicked the Search Records link on

A search result was returned for a 1925 Iowa census record. I'd seen that record many times but discounted it as not being relevant before. The other day I opened the image of the census record and really looked at it. It sure looked like my James Muir, but his wife, Maggie Muir, certainly wasn't my Margaret (Semple) Muir. My Margaret Muir died in 1920; I have her death certificate. Who was this Maggie Muir and why did most of the other people in the house have Greenbank as their last name?

1925 Iowa State Census courtesy of

After lots of research, this Maggie Muir turned out to be James Muir's second wife. Her first husband  had been committed to the Mt. Pleasant Hospital for the Insane sometime after 1895. He died there, perhaps in 1924. James Muir was listed on the 1900 census as a boarder in the home of Maggie Greenbank at Mystic, Iowa. His said he was divorced at the time. On the 1915 Iowa state census he indicated he first came to Iowa in 1895. Back in Reading, Illinois, his wife Margaret (Semple) Muir said she was married on the 1900 census.  But by 1913 James had married Maggie (McIntosh) Greenbank. I ordered James Muir's death certificate; as I suspected, his birth date was a transcription error. The birth date was listed as 1844 and his father was correct. It was a shame his second wife, the informant, didn't know his mother's name, but she died before he was 12 years old. I wonder if he remembered.

Margaret (McIntosh) Greenbank/Muir, the "other woman;" courtesy
So now I know why James' daughter by Margaret (Semple) Muir did not provide her father's name on her marriage license when she married in 1902. He had abandoned the family by that time, perhaps as early as 1895. Poor Margaret (Semple) Muir; she was no hussy. She was hard done by. She was pregnant eleven times and lost five children when they were very young. Her husband left her with several young children, the youngest likely only a year old. And she spent her entire adult life living in seedy coal patches (coal mining towns).

Coal patch circa 1900; photo courtesy of the Historical Scoiety of Schuylkill County, Pottsville, Pennsylvania

I'm sorry great great grandma!

This is my entry for Amy Johnson Crow's 52 ancestors in 52 weeks challenge.

[1] Margaret Semple was born on 22 June 1849 at Stonehouse, Lanark, Scotland, to Peter and Janet (Torrance) Semple. She had one illegitimate daughter, Janet "Jessie" Semple in 1871. Margaret married James Muir, a coal miner, on 4 July 1873 at Dalserf, Lanark, Scotland.  James arrived in New York, New York, on 6 Jun 1887 aboard the steamship Ethiopia. Margaret and their children followed and arrived in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on 30 September 1887. She had seven children with James before they emigrated from Scotland; however, only three were living when they boarded the ship at Glasgow, Scotland. Her daughter, Jessie, was also onboard the same ship. While living in Streator, La Salle, Illinois, Margaret had two more children. By 1900, her husband James was no longer living with the family. Margaret moved to Nineveh, Adair, Missouri, sometime soon after 1910 to help her widowed son, Robert (my great grandfather), care for his motherless young children. She died in Kirksville, Adair, Missouri, three days after an operation of uremia on 31 May 1920. She is buried in Novinger Cemetery at Novinger, Adair, Missouri.  Margaret indicated on the 1910 census that she had eleven children but only six were living; so there is one child for which we've yet to account.


  1. I love the apology. Even if she is long gone, the clearing of her good name is important. I too have overlooked census reports thinking them incorrect or invalid, only to learn as I get better at this to really take a look. Great post and one that I enjoyed reading. Good lesson for all of us.

    1. I have found that adding research notes to each person in FTM helps me when I go back and look at the people I entered in my tree years ago. I realize I've learned all sorts of research avenues I didn't know about then.

      Thank you for your comments!

  2. I honor my ancestors too. The turn of the 20th century created some tough survivors!

    1. They really were tough, weren't they? When I was younger I always dreamed of living in the past, but now that I know how hard live was, I'm over that dream!

  3. Great post! Isn't it funny how we need to keep going back to check (and recheck) our research?

    1. Genealogy and family history is never done, is it?