I've recently begun researching my wife's ancestry and it didn't take very log at all before I encountered my first, and very formidable, brick wall. At issue is the origin of her paternal great-great-grandfather, James McGregor of Macon County, Missouri. Through online research I've been able to learn a great deal about James, such as his marriage to Ida "Giddie" Calhoun and his death in 1914 which left his three young children (the oldest of which, my wife's great-grandfather, was only 15) orphaned. He's a steady fixture in Macon County from 1880, according to census records, but it's the time from his birth in 1858 until that first census appearance that has me scratching my head.
Family lore has always held that James was an orphan, and that fact is confirmed on his death certificate. James' father-in-law, Pleasant Calhoun, is listed as the informer on the certificate and notes that James was orphaned in infancy, an event which occurred in Pennsylvania. This is also circumstantially backed up in the census records as James' story about where his parents were born varies from year to year. For example, in 1880 he declares that they were both born in Pennsylvania. In 1900, however, he states that his father was born in Scotland and his mother originated from Ireland. The census for 1910 displays a slight alteration to the story, with his mother now being from England.
A pretty exhaustive search of census records from 1860 and 1870 has yielded no match for James McGregor, or any name remotely similar, with a birth year of 1858. So how, if he truly was born in Pennsylvania, did he reach Missouri twenty-two years later? When he first appears in 1880, he's a boarder in the home of an elderly couple named Linn. No other McGregors are listed in the county, so a familial tie is very unlikely. Enter the Orphan Trains as a possibility, then. I fired off an email to Shirley Andrews, the Missouri contact for the National Orphan Train Complex, asking for more information of the resources available to those who think they may have had an ancestor who was a rider. After all, several hundred thousand children from eastern cities moved west as part of this phenomena. Shirley very quickly replied to my inquiry, though she couldn't locate James among her records. She did, however, have some great suggestions, such as perusing the local newspapers from the period since many Orphan Train arrivals were mentioned in the press. An interesting side note to my theory is that, in the 1870 census, there is a James Smith living with a Gordon family in Macon County. This James was born about 1856 in Pennsylvania and is listed as a "domestic servant". Many Orphan Train riders weren't adopted, but were taken in as laborers, farmhands, and servants. Could this James and my James be one and the same? Intriguing.
So what are my next steps? Thanks to the great information on the website of the Macon County Genealogical Society I was able to ascertain that James' will and probate records still exist at the county courthouse. I've sent away for copies in the hope that some clue to James' early years might be found there. The State Historical Society of Missouri has a great collection of newspapers on microfilm that contains many Macon County editions from the 1870s. They participate in the Inter-Library Loan program, but my local library refuses to accommodate requests for microfilm. Hopefully the Kentucky Historical Society's Martin F. Schmidt Research Library can help me to get my hands on these reels. One way or another, I am going to scour through those newspapers!
I'll keep you posted.