Not A Centenarian

Week 21: #52 Ancestors – Tombstone

By Eilene Lyon

Nancy (Ary) Self’s tombstone looks rather ordinary, except that it seems to indicate that she lived to a remarkable age: 105. It isn’t true, but according to her obituary she outlived all twelve of her children, so that makes it pretty easy to claim you’ve reached the century mark when you haven’t.1 Except that bit about outliving all her children isn’t true, either.

Nancy (Ary) Self’s headstone suggests she was born in 1795. (E. Lyon 2012)

It appears that Nancy Ary (original German name, Ihrich) was a late-born daughter of William Ary and Mary “Polly” Stowers, in Rockingham County, Virginia.2 The Ary family moved from Virginia to Greene County, Ohio, suggesting they may have been Quakers, but I have not found any records to that effect. Perhaps they just had many Quaker friends.

In Greene County (where I coincidently graduated high school), Nancy married a fellow Virginian and War of 1812 veteran, John Self. According to one report, she married at 18. Her obituary states she was 17 at the time. Most likely, she was just 16. The marriage took place on February 8, 1821.3 If she had been born the date shown on her grave marker, she would have been 25 years, 7 months, and 27 days old. Quite a contradiction with the other two statements.

Though her obituary says she had 12 children, I’ve so far only determined eight. The others reportedly died as infants.4 Nancy and John Self relocated to Bureau County, Illinois, about 1845, where John farmed for a living. This is coincidently where The Putterer grew up. I visited John Self’s grave there in 2012. He died of dropsy (edema, likely from congestive heart failure), in November 1859.5

John Self’s grave marker in the Mason Cemetery, Bureau County, Illinois. (E. Lyon 2012)

Nancy and several of her children apparently did not get enumerated in 1860. They moved to Winneshiek County, Iowa, that year, where several of her children lived.6 However, Nancy did get counted in 1850, 1870 and 1880. All three documents suggest she was born in 1804.7 Twenty years later, the story changed.

In 1900 she was living with a granddaughter and her family. The census record gives her birth month/year as June 1800.8 The census taker came around on June 5, so though he recorded her as 99 years old, a week later she would celebrate her 100th birthday. Except she was really just about to turn 96. And that’s how old she was when she died in November 1900.

This image exhibited at the fair in St. Louis in 1904 celebrates Nancy Self as a centenarian. (Photo shared by “Grundestoun” at Find-a-grave.)

Though in her long life Nancy never learned to read or write, she retained her mental faculties to the end, which is quite impressive. Her final illness lasted only a few months, so she did not have a drawn-out, suffering death. She was reported to have 22 grandchildren and 66 great-grandchildren when she died.9

As for the child who outlived her? That was her youngest son, Franklin Self, who never left Bureau County, Illinois. He died in 1919.10

Franklin Self’s gravestone in the Malden Cemetery, Bureau County, Illinois. (E. Lyon 2012)
Self family plot in the Malden Cemetery includes Franklin Self, his wife, and two of their children, as well as Nancy Self’s daughter, Rosanna (Self) Peake and her husband, William Peake. (E. Lyon 2012)

And where did that birth year of 1795 come from? The reporter who wrote her obituary noted the celebration of her 100th birthday in June, then states “But since then the examination of a cotemporaneous [sic] family record of one who was an associate of the deceased in childhood, but two years younger than she, seems to fix her birthday as June 12, 1795.”11 So that’s what they put on the tombstone!

Feature image: Nancy Ary Self’s gravestone in the Phelps Cemetery, Decorah, Iowa. (E. Lyon 2012)

  1. “Aged 105 Years.” Decorah Republican, December 6, 1900. Copied from Decorah Genealogy Association file, 2012.
  3. Nancy Ary and John Self. Family Search film #000534105. Ohio, County Marriage Records, 1774-1993 [database on-line]. Lehi, UT, USA: Operations, Inc., 2016. 
  4. “A Centenarian Gone” unsourced obituary clipping copied from file at Decorah Genealogy Association, 2012. It states that five of her twelve children died in infancy, but she had eight who actually lived to adulthood.
  5. John Self. National Archives and Records Administration (NARA); Washington, D.C.; Non-population Census Schedules for Illinois, 1850-1880; Archive Collection: T1133; Archive Roll Number: 58; Census Year: 1860; Census Place: Sheffield, Bureau, Illinois – via 
  6. See note 4. 
  7. Nancy Self. Year: 1850; Census Place: Berlin, Bureau, Illinois; Roll: 99; Page: 203B; Year: 1870; Census Place: Decorah, Winneshiek, Iowa; Roll: M593_426; Page: 101B; Family History Library Film: 545924; and Year: 1880; Census Place: Decorah, Winneshiek, Iowa; Roll: 370; Page: 75A; Enumeration District: 343 – via 
  8. Nancy Self. Year: 1900; Census Place: West Decorah, Winneshiek, Iowa; Page: 3; Enumeration District: 0128; FHL microfilm: 1240466 – via 
  9. See note 1. 
  10. Gravestone in Malden Cemetery, Bureau County, Illinois, personal visit in 2012. Supported by death record at Family Search. 
  11. See note 1. The obituary in note 4 states, “Nancy Ary, wife of John Self, was born June 12th, 1795, in Rockingham County, Va.” Both news reports are incorrect and not supported by evidence. 

43 thoughts on “Not A Centenarian

Add yours

  1. You’ve done yourself proud with this investigation. I’m amazed when I realize that many of our ancestors may not have been able to read or write. Seems inconceivable, but I know it is true.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. So many times genealogy ends up being a method of disproving family legend. Living as long as she did and having such a large family was still rather impressive. I can’t imagine not learning to read and write, though.

      Liked by 3 people

    2. I took another look at a bit of information and it may be that despite appearances, Franklin might be the son of Rosanna Self – and her father! That’s what his death record suggests, and he is buried in the same cemetery lot with her. Eeek!!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. It does seem confounding that when a person is laid to rest that someone wouldn’t make sure the dates they spent on this earth were correct. But I suppose there are all kinds of different circumstances under which the incorrect dates could be inscribed.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. You would think! But mistakes to happen. I found one stone that has the correct death year, but somehow the date is the day her son died in a previous year, not the date she died. It seems a shame, since there’s no official death record, that her gravestone would be wrong.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Usually people fudge about their age in the other direction!

    There was an issue with my dad’s mother and the spelling of her name. She always went by a nickname, rarely did she sign anything the same way twice, and what records there were didn’t match either! When she passed away, there were two spellings considered and I guess they flipped a coin?
    Anyway, I was named after her and my parents used the spelling on the stone. Much later, a cousin had a daughter and used the alternate spelling. And what do you think, but her dad (my uncle) paid to have the tombstone redone!
    (I still consider myself her true namesake 😉)

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I’ve always found all the age discrepancies on successive censuses (that’s a tongue twister!) to be really odd. I understand if they were just lying, but some of those people genuinely didn’t seem to be able to keep track. How do you lose whole years of your life?! Granted, if you’re in your 90s, I could understand some of them slipping your mind, but not in your 20s, as some of the people were on the censuses I’ve seen!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Hi Eilene. My name is Patrick Hodge and I live in Princeton, IL I was just looking through my Ary file tonight and ran across where I’d noted that you’d visited the Bureau County Genealogical Society a few years back researching the Ary and Self lines. Did a Facebook search tonight and found you, plus your blog! I’m also a descendant of William Ary and Mary Stowers through their daughter Mary who married Christopher Vickery. In addition, I have two lines of Shiffletts, another name you may have run across in connection to the Arys. Anyway, I just thought that I would say hello. Enjoyed your articles on Nancy and Franklin.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Pat,
      I still have the letter you sent me in 2012. I enjoyed my visit to Bureau County that year. My husband grew up in La Moille and his cousin lives in Princeton. Nice to hear from you. Glad you enjoyed the blog!


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