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.
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
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.
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
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)
- “Aged 105 Years.” Decorah Republican, December 6, 1900. Copied from Decorah Genealogy Association file, 2012. ↩
- https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/93254534 ↩
- Nancy Ary and John Self. Family Search film #000534105. Ancestry.com. Ohio, County Marriage Records, 1774-1993 [database on-line]. Lehi, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2016. ↩
- “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. ↩
- 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 Ancestry.com. ↩
- See note 4. ↩
- 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 Ancestry.com. ↩
- Nancy Self. Year: 1900; Census Place: West Decorah, Winneshiek, Iowa; Page: 3; Enumeration District: 0128; FHL microfilm: 1240466 – via Ancestry.com. ↩
- See note 1. ↩
- Gravestone in Malden Cemetery, Bureau County, Illinois, personal visit in 2012. Supported by death record at Family Search. ↩
- 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. ↩