Thursday, June 2, 2011



I am always afraid that relatives who die either young or at least before they marry and start a family will get lost both in the memory and in the record. Robert Gaston Dobbins was my great-grandfather's brother. He died when he was only 23 years old and unmarried. Although my great-grandfather named his first son after him, (Robert Gaston Dobbins 1872-1929) by the time I started genealogy in 1984 no one in the family had any inkling that there had been an earlier relative by that name. I am hoping that my record of him will here always be available to anyone running a search on that name. He is truly an Immortal Nobody.

Robert Gaston Dobbins had been born in Clermont County, Ohio to James "Jim" Alexander and Elizabeth Perkins Dobbins. In 1834 the Dobbins family, headed by the Rev. Robert B. Dobbins, a circuit-riding Presbyterian Minister, left Ohio for Illinois, where Rev. Dobbins had purchased enough land to ultimately deed some to each of his children. The family settled in Vermont Township, Fulton County, Illinois.

The Mississippi River is the western border of Illinois
and many rivers feed into it. The dot on the map below shows approximately where the Dobbinses settled and you can see the waterways that course through it. The two biggest are the Illinois River and nearer to Fulton County the Spoon River.

My friend Carl Peterson, a retired history professor, a superb genealogist and a terrific social historian, told me that the Mississippi Valley, of which west-central Illinois is a part, had a terrible cholera epidemic in 1851, and it is possible that this is what Robert died from. Of course we don't know for sure. We do, however, know that it was from an illness, as one of the charges against his estate was a bill from the doctor that read: “To P. S. Secor, Dr. For 20 visits, advice and medicine per self in last illness - $33.25,” Carl noted that is is unlikely that someone dying in a cholera epidemic would have had occasion for 20 visits to the doctor.

What we do know is that Robert did not leave a will, but he had enough assets that his estate had to be probated. Robert's father Jim was the administrator and he had to declare all of Robert’s assets and all of his liabilities.

Although this record is difficult to read, Robert apparently loaned money to Levi J. Sperry, who was married to Robert’s sister Paulina Jane; Robert was holding two notes, one for $20 and the other for $12.50. As administrator of the estate Jim noted that it was “doubtful” that these were collectible. I suspect that this was a way to “forgive” the notes. After all, Levi was his son-in-law, and what father hasn’t helped out his kids? The husband of daughter Elizabeth Dobbins Kinsey owed seventy-five cents, but Jim didn’t “forgive” that debt. (Claudius Kinsey had deserted Elizabeth some years earlier). And Jim himself owed $8.87, which he said he was good for. The total money outstanding was $78.57.

Among the bills that Robert’s estate incurred was one for $8.00 from Thomas Grewell for making the coffin and one for $2.00 paid to John Marshall “for crying Sale of the Estate of said deed.” “Crying” is a word used when there is an auction or sale – the auctioneer “cries” the sale.

An inventory was taken of all Robert’s possessions, and among the items on the list were some fairly uncommon items for a young man who lived on a farm on the Illinois prairie:

1 leather trunk
1 silk plush cap
1 pair pantaloons
1 satin vest
2 silk neck handkerchiefs
1 pr hose
1 mole skin hat
1 fine shirt
2 pair cashmere pants
1 gold ring
1 umbrella
1 Missouri Harmony

Of course there were the usual undershirts, underpants, jackets, hats, etc. that you would expect. All the inventoried items were sold at auction. Purchasers included family members and a few neighbors.

I originally thought a “Missouri Harmony” was a harmonica. But I learned that it was a shape-note singing book that had been used since the 1820s in the various singing schools that were held in many areas during that period of our country’s history. They were created for people who didn’t read music; singers could identify the tune by observing the shapes of the notes. Sometimes they are called “wheat notes.” There also was another book that was popular at that time called “Sacred Harp.”

In my investigation to learn about the Missouri Harmony, I was able to purchase a reproduction from the University of Nebraska book store for $1.00 – a closeout price. They had one copy left, obviously waiting for me! Here’s what it looks like.

I know nothing more about young Robert Gaston Dobbins except that he was buried in the Dobbins Cemetery in Vermont Township, Fulton County, Illinois. No picture exists.

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