The Summerford Secret

The Family Secret of Issac and Pamela Summerford



In the tangled undergrowth along the Broad River in western York County may still be found the 13 weathered gravestones of the Darwin Family Burial Ground. Here is the final resting place of John Darwin, a Virginian born in 1755 who, a month before his 21st birthday in 1776, enlisted in Company 10 of the 3rd Virginia Regiment, Continental Line. He served for two years, surviving a musket ball wound to his arm at Harlem Heights, a bout with smallpox in Philadelphia, the rigours of Brandywine, the calamity of Germantown, and the deprivations of Valley Forge. When his enlistment expired in 1778, he spent the summer driving cattle for Washington’s army before migrating to York District, South Carolina, where his brother James (and possibly a sister as well) had previously settled from Virginia.

If he had hoped thereby to escape the war, he gravely miscalculated, for the war followed him south to the Carolinas. The Darwin brothers served in the local militia through the brutish partisan warfare in the period to 1781, helping, in John’s own words, "to keep the Tories in subjection." In 1783, he married Jane Bland, whose family had also previously migrated from Virginia and whose own brother John, another partisan in the local militia, had been killed two years previously by Loyalist “Bloody Bill” Cunningham at the Clouds Creek Massacre.

In 1782, the year prior to his marriage, John had purchased from his commander in the militia, Lt. Humphrey Barnett, the 300 acres along the Broad River where he would prosper, raising a family of 12 children and where, when he died, an 82-year-old widower in 1837, he would be buried in the Family Burial Ground beside the graves of his wife Jane, two of their children, five of their grandchildren, a daughter-in-law – and two mysteries.

The mysteries are the following two gravestones:

In Memory of

Sarah Ann Darwin

Died Jan 2, 1830

Aged 11 months & 12 days

In life lov'd, in death lamented

She is gone, but not lost.


In Memory of


died Oct 22, 1837

Age 15 yrs, 1 mo.,

& 25 days.

Not lost we hope, but gone before

Where friends will meet to part no more.

Both stones are perfectly legible for the names and dates, but both are mute on the full identities of the graves’ occupants. From the dates, they appear to be grandchildren of John and Jane Darwin, but who were their parents?

The Hart Genealogical Collection, which was our starting point years ago in assembling the family tree, notes both Elizabeth and Sarah Ann Darwin as “detached” and of unknown parentage. As both had died long before the all-name format for the Federal Census (which commenced in 1850), that source would not help identify the family relations here.

But when we sought to identify likely parents for one or both from what we then knew of the family tree, the difficulties only mounted. There simply did not appear to be a son in the family of John Darwin whose wife was not either already expecting or too recently delivered of a child to be the mother of either Elizabeth or Sarah Ann. Only John’s sons Robert G. and Peyton B. seemed possible candidates, but with difficulties in each case.

Robert G. Darwin, born in 1795, simply does not appear to have ever married, nor to have ever purchased any land; indeed, it is difficult to account for his whereabouts for much of his life, as he never seems to appear as a householder on any Census enumeration, and on the few Census records in which he is found, it is as a lodger, generally in the home of a sibling. It was possible, but somehow unlikely and certainly undocumented, that he could have been the father of either or both Elizabeth and Sarah Ann.

Peyton B. Darwin was the only other possible candidate, but the difficulties here were formidable. The date of his marriage to Mary Wilkinson – 27 January 1825 – was not only well-established, but also some 2½ years after the birth of Elizabeth M. – if her age at the time of her death, as recorded on her gravestone, had indeed been 15. We considered that perhaps her age had actually been 5, which would bring her birth within the time of Peyton B.’s marriage, but there seemed no reason to suppose such an error would have been made on her stone. Perhaps she had been born out of wedlock – Peyton B. was only 16 in 1822, his future wife Mary only 18 – and they were not permitted to marry on the grounds of their youth. But so much was speculative and somewhat unlikely. At least, no such difficulties presented themselves with regards to the infant Sarah Ann, born in 1829 but died in 1830. Perhaps Sarah Ann, but not Elizabeth M., could be the child of Peyton B.

We did not possess, when we first addressed this conundrum, all the available pages of the 1837 Darwin - Bland "Bible" Record, and when we did secure in recent years a full set (from the Tennessee State Archives), we completely overlooked the significance of what we have designated as Quarto Page 1.

In the first place, we had entirely forgotten about the old riddle of Elizabeth M. and Sarah Ann so did not at first recognise them on this page, and the new (to us) entries for the births of a “John Darwin Jun” and “James Darwin” were wholly perplexing. When we published Quarto Page 1 on a previous website (in February 2007), we thought we had four ‘detached’ Darwins of wholly unknown parentage for which we could not account.

Fortunately, Christopher B. Darwin made the telling observation that the numbering on this page, from 1 to 4 and then recommencing at 1 for ‘Jane Rebecah Moore’ (whom we knew to be the daughter of Rebecca Darwin 3.31) probably indicated that all four were siblings. Applying this to the theory that Elizabeth M. was a daughter of Peyton B. Darwin produced a possible family grouping, though it felt to both of us something of a stretch.

In the first place, the proposed grouping with Peyton B. still meant that Elizabeth had been born out of wedlock to a father and mother aged 16 and 18 respectively, as before. While her parents subsequent marriage would have then ‘regularised’ matters, the stretch to include Elizabeth’s three siblings (as indicated on Quarto Page 1) presented the fresh difficulty of a family with two living sons both named ‘John:’ John Asbury Darwin, born 1827, and John Darwin, born 1831. Not a compelling case, but the best it appeared that could be made.

But then the thought occurred that, although the 1830 Census only gives the name of the head of each family, it does include a count of the other members of the household by sex and age band. If Elizabeth M. was the daughter of Peyton B., she should register on his 1830 Census Return as a count of 1 in the category of ‘Female Aged 5-9.’ Consulting his return, however, we only found a daughterless household of three, clearly identifiable as Peyton B., wife Mary, and son John Asbury. If Elizabeth M. was their daughter, she wasn’t living in their household – which pretty much seemed to rule out Peyton B. as her father.

However, when we turned to the 1830 Census Return for John Darwin, we found a ‘Female Aged 5-9’, as well as a ‘Female Aged 20-29’ and a ‘Male Aged 30-39.’ Could this child be Elizabeth M.? And if so, could either or both of the unidentified adults be a parent of Elizabeth M.? Or perhaps – from the Census return alone, one cannot tell – this was an unrelated couple and child living as lodgers in widower John Darwin’s home.

It is also possible that the ‘Male Aged 30-39’ is John’s son Robert G. (who would have been 35, and as noted before, generally found resident with relatives). So we considered if the ‘Female Aged 20-29’ could be one of John’s daughters, raising a daughter of her own in her elderly father’s home.

The only daughter of John Darwin in the age band is his youngest, Pamela, born in 1803 and married – either in 1822 or 1825, the sources vary – to one Isaac Summerford, a near-neighbour. But when we came to look at the records we had for Pamela and Isaac, we found the following list of their children:

1: Elizabeth Mourning Summerford, born circa 1828

2: John S. Summerford, born circa 1831

3: James Thomas Summerford, born 1833

4: Lucinda Summerford, born circa 1838

The conjunction of an Elizabeth, John and James was immediately striking, all the more so for the match of birth years between “John Darwin Jun” and “John S. Summerford” (1831), and between “James Darwin” and “James Thomas Summerford” (1833). Only the birth dates for “Elizabeth M. Darwin”, established as 1822, and “Elizabeth Mourning Summerford”, given as ‘circa 1828’ did not fit; but Christopher B. Darwin quickly established that the ‘circa 1828’ birthdate for the latter was not from a document, but a calculation based on what now appears to be a fictitious marriage date for Pamela Darwin and Isaac Summerford.

Moreover, the 1836 Will of John Darwin seems to hint at some irregularity in the family, referring as it does to the grandchildren with phrases like 'daughter Pamela's daughter Elizabeth' and 'my grandson John son of Pamela' on the one hand, but to 'my granddaughter Jane Powel' on the other, and additionally later referring to 'Pamela Summerford.'

It is also noteworthy that the unusual name "Mourning" was the name of the mother of Gilly Sandlin (wife of Pamela's brother, John Bland Darwin, whose 1822 Will included her daughter Gilly and son-in-law John B. Darwin as inheritors of dower rights on property on Wolf's Creek.

Returning to the 1830 Census (York SC) return for Isaac Summerford, we find a household consisting only of himself, two females aged 30-39 (Pamela would have been 27, so is probably not one of them), and no children.

Whatever the ultimate secret of this family, it's very clear from both the Darwin-Bland "Bible" record and even more compellingly from the gravestones in the Darwin Family Burial Ground in York that Elizabeth M., Sarah Ann, John and James were all designated and known as 'Darwins' from birth and through the 1830's (when the "Bible" record was written), taking their surname from their unmarried mother Pamela.

No doubt virtually all family trees have a few illegitimate births tucked away, but an apparent family group such as this is certainly striking, at least for South Carolina in the 1830’s, and at present we can only guess at the circumstances. Was Isaac Summerford the father of any or all of these children, but unable to wed Pamela until the late 1830’s? The 1840 Census shows them living in a common household, and through later records we can follow James, now a Summerford, on through to the Civil War and beyond. Or did Isaac, in marrying Pamela, adopt her children from a previous common-law marriage? We may have solved part of the mysteries of the Darwin Family Burial Ground, but some family secrets remain!