I’ve written before about trying to determine if old family stories, passed down over a century or more, are completely true, only partly true, or just made-up wishful thinking. The question of a possible ancestral relationship on my mother’s family tree to the US president James Monroe (1758-1831) has been at the back of my mind for several years. The tale of a connection was referenced in an old letter saved from the 1920s, from my maternal grandfather’s aunt, Agnes Vosler Cunningham (1858-1939). My Vosler tree, based in Western Pennsylvania, goes back to Agnes’s father Robert McKean Vosler (1831-1905), to Robert’s grandmother Susan McKean Vosler (1778-1854), to Susan’s mother Sarah DeCamp McKean of Westmoreland County, PA (about 1778-1854), and finally to Sarah’s mother Susannah Gray DeCamp Stokely (about 1744-1836).
Full disclosure, I have no indisputable documentation that Suzanne’s maiden name was Gray, but a good amount of evidence seems to support it. The Gray surname, and Suzanne’s possible birth in Virginia, are key to a James Monroe connection. But again, if this evidence is hearsay, not backed up by solid documentation, how confident can we be?
Back to the old letter from Aunt Agnes, she wrote that an older member of her family and told her that they were related to James Monroe “through some cousin or other”. In the twentieth century, no one seemed to have known the family tree back to the DeCamps and the Grays, so it was all very vague. Looking back at old newspaper articles on some of the DeCamps, more possible details emerged. In 1874, the Pittsburgh Post wrote an obituary for George W. DeCamp, the brother of my Sarah DeCamp McKean. George’s son, George W. DeCamp, was a prominent lawyer and later a judge, so the family got some coverage in the local paper. The obit stated that George Sr. died at the age of 99, and
“His father, Col. John DeCamp, came from France to this country in 1770 and settled at Winchester, Va. …Col. John DeCamp married Susannah Gray, a cousin of James Monroe, in 1773, and the following year with his wife and infant son, the subject of this memoir removed to the vicinity of West Newton, Westmoreland county [Pennsylvania].”
Here’s where truth vs. fiction, and the accuracy of newspaper information, gets dicey. John DeCamp’s ancestors are believed to be French Huguenots who came to the US via The Netherlands, but in the 1660s. So that bit isn’t completely correct. Can we then trust that Susannah’s maiden name was Gray, and that she was from Virginia and a cousin of Monroe? Can we hope that the information was given to the paper by a DeCamp family member who had some accurate knowledge of forebears two or three generations back?
In a later obituary from Emporia, Kansas printed in 1906, the death of Judge George W. DeCamp is reported. Interestingly, the DeCamp ancestry is recounted, back to the James Monroe connection, in almost the exact words as the 1874 article from Pittsburgh. The Kansas paper seems to have just copied text from the previous obit. Are they reporting facts, or perpetuating some kind of urban legend?
Looking for any supporting evidence, we can find George W. DeCamp (the elder) in the 1850, 1860, and 1870 US Censuses. In all three, the state of his birth is reported as Virginia. That should back up part of the story, except that the area of Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania where the family lived during his younger years was actually considered part of Virginia at the time, muddying the waters again.
Fast forward to the twenty-first century. I was fortunate enough to come into contact with a DeCamp family member (a distant cousin of mine) who did quite a bit of valuable research. This lady told me that in her branch of the DeCamp tree, there have been men named James Monroe DeCamp consistently since the 1830s. Her father told her that she herself, born in the 1920s, would have been called James Monroe had she been a boy, and that she was related to the president.
Another loose thread that nags at me is that there were three generations of men named George W. DeCamp (starting with my Sarah DeCamp McKean’s brother), and I haven’t been able to find out what the W stood for. This could be important because of connections between a Gray family of Virginia (related to James Monroe) and a Revolutionary War general from Virginia named George Weedon. Another Revolutionary War soldier, Captain George Weedon Gray, from Culpeper Virginia, was the first cousin of James Monroe. Gray was supposedly with James Monroe and George Washington when they crossed the Delaware in 1776, and Monroe was a pallbearer at Captain Gray’s funeral. There is some thought that my Susannah Gray was from this Gray family of Culpeper but I have found no documentation that nails this down. Could the three George W. DeCamps be named for George Weedon? This should be low-lying fruit, but it’s frustrating that I haven’t found that answer yet.
So is there a family connection between my maternal ancestors and James Monroe? Could it be a case of “where there’s smoke, there’s fire”, meaning that there is some kind of basis in truth to the story? Or is it another instance of telephone tag, where a small inaccuracy was passed along and magnified through family lore and old content copied and republished in local newspapers? That remains an open question.
- George DeCamp obituary, Pittsburgh Post January 3 1874
- George W. DeCamp obituary, Emporia Kansas Weekly Gazette Jan 11 1906
- mountvernon.org, George Washington’s Mount Vernon, 10 Facts about Washington’s Crossing of the Delware River, 2022
- Revolutionary War Journal, General George Weedon: Soldier and Tavernkeeper of the American Revolution, 2015
- peeweevalleyhistory.org, Bondurant-Huston House: Castlewood, 2022 (states that James Monroe was pallbearer at Captain George Gray’s funeral)