The Mysterious Case of Amy (Peppers) Willis vs. Amy (Collins) Willis

Anyone who begins the daunting task of undertaking the research of their family trees, will inevitably come across a mystery that looks like it may be an insurmountable “brickwall”, and no amount of factual dynamite is going to blast a hole in it.  Such is the case of Amy Anna (Collins) Willis, or at least I thought.

Amy Willis is my wife’s great-great-grandmother on my mother-in-law’s side.  This line is strictly mother to daughter for my wife.  The records and evidence of this case are not as concrete as I would like them to be, but the facts that are available, could bring this “brickwall” tumbling down, as long as you know what to look for in the evidence that’s available.

The Mystery in a Nutshell

The Willis family had their beginnings in England, immigrating to Virginia, but after the Civil War, Captain William Willis moved his family to Lawrence County, Ohio from Virginia.  Lawrence County is on the southwestern part of Ohio, on the border of West Virginia, just adjacent to Cabell County (and neighboring counties of Putnam and Lincoln – these counties play a crucial role in discoveries later).

A marriage record for Perry Willis, William Willis and Elizabeth Davis’s son, recorded in 1872 in Lawrence County, Ohio, states that Perry Willis married one Amy Peppers.

In the 1870 census for Lawrence County, Ohio, Amy Peppers is a servant living in the household of the Pemberton family. She is about 14 years old.

After Perry and Amy were married, and starting having children, they eventually moved to Fayette County, WV. They had a total of 13 children. In 1927, Perry passed away, and in 1935, Amy passed away.  On her headstone, it clearly states that Amy’s maiden name was Collins.

So, hence the mystery. How could she be Peppers and also be Collins?

Here’s how…

So, here we have a birth record for an Amy A. Collins, born to George P. Collins and Elizabeth Collins in Cabell County, VA (WV):

01-Amys Birth Index

Image from Ancestry©

Take a look at Amy’s Birth Date and remember it. Later records will show her DOB year as being 1856. Also remember to note that this took place in Cabell County.

Now, here is a marriage record for a George Collins and an Elizabeth Lee, which indicates they were married in 1857 in Wood County, that’s at least 4 counties away from Cabell County (Many Ancestry trees have the above mentioned Amy Collins as the daughter of this George Collins and Elizabeth Lee):

02-1857 Collins Marriage

Image from Ancestry©

As I have experienced so many times in the past, there appears to be some confusion as to the parentage of my wife’s 2x great-grandmother, Amy Collins.  Not surprisingly, just like the confusion of my own Jacob Mueller, I found two George P. Collins, both born about the same time.  The above George was born in Gilmer County about 1835.  Here he is in 1850 in Gilmer Co. with his family:

03-1850 Census-GCollins-Gilmer

Image from Ancestry©

In another 1850 census for Cabell Co., District 10, another George P. Collins (born about 1831) and Elizabeth Collins (born about 1832) are together, with no children.  I will get back to these two Collins families later:

04-1850 Census

Image from Ancestry©

The 1860 census is the mystery census for Amy, as well as, her potential parents, George and Elizabeth Collins.

By 1870, there is an Amy Peppers who is a “House Domestic” (Servant), living with the Elijah (Elizah) Pemberton family in Lawrence County, Ohio.  It is known through both families that the Willis family and Pemberton family intermarried. Also, family lore says that Amy was “purchased” by Capt. William Willis for his son, Perry for marriage (Amy is the last one listed).

05-1870 Census

Image from Ancestry©

In 1872, Perry and Amy were married:

06-1872 Marriage

Image from Ancestry©

By 1880, Perry and Amy already had 5 children and were living together with Perry’s brother, Berdine and his wife and children.  Amy was about 24 years old and was recorded as being born in Ohio, and she could not read or write. Her father and mother stated as being born in Virginia.

07-1880 Census

Image from Ancestry©

In 1900, Perry and Amy and children still living at home are in Mountain Cove, Fayette County, WV. Amy is 46 years old, birth date Jan 1854, marriage year 1867, 33 years married, had a total of 13 children, and 12 are still alive. Birth place for Amy stated as West Virginia, as well as, her parents:

08-1900 Census

Image from Ancestry©

In 1910, Perry and Amy and children living at home are still living in Mountain Cove, Fayette County, WV.  Amy is 53 years old, born abt. 1857, married 39 years, which puts the marriage year at about 1871-1872.

09-1910 Census

Image from Ancestry©

Now, here is the crucial part of all of this.

There can only be two conclusions as to why a mother’s maiden name could be Peppers and/or Collins.

Conclusion 1. Perry Willis married 2 women named Amy. One with the maiden name Peppers and the other one with the maiden name of Collins.

This is not possible as there is no evidence to support Perry being married twice.  No marriage record has come up for Perry Willis and an Amy Collins, and in the 1910 census, in the marriage status column, the single character “M” for married, was usually designated by the census taker with a 1 or 2 and so on next to the M, determining how many times someone was married. Perry and Amy are both M1 (married 1 time).

Conclusion 2. Amy was born Collins.  She was then given up to a Peppers family to be raised as a Pepper.  At some point, Amy changed her maiden name back to Collins. Amy Peppers and Amy Collins are the same person.

On Perry and Amy’s children’s birth, marriage, death and social security records, the records show either Amy Peppers or Amy Collins as the mother, but below are two records for one of Amy’s children, that I believe strengthens the argument that Amy Collins and Amy Peppers are the same person.

Birth Index of Matthew Willis, son of Perry and Amy Willis, born Nov. 10, 1879. Mother specifically stated as Amy Peppers:


Image from Ancestry©

Matthew Willis’ Social Security information c. Dec. 1936. Mother specifically stated as Amy Collins:


Image from Ancestry©

Amy’s headstone reads as follows:





DEC. 25, 1856

JAN. 7, 1935

Notice the Birth Date, Dec. 25, 1856…remember the Birth Date of the birth index, Dec. 24, 1854.

In genealogy, when you have a child that was given up to be raised by others, and was also illiterate growing up, a perfect match on birth dates is sometimes unrealistic, and not having a perfect match more common.  Even ancestors with more records, documenting most if not all their life events, won’t guarantee perfect matches.

Now, (as I rub my hands together in anticipation of what’s to come next), let’s get back to the two different George P. Collins families.

At some point, the George Collins that married Elizabeth Lee, was living in Wood County, WV, as that is where they married.

In the 1880 Census, we find this George and Elizabeth living in Wood County, WV with their 3 children, Margaret, Charles and Joseph:

12-1880 Census-GCollins-Wood

Image from Ancestry©

In 1900, this George and Elizabeth are still living in Wood County, WV. Their son, Joseph is living with them along with his family:

13-1900 Census-GCollins-Wood

Image from Ancestry©

I want to point out something very important here.  Notice the columns with the number 3 and 2 in the row for Elizabeth.  This indicates how many total children she had, and how many are still living.  If she was the mother of Amy Collins, there would be a total of 4 children.  I know…not everyone told the truth, or knew all the facts, when giving information to the census taker.  For now, I am taking this as is,   as my researching instincts tells me I am on the right path, and once that kicks in, it’s something I trust.

On the other side of the coin, the George P. Collins and Elizabeth Collins living in Cabell County in 1850 show more potential as being Amy’s parents.

I will now show you my search experience and techniques for this George and Elizabeth Collins in the sequence in which I found them.  I began a search for George and/or Elizabeth after the Civil War, in the 1870 and 1880 censuses.

I found this first…the 1880 Census in Lincoln County, WV:

14-1880 Census-ECollins-Lincoln

Image from Ancestry©

Showing an Elizabeth Collins, about the right age, with a daughter named Victoria and a son named Blackburn.  I wasn’t sure if this was them, but I didn’t find any other possible matches, so I went with it.

I did a search on the name Blackburn Collins, with the search criteria of his age and location.

I next found this great nugget of information. The marriage record for Blackburn Collins, married in Lawrence County, Ohio…interesting, huh?:


Image from Ancestry©

It appears, taking the information from just this one source, we now have probable location in relationship to Amy Collins, the middle name of George P. Collins, which appears to be Paris, and  Elizabeth’s maiden name, Reynolds.

Just out of curiosity, I did a search on Elizabeth Reynolds, and got a hit for 1870:

16-1870 Census-ECollins-Reynolds-Lincoln

Image from Ancestry©

Well, what do you know…here is an Elizabeth, the right age for our Elizabeth Collins and a daughter named Victoria.  She is obviously staying with her parents, Ezekiel and Emma Runnels (Reynolds) in Carroll Township, Lincoln County, WV.

It’s obvious that something happened to George P. Collins between 1854, when Amy was born, and 1870.  More records may arise, but for now I am becoming more and more confident that this is the right Collins family that Amy belongs to.

As I showed before, this is the 1850 Census for just George and Elizabeth.  Of course, I did not bother to look any further down in the census when I first saw it, as I had no idea that Elizabeth was a Reynolds.  If you open the view a bit, guess who’s living next door?:

17-1850 Census-Collins-Reynolds

Image from Ancestry©

Notice Elizabeth’s mother’s name, Amy.  Ring any bells?

The last piece of the puzzle I found, that may give even more credence to this as being Amy’s family, is the Find-a-Grave memorial page for the mother of Elizabeth (Reynolds) Collins:

18-FAG Amy Anna Reynolds

Image from Find-a-Grave©

Is this strictly a coincidence or was Amy Anna (Collins) Willis named after her grandmother?  I am of the mindset that this is not a coincidence.

So, based on the available records, has this mystery been solved?  Even with the fact that Amy or her parents don’t show up in a search for 1860, the amount of available records, and what to look for in those records clearly show that Amy (Peppers/Collins) Willis was one person, and the one and only mother to the 13 children of her and Perry Willis…and now, we have a pretty high confidence for the family of Amy as well.  More research is definitely needed.  When more information becomes available, I will post it here.

Brian S. Miller

Special thanks to Becky Fox Shuff for her input. Also to Shannon Holliday, Daniel Hay and Kap Willis…

And lastly, special appreciation to my wife of almost 33 years, who’s support and appreciation of what I do matters to her as much as what she does, matters to me.


5 thoughts on “The Mysterious Case of Amy (Peppers) Willis vs. Amy (Collins) Willis

  1. Excellent argument, Brian. This is the way to do research and you made it sound easy. Taking the collaterals into account is the key to opening the door in your brick wall. One question, although I read every word, I was not sure if you had also checked for the Reynolds/Runnels grandparents in the 1860 census. I know from experience that if one family was missed and you need the other to prove, they likely were also missed.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Cathy, Thank you for your response. I actually just found the Reynolds in the 1860 after I posted. Elizabeth and George Collins are not with them. The search continues…Thanks again!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Blackburn ” Keck ” Collins is my great great uncle. He is buried in curry cemetery although his head stone has been stolen. He is buried beside Camden ” Cam ” Collins and someone stole his head stone. Down the hill from them Elisabeth Collins is buried and her head stone has been gone a long time. My Grandfather is buried on the other side of Curry cemetery. Silas Collins. I helped dig the grave when I was a little boy. I wasn’t much help.


  3. Darryll and Brian, I just live a hop, skip and jump away from Curry Chapel Cemetery and would be happy to snap pics for anyone. I have a load of family buried there and my Collins connection is rather complicated. However, there is a headstone still in place for Cam Collins. I will make a trip over soon to see if perhaps Keck’s monument might have fallen over and just been buried under the dirt. While the cemetery is fairly regularly mowed, some of the stones need reset. I do love these cousin connections!


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