In researching my great great grandmother, Elizabeth Cowan Short, I have located her death record in Franklin County, Ohio, USA (1896), as well as her burial record. They record her birth as 29 September 1824, in London, England, to parents Robert and Elizabeth Cowan. This was probably informed by her husband, John Short, who lived another 30 years.

Sources: Green Lawn Cemetery inscriptions, Columbus, Franklin Co., Ohio: http://www.delaware43015.com/greenlawn/greenlawn/Greenlawn/index.htm

Death record: enter image description here enter image description here

The 1850 US Census has Elizabeth (age 24) living with her new husband and infant son in Delaware County, Ohio: https://www.familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:S3HT-6QW9-BR5?i=2&cc=1401638

Also living in the household is Harriett Cowan, 72, born in England. Harriett's headstone (1855), located on the campus of Kenyon College, Gambier, Knox County, Ohio reads "Our Mother...Harriett Cowan..." There is no death record for this burial.enter image description here From findagrave.com

I have researched the other members of the household and there does not seem to be a family connection. I cannot find any evidence of siblings for Elizabeth. I cannot find any other records that name Elizabeth's parents, other than quick mention of her father in a 1901 biography of her husband. It is possible that Elizabeth's mother was actually Harriett, but she would have been around 46 at the time of her birth. Could the phrase "Our Mother" on Harriett's headstone simply be a term of endearment?

  • 1
    Apart from the match of name and age (which is not to be dismissed) what evidence is there that Harriet of the stone is the same as Harriet of the census?
    – AdrianB38
    Jan 25, 2018 at 18:44
  • Census Harriet could be young Elizabeth's aunt? Her father's sister or sister in law? Just throwing possibilities in here.
    – AdrianB38
    Jan 25, 2018 at 18:51
  • Upvoted for research effort, but like all such problems, to solve it you need more record sets. I find "The Hidden Half of the Family" useful and wish someone would create an equivalent volume for the UK. books.google.com/books/about/…
    – Jan Murphy
    Jan 26, 2018 at 18:51
  • @AdrianB38 it is just the match of age and name at this point, but there were no other Cowans/Cowens in the entire county at that time. I also have Elizabeth confirmed in the chapel on the Kenyon college campus in 1847, and marrying her husband there in 1848, so there is a connection to Gambier. Aunt is certainly a possibility- I'll put that on my list!
    – user5836
    Jan 26, 2018 at 22:09

1 Answer 1


My initial assessment is:

  • I think it quite unlikely that someone would be referred to "Our Mother" on a headstone, without some mother-child relationship present.
  • It may not be a genetic mother-child relationship, but consider whether Harriet may be a step-mother, or grandmother.
  • The odds of two English women who bore the same relatively uncommon surname living in the USA in the same house but there being no family relationship is really quite small.
  • You do not know for certain who erected the headstone, which is obviously key to understanding the relationship. Try tracking down cemetery records which may have details of the plot and plot owner. It could be that Harriet had children in the same area but they may not have the same surname.
  • Immigration records? Elizabeth and Harriet obviously travelled to the USA, most likely around the 1840s. Finding the record may be challenging, but there is a good chance it is documented somewhere.
  • The next obvious step is tracing Elizabeth in records in England. Finding her baptism is the first step. I have found that often "London" was used very loosely in American records to refer approximately to that part of England south of the Scottish border. That is, widen your scope substantially if nothing turns up in London itself.
  • Don't rely entirely on the fact that the information on Elizabeth's death record is correct. There is a fair chance that in the time after her mother's death details such as her mother's name were forgotten. Errors are also very easily introduced by accident.
  • I'll add that it wasn't impossible for Harriet to have a child at 46.
    – user6485
    Jan 25, 2018 at 19:16
  • @Harry Vervet Thanks for your thoughts. I was basically operating from the idea that Harriett is either Elizabeth's mother or grandmother, but aunt is a possibility as well. I suspect that she raised Elizabeth, hence the 'our mother', and it seems that you agree that it does not strictly have to mean a biological mother, even in 1855. I've tried to find them in England, but that is for another question.
    – user5836
    Jan 26, 2018 at 15:26

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