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Mystery, scandal and discovery online
© St. Petersburg Times, published July 31, 2000
Genealogists love to find an ancestor such as my fourth great-grandmother, Margaret "Peggy" Polk Hagler. Her story offers scandal, mystery and even a presidential connection. The Internet introduced us.
I discovered Margaret last year in an online version of the 1850 North Carolina Census. When I looked up my third great-grandparents, Hiram and Rosanna Hagler, there was Margaret, age 63 at the time, who lived next door. By the 1870 census (looked up the old-fashioned way on microfilm at the Tampa Public Library), she had moved in with the widowed Rosanna.
I paid $27 for a copy and read about Margaret's stormy marriage to J. Peter Hagler, which ended with him pulling up stakes in North Carolina and moving to Alabama. The book includes copies of their property settlement and of Peter's will, which accuses Margaret of adultery and disclaims parentage of Hiram and two other children. Those are documents I probably never would have found myself. They certainly add spice to my family scrapbook.
Jack Hagler also put me in touch with two other distant cousins who went out of their way to help me. One of them, Heath Williams of Monroe, N.C., served as tour guide when I visited the Carolinas last fall. He showed me the land in Union County where Hiram, Rosanna and Margaret lived and the church cemetery where Rosanna is buried. Another cousin, John Blair Hagler of Raleigh, N.C., went to the state archives and copied Hiram's Civil War records for me. Neither of them is online, but I never would have met them without my e-mail connection to Jack.
To ferret out Margaret's family ties to President James K. Polk, I used Internet search engines to check one Polk family reference after another. Eventually I came upon a Web page prepared by Bill Polk, a genealogist in Kansas City, Mo. He had the ancestral links I sought; Margaret and the president were second cousins.
But Margaret remains a woman of mystery in many respects. Was Peter's accusation of adultery true or merely a final barb from a bitter ex-husband? Was she Peter's first wife, as some genealogists conclude, or his third, as others have decided? And when was she born? In the absence of birth and marriage certificates, the census becomes the genealogist's favorite source. But in the three censuses where Margaret's name is recorded, her age goes from 63 to 75 to 98 over a 20-year span -- proof perhaps, that once you're over the hill, you pick up speed.
I have debated these points by e-mail with participants on a Hagler electronic mailing list. We may never know the answers for certain, but if they are found, I am betting it will be by researchers in North Carolina.
And I probably will learn about their discoveries through the Internet.
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