Using DNA to solve a mystery: Who was Nancy Catherine Watson, the third wife of Eli J. Cox?

by | Jan 31, 2023 | 0 comments

Nancy Watson and Eli Cox

In March 2014, I wrote a lengthy post about the mystery of my 3rd great-grandmother Nancy Catherine WATSON, the last wife of Eli J. COX of Craven and Lenoir Counties.

I had questions about so many things:

  • Was she really 18 when she married 59 year old Eli, or was she possibly even younger?
  • Were her parents George WATSON and Mary TULL? If so, Eli COX had lived next door to her for much of her life and watched her from birth until taking her as a wife.
  • If she wasn’t the daughter of George and Mary, then she seemed to appear out of nowhere, as I couldn’t find her on any other census before she married Eli.
  • Why would such a young woman (18 or younger!) marry such an old* man (59!)?
  • Why did they get married at a store? (Their marriage record says they married at West Store on the Lenoir County line.)

* No, I don’t think 59 is old, but to an 18 year old girl it is!

When his first wife Nancy M. CARLTON WATSON died, Eli remarried. This time, he married Sarah Moye WATSON.

Sarah was one of the adult daughters of Eli’s late wife, Nancy. (Sarah was about 24 when she married Eli. He was about 42 at the time.)

Yes, he married his own step-daughter, although it needs to be said that at least it doesn’t appear that they ever lived in the same house.

Nancy had another daughter named Louisa Ann WATSON. (Louisa married a man named John PHILLIPS.) Nancy’s daughters were from her first husband, John WATSON, who was apparently dead before 1850.

I have no idea where Nancy’s daughters, Sarah and Louisa Ann, lived when she married Eli.

Eli COX and his wife Sarah Moye WATSON had six children:

  • Lewis COX (1859 – ?)
  • Devia Ann COX (1861–1920) m. Noah Lafayette AVERY
  • Celia Enna COX (1864–1932) m. Benjamin Mason COOKE
  • Eli J. COX (1869–1926) m. 1st Siddie HEATH, 2nd Nita GASKINS
  • Ambrose B. COX (1872–1914) m. Siddie DAUGHERTY
  • Treacy COX (1873–1953) m. Ambrose JONES

Sadly, Eli’s wife Sarah died in an accident just six months after Treacy was born.

Six months after Sarah’s death, Eli remarried. To another Nancy WATSON.

The marriage was registered in Lenoir County, although the residence of the parties is recorded as Craven County. Justice of the Peace W.H. West officiated on 6 March 1874 at “West Store.” The groom was 59 and the bride was 18.

Eli J. Cox and Nancy Catherine Watson marriage register

Eli and Nancy were married 4 years and 9 months before they had their first child as a couple, my 2nd great-grandfather, Thomas Charlton COX (b. 28 Dec 1878).

I wonder if they did not assume marital relations when they first married.

Perhaps the goal, at least initially, was one of convenience. Eli needed a woman to step in and help take care of his young children — especially that baby, Treacy — and Nancy Catherine WATSON seemingly came out of nowhere. By all appearances, she was a woman who was without a family or any sort of solid foothold in the world.

That’s bothered me for a long time. This young girl married such an old man. Why?

The only family that seemed to come up as possibly making sense was George WATSON and his wife Mary TULL. After all, George and his family lived near Eli for years.

The problem was twofold:

  1. There was never a Nancy in George WATSON’s household.
  2. The only child with a name that even seemed close was Pency C. WATSON, but she would’ve been only a couple of months old in 1860, which would’ve meant she was only 13 or 14 when she married Eli. Even if Eli had wanted to marry a girl so young, there’s no reason to think that others would go along with such an arrangement — especially a Justice of the Peace and four witnesses.

In addition to those issues, DNA results just do not seem to bear out a connection to the George WATSON family with the numbers that it should. Learning about Nancy’s family was starting to seem hopeless.

It appears that DNA may have the answers

Years ago when I first started using DNA to try to solve the mystery of Eli COX’s parentage and Nancy Watson’s origins, I kept seeing confusing matches for my mom, my grandma, and even my grandma’s first cousin on her COX side. Thing is, when I looked at the trees of these matches, I saw no likely shared common ancestor — at least not in the range that the shared cMs seemed to indicate. We’re talking numbers in the high 70s and low 80s for my grandmother’s generation. That suggests most likely a match as close as a 1st cousin 2 or 3 times removed to a 3rd cousin, according to

I kept seeing Louisa Ann WATSON and William Bright PHILLIPS.

Louisa’s name stood out because she was the daughter of Eli’s first wife, Nancy CARLTON WATSON and the sister of his second wife, Sarah Moye WATSON.

So what on earth was that about? Why was this woman continually showing up in trees of our matches?

For years I was confounded by this. I thought that maybe it was a match further up the family tree. Like, maybe on the Phillips line or something.

But then that wouldn’t make sense based on the amounts of shared DNA.

I was recently playing with the WATO (What are the Odds?) tool at and as I was working on trying to place someone else in a family, it suddenly occurred to me: If I plug in the matches and their DNA, will WATO show me where the likely match fits?

I did, and it does.

Then it dawned on me: What if Nancy Catherine WATSON is an illegitimate daughter of Louisa Ann WATSON from before she married William Bright PHILLIPS?

Supported by DNA? … MAYBE!

Before I even contacted one of Louisa’s descendants in our DNA matches, I wanted to run the calculations to see if the shared CM data supported my theory.

It did. AMAZING! I will try to publish a video soon explaining how I tested out my hypothesis.

Next, I went back over all of the genealogical data I have collected with a fresh set of eyes.

All the pieces started falling into place.

I can’t say for sure whether or not Nancy Catherine WATSON is the illegitimate daughter of Louisa Ann WATSON PHILLIPS, but the DNA doesn’t disprove it, and in fact, it seems to support the idea!

Circumstantial Evidence

  • Eli was married to Nancy Carlton WATSON first. Nancy was about 12 years older than Eli. They had no children.
  • When Nancy died at age 45 (in 1858) of a “lingering illness” that she had for three months, Eli was only about 33. He still had his whole life ahead of him.
  • In her will, Nancy leaves her land to Eli, “as he should remain on it or during his natural life,” and at his death or when he ceases to live on it, the land will go to her younger daughter, Sarah. Her other property, some furniture, she also gives to her daughter Sarah. The only way Louisa gets anything is if both Eli and Sarah are dead. Why would a mother essentially write her oldest daughter out of her will?
  • If Louisa had embarrassed Nancy in some way — by, let’s say, having a child out of wedlock, Nancy might have been frustrated enough to leave the girl out of her will. Nevertheless, that daughter would still be family.
  • When Nancy dies, Eli already has the land. He doesn’t need to marry Sarah to obtain it. If anything, by him going ahead and marrying her, she’s able to obtain an inheritance that she’d otherwise have to wait for him to die to receive.
  • Apparently Sarah and Eli got along well from the start. They had a baby — Lewis — a year after they married.
  • Eli and Sarah went on to have five more children before Sarah had her fatal accident (in 1874) going out to the gate to welcome visitors.
  • A six-month-old baby, Treacy, was left behind when Sarah died. No doubt, Eli would’ve wanted to get another woman in the house sooner rather than later to help take care of that baby and his other children. He might have opted for Sarah’s sister, Louisa, but Louisa had already married William Bright PHILLIPS, about 15 years earlier.
  • What if Louisa had an illegitimate daughter? One that she named after her mother, Nancy. That daughter would be the aunt to the late Sarah’s children. As an illegitimate child, she’d also be unable to inherit anything from her mother or late grandmother. Her circumstances were grim for the 19th century.
  • It would’ve been mutually beneficial for Eli to bring this young woman into his home to care for his children — but it likely would’ve been scandalous to bring her in without marrying her. After all, this wasn’t some rich aristocrat hiring a nanny. He needed a wife to cook and care for him and the children.
  • Nancy would benefit by this arrangement. She would ultimately stand to inherit from Eli’s estate upon his death and she was much younger than him so she had every reason to think that he would likely go on to Glory before her. As a young woman, naturally she would’ve wanted children. This situation would enable her to provide for any children more reliably than if she were to marry whatever man might’ve been willing to take on an illegitimate girl as a wife.
  • On that topic, it’s entirely possible that William Bright PHILLIPS never knew that Louisa Ann had given birth years before she married him. She might’ve never revealed that history to him and how would he otherwise know?

DNA does seem to suggest that Nancy Catherine WATSON could be the daughter of Louisa Ann WATSON PHILLIPS. Regardless of whether she is or she isn’t, at the very least, I’m convinced now that George WATSON and Mary TULL were not the parents of Nancy Catherine WATSON.


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