Saturday’s Surname – Foster

The Foster Family, by The American Genealogical Research Institite, 1973.

The Foster Family, by The American Genealogical Research Institite, 1973.

Many years ago I was given a copy of the book The Foster Family from the American Genealogical Research Institute. The book is copyrighted  1973 and it does not specify whether there were multiple printings or additions. I know the book was given to me by a well meaning relative but I don’t remember who at this point. The book has several chapters ranging from “the family name and arms”, “census of 1790” and “constructing the foster family tree”. And before you comment upon my lack of capitalization, I am copying straight from the book. Books like this are great for the novice genealogist, I guess. But even when I received the book, I already knew how useless it was for my own research. Books like this are mere grandiose summaries. They talk big, but they have no meat as they are comprised mostly of lists.  And since the book was written in 1973, much of the information is likely inaccurate and obsolete.

One fascinating aspect of the book is the first section “the family name and arms”. It gives a brief history of Europe, which starts laughingly with the collapse of the Roman Empire and the waves of Barbarians sweeping across Europe in the 4th and 5th centuries. Wow! Really, how does this help me trace my Foster family? The narrative continues with the Norman Invasion in 1066 and then engages in a mini lecture on the evolutionary nature of names. According to the book, Foster was originally Forrester. The title of Forrester was given by the Saxons to men appointed to guard the forests and to protect the Lord’s hunting rights. Over time the name Forrester evolved to Forster and then Foster. That may be, but how does that help me trace the lineage of one Gladys Foster, born 1905 in Terre Haute, Indiana. Frankly, it does not. There are multiple origins of the name Foster. What about those individuals who “fostered” children? Or, I like this French version “Shearer or scissors maker” from the Old French “forceter”. Regardless of the actual history of my Foster family, I am sure it has little to do with this pompous tourist brochure that now takes up precious space on my bookshelf. I guess it is good for a laugh or two.

Chart of the children of James B. Foster and Lydia C. (Dicks) Foster, in my grandmother's handwritting

Chart of the children of James B. Foster and Lydia C. (Dicks) Foster, in my grandmother’s handwritting

I was lucky enough to inherit a lineage chart that was written in my grandmother’s handwriting that traced her father’s family. The chart names all of my great grandfather’s siblings and his parents. Considering my grandmother never spoke about her father or his family, it is rather fortunate that the chart even existed. My great grandfather was James Edward “Ned” Foster whose father was James Benjamin Foster whose father was Benjamin Coates Foster. And that, ladies and gentleman, is the end of the line, the brick wall of my Foster family. I have traced the line back as far as my 3rd great grandfather, six generations. That’s decent by some standards, but not good enough by mine. I’ve hit that proverbial brick wall because of those early waves of western migration that brought young Americans from the coastal states to the new territories of Ohio, Indiana and Illinois and the lack of proper recordkeeping.

Benjamin Coates Foster was born April 13, 1797 in Pennsylvania. Yeah, Pennsylvania! No county, just Pennsylvania. On the 1800 census, there were 602,365 people enumerated in Pennsylvania. There were at least 68 heads of household with the surname Foster. (I got this figure from Ancestry so we also have to allow for entries misspelled in the index). The first time I can legitimately find Benjamin C. Foster on a document is his marriage on March 28, 1828 in Lawrence County, Illinois to Belinda Barker. He appears on the 1830 census in nearby Clark County, Illinois where he remained the rest of his life. In 1838 and 1839, there were several land purchases in Clark County. Benjamin can be found on the United States censuses for 1830, 1840, 1850, 1860, and 1870 in Clark County. I have also found him on the Illinois State censuses of 1855 and 1865. One of my favorite things that I learned about Benjamin from the 1850 and 1860 censuses is that Benjamin’s occupation was a tailor! For those of you that don’t know me, I am also a seamstress and pattern maker so it is nice to know that such things are in my genes. This is also why I like the French translation of Foster since it has to do with scissors.

Benjamin and Belinda were blessed with at least 9 children, of which only 6 survived to adulthood, and of those only 4 had children to pass on the genes, 2 were male, leaving my 2nd great grandfather James B. Foster the only child of Benjamin and Belinda to have any male children to pass on the surname of Foster.


I believe this is one of the last letters I have from Uncle Jim for awhile. It is good to know that eventually the brothers-in-law will meet up.

Letter transcription:

U.S.N.C. T.C. Camp Bradford, Ships Co. c/o Camp Allen, N.O.B. Norfolk, VA

Sunday 7 June 1942

Dear Sis-

Just today received a letter from Jake, he wanted me to meet him last night at the Y.M.C.A., mail is not so fast here as you can reddily see, anyway I wrote him and I think we will be able to get together soon.

Please let me know when you plan coming for sure I will try to get two or three nights away if you want me to, if that won’t interfere with your plans, maybe we can have a grand party, or something. Anyway I will get to see you at least once, I am writing to find out if Thelma is going to get a vacation, if she does I will have her down here for a week or two. It won’t be in June I am most sure of that, but sometime later.

Hello John and Mark, you should see your uncle Jim in a sailor uniform.

Love Jim

6 thoughts on “Saturday’s Surname – Foster

  1. Rani Kaye

    Well if it’s any help, I have a Chillingsworth Foster (1707-1779) in my tree whose maternal ancestry goes back to my Brewster (Mayflower) line. So if your Fosters are connected there, chances are good you can trace them (with a LOT of work) by looking through indexes of Mayflower families.

    On page 380 of John Howland of the Mayflower, I have a Benjamin Foster who witnessed the will of Mary Bourne Stone who died in 1804. Maybe that’s your Benjamin’s daddy?

    Also, among my Pennsylvania ancestors (who were Mennonites – not the Brewster line) the middle name was the mother’s maiden name. So maybe Coates is Benjamin’s mother’s maiden name. So perhaps you can find a marriage record for his parents with that possible clue?

    Just brainstorming here. My genealogy cousins call me Sherlock Holmes. Sometimes I break through brick walls. Lots of times not, though. But I’m always up for a fresh challenge, especially when I’ve temporarily run out of angles to try in my own tree.

    You sure do write out your genealogy stories very well! Some of the branches in my tree are so complicated my cousins and I have a dreadful time untangling the stories. And to write them out so somebody not related to us could understand – well that would be quite a challenge. But the stories are so fascinating that I hope to start giving it a try, soon. Your blog really inspires me! Hope my little thoughts are in some way helpful. 🙂 Rani

    1. Genealogy Lady Post author

      Thank you so much Rani! It’s hard to tell sometimes how well or how bad I am doing. The feedback is great. 🙂 And if I can inspire you to do the same, that is wonderful. The thought of sitting down and writing a book seems too daunting to me. However, getting all the little stories out, piece by piece, seems to be making me more focused. Perhaps by the end the next year, I might have enough little pieces to put a book together.

      I have tried looking for a Foster-Coates wedding record but so far no luck. I have been crossing my fingers that Coates was a maiden name in the tree somewhere or Benjamin Coates was maybe the father-in-law’s name. One of my issues comes from the fact that I have no idea where in Pennsylvania Benjamin came from. I haven’t found any records prior to his marriage. And although he was a long time resident of Clark county, none of his family ended up in the Crawford & Clark county Illinois History book so I don’t have any clues there either. There is a dismal amount of information available online for Crawford & Clark counties. If I ever get a chance someday to get there, I would probably spend hours or days in the courthouse. I have a couple other brick walls in those counties as well. I am hoping perhaps with the records from the War of 1812 coming online that maybe I might be able to find him then. He might have joined up later in the War.

      I have many Mayflower ancestors on my maternal line. I am always coming across the Fosters in Massachusetts and I wonder, too. I even have a Foster that married into one of my early Massachusetts branches.

      This branch of the family also seems to like having at least one child being tagged with the mother’s maiden name as the middle name, too.

      Your style sounds very similar to mine. I usually can break through lots of brick walls. I do research for lots of my friends when I am bored with my own family. 🙂

  2. Mustang.Koji

    Isn’t it amazing about the survival rate? 67% to adulthood? A similar ration held true for my father’s siblings as well – 2 of 7 did not make it to adulthood. It was not meant to be, perhaps. On the other hand, it can be said the strong will survive, strengthening the human race… Perhaps that will change now with medical practices here in the States.
    Also, that chart is a treasure. It sure beats not having it, too. 🙂

    1. Genealogy Lady Post author

      The chart has a second page too. It lists the five children who made it to adulthood, their spouses and children. Definitely a treasure! Made it a lot easier to track the family over censuses.

      I think we often forget about the lack of adequate birth control until the 20th century and its influence on the size of families. The improvements in healthcare and medical science have definitely improved the mortality rates. 🙂


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