It’s complicated.

By J. L. Starkey

The hardest to learn was the least complicated.

– Emily Ann Saliers

“Let me run a theory past you,” I said to my husband. I had been staring at Bass and Shackelford records for way too long that day, but sometimes the best ideas occur in those tired and hazy moments.

“I’m listening,” he said.

Tangled branches…the beginning of the Bass brothers theory

“OK…you see Judith on this chart? Well, she was married to James, but he died in the late 1700s. Their daughter Sally married William, remember?” I began.

“Uh huh…” my husband said.

“So now,” I continued, “I’m looking at the will of William’s sister-in-law, who was also named Judith. She was married to his older brother, Edward. Remember…this is the William who was married to Sally.”

“Um, OK…” he said. He was still with me.

[Narrator’s voice: “He probably wasn’t with her by that point.”]

“Well, what if – and this is a crazy theory – but what if that Judith is the same Judith who was married to James?” I asked. “That would mean that Judith and her daughter married brothers!”

My husband blinked a few times and shook his head as if to clear it, but he didn’t say anything at that point.

Could I prove this hypothesis, or was I reaching too far? I wasn’t sure at first. But a pension file changed everything, and suddenly the Bass brothers theory was more than mere conjecture.

It was a fact.

Clues from Thomas Bass, The Elder

My fifth-great-grandmother Sarah “Sally” Shackelford had all the makings of a brick-wall ancestor. She married William Bass in October 1789 and had at least eleven children, but her name seemed to be absent from all sources except Find-a-Grave [1]. (You can learn more about the life of William Bass by clicking here.) Her memorial noted that she was the daughter of James and Judith Shackelford, but there was no citation for that fact, which made it a shaky-leaf hint at best [2].

Surely there was more information about Sally. But where was it?

There were plenty of records available for her in-laws, so I decided to focus there first. I started with Sally’s father-in-law, my sixth-great-grandfather, Thomas Bass. He left a detailed will that included the names of his children and (in cases where his children predeceased him) his grandchildren [3]. I researched those individuals but had trouble finding records for one of Thomas’s sons.

Edward W. Bass, what happened to you? Did you really die without a will? No one else in your family did that. How very un-Bass of you!

Edward apparently died intestate shortly after Thomas Bass wrote his will. Since Thomas did not update his will to address that situation, the deceased Edward was incorrectly listed as a living heir to his portion of his father’s estate. How did the family handle that situation?

That answer is easy. This was the Bass family, and they didn’t just argue about money.

They took it to court!

Chesterfield County Chancery Court must have been a busy place in the years following Thomas Bass’s death. The case involving his estate dragged on for eight years and included dozens of heirs. The final settlement was shockingly small, and Edward Bass’s widow was awarded just twenty dollars from her husband’s portion of the estate.

The case was analyzed for a genealogy magazine in 1991; that article explained how the funds were distributed and included a list of Thomas Bass’s heirs [4]. Slowly, a clearer picture of his son Edward began to emerge.

Born around 1754, Edward W. Bass passed away before 15 January 1803, leaving his widow, Judith, to raise their eight children while settling his estate. It was a job that would last almost a decade as Judith provided the court with detailed reports of all expenses involved in raising eight children as a single parent [5].

Judith Bass settles Edward’s estate. Document notes that he was intestate when he died.

Perhaps Judith learned a lesson from the mess created by Edward’s estate, because she seemed pretty determined that history would not repeat itself. To that end, she wrote a will of her own [6].

Oh, did she ever.

Judith Bass’s will ranks among the best that I have read. It was detailed, nitpicky, and opinionated.

And if I could, I would thank her for every last word of it.

Judith Bass Has Her Say

The beginning of the will of Judith Bass [FamilySearch image]

Judith didn’t know it in 1835, but two centuries later, her words would provide crucial clues to help prove the Bass brothers theory.

Assuming they were listed in age order in the will, Judith’s eldest two children were daughters Sally Bass and Nancy Sublett. She was very specific in her bequest for Nancy, and stated:

“I loan to my daughter Nancy Sublett one feather bed and a pair of sheets during her life and at her death they are to go to her son Silas Cheatham.”

-Judith Bass, 1835

Sublett? Where had I seen that name before? I reviewed Judith’s 1820 census listing and found that she was living next door to a man named William Sublett [7]. Was he her son-in-law?

He was, and his marriage record led to the next piece of this puzzle.

Judith Bass in the 1820 census.
Son-in-law William Sublett is listed above her name. [Ancestry image]

William Sublett married Nancy in 1818. Because it was Nancy’s second marriage, her name was written as “Nancy Cheatham” or “Nancy (Mrs.) Cheatham” on marriage records [8].

Next, I searched for a marriage record for Nancy’s first marriage, and discovered that she had married Leonard Cheatham in 1798. Her “father” Edward Bass gave permission for the marriage, but her alternate surname on the record was what really got my attention [9].

Crucial clue in a marriage record index

Nancy’s maiden name wasn’t Bass at all. It was Shackelford!

My mind started racing. Nancy was not the daughter of Judith and Edward Bass. She was the daughter of Judith Bass and “Unknown” Shackelford.

Hmmm…and if Nancy’s mother was Judith, then was the “Sally Bass” in Judith’s will actually Sally Shackelford Bass?

Sally Bass – or Sally Shackelford Bass?

It was an amazing theory to consider. If Judith Shackelford and Judith Bass were the same person, then:

  • Sally Shackelford married her step-uncle, William Bass.
  • Sally became her mother’s sister-in-law when she married William.
  • Judith and Edward’s children were Sally’s half-siblings and her nieces and nephews.
  • William Bass was Judith’s brother-in-law and her son-in law.
  • William and Sally’s children were Judith’s grandchildren and her nieces and nephews.
  • William and Edward Bass were brothers and brothers-in-law.
  • My sixth-great-aunt was also my sixth-great-grandmother.

Still, the question remained: Was the Bass brothers theory correct?

Finding that answer would require time, patience, and a little bit of luck.

An Accidental Discovery

I searched for marriage records to support the Bass brothers theory but was unable to find anything for Judith, Edward, or James. Additional searches led to a series of dead ends and a great deal of frustration. Finally, I decided to put the theory aside and focus on another branch of the Bass family.

It’s funny how things work out sometimes, isn’t it? It seemed like the minute I stopped looking for those elusive answers, I found them immediately, and in an entirely unexpected location.

William Bass’s pension application included a great deal of information about his family, but I didn’t expect it to contain the evidence that would also prove the Bass brothers theory.

There were two parts to the application. The second part was completed after William’s death in 1839, when Sally Bass applied for a widow’s pension. She was required to provide proof of her marriage to William, and she enlisted the help of two people who had witnessed the wedding. According to her sworn testimony, those witnesses were William’s brother and Sally’s sister [10].

Sally Shackelford Bass is awarded a widow’s pension [Fold3 image]

Who was Sally Shackelford Bass’s sister? I’ll let her speak for herself!

“I, Nancy Sublett…certify that…my sister Sarah Shackelford was married to William Bass Sr in October 1789…the bible in which the record was kept was burned when my house was destroyed by fire.”

– Nancy Sublett

Mystery solved…Nancy Sublett’s full statement [Fold3 Image]

The Bass brothers theory was correct! Judith, the widow of James Shackelford, was the mother of Sally and Nancy. After James died, she married Edward Bass, and just a few years later, her daughter Sarah (“Sally”) married Edward’s brother William.

It would wrap things up nicely if I could say that the blended Shackelford/Bass family lived happily ever after. After all, they did have some good fortune. William Bass, the boy soldier-turned-POW, came from a wealthy family, and he added to his riches during his lifetime. Edward Bass’s widow raised her children using funds from her deceased husband’s estate, and most of them went on to live good lives.

Yes, it would be nice to say that life was perfect, but that statement would be false. This was the Bass family, after all, and they were never too far removed from drama and turmoil.

For example, there was that one sister…wow, was she ever a character. Judy Bass made special mention of that one in her will!

But that’s a story for another time, isn’t it?


  1. Vernon, Robert W. “Powhatan County Minister’s Returns 1786-1800.” Magazine of Virginia Genealogy, vol. 35, no. 1, 1997, pp. 5–7., Virginia Genealogical Society Quarterly [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Operations Inc, 2002.
  2. Find A Grave, database and images ( accessed 03 Aug 2019), memorial page for Sarah Judith Shackleford Bass (10 May 1774–unknown), Find A Grave Memorial no. 84738068, citing Bass Family Farm, Chesterfield County, Virginia, USA; Maintained by mac contributor 47112565.
  3. Will of Thomas Bass, Senior. Virginia, Wills and Probate Records, 1652-1983. Chesterfield County, Will Book No. 6, pp. 219-220 (digital image 408 of 907). Retrieved from
  4. Jones, Louise G. “The Children of Thomas Bass.” Transcribed by Virginia Lee Hutcheson Davis, The Southside Virginian, vol. 9, no. 4, 1991, pp. 149–153. Retrieved from
  5. Probate record, Edward W. Bass, Senior. Virginia, Wills and Probate Records, 1652-1983. Chesterfield County, Will Book No. 6, pp. 400-419 (digital images 783-792 of 907). Retrieved from
  6. Will of Judith Bass, Virginia, Wills and Probate Records, 1652-1983. Chesterfield County, Will Book No. 15, pp. 619-620 (digital images 669-670 of 724). Retrieved from
  7. 1820 U S Census; Census Place: Chesterfield, Virginia; Page: 214; NARA Roll: M33_129; Image: 226. 1820 United States Federal Census [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Operations, Inc., 2010. Images reproduced by FamilySearch.
  8. “Virginia Marriages, 1785-1940,” database, FamilySearch ( : 11 February 2018), William Sublett and Nancy Cheatham, 15 Jun 1818; citing Chesterfield, Virginia, reference p 149; FHL Film 30,869. (See also: Dodd, Jordan R., et al.. Early American Marriages: Virginia to 1850. Bountiful, UT, USA: Precision Indexing Publishers. Virginia, Compiled Marriages, 1740-1850 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Operations Inc, 1999.)
  9. “Virginia Marriages, 1785-1940,” database, FamilySearch ( : 11 February 2018), Leonard Cheatham and Nancy Shakleford, 03 Feb 1798; citing Chesterfield, Virginia, reference p 385; FHL Film 30,869.
  10. “United States Revolutionary War Pension and Bounty Land Warrant Applications, 1800-1900,” database, FamilySearch ( : 9 March 2018), William Bass, pension number W. 5766, service Va.; from “Revolutionary War Pension and Bounty-Land Warrant Application Files,” database and images, ( : n.d); citing NARA microfilm publication M804 (Washington, D.C.: NARA, 1974); FHL Film 970,169.

8 thoughts on “It’s complicated.

Add yours

  1. I’ll bet you had some fun figuring all that out. What a great collection of records! I sure wish I could find more wills. They prove to be about the most interesting documents ever.


  2. Amazing research. Thank goodness that you have it all spelled out here and documented for future generations.
    I had a messy one in my Vining tree where a step-daughter married her step-father after her mother’s death, then married his half-brother after the step-father died. That’s now documented because otherwise, people will keep assuming it is just a mistake on the tree.


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