Who was James Arton Hopkins' father?

Oral family history tells us that James Arton Hopkins and his brother, William Columbus Hopkins, were the sons of Stephen Wolfenbarger and Eliza Hopkins, but we have no proof that Stephen was their father.

The family story goes something like this. Eliza married Stephen in Hancock County, Tennessee, just before the Civil War, they had two sons, and Stephen died during the war. Eliza married Ephram Simpson and moved away, leaving the boys with her parents. Because they were raised by their Hopkins grandparents, the boys went by Hopkins instead of Wolfenbarger.

It is a fact that Eliza Hopkins was the boys’ mother, that her parents (Stephen and Rachel McFarland Hopkins) raised Jim and Lum, and that they and others always used Hopkins as their last name—even in census records when they were small children. Both of Eliza’s sons were born in Mulberry Gap, Hancock County, Tennessee,—Lum in 1860, Jim in 1861. They moved to Harlan County, Kentucky with their mother, grandparents, and other family members between 1861 and 1865. Eliza married Ephram Simpson there in 1866, moved to Indiana and then Missouri. She left the boys with her parents.

Stephen Wolfenbarger was the son of Wilkerson Hilton Wolfenbarger, and they also lived in Hancock County. He was a Confederate soldier and died in battle prior to May 1863. The 1860 census in Hancock County lists Stephen (age 22) living in Mulberry Gap with Margaret Wolfenbarger (age 18). This seems to indicate that Stephen married a woman named Margaret. Eliza and her oldest son, Lum, were listed in her father’s household in that same census—both with the surname Hopkins.

Margaret Wolfenbarger (age 27) appears in the 1870 census in Lee County, Virginia, (which adjoins Hancock County) with two sons, Peter (age 9) and Richard (age 3). It’s possible this is the Margaret listed with Stephen in 1860 as the 1870 record states all three were born in Hancock County. Unless his age was off by at least three years, Richard could not have been Stephen Wolfenbarger’s son. Peter could be, and he carried a Wolfenbarger family name. Wilkerson had both a brother and a grandfather named Peter, for whatever that is worth.

Finding a marriage record for anyone in Hancock County for this time period is not possible. The courthouse burned in 1880 and again in 1930. There are virtually no records available from the 1860s. Besides those 1860 and 1870 census records for Stephen and Margaret Wolfenbarger making it seem unlikely that Eliza and Stephen ever married, there is the 1866 record for Eliza’s marriage to Ephram Simpson. Eliza Hopkins, not Eliza Wolfenbarger, married Simpson. Would a widow with two children in the 1860s have reverted to her maiden name? Seems unlikely.

Some family members have the theory that the Hopkins and Wolfenbarger families were at odds because of taking different sides in the Civil War, and that is why the boys didn’t use Wolfenbarger. While Stephen Wolfenbarger fought for the Confederacy and died in battle, Eliza’s brothers, John and George fought for the Union. Some have solved the “problem” by combining Margaret and Eliza into one woman named Margaret “Eliza” as if Eliza was a nickname for Margaret.

One of James Arton’s grandsons took a Y-DNA test several years ago hoping to answer this question. The results remain inclusive, but autosomal DNA results for my mother and aunt include some interesting Wolfenbarger family matches. We definitely have a Wolfenbarger ancestor, but I can’t say that it is definitely Stephen. At least, not yet. 

If you know anything about the Wolfenbarger or Hopkins families that could shed some light on this issue or know of a male line descendant in this Wolfenbarger line who would take a Y-DNA test, please email me.

Last Update: 13 May 2020