There was no such person as “Joshua Belitha Tilghman”. As best as I can surmise this was a name (and an elaborate story) made up by someone desirous of attaching the Revolutionary War service record of another individual to Joshua Tilghman of Chatham County, North Carolina. The facts show that Joshua Tilghman of Chatham County, North Carolina and the Belitha Tilghman of Dobbs/Lenoir County, North Carolina were actually two separate individuals.
The Story that’s printed in The record and genealogy of the (Tilghman-Tillman-Tilman-Tilmon) family, 1225-1938 : compiled from an original mss. by James D. Tillman and repeated in countless family trees and websites as “fact” goes as follows:
“Several years ago one of Joshua Tillman’s descendants, then living in Missouri, wrote that she had letters written by Shadrick Tillman (Joshua’s brother) to her grandfather in which Shadrick had described Joshua as being 6 feet 4, red hair and with a temper to match and that he had a hair lip. His inability to pronounce words lead to his name being listed on Army records as “Belitha” instead of Joshua. This caused some confusion in getting his claim to land approved but it was finally settled alright”.
I’m a descendant of Jeremiah Tillman (b. 1777 in NC, d. abt. 1853 in GA.). Many researchers have claimed that Joshua “Belitha” Tilghman was his father. This has been proven false (more on that in another post). I ran across the tale above when I was attempting to make sense of Jeremiah’s reported parentage. When I first read it I thought it was highly suspect. It’s hard to see how anyone can get “Belitha” from “Joshua”, regardless of their speech impediment. In addition, men of this time and place served in units mostly made up of their neighbors and relatives and lived in small, very close-knit communities. Even if you couldn’t pronounce or write your own name, there would have been dozens of fellow soldiers present in your company that had known you all your life and surely could. Making this even more ridiculous is the fact that half a dozen or more close relatives served in the same units and several family members were officers in the local militia. This would include the man incorrectly reported to be his father, Stephen Holland Tilghman (actually a cousin of the real Belitha). Another cousin was a militia colonel and an uncle was a State Representative. The family had been in the same area of North Carolina for decades and was well known. The officers who included his name on their company rolls knew this man, knew his name and they listed it correctly. His name was Belitha, not Joshua. They didn’t hear it wrong and they wrote it down correctly.
The story about the land office doesn’t hold up either. There’s no indication that the real Belitha Tilghman had his land grant held up and the authorities that issued those grants on a local level would have also been familiar with this man and his family.
I’ve also thoroughly combed through records to try to locate the “Shadrick Tillman”, the alleged brother of Joshua Tilghman who was supposedly the origin of the story above. Joshua Tilghman had a son named Shadrick but I can find no evidence of the existence of a brother by that name.
It gets worse. Another part of the story contains a tale about Joshua Tilghman marrying two sisters: first Patsy Taylor and, after her death, her sister Chloe. A different Joshua Tilghman (son of Stephen H. Tilghman of Craven County, NC.) married Chloe Taylor. I documented this in detail in a previous post. If this is proven to be incorrect then how was it "passed down" as a family story?
The Real Belitha Tilghman
“Belitha” Tilghman (or Tillman) was actually William Elisha Tilghman of Dobbs County. “Belitha” would have been pronounced like “bill-ish-ah”. It came from taking Bill, the nickname for William, and combing it with his middle name Elisha to form a compound nickname. The “Belitha” spelling was most often recorded (the “itha” sound like that of “militia”). However, “Belisha” is the spelling used for his reenlistment record in the rolls of the 2nd North Carolina Battalion. There’s no mistaking a “t” for and “s” so it’s clear that the record-taker was attempting to phonetically spell a name he heard as “Bill-ish-ah”. The Tilghman family William Elisha Tilghman was a member of came to North Carolina from Somerset Maryland. In the Somerset records there’s at least one other example I found of someone using the compound nickname “Belitha” in Somerset records of that era. The use was rare but it wasn’t unique.
The name Belitha Tilghman also appears elsewhere. Belitha is listed on the Dobbs County militia rolls during the Regulator uprising in 1771. He’s also named in a 1787 Dobbs County land record that states that he was a neighbor of Benjamin Coleman on Southwest Creek. This was an area populated by several Tilghman/Tillman families. One of those families was that of a William Tillman who lived a short distance away and may have been a slightly older cousin, hence the need to separate the names of the two Williams. This other William also served in the same company of the 2nd North Carolina Regiment during the Revolution.
Bottom line: Belitha Tillman (William Elisha Tilghman) was a real person, not a mispronounced mistake. He served at least three years as a Continental line soldier during some of the most intense and trying periods of the Revolutionary War and he deserves to be recognized for that. If your reading this and used the information above in your own family records, I hope there's enough here to warrant a correction. The wrong information has been floating around for too long.