Andrew C. Duncan

Andrew C. Duncan | 1842-1906

One of my greatest joys in this historical journey was unlocking the mystery of my husband’s great-grandfather, Andrew C. Duncan.  When I started this historical journey, he was the person I was most interested in discovering.

His journey did not disappoint.

While there is still much more to discover about Andrew Cunningham Duncan, his legacy is richer than I imagined. His footprints run far deeper than I had known.

A Life Summed Up in One Page

Family Recollections of Duncan Genealogy

One neatly typed up piece of paper summarized all that had been passed down about Andrew to our family.  His entire life, his entire legacy, summed up in five short paragraphs.

From this, we learned he graduated from Oxford, left his family in Scotland, studied religion in Boston, became a minister, moved out West, married, and had one child. We understood he died soon after the great 1906 San Francisco Earthquake, and his wife had died shortly before the earthquake.

But verifying the details of this summary proved challenging.

Try as I might, I just couldn’t verify the specific details in his story. So while we had a wonderful recollection of Andrew and wife by his son, by the time it was typed up, memories had faded, dates were inaccurate, and facts had become distorted.

It’s not surprising.  Andrew’s son, Will, was only 28 years old by the time both his parents had died.  He likely didn’t capture this family history until over 40 years later.

Unlocking Andrew C. Duncan’s Historical Journey

But we had a starting point.  And if I could pin-point Andrew’s death date, I hoped some of these other pieces would fall in place.

Then it happened.

After many unsuccessful searches to verify death dates for the highly popular name, Andrew Duncan, I came across a will for an “AC Duncan”.  The beneficiary of that will, Will C. Duncan, was a name I knew well.  He was my husband’s grandfather.  But “Will Duncan” was also a popular name. How could I be sure?

Reading further, I noted the trustee for the will was “Will D. Gould”, the attorney and brother of Andrew’s wife, Margaret Gould, who was mentioned in our one-page family summary.

And just like that, the door opened to an unbelievable journey.

Discovering Who AC Duncan Was

When Andrew came to America, he mostly went by “AC”, rather than Andrew.

AC was born in August, 1842, most likely in Scotland, although some voter registration and census records indicate he was born in Donegal, Ireland.   It is likely that his father was a British landowner, sent to Ireland when AC was very young, and thus had little recollection of life in Scotland.  The Donegal region was populated by “Scotch-Irish”.  More research in this area may lead to further discovery.

Of note, there are three published birthdates for AC Duncan. “August 10” is listed as a his birthdate in his memoir by Willsie Martin that was included in the 1907  Official Minutes of the Fifty-Fifth Session of the California Annual Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church. “August 19” is listed as his birthday in the Pacific Theological Seminary Catalogue.  A third birthdate, “July 17, 1842”, is listed on his death certificate.

As family lore tells us, his mother was a “Lady” from the Hamilton clan who died when AC was young.  A memoir written by Willsie Martin after AC’s death seems to confirm this lineage:  “His father was a lauded squire and his mother was a member of the  famous Hamilton family.”   The memoir goes on to say “for generations his people have been thinkers and leaders.”

AC Duncan’s Mother

After his mother’s early death, his father went on to re-marry, having 8 more sons, and one daughter.   Who his mother was, I do not know. It is said that her image was captured in a painting on ivory pin that was handed down to her grandson. Despite coming from an apparently well-regarded family, nothing more is known about his family in Scotland and Ireland.


According to family history, Andrew attended the University of Edinburgh, and graduated from Oxford before immigrating to America.  When he left home, he signed over his inheritance as the eldest son, and was given money.  When Andrew arrived in America, he was said to have graduated as a minister from the Theological Seminary in Boston, Massachusetts.

Again, there are conflicts with this memory from published sources.  In his memoir, Willsie Martin stated AC was “educated at the best schools and graduated with high honors in Oriental Languages from the University of London. To further prepare himself of his life’s work he studied Theology in this country under the elder Bishop Potter and under Philipps Brooks, and later graduated with honor from the Pacific Theological Seminary.”

While I can’t verify the location of his academic studies, or when his interest in religious studies began, I can paint a more accurate picture on his religious studies in America.

Religious Studies

Bishop Henry C. Potter served as Assistant Minister on the Greene Foundation at Trinity Church in Boston from 1866-1868.  Philipps Brooks was the rector of Trinity Church in Boston in 1869, about the time Andrew would have been in Boston – if indeed he arrived in Boston when he immigrated.  The 1900 Federal Census lists Andrew’s immigration year as 1869, although I have not been able to verify this with actual passenger records.  But perhaps this is where the confusion in family lore began regarding his religious studies.

Catalogue of the Pacific Theological Seminary 1881

The Pacific Theological Seminary names “Andrew Cunningham Duncan” as a member of the 1873 graduating class.  His listed birthday was August 19, 1842.

Sacramento Daily Union 27 Sept 1873

Andrew’s first assignment after graduation was in Susanville and was ordained in the Susanville Congregational Church on September 14, 1873.

“Rev. A. C. Duncan, B. D., of the late graduating class of the Pacific Theological Seminary, who, since his graduation has been preaching in Susanville, Lassen county, of this State, was ordained as an evangelist, by council on Sunday, September 14th.  The sermon and right band of fellowship, by Rev. J. K. McLean; ordaining prayer and etiarge, by Rev. J. Warren.  This interesting service was performed in the presence of a large audience, most of whom were regular members of Duncan’s congregation.” – Sacramento Daily Union, 27 September 1873

Trivia Fact: Philipps Brooks was great grandson of the famous founder of Phillips Academy in Andover,   Massachusetts.  He also wrote the words to “O Little Town of Bethlehem”.

Heading West

In the early 1870’s AC seemed to make his way out to California, about the same time as his future wife, Margaret Duncan, made her way out West.  The Willsie Martin memoir credits AC with opening “The Little Shepherd’s Mission” in Chicago, although I’ve found no information to verify this.  Perhaps the Mission went by another name.  Either way, it seems AC made his way to California via Chicago.

Our family history stated AC arrived in Susanville, California in 1871 and served as Chaplain in General Cook’s army in the Modoc Indian Reservation, under Captain Jack. Unfortunately, nothing I find verifies the accuracy of this story either.  However, it is doubtful he arrived before 1873, since prior to that he was in Oakland at the Pacific Theological Seminary.

There is a family tale that AC came over as part of John C. Fremont’s party.  The dates of Fremont’s journeys don’t line up with AC’s presumed travel, so it remains a mystery as to how and why AC headed cross country to California.  I do often wonder if he met his future wife, Margaret, on this cross country journey, opting to join her in Susanville after he finished his theological studies.  Or perhaps the two first met in Susanville when she was a parishioner at his first ministry assignment.

The Reverend AC Duncan

Once AC graduated from the Pacific Theological Seminary in 1873, and was officially ordained in 1874, much of AC’s life could be chronicled geographically.  Another post will detail more about his life as a minister in California.  You can read more about his previously unknown first child, Susan L. Duncan, presumably named for the place where he began his life as a minister and husband, in another post.

Rev. AC Duncan was a wealthy man up until the time of the earthquake.  Then, according to family history, they “lost everything”.  To some extent this is true;  AC’s wife, Maggie died in August, 1904.  So by the time the earthquake hit, a year and a half later, he had already lost everything.  He had lost the love of his life.

However, according to his will, AC seemed to be okay financially.  He owned a modest home worth $1500 on what is now College Avenue in Alameda (Lots 19 and 20 in the Bishop and Hart tract), and $100 worth of personal property consisting of “household goods, home library, wearing apparel, watch, family pictures, etc.”  Oh how I wish those family pictures survived.

Duncan V Ramish

One significant event that happened in the later part of his life they may have contributed to this sentiment of “losing everything”, but had nothing to do with the great earthquake as family lore seems to imply, was a lawsuit against the City of Los Angeles.

In 1904, Maggie and AC lost a lawsuit involving a property they had purchased in Los Angeles in 1882 (lots, 17, 18, 19 and 20, bulk 11 Woolen Mill Tract, 82).  Maggie and AC sued the City of Los Angeles for selling property they owned, but had not paid the bonds for street improvements imposed by the City under the “Streetwork Act”.  The case, Duncan V Ramish, was well-published and seemed to take a toll.

San Francisco’s Great Earthquake of 1906

The family had winter home on Van Ness Avenue in San Francisco, and a summer home on Alameda Bay, or so we thought.  This part of the family lore cannot be verified.

The Great Fire that followed the earthquake likely destroyed any record of a home on Van Ness (if one existed).  However, according to the local papers, we know AC and Maggie were living in Willits in 1904, when Maggie died.  Son Will, was living in San Francisco, but at 2609 Clay Street.  A few months after Maggie’s death, AC, retired from ministry to Hayward, at which time he bought the home on College Ave in Alameda according to newspaper announcements. It was in this home that AC died in December of 1906.

Annual publishings of AC’s ministry assignments, voting, and census records provide plot his historical journey.  Soon, I will publish a fairly detailed map of where AC and Maggie lived based on these records.   San Francisco has never been listed as an address, so unless it was an investment home, it is unlikely that AC had a winter home in San Francisco.

There is More to Learn About AC

Even with this significant trail of information, much is still unknown about the early life of AC.  Our family history stated he went back to Europe two or three times with Maggie and Will C, but there is no record.  Perhaps one day we will find more information on this. Perhaps it will be the key that unlocks the stories of AC’s parents.

AC died in his home in Alameda on December 29, 1906 at the age of 64. The cause of his death was “chronic interstitial nephritis”, a kidney disease. He is buried in a small, unmarked grave, in the Evergreen Cemetery in Oakland, California.

If you know anything about Andrew C. Duncan, we would love to hear from you.


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