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Archive for the ‘Census Records’ Category

When researching African-Americans, the criticality of the 1870 census cannot be understated. It is called the “Brick Wall” for good reason. Because the vast majority of blacks were enslaved prior to the Civil War, and because most stayed in the area of their enslavement, finding the family in 1870 can be the key that unlocks the door to their enslaved past. As property, slaves were not enumerated by name before 1870.

The upheaval and violence surrounding the civil war does not always make that task easy. Formerly enslaved blacks varied in the reasons for their surnames and after the war there was still a fluidity about surnames. Families can be found in 1870 with one surname and in 1880 with an entirely different surname. Spelling, we all quickly learn, was subjective at best.

Still, the best tool we have to find the ever-important slaveowner is to find the family in 1870. Patience Prather had been enslaved by William Blunt in Montgomery County, MD. In 1870, she was reunited with her husband Tobias, and just two houses away was the William Blunt household:

1870 Patience

1870 Patience

It is not uncommon to see several people of differing surnames living together in 1870. Always be curious about others living in the household–researching them can often lead to finding other family members. Remember that former slaves formed kinship ties with fellow enslaved people. This is one of the mechanisms they used to survive in a system where at any moment blood-family members could be sold, never to be seen again.

Elisha Riggs, also in Montgomery County, MD, owned the following slaves along with others:

Tobias Powell
Mary Powell
Candace Boone
Mahala Boone
Anne Boone
Mary Boone
Arianna Boone
Henrietta Boone

Look at the household of Tobias in 1870, living in Washington D.C.:

Tobias Powell

Tobias Powell

These people had been enslaved together and those ties continued.

Of course, the 1870 census can also cause us to stumble when we forget that no relationships are given in that census year. Relationships are suggested; the census above suggests Tobias and Mary were married and had children Lizzie, Lavinia and Willie. But we have to verify that relationshiop with other records.

There are some lines that may not yield success for various reasons. Some families did live their immediate areas–some were driven out by white violence, others in search of work or family that had been sold. Others stayed where they had been enslaved, but the slavewner may have died or left the area. Some had been forced to move with slaveowners trying to refugee their slaves during the war.

For those who can’t find their family in 1870 on the census, try to get as close to that timeframe as possible. Be sure to check land and court records, and several Southern states had tax and voting records that survive. I found a North Carolina man who was missing on the 1870 census in a 1867 tax record.

The 1870 census remains, for those researching African-Americans, the most critical census of all. But it’s a brick wall that can, with diligent research, come crashing down.

Postscript: I just discovered that my good friend Michael Hait blogged about this exact topic in 2009. Check out his post. Great minds think alike!!!

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I am in a state of genealogic shock.

My ancestor Martha Simpson was the wife of Levi Prather. I’ve been working hard in past years trying to unravel the complicated slave relationships in the Prather family of Montgomery County, Maryland. Finding Levi’s slaveowner was hard work, so I hadn’t focused much on Martha yet. Just recently, I’d started thinking perhaps Martha was freed before 1864 (Maryland’s state constitution in that year freed its slaves).

I’d been able to locate a sister of Martha’s (Leanna) and a brother (James) as freedpeople in 1860, so it was logical to think that Martha perhaps had been freed as well. But there was a better reason for my suspicion: we are fortunate to have a few pages of the Prather family bible, noting exact dates births and deaths of some of the Simpson family:

Bible Page

Bible Page

When I started to really analyze these pages, it occurred to me that it would be unlikely that enslaved people would have known exact birthdates dating from the 1840s. So, I did a search for Martha Simpson in 1860, and voila, that name pulled up living in a white Warfield family—but in neighboring Howard County instead of Montgomery County:

1860 Martha

1860 Martha

The Howard County location surprised me, although it shouldn’t have. We are always supposed to examine neighboring counties. I still wasn’t sure this was MY Martha, even though the age matched. But here is yet another example of how use of the clustering technique can be helpful (i.e., looking for groups of people associated with your ancestors). I knew from studying Martha and Levi’s 1870 census neighborhood in Montgomery Cty that they lived right smack dab in the middle of a bunch of black people with the surname–can you guess?– Warfield. So Martha living with a family of that surname made me feel like I was onto something. I decided to see if Martha was there in 1850, and Oh My Goodness. There they were, Martha and several of the siblings listed in my bible page—nice and neat and living as freedpeople in Howard County in 1850! Even better—they are with (presumably) their mother Louisa. The actual image is bad, so I will transcribe the entry:

Louisa Simpson, 33
Harriet L [Leanna], 11
Mary E, 9
James W, 7
Joseph W, 5
Martha J, 4
Minta L, 3 [?]

I have just found another ancestor and extended my tree with the name of ‘Louisa.’ This was an odd case in that I knew the name of the father–Perry Simpson–and it was in fact the mother’s name who had been lost to history. He may have been still enslaved in 1850, and perhaps that is why his name is not shown in the household.

Chills ran up my spine when I saw this census record for another reason: I live in Howard County! To think that my ancestors lived near where I live now over 150 years ago is just earth-shattering for me. But wait—it gets better. Howard County was formally organized relatively late—1851—from Anne Arundel County. Both Anne Arundel and Howard County have some combination of freedom certificates, manumission and chattel records available on the Archives of Maryland website. Just, WOW. It almost gets no better than that.

Doing an online search of these records, I discovered a manumission from one Ann Dorsey dated August 1816, of the following enslaved people:

Lyd, age 30
Harriot, age 11
William, 10
Mary, 7
Belinda, 5
Eliza, age 3
**Louisa, 18 months

Witnesses to this transaction were Gustavus Warfield and Humphrey Dorsey. It is possible the “Louisa” in this list, who is a baby, could be the same Louisa found in the 1850 census who is the mother of my Martha Simpson. Of course, I’ve got alot of work to do onsite in repositories before I can conclude that because we all know nothing thorough can be done online. My first task is to figure out which Ann Dorsey this was, since this was a large, prominent Maryland family and there were Anns all over the place. For right now, I suspect it was the Ann whose maiden name was —Warfield.

I have also gathered that this enslaved community likely had roots in many of the “first families” of Anne Arundel and Howard County: Dorsey, Worthington, Simpson, Warfield, Chase, Hall, etc. Many former slaves with those surnames are living in the community near my Prathers in Montgomery County in the 1870s. I was also fortunate to find at GoogleBooks a downloadable copy of The Founders of Anne Arundel and Howard Counties” written by Joshua Dorsey Warfield in 1905. There is a phenomenal amount of information in this book, and I’m just beginning to sift through it.

This is such a rewarding and absolutely thrilling discovery. I haven’t been speechless in a long time. Martha was here–right under my nose the whole time.

Martha Simpson Prather

Martha Simpson Prather

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Records lie to us. The very records we depend upon to reconstruct our families, lie all the time.

This 1900 census for my gggrandmother Hannah Harbor stated that she was widowed:

Hannah Harbor, 1900

But her former husband was alive and well; he had just left her for another woman. I guess I wouldn’t want to say that either.

This 1920 census  shows my ancestor Ada Seaman happily ensconced with her family:

Ada Seaman Family

But she had died in 1918. She could not have been in the household in the year 1920, unless they were living with her ghost:

Ada Seaman Death Cert

This Maryland ancestor remembered my gggrandmother’s name was Margaret (Simpson), wife of Levi:

Maria Howard Death Cert

Close. But it was Martha. Margaret was Martha’s stepmother.

Ferdinand Holt migrated to the great city of Indianapolis in the early 20th century. He filled out a World War II Draft card that proclaimed his birthdate:

Ferdinand Holt, WWII

But he wasn’t born in 1895. He was born in 1887. It was correct on his World War I Draft Card:

Ferdinand Holt, WWI Draft

Oddly, the actual day (Dec 6) stayed the same, even though the year changed by 8!

Records lie. Records manipulate and deceive. The only way to be sure that what we are recording is accurate is to correlate each piece of evidence and closely examine every document and rationally explain any conflicts. Every document has the potential to contain inaccurate information. Viewing records in isolation and accepting what they purport as true can’t be our practice.

I only show a few examples above, but those examples kept me going in the wrong direction for years.  It is only by researching many different document types (census, vital records, deed records, court records, military records, bible records, etc. etc.) that we can we begin to form an accurate picture of our ancestor’s lives and flesh out the data that is incorrect.

So, what documents have been lying to you?

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John Smith named Tifton, GA as his birthplace on his Social Security SS5 Form. He also stated that his father’s name was Simon Smith, and that his mother’s name was unknown and died when he was an infant:

John Smith’s SS5

I haven’t found any connection to Tifton in any records other than this SS5. Searches for Simon Smith in Georgia turned up too many hits to be useful. I decided to utilize the technique of cluster research since I’ve had so much success with it in the past. Cluster Research teaches us to research anyone associated with the focus person in hopes of finding a path to new research avenues.

If you read the previous post on finding Matilda Vickers, then you saw Matilda Vickers living with a woman named Katie Middleton in one of the census records. I always research unknown people that show up in a household. Maybe its  a boarder, but chances are better its a family member. Who was Katie Middleton? How was she a “Cousin” to Matilda Vickers? Tracing her back through the census, I found:


There is quite a bit of incorrect information here. Most noticeably, Katie was not married to Nat (Nathaniel) James in 1910; that man is actually her brother. Also, Katie’s age in 1920 is obviously wrong—she should be in her 30s.

Katie Middleton died in Jacksonville in 1950, and her death certificate, although confusing, lists her birthplace as Riceboro, Liberty Cty, GA, and her father as “James Barns”(close enough –her father was Barnard James). The connection to Riceboro, GA can be shown another way. There are several “boarders” living with Katie and Nathaniel in 1910, including the brothers Jerry, Grant and Pulaski Richardson:

1910 James

The 1900 Richardson census in Riceboro, Liberty Cty, GA, shows those brothers:

Richardson Brothers

The more tantalizing discovery  was this: also living in Liberty Cty, in Militia District #15, is a Simon Smith (wife Rosa) with a son named Johnnie:

1910 Census, Riceboro, Liberty Cty, GA

1910 Simon Smith

1900 Census, Riceboro, Liberty Cty, GA

1900 Simon Smith

Could this be the Simon Smith, father of John Smith I have been searching for all these years? The biggest conflict is the age listed for John, placing his birth at ca. 1894. All of the information I have puts my John Smith’s birth closer to 1880 (including his SS5) and 14 years is a big gap that is not so easily explained by those darned untrustworthy census records , although certainly possible. Liberty Cty is also not even close to Tift Cty, GA.

But the proximity of a Simon/John Smith so near Katie’s family’s roots makes the little hairs on the back of my neck stand up. Whenever that has happened before, I have been on the verge of a breakthrough. I just need a little more evidence to push me over. I would like to find this Simon Smith in 1880, but also try to get more information about his children.

I’m getting closer, that’s for sure.

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My great-grandfather John Smith was born in Georgia and migrated to Jacksonville, Florida sometime around the turn of the century. His roots in Georgia continue to be one of my greatest brick walls. I’ve been researching him in more depth recently, and I had a huge breakthrough on his wife’s family yesterday. I am so excited! This is an excellent case study in evaluating evidence.

John Smith married Georgia Harris, and for many years I knew almost nothing about her since she died at the age of 45. I had some success earlier with Georgia’s roots that was a big part of this new discovery. Georgia had two sets of children, one set with first husband Isaac Garner in Madison Cty, FL, and another with presumably her second husband John Smith in Duval Cty, FL. No one in my family knew about that first marriage. Oddly, the only censuses in which John and Georgia and children appear together is 1930 and the Florida state census of 1935. Clearly, they were if not married then at least having children together before then.

My grandmother wrote in her family bible that “Matilda Vickers” was the name of Georgia’s mother. THIS Matilda Davis, Georgia’s mother, migrated to Philadelphia, PA with her other daughter Ruth by 1920, as I detailed in the earlier post.  Matilda’s name on that 1920 census in Philly is “Garvin,” but it’s clearly the right woman since she is noted as being the “mother-in-law”. I assumed Matilda died there in PA–this is an important point to remember (and take note of all my assumptions, LOL).

By 1930, Matilda’s son-in-law Nish Torrence had remarried and was now living in Camden, NJ. This is the census tracking for Matilda Davis/Garvin, mother of Georgia:

Matilda Davis/Garvin, 1900-1920

When the 1940 census came out, I was looking for other family members in Jacksonville. When I looked up Georgia’s son Cornelius Garner, I was surprised to find this:

1940 Cornelius Garner

Cornelius was living with a “Matilda Vickerson” who is 73 and widowed. Cornelius’ relationship to Matilda is listed as “Roomer”. I decided to investigate this mysterious Matilda who kept popping up. Was she the Matilda mentioned in my grandmother’s Bible?

In 1935, a “Metilda Vickers” is living in Jacksonville, FL with Cornelius Garner & other family members. At some point in 1930-1931, city directories show “Matilda Vickers” as living in the house with John & Georgia’s family, although on the 1930 census Matilda is living with a woman named Katie Middleton and described as a Cousin:

City Directory

1930 Matilda Vickers

Before 1930, I could find no evidence of Matilda Vickers in Jacksonville, and I was unable to discover the name of her deceased husband. To recap Matilda Vickers visually:

Matilda Vickers, 1930s-1940

Matilda Vickers died in Jacksonville in 1944, and John Smith was the informant on her death certificate, but no relationship is given (Dagnabbit!).  After dusting aside some of my earlier assumptions, the key question was: is the Matilda Davis, mother of Georgia Harris, who by 1920 is living with her daughter’s family in Pennsylvania as Matilda Garvin, the SAME Matilda Vickers/Vickerson, who appears in Jacksonville by the 1930s?

The ages matched pretty consistently. It would answer why Matilda was associated with John Smith (she was his mother-in-law). It would answer why I couldn’t find that name before 1930 in Duval Cty, FL (she was living in Philadelphia). But I couldn’t explain the surnames. Incredibly, vital record searches solved that, along with a little creative thinking in terms of the names.

I found that a Matilda Davis married a man named Frank Gowen in Jacksonville in 1916.  Of course that was a transcription error–his surname was Garvin. He died in Jacksonville on 12 May 1918, leaving widow, Matilda “Garvin” on his death certificate. That’s why Matilda appears in Philadelphia with that name. And amazingly enough, in Philadelphia, I discovered a Matilda Garvin married Peter Vickers in 1920. And yes–he died there in June 1925. Matilda then moved back to Jacksonville before 1930.

I couldn’t find the records before because I was not looking under the correct surnames and also because “Gowen” did not turn up in a search for “Garvin.” Also, the fact that Matilda had 2 marriages in different cities with men who died shortly afterward added to the confusion. I am in the process of ordering the marriage records to confirm all of the above, but I feel very confidant in stating that:

Matilda Davis= Matilda Garvin=Matilda Vickers/Vickerson!

Keep in mind, I could only make the connection once I threw out my insistence that Matilda Davis had died in Philadelphia, and that the census taker had mistakenly entered her name as “Garvin.” Assumptions are fine, but remember that you made them and always be ready to re-examine them in the light of new evidence. One assumption was correct–my grandmother’s entry was wrong. She probably remembered that John Smith was related somehow to this Matilda, and assumed it was his mother. In fact, her mother-in-law died the year before she married her husband so she did not know her personally, so this mistake is perfectly reasonable.

I feel really good about solving this puzzle. I’m even now exploring a hunch that the missing marriage record for John Smith & Georgia Harris could be the one I see listed for John Smith and Florida Harris  in 1916.

Genealogy never stops being exciting for me. And possibly the best part of this is I added a new ancestor to my tree–my 4th great-grandmother, Virginia “Viney” Nealy, Matilda’s mother as shown on her death certificate.

Stay tuned for my next post where I explore just who was this Katie Middleton that Matilda was living with?

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I read an article a few weeks ago that I think every single genealogist should read, and I was excited about sharing it with you all. It is a special issue of the National Genealogical Society Quarterly from September 2001 (Volume 89, No.3). This issue was completely devoted to discussion of the Thomas Jefferson-Sally Hemings affair that I’m sure everyone has already heard about. If you are a member of NGS (which I highly recommend) you can log in to their website and download this article from their NGS Quarterly archives immediately.

The esteemed Helen Leary, who is an extraordinary genealogist, tackles the subject in an article entitled,Sally Heming’s Children: A Genealogical Analysis of the Evidence,” which starts on page 165.  It is a 40-plus page article, long, but well-worth taking the time to print out and read. Helen illustrates use of the Genealogical Proof Standard to one of this country’s most enduring mysteries: Was Thomas Jefferson the father of Sally Heming’s children?

In Helen’s gifted hands, the evidence is laid out (truly massive amounts of evidence), every hypothesis tested, each conflict addressed and a clearer conclusion you won’t find anywhere. Helen is a masterful teacher, and a thorough researcher. I feel like I grew as a researcher just seeing how she approached the topic and addressed each and every concern. I will continue to apply these methods to my own research.

DNA testing performed in 1998 matched Sally Hemings youngest son Eston’s DNA to that of a Jefferson male. Along with the other evidence, I particularly enjoyed how Helen illustrated handling of bias on the part of researchers, and how that bias can negatively affect results. This article also showed how you can’t the play the game of “XYZ coulda happened” with research. Genealogy is not about coulda, woulda, shoulda.

I’ll leave you with a clip from the 1870 census that this article discusses that just blew my mind. In 1870, a census taker in Ross County, Ohio, enumerated Sally’s son Madison (most of whom went on to live as white people) and wrote the following notation into the census next to his name:

“This man is the son of Thomas Jefferson!”

1870 census

Now, that has got to make you say Wow. I’ve never seen anything like that before. I hope you’ll go read this article, come back here and let me know what you thought. I encourage you to read the entire issue: an article by Thomas Jones dissects the “official” report done by the Thomas Jefferson Scholars Commission (who continue to deny the pairing), and there is an excellent article by Gary B. Mills about proving children of master-slave relationships.

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It is amazing what can be discovered when you closely analyze and scrutinize your previous research. Sometimes it’s the fact that new records have become available that weren’t available before, and sometimes it’s that your skills are better than they were before. I am quite happy to be my own biggest guinea pig and continue to prove this mantra be true.

I periodically review my research, and in this case was reviewing Phillip Holt. Phillip was the brother of my 3rd great-grandfather John W. Holt in Hardin County, TN. Earlier in my research, I’d located Phillip and wife Louisa living in neighboring McNairy County, TN in 1880, but never found them again and considered that they had possibly died. Phillip had married a woman named Louisa who had been enslaved on a neighboring farm; her maiden name was McClain. You can see her mother Lucinda living with the couple and their kids in the census below:

1880 Phillip Holt

That dreaded 20-year gap between 1880 and 1900 is a notorious black hole where ancestors can easily be lost. That’s enough time for kids to be born and out of the house and you’d never know they existed at all. As always, we’ve got to be in the business of assessing correct identities, and not just matching names.

Now, years ago I had found this 1900 census record in yet another TN county, Madison:

1900 Phillip Holt

I had quickly dismissed this as not being the right man for two reasons: the wife was Lula instead of Louisa (which really shouldn’t have thrown me off) but more importantly, the mother-in-law listed was Emma Rodgers, which led me to believe this woman’s maiden name was Rodgers.

It’s good that I decided to look at this more closely. I will say that the fact that TN Death certificates are now online (through 1959) is what ultimately solved the puzzle: I was able to find a death certificate for this “Lula” Holt in 1931, and it confirmed that her mother’s name was indeed Lucinda McClain.

Lula Holt Death Cert

My analysis before was too quick to assume that the information I was viewing on the 1900 census was correct; turns out it was not. Who knows what caused the error, but the fact remains that Emma Rodgers was simply not Phillip Holt’s mother-in-law.
I’m really excited that Phillip has “come back from the dead.” I was able to isolate his timeframe of death, and track a few more of his children through 1930. Also, Jackson, TN is a larger city than some of the other places in which the family lived and I’m hoping to eventually find more tidbits on him, or better yet, some descendants.

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