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Archive for the ‘Evaluating Evidence’ Category

For those doing African-American research, antebellum estate inventories are a common resource used to find enslaved ancestors. But we should also get into the habit of looking at the other items on that inventory list, that help us visualize not just the slaveowner’s life, but also our ancestors. Even after the Civil War, scrutinizing our ancestor’s inventories can often provide those interesting little details to make a family history come alive.

The first thing I realized a few years ago when I started doing this regularly was that I had no idea what many of the items were! Especially all the animals and agricultural items. What’s the difference between a bay horse and a sorrel horse? (its the colors) What’s a shoat? (it’s a baby pig) What exactly is fodder? (feed for farm animals). Luckily, for most everything, you can just use good old fashioned Google and quickly get a good definition and even pictures. Or you can use a book like “From A to Zax: A Complete Dictionary for Genealogist and Historians.”

I smile when I think about the future and how our descendants will wrangle over what an Ipad or a cell phone was. I also found it a challenge  to go back mentally a century or two in terms of remembering when there was no electricity, no running water, no refrigerators, etc. I am such a child of technology;)

Let’s look at Alfred Reeds estate inventory in 1858, from Russell County, AL:

Reed 1

Reed 1

I notice:

–How the appraisers are “walking through the property” room by room.
–The appraisers have started outside on the farm. There are plenty of animals, 29 heard of cattle may imply that he was selling meat.
–Horses and mules were sometimes given names.
–Alfred has not just a buggy and harness, but also a rockaway and harness, a much fancier carriage that would imply his higher status, as opposed to  the average farmers who may only have buggies or oxcarts.
–The slaves are listed by name, but no ages or statements are given about their relationships.

Let’s look at the next set of items:

Reed 2

Reed 2

–Now the appraisers are moving through the bedroom or living quarters.
–A piano and accordion would also be signs of his status and musical talent.
–The ability to own a gold watch would again signal a higher status.
–The number of guns (2 pistols, 3 double-barrel shotguns) remind us that we’re in an era where almost everyone owned guns.

The last set of items shown are key:

Reed 3

Reed 3

A glance at the titles tells us Alfred Reed was clearly a lawyer. Book titles are not always listed, so it’s nice that here they were.
Now, Let’s look at the inventory of Caroline Sibley of Richmond County, GA, in 1859:

Sibley 1

Sibley 1

–Her status immediately jumps out—she owned paintings and valuable portraits.
–She owned a bible and hymn book, which tells us she was probably a member of a local church.
–Her estate is notable for what is missing—no agricultural items or animals. She lived in Augusta, GA, but obviously did not farm. I would be interested in how she obtained a living. Let’s look at the last page of her inventory:

georgia2_clip2

–I spoke too soon: she owned $33,000 in bonds and notes! According to one online value calculator, that would be $940,000,000 today. Ms. Sibley clearly does not need to farm!
–We also see she owned a pew in the Presbyterian Church—a great clue of where to go to search more records.
–There’s a piano again, as well as jewelry, and silver.
–She has four female slaves, listed without ages or relation, but we can discern that they were likely working in her home as domestics or rented out.

 William Bryant, also of Richmond County in the same year, owned some bee hives and was making honey along with his other agricultural ventures:

Beehive

Bryant 1

Lastly, let’s look at Mrs. Dudley White’s estate in Halifax, NC in 1934. Some nice court clerk has typed this volume up for us:

1

White 1

She clearly was involved in peanut farming—look at all the peanut equipment.
She also owned 2 cars—both a Star and a Chrysler, as well as a Ford truck.In the following section of her inventory, the rooms are spelled out for us, and we can kinda envision the house:

White 2

White 2

This section is revealing:

White 3

White 3

– Now this is the kitchenware of someone who probably entertains alot.
–She owned a grand piano and a violin.
–She also had the latest technology—a Victrola record player as well as 30 records. She clearly was into music.
–She also owned a sewing machine and table, so someone in the house liked to sew.
–She even had a “mounted hawk”—which I assume is one of the stuffed versions popular at that time.

Here are a few general tips as you are perusing estate inventories:

1. Compare your ancestor’s inventory with his neighbors to assess his or her relative economic standing.
2. Books are typically indicators of literacy, which was less common the further back in time we go. Many homes only owned a bible, or perhaps one of the classics.
3. We can often make generalizations about slave ages from their monetary values. The most highly valued males will be in their late teens and twenties, with many working years ahead of them. The most highly valued women will be in their prime childbearing years, also late teens-twenties, maybe early thirties. Children and elderly people will  have lower values.
4. Some inventories enumerate whips and other slave torture (yes, I believe it was torture) tools. These may indicate the relative violence involved in slaveownership.
5. Wealthier people will obviously have more “luxury” items—carriages, silver and gold jewelry, more books and furniture and as we’ve seen lots of china and large serving platters may indicate lots of socializing which was associated with the planter class.

 Tell me—what interesting items have you come across in estate inventories? What do those items tell you about the person’s life?

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I have been having some tremendous breakthroughs in this past year. I am grateful for that. With every new name, a piece of me and and my history slides into place. Into memory.

It is a rule of thumb in good genealogy practice to pull every record related to an ancestor, to perform “exhaustive research” in the language of the Genealogical Proof Standard. This discovery illustrates the value of that principal. This discovery was made even sweeter by the fact that it was so unexpected.

My search for my great-grandmother Matilda’s roots has gone full steam ahead this year and last. Matilda married four times but only appears on the census with one husband, and she gets married in at least three different cities so cracking that case was probably one of the hardest things I have ever done in my family research. I found her marriage dates in online indexes and databases so, as part of my due diligence, I began the necessary task of ordering the actual marriage records and death records of her husbands from the proper state and county offices. As the records came in, I scanned them and put them in the proper folders. I wasn’t expecting to find anything new.

From Matilda’s death certificate, “VINEY NEELY” was listed as her mother, no name of father.

From Matilda’s first marriage record, her surname is given as “MATILDA MEELY.”  Neither of those names enabled me to find Matilda as a child in her parent’s household in 1880. I had her back to the 1900 census, but she was already on husband number two. I also checked “VIRGINIA NEELY” thinking Viney might be short for that. Those nicknames will get you every time.

A few weeks ago, I received a copy of Matilda’s marriage record from Philadelphia to husband number three, Peter Vickers. Now keep in mind, only her first husband is my actual ancestor. To my surprise, the record included a copy of the marriage application, and Philadelphia, at that time, was one of the places that asked people the names of their parents, where they were from, and whether they were alive. It’s hard to read, but her father’s name was given as “CHARLES” (no surname) and her mother’s name was “LAVINA NELLIE” (Viney was short for Lavina!):

Matilda's Parents

Matilda’s Parents

Now that I had the correct names of her parents, I finally, 15 years later, was able to locate Matilda NEELY living  in Taylor County, Florida with her father “CHARLES NEELY” on the 1880 census! His wife’s name in 1880 is shown as “NETTA” (maybe another wife? or is Lavina’s name just mangled?) and there is MATILDA, 8 years old, right where she should be. Charles Nealy is also in the county in 1870 before Matilda’s birth, but the mother’s name is a closer match and shown as “NELVINA”:

1870 Charles Neely

1870 Charles Neely

1880 Charles Nealy

1880 Charles Nealy

This was so exciting!!!! I have siblings for Matilda I can now go on a crazy manhunt to find and I can also start the tough work of uncovering the likely enslaved roots of Charles and Lavina. I guess I have just added another 10 years of research to my life;)

If this doesn’t illustrate why we need to pull every marriage record, even those for other spouses, I don’t know what would. The names are all over the place, but THIS IS HER. Another branch back on my tree;)

P.S.—Now I want to know if I am related to the Neelys on the cooking show, so I can get some discount barbeque!

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My friend Aaron has made an incredible find that I wanted to share here because it is such a rarity. Many enslaved African-American women had children with white men, men whose names are sometimes passed down through oral history in the black family. But many times, only the knowledge of an “unknown white man” survives in the history.

Henry Dorsey

Henry Dorsey

Aaron’s ancestor in Texas was a man named Henry Dorsey, and Henry had 2 brothers named Texas and Richard Dorsey. The oral history gave their white father’s name as John  Dorsey, and John was living with the three brothers and their wives  in the 1880 census for Smith County, Texas:

1880Dorsey.jpg

1880 Smith Cty Texas

The amazing thing is that in John Dorsey’s will, probated in 1888, he named his three black sons and used strong language showing that he clearly had a close relationship with them:

 “It is my will …that whatever may remain [of my estate]…be equally and fairly divided between my beloved sons Henry Dorsey, Richard Dorsey, better known as Dick Dorsey, and Texas Dorsey, better known as Tex, these are three (colored) but bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh and my rightful heirs.” 

It is rare indeed to find direct evidence of a white man naming and claiming black children, and in Texas no less, in the 1880s! John apparently never married or had any white children, and he named his “best friend” as executor to carry out his wishes. His estate was valued at around $1000, and the fact that the brothers later pay the taxes on his land imply that the land was  indeed passed to the three sons. Here is one of the son’s death certificate where he names his father:

Texas Dorsey

Texas Dorsey

A later examination of the will of John Dorsey’s father, Benjamin Dorsey, reveals that the name of the enslaved mother of Henry (and his brothers) was the enslaved woman “Ann.” Aaron just added a 4th great grandparent to his tree, and is now tracing back through John’s roots in Georgia.

There are always surprises in store for us in this genealogical journey!

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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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In my class, I try to emphasize the importance of seeking original documents during our research. In this era of Ancestry.com and Familysearch.org, online transcriptions, indexes and databases are becoming accessible at a dizzying rate. While more access is always a good thing, sometimes what can be lost is the need to always view the original when we find evidence that appears promising.

Original documents can be hard to read. Transcribers do their best to interpret words, but we’re only human, and mistakes are plenty. My “Holt” ancestors are transcribed as “Halt”. Another thing is context. Someone wanting to create an alphabetized index to a set of records can inadvertently destroy our ability to get new evidence. For example, in alphabetized census records, we can’t see who the neighbors are anymore. Sometimes notes made in the margins of the original records aren’t included in the index. I’ve seen original Freedmen’s Bureau records that draw a semi-circle around names and indicate “wife and children”. I’ve seen original birth registers that note the child is “illegitimate”. We need all the clues we can get.

We must to be able to verify that the information we are receiving is accurate, and that can’t be done without seeing the original document.

To illustrate, I have a book of abstracts of Montgomery County, Maryland wills. While researching enslaved families, I found this entry for Rachel Magruder:

Will Abstract

A cursory look at this, with regard to slaves, could prompt one to conclude that Rachel did not own any slaves, since none are mentioned. But look at phrases from Rachel’s original will:

  • “…my negro man Hercules to be the property of my sister…”
  • “…my servant girl Helen to be the property of my mother-in-law…”
  • “…negroes Aria and Anna to go to Mira Magruder…”

Rachel Magruder did in fact own slaves. However, the book of abstracts does not abstract any of the slave data for any of the people in the book. A decision was made by the authors, for whatever reasons, to not include that data. Reviewing the original revealed important information.

That’s a simple example meant to demonstrate the point.

Always. Always. Always check the original.

P.S.–Elizabeth Shown Mills has a new website online, and her Quick Lessons should be required reading. Check them out when you have time if you haven’t already.

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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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