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Archive for the ‘Evaluating Evidence’ Category

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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Inventoried Slaves

I talk alot on this blog about slave and slaveowner research because it’s one of my primary areas of interest. For those of us descended from enslaved ancestors, probate records are one of the first record sets we are taught to explore. If we’re lucky enough to discover that the slaveowner died before 1865, we may find our ancestors named in their will or listed in their inventories. As we advance in our skills, however, we’ve got to look even closer at probate records beyond just the will or inventory, not to mention the need to search beyond the slaveowner himself.

In this post, I want to show a recent example of how careful tracing through and understanding of those “other” probate records may provide a more complete picture of our ancestor’s path through the family. Familysearch has now posted probate record series for many states making this technique possible to do from home. Many Maryland counties are now up, which is what enabled me to explore this more fully.

First, I created a family tree of the slaveowner’s family. I encourage my students to use Rootsmagic or Family Tree Maker (or whatever software you have) and to create a separate file for the slaveowner’s family. This will be invaluable to your research. Many slaveowners married their first cousins, which makes keeping the names straight difficult (this is one practice Africans in general never imitated). It is imperative that you know at a minimum the parents of the couple, when/where the parents lived and died, all of the couple’s children, when and where they died, and especially who the daughters married.

As long as they died before 1865, start probate tracing with the slaveowner, then trace his wife if she outlived him, then their children if necessary. In a previous post, I talked about the various steps in the process, both for dying with a will (testate) or dying without a will (intestate).

Those who follow this blog know I’m a fool for charting. Take a look at the chart I made for Martha Willson, who died in 1837:

Magruder chart

Martha left a will (unlike the majority of people). I started with her date of death, and went to the probate book that covered those years. I went to the index, and easily found “Martha Willson, Will” on Page 164 of Volume V. Keep in mind that I am using the term “probate” to refer to these records in general. What they are actually called varies by state and locality—in the case of Maryland, these volumes are actually “Will Books [that also contain] Inventories and Accounts,” and are kept by the Register of Wills.

Back to Martha: my chart started with her Will, and noted any relevant phrases about her slaves. She specified that “Dick and Nelly” have their choice of going with either her son Robert or her son John. Dick and Nelly (from Martha’s inventory) are elderly slaves and were probably unable to do much if any work at ages 60 and 64. Martha specified that the rest of her slaves be sold at private auction.

The next important document in her estate probate is the Bond. Executors (in the case of a will) or Administrators (in the case of no will) must post bond with the State that they will faithfully execute their duties. It is important to know who is posting bond. They are usually family members. For example, Otho Magruder is Martha’s son-in-law. Also, a $20K bond told me this was a relatively wealthy estate.

Martha’s Inventory named 9 slaves. The next step after the Inventory were the Sales of her estatethis is where slaves can be missed! In these pages, the other 7 slaves are sold, but (because I know Martha’s family tree) they are all sold to her children. It seems that it was important to keep them “in the family.”

The next steps in Martha’s estate probate include a listing of Debts and periodic Accounting of the Estate. The number of Accountings (1st Acct, 2nd Acct, 3rd Acct, Final Acct, etc.) depends upon alot of things, like the size of the estate and whether or not minor children are involved. Those Accountings can also contain information about slaves, especially slaves being “hired out” for that year, so peruse them carefully. If minor children are involved, Guardianship records should also be traced, but may be handled in a different court.

Two other things I want to point out about Martha: Her estate probate spanned across 10 years. In the beginning of my genealogy research, I didn’t understand the need to trace forward decades after a death, but it is entirely not uncommon to find probates spanning large periods of time. I now trace at least 20 years forward after a death. As I mentioned, Martha was wealthy by standards of her time. Her final estate value of $11,098 in 1847 was roughly the equivalent of $303,000 today according to standard of living worth calculators.

I had already charted Martha’s husband, Zadock Magruder, who predeceased her in 1809:

Magruder Cooke Admin Slave Data_Page_3

As you can see, Zadock died without a will (intestate) in 1809. His estate probate spanned 11 years. Notice also that in his 1st Acct the value of his estate was calculated in pounds, not yet American dollars.

Zadock had 16 slaves in 1810 at the date of his inventory (The child Rezin, age 7, is likely my gggrandfather). It was clear that 27 years later, in his widow Martha’s estate in 1837, 6 of the slaves she then owned had originally belonged to her husband in 1810. Most likely, the rest of the slaves were split up and given to one or more of their 8 children. Trying to find who went where is why I started this whole exercise to begin with. Who got Mariah and Lucy and Beck and the others? Why was Jerry to be set free? Sadly, I still don’t have enough information from these listings to put together definitive family groupings.

Zadock Slaves, 1810

Another important point is this: the actual division of slaves, and to which children they went, is not always written in the official probate books. I have found them many times in original case files or loose papers (i.e., the papers that are apart of the probate proceedings but not necessary recorded in the official books). Always try to find that slave division. You can see from Zadock’s chart above that he owned 16 slaves. His wife Martha kept at least 6, so we know the others were likely divided amongst his children, but, that division is not recorded in the probate books.

This blog post was probably too long, but, hopefully I’ve highlighted a strategy you can use to get the most value out of probate records. Try it out on your slaveowning families, and see what you come up with. I’d love to hear about your finds!

(If you want to catch up on some of my previous posts on slave/slaveowner research, click on those topics in the right -hand “What I Talk About” box.)

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