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Archive for the ‘My Family Research’ Category

We all have those lines that seem to withstand all of our greatest efforts to uncover, and one of those lines for me has been my maternal ggrandfather Walter Springer’s line. I know the names of his parents–Lou and George Springer–but have only ever found Lou Springer, widowed, on the 1900 census. That is an *awful* census to be the only clue one has. In 1880 and 1910, Lou disappeared into the ether. Born in Alabama, she and George could still be there in 1880–who knows. I never found George Springer on any census record.

The one meaningful lead my grandmother provided in interviews before her death was her memory of her father’s half-sister Mary Neal.  She remembered her coming to visit, and especially that she looked “mixed,” with long, fine hair. Mary Neal indeed was the informant on her half-brother Walter’s death certificate in 1944, with an address in Lawrenceburg, TN. For 15 years now, I had been unable to find her with any certainty. I did find a death certificate for a “Mary Neal” years ago, with “Springer” parents, but I knew I didn’t have enough data to be sure it was her.

With the 1940 census release, I finally found a Mary Neal in Lawrence County, with husband Felix Neal. A search for a marriage between a “Mary Springer” and Felix Neal came up short. Felix married a “Mary Lyles” in 1934:

Neal Marriage

Neal Marriage

I’ve posted before on the need to be mindful of women’s multiple marriages, so I searched for a “Mary Springer” who married a “Lyles.” No such marriage was found. Now I was stuck. Of course, I searched multiple counties and name spellings. However, after spending long hours analyzing the evidence I had gathered–which consisted of mainly vital records and census records–I came to a valid conclusion: Even though the record above says “Mary Lyles” that record was mistaken. Her correct name was Mary Lowery. This illustrates that even original sources like marriage records are prone to error. People wrote down what they heard. In a county with several “Lyles” families, it is reasonable that the clerk may have thought that was her name.

This is how I uncovered the error: I found a marriage record between “Mary Springer” and Thomas Lowry in Hardin County, a few counties over:

Lowry Marriage

Lowry Marriage

Mary was found with her husband Thomas in the next 3 census records, in Hardin and Wayne Counties, TN:

1900 Hardin Cty

1900 Hardin Cty

1910-Hardin Cty.

1910-Hardin Cty.

 

1920-Wayne Cty.

1920-Wayne Cty.

The couple is living in Lawrence County when Thomas died:

 

Tom Lowry Death

Tom Lowry Death

In 1930, the newly widowed Mary “Lowry” is shown in the 1930 Lawrence County census, notably living amidst several African-American Springers (Caldonia, wife of Bill Blair was also a Springer):

1930 Mary Lowery

1930 Mary Lowery

It is at this point that Mary Lowery met and married Felix Neal–not “Mary Lyles.” Turns out the Mary Neal death certificate I found so many years ago was indeed the correct Mary Neal. Her parents are revealed as Frazier and Lou Springer:

Mary Neal Death Cert

Mary Neal Death Cert

At all times, but especially when researching people who lived in different places over time, we have to be careful that we are proving a person’s identity and not just matching names. This Mary can be tied together through the records above in several ways. Her 1920 census entry in Wayne County reveals one daughter Pauline, who is the informant on her mother’s death certificate above. That death certificate identifies her as the same Mary who married Felix Neal. Mary was first married in Hardin County, hardly surprising since it is the same county where her half-brother (my ancestor) married and lived. Mary Lowery’s 1910 Hardin County household reveals a Springer “sister-in-law”. All of these people were also buried at West Point Cemetery.

All of this hasn’t led me yet to Lou Springer’s pre-1900 origins, but to even have some success in a line long out of success stories is very meaningful to me. It’s also another lesson in the power of learning to analyze and make sense out of all the records we uncover, which can be loaded with half-truths, secrets, mistakes and out and out lies;)

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I have discussed many times in this blog how finding a female ancestor’s new married name led to breakthroughs on the family line. Most of us automatically think of that when we suddenly “lose” tracking of a woman. What hasn’t come naturally for me yet is anticipating multiple marriages. Maybe two marriages is the max my mind thinks of. I am still floored by how many people remarried over and over again. Even well into their senior years.

I found “Le-Anna” Simpson as an 18-year old woman living with her widowed mother in Washington, D.C. in 1900:

1900

1900

Her 9- year-old sister Lucinda was living with their grandmother, also in D.C. In Susan Simpson’s 1910 household, Leanna is gone. She was not found on any 1910 census.

A marriage search turned up Leanna’s 1912 marriage to “Verbee H. Peaker” in D.C. But the couple didn’t appear in 1920 or any subsequent census in that city. Hmm. I thought for sure I’d find them with that unique name.

I searched for a remarriage under the name “Leanna Peaker” and I indeed found another D.C. marriage for her in 1929 to Clarence H. Hackett. That couple was not found on any subsequent census in D.C. Why is she marrying in D.C. but not showing up living in D.C.?

I expanded my census search to Maryland, as I know that people flowed pretty freely with work and school between Maryland and D.C., especially Baltimore. To my surprise, I found a “Verb Peaker” and wife “Laura” living all the way on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, in Kent County!  They lived near a small town called Galena:

1920

1920

A probate case located for Verbee Peaker’s death in 1925 confirmed this was my Leanna. The probate file contained a rare gift: a handwritten note from Leanna, noting that she was away at Hampton Institute getting her teacher’s certificate and would need to know the date to be back for court:
LeannahLetter1LeannahLetter2LeannahLetter3

Verbee’s illness, death and funeral were noted in the Afro-American newspaper. Leanna was remembering him two years later:

tribute

tribute

 

Since Leanna was living in Kent County in 1920, I decided to take a look at her next marriage and sure enough, she is in the household with 2nd husband Clarence H. Hackett in the same small town of Galena in 1930 (listed as wife “Annie”) and 1940:

1930

1930

1940

1940

Her first husband Verbee left Leanna a small piece of land  he apparently inherited and she married Clarence when his wife died.

But the story isn’t finished yet.

Yes, my dear sweet cousin Leanna had to do it again. She got married a third time, in 1948 to the brother of her first husband Verbee, Robert Morton Peaker. She was 63 years old and he was 67. It looks like he was living right next door to his brother so I guess (when his wife died) they figured they might as well grow old together;)

My guess about her marriages occurring in D.C. is that the requirements for marriage in D.C. may have been easier or cheaper than those in Kent County. Or maybe since that was Leanna’s hometown, she felt she should marry there.

Leanna does not appear to have had any children with any spouse that survived. I am continuing the research of her and her spouses in all the other records, land, court, military etc. and fleshing out her life as best possible. But this is a great lesson to remind us to keep on searching those marriage records for “lost” women. They may surprise you.

The icing on the cake to this story is that all these years I’ve had a family picture from my dad’s childhood in Jacksonville, FL. At the time, the name of the woman seated alone had been lost to history and was given to me as “a cousin, from Galena, MD”:

family picture

family picture

I remembered that name because I’d never heard of the town “Galena” before. I’d long since abandoned the notion that I would find out the identity of that cousin.

And thus—she has been revealed. Cousin Leanna, nice to finally meet you!

Leanna Simpson

Leanna Simpson

 

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I want to first thank Bernice Bennett for having me as a guest on her Blog Talk Radio show last night, Research at the National Archives and Beyond. I spoke about one of my most popular posts, Do You Have an Artificial Brick Wall? The post can be heard in its entirety at the show’s link, along with all of her other archived shows.

During the interview, as I was reviewing the points I made in that post, I discussed the idea of thoroughness in our research–the need to be diligent in searching out original records related to our ancestors. This week I have just the example to highlight that point.

We’ve all seen those shaky leaves on Ancestry. For a long time, I never clicked on them, but last year I found some treasures hidden within the 100 or so hints I had, so now I make a point to periodically investigate those leaves. Earlier this week, I found a leaf for an ancestor named Syvoid Holt. The leaf linked to an outside website–in this case the Monroe County [Michigan] Historical Museum. Several of my ancestors, including Syvoid,  migrated from Tennessee to Michigan to work for the Ford Motor Co., and settled in Detroit and its suburbs.

The Museum website has, among other items, an obituary database. Upon request, they will email an obituary found in their database  for $1. What’s notable here is that I already knew who Syvoid’s parent’s were, his siblings, when and where he died, who he married and the names of his children. But my philosophy is to order any and all original records related to my ancestors. So off my request went. Here’s the obituary:

Syvoid Holt Obituary

Syvoid Holt Obituary

What I did not realize until I saw this is that I had never been able to locate the death certificate for his mother Vannie. I had expected to find it in Tennessee or Michigan but had no luck. This obituary revealed she had married a man surnamed Thurman and was alive as recently as 1969. When I looked at the records again, I found that Vannie actually had married another man before Thurman in 1938, a man named Dan Cathey. Dan died the very next year and sometime after that, she married a Thurman. That revelation led to finding this on Find-A-Grave:

Vannie Holt Thurman

Vannie Holt Thurman (photo by Lena Knauss)

Vannie is buried in the same cemetery as her two sons, a daughter-in-law, and a grandson. Syvoid’s obituary contained the key to unlocking the mystery of where and when his mother Vannie had died. If I had dismissed this document because I already knew a lot of information about Syvoid, I wouldn’t have found this. Aim to be thorough in your research, and you will be rewarded time and time again. You never know what you’ll find in a document until you look at it. Shakey leaves rock!

P.S.–it goes without saying that I then ordered the death certificate for Vannie Thurman from Michigan Vital Records. At $34 a pop (ouch!) Michigan has the highest fee for records I’ve seen yet. I need more of my people to have died in Tennessee;)

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Following a repeatable process to guide our genealogy research can make the difference between success on the one hand, and being  lost in papers and files years later with no where to go. There are so many things I wish I could whisper to my 1997 self when I first set out on this path, although there are some things I’m proud that I did the “right” way, like interviewing relatives and reading everything related to genealogy I could get my hands on.

All of our research should start with a specific research question. These questions help us to create a focused plan of attack, and help us to focus on records likely to hold the answers we need. I want to use something from my own research to illustrate how to formulate those questions.

Daniel George Waters

Daniel George Waters

This wonderful photo is my great-grandfather Daniel George Waters, born in 1875 on the Eastern Shore of Maryland in Somerset County. He was a minister with the Methodist church, as was his grandfather & several uncles & great-uncles. My father has told me many stories of him, mainly of how everybody was so afraid of him because he was very stern. Looking at this photo, I believe it! Ministers moved as their assignments changed, so my grandmother grew up in towns all over the Eastern Shore of Maryland & Delaware. You can read about his Waters lineage on the “Paternal” tab above, then scroll down to Waters.

While I have amassed plenty of information on his paternal side, his mother’s side hasn’t gotten much attention from me. As a little background, Somerset County, Maryland had a large number of freed blacks before state emancipation in 1864.Daniel’s mother’s name, Mollie Curtis, was passed down via oral history. I found her in several census records with her husband Samuel Waters, and I located their date of marriage. Recently I pulled Mollie’s death certificate:

???????????????????????????????

Mollie Waters

Her parents on the certificate above are listed as George and Maria Curtis. Fortunately, George lived to be 90 and I was able to pull his death certificate as well.

George Curtis

George Curtis

This places George Curtis’ birth at ca. 1814. I was able to locate the family of George Curtis on the 1850, 1860, 1870, 1880 and 1900 census records for the county. Now, while I’m pretty sure these are the right people (there are no other George Curtis’ who are black and free in that county at that time), I still have a lot of research to do. That research begins by formulating questions. Here are several questions these two records, in addition to the census records, have led me to ask:

1) Does Manokin Cemetery, Somerset County, MD, have existing headstones or burial records?
2) What is the relationship, if any, of Clinton Collins, the informant on Mollie’s death certificate?
3) Mollie is listed as a widow; does a death certificate exist for her husband Samuel Waters?
4) What is the relationship, if any, of George Hill, the informant on George Curtis’ death certificate?
5) Mollie was born ca. 1859 according to this record; was she recorded as a freed black in the freedom certificates of the county?
6) Were George and his wife Maria recorded as a freed blacks in the freedom certificates of the county?
7) How did Mollie Waters obtain her freedom?
8) How did George Curtis obtain his freedom?
9) What was the maiden name of George Curtis’ wife, Maria?
10) When did George Curtis marry his wife Maria?
11) Is there a death certificate for Maria Curtis?
12) Are the family of George and Maria Curtis found in the records of the local black church?
13) Did John Curtis (white), with whom George Curtis is living in the 1850 and 1860 census, own and later free George Curtis?

I’m sure I’ll have more over time, but notice how specific the questions are. Some will involve more work to answer, but each question builds upon the others, and allows me to gather the information I seek in a focused way. For some questions, I may be unable to find the answer. Those “negative” results should also be recorded. Using my knowledge of the available records for Maryland in general and Somerset County in particular, I can put together a list of repositories and records I need to search to find the answers. As I research these answers, I’ll include them here on the blog.

Have you created specific genealogy research questions? Tell me in the comments if you’ve been practicing this already, and if you haven’t, choose an ancestor give it a shot.

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Fifteen years into my research, I am still making incredible discoveries. This was a huge year for me in my family research. In many ways, some of these are even more satisfying than earlier discoveries, because they took piecing together evidence and clues in ways I couldn’t have done earlier. At any rate, it all serves to feed my genealogy addiction and continue to confound my mom, who cannot understand why I spend so much of my time doing this stuff;)

For 2013, my top five discoveries were:

1. Finding that Martha Simpson was born free in Howard County, MD, and her mother’s name was Louisa. Doing a census search one day, I found a freed black woman named Martha Simpson who was about the age of my 2nd great-grandmother. I had spent most of my time unraveling the enslaved roots of her husband Levi Prather, and hadn’t done much on her except for assuming (mistake #1) that she was from Montgomery County, like her husband.  This opened up a whole new road of research discoveries, including the name of her mother (her father’s name was known). This was super-sweet since I currently live in Howard County.

2. Finding the last slaveowner of Mason and wife Rachel Garrett. A footnote in an online book unlocked the mysteries of my 4th great-grandparents in Tennessee. Their roots were untangled by a combination of probate and land records, and the records show a migration with their white owners from Kentucky, through Alabama and eventually Tennessee.

3. Finding my Florida great-grandmother’s maiden name, Matilda Neely, and the names of her parents, Charles and Lavinia Neely. This remains my proudest genealogical accomplishment (for now;). A marriage license from a 3rd marriage unlocked Matilda’s roots by providing her parents names. Matilda married 4 times in 2 different states & 3 different counties, but only appeared in the census with husband Number 2. Inaccurate and incomplete information on various records combined with those marriages had obscured Matilda’s true identity.

4. Finding numerous articles in the online African-American newspapers the Chicago Defender and the Baltimore Afro-American newspapers. I found almost one hundred articles on various members of my family. I found marriages, deaths, obituaries, occupations, commentary, addresses, church affiliations, social activities and more. The richness of these records and what they add to my family’s story is unequaled. The one below is about my grandfather who died when I was 2.

Granddad
Granddad

5. Discovering the names of the parents of Mary Curtis, my 3rd great-grandparents George and Maria Curtis. I didn’t blog about this, but Maryland Death Certificates (up to a certain decade) are now digitized on-site at the Maryland State Archives. I went on what I call a “fishing expedition” where I decided to pull African-American  death certificates with the surname “Waters” who lived in Somerset County. There are many different Waters families, and I was trying to sort out some of the families.  I came across the certificate for Mollie Waters, and later realized it was my ancestor. What I realized is that when I first started researching, I probably searched for “Mary Waters” and found nothing. I didn’t know then to search for nicknames, so this was a terrific find.

I hope these discoveries are encouraging to everyone. Keep reading the “how-to” articles, keep taking classes, online & otherwise, keep attending conferences, and keep reading genealogy journals about how others solved their genealogical puzzles. It all contributes to honing your skills, and the next big discovery is always right around the corner!

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I have recently realized I am utterly incapable of writing a short post. That said, I’d like to think I still have avid readers who value them and take the time to read them when they can. I thank you for that. I just had a wonderful Thanksgiving with my family & hope you all did too.

We have to continue pushing ourselves to learn more and better research methodologies. When we all start out, we’re basically doing name lookups in various record sets. What we found is what I refer to as the “low-hanging” fruit. It’s what the Genealogy Gods use to suck you into this hobby;) The tough stuff comes when the records relevant to your family/area/timeframe have been exhausted, AND, you only know how to look up names. If you don’t learn other ways of “connecting the dots” you’ll have trouble uncovering other relationships. Things will appear to be brick walls, that really aren’t. They may just require a research methodology that has not been learned. And I promise, you can learn them.

One of the critical skills to learn is how to analyze and correlate the information you have. Start spending more time practicing this. Lay out all the data you’ve gathered to answer a particular question such as: Who were Jane Smith’s parents? Who were her spouses? Having a specific question frames your research and allows you to work towards a conclusion. Learn the genealogical standards for evidence evaluation and learn how to pull out clues from each piece of evidence. There are excellent genealogy books and lectures for every conceivable type of record. Ask yourself the pertinent questions: Who said this? When did they say it? How did they know it? Who recorded it and why?  When evidence gives conflicting data (such as birthdates or death dates) learn how to address the conflict. Purchase one of the core genealogy reference books like “The Source” edited by Loretta Szucs or “The Researcher’s Guide to American Genealogy” by Val Greenwood (you can buy them used, but try to get a recent edition).

I often encounter people who have only researched in census records and maybe a few vital records. Think of census records as bookends on a shelf like this:
BookshelfIf you have discovered your ancestor in say, the 1900 and the 1910 census, that’s a great start. But the shelf itself is still empty –you still have a 10-year gap for which you don’t have any data. We must get in the habit of filling up that shelf—which represents our ancestor’s lives– with other information from other sources than just the census records. A lot can happen in 10 years.

Case in point: I have blogged before about my 4th great-grandmother Matilda and the years long odyssey to uncover her complicated roots. Her identity was hidden behind a veil of mis-transcribed records, moves between at least 4 counties and 2 states, and 4 marriages! Of the 4 men she married,  3 died within a few years of their marriage to her. The chart below illustrates her sojourn through the census  years, counties and states, with M1 through M4 representing her 4 marriages:

MatildaTimelineMatilda only appears as a married woman twice in the census (1900 and 1910 to her 2nd husband, Perry Davis). Each of her other husbands died before the other census years rolled around, so she was constantly showing up with a different name in those years as a widow. In fact, I thought there were 2 different women named Matilda.  Those other marriages were almost “hidden.” I gave more details about cracking this case in a previous post.

Had I only looked at census records, this case would never have been broken. There is just too much happening in 10 years time. I had to piece together the information I gathered from state censuses, city directories, vitals, oral history, cemetery records, deed records and more. That process allowed me see the errors in the evidence. It also led me to revisit my own assumptions. Matilda’s first marriage record –an original record—mistakenly recorded her name as “Matida Mealy”, not Matilda Nealy which was her name. The clerk probably heard it as “Mealy”. Simple enough right? But because both her first and last names were incorrect on the document, I could never find that marriage. Eventually, tracing all 4 of her marriages (not just the one to my direct ancestor) led me to the names of her parents, Charles and Lavinia Nealy in Hamilton County, FL. I added another branch to my tree.

I have never felt so proud about cracking a case as I did this one. It affirmed that I’m on the right track in terms of developing my skills.  I still have plenty more ahead of me, so right along with you, I continue to keep on learning.

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My 14-year-old ggrandmother Martha Simpson was serving in the 1860 Howard County, MD household of William R. Warfield. A special set of records called Slave Statistics available in some Maryland counties connects slaveholders with the names of their former slaves. I was surprised to find this for Warfield (his heirs):

WmRWarfield_PERRY
Warfield owned Martha’s father, Perry Simpson (no. 2 on the list above). Martha and her siblings had been born to a freed black woman, Louisa, illustrating that freed blacks often married enslaved people. We’ve got be open to looking out for this scenario in our research, especially in areas like Virginia and Maryland where there were relatively large numbers of freed blacks.

Using the basic methodology for researching slaves, I checked the probate records of William Warfield’s father and found Perry listed as a young boy:

BealeWarfield1
I can’t say exactly who Perry’s mother is–there are at least 3 women of age to be his mother in the inventory (all the slaves are not shown in the clip above). For many of us researching enslaved ancestors, this is usually “the end of the road”; an inventory in the slaveowner’s estate. That’s it. I’ve shown it here on my blog before. Most of the time, enslaved people will not be listed by family. Sometimes you are lucky enough, and I do mean LUCKY enough to find: personal papers, bible or court records that name or discuss the enslaved family or even freedmen’s bank or pension records that name the mother or siblings of that enslaved individual. Even if you find that mother, again, she’s usually listed in someone’s inventory. Mariann Regan’s blog, “Into the Briar Patch,” discusses the type of record a slaveowner might have that would be priceless for the descendants of slaves. Marian has been kind and generous enough to transcribe and share these extraordinary records with the public. But the vast majority of us will hit a brick wall at that estate inventory.

I had a hard time coming to grips with that reality. There’s a sadness–a melancholy for me in this. I so badly want to know who Malinda’s mother was, who Harriet’s mother was, or who Margaret’s mother was, separated from her at age 13 as she was. And for that matter, who were their fathers? It’s like the fathers never were, the tragic inevitability of a system built on sexual exploitation. Was Sarah, my earliest documented ancestor, born ca. 1750, an African woman? She easily could have been. Was she Igbo, Mende or Angolan? I have so many unanswered questions.

People love to ask how far back you’ve gotten in your genealogy. That isn’t the most important thing to me. For most African-Americans, we’re fortunate to trace roots back to the 1800s and in a truly elite group if we can trace back to the 1700s. I suppose in some sense, everyone comes to end of the “documented” record—even though for many Europeans it may be much earlier, perhaps the 1500’s in Russia, Poland, Ireland, England or some other Old World country.

Someone asked me recently why I do genealogy. What makes it interesting or meaningful (as it was not to the person asking)? I had to pause. What is it that continues to drive me personally to spend thousands of hours through the years in courthouses, archives, libraries, in books and online, in meetings and blogging, learning about resources and methodology, obsessively and compulsively digging for more, more and more? I realized it’s not just any one thing.

Initially, it is the new information, the puzzles we crack, the names we uncover that drives us most. Discovery is always simply thrilling in and of itself. I would have never dreamed of freed black ancestors from the early 1800s or that my Tennessee roots started in Alabama, or even (on the negative side) that I had an ancestor who was lynched and one who died after World War I in a mental hospital.

But its also something much more. Because of the tragedy of slavery, I consider it a radical act to seek out and find the names of and explore the lives of enslaved people.  In that process I am truly “reclaiming” pieces of myself.  It also represents my connectedness and my entry way to history. It is through researching my family that history has been made real for me. Be it African civilizations, slavery, Native Americans, the U.S. and French Revolutions, west ward expansion, the Civil War, emancipation, the Great Migration, industrialization, World War I and II (and on and on) I approach all of those topics from the perspective of my family. I think about:

—Joshua, born during the revolution and before we were the United States;
—Mason, who migrated west with owners and was present at the founding of the state of Kentucky;
—Daniel, an ordained minister with the Maryland Methodist church in the early 19th century;
—John, the former slave who became the largest black landowner & postmaster in the county;
—Luther and Mattie who left Tennessee for Dayton, Ohio to find their fortunes after World War II;
—Doss, whose pride and courage made him stand up and fight during a TN race riot;
—Beatrice,  who attended the Institute for Colored Youth in the early 1910s, which became Cheyney, the first historically black college

All of them fascinate me and connect me to the very fabric of life. They fill me with pride and they increase my understanding of the world. It has filled me with a desire to write up my discoveries and share them with the world, knowing that this history truly is powerful. It also does something else–it makes me look at my own life so very differently than I would have had I not known any of this.

So even though many roads will lead to and end with a name in an estate inventory, it still has tremendous meaning for me. I honor and celebrate the lives that could not be celebrated in their own time and believe their spirits are smiling at the remembrance of their name. The search continues.

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