Archive for the ‘My Family Research’ Category

I have been researching Giles Holt for 13 years now. He enslaved my ancestor, Malinda Holt. I was reading a blog post by my genea-buddies Luckie and Sandra about how long you should research an enslaved ancestor. I’d had this thought many times about Malinda Holt. I concluded about a year ago that I may never find out where and how Giles acquired her. There’s simply a limit to the written records, and at some point, accepting this and being happy about what I had discovered seemed the right thing to do. I am in the late 1700s, early 1800s, and for many locales (unless you’re lucky enough to be in one of the original colonies) that’s the end of the road for written records.

We can find so much about our ancestors through probate and land records, tax records and court records, and many others. But the reality is that because slaves were considered personal property, they could also be purchased with no surviving record of their purchase. Perhaps there’s an entry in a slave trader’s logbook (a logbook that is no longer extant). Perhaps they were purchased at a slave auction, with no surviving record. The nature of slavery was so colossal and tragic. That feeling never escapes my mind for long.

There’s always the possibility that some clerk searching in a dusty courthouse closet will uncover a trove of unprocessed records, or some person’s passing will result in their family papers being donated to a university archives. Or, that sometime in the future, records closed to the public now will become open. Barring that (which I’ll always hold out hope for) I can be proud of the job I’ve done fleshing out Giles’ very complicated life and part of Malinda’s. I thought I’d share some of the things I discovered about Giles, and in particular what documents helped me in those discoveries.

Giles was born ca. 1790 in Amelia County, VA to Jesse and Mary Holt. At some point in the early 1800s he migrated to Smith County, TN, a popular migration route for the times. Tennessee was still considered “frontierland” and many sons wanted to head south/west and start their own fortunes. Giles was married by 1820, with a large family in Smith County, and still there in 1830. By 1840, he had moved further westward to Hardin County, TN, where he died in 1876. Giles served in the Union army, at odds with many of his sons who served in the Confederacy. He had between 11-15 children.

Because of the spareness of data census records during this timeframe, it was county level records that provided critical details about Giles’ life.

Early on in my research, descendants of the slaveowner provided me the info about his migration and possible parents (who knows how long that would have taken me to find out?) I had to gather the evidence, though, which took years. The hardest part when talking about migration is proving that the Giles Holt in Amelia County, VA is in fact the same Giles Holt in Smith and Hardin County, TN. A power of attorney, recorded in a deed book, helped tie my Giles’ to both his mother and the VA roots. Chancery court and probate records also helped greatly. We need to always be conscious of not assuming identity just because the person has the same name & age. I wrote up a Proof Summary on this dilemma, which helps to organize your analysis as well as the evidence you’ve gathered.

The other problem was the fact that there are other Holt families living near the Giles Holt family both in VA and TN. Deconflicting families is important to show that you are tracking the correct people. I had to show and prove that the families were in fact separate lines. Chancery court records, probate records and tax records helped me to do this. When another Giles Holt appears on the 1820 US census of the same age and family makeup, but living in Connecticut, I had to prove it was not my Giles Holt. I did that because I could show who his parents were (different) and when he died (different).

During this time, my Giles Holt married at least 4 times, divorcing at least once, possibly twice. The wives were difficult to figure–his first wife is never directly named in any document. I had to prove her existence using indirect evidence. None of his marriages had surviving records. However, I uncovered a premarital agreement and a divorce and criminal complaint (along with post 1850 censuses) that helped sort them out.

Several bills of sale listing slaves in 1843 and 1845 were important pieces in identifying Giles’ ownership of my ancestor. Malinda is not living far from Giles in 1870, and she died in 1881. I proudly (and unexpectedly) located her headstone in the local cemetery.

It is obvious to me that the critical period for Giles’ acquiring slaves was his time as a young man in Smith County, TN  while he was presumably growing his large family. He moved there with one slave (whom he later sold along with her 4 children), and by 1840 when he moved to Hardin County, he had 10 slaves. Unfortunately, Smith County, TN is one of those counties with many missing records. If there was once thing I really needed to go back on Malinda, it would be more available records in this locality during the early 1800s.

It’ s been quite a journey and I’m working on a lengthy article on Giles Holt to submit to the genealogy journal in Hardin County, TN.  I always wanted to find a picture of him, and it doesn’t seem as though one exists. Although I may never find anything documenting how Giles came to own Malinda, I do find solace in the knowledge that I’ve gone this far and brought back the voice and at least some of the details of an enslaved ancestor. I think Malinda would be proud;)

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Luther and Nola

My granddad Luther Holt and his aunt Magnolia (Nola) Bradley, ca. 1928, Chester County, TN.

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Effie Blanche Fendricks

Effie Blanche Fendricks

This is my great-grandmother, Effie Blanche Fendricks, who was born in Hardin County, TN, ca. 1891. She was one of 13 children (8 who survived).

Effie married Walter Springer and birthed 9 children, 7 of whom survived to adulthood. She was a homemaker  and when I interviewed my grandmother Mattie before her death she shared many fond memories of her mother. Effie’s husband Walter farmed, worked on the Tennessee steamboats and eventually landed what would have been considered a good “government” job at a factory making munitions for the war.

Walter Springer

Walter Springer

My grandmother Mattie eventually migrated to Dayton, Ohio when she married in the mid-1940s. Later, her widowed mother Effie joined them as well as several other siblings. Sadly, Effie suffered a stroke and died in 1959, likely about 67 years old.

I am  thinking about Effie today because of Luckie’s discussion going on over at Our Georgia Roots in search of one of her ancestor’s slaveowners. Luckie, you are such an inspiration! I’m also finally also getting some traction this year on Effie’s family after a 12 year brick wall. These brick walls really do bother me on an emotional level…just the thought that the basics of someones life is LOST, even to their descendants, makes me sad. I think that’s why I have such a passion to try to snatch back that lost memory.

Effie’s “Fendricks” line has been a challenge, number one because the name has been rendered in every way imaginable (and unimaginable). Her parents, Mike and Jane Eliza, migrated to Hardin County, Tennessee by 1880 and all I knew was that they were from Alabama. My journey to find out what county in Alabama was very similar to Luckies–it was more about using my skills now to reassess information I’ve had for years.

I’ve tentatively finally traced back to Effie’s grandfather, John Mike Fendricks living in Lawrence Cty, AL in 1870. Once there, I put together a chart of neighbors and potential slaveowners. I ordered 6 rolls of Lawrence Cty Probate records and deeds and I’ve been spending the last 2 weeks pouring over them. It’s slow work as I’m tracking 3 families (Sherrod, Shackelford and Bynum) who intermarried and had large land and slaveholdings. I’m putting each probate entry into a table for analysis and I’ve also done census baselines for each family from 1860 back.

I know I’m hot on the trail, but there is always the chance that that “smoking gun”  we want won’t be found. There are some missing records for Lawrence County and one specific book that I know has the slave distribution for one of these families is in one of them. So I was thinking about what are some of the ways that we can make the case connecting our ancestors to a slaveowner when we are missing some of those critical traditional documents? Here are a few thoughts, and I’d love to hear more from my genius genea-bloggers (that means you Luckie, Angela, Renate, Michael, Mavis, Sandra, George and others):

  • Proximity is always a clue. Most slaves in 1870 still lived near their former slaveowner. Not all, but proximity is a good clue. Some may be living on a former slaveowner’s land.
  • Use of slaveowner’s surname. We all know all slaves did not take the last name of the most recent slaveowner, but many did. Check those slaveowner’s wives maiden names, because some have that surname if they came from her family.
  • First names in the enslaved individuals family matching first names in the slaveowner’s family. I’ve seen alot of that.
  • Interactions with the slaveowner’s family. I’ve seen slaveowner’s act as witnesses for marriages as well as posting bond/acting as sureties. Another big clue is found in deeds. Many slaves purchased their first land from a former slaveowner so always find that first land record. Check the slaveowner’s probate records even if they died after 1865–your ancestor may be purchasing items from the estate indicating a connection.
  • Interactions of generations of both families into the early 20th century. It is not uncommon to have descendants of the slave/slaveowner still interacting or living in close proximity even in the 1900, 1910, 1920 census.
  • Freedmen’s Bureau labor contracts between your ancestor and an individual is another good clue. Most of these aren’t indexed and don’t exist for every locality, but be sure to check.

Remember, I am talking about when you can’t find that document that actually names your ancestor. I am certainly not suggesting that any of these things in isolation would be a good basis for making the claim of a particular slaveowner.But,  I do believe that there are still ways to build a strong case from circumstantial evidence that your ancestor was owned by an individual. Of course, you may still be more comfortable adding a caveat to your family history with the word “likely” or “probable”, and then presenting your reasoning.

I think thats the way we should approach this quest. For some of our lines, we’ll find the definitive evidence, but for others we won’t.

My search for Effie’s enslaved roots continues. And if I don’t find that bill of sale or inventory that lists her grandfather (or any of the things where a slave names his ex-owner), I’ll still be working on building my case. Let me hear your thoughts, family.

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Mattie Mae Springer

Mattie Mae Springer

I think the joy of having a breakthrough is so much more intense after you’ve been researching for years and years, because they are so few and far between. I had one the other day and it illustrates how the most basic of rules of genealogy methodology are always instructive.

Shown at left is my grandmother, the ever-wonderful Mattie Mae Springer, born in Hardin County, TN in 1921.  Her line has been a huge brick wall for me–both of her parents, in fact. Her parents, Walter Springer and Effie Fendricks, were both also born in TN and I trace them both pretty well. It is their parents who have stopped me cold. Both sets of parents indicate on the census that they were born in Alabama, so of course the big problem becomes where in Alabama? I’ll focus on Effie since that’s where the breakthrough came in.

Effie’s father was Mike Fendricks and I find him first as a young man, newly married in Hardin County, TN with his wife and infant child in 1880. The surname is odd–there were none even close to that I could locate in TN. In fact, it took me several years to even locate Mike Fendricks in 1880 because the census taker as you can see wrote “Fenwick”.

1880 Mike "Fenwick"

1880 Mike “Fenwick”

Mike Fendricks was not in TN in 1870–I assumed he was still living in Alabama at that point. In those early years, I was not as well learned in the art of census searching as I am now, but I also have not been great at conceiving of surname variations.

I did find him in 1900 (now spelled Fendrix) and subsequently on all the other censuses in TN until his death.

1900 Mike Fendricks

1900 Mike Fendricks

The most interesting thing of note on this census was that his father was listed as being from “Washington, DC”. That jumped out at me and are the sorts of clues you’ve got to really be good at catching because they’ll help you later on.

I diligently researched all of his children, finding good data on all except one or two. After that, Mike Fendricks fell into a black hole, where I just couldn’t find anything. I couldn’t find my Mike in 1870 in Alabama–there were too many to search without some sort of lead.

Finally, using the cluster research technique (on an associate named Dee Suggs who was also from AL) led me to focus on Lawrence County, AL. I noticed there were a few blacks with the surname “Fendrix” in 1910, 1920, etc. When I tried to trace them back on the census, I found another man named Mike “Fenrick” in 1880 in Lawrence County! Now I was really confused.Who in the heck was that? MY Mike Fendricks was 27 and living in TN at this time; could this “Mike Fenrick” be his daddy? He is 53 years old in 1880, with a wife and many children in the household. I can’t make out his birthplace on this census: it is rendered as Massachusetts (MA) on Ancestry.com.

Trying to find this 2nd “Mike Fenrick” in 1870 proved fruitless. Until I used the magical wildcard symbol *. I decided to just search for all black males, no first name, last name Fen*. Viola. Up jumped “John M. Fenerick.” That’s right. JOHN. M. FENERICK. Talk about an odyssey of name variations.

1870 John M. Fenereck

1870 John M. Fenereck

Wow. I didn’t see that one coming. But again, the wildcard technique was not one I was using in earlier years.

His first name here is John, with his likely middle name being Mike, but it is absolutely the same person who is being called “Mike” in 1880 because of the wife & children. And look what else I found:his birthplace was D.C. You know I coulda fell out my chair!! My Mike is not in the household in 1870, but going by age, this 2nd John Mike (possibly my gggrandfather) would have birthed my Mike Fendricks when he was about 18 years old.

Another interesting point is that when I researched the Fendricks/Fendrix name for white slaveowners, they seemed to all be in the Washington DC area on the 1850, 1860 slave census. My working theory is that Mike Fendricks father (John Mike) had been sold to the deep South from owners in DC. Those particular name spelling variations never occurred to me! I don’t know why. It always pays to revisit brick walls every now and then, with fresh insight and fresh knowledge. I contend that every day/month/year I read journal articles, read my fellow geneabloggers , attend conferences and converse with my genea-buddies makes me better and better.

Now, on to the task of finding his slaveowner. I am so excited to get to 1870 on this line. And, yes, I did check the 1860 census to make sure he wasn’t a freedman. So I filled out my “1870 Neighbor Chart” for John Fenerick where I note all the people within 10 pages of him on the census who are: black with the same surname, white with with a large amount of real estate, and any others who jump out at me for assorted reasons. My Neighbor Chart is a customized chart I created in Word to analyze ancestors on the 1870 census. I also note the prevalent surnames that blacks are using. This chart allows me to identify possible white slaveowners in order to focus my research, as well as to identify other possible black ancestors.

I have centered for now on Samuel Shackelford, a large slaveowner who lived closest to John Mike, as well as the Bynum family. The research continues!

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TheoThis is my cousin, Theodore Prather (gloriously aged 94) standing in front of his mother’s headstone (Sarah Copelin) in Montgomery County, MD. Sarah is actually shown 7th from the left in the picture that heads my blog above. Those are members of the Prather family. My grandmother is on the far right end. We are having almost a 200-person reunion in 2 weeks that the family has been planning for about 5 months. I am sooo excited!

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We Tree’s Weekly Genealogy Prompt #27 asks us to visit the graves of local celebrities and talk about their lives. I’ll do a small twist on this which is that the celebrity is not in my local area, but is in the local area I am researching.

My maternal ancestors are from a rural, Southwestern county in Tennessee called Hardin County that most folks haven’t heard of unless they’re from there or have been following my post. Many of my family members lived in a town called Hooker’s Bend, which is fodder enough for another post, but Hardin County’s largest city is Savannah (you didn’t know there was one in Tennessee, did you?) Well, as the title of my post exposes, Alex Haley (the author of Roots) is Savannah’s biggest celebrity and he plays a prominent role in the tourism brochures for the area.

Alex Haley grew up in Hening, Tennessee, which is actually several counties over in Lauderdale County. But the reason Alex is Hardin County royalty is that his grandparents were prominent and well-known Savannah citizens from the end of the 19th through the early 20th century. They were Alec/Alex Haley and his wife Queen. They’re also (stated with utter pride) in my family. (His name is found in records written both ways, but I will call him “Alec” in this post to differentiate between him and his grandson.)

Alex Haley

Alec Haley

Queen Haley

Queen Haley

The Holts (my grandfather’s surname) are one of my major Hardin County lines and they intermarried with Haleys in two places on my tree. This is sorta confusing, but I’ll give it a shot: my great-great-aunt, Madelina Holt, married Abner Haley. Abner was one of Alec and Queen’s sons. Their other son, Simon, was Alex Haley’s father. Another Holt ancestor married Julia Haley, who was the daughter of Abner Haley. So there are Holts and Haleys all over the place.

Let me tell you a little bit more about Alec and his wife Queen, because they were a fascinating couple. Alec’s fame was mostly because he operated the ferry that took people across the Tennessee river to the city of Savannah when that was the quickest way to travel if your horse took too long. So he knew just about everybody in town, white or black. One year (I can’t remember what year) he saved a white woman who almost drowned, so after that, he was vaulted to forever sit amongst the echelons of “most beloved” colored folk (this incident was written in the local newspaper).

The Cherrys were one of the wealthiest families in Hardin County from the early-mid 1800s, and they owned what came to be known as the Cherry Mansion. The Cherry Mansion sits right on the side of the Tennessee river and was where Alec Haley’s ferry picked up passengers to go “‘cross the river”. His (mulatto) wife Queen worked in the Cherry mansion. Their house was about 100 yards from the Cherry Mansion. So Alec drove the ferry and his wife worked for one of the richest white families in the area. The Cherry Mansion (which still stands and is a tourist attraction) was so grand that when General Grant brought the Civil War through Hardin County for the Battle of Shiloh, he camped out at the Cherry Mansion. Much of this is covered in the book and movie.

When Roots and Queen shot Alex Haley to fame, there was a rush of visitors to Savannah, and people sought out elderly folks, both white and black, to ask them their memories of the couple. This created a positively rich record of them passed down via oral history, in addition to the wonderful book written by Alex. All kinds of neat details emerged, like the fact that  people got baptized down at the river. One woman talked about when the circus came to town, how the elephants would swim across the river. Alec was described as a hard-working, smart, honest man who didn’t like “no ‘ficety kids.” Queen was a tiny woman, who claimed Captain Jackson was her father her entire life (she came from Alabama). Queen’s “mental spells” were the stuff of legend–everyone knew of her time spent in the mental hospital at Bolivar. Her spells “made an indelible impression on everybody.” One elder claims, “Miss Queen had fits, but she told us she acted that way to get what she wanted!” Others agreed about how smart she was and how they loved to hear her witty sayings: talking once about a girl’s dress being too short, Queen suggested she put a “condition” around the bottom of it–meaning a ruffle;) Queen’s spectacular way with gardening was noted: “She was crazy about flowers and her yard was beautiful. She had elephant ear plants all over the place.” Stories like these are the kind I live for in genealogy.

As a genealogist, I have enjoyed tracking this family through the census. By 1930, Abner and Madelina Holt Haley migrated to Detroit, part of the Great Migration of African-Americans to the North to find better employment and escape the hardships of the South. Last summer, I joyfully got to meet several of my Haley ancestors who live outside Detroit, in a township called Inkster. We exchanged pictures and information about our shared Tennessee roots.

Meeting Haley Cousins

Meeting Haley Cousins

I see my cousin Chris Haley much more often since he’s also here in Maryland and does alot of genealogy-related activities. Alex Haley is his uncle and he also is affiliated with the Kunte Kinte-Alex Haley Foundation. He keeps the Roots message alive in his speaking engagements and reminds us all of the wonderful gift Alex Haley left ALL genealogists. In this picture, we were at the FGS Conference in Philadelphia last year.

Robyn and Chris

Robyn and Chris

I’ll end with a photo of Alec Haley’s grave down in Savannah:

Alex Haley Grave

Alex Haley Grave

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luther_teenToday, I am thinking about my Granddad, Luther Holt. He was born in Hardin County, TN in 1921 and died in Virginia in 1993. Boy do I miss him. I started doing genealogy after he died, and that’s one of my big regrets. I think he would have truly enjoyed all of this.

Luther was something else. He was a tough guy, always the only adult who would curse around my brother and I , which we found simply hilarious. But he had a heart of gold when it came to us. We’d spend summers in Dayton, Ohio and hang out at his house and also my grandmother’s house. My memories of those times are very special. He bought my brother and I some chickens once–the hen laid an egg and I was so Luther_Slick_Large2amazed! He had a boat that he’d take us out in all the time. He was the first grown up to teach me how to drive (I was 14). He’d play Uno with me for hours, and he bought the best cards for me on my birthday that were always on time. He was just so much fun to be with. I’ll never forget how clean his house was. I’ll never forget him smoking those cigars all the time. This post is for you, Granddaddy. Rest in peace;)


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I posted a few weeks ago about finding my ancestor Hannah listed in a cemetery online. A wonderful genealogist who lives in the area not only took a photo of it and posted it online, but he took photos of everything there he could see! That’s one of the reasons I love genealogy. Here is Hannah’s headstone, alongside her husband John Bradley:

Hannah Barnes Harbour Bradley

John and Hannah Bradley

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I am in Raleigh, North Carolina at the NGS Annual Conference and I am having a ball. Great classes so far, and I’ve got a huge “to do” list of research for when I get back home. Carole and I have such a good time at these conferences.

I thought I’d still post a lesson I learned many years ago, because I think it’s something a lot of people don’t think of. My grandmother, Pauline, attended Bennett College. She loved Bennett and talked about it all the time. Her father was a Methodist minister and Methodism shaped much of her life, so a Methodist College was completely in order. At some point years ago, I decided to write to Bennett to see if they had any of her records. They had everything! They wouldn’t release her grades (I wasn’t interested in those anyway) but they sent me her original application from 1931!

How cool is that? Another page listed her hobbies and extracurricular Bennett Applicationactivities…I would have never guessed my grandmother played soccer. So if your ancestor went to college, write to the school to see if they still have any records left. This worked even better for my grandfather who attended a year at Howard…they sent me everything on him, and it was alot.

Want to know what my favorite part of the application was? A picture from her senior year, that of course no one in my family had ever seen:

Pauline at Bennett

WOW. I can almost see her walking across that campus, taking her classes, making friends.

Pauline was a teacher, and her first job out of Bennett was at the Boylan School in Jacksonville, Florida. Boylan was a Methodist (of course) private school for negro girls. I found a website called the Florida Memory Project and downloaded a brochure from the Boylan School just a few years before Pauline would have taught there. It had all sorts of details like what classes the girls would take, how much it cost, and what kinds of clothes they had to bring. That was a nice find.  Of course the best thing for Pauline about it was that she met her husband at Boylan and spent much of the next 50+ plus years in Jacksonville. I hope you’ve enjoyed this example of just one more way to bring your family history to life!

Boylan School

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I absolutely, positively LOVE court records! OK, I guess I should caveat that: I don’t particularly like court records about myself, but historical court records in search of those ever-elusive ancestors are way, way cool. They are second on my “genealogical excitement” scale only to Civil War pension records. I have an entire brief I do on Court Records because they’re so incredible.

Hardin County, TN courthouse

Hardin County, TN Courthouse

Guess what I found tonight buried in the Hardin County Court Minutes that I ordered and viewed at my local Family History Center? Well, I had been wondering for years how this particular man, Felix Barnes, fit into the community. I have Barnes ancestors, but had never seen him in the household of any of my Barnes kinfolk. So tonight, I found a record of Felix being apprenticed out. But the good part was this phrase, one that we live for in genealogy:

“…the apprenticeship of Felix Barnes, minor child of Lou[isa] Barnes (now wife of Sam[uel] Holt) said boy being an illegitimate mulatto child.

WOW. I knew Samuel and Louisa Holt’s family well, but never guessed Felix was Louisa’s child. This record doesn’t name his father, but implies the father was white. What’s written here is the kind of stuff you hardly will ever find written anywhere else, or written period, and that’s why court records are a-rockin’-and- a-shockin’.;)


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