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Archive for the ‘Newspapers’ Category

Getting better at genealogical research involves many things. One important skillset is understanding and learning how to find relationships when no document states the relationship. The early years of genealogy are filled with the “low hanging fruit” of census records, marriage and death records, online documents, etc. When that fruit runs out—which I assure you it will—are you equipped to keep uncovering relationships in your family? That skill involves learning new methodologies and ways of approaching your research, as well as finding little clues and piecing them together through analysis. Elizabeth Shown Mills calls it “harvesting clues.” Here’s a good, short example from my own research.

My 2nd great grandmother Martha Simpson was born a freed woman in Anne Arundel (later Howard) County, MD. I found her and her siblings living with their mother in 1850. She married Levi Prather in Montgomery County, MD, birthed 12 children that survived to adulthood and lived there the rest of her life.  I had a few pages from a family bible that recorded both Martha’s siblings names and some of her own children:

Prather_BibleB

Bible Page B

Bible Page B

When Martha’s husband Levi died in 1894, Martha purchased 75 acres of land in 1897 from a man named Nicholas Moccabee and his wife. Martha lived in the same house with Nicholas and his wife in 1880, and lived next door to a widowed Nicholas in 1900, probably because she’d purchased some of their land.

1880martha_clip

1900martha_clip

These kind of connections should always arouse suspicion and curiosity in the diligent genealogist. Who is this couple–Nicholas and Harriet? Nicholas was also buried in the same cemetery as my ancestor Martha. So I decided to delve into Nicholas’ life more deeply. An obvious impediment was his name, “Moccabee” which was spelled umpteen different ways. But take a look at what I found in land records–(these are the year and the grantor/grantee):

1876, Willie R. Griffith to Nicholas “Macbee” and wife Leanna
1896, Nicolas “Mackabee” to Harriet L. Mackabee
1897, Nicholas “Mackabee” and wife Harriet L. to Martha J. Prather
1897, Harriet Leannah Mackabee and husband Nicholas to Sandy Spring Bank

His wife’s full name—her first and middle name—is only ever given in the last 1897 deed record above. His wife’s name was “Harriet Leannah.” With this critical clue, I unlocked the puzzle. I remembered Martha named one of her daughter’s “Harriet (Ann) Leanna.” If you go back to the bible records above, you’ll also see the name of “Leanna McAbee” on both pages. All of this provides evidence for one conclusion: Nicholas married Martha’s sister, Harriet Leanna Simpson. Later, I found an obituary for Nicholas Moccabee that provided the full (misspelled) name of his wife-”Harriett Lena Simpson”:

Obituary

Obituary

Notice that no record told me directly that Harriet Leanna, Nicholas’ wife,  was Martha’s sister. But I could draw that reasonable conclusion from the compilation and analysis of the relevant evidence. Later when I went back to the cemetery, I also found “H. Leannah McAbee’s” headstone right next to her husband Nicholas, and in the same group of Simpson family headstones.

Learn how to do this by reading genealogical case studies and learning how to extract clues from various records. I also recommend Thomas Jones’ book, Mastering Genealogical Proof.

A few months ago, I joyfully discovered a descendant of Harriet Leannah who still lived in Maryland. He and his family surprised me by accepting my invitation an attending our family reunion which was a few weeks ago. I thought I would cry right there! Since then, I have gotten to spend time with their wonderful family and share all the things I have discovered. They shared priceless historical photographs, and the one I was most happy to see was the photograph below of Harriet Leannah. The two sisters have finally been reunited!

Another ancestor–reclaimed! Readers, in the comments, I’d love to hear stories of how you pieced together a relationship through clues you found in the documents, when no document stated the relationship.

Harriet Leanna

Harriet Leanna

Martha

Martha

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MC900433938I have posted before about the value of black newspapers and the goldmine of information they have. I think newspapers, like Freedmen’s Bureau records, are an important resource that haven’t yet been made widely accessible and easy to research. However, great strides have been made by various providers, including the Library of Congress, digitizing newspapers. They are still time-consuming to search, but I suppose anything worthwhile in genealogy is that way. I was even surprised to recently discover that the local newspaper of Montgomery County, MD where my ancestors lived was digitized bythe Maryland State Archives. That paper has been on my “to do” list for years. It was not a black newspaper, but I still want to search it for relevant news of the times.

The Chicago Defender was founded in 1905 by Robert Abbott and eventually became the largest and most popular black-owned newspaper in the nation. The paper was famous for detailing lynchings and racial oppression, to referring to blacks as “The Race” and for putting “(white)” after white people’s names in the paper the same way white papers did to black people. The Defender was  a driving force in convincing Southern blacks to migrate to the North. More than 100, 000 black people came to Chicago alone between 1916-1918.

What I didn’t realize until I read my friend Tim Pinnick’s book was that the small, rural towns many of our ancestors migrated from were often covered in these large urban papers. It made sense I suppose: people wanted news from their towns. But I would have never searched in a Northern paper looking for news of my family, especially if they didn’t live there. Tim’s book explains that the papers hired correspondents from those small towns who submitted news. There would be a page called “Tennessee News” and then perhaps 20 or 30 paragraphs, one for each community. The same for North Carolina and other states.

I have recently been searching the Chicago Defender through Proquest Historical Newspapers which is available from my local library (and able to be searched from home!). I was surprised to find that one of my Holt relatives, Annabelle Holt Crowder, who had lived in Chicago for a time, was actually one of the correspondents for her small town of Decaturville, TN! That meant she wrote a lot about her family. Her husband Dave was the principal of the black high school, a revered man for whom the school was later named for.

The tidbits of local history gleaned from these columns is simply priceless. In addition to marriages, births and deaths, they talked about who was sick, who was moving, the black schools and politics, the benevolent and lodge organizations, the teachers and farmers and of course, the ever-prominent black churches and ministers. The articles are filled with visits from out of town relatives and I thought to myself as I read that it looked tome like they spent all their free time socializing! But, because I pulled articles form mostly the late 20s and early 30s, I had to remember there was no television, and radios and cars were fairly new.

There is of course lots of juicy family history, especially because the articles often mentioned the town where people were visiting from, as well as specifically naming parents, siblings, grandkids, etc. Here are a couple of snippets I found from my local TN towns:

September 1928

September 1928

Richard Kendall was indeed a Civil War veteran, and this article gives the names and locations of his relatives from all over the place. Imagine if you were one of his descendants.

This next one names several of my Holt relatives (Lawson was my ggrandfather). I was most fascinated to discover that they enjoyed fox hunting! I would have never guessed that. Notice also how they say “motored to” instead of “drove to.”

November 1930

November 1930

Here’s one more:

April 1930

April 1930

I’ve had luck before with the Indianapolis Freeman newspaper, and I’ve got to believe similar articles may be found in the Pittsburgh Courier and other large black newspapers of the times.

Take a look and let me know if you have any luck finding any of your small towns. It’s important to mention that MOST newspapers are not online and are not digitized, but there were in fact hundreds of black newspapers.

P.S.-Tim has a truly wonderful lecture on researching black newspapers on YouTube. It’ll teach you almost everything you need to know to get started!

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I gave a lecture last Saturday on researching the enslaved at the Montgomery County Historical Society. I had a great time. My relatives
seen in the picture that heads this blog are Prathers and they are from Montgomery County, Maryland. During the research for that lecture, I
reviewed some of my research and found new information as well.

I found a lot of Montgomery County Runaway Ads online through the Maryland State Archives’ Legacy of Slavery webpage. This database is jam packed. One night I stayed up until 1 am just looking at Runaway Ads, which I’ve discussed here before and have a particular fascination with. Here are some of my observations from perusing the various ads:

1) Slaveowners knew a surprising amount of information about their slaves’ families. These also speak to the extended kinship communities that slaves formed:

William Belt

William Belt

Robert Clagett

Robert Clagett

This one even names the slave’s father:

Roberts

Roberts

Some of the ads demonstrate that slaves had surnames they were known by, although certainly many didn’t print them in the ads. I think it’s interesting that they say “he calls himself”:

Basil Burgess

Basil Burgess

Richard Wms

Richard Wms

There are also common themes of the slaveowner’s belief that the escaped slaves were headed to Philadelphia and also that they were aided or had free papers from a free negro. Maryland had over 83, 000 freed blacks by 1860 and these show the slaveowners high level of distrust of them:

Nathan Magruder

Nathan Magruder

This one must have been the most popular slave in Maryland!:

Thomas

Thomas Rawlins

Evidence abounds of the violence slaveowners exerted to hold slavery in place. This man received a burn on his face “for his villainy”:

William

William

This one’s back is “very much cut for his rogueness”:

Sam Magruder

Sam Magruder

In this one (like the others), I felt myself rooting for the “gang of six.” They made it all the Pennsylvania, and the slaveholder derisively mentions the “abolition magistrate” that let them go:

Gang of Six

Gang of Six

Runaway Ads all by themselves explode several myths of the slaveowner’s mind, such as:

1) the slaves did not form the emotional attachments to their family in the same way that whites did. This was the one they often used to defend the buying and selling of human beings. If that were so, why is it that so many slaves escape and are headed back to their wives, parents, etc.?

2) that the natural state for negroes was slavery; they needed white caretakers; that they were happiest this way. If so, why do so many run away again and again, even when the odds were overwhelmingly against them? Why do they run away even when they already wore the marks of painful physical punishment?

I’ll end with one that took my breath away. It’s a little harder to read than the others, but it describes Susan, a runaway who was”far advanced in pregnancy”:

Thomas

Thomas

What must have happened to Susan to take off on a journey that would almost certainly fail, especially in her state? I imagine it must have been something horrific.

This was what slavery was everyday, and I never forget that.

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All of us know about the horrid history in this country of slavery, racism, white supremacy, Jim Crow and the types of discrimination that persist to this very day. Violence was at the core of those systems. Without violence, those systems couldn’t exist. Far from being passive or willing subjects, African peoples and their descendants fought back in myriad ways (so did Native Americans). That’s why slave rebellion plots were often dealt with by using ever-increasing levels of depravity, such as burning bodies and cutting off heads.

The practice of lynching is what I call the original American brand of terrorism. I see a clear difference in these types of murders; they were meant to send a message to the community and to elicit a set of behaviors that maintain white rule. This is evident in the detailed files on  lynching that the NAACP kept (and their subsequent push for legislation), as well as the efforts of brave journalists like Ida B. Wells-Barnett. It must have been a frightening time in general, but especially to our ancestors who risked their lives to try to vote, buy land, educate blacks or any of the other things that whites believed looked too much like being an actual citizen. I am glad I live in a time and place where I can have friends and family of all colors, ethnicities, religious beliefs and pretty much anything else.

Early in my research, oral history from Tennessee ancestors noted the lynching of one of my Holt ancestors. Never did I think I would find documented proof, but I did. The local paper, which in the 1880s and 1890s was replete with mentions of race riots and lynchings in other parts of the country wrote the following in May, 1887:

“George Holt, col., who lived near Sibley met his fate by the rope route last Friday.”

George Holt

I was shocked by the sarcasm and  brevity of it, as if it were the most natural thing in the world. They had the audacity to write “Suicide” as the header, which of course it was not. George, I later discovered, was the brother of my gggrandfather John W. Holt. He owned hundreds of acres of land at the time of his death, and he had a young wife and children. This was a  rural West Tennessee community that never had a large black population. Though slavery and racism existed, this small African-American community must have been rocked and terrified y the act of terror. The reasons for the lynching are lost to time, although some of George Holt’s descendants believe it had to do with a dispute over his land.

Did he know his assailants? How did his family go on after that? I don’t know how. Do you leave the area? How do you rebuild? Is revenge ever an option? His brother John W. became one of the most prominent blacks in the county– land wealthy, a merchant and former Postmaster. But even his own brother was not untouchable. How did John react? I am in awe of their strength and endurance.

These are questions for which I’ll never know the answer. Our ancestors take many of their secrets with them, never to be discovered. Years ago, while searching through the local black cemetery in the community, I dug through the bushes and came face-to-face with George Holt’s headstone. I remember the vines and roots had come out of the ground and were wrapped around the headstone, eerily reminiscent of the way he died. I got chills up my spine. When I find that picture (one of those prehistoric pre-digital pictures) I will post it here.

Today, I am remembering George Holt and all the others, named and unnamed, who met their fate “at the hands of persons unknown.” May they rest in eternal peace.

PS—Check out the Project HAL database—Historical American Lynchings

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Recently, I solved a genealogical mystery that I’d had for many, many years. As fellow genealogists, you can imagine how immensely satisfying this was. The solution utilized many tools, but black newspapers and the ease with which we can now search some of them deserves the biggest praise for solving the puzzle. My friend Tim Pinnick, who offers a class in newspapers at Family Tree University and a free e-newsletter, has been preaching and teaching about black newspapers for years.  He has even written a book on the topic, which I would highly recommend for your personal library.

The puzzle starts in Hardin County, TN, where one branch of my research is centered. The 1880 census showed two black men named “James Holt”, around the same age. One was living with his brother, one was newly married and living with his wife. For years I thought they were the same man, and the census taker had made an error. Only through deed records did I realize they were different men. The marriage of the 2nd James was not shown in marriage records, but his wife is listed in the land records when he is selling land, thus delineating him from the other James, who had a different wife at the same time. To further confuse—the 2nd James married the sister of the wife of the 1st James. But I digress.


About 4 years ago, I found this 2nd James living in Obion County, TN in 1900. I was pretty sure it was the same man (his kids had names like Phlenarie, Ferdinand & Ollie), but he had a different wife (Alora). His occupation was listed as a minister. And that’s where my trail ran cold—again. I simply could never find him again and realized he was probably moving a lot with the church. This is the 1900 entry for him & his family:


A family relative had saved oral history, pictures & other memorabilia with regard to this family. One photo showed a well-dressed black couple labeled “Mr. and Mrs. George and Ollie Knucklis.”

A separate postcard was addressed to “Aunt Nannie” and was signed Ollie. Perhaps this Ollie was the daughter of James Holt listed in the 1900 census? That hunch turned out to be right. The photographer’s studio from the picture was located in Chattanooga. It is there in 1930, and 1910 that I found the couple living. However, in 1920 I found them in Indianapolis, IN (Ollie was misspelled as Dollie). Hmm.

I used the Indiana records at Familysearch.org (marriage & death) to try to look for Ollie or any of her siblings in Indianapolis & I found a Ferdinand Holt who looked promising as her brother. Ancestry had indexed the Indianapolis Star newspaper, and a search in that paper turned up a court case (my specialty) between George & Ollie Knucklis. James Holt was listed next to Ollie’s name—could that be her father? It had not occurred to me to look for him in Indianapolis. I don’t know why–I suppose I was focused on the children by now.

A census search for him found a James Holt, born in TN, living in Indianapolis in 1920 & 1930 but the wife is different (now Harriet) and his occupation is lawyer. Well, this couldn’t be the man I was looking for—he was a minister after all…right? Short answer, of course it was him. My GenealogyBank subscription finally got put to good use, and I searched the black newspaper The Indianapolis Freemen which is archived on the site. Searching James Holt (and later J.M. Holt) turned up numerous articles on this popular, politically active man. I learned that he had been a prominent minister—then went to law school at Central in Louisville & became a lawyer! A profile in the paper even turned up a picture of him—genealogy solid gold:

Articles described his ministry in other states (he was all over the place) including his stint in Jacksonville, FL which is where he was in the 1910 census. I was able to eventually find his subsequent marriages and also his death certificate in Indianapolis. The marriage record for his son Ferdinand made everything conclusive when it noted his parents were James Holt and Mintha Barnes. Wow.

Part of what also helped is simply growing in my analytical skills over the years. I don’t think I could have solved this five years ago. I wrote up a five-page PDF file of this research and my approach to solving it, if you’re interested email me and I’ll send you a copy.

This is the part of genealogy that just makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up! The story the newspapers outlined about this James Holt—the son of an enslaved woman—was fascinating. Without the Indianapolis Freemen newspaper, I would never have realized this was the same person…there were just too many changes.  Just another chapter I have reclaimed from the annals of our precious often-times lost history.

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Newspapers are a wonderful genealogical source, we all know that, but one of the main reasons I suspect they still remain untapped for many of us is how difficult and cumbersome they are to research.  Although commercial enterprises like GenealogyBank and  public efforts like Chronicling America aim to make newspapers more accessible, I  must say I often find trying to sort through the digital morass just as much of a struggle.

I luckily (or crazily?) have a microfilm reader in my home that I purchased from Ebay years ago and newspapers are one of the types of time-killing resources that benefit from this. I purchased several reels of microfilm  of the local paper (the Savannah Courier) from the Tennessee State Archives. This paper covered Hardin County, TN, one of my research areas.

I thought I’d post examples of the variety of genealogical jewels that I’ve found in the pages of the Courier. There are things that you simply won’t find anywhere else.

There are the expected death and marriage notices, well before state mandated vital record-keeping, but there were lots of other things that stood out to me as I perused the pages. This is a small, very rural farming Southern community, and I was surprised to see things like a regular column on high fashion and periodic articles on international news–even serialized fiction stories. The ads are in and of themselves a telling source of social history–you see all the medical potions and crack “cures”, stoves and sewing machines, the local country stores and their wares and the schedules and prices of the steamboats that plowed the mighty Tennessee river. As you travel across time (1870s-1930s in my case) you see the changes in life brought by the advent of the car and other technological advances (especially the car–people crashed all the time!). Farming was a major theme, with articles on animal husbandry and the latest crop techniques.

Local news was big–seemingly every action a person took was “monitored” by the paper. Short trips people took (“Tom Jones went to Paducah today for a week to visit his mother”) illnesses (“John Reed is stricken with small pox and has been quarantined”) and even visits to the city of Savannah (“Mssrs. John Holt and Sol Bradley were in town today.”). I suppose the nature of a small town is just that–you pretty much know everything everybody is doing. If not, the paper will sure tell you;).

The quality of the copies varies, but hopefully, taking a look at some of these article clippings (and yes, this post is LONG) will inspire you to check your local newspaper if you haven’t yet. I suggest giving yourself a timeframe (perhaps an hour at a time) as not to destroy your eyes.  I also recommend my friend Tim Pinnick’s excellent book, “Finding and Using African-American Newspapers“, and be sure to subscribe via his website to his new email newsletter on using Black Newspapers.

Savannah Courier Clippings (the year of each post is stated in the caption)

I found postings from local courts that I used to locate court documents. This also illustrates that if your locale had fires that destroyed records, newspapers can still provide some of that information:

1888

1935

Look at all the black organizations I found evidence of. I couldn’t find data on these anyplace else:

1885

There were short periods of time where very small articles covered the black community. I would expect this to be different for different locales. In Savannah, one of the black areas was called Newtown–thus the Newtown “Dots”:

1887

While deaths of white locals were almost always covered, only periodically were deaths of blacks noted:

1890

1889

Fairs were always a big deal in rural areas, and the “colored” fair was no different and was noted every year:

1888

Hints at emigration can be found in the paper. This one I believe included some of my collateral ancestors–I wish it would have stated names!:

1909

As can be sadly expected, lynchings were often noted and the period of the late 19th century was particularly brutal. The first one is my gggrandfather’s brother. Notice how they said it was a “suicide”:

1887

1886

1890

And this ominous editorial snippet in the paper reads to me like a threat:

1889

By 1908, at least some on the community were obviously not in agreement with the methods of the “Night Riders”, but the very fact that it shows up so much as a topic tells me it was a problem:

1908

1909

1911

The crash of the titanic was a huge story in 1912. It was interesting to read this story after having seen the movie:

1912

This snippet hinted at the possibility of a semi- interracial celebration in 1919 for World War I soldiers. Everytime I read this I wonder if my great-grandfather Lawson Holt was there. It also notes the ‘Holtsville’ glee club, Holtsville being a school started by my ancestor John W. Holt.

I found lots of information on black teachers and black schools every year:

1911

By the 1930s, they were printing lists of people who had lost their land to tax sales. How useful is that for us!:

1930s

Indicative of the times, minstrel shows were a big part of entertainment:

1929

A few were pretty humorous to me, with my 21st century sensibilities. This one talked about the nuisance of people letting their hogs run loose in the city:

1919

And my personal favorite–this poor man, a minister, has to announce that his wife has left him:

1888

There is lots of other information I found on the black community (on churches and ministers, for example) but I hope what I have posted has encouraged you to take that dive into these valuable records.

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