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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;)

In this third and final post, I’d like to share a few more items illustrating the riches that can be found in civil war pension records.

I was surprised at the number of former slaveowners (and whites in general) that supplied testimony to assist their former slaves to gain a pension. I would have thought there’d be more widespread anger at slaves who enlisted in the war. I’m not sure exactly what conclusion to draw from this; perhaps after the war was over, they decided to eventually “let bygones be bygones”.

  •  For the pension of Henry Davy, a request to find his birthdate was sent to the daughter of his former owner, who was now married and living in Atlanta, GA. In trying to confirm his age, Mrs. Smith responded that “the family bible has no record of the colored people.” However, another local white man named G.W. Bryant submitted: “I have seen several men that knowed the pensioner all the way from boyhood. One man is now ninety some odd years and one collard man that was raised with him is now 100 years old. These men will all testify that he is over 80 years old. I will ask you to further consider the old darkies case.”
  •  David G. Taylor, of Roane County, Tenn.,  testified for his former slave Frances Sevier. “I bought her at Kingston, Tenn., about 1862, can’t give the date, I bought her from Paul and McGuinn Traders. She had a former husband named Marsh Sevier, a slave on the Sevier farm just outside of Kingston…He asked me to let him have her for his wife and after talking with him on the subject I consented.” [Frances was 13 years old].
  •  Three children of the former owner of Martha Harbour testified as to her marriage and children with soldier Isaac Harbour. James G. and Elisha Harbour testified they were “sons of Elisha Harbour [her former owner] , who died in the year 1863…” They “do not know what record of birth was kept, but their sister Mrs. Gant was present at the births.” Mrs. Gant testified that she “was living at home with her father [and present] when the children were born and the dates of birth [provided] are correct.”

Finding details about family relationships among enslaved people is difficult to obtain. Civil war pensions do not disappoint in this area:

  •  Eleanor Waters testified during her pension application for husband Harrison Waters’ service. Her cousin Tom was living in her home & an accusation had been made that she had broken up Tom’s marriage and was having a love relationship with him. That claim could have derailed her application, so she tried to clarify the relationship. “My owner in slavery was Mr. James Lucas of Annapolis Pike…and my mother Maria Johnson was a sister of Tom’s mother, Emily Johnson and we are about all of the Johnson family left and we don’t like to separate.” Tom himself reiterated that both their “mothers are dead now. Eleanor and I…are from a family which is mighty nigh extinct as I have only one living brother, Nicholas Johnson and no sisters.”
  •  Martha Davy, during her deposition for her husband Henry’s service, revealed details of her family: “My maiden name was Martha Ann Doran. All my fellow slaves are dead or gone. I have no brothers or sisters living. I have a half sister Ellen Benton living here.
  • Lucinda Jones, testifying for a pension for her father Alfred Suggs stated: “[My] parents were Sallie Ann and Alfred Suggs. [They were] married before the war when no record of any kind was kept of the marriages of the colored people.” 
  •  Henny Rideout of Talbot County, MD, testified for a pension under her son John’s service. During her testimony, she provided names and birth dates of her husband, their 4 children, as well as her husband’s mother. She stated: “…these dates are taken from my bible. In 1864 my husband and I were both free. I was freed about 1850 and my husband in 1848. Our old master leaving in his will that we were to be freed at the age of 31 years.”
  •  Carpenter Eskridge, testifying on behalf of Frances Brown, stated: “The present husband[Winston Brown] of claimant is my nephew. His father was my brother, he was named Jesse Eskridge. The mother of Winston Brown was Malinda Brown.”

And finally, Carpenter Eskridge’s testimony also tells a story too good to leave out: “I was formerly a slave to Sam Eskridge who lived 4 miles below Kingston, Tenn. I was hired to James Sevier when the war broke out and continued to live on the Sevier Place…until General [Nathan Bedford] Forest came in here about Aug. or Sep. 1863 and carried me and some others off with him…we were put in the Confederate service. I cooked for a Capt. Higgins, Marsh drove a baggage wagon and Frank drove a forge wagon. We remained with the Confederates 2 or 3 months…we got a chance to run away together and did so. I got back to Kingston by Christmas in cold weather; said Marsh and I went back to the Sevier Place.” 

I hope these three posts on civil war pensions have suggested new ways to use the information they hold. Whether you find an ancestor who served or not, pulling these records for enslaved people from a specific county or community can open a door into lives of all the slaves living there. These records shed light on everything from post-civil war work, migrations, slaveowners, migrations, family relationships, births and deaths, marriages and children, military service and injuries, as well as the relationship with former owners and other whites after the war.

If you have amazing information you discovered inside a pension file, I’d love to hear about it in the comments.

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:

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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.

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!

I hope everyone is returning from a wonderful holiday season and excited about a bright New Year.

In Part 1 of this post, we began looking at examples of the riches that can be found in civil war pension records. We’ll continue in this post looking at how the lives of enslaved people are illuminated, both before, during and after the war. The name of the ever-important slave-owner is often mentioned. The role of the “slave neighborhood” is illustrated, as slaves often married slaves living nearby and had neighboring slaves testify on their behalf.

Slave “marriages” were not legally recognized but were often encouraged by masters. Names of colored preachers and church affiliations when given in pensions can provide us with new research avenues. Previous marriages and children hint at the instability caused by slavery.

  • Rachel Orr testified in 1899 that she and Edward Orr were “…married long years before the war by Ephraim Brighton, a colored preacher, in my master William Orr’s house in Danville, Alabama.”
  • George Simpson’s widow Annie testified that she “was a slave of the Rev. Anspach who lived at West River, Anne Arundel County, MD. [Her husband] George was a slave of John Gale on an adjoining plantation and [they were] married by the Rev. in her cabin on his plantation, him reading the service from a book.”
  • Martha Harbour was married to Isac Harbour “…in the month of March 1848 by Matthew Broyles, a colored Methodist preacher, at the plantation of his late master Elisha Harbour in slave form by his consent.”
  •  Caroline Allen, of Memphis, testified that Betty and Jacob Bradley were married “…in my room in this city. Brother Martin, our pastor in charge of Collins Chapel performed the ceremony.” Betty herself added that she “had a husband in slave time in South Carolina. I belonged to Mr. Lewis M. Ayre near Sumpterville, SC and Elias Phoenix, a neighbor’s servant was my husband according to slave custom. We had been married only about a year when I was sold to a “nigger trader” and brought to West Tennessee and bought by Mr. Thomas Kilpatrick (now dead) of Tipton County, TN.  I was then given by him to his daughter Mrs. Cornelia Nelson and went to live with her in Bartlett Station.”

We can get valuable dates of death from the pension files, sometimes before deaths were recorded by the state. Often there are receipts or letters indicating the death of the pension applicant as well, usually the wife or child of the soldier. Applicants submitted these papers in the hopes of getting reimbursed for the costs. Deaths after the war sometimes show the dangerous nature of the jobs freedmen had available to them.

  •  Eliza King testified that her father Edward Hays “…died in July 1879, the year following the yellow fever epidemic.”
  •  Eleanor Waters, of Baltimore, testified that her husband William Harrison Waters died “…on or about the 4th day of April 1882 while working on a steam mill at the corner of Pratt & Fremont, the boiler of which exploded killing him instantly.”
  •  In Caroline Allen’s deposition of Jacob Bradley’s death she says, “I know he died because I sat up with the corpse and went with it to the graveyard and saw his body put in the ground. I think he had consumption, because he had an awful bad cough.” Caroline gave the date more specifically as “occurring “during the yellow fever epidemic about 1878.”
  • W.C. Woods, the white clerk of the county court, testified that soldier Isaac Bailey “…lived near [me] on a small tract of land he purchased [from me]. [I] furnished Isaac means during his last illness. The servants on my place all quit work to attend the burial of Isaac.”

As we can see from above, the files contain not just the dates and names we crave, but also tell us significant details about the slave community. Many files include copies of death certificates, marriage licenses and even pages from bibles. The death certificate below for Harry Brown of Kentucky, under the section for age says, ” an old slave no one knows exact age:”

Harry Brown death

Harry Brown death

I’ll do one more post on this topic in the future, showing a few more ways that pension records are the crown jewel of genealogy records.

Black Civil War Soldiers

Black Civil War Soldiers

Civil War Pensions remain, in my opinion, the crown jewel of genealogy research for those with enslaved ancestors. The first-hand descriptions of their lives given in the testimonies, both before, during and after the war still take my breath away. I do not have any direct ancestors who served (although I have some collateral), but I have researched soldiers in the counties where my ancestors lived and gotten a rich sense of the times that no other source could come close to describing.

African-Americans from the start of the war clamored to join the Union effort, but were initially repelled in their efforts by the Lincoln administration. Not until the Emancipation Proclamation of January 1863 did formal recruitment of enslaved people begin in earnest. Even that went slowly, as many black men reacted to the blatant discrimination of having unequal pay and no black commissioned officers (a few were later commissioned). Frederick Douglass gave impassioned speeches for black men to join the war effort and demonstrate their manhood; two of his own sons would join. In the end, almost 200,000 black men fought in the Union Army & Navy.

The large numbers of escaping slaves, combined with the struggling Northern war effort forced Lincoln to eventually recruitment-broadsidehave to deal with the issue. However, Lincoln’s Republican Party had the destruction of slavery firmly in their party’s platform from at least the 1840s on. Lincoln’s rejection of the Crittenden Compromise before the war started, as well as his push to try to get slave states to abolish slavery on their own are just two of many points that place Lincoln on firm ground in his commitment to ending slavery. James Oakes has written a marvelous book called Freedom National: The Destruction of Slavery in the United States, 1861-1865 if you are interested in reading more about the struggle. Ironically, it was the South’s secession that removed the legal protection the states had for slavery; the war opened the doors for Lincoln to use “military necessity” as a way to destroy slavery in the states.

Lincoln had initially tried to avoid freeing and enlisting slaves because he was  afraid that the four border states (Maryland, Delaware, Kentucky & Missouri), who were all slave states, would abandon the Union and join the Confederate war effort. He was in a very precarious position and it’s a nod to his political prowess that he read the national mood correctly. He famously stated, “I think to lose Kentucky is nearly the same as to lose the whole game. Kentucky gone, we can not hold Missouri, nor, as I think, Maryland. These all against us, and the job on our hands is too large for us.” I love that quote. Lincoln certainly had a way with words.

There are some wonderful places online to find out how to research the courageous black men who served our Nation. The National Archives is ground zero, and the various types of Civil War records they hold can be found here. Of course, the massive Civil War Soldiers and Sailors Database lists the soldier’s names and regiment(s), but I absolutely recommend reading the 3 post series on Randy’s Genea-Musings blog about using this database. I learned quite a few things I didn’t know before.My friend Michael Hait also wrote a great post on researching black soldiers. And there is an excellent article on Black Sailors at Prologue Magazine.

I also like the website by Dr. Bronson which explains and describes the various Pension Acts that were passed and the provisions of those Acts. Typical pension files often include several different applications; those often occurred when the Pension law changed. Some files will include applications from the soldier and then after his death, applications from his wife or children.

Today, I am starting a series of posts where I discuss some of the amazing stories and interesting facts found in Civil War pension files. Today’s excerpts are from the pension file of Cap Ross, a former slave living in Colbert County, Alabama who served in the 101st USCT.

Various parts of his deposition give us his background:

 “I belonged to Walter Sherrod during slavery time… I was born near Courtland in Lawrence County, Alabama and was a farm laborer. I enlisted at Huntsville and the regiment stayed there about 2 weeks then went to Nashville where we were mustered in. Our company was guarding the railroad at Scottsboro when we had that little fight…I was slightly wounded in my right foot in a scrimmage…the ball did not go deep and our doctor…took his knife and picked the ball out.”

Cap added this about his service:

 “I was first a Private and promoted to Corporal while in Huntsville and then to a Sergeant for a short time…they reduced me down to Corporal again because I left camp without permission and went to the correll where there were a lot of women.”

Cap, like many former slaves, had no idea exactly how old he was, or exactly when he married, or even exactly the birthdates and ages of his children. Most slaves tried to approximate these dates, but since attaining a pension depended on these very things, a large number of black soldiers ended up with a Special Investigator whose role it was to do just that—to investigate the claim. Another common problem with former slaves was their enlistment under one name, and their later going by a different surname. The investigators had to ferret out false claims (which were rampant). When Cap Ross was asked why he enlisted under the surname “Ross” and not “Sherrod,” his answer was telling:

 “I enlisted under Ross because that was my father’s name. I am generally called Cap Sherrod but I was married under Cap Ross and have voted under the name Ross..A good many people call me Sherrod because I belonged to Sherrod but I calls myself Cap Ross.”

That last statement is pretty powerful; it illustrates the desire of former slaves to exercise their newfound rights as freedmen to identify themselves as they pleased.

The constant movement of former slaves to find work, often sharecropping or living as tenant farmers, is shown in Cap’s description of postwar life:

“I was in Mississippi a part of 1892 then I came back here [Alabama] and stayed the balance of that year [1892] and next. I went to Louisiana and lived on Dr. Gillespie’s plantation near Panola and lived there 3 years then came back here and lived on the Felton place 1 year with Mr. Stretcher, with Jim Houston 1 year, with Captain Kelly 1 year on the Abernathy place, and 2 years with Albert Eggleston last year.” 

Cap Ross’ Special Investigator, held the same prejudices of most white men of his era. He referred to Cap Ross as “an ignorant negro,” but also wrote that Cap had had a “stroke in about July 1902 entirely disabling his right side and he can’t get about at all…he owns absolutely nothing and without question suffers for want of food.” When interviewing Cap Ross’ wife Edith about their childrens’ birthdates, the Special Investigator noted that “she does not seem to be smart enough to know that the younger they are, the more pension they would get.” Notwithstanding his prejudices, the Special Investigator did ultimately assist in Cap and later his wife getting a pension.

I absolutely recommend looking at these records for enslaved people from your research county whether you have an ancestor who served or not. They provide invaluable insight into the lives of slaves. I’ll keep looking at the stories in pension records in future posts. Please share in the comments any stories you have found in this rich resource.

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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