My great-grandfather, John Smith, remains one of my most stubborn brick walls and one of my most elusive relatives. These are the factors that complicate this search:
-Of course, his name, which is judged to be the most common name in the world
-He eventually migrated to Jacksonville, FL (from Georgia) a huge city with a very large black population
-His father was white (via oral history & DNA testing), his mother’s name is unknown, which suggests I probably won’t find him in an early census family group
-Sources differ with regard to what county he came from in Georgia
-The earliest I can only identify him with any certainly is on the 1930 census, and possibly as early as 1909 in the city directories
Most of the family members (siblings, etc.) died young and very little oral history survives about him
Talk about frustrating. On top of that, his family history with his wife and my great-grandmother Georgia is utterly confusing. I have never found a marriage license for them, but they are living together as husband and wife in 1930, and the 1935 Florida State census. I think I found them on the 1945 state census as well, but the copy is pretty unreadable.
In 1920, Georgia is listed in the census as head of the household, but with a different surname, Gardener (it was Garner). Finding this record was a huge breakthrough for me for her. Although John is not there, she already has several children in the house with the surname Smith.
That led me to believe she had been married before to a Garner (which no one in my family knew). I found that couple on the 1910 census which also confirmed that Georgia was not from Jacksonville, as oral history reported, but from Madison County, FL, about 100 miles west!
In that year, she was married to a man named Isaac Garner and I was able to find their marriage record. Oddly, even though they had several children, she also had a Smith child in the household and this marriage is listed as her second…???. I located Georgia’s mother, Matilda, in that same census, with her husband Perry Davis. One of Georgia’s Smith children seems to be living with them.
Hmmmm…what exactly is going on here? Whatever it is, I haven’t figured it out yet. Now I’m wondering if Georgia married John in Madison County before she married Isaac Garner, but I haven’t found the marriage record in that county yet either.
Georgia Smith died in 1937 at the age of 45 from pneumonia.
John lived a quiet life, raising his children, working what would have been considered a good job at the Mason Lumber Company as a fireman. John died in 1960. My father & uncle remember him well, as he spent a lot of time at their house when they were growing up.
Some of the things working in my favor are: the rich city directories for Jacksonville. I have many of them, but still need some of the missing years. In the earlier years, there are many different black John Smiths living in the same area, so these are good sources to try to distinguish between the various John Smiths, using their addresses. I also pulled many John Smith WWI draft registrations that I will use towards the same purpose. There are also good collection of Jacksonville maps (especially Sanborn maps) available online at several universities. I also found several deeds to the family house, which the Mason Lumber Company actually sold to John. He raised his family there, and his son William raised my dad & uncle in that house as well. It no longer stands.
Other evidence I’ve located thus far include:
- John’s SS5 application naming father Simon, mother unknown, birthplace Tifton County, GA
- John’s obituary, as well as his son William
- Several of the death certificates for the Smith/Garner children
- John did not appear to have a headstone, although I know where he is buried. I could not find a headstone or obituary for Georgia.
Now I’m in the process of trying to hire a researcher who lives in Jacksonville to pull some of these records for me and do some more research. I don’t get there often. My present goals are to keep researching the cluster of people: Georgia’s first marriage to Isaac, her parents, find all the children, and I’m also researching some of the people who are seen living with them in the census records.
I press on to uncover the life of John Smith.
I have been humbled by how soon after enslavement many of my ancestors purchased land and realized education for their children, surprised by simply how much information I have been able to uncover, and remain enlightened in my own life by reflecting on the struggles they had. Nothing in my life seems that hard or troubling anymore.
Everyone I would pass this award to already has it…so I guess that means we are all equally approved in our genealogical journeys;)