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Archive for the ‘My Family Research’ Category

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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Joseph Harbour

Every family tree, whether we want to own up to it or not, has its share of criminals, vagabonds, shysters, thieves, polygamists, deserters, roughnecks, liars and cheats. While lots of things change, human behavior doesn’t.

One of my shadier ancestors was Joseph Harbour, my 4th great grandfather, who was born in September 1852 in Hardin County, Tennessee. He actually even looks like he was up to no good, doesn’t he? In the early years of my research, he was a mystery. He only appeared in the 1880 census, married to Hannah Barnes, with two children, Doss and Odie. I assumed he died after that.(I’ve since learned that we must always remember our assumptions and be ready to revisit them in light of new evidence.)

I’ve blogged before about various types of court records, and in my lecture on court records, Joseph is the star. Only when I finally got up enough nerve to venture into local court records did more details about his life emerge. It was amazing to me that this behavior was done during the era of Reconstruction, where racial hatred and violence rose to unprecedented levels.

Joseph Harbour appeared in the criminal court records from at least 1882 to 1897. In 1882, he had been charged with profanity. The court minutes alleged that he stood out in front of a church house and said:

“…let any [insert profanity] man report [me] that wants to and by God it won’t be good for him…I am a [more profanity] on wheels…I dare any man to report me…”

I guess someone called his bluff and actually reported him! Sounds like he may have been drinking to me. The records go on to show that Joseph left his first wife and children to marry another woman, Rachel Shannon. Before his marriage to Rachel, the court charged them both with Lewdness (my mind can only imagine what they were caught doing). Our ancestors were truly reality shows before reality shows came to be! For the next decade, Joseph proved to be a constant presence at the courthouse:

Amazingly, Joseph escaped all the charges with fines, even the more serious charge of attempted manslaughter.

Joseph’s escapades must have caused Rachel to contemplate whether taking Joseph from first wife Hannah was a good idea. By July of 1895, Rachel filed divorce papers against Joseph with the Circuit Court. Their divorce papers detailed a violent and troubled marriage with both charging the other with adultery. In addition, Rachel stated that Joseph “threatened to kill her,” while Joseph responded that “the child born during their marriage was not his child.” Their divorce was granted in 1896, after testimony from witnesses on both sides. I have heard of some crazy divorces in my time, but my goodness!

After the divorce, Joseph Harbour disappeared from the written record in Hardin County, however, some of his descendants remain living in the county today. Let me state for the record, they are lovely, lovely people;)

Now I understand why his first wife Hannah, when asked her marital status in 1900 answered that she was a widow (leading me to believe that for many years). I guess he was dead to her, LOL.

1900 census

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I’m building a case that just got stronger. I have posted before on my long odyssey researching the Fendricks family, my maternal great-grandmother’s maiden name. I had a breakthrough in August 2009 and found a duplicate death certificate earlier this year.

In this line, I encountered the common roadblocks of moves across state lines and name changes, on top of the fact that these were rural African-Americans with enslaved parents, and the name they ended up keeping with was still complicated. Sheesh.

To summarize past research, I was stuck with my gggrandfather Mike Fendricks and wife Jane, who after many years I found newly married and living in Savannah, TN. The problem was that they were from Alabama and I had no idea what county. In 2009, the breakthrough came when I developed enough skills to really use cluster research  techniques. In short, this technique suggests researching the people your ancestor had close relationships with. Mike Fendricks, as an elderly man in 1920 was living in the house of a man named Dee Suggs, so, since I was stuck anyway, I decided to veer off and research this Suggs family. You can read the lengthier original post for more details, but the research led me to Lawrence County, Alabama, and this census  grouping in 1870:

1870 Census

My theory was—and has been—that this mysterious “Dee Suggs” is the same man shown on the census above named “Dewitt Suggs.” The evidence supports a conclusion that theMike” in the household is my ancestor and his brother, which is why they both migrated to Hardin County, why Mike was the witness on Dee’s marriage license, and why Mike is living with him in 1920.

Slowly I’m putting together a good case, but the fact that the 1870 census does not state relationships was a hindrance. I couldn’t find Dee Suggs anymore after 1920. I had a hunch recently that perhaps he went back home to Alabama and that hunch paid off when I checked the Alabama Deaths database on Familysearch. I found him, and his mother was indeed “Fronie Suggs” (Sofrona):

Dee Suggs

I was so excited! I couldn’t believe I found this. It’s not a smoking gun, as Mike’s death certificate in TN does not name any parents, but this lends significant support to my theory. I talked in a previous post about how sometimes all we can do is build a case.

It appears that a number of black “Suggs” were centered around Russellville, AL, and buried at New Home Cemetery (thus, a new research avenue). This death certificate also identified his father “Obe[diah] Gholston,” which illustrates another previous post topic, finding fathers who are not enumerated with the family in 1870.

I have not been able to find any large “Suggs” slaveowners in Northern Alabama, so finding out who may have owned Sofrona and her children will take some time.

One conflict in my theory is why in 1920, the census enumerator wrote that Mike was a “boarder” and not “brother”. However, using the Genealogical Proof Standard, this conflict is easily explained given the abundance of census errors.

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For the first time in my research, I have found two death certificates for the same person, filled out by two different people. As if the missing and inaccurate records aren’t enough to make me crazy, now this.

I was doing some research review and perusing the Tennessee Death Database when I found this death certificate for Miss Mary Ella Copeland:

Death Certificate 1

Mary’s parents migrated from Alabama to Tennessee, and I have never been able to find any document that states where in Alabama they came from. What struck me is that this death certificate listed “Tuscumbia, Alabama” as the birthplace for her parents. I thought, Now I know I have this death certificate already. Why didn’t I ever notice the town? Sure enough, when I pulled out the copy I had in my records, it only listed “North Alabama” for Mary’s parents:

Death Certificate 2

Both death certificates are indeed the same woman, my great grandmother’s sister Mary Ella Fendricks, who married Abe Copeland. Both list the same death date, February 9, 1930. However, one was completed by her husband, and one was completed by someone named James Casey, who I find associated with the family, but I’m unsure of his exact relation. One certificate lists the “Gant graveyard” as the burial place, while the other lists the “Savannah Colored Cemetery.”

They both illustrate the weaknesses inherent in so many records: the information is only as good as who gave it. They list different ages for Mary Ella. Her husband says her parents were Mike Fendricks and Kate Sharard. James Casey says her parents were Mike Fendricks and Kate Suggs.    

Mary Ella’s mother’s name (according to marriage license and census records) was “Jane Eliza”. But so many records consistently state “Kate”, that I’m starting to believe that she was actually called Kate or Katie. Even my grandmother remembered that name. She died at a relatively young age and no record suggests another marriage for Mike Fendricks.

I wonder what circumstance would cause someone to have multiple death certificates? Have any of you seen this? Sometimes I think the ancestors just like to MESS with us!

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It is amazing what can be discovered when you closely analyze and scrutinize your previous research. Sometimes it’s the fact that new records have become available that weren’t available before, and sometimes it’s that your skills are better than they were before. I am quite happy to be my own biggest guinea pig and continue to prove this mantra be true.

I periodically review my research, and in this case was reviewing Phillip Holt. Phillip was the brother of my 3rd great-grandfather John W. Holt in Hardin County, TN. Earlier in my research, I’d located Phillip and wife Louisa living in neighboring McNairy County, TN in 1880, but never found them again and considered that they had possibly died. Phillip had married a woman named Louisa who had been enslaved on a neighboring farm; her maiden name was McClain. You can see her mother Lucinda living with the couple and their kids in the census below:

1880 Phillip Holt

That dreaded 20-year gap between 1880 and 1900 is a notorious black hole where ancestors can easily be lost. That’s enough time for kids to be born and out of the house and you’d never know they existed at all. As always, we’ve got to be in the business of assessing correct identities, and not just matching names.

Now, years ago I had found this 1900 census record in yet another TN county, Madison:

1900 Phillip Holt

I had quickly dismissed this as not being the right man for two reasons: the wife was Lula instead of Louisa (which really shouldn’t have thrown me off) but more importantly, the mother-in-law listed was Emma Rodgers, which led me to believe this woman’s maiden name was Rodgers.

It’s good that I decided to look at this more closely. I will say that the fact that TN Death certificates are now online (through 1959) is what ultimately solved the puzzle: I was able to find a death certificate for this “Lula” Holt in 1931, and it confirmed that her mother’s name was indeed Lucinda McClain.

Lula Holt Death Cert

My analysis before was too quick to assume that the information I was viewing on the 1900 census was correct; turns out it was not. Who knows what caused the error, but the fact remains that Emma Rodgers was simply not Phillip Holt’s mother-in-law.
I’m really excited that Phillip has “come back from the dead.” I was able to isolate his timeframe of death, and track a few more of his children through 1930. Also, Jackson, TN is a larger city than some of the other places in which the family lived and I’m hoping to eventually find more tidbits on him, or better yet, some descendants.

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Sometimes I just don’t take my own advice. Or, rather it just takes me longer these days to actually do it.

My ggrandmother Georgia Harris’ line has always been problematic for me. Awhile ago, I made some headway in tracing her roots not in Jacksonville (Duval County) Florida, as oral history said, but in Madison County, over 100 miles west of Jacksonville. I was able to find her in a previous marriage and discover she had other children. I also found Georgia’s mother, Matilda, her stepfather, Perry Davis, and sister Ruth also in Madison. After that, the trail ran dry. I really wanted to find out whatever happened to Georgia’s mother, Matilda.

I decided one day last week to research Georgia’s only known sibling, Ruth Harris. Familysearch (don’t you just love them?) listed a marriage between Ruth Harris and a man named “Nish Torence” in 1910. Hmm. A search for his (thankfully) odd name in the 1920 census found the couple living in…drum roll…Philadelphia, Pennsylvania!

The names are mangled, but I’ve been around enough to know its them. And who is living with them? Drum roll #2…Ruth (and Georgia’s) mother Matilda!

1920 Philadelphia

In 1930, they had moved yet again and were living in Camden, New Jersey. By then, Nish was remarried to a woman named Mary (Baity), and had several more children.

1930 Camden

A couple of thoughts. I am still surprised that so many of my ancestors moved around as much as they did. They are all over the place. And that’s a major reason many of us lose the trail. I see Nish worked on the railroad, so perhaps that was the reason behind their move. I get extra happy when they move to a big city from a rural area, because that usually means more  and better records. I am now focusing in on Philadelphia, between 1920-1930, and *hoping* to be able to find death certificates for Ruth Harris and Matilda Davis.

From the SSDI, it appears that Nish lived in Camden until he died in 1970. Another online gift for me was his World War II Draft, which confirmed this is the right family:

World War II

Since I had the address, I went on Google Maps and found a picture of the home–it’s the one in the center:

826 S. 8th Street

I am *hoping” also to try to find some Torrence descendants that may still live in Camden. This would be phenomenal since I’ve never met anyone even remotely associated with this line. To have some new cousins would be very cool.

I’m still wondering why I didn’t find this sooner–as many times as I have told my students, “when you get stuck, search sideways, search the siblings!”. I am still thrilled. One of my favorite roommates in college was from Camden. Anybody out there in Philly or Camden want to do some research for me in those city directories, let me know.

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I recently had one of those amazing moments in genealogy that reaffirmed my belief that I was meant to this work, called to do this work, by forces beyond my comprehension.

I posted awhile ago about breaking through a brick wall using black newspapers. I had been stuck trying to trace my ancestor James Holt. I am really trying to find all the branches of the Holt family that left the area of Hardin County, Tennessee, and there were lots that left at various times & planted roots elsewhere.

Recently I was contacted by the granddaughter of that man, James Holt. She had been searching for her roots online and found me. We had a tearful & joyous conversation, as we shared stories about our lives and our historical paths. I had reclaimed another family member.

It gets even better. She shared wonderful photos of James M. Holt & his family. My heart leapt as I gazed upon this ancestor of mine who had left Tennessee, the son of an enslaved woman, and blazed a trail across the states (and I mean literally, in each census he is living in a different place) as a successful Methodist minister. Then he attended law school in Mississippi and practiced as a very successful lawyer in Indianapolis. One of the photos below shows him, I assume, in his law office surrounded by legal books.

James Holt & Family

The story didn’t end there. After talking more, I realized that one of my unidentified photos may have been her father. This is mainly because of her description of him as a police officer. And of course, yes–it turned out to be him! She was thrilled to have a photograph she had not seen before, and I couldn’t believe this obscure photograph I hadn’t looked at in years turned out to be him. Another unidentified kin–reclaimed. This experience just warmed by heart, and affirmed for me why I love genealogy so much.

Ferdinand Holt

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