Saturday, February 16, 2019

The Networks of Life

Last Monday was our local genealogical society's board meeting. As president, I've wanted to change our usual agenda to allow for more strategic planning and team building, and less humdrum reporting of the past. So, for this first meeting of the new year, I tried something different. Before we launched into officer and committee reports, I invited everyone to participate in a getting-to-know-you discussion with one question:
How did you first get started researching your genealogy?

While we certainly didn't need any formal introductions—most of our board members have served in one capacity or another for at least a few years—it was surprising to see how little we knew about what drew each of us to the core of our organization's raison d'ĂȘtre. It was time to get social and share.

One board member volunteered to go first. She had a simple answer. She started researching her family's history mainly because of her high school friend—someone who just happened to also be sitting at the table for this very meeting.

That moved the discussion to this second respondent, who shared how she had started researching, amidst comments of "I didn't know you two were friends since high school!"

A third board member also credited this second person, and mentioned his most recent research gems, among them the DNA match discovery of a half sister to one of his close relatives, complete with travels for the two families to meet up, after all those years.

The discussion moved to a fourth board member, who had started her research journey years before, following her marriage. She shared challenges of researching recent immigrants, which comments led to a fifth board member sharing her story of how she had traced her own immigrant ancestors by traveling to their country of origin.

That board member, in turn, has been a friend of mine since we both worked together at the same agency following college graduation—and yet, she hadn't even known that I was involved in the genealogical society until after she made her decision to join the group. We ended up joining the board as total newbies right after becoming part of the society—she as secretary, and I as newsletter editor.

She, as it turned out, had just started her genealogy journey right after retiring from the work world, while another board member had been involved in genealogy research ever since she lost her dad at a young age.

The one thread tying most of the story together—as the details unfolded concerning each of our journeys—was the connections between each of us. Like a winding chain, one person knew another, who influenced another, who connected with the next person—something we hadn't realized before taking the time to ask how each of us got started.

Of course, the hope in this kind of simple, team-building exercise is to create space for each of us to get to know each other better—and thus, hopefully, begin working more closely and effectively together—but the exercise came with some unexpected benefits and surprises. While we soon moved on to the business items at hand, we emerged with a slightly different sense of who each of us are, individually, and possibly a clearer idea of what each of us brings to the table to benefit the greater whole of the board and the organization.

The one main take-away that surprised me, though, was the connection. I knew almost every board member's story, myself—mostly because I try to meet with each officer individually over coffee—but even I hadn't seen how important those unseen connections between us were. For someone who has spent nearly a lifetime sketching out the intricacies of pedigree charts, I was surprised I missed that. We may not be related to each other—no surprise cousin surname or DNA matches yet—but we are connected. Like Elizabeth Shown Mills' F.A.N. Club—of friends, associates, and neighbors—we are intertwined in each other's lives. We influence each other through our connections.

As board members of a local genealogical society, we need to be aware of that nearly-invisible dynamic. Bringing in new members to our fold may not be so much an effort of coaxing strangers to attend our meetings, or take our free-to-the-public workshops, as it may be that friends and friends-of-friends are influenced by the projects in which we take delight. People try new activities or go to new places more often because of someone they know, than simply because they saw a poster or heard a public service announcement. It's the interpersonal connection—no matter how slight—which draws them in.

Friday, February 15, 2019

Clues by Association

If one of the ways we can uncover those aggravating hidden details about our family history is by examining our ancestors' friends, associates, and neighbors, those associated with King Stockton surely give us an intriguing picture.

While there is very little that can be discovered about King Stockton through a search of online resources, we've already learned that he had been a key influence in the young life of future attorney and judge, James Dean. Once I located the actual booklet of King Stockton's life, I then had another clue about someone who considered the man worthy of remembrance: the author of the seven page biography.

While I have yet to confirm his true identity, the author of the Stockton biography—listing himself as A. L. Lewis—may have also been a significant figure in the African American community in northern Florida. If you followed the link located by reader Per Larsson in yesterday's comments, those initials may have stood for Abraham Lincoln Lewis, businessman and philanthropist in the Jacksonville area.

Reading such biographies of the associates of King Stockton gives me pause to consider: though living a mostly unsung life, this man's character led him to interface with others for whom he became an inspiration and, likely, a mentor. While this little booklet about King Stockton's life does not, for the most part, recount his own accomplishments, seeing the fingerprints of these silent associations makes me wish all the more that someone had given voice to such details.

There are, however, other aspects of his saga that were mentioned. Mostly, these were tales from the man's childhood, growing up in pioneer settlements in territorial Florida during the years of the Seminole Wars. Enough names from that local history were mentioned that I'd like to take the detour of researching those accounts to verify what happened.

Then, too, was the page listing King's wife, Louvenia, and the names of his children—prompting me to go the genealogist's route and sketch out a pedigree chart to help keep everyone straight in my mind. With its digital home set up on, I'll have easy access to documentation to follow the family trail through a few more generations of descendants. After all, at least one of them has turned out to be a DNA match to me, so I may as well learn a little bit more about these relatives I never knew I had.

There is, however, one other task I want to take care of, in relating this story of the unnamed slave's story from my childhood memories. It necessitates my going through my aunt's belongings to find a specific photograph, though, before I can tell you that story—and such rummaging through old storage bins can sometimes be a haphazard endeavor. If I can manage to produce the photo I'm seeking—I'll give myself the weekend to find it—I'll be able to share one more vignette about the connection between the family of King Stockton and that of George and Sidney Tison McClellan. 

Thursday, February 14, 2019

Asking and Receiving

So, now I have it: the book about King Stockton. Well, make that a booklet. According to the entry at the only library in the world which has it, the item I've been seeking is actually only seven pages in length. Seven unnumbered pages, according to the official entry.

For whatever reason the Rose Library—keeper of manuscripts and rare books at Atlanta's Emory University—deemed it important to include King Stockton's life story among their holdings, I'm not sure. I am, however, unspeakably grateful. Those mere seven pages hold the power of connection—that intangible sense of awe at reconnecting with one's ancestral past.

Receiving an answer to my request was much easier than I had expected. Some special collections archives are quite restrictive as to whom they allow to access their holdings. Closed stacks, advance appointments, waiting periods, and even researcher credentials requirements serve to keep the hoi polloi at bay. I may have a master's degree, but I certainly hold no Ph.D.; all I could do was hope for the best. And wait.

The wait, it turned out, was no more than a few hours. I entered my request into their online form right after the library's closing on Tuesday evening. Through the wonders of three time zones' difference—and the diligence of professional staff—by the time I awoke on Wednesday morning, I not only had a response from the reference coordinator, but a digitized file containing the full contents of the booklet, itself.

The file contained several items I had hoped for. Of course, the main thing I was looking for was any indication that this King Stockton was the same man as the one I was seeking. There were enough details—including some Aunt Fanny-esque stories—to assure me I was on the right track. The bonus was the names of King's children, plus his parents' names, his date and location of birth, and—best of all—a photograph of both King and his wife, Louvenia.

There were, however, enough additional names and details to make me realize that, like many research ventures, the more I learned, the more I needed to research. With every eyewitness account, we see a different perspective; now, I need to chase after these newer names and stories to verify them, as well.

One other thing, though, came with this discovery of the booklet: it wasn't written by King Stockton, himself. It was a story about him. Though I now know the author was listed as A. L. Lewis, I have no clue just who that person was. Family member? Ministerial associate? Community member? Even that question leads to a new research task, as more information generates more questions. We'll start exploring those details tomorrow.


Wednesday, February 13, 2019

It Pays to Read the Footnotes

Not every piece of writing we pick up for a casual afternoon's read is slathered in footnotes, of course, but for those scholarly tomes in which we occasionally find ourselves lost while seeking dead relatives, footnotes or endnotes are the preferred mode of bestowing credit. We ignore them at our own loss.

It was in the pursuit of the only online link which contained the phrase, "King Stockton," that I ran into the sole mention of the man I believe to be the former slave from the McClellan plantation in Wellborn, Florida. Granted, it was not much of a lead: the entry referenced in my Google search barely gave the man the nod of a full sentence in a thirty three page journal article. One sentence turned out to be enough.

As it was, the article did provide more than just that one key sentence. It gave me a sense of Wellborn in the early years following the Civil War—the friends, associates and neighbors who not only were connected to the subject of the journal article, but to King Stockton, as well.

But what would Mintie and Kelly Dean and their son James—focus of that journal article—have to tell me about King Stockton? James Dean's story certainly didn't help me determine whether King Stockton was indeed the nameless man I was seeking from my childhood memories.

The mention of those names in the journal did help me connect the James Dean in that Florida Historical Quarterly article with the James Dean of Wellborn in the 1870 census—which then led me to notice that, as a child, he did live only five households away from that of King Stockton and his family.

As for the Summer 2008 article's intent, its title sums it up: "The Pioneer African American Jurist Who Almost Became a Bishop: Florida's Judge James Dean, 1858-1914."

The second page of the article mentioned the influences on James Dean's early years, among them King Stockton. The last paragraph simply stated,
The Dean family belonged in the post-Civil War era to the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church. This connection likely first arose thanks to King Stockton, a local AME minister who filled Wellborn-area religious needs in the absence of a regularly organized church and who lived in close proximity to the Deans.

That last paragraph—with the blip of a mention about King Stockton—wrapped itself around the footnotes on the bottom of page 17 and continued for seven more lines, dropping several other names, on page 18. It was only at the end of that lengthy paragraph on the subsequent page that I spotted another footnote. Not sure whether the footnote referred to the last name mentioned in that final sentence, or somehow included all the previous ones as well, I was inclined to just skip the formalities of slogging through the footnotes at the bottom of the page.

It's a good thing I didn't. There, in a footnote stretching over ten lines of its own, was a source for what surely had been the original mention of King Stockton's name. The title in that footnote promised a biography of the man, enough to cause me to grab my mouse and snip the title. From there, my hunt changed from "Who was King Stockton?" to "who has that book?"

Now, my search has moved from a nameless man liberated from slavery in 1865 to a potential Wellborn neighbor to the specific title of a book about his life. I never in all my life would have dreamed I'd finally discover all that detail. When I first heard the story as a child, all I knew was that there was this unnamed book about a nameless man.

I've learned, however, not to get too elated over small victories. As it turned out, according to, there is only one library in the whole wide world which contains a copy of that book. Hint: it isn't anywhere close to where I live.

The process of genealogical research may be more a marathon than a sprint. It sometimes turns out to be one in which each step can demand agonizing effort. It's feast or famine; hurry up and wait. Now, I have to polish up my credentials as a researcher, and present myself for consideration: will I be deemed worthy enough to divulge the contents of that rare-books-and-manuscripts collection's holdings?

I asked. And am waiting. 

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Exploring King's
Friends, Associates, and Neighbors

When unable to find the missing vital details on an ancestor's life, the next best approach is to rely on what can be discovered via the folks consistently surrounding the target ancestor.

This research technique has been called by various names. Some refer to collateral research, meaning the inclusion of all siblings in researching the generation of the target ancestor. Others advocate what they call cluster genealogy, including everyone in the cluster formed around the target ancestor, whether family or not—sometimes involving a search spanning multiple generations.

Overall, though, the most commonly used moniker for such research efforts seems to be a term whose creation was credited to preeminent American genealogist, Elizabeth Shown Mills. That, of course, is the acronym of the F.A.N. Club: the research circle which includes Friends, Associates, and Neighbors.

In our search to learn more about the man I recall from stories my mother told me as a child, now that we've settled upon a possible name for him—King Stockton—I'm discovering there isn't much to be found. Never mind that the family legend is that, after slavery, he returned home to give my second great grandfather the written story of his life. I have no idea what such a book might have been called, and I certainly can't find any book with the name King Stockton listed for the author.

A possible next step would be to explore the path leading to the clusters of people around King Stockton, his life's timeline, and his neighborhoods. While I started such an exploration before leaving for my Florida research trip, I still have quite a bit more work to do to complete that effort. So let's pick up on that path, beginning today.

As I've already mentioned, I was able to locate King Stockton and his family in Wellborn, Florida, in the 1870 census. In his own household were listed his wife Lovenia, and children Manda, King, Catherine, Ella, Robert and Sweeter.

In addition to his own household, though, we can see his closest neighbor was also surnamed Stockton. Twenty year old Albert Stockton and his wife Tyra lived with their three year old daughter Mariah and infant daughter Martha. Because of Albert's age in comparison to King's, it is possible that Albert could have been King's son. Another nearby household was comprised of thirty nine year old Francis Stockton, his wife Sarah, and children James, Dora, Hester, Missouri, Colfax, and Sallie. (Note all households in the 1870 census record for Wellborn, Florida, for these families had the surname spelled "Stocton.")

All these Stockton families may well be closely related. Wellborn was a small town—still is—and the proximity of the three families' homes within this small town makes it even more likely that there is a close familial connection.

Add to that the spotting of the name Hester—an important name in that it might reveal another family connection, though that is a part of the story yet to be discussed—in the household of Francis Stockton, and I feel even more convinced of the close connection of these three neighboring families.

Yet it is not in the households containing the same surname that I find my first lead in discovering more about who King Stockton was. It was in the name of another neighboring family. That, as it turned out, was the family of forty two year old Kelly Dean, his wife Mintie, and their only child listed in the household, James. It was because of the listing of this small family that I found the only other reference to King Stockton in the vast online universe of information we researchers regularly roam, known as the Internet.

But you know how it goes: I'll have to get to that story tomorrow. 

Monday, February 11, 2019

Don't Forget King

One of the projects associated with my recent trip to explore family roots in northern Florida was that of the story of King Stockton. This was a project long in the making, mostly because I lacked any clue as to how to identify the man. Just recently, I've had some leads as to the possibility that his name was King Stockton. Now that I'm home from my research trip to Florida, I'm eager to resume the search for his family history.

I mentioned yesterday that I needed, first, to attend to one portion of my biweekly tallying duties, before continuing any report on what I've been discovering about this man named King. There's an additional reason for wanting to complete that tally, despite the temptation to just call it a night when I arrived home from Florida: the part I was missing was my biweekly DNA match tally. Something has popped up on the DNA side of my count which I want to explore further. But first, the numbers.

Since I've been tracking trees for not only my mother and father but also for my husband's parents, I keep track of DNA matches for both myself and my husband. Now that the holiday sales results are finally showing themselves in an uptick in matches, I thought it would be informative to see how that impacted my counts.

There was, as it turned out, a slight uptick in matches for this biweekly period, though not as many as I hoped. My match counts advanced by twelve on 23andMe, by thirty eight at FamilyTreeDNA, and by a whopping 344 at MyHeritage. That brings my totals to 1,119 at 23andMe and 3,513 at FamilyTreeDNA. The count at MyHeritage just blows me away: I'm now at 7,088 matches.

In a similar pattern, my husband's results have also jumped up by thirteen at 23andMe, by twenty three at FamilyTreeDNA, and by 318 at MyHeritage. In addition, while I can't view a tally for increased number of matches at (it just reads "1000+" for fourth cousins and closer), my husband's match count went up by twenty five. His respective totals are now 1,072 at 23andMe, 2,219 at FamilyTreeDNA, 5,360 at MyHeritage, and 753 at AncestryDNA.

The increases in matches during this post-holiday season don't seem to be as extravagant as those from the previous year. I hope that doesn't mean the wave has crested; I'm still waiting for that silver-bullet match which will bring answers to all my burning genealogical questions.

Still, while I may not have discovered the links I was hoping for—but who knows, they might show up with this next DNA sale for Valentine's Day—I did stumble upon something which, in retrospect, was not as surprising as it seemed at first. It turns out that, buried among all the DNA test results for the thousands of matches I've already accumulated—far too many for me to catch up with—was one particular connection pertinent to the research subject at hand right now: I may be related to King Stockton.

The discovery came unexpectedly. I was looking for someone—anyone—who might have posted a family tree for the man my family knew as King. There weren't too many trees online which involved the same geographic and time parameters as the King I was seeking, but there was, at least, just one such tree.

It only takes one, as you may well know from your own experience. This tree appeared to be well researched, and seemed to be cataloguing records concerning the right man. I decided to click through to send the researcher a message on

Ancestry has this handy device on their website in which, if you are trying to contact another subscriber and each of you has already taken a DNA test at that company, the website will notify you of the potential connection. As soon as I clicked through to email this tree's researcher, that is the notification I received. In Ancestry's estimation, we are anywhere from fifth to eighth cousin.

Thankfully, this researcher was gracious enough to respond to my message, and we have been comparing notes ever since. Of course, during my travels last week, I was hampered in that I couldn't, simultaneously, research documents online while gabbing with relatives in real life. But even then, thanks to my mother's cousin, I gleaned some family stories which may help determine more about this man named King Stockton who once was, oddly enough, both enslaved by and on friendly terms with the very family that I had traveled to northern Florida to research.

Thus, a story I remember from my childhood now becomes a research project filled with oral traditions but not very much of a paper trail with which to verify those details. On the other hand, I now have the privilege of working together with another experienced, long-term family history researcher, with whom I hope to —someday—piece together as reasonable a history of his life as possible.

Sunday, February 10, 2019

At Journey's End, New Tasks Emerging

Home again. It's been a productive research trip, although one which was very different from the usual tour through libraries or archives. To interview family members, explore the old homestead, or even traipse through family burial grounds takes a different kind of time than scrolling through microfilms or even reading listings in book form.

These are the research formats which take time to unfold. Conversations will meander over their natural course and interviewees take time to warm to the subject—let alone the interviewer. I may not have retrieved volumes of documents in this past week's research journey to northern Florida, land of my grandmother's roots, but I did return with loads of material.

All that material needs to be transformed into usable formats, the type where I can refer back to my notes and recreate the episodes when I gleaned the information for the first time. Some of that information is simply waiting to be harvested from my memory and ensconced on paper—before I forget the details I traveled so far to obtain.

In the meantime, it's been two weeks since I last checked up on my research progress on the four family trees I've been building. Don't be surprised that absolutely nothing has happened on the trees for my father, my mother-in-law, or my father-in-law. Remember, this past half year has been devoted to focusing on my mother's southern roots, thanks to preparation for the research course I took at SLIG this past January, and this very trip I've just completed.

Even progress on my own mother's tree slowed while I was out, driving through Suwannee County in search of more details on just what unfolded in my McClellan and related lines, in and about Wellborn. Not surprisingly, I was only able to add sixty nine names to my mother's family tree to bring that tree's tally up to 16,828.

Every single one of those names was added in the past week, thanks to a visit to the Suwannee Valley Genealogical Society library, where I met another McClellan descendant—from a line I wasn't even aware existed. Now that I and my distant cousin—fifth, to be exact—have compared notes, I'm documenting my way from this other researcher's progenitor down to the present. All told, I'm sure I'll add much more than just the sixty nine names I've found this week. These things, however, take time to prove their position on the McClellan tree—something which I not only enjoy doing, but which makes for a satisfying finish to a productive week of research.

With such a late arrival home last night—er, make that this morning—I'll continue the portion of my normal count which focuses on DNA testing progress tomorrow. Traveling across a continent can take time; factor in the three hour time difference, and it makes for a very long day, indeed. But that's not the only reason I'm postponing the count on my DNA test progress. As it turns out—and quite timely, as well—in the midst of my research trip, I've made one particularly pertinent discovery about one of my DNA matches.

Saturday, February 9, 2019

The Power of Stories Repeated

Every now and then, I read things written by someone having absolutely nothing to do with genealogy, and yet—no surprise here—what I read leads back to thoughts about family history. Such was the case when, trying to catch up on my emails yesterday, I read a two-week-old blog post by marketing guru Seth Godin.

If you know anything about marketing, you may realize that successful selling is really about successful storytelling. Perhaps that was why, in one of his pithy daily posts, Mr. Godin remarked, "Forgotten stories have little power."

He went on to confirm the reverse: "Repeating stories (to ourselves and others)...makes those stories more powerful."

Thinking of the power of stories repeated reminded me of an old New York Times article by author Bruce Feiler. In "The Stories That Bind Us," published back in March, 2013, Mr. Feiler asserted that the best thing parents can do for their children is to "develop a strong family narrative." He cited a psychologist's observation that "the ones who know a lot about their families tend to do better when they face challenges."

That psychologist's observation, in working with children with learning disabilities, led researchers to develop a series of questions which they dubbed the "Do You Know?" scale—what people sometimes called the "20 Questions."

As one of the researchers, Robyn Fivush, later observed in an article she wrote for Psychology Today, "It is not knowledge of these specific facts [the answers to the twenty questions] that is important—it is the process of families sharing stories about their lives that is important."

Dr. Fivush urged families to "begin a family tradition of sharing the stories of our lives."

Her colleague in the research project, Marshall Duke—whose psychologist wife it was who had made the initial observation prompting him to develop the hypothesis—emphasized the same point: "Simply knowing the answers to questions will not produce the good outcomes" realized through their research. You cannot make your kids study for the "Do You Know?" test. Rather, "It is not the content of what is known that is the critical factor, but the process by which these things came to be known."

Because the twenty questions "test knowledge of things that children could not possibly have learned first hand"—in other words, details of the family's history before the children were even born, or were too young to personally remember—they would have had to receive it through person-to-person interaction, mainly through stories shared. Sharing stories takes time. And connects people.

Today is my last day in Florida, the land of my roots (well, at least the land of my grandmother's roots). It's likely all I'll be able to accomplish today will be to pack the bags and get us checked out of our hotel and into the airport shuttle.

Still, I can't help but think of one last episode on this epic family history research expedition. Like an encore to a wonderful performance, my mother's cousin—tour guide extraordinaire for our time, earlier this week, through the little town in northern Florida where my grandmother's family once lived—came back to visit me, once more.

After we had parted ways in Wellborn—she and her husband a day earlier than I and my long-suffering partner—the two of us had returned to visit my husband's sister and brother-in-law, relatively new year-round residents in Florida. From there, it was on to Orlando for business meetings for my better half.

Before we could even get to our next stop, this cousin had arrived home, still savoring thoughts of our wonderful visit to the land of our roots. I was hardly on the road when I got a message from her: "Call me right away." She had been thinking of all the family treasures she had received from my grandmother which she now wanted to pass on to me.

Underlying this thought process was the concern that someone would continue passing along the stories of our family's experiences over the generations. As we've seen all too clearly during our visit—and here, as I post my experience regarding the search for King Stockton—there are oral histories which have never found their way into print. There is no other way to preserve them than to insure that someone keeps the story alive for the next generation.

I had already known some of those unwritten stories. The story my mother told me, for instance, about the former slave who had had his story written in a book, was only something she told me. I have yet to find that book, but because of what I've been told, I know there was this certain man who did this certain thing. I want to pursue that story because I want to preserve that story.

But my mom's cousin had more of such stories to tell me. We talked almost constantly for the mere twenty four hours we were together, she telling me things that likely have not been written down anywhere—back when it happened, for the reason that it would meet with social censure, and recently, because we are at a loss for how to verify those "old stories."

With this in mind, she made arrangements to make the two-hour-long drive back to rendezvous with me at my hotel, bearing items which she dared not trust to the postal service. Her treasures included photo albums—thankfully with some pictures labeled—and various documents indicating the stepping stones of life's accomplishments.

No one in her immediate family was interested in these—besides, they weren't of her direct line, but materials concerning her aunt, who was my grandmother—and she knew I was keenly motivated to preserve such items.

She did, however, present them with one more question: was my daughter also taking an interest in these family stories? For, if she wasn't, who else could these family stories be passed down to? After all, it's in the repeating of these family stories that they provide strength. Remember, as Seth Godin observed, "Forgotten stories have little power."

It's in the stories remembered—and, thus, treasured—that we pass along the strength the next generation needs to grow and endure, despite adversity.

Friday, February 8, 2019

Yanking a Few More Bricks
Out of the Proverbial Brick Wall

Sometimes, a research journey can unearth momentous discoveries. Other times, well, a few more chinks chipped out of the genealogical brick wall still help.

This time, the chips are falling from around the brick labeled Mary Charles McLeran. I've been stuck on the details of her life. I don't have a date of death for her, a dilemma since she was also the subject of a local legend, that of Mary of the Red Scarf.

Granted, she may not be one and the same as Ruben and Rebecca Charles' daughter Mary, reputedly shot by angered Native Americans who mistakenly took her for yet another one of those settlers encroaching upon their land. Still, red scarf or not, I have been able to locate a Mary, daughter of Ruben and Rebecca, who was very much alive, well into adulthood.

While this Mary outlasted not only her pioneer parents in the early days of northern Florida settlement but also her husband and only daughter, I still lacked some details about her life. Mainly, I wanted to know what became of her in her later years. Since I couldn't find any trace of her after the 1880 census—and even that entry I had doubts about—I needed to examine records to see if perhaps she had remarried.

This past week's visit to Suwannee County put some of my doubts to rest. Not entirely, of course, but I'm closer to gaining a resolution on her life's story.

Mary's story is not a happy one. With her father dying young by about 1835, and her mother in the 1850s—both meeting a violent end, according to local legends—Mary had married William T. McLeran, member of another local family whose surname subsequently had become well known in the area. Even Mary's marriage date is in doubt, because I have yet to find any documentation of that event; with some counties in the area lacking local records until long after that date, I may never find such a document.

I'm fairly sure the date of her marriage was before 1859, for that was the date of birth for her first and only child, a daughter she named Fannie. The second reason I feel that was a reasonable guess for date of her marriage was that her husband unexpectedly died the very next year, on May 29, 1860.

William McLeran's death in May was quickly followed by Fannie's, in June of that same year. After that, we can find the bereft Mary subsequently losing her sister Drucilla and caring for Drucilla's two surviving daughters, as well as temporarily caring for the children of her deceased brother Andrew.

I managed to find, among the records I thumbed through in the basement of the Suwannee County courthouse last week, a petition by the widow Mary McLeran to have her two nieces apprenticed to her for training in "housewifery."

From the date of that petition—though entered farther down the page, it was hard to read, possibly stating February 28, 1861—until the next time I found mention of Mary, it was far beyond the entry in the 1870 census which was the last date of which I had been most certain.

Now, it turns out, there were several letters written concerning the estate of Mary McLeran. While I can't yet determine the exact date of her passing, what I could glean from the various messages was that when Mary died, she had been left in a destitute state. I'm not sure why the nieces she had raised were not in a position to assist her, nor any of the few remaining more distant relatives. It just made me sad, in my visit to the courthouse two days ago, to discover the letter from an attorney to the local sheriff about her property.

Dear Sir:-
     Replying to your letter reference to the condemnation proceedings against the old of house of Mrs. McLeran, now deceased. The house is absolutely worthless and I suppose the best thing that can be done is to let any one tear it down who will do it for the wood, or let the city do it. I am working on the matter I spoke to you about the day that I came to Live Oak.
       Yours truly,
       [signed] M. M. Scarborough, Jr.

The date on the letter—a clue I could have used to determine Mary's actual date of death—was rather enigmatic: October 24 of what year? I checked another letter regarding the same issue—what to do with the "worthless" property the widow McLaren had left behind. The date there on an "Administrator's Notice" was given as July 11, 1899. Poor Mary had undoubtedly passed away before that point, but a reasonable approximation could be given as the year of 1899, or possibly early in the winter of the preceding year.

Staking my claim on a few extra numbers in an ancestor's vital stats is hardly satisfactory in the wake of a story as intriguing—and yet so tragic—as Mary's must have been. Just in these scant details, I feel for her in the continual plight of her life's story. While hers seems to be a life lived in the gaps—before documentation was widespread in the pioneer settlements of territorial Florida, at the establishment of a new county, or resident in other counties with less carefully-held records—surely, there was much more that could have been told, if anyone had valued the story that would have been her life's tale.

Above pictures of documents retrieved and photographed by the author on February 6, 2019, at the Suwannee County Courthouse, Live Oak, Florida. 

Thursday, February 7, 2019

It's Complicated

One of my goals, in traveling to northern Florida to research my maternal grandmother's roots, was to see if I could explain what I felt was a myth buster regarding a local story. This week was my chance to practice communicating that defense of my hypothesis: Mary Charles may have been shot, but she didn't die from the wounds allegedly inflicted upon her by native tribesmen when she bolted out the front door of her pioneer parents' home without the agreed-upon red scarf sign of protection.

You may recall the story of Mary Charles, the young woman who supposedly was killed by Indians as the result of a momentary blunder. Local Suwannee County historian Eric Musgrove had shared that story in the Suwannee Democrat years back, and I had subsequently found it online at the county's own website. This week was my chance to visit with him and interview him about the sources for this story.

Eric Musgrove prefers to dub this scenario a legend. It's just an oral history passed down for many decades, as he puts it. And yet, I had been able to trace the life of one local woman named Mary Charles, who seems likely to have been daughter of the same parents as the Mary Charles of the Suwannee County legend. This Mary certainly lived well beyond childhood, having married and claiming a daughter of her own. While I have yet to determine this Mary's date of death, I can assure you it was well after any threat of attack had been removed from the area—certainly long after the Charles family had ceased operating the ferry by Charles Springs which had been the site of local tensions between white settlers and Native American inhabitants of that area in northern Florida.

True, Ruben and Rebecca Charles, operators of the ferry and stage coach stop, could have had more than one daughter named Mary. The one I found might have been born after the first had been killed. That scenario has been repeated in many family histories, and I can't assume it would be any different in the facts underlying this "legend."

However, let's review the details I've found. First, I had stumbled upon the discrepancy while searching for something else: whom the parents of my second great grandmother, Emma Charles, might have been. I found Emma and her siblings in the 1860 census in the household of someone else: Melburn and Drucilla Odum and their daughter Mabel. Along with the Charles siblings and these unknown adults, there were two Hines girls. How did all of these people connect?

Looking for the Hines girls in the 1870 census, I found them in the home of Mary McLeran. Now I had another problem: who was Mary McLaren? And why did she have an Odum daughter and a Hines daughter in her household?

The search was now on for the identity of Mary McLaren—and for whatever became of Mabel Odum's parents. It took searching through some Suwannee County probate files—thankfully, just after the county was formed in December of 1859—to discover Mary's statement that she was wife of William T. McLaren. The search for Drucilla revealed Mary's statement in Drucilla's probate file that they were sisters, and a marriage record in Madison County indicated, at the occasion of her first marriage, that Drucilla's maiden name had been Charles.

Thus, that made her sister's maiden name also Charles. As in Mary Charles. Granted, there could have been other people in that area with the same name. Thankfully, an entry in the 1850 census tied Mary and Drucilla together in the same household—that of Rebecca Charles, widow of Ruben Charles, the family of the legend of Mary and the Red Scarf.

It did take a lot to put those connections together. Even though I was able to link the paper trail together into a neat—and fairly convincing—package, as Eric Musgrove observed in yesterday's visit, there is no way to tell for sure. No paper trail, no written documentation, no written testimony of eyewitnesses. Just the story, passed down through generations, leaving us with the impression that Ruben and Rebecca Charles' daughter Mary was the victim of a tragic slaying in her youth.

Searching through the records at the courthouse yesterday didn't reveal much more to strengthen the conclusion. But it did turn up a few leads, as did my visit to the genealogical society's library the previous day. Fortunately, as Charles was a significant name in the area for so many years, I didn't have to search for long to find other documents to help piece together the life of Mary Charles McLaren, even if she doesn't turn out to be the fabled Mary of the Legend of the Red Scarf.

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

The Definition of Kin

"We may be related," the woman just inside the door to the Suwannee Valley Genealogical Society library announced to me as I stepped in to wrap up my second day's research in the vicinity of my McClellan roots in northern Florida. "I think we are cousins."

A cousin I had never before met—let alone been aware of—was the stranger who had received my online query about the society's library holdings. (Frankly, I was quite jealous that a place as small as the vicinity surrounding Wellborn could boast not only their own library, but the building in which to house their collection, as well.)

In preparation for my visit, I had sent in my questions ahead of time, just in case there was any chance that the books I was seeking might be in their holdings. There have been a number of history books published on the county as well as the town of Wellborn, and though I am aware of them—and the tidbits they hold about my family's history—that doesn't make them any more easy to access. Most were privately published or done locally in a short run, with nary a copy still available for sale, new or used. Not even on Amazon.

Naturally, in my email preceding my visit, I mentioned the surnames I was seeking—not only McClellan, but McLaren, Tison, Townsend, and Charles. Especially Charles. The society had notebooks prepared by members on their research findings on a wide variety of surnames, including some of the ones of interest to me. Thus, before she ever met me, this society volunteer knew we'd be related. We both, as it turns out, descend from McClellans.

Just how, we didn't know, right away. It took some sketching out. A bit of double checking on two different genealogy database programs to make sure. After comparing notes on both our lines—it turns out her line, in my records, is a complete black hole after the patriarch of her McClellan line in early, territorial Florida—we decided on the verdict: fifth cousins.

Well, howdy. It's always nice to meet another cousin.

When I took the Advanced Southern Research course at SLIG last January, one of our instructors had explained the real definition of the term, "kin"—at least the way you'll find it used in the South. You may know the word as a synonym simply to explain that two people are related. Our SLIG instructors took it farther than that. According to our intrepid southern research experts, using the word "kin" means "yep, we're related, but we can't explain just how right now."

In other words, it's too complicated.

The entire South, according to these instructors, is so interrelated as to reduce the explanation of how anyone is connected to anyone else to one word: kin.

You from the South? Great. Me, too. We must be kin.

Tuesday, February 5, 2019

Dinner at George's Place

Monday may be the day everyone groans about at work, but my work this past Monday gave me great pleasure. It started out with a happy family reunion between two cousins, and culminated in a wonderful dinner with new friends in the house built by my third great-grandfather, George McClellan.

I can now, in addition to all that, say that I have been to the home of my Florida roots, thanks to the wonderful couple who has, over the past thirty six years, lovingly restored the old McClellan home in Wellborn, Florida. While they are not family per se, they have opened wide the doors to their home—the home which once was the residence of my own family.

Granted, that home was built well over one hundred years ago, and likely was not lived in for long by my third great-grandfather. With George dying in 1866, widowing his second wife of only five years, she had decided, at one point, to move the place from its location outside Wellborn right into the midst of the town. That feat required the house to be placed on logs and rolled for miles, pulled by the stubborn willpower of mules.

Such details certainly didn't please any of George's children from his first wife, the late Sidney Tison McClellan, whose demise in 1860 was followed almost immediately by George's marriage to Celestia Relief Holman. Perhaps you remember my mentioning the contention over George's will in some posts a while back. Add this to the reasons why his descendants are still complaining about that woman, even today.

Despite the house's history, my introduction to the misplaced residence turned into a lovely evening. The couple who have devoted their retirement years to the restoration of this two story farmhouse were kind to show us the many loving details for which they invested so much of their time and attention. Any details of the house—fireplace mantels, for instance—which could be restored to their former glory were painstakingly brought back to life, sometimes with small revisions to make the conversion work in modern times.

In the good old southern style, we couldn't just gawk, eat, and run, of course. The evening became a wonderful time to hear all the stories about the property and the people who once lived here—or thought they had a claim to the place. We had a chance to look over old history books about Suwannee County, as well as view the title history drawn up for the proud owners, an inch-thick folder tracing the property's history back to the original grantee, Louis Wellborn Dubois, the civil engineer who obtained the property from a sale of public lands of the State of Florida. It was he who  originally drew up the plat maps for the town which eventually bore his name (well, at least his middle name).

The day had started out with a grand tour of Wellborn—a task which took all of five minutes, it seemed—as my cousin explained all she had discovered about the town and its interrelated residents while we drove. We lingered at the McClellan cemetery, once part of the family's farm, but now deeded to the town. We walked amidst the graves of names now familiar to me after years of chasing their history on paper. Now I could see for myself what life was like in the town they once called home.

Researching by walking around—and talking...and talking...and talking—is a very different type of research journey than the usual paper chase at the archives. It's a time to let things unfold as people tell story after story. It's an experience in which you feel the history as much as you hear it, and though reading it may come into the picture, it isn't the featured event of the day. This is a town, as my hosts put it last night, where there are insiders, and then there are outsiders; though our hosts had spent the last thirty six years pouring their life efforts into restoring just one piece of Wellborn history, they just as likely could still be considered outsiders.

Today, we get to continue the conversation with some of the "insiders." This time, we'll meet a distant McClellan cousin who has been able to call Wellborn his home. Though we meet as strangers, hopefully we'll leave with a fuller sense of what it meant to be a McClellan growing up in—and still staying in—Wellborn. 

Monday, February 4, 2019

The Search for King

I assure you: it is infinitely easier to research the history of a man, once you know his name, than it is before you've learned his identity. Now that I have found a possible identity for the man of my family's story—the one who supposedly wrote his life story and gave a copy of the book to my grandmother's family—I can begin testing that name as my first hypothesis.

So, whether King Stockton becomes the man who, though enslaved on my third great-grandfather's property became somehow amicably connected to our family after the Civil War as well, I can't yet say. That will become the quest of our research adventure. And in order to learn whether that is a correct conjecture, in the process, we'll learn who King Stockton is, no matter whether he is the answer to my research quandary. Hopefully, at the end, we'll discover where his mysterious book may be found—if at all, so many years after his lifetime.

So, while I and my undaunted companion—remember, he's the one who carries the bags—drive up north to Suwannee County today, let's explore what can be found about the man once called King on the McClellan plantation near Wellborn, Florida.

When I first began perusing all the names of African American families in the neighborhood of my second great-grandfather in the 1870 census, I did remember seeing the name King—in fact, more than once. Going back now to double check my memory, there was, indeed, one man named King who had the surname Stockton. He was a man born in 1830, if his age given in the 1870 census was correct.

Along with King Stockton was his thirty-eight year old wife, Lovenia, and likely children Manda, King, Catherine, Ella, Robert and Sweeter. An earlier July 4, 1866, document verified their marriage in Suwannee County.

On the same page in that 1870 census could also be found the households of two other Stockton households: that of Albert and Francis. They likely were relatives.

The search was on for more information on this King Stockton. I'm still very far from verifying that King Stockton was the man of my family's legend. No matter; I still wanted to explore everything I could find about the man.

There wasn't much to find. A newspaper article in the local newspaper, the Suwannee Democrat, in the terminology of that era mentioned on September 17, 1909, that
Uncle King Stockton, age 80, an old time darkie, was in town Saturday. Uncle King works every day and makes a crop every year which is remarkable for one of his age.

While it sounded promising for my quest—the mystery man in my family's story would come into town to visit periodically—a visit every now and then wouldn't be that extraordinary for anyone who  had moved away from his hometown.

Thanks to Google Books, though, I did locate another indicator that I might be on the right track. King Stockton was mentioned by name in the proceedings of the 1878 Florida Conference of the African Methodist Episcopal Church as a "traveling deacon."

While I was able to find a few mentions of that name—thankfully, mentioned in connection with Wellborn and in relation to church activities, two clues consistent with the story I remembered from my childhood—that still wasn't enough to confirm this was the name which would lead me to the life story I was seeking.

Thankfully, I had a few more search options.

Above: The excerpt from the 1870 census courtesy; letter certifying the marriage of King Stockton and Lovenia courtesy

Sunday, February 3, 2019

The Party is Still On !

I may be in Florida right now to research my McClellan roots, but for a while, I was beginning to wonder whether I'd be able to accomplish what I traveled here to do. You see, this is not the usual family history research trip, the type of visit to discern just what our ancestors were like by viewing a dim recording of their life, transcribed onto paperwork of the era. I was hoping to meet some real people—the kind who could tell real stories about my kin. Florida-style stories. But something at last minute—something out of my control—almost derailed those plans.

When a research trip is looming in the near future, it's time to make sure all the connections are arranged, the interview appointments are set, the finding aids are scoured for just the right source documents. If a researcher does all the prep work well, it almost seems as if all that is left to do is show up and pull the items from the right shelf in the right repository. And read.

There really is more to it than just that, of course. A researcher really doesn't know what will be found, buried deep within that to-do list. Many times, finding one document leads to the uncertainty of locating another one. Searches can turn up surprises. And the unexpected can lead to a pile of additional—though welcome—work. After all, we're here to make discoveries, and discoveries don't necessarily come with guarantees.

That, however, is the type of research trip dedicated to tracking the family history paper trail. In my case, part of my original hope for this week's research journey had been to receive a personal tour through some of the very properties and homes where my McClellan ancestors lived, starting back when Florida wasn't the name of a state, but the designation for a territory.

Being that the McClellan home was near a rather small town—Wellborn, even now, boasts a population of less than three thousand people—it isn't hard to imagine that it is the kind of place where everyone knows everyone, and may possibly also be related to everyone else. In fact, many of the names of the folks telling stories about Wellborn and Suwannee County history—the type of stories I've found online and in the local newspaper—are names I recall entering in my family tree database. I already know how they are related to me; I just don't know them, personally.

Enter a cousin who had already done the legwork of reconnecting with our roots in Wellborn. This cousin has visited the town, stayed in the old family home, talked with cousins too distant to even recall the reason they are called "kin."

For years now, she has wanted to take me up there, to show me around and introduce me to the town—especially to those residents who can still tell stories about times long gone when some of the McClellans and related families were alive, instead of just mere names on pieces of paper. That was what I was hoping for this week. That was the type of activity I foresaw filling up much of the research time on this limited first visit.

And then, winter happened. And my volunteer personal tour guide caught the usual wintertime illnesses. It looked like my maiden voyage to the place of my Florida roots was going to turn into a dry, paper-chase type of visit instead of what we had hoped. With that in mind, I drew up my backup plan, checked record locations and maps and possible research spots to contact ahead of time to check hours, research requirements, and all the protocol a researcher would do for archives visits.

It wasn't until I had been in Florida a few days that I got the message that this cousin has recovered and is able to make the trip up north to Wellborn to meet me there. I'm still glad to have that backup plan—after all, I will be in the neighborhood, so why not fold those plans into the schedule, too?—but knowing how people from my southern roots were so fond of just sitting and talking, I also know to set aside plenty of time for visiting and getting to know folks from the town where my third great-grandfather and his descendants once lived. Stories, after all, do take time to unfold. And Wellborn is a place for storytellers.

Saturday, February 2, 2019

Welcome to February !
It's Black History Month

It's February. Before this brief month is out, I'm sure you will realize it is the month designated as Black History Month. But in case you might miss that announcement, I'm just the one to introduce it to you.

Actually, I couldn't help but start my journey on this designation early. I really wanted to start this project—the search for King Stockton—in February. But I just couldn't wait. I've known this story for far too long to make myself hold off on it for the past week. Even though it may reveal some distressing detail, this story has been a part of me for far too long to not run with it, once I got the chance.

The rest of this journey, I hope, will allow me to post what I find about at least one family's story that may add to another researcher's quest to find their roots, pre-Civil War. It's the least I can do.

As I start working my way into the past from the 1870 census with the find of this new name—King Stockton—I am realizing how intertwined all our family histories become. We have relatives, yes—but also friends, neighbors, business associates, and, in some cases, people who worked for our ancestors. Our ancestors shared in those people's stories just as much as those people shared in our own family history. Like trying to rebuild a smashed mosaic from antiquity, we find pieces to help with our research—but we may also unearth pieces that, if passed along, could help others find the answer to their family history mysteries.

We just need to find a way to connect.

Now more likely called African American History Month in the United States, this event is observed in February in the United States and in Canada, but it is commemorated internationally in Europe, as well—in October in the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, and the Republic of Ireland.

The month was first widely celebrated in 1976 as a way to remember the events and achievements of important people in the history of the African diaspora. However, just as critics point out that sequestering these commemorations into one month implies that they won't be acknowledged during the rest of the year—or that "Black History" should only be compartmentalized and not mainstreamed into the overall history of our country—my efforts to seek information on an "everyday" individual and his family are one small way to encourage others to glean the full story by the points of truth of many personal experiences collectively viewed.

Then again, it may seem strange that a person today, descended from Europeans, might want to research the story of the descendants from an African-American heritage. But if African American history is pertinent to all of us, and even stories of individual African Americans can be informative to our overall understanding of those times, then the story of King Stockton's life can add value, even though he might not have been famous, and certainly not of the same ethnic heritage as I.

While I hope discovering and discussing his story will be of help to someone else, I also hope taking this step will encourage others to take similar research pathways. We all can help by finding and sharing those tiny points of truth of lives once lived—even if they are not about our direct ancestors or even concerning people claiming the same ethnic heritage as we do.

Besides, I've always wanted to meet the man. Now that I know his name, though he lived more than one hundred years before me, in a way, I may get to meet him, after all. I'm certainly looking forward to getting to know him, whoever he was.

Friday, February 1, 2019

Not Tom, Not Frank

Not even Old John.

The name I was seeking, of the former slave who, after emancipation, wrote his life story—at least, according to what my family had told me—was not something I found through diligent searching through source documents tucked deep within the recesses of court records. Nothing as challenging as that. It was simply included in an email from a distant cousin I had met through DNA testing.

I had known right away, back when I had seen that cousin's name on my DNA results, that we were related. He had, after all, the same last name as my grandmother's Aunt Fannie, the family's fascinating storyteller. Somewhere along the line, while I had been working on the exasperating story of Celestia, second wife of the widower George McClellan, this cousin filled me in on some perspective about that episode in our family history. It occurred to me that perhaps my newfound family contact might have known this other story, as well—the story of the once-enslaved man who later wrote his life story.

I couldn't believe I had already had the email with the name of this former slave. So much for needless searching. Perhaps it did my soul some good. Like adversity is good for us.

Last week, I had gone back to my email history to dig up the last message this cousin and I had exchanged. I just wanted to send him a note that we were headed to Florida, and could he spare some time to meet over a cup of coffee?

I never did send that email request. By the time I read his last note, I was off on a cyberized wild goose chase—but this time, armed with a specific name.

In the email, this cousin had given me the briefest of explanations:
[This man] grew up a slave on the McClellan Plantation and then continued to live in and around Wellborn, a storyteller and preacher apparently respected by both black and white.

My cousin, of course, mentioned that one other detail: a name. The man I should look for might be the one known in Wellborn, back then after manumission, as King Stockton.

Thursday, January 31, 2019

Arrivals . . . and Detours

It's one thing to speak from afar about research plans and goals—desperately seeking online what can't be found in person, owing to the handicap of distance—and yet another thing to actually be there, getting one's hands on the very documents, themselves.

Well, now I'm here. Not exactly in Wellborn, of course, but I have landed in Florida. Soon, I and my intrepid travel partner ("I'm not a genealogist; I just carry the bags") will be able to report that we have, indeed, arrived in Wellborn, the land of my third great-grandparents.

I've already made plans to stop at some specific places. Even though a decent amount of court records from Suwannee County are already online, I want to look up a few details. For one thing, I'd like to obtain a map detailing George E. McClellan's property holdings through the years; some of which may be at Suwannee County, some of which I may have to seek out in Columbia County, the county which previously claimed the land that my third great-grandfather settled.

In addition to my search for more information on George E. McClellan—after all, besides being my third great-grandfather, he was one of the signers of the original Florida state constitution, and I'd like to find more information on his role in that convention's proceedings—I have other surnames to pursue in the area. If you remember my post about the legend of Mary Charles, the unfortunate young girl who was said to have been shot for having left her pioneer home without the protective sign of her red scarf, you know I'll be finding my way to Charles Springs. In addition, I hope to have a chance to interview the man who wrote the article in which I first found the legend mentioned. After all, I have Charles surnames in my heritage, too.

In my eagerness to make advanced connections with the folks I'd like to see in Florida, I had gone through my email contacts and prior messages. There are two DNA cousins I'd like to meet, if at all possible, so I wanted to send them a note. It's been a while since I had last exchanged family history emails with either of these matches, so of course I needed to refresh my memory on what we had last discussed.

Both of these DNA matches, when I first found them on my list at Family Tree DNA, were no surprise to me. Each of them descends from one particular relative, a daughter of my second great-grandfather, William McClellan, George's youngest son. Everyone I know among the older members of my family had always called her "Aunt Fannie." Even though I never met the woman, that's what I ended up calling her, as well. Thanks to DNA connections, I now am in touch with two of her descendants.

One thing about Aunt Fannie: she was a storyteller. I remember stories my mother told me, passed along from Aunt Fannie, about the early days of the family's settlement in Florida—which I now know to be during territorial days—and the stark realities of setting up a home there. The rugged conditions made for the kind of story a young kid would just thrill to hear. They obviously made an impression on me.

It occurred to me, after having just connected with the second of my matches of Aunt Fannie's descendants, that perhaps her storytelling genes might have been inherited by the person I was emailing—if not that, at least he might recall some of the "Aunt Fannie" stories I remembered from my childhood.

So, apparently, I had asked this cousin if he had ever heard the story of the former slave who came back to his hometown to visit our second great-grandfather and bestow upon him a copy of the man's life story.

And, apparently, this cousin had already given me the answer I was seeking.

Moral of the story: always re-read your email.

And now, I'm off on another research trail, armed with a potential identity for the man I've been seeking.

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

The Next Step

One of the things I warn my beginning genealogy students about is a particular hazard of family history research. When you sit down to research your family, I tell them, be sure to set a timer. Otherwise, before you know it, you will still be sitting at your computer, hot on the trail of a mystery ancestor, and the time is well beyond midnight. One thing always leads to another—if you aren't slamming directly into a research brick wall, that is—so once you start the process, it will be hard to stop the chain reaction. There is always a next step.

So it is with this search for the unnamed man who, once emancipated from slavery, allegedly preserved his life story in the elusive book my mother told me about when I was a child. While slave schedules from 1850 and 1860 Suwannee County, Florida, didn't provide any clues, and records of African-American households nearby in the 1870 census gave too many leads to be of specific help, there was another source to help identify the name of the man in question: my third great-grandmother's probate file from 1860 which, thankfully, had been digitized and posted online at

Sidney Tison McClellan, my third great-grandmother, has left her descendants an oral legacy. There are stories my mother's cousin recently told me which I have yet to verify—and doubt I will ever be able to do so. I won't share them here, but perhaps in the future, I'll find a way to determine if they were true. To put it briefly, in her dying days, she had wishes which went against the grain of current social mores; whether those last wishes were ever granted, it may be hard to determine.

Still, the woman was a product of her times. Besides property held in her own name, she apparently had, in her personal possession, a number of enslaved men and women. It is the listing of these people, thankfully including their names, which I'm now using to get a sense of just who might have become the man who wrote his life story.

Of course, there is the possibility that the list of names in Sidney's probate files does not include the name we need to find. After all, if Sidney held slaves herself, her husband undoubtedly did so, even more. But this is a next step, and barring any better research directions at the moment, this is the technique I will try. First, glean the list of names. Then, compare those names to that of African-American families living in the vicinity at the time of the 1870 census.

There were, in the probate file, eighteen people listed by name. The list came with some problems, of course. One name was hard to determine; it looked like "Manimina" in one entry and a very long "Mammma" in another entry. One list mentioned a man named Bob; another listing either had him as Robert, or substituted an entirely different person by that given name. And while I need only concern myself with the men in the listing, some names could have been taken either way.

The probate listing included the following names, as taken from the order of the inheritance decision: Arnett, Charley, King, Hester, Butch, Gipsey, Tom, Rose, Frank, Clarisa, Bob, Mam...[?], Jane, Mary Ann, Old John, Maria, Frederick, and Old Mary Ann. Of those names, I am presuming the following were women, and thus not our candidate: Hester, Gipsey, Rose, Clarisa, Mam..., Jane, Mary Ann, Maria, and Old Mary Ann. That leaves us with nine possibilities: Arnett, Charley, King, Butch, Tom, Frank, Bob, Old John, and Frederick. Of course, I may be wrong, but those are the names I used for the next search.

To the 1870 census I rushed! I tried to find any of those names in the neighborhood, looking through a span of the eleven pages which comprised Wellborn, plus the previous fifteen for the county seat of Live Oak, and a few pages after the Wellborn entries, just in case. You may not be surprised to learn I had no trouble finding some families which included names like Robert and Tom. But even names as common as Frank or John didn't pop up in the area of the old McClellan plantation.

Most surprising, though, was the lack of any sign of the more unusual names. I found no one with the name of Butch, and not even anyone by the name Arnett. I even looked for Gipsey, in case I had that name categorized wrong. The only unusual name I found from the list was King—in fact, I believe there were at least two men by that name in Suwannee County.

Reading line by line for these names from page ten of that census through page thirty eight, I didn't spot very many possibilities at all. That could mean a few things. For one, those men could have moved out of the area. Anything is possible in the time span of five years. Another possibility—especially for the ones listed as "Old Mary Ann" and "Old John"—was that they were no longer alive by 1870. A third, though doubtful, possibility is that some of them may have decided, while adopting a surname, to also choose for themselves a new given name.

So it's back to the census records I go, trying to see whether any of those names I did find—the Roberts, Toms, and Kings—might have remained in the area long enough to be located in a subsequent census record. With these little beginnings, I need to start learning about these candidates' family history, just in case any of them subsequently decided to publish the story of their life.  

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Going at This all Backwards

Taking on the project I've recently adopted has put me in a messy situation. The cardinal rule for beginning genealogy has always been: "Start With Yourself." To prepare a pedigree chart, the advice goes, you start with yourself and work your way backwards in time, first entering the details about each of your parents, then moving to their parents and doing likewise. From that vantage point, the novice researcher carefully picks her way backwards through the generations, from grandparents to great-grandparents, theoretically doubling the number of ancestors with each succeeding generation.

In searching for ancestors who were once enslaved, there are, of course, many research challenges other researchers may not face. There are lots of websites and blogs out there, providing advice on how to proceed in such cases. One website of a company specializing in researching enslaved ancestors simply advises, "Learn how the professionals do it and trace them yourself"—right, simple—or, the advice continues, "hire someone to do all or part of it for you."

The ubiquitous Family Tree Magazine adds their helpful tip: before delving into slave records, you need to "Research your family back to the Civil War in censuses, vital records and other genealogical sources."

FamilySearch's online Quick Guide to African American Records continues the advice: "Interview the older generation, including grandparents, aunts, and uncles." And on their blog, they sum up what we've already realized: "in records after 1870, your research path looks similar to the research path of any US-based family line."

And that's the problem. While all these websites offer sound advice for any person wishing to trace his or her roots, it is advice I can't take. For one thing, the man I'm seeking is not my relative. I don't even know his name. All I know is that he was a slave on the plantation of my third great-grandfather, and that, once a freed man, he supposedly wrote a book about his life story—a copy of which my grandmother once owned.

How do you trace the lineage—let alone the identity—of a man whose name is not known? I simply can't start from the present and work my way backwards in time. I have to find him in records spanning the time of the Civil War.

As you may have noticed if you clicked through to read Nicka Smith's explanation of how doing everything right doesn't always produce the expected result, there are a lot of techniques which can be useful for those who are searching for their once-enslaved ancestor. Those, however, only work for searches which start with a known person in current times. Folks like me who have no clue what that name is—current or historic—can't very well put such tips to good use. what? I've already searched for names of African-American residents in the 1870 census in the neighborhood of my third great-grandfather's neighborhood in Wellborn, Florida. I can seek out more information on each of those several families to see if any interesting details pop up—the needle-in-haystack technique. Or I can try a different approach.

Thinking this quandary out, I realized my good research fortune in that has included in its collection the digitized probate records of the early years of the place where my third great-grandparents once lived in Suwannee County, Florida. Thankfully, the county had just been formed before my third great-grandmother died in 1860, and though the records seem to be in a jumbled order, the nearly two hundred pages of her probate proceedings are included in the digitized collection.

While I am not familiar with the laws of the state of Florida in regards to property rights of married women in the mid-1800s, it is in my favor that Sidney Tison McClellan had property that should have entitled her to draw up a will. Unfortunately, though, she hadn't done so. Yet, dying intestate, she still had property which needed to be properly passed on to her heirs, which left me over one hundred seventy pages of minutiae to pore over in my spare time.

You can learn a lot about people by reading through all the scraps of paper left behind after they die. Apparently, the laws of the state dictated that widower George McClellan and his remaining children equally divide Sidney's property, with the minor heirs to receive their portion when they attained the age of majority.

While it may be egregious to read, in a listing of property of the deceased, the names of fellow human beings and see a price put on their heads, if I had had to wait until George passed away in 1866 to learn of his property situation, I would not be able to learn the names of a group which likely included the man whose story, in book form, I was seeking. But there, neatly divided between the seven children and her spouse, were the given names of eighteen people.

One of them—I hope—will be the name I'm seeking.

Monday, January 28, 2019

Enter Haystack, Search for Needle

Why is it that, in genealogical research, the original search concept sounds so fascinating, but the actual act of jumping right into it becomes so daunting? Here I am, in the midst of the hunt for the unnamed man who, as a former slave, grew up with my second great-grandfather, eventually formed a friendship prompting the man, in later years, to travel back to the homestead and gift my ancestor with a copy of his life story. And all that stands between us and the goal of finding the answer is a considerable amount of grunt work. Whatever would keep us from getting right to it?!

In this search, I'm stymied in any attempt, pre-Civil War, to search for this man's name in digitized records. For that, I'll have to hope some documents containing the name will be among papers stored in a Florida repository. However, as personal effects of everyday folk seldom make for archival-quality ephemera, I doubt I'll stumble upon such a gem at any local historical society, museum or library.

My best bet, at least for starters, is to look at the records I can access from a distance—documents such as the 1870 census—and see if there are any possibilities. Even with that plan, though, I hit a stumbling block: the head of the household—my third great-grandfather, George E. McClellan—was no longer alive by the time of the 1870 census. Neither was my third great-grandmother, Sydney Tison McClellan, who predeceased her husband in 1860.

While some of George's children were still living in their hometown of Wellborn, Florida, at the time of that 1870 census, I'd first need to get a sense of who belonged in the neighborhood where the McClellans once lived in 1860. Remember, Wellborn was not an official geographic designation at the time—the 1860 census just stated the name of the county, leaving blank the line for city location, though the 1870 census did label the "post office" as "Welborn." So we need to have a way to get our bearings from the one record to the next.

Looking at the 1860 census at the entry for George McClellan—where his family's entry spans two pages—from the top of the first page to the end of the next, the surnames we can glean were Powell, Smith, McInnis, Carver, Stancil, Speir, Wilson, Millican, Lang, Carter, Keith, Turner and Mills. Those will be the names we can use to orient ourselves, once we get to the 1870 census.

At least, that's what we hope to find. Actually getting there, we can only look for the entries of the children George and Sydney left behind. Spanning the pages between George's daughter Virginia, who married Philip Lowe, and her sister Isabel, not quite yet married to Benjamin Worrell but serving as a school teacher, I find my second great grandfather William and his bride Emma and toddler son Frank, but not one of those surnames from the previous census. I can only hope this is the same vicinity where they had lived, ten years prior, and begin to catalog all the families of the presumably once enslaved neighbors in the vicinity.

Assuming William's childhood companion was a boy of approximately the same age, I'd be looking for an African-American of about twenty five years of age. The badly faded pages, though, didn't want to give up their secrets, and I can't be sure of the details I'm reading. Spanning the two pages of the 1870 census record where the McClellan siblings lived, I see surnames of black families reading Heading, Mobley, Williams, Antney (sounding vaguely like a Brooklyn rendition of the name Anthony), Gillard, Murdock, and Bailey. The only catch? Not a one of the men was near twenty five years of age.

Sunday, January 27, 2019

Pausing to Keep Track

As focused as I am on preparing for my upcoming research trip to Florida, I still need to keep tabs on progress on the four family trees I'm compiling. While this has been a multi-year effort—mostly as an accountability device for consistent research progress—ever since I knew I'd be taking a specific class on southern research, and traveling to do on-site research on my mother's southern lines, I stopped working on the other trees.

Well, actually, that isn't quite true. I still do find myself wandering over to check the other three trees, mostly when I stumble upon an obituary for a distant cousin and need to glean information when it is at hand. That has happened a couple times in the past two months, adding forty eight documented names to my mother-in-law's tree, for instance, in the past two week period. Her tree is now standing at 15,989, but I don't expect to return to regular work there until I've achieved my research goals on my own mother's line. Likewise, my father's tree is frozen at its pathetic 516 names, and my father-in-law's tree at 1,514.

My mother's tree, however, is a different case. In the past two week period, I actually spent time in Salt Lake City, as planned, attending the SLIG course on southern research—the very reason I had been poring all my efforts into my mother's tree. Even though sitting in class for six hours a day all week, I managed to add 213 additional, properly documented names to my mother's tree. Now, that tree totals 16,759 individuals.

Right now, the focus is on my mother's McClellan family, the early Florida settlers who arrived in the northern part of the former territory before 1830. There are a lot of those McClellan descendants to pursue, mostly in Florida, though some returned to Georgia or the Carolinas while others migrated westward to Texas. It's been an interesting journey following their tracks.

Then, too, partnering that research with the use of DNA testing—where many of my DNA cousins are likely related to these same southern lines—I'm looking forward to gaining new matches, once the holiday sales translate into new test results. 

I suspect, with my current project to determine the identity of the one former slave who wrote the book my mother told me about when I was a child, I won't make much progress on adding McClellan descendants to my tree in the upcoming two weeks. After all, eventually, I will be making the trip back east, which in itself takes more hours than I care to think (though such a complaint pales in the face of the hardships those original immigrants endured on their trek across wilderness routes). Reading, searching for records, and interviewing local residents are activities which simply must be afforded the time to unfold on their own. My timetable in the next few weeks will undoubtedly be different than my usual romp through the generations with the ease of clicking on virtual records.

Saturday, January 26, 2019

Planning for R & R

It's the weekend, but don't think it's time to kick back and relax. I'm talking about a different kind of R & R. In no time at all, I'll be flying my way to Florida. Now is the time to pull out all the stops and plan for Research and Reconnaissance.

Granted, in searching for the identity of this one enslaved person from mid-1800s Wellborn, Florida, I'm missing one key item: the man's name. That may become a major set-back. However, getting on site can do wonders for a research plan. Going local, interfacing with the people who have lived in the area—and believe me, this is a small, rural area—can usher in a perspective not accessible via online channels.

There are, for instance, people in my McClellan line whom I've only met virtually, thanks to our mutual DNA test results. I've never had the chance to visit with them, face to face, though we have exchanged emails and shared tidbits about our respective parts of the extended family. Maybe someday soon, I'll get to meet them. But even if I don't—after all, how many of your fourth cousins still live where their third-great-grandparents once resided?—at least we can continue the conversation by email. As you'll see next week, that has been one source of direction for this project, already.

Thankfully, there still are people in Wellborn who are descendants of the folks in my various family lines from the 1850s. And I'm currently in a letter-writing and phone-calling campaign to make contact with them, just in case they would be up for a visit to chat about local history, with a cousin connection thrown in for good measure.

Of course, the records from that era will help immensely, and I've already made plans to head to the county seat, Live Oak, to look for records and maps. Wherever the old property was, I'd love to walk that ground—as long as it is still permissible. I'll need to confirm who the current owner is, so I can make those arrangements. And being in town where the courthouse and other official buildings still stand will help orient me to the place where my ancestors once took care of business.

Researching in Live Oak will present a difficult juxtaposition between what may seem like my naive and simplistic desire to learn more about a man who was once, undeniably, enslaved by my own ancestors, and the stark history of the very setting for one of Florida's tragic lynchings. Whether that civil rights violation will have reverberations which still impact residents there today, causing understandable reticence about discussing a search like mine, I don't know. Obviously, I'll be circumspect upon the opportunity for any conversation about the issue of my research topic.

There is, always, that retrospective question: why pursue this story? That man, whoever he was, wasn't a part of my family, as far as "blood" is concerned. Then, again, he was a part of the family, in psychological connections, if nothing else. Whatever the bond was between this unnamed person and my second great-grandfather, they kept in touch. In whatever way it was, their connection had a quality to it that has lasted, now, for generations.

That's a long time to remember someone whose name I never knew.

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