Tuesday, February 11, 2014

The Only One Left Anywhere

How many times have you heard fellow family history researchers exclaim, If only I had thought to ask them while they were still here?

Apparently, in writing to ask her ninety-something year old aunt such genealogical questions, Ruby Broyles McClellan Davis struck just the right chord with Mary Nellie Broyles Jones.

By the time of Ruby’s 1969 letter, Aunt Nellie had been widowed for thirty eight years. She and her husband, Thomas Franklin Jones, had been the parents of three children who were still living in the Johnson City, Tennessee, vicinity. Their oldest, born in 1905, was his father’s namesake. The second-born son, arriving in 1907, they named Eugene Broyles Jones. Arriving three years later was their daughter, also named Mary Nellie.

Aunt Nellie enjoyed quite a reputation with extended family. Her non-stop ability to overcome insurmountable odds still gets mentioned. In my grandmother’s address book, under the entry for “Mrs. T. F. Jones,” she had added notes:
·        Aunt Nellie’s birthday July 6th. She will be 95 on July 6, 1971
·        She fell and broke her hip in August 1972

Of particular interest, considering this letter was written in 1969, was my grandmother’s note that Nellie’s breast cancer operation was “summer of 1966, about July.”

While everyone had assumed that bout with cancer heralded where the music would stop for Aunt Nellie, she showed them differently. It wasn’t long afterwards that she was out, going camping with the rest of the family. Obviously, neither cancer nor a broken hip could keep this woman down.

Even so, my grandmother had probably thought, why tempt fate? Ask those questions now! Yet, as we will soon see, perhaps even the irrepressible Mary Nellie suffered some memory issues—first of which being the line in this second page of her letter, with the comment about her sister, “She was three years older than Nellie.” Was that phrase actually part of the quote of her father’s Bible entry for her sister Sarah’s birthday? Otherwise, why was she speaking of herself in the third person? And, if Nellie was born three years after her sister, why do other records show her year of birth as 1875, rather than 1876?

Then there was Nellie's memory of her sister Sarah’s early married years. Newlyweds Sarah and Rupert C. McClellan appeared in the 1900 census, one year after their marriage, not in Tennessee, but in the city of Bristol in Virginia, where he was working—when he could find work—as a telegrapher. Bristol is one of those unusual cities whose claim to fame (other than as the birthplace of country music) is that the main street running down the center of the business district also serves as the state boundary between Bristol, Virginia, and Bristol, Tennessee. And no, the young McClellans weren’t on the Tennessee side, so Aunt Nellie’s memory didn’t serve her quite right in that recollection, either.

While family stories of the way it used to be are generally invaluable—and oh, how we wish we had thought to gather those memories when we could have done so—it always serves our purposes best when we double-check those precious memories against the hard and fast data recorded by those impartial third parties. Of course, I’ve seen mistakes in official documents, too. Sometimes, it all comes down to a judgment call, after review of the preponderance of evidence.

Perhaps that’s what makes genealogy an art as well as a science.

            They lived there, after marriage, around three years in the little house you’ve seen, now about demolished. But, memory lingers still.
            Hope you can get what you want from this. I have rheumatism so badly in my hand I can scarcely write. Time is growing to the end rapidly. And I’m the only one left anywhere to give you any information on things if I have it. You have your mother’s dates? Any way—
            “Sarah Ann Broyles born 13 November 1873.” She was three years older than Nellie.
            Don’t believe I’ve written you since MN moved out from me and I’m alone


  1. Even though Sarah and Rupert LIVED in Virginia, it's possible Rupert WORKED in Tennessee. Depending on where their house was, it might have been easier to shop on the Tennessee side thus making it "FEEL" like they actually lived in Tennessee.

    1. That is quite possible, Wendy. An anomaly in that it straddled a state border, Bristol was also quite a small town at the turn of the century. Looking at historic population counts for 1900, it appears that the Tennessee side of town was slightly larger than the Virginia side--the Virginia side having just under five thousand in population, and the Tennessee town correspondingly just over that same number.

      However, I keep thinking back to the first page of Nellie's letter, where she mentions the old house in Chucky Valley. I'm not exactly sure where the Chucky Valley is--one online mention seemed to indicate it was near Embreeville, which happens to be where my grandmother was born--but I think that is a distance from the state border...though, admittedly, not much of a distance.

  2. We must all remember to gather those stories & memories today and not put it off too long.

    1. Colleen, I can't tell you how many times my older relatives--who were alive when their elders were still around--have bemoaned not thinking to ask about those stories. And that's just in my own family. Multiply that several times when we get around fellow genealogy researchers.

      And it doesn't necessarily mean sitting down and writing long documents, either. My brother--not someone who generally pursues genealogical research--thought to bring a tape recorder to a birthday gathering for an aunt, who is now long gone. I listen often to that recording of her reminiscing about family I've never met, and have gotten many useful leads for my research.

      That was done years ago, before we had all these new technological developments. We have so many tools at our command now to help us capture those elusive family stories. The only hurdle holding us back, often, is just the doing of the thing!

  3. There are a number of "indomitable" women in your lineage. I bet you got their genes too!

    1. P.s., 'Back in the day" a lot of telegraphers worked for the railroad. The Bristol train station (on Depot Street where Sarah and Rupert lived) and where he may have worked, is in Virginia by only a single block. :)

      I think Depot Street is now Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.

    2. Well, wouldn't that make an easy commute! I wouldn't be surprised if you were right on that one, Iggy!

  4. There is a Chucky River Road in Morristown TN that leads along the Nolichucky River. Maybe "Chucky Valley" just refers to the Nolichucky River Valley?

    1. Hmmm...sounds like you are familiar with this area, Marian! You are likely right about that.


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