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.

Friday, January 25, 2019

The Possibilities

It is here, in the midst of our search for the former slave of my third great-grandfather, George E. McClellan, who, once freed, eventually wrote the story of his life, that the process starts to bog down. A search like this—for a person for whom we don't so much as know his name—can become tedious. But I'm up for it, considering the pay-off: I want to find that book.

The first step is to consider all the possibilities. The story, as it was told to me by my mother, led me to believe this slave boy was about the same age as my third great-grandfather George's son William, for it was William's childhood association with this person which became the connection between them after the Civil War. Since William Henry McClellan was born in 1845, that would infer the approximate birth year for our unknown author.

My first step was to look at the slave schedules in both the 1850 and 1860 census records. That would mean looking for a male who was approximately five years of age in 1850, and fifteen years of age in 1860, listed under the name of George McClellan at his home in Wellborn, Florida.

Looking first at the 1850 schedule, I can already see I'm going to have problems ascertaining which of the possibilities would be the person I'm seeking.

On the second page of the McClellan holdings, it is easy to see there were no five year old boys listed. The closest I could find was a seven year old and a nine year old. The next closest in age was an eighteen year old, certainly much older than my second great-grandfather William would have been at the time. Could it be that this slave child wasn't really a part of the household until after that enumeration?

Looking at the 1860 census didn't help. While there were many more listings, there weren't any clear directions here, either.

This is just an excerpt of the first page of the 1860 listing for George McClellan, William's father, beginning from the first person remotely within a possible age range. (The listing was arranged mostly in age order; the ascending numbers in the far-left column merely counted the amount of entries, while the second column represented each person's age.) There was, however, one sixteen year old and one fourteen year old who could have been fifteen-year-old William's companion.

The challenge in using these schedules is that they rendered each enslaved person as a non-entity; no names were given. Until we can locate any other type of record which would include that vital information, our next option is to hope that those two teens—the fourteen year old and the sixteen year old—remained in the vicinity of Wellborn after receiving their freedom at the conclusion of the Civil War.

By the time of the next census in 1870, the one place marker which could help us orient ourselves as to the right neighborhood in which to locate those former enslaved people would be gone: George McClellan died in 1866. Hopefully, his son William remained on the same property for the 1870 census. If that does not turn out to be the case, tracing the surnames of George's former neighbors might help orient ourselves to the right property location.

Regardless of which way we find the listing, the goal is to see whether there were any former slave families still living in the neighborhood by the time of the 1870 census. Hopefully, the names of these families will lead us to that unidentified former slave whose life story was passed in book form—or possibly still as a manuscript—to my grandmother.

Above: Excerpt from the 1850 and 1860 slave schedules for George McClellan of Wellborn, Florida, courtesy of 

Thursday, January 24, 2019

The Players

Before we can pursue the story of the mysterious book my mother told me about, back when I was a child, it is best to first take a look at the players in this story. For while it was that former enslaved boy who wrote the story I'm seeking, it was from his experiences on the land of my ancestor that he drew that narrative. Before we can trace that writer, we need to take a close look at the people documented as living where he grew up.

We'll start by looking at my third great-grandfather, George Edmund McClellan. What little I can tell you about him came either from the documents where I found his name listed, or from the few vignettes found online which mentioned his name in passing. In trying to seek out any further information, I was often stymied by the overbearing listings about another George McClellan, whose broader fame dwarfed any mention of my lesser ancestor. Thus, the importance of including his middle name.

My George McClellan supposedly came from the Barnwell District of South Carolina. Born in 1808, he eventually made his way to Florida territory, though based on the geographic location of the family of his first wife—Sydney, daughter of Job Tison from Pitt County, North Carolina, who settled in Glynn County, Georgia—I suspect George made a detour along the Georgia coast before heading inland from the recently-established Jacksonville.

Following what was known as the Old Spanish Trail—not to be confused with the later auto route by the same name, though parts of the 1920s route did overlay sections of the original trail—George McClellan was reported to have arrived in the area now known as Wellborn possibly as early as 1830. Land records show that he first claimed 560 acres of land there, but his holdings eventually increased to more than 2,000 acres.

George McClellan originally called his settlement Little River. There, he set up a post office, and the McClellan home was used as a relay station for stage coaches passing that way between Saint Augustine on the Atlantic coast, and Pensacola on the Gulf coast.

In the early years, McClellan was called upon to respond to the aftermath of raids by Native Americans, which possibly became the impetus for his involvement in the Seminole Wars, for which he organized his county's first militia unit in 1835.

Not long after that—having, in the meantime, fired off a letter protesting the lack of U.S. Army protection—George McClellan responded to the call for a constitutional convention, and became one of the delegates who, in 1838, drew up Florida's first state constitution.

Following his service in the militia in those early days, George McClellan served as a representative to the Florida state legislature, a Suwannee County surveyor and probate judge.

While all this civic involvement may be commendable, it is surely not lost upon even the most casual reader that a man as busy as this could not possibly have handled the farming of 2,000 acres—with only the farm implements of the time—without any help. True, he did have two sons who lived to adulthood, but before the time of the Civil War, the answer to this work dilemma was typically resolved by the purchase of human labor in the form of the enslaved. True to the times in which he lived, George McClellan reported the possession of fourteen slaves in 1850, which increased to thirty six by 1860.

Which one of those thirty six became the man who wrote the book my mother told me about, I can't say—but you know I'll try to figure the answer to that puzzle. My one clue was to compare the ages of that young man and my third great-grandfather's son, who was supposed to be of an age with this slave boy.

The only problem is, when I go back to the records to seek the answer, I realize the possibility that the whole story might have been romanticized over the years. For one thing, that son of George McClellan happened to be his youngest—at least, his youngest of the children he had with his first wife, who died in 1860. That son, William H. McClellan, was born in 1845. By the end of the Civil War, he would have been twenty years of age—not exactly the "child" the story seemed to represent. Even if we wind the story back to the pre-war era, that would put the two boys as teenagers. Though it would be unusual, one might allow that a young slave might be granted a sheltered moment at a tender age, but by, say, fifteen, I'd hardly expect the people of that era to abide his remaining in the home, rather than out in the fields.

Setting those doubts aside, though, let's examine what can be discovered about those slaves who were listing as living at the McClellan plantation, both in 1850 and in 1860, to see whether any might match the parameters the story seems to suggest.   

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

The Setting

Before getting into the story of the book about my family's home, we first need to get the lay of the land. This family—McClellan by name—had settled in a tiny portion of northern Florida called Wellborn. While settlers first started arriving in the Spanish-controlled area near Wellborn as early as the 1820s, Florida didn't actually become a United States territory until 1821, and wasn't a state until 1845, at which point, Wellborn was considered part of Columbia County.

The originating date for the county in which Wellborn is now included was December 21, 1858. As can be seen in a section map of Suwannee County from the Florida Historical Society archives, Wellborn is not far from the current border between the new county and its former county, Columbia County. When, over the years, the McClellan family was enumerated in different counties, I suspect the changing details just trailed the changing borderlines of each subsequent county.

Suwannee County got its name from the river which snakes its way around all but the eastern border of the county. The river, in turn, supposedly got its name from either a miserably inaccurate rendering of the Spanish name for the river—San Juan de Guacara, or Saint John of Antiquity—or from an equally inept rendering of the Cherokee word "Sawani," meaning "Echo River."

Speculation about the size of the county seems as disputed as the origin of its name. According to one source, the population in Suwannee County in 1860—the year of its first census—was 2,303. Another report cites the number as 3,303. Not surprisingly for this southern location, the county contained a smaller number of white residents to that of other races. Of those of African descent, only one person was listed, in that 1860 census, as a free person.

It was there, just outside the tiny village of Wellborn in Suwannee County, that George Edmund McClellan and his wife Sidney Tison McClellan raised the seven of their children who survived to adulthood. There, the family showed up in the early 1830s, and could be accounted for since the 1840 census, working the land surrounding the lake that bears his surname. There, George McClellan stayed until his death in 1866—and his remains were laid to rest in the cemetery by that same name.

The McClellans weren't the only ones who worked that acreage surrounding the lake, of course. That's where my mother's story about the book comes in: the book's author surely was connected to some of those who did work that land. If only the schedules appended to the 1850 and 1860 census known as "Slave Schedules" actually included the names of these people, perhaps I could pinpoint the name of the one who wrote the book I'm seeking.

Whether there ever was such a book in my grandmother's trunk, I can't say. But I can say there certainly was a young slave boy living on the McClellan property who fit the description of the man who, one day, became the one who wrote his story.

Above: Example of heading to the 1860 U.S. Census Slave Schedule for the County of Suwannee, Florida, in which George McClellan was listed; courtesy


Tuesday, January 22, 2019

First, the Backstory

Picture me, a kazillion years ago. I won't say how many, of course; I prefer to remain timeless. But I will provide one clue: it was probably about the time I awoke to the possibility that families have histories. For me, that was some time around the third grade.

I remember the third grade, because that was about the time this not-so-intrepid eight year old had read every fairy tale housed in the children's library of my hometown. I wanted something more to read, and somehow it struck my fancy that I wanted to learn about how to research my family history. The only problem was, I didn't even know the term genealogy. Nevertheless, the kindly librarian was able to correctly interpret my inquiry, and directed me beyond the doors of my safe haven to the main library. Gasp. The place where grown-ups went to read.

This was about the same time I started pestering my parents for stories about our family history. I've already mentioned that epic fail in an earlier post, but perhaps in reconsidering her stance, my mother later offered me a consolation prize.

It was a story about my cetera...grandfather. I don't remember how many greats were included in that recounting because, hey, I was a kid, and besides, nobody had yet come up with that handy shorthand, "second great grandfather." So I didn't really know how the man was connected to me. All I knew is that, when the story took place, he, too, was a kid.

I knew one more detail: unmistakably, positively, this was a story about my McClellan family, and that it took place on their big, fabled plantation in Wellborn, Florida. As reticent as my mother might have been about sharing her family's stories, to her credit, she did share some tidbits about that McClellan family throughout my childhood. This was one of them.

According to the story, when great-whatever-grandfather McClellan was a youngster, it was before the Civil War. Like almost everyone among his neighbors—forget that, not only in his state, but in the entire region—his family had no qualms about the buying or selling of people, and apparently owned some slaves, themselves.

One of those enslaved people was a woman, possibly the one who was mother of a young boy the same age as my McClellan ancestor. This woman was tasked, among other household duties, with watching over this ancestor, and because she had a child roughly the same age, she was permitted to watch after the two children together.

Over the years, according to my mother's story, these two boys developed as much of a circumspect friendship as was possible in the culture of the time.

Then came the Civil War. Afterwards, those who once were slaves were now free to go...wherever. Eventually, this former slave child left his home. Whenever he was "passing by" the area, though, he would find a way to stop by for a visit with my family.

During one visit, this now-grown man told my ancestor that he had written the story of his life, and left a copy of the book with his childhood buddy—at least, according to my mother, that was so.

My eyes bugged open, I realized that book was my way to reach out and touch the past of my family. It would be like reading a diary of an eye-witness to momentous changes, not only in my family's history, but our country, as well.

"Can I see the book? Does anyone still have it?"

My mother assured me a copy was still held by my grandmother. Lest you think that would make a wonderful happy ending to a child's brief story, think first about reading between the lines. Remember, I heard this story in New York, far removed from my southern roots. Further, my mother, very much a northerner, was raised by parents who, though born in the south, had made the choice, as adults, to leave that region for better economic opportunities up north and out west. Bottom line: disabuse yourself of a warm and doting grandmother whose frequent visits came with spoiling hugs and treats.

After hearing that story, it was probably years before I visited my grandmother. But I never forgot about the "book." When I finally got to see my grandparents, the first question out of my mouth was likely, "Can I see the book?"

When I finally asked, I had to explain what I meant. After relaying my mother's story, my grandmother screwed up her mouth in her characteristic style, gave a little nervous laugh, and put me off with something nebulous about the book being "in storage." She'd get to it someday, but not right now.

My visit with my grandparents was over too soon. I left without ever seeing that book. Though my grandparents came once, after that, to visit us in New York, I never got the chance to prod her again with my request.

After her death, I attempted that quest once more, this time with my aunt, who was responsible for settling my grandparents' affairs. She, too, however, was off-putting, with a vague, "Oh, I'm sure it's in her trunk." But there was never any offer to go and see what we could find.

Several years later—by now the parent of a college student—I had one more opportunity to look for that book. It was when my aunt, herself, passed away. This time, my sister and I were responsible for taking care of what had been left behind.

When it came time to sort through her effects, I was the first to get to my aunt's home. I knew exactly what that "trunk" would signify. By now in the basement of my aunt's home, it had always been the old-fashioned steamer trunk where my grandmother—and then my aunt, after her—had kept her personal papers. There were old documents, photograph albums, letters, newspaper clippings, and other gems of such value to family historians.

There was, however, one item missing: the book.

That book: was there even such an item? Could my mother have gotten the story wrong? Would my grandmother—still very much a creation of her childhood's southern culture—have discarded the thing, based simply on a prejudice?

I sifted through every paper saved in that trunk. It was incredible what merited inclusion in those old slips of paper. Torn receipts which should have been discarded were tossed in among undated newspaper clippings, programs from old high school events, photographs of business accomplishments and connections. But no book.

It's been five years since I got my final answer about the book. Since then, I can't help but think of that book. A lot. If there even was such a thing, it would have been an invaluable eye-witness account of life among people in my family I never had the chance to meet.

But then, the doubt settles in. How could there be such a book? After all, wasn't it true that slaves were not permitted to learn how to read? How, then, could such a man have written his story?

This man, I keep thinking—almost as if in an argument with myself—must have been somewhat special. He had a privileged spot in the household arrangements, even as a child. Could someone have taught him to write? Or could he have gone away to school, after emancipation?

Knowing the destitute conditions of some freedmen in the 1870s, the debate in my head kept crashing back to the other side, telling me that was impossible. Whatever the circumstances, the "book" indicated someone who, at some point, learned to write, someone who had the inner drive to tell that story, and someone who was at liberty to travel through an area time after time.

An evangelist? A traveling salesman? Who could this person be?

I didn't have so much as a name for this man, but I wanted to be able to uncover his story. Over the years, I've asked researchers, archivists, librarians, and genealogists for their advice on how to track this man with no name. I've gotten a lot of good advice, some of which I'll share with you this week. But I realize a search like this will entail a lot of monotony, as well—most of which I'll spare you, I promise.

However, keeping in mind LaBrenda Garrett-Nelson's admonition to see our research as a "force for social change," and remembering how many people may be wishing they could find the very details I'll be sifting through in this search, part of the reason behind my posting about my research progress will be the hope that it will be of help to someone else, as well.

With that, tomorrow, let's take a look at the facts behind the backstory.

Monday, January 21, 2019

Carrying the Story

We are the mules; we are the ones who carry the story.
~J. Mark Lowe, SLIG 2019

It's Monday. SLIG is over—at least for those of us who didn't opt to stay in Salt Lake City for a second week at SLIG Academy. Now that we're back home, settling into our own routine but desperately fighting to keep that resolve from class discoveries, those of us in the Southern Research course have already gotten our marching orders from class coordinator J. Mark Lowe: Carry the Story. Not only that, but we need to recall the urging of last Monday's plenary speaker LaBrenda Garrett-Nelson: let our genealogy research be a "force for social change."

One doesn't have to research their southern roots too deeply to stumble upon the reality of southern life: that way of life included large numbers of persons who were enslaved. Whether the enslaved or the enslaving were part of your genealogy, there are many descendants out there now, struggling with their research brick wall because they lack one detail: a surname.

The painful fact of the matter is that, while some are desperately searching for the identity of such ancestors as these, there are others who may hold the key to unlock the answer. Sadly, I've known I've been one of those who hasn't, up to this point, wanted to even face up to that fact. And yet, people like me could help be part of the solution.

I do have one particular story that has been shared in my family for generations. Pursuing that oral history may involve finding a book about one slave's life story. But there's one catch: I don't know the name of the person or even what the title of the book might have been. Worse, I'm not sure whether that story is a romanticized family legend or reality. I've wanted to research this story since I was a child, hearing the story from my mother. Now, years later, I'm no closer to knowing the truth than when I was in elementary school.

It will take a lot of exhaustive searches in an attempt to identify the man who told his story of growing up as a slave on my ancestors' plantation. Whether I even come up with the answer, I will sift through tons of data. There is no use discarding those discoveries, though; those facts which become rejects in my search might become answers for someone else. I need to share those details. I need to carry that story.

So, in preparation for my upcoming research trip to Florida, I'll share the story as I was told it as a child. I'll follow up by posting progress reports as I sift through the documents. Hopefully, even if I don't find the book I was told about so long ago, the process will uncover some hints that will lead another family history researcher past his or her brick wall.

Carrying the story means sharing the story. And sharing the story, hopefully, will help someone else find the family long hidden from view.

Sunday, January 20, 2019

Can't Wait 'til 2020

It's a good thing the planning committee at the Utah Genealogical Association is on top of things. I don't think I could wait much longer for the announcement on their lineup for the 2020 Salt Lake Institute of Genealogy than this weekend. I've already got July 13, the opening of their advanced registration, calendared. With multiple reminders to boot up my laptop before 8:00 a.m. Pacific time, in case I miss a notification.

It's an impressive selling point to see how far the SLIG pull reaches. Once you realize that nearly five hundred people, from every American state other than Mississippi and Hawaii (well, I can see why they might not be in a rush to head to Utah in January), and even from as far away as Australia and Europe, you get an idea that some serious—not to mention, fun—learning is taking place every January in c-c-c-cold Salt Lake City.

A little snow never hurt anyone. And the warmth of being with fellow researchers—whether in class, at the wonderful receptions and break times, or at the world-class research library—more than makes up for the weather.

But it's the wide variety of learning possibilities, coupled with the excellent instructors, that have been the draw for me. And I'm looking forward to being a part of that opportunity again, next year. If you hope to join us in 2020, though, consider this your advance notice. When July 13 gets here, don't waste a nano-second on getting your registration in. Classes fill up in the blink of an eye.

Saturday, January 19, 2019

Off the Shelf: Your Best Year Ever

A contagious idea, around the early part of January, is to resolve to have a better year than the last one. New year's resolutions resonate with so many people.

I've learned that resolutions don't work for me, so I don't even attempt that process. But one can't help, after a week of learning like the one I've just completed, having a few hopes for the future. After all, I've learned so much at this past week's Salt Lake Institute of Genealogy—the kind of learning that makes one want to jump to it and put that information to use.

That calls for an action plan. Surprisingly, this non-new-year's-resolution procrastinator has just the book for that call. And not surprisingly, I've had that book for a whole year. And done nothing about it.

The book is leadership guru Michael Hyatt's 2018 work, Your Best Year Ever: A 5-Step Plan for Achieving Your Most Important Goals. Not that I don't have important goals, or lack the desire to have a best year ever, but when I first found out about the book last year, it was well past January. A little too late for having a best year of anything.

Of course, markers on calendars are arbitrary; I could have had a best year, starting in March, true, but somehow, I felt it would be better to start it in January. So I decided this would be the call for action in my best year of 2019.

Now, it's almost February. I'm in the same spot as last year.

There is, this year, one difference: I've just been to the kind of workshop that not only provided excellent ideas and resources, but one of those learning experiences that generates even more ideas. I'm seeing possible ways around brick wall research problems. The more I think about these possibilities, the more I get energized. There is no way I'm going to get hoodwinked into putting this off for a new year, again.

Besides, my trip home last night puts me back in California for only ten fleeting days. Then, I'll be off to Florida, where I will be able to put some of these research ideas into practice with the opportunity to search for answers on the home turf of my Florida ancestors. I'm doubly energized to think of that now.

The reason I was first enticed to consider Michael Hyatt's proposal was that his book doesn't treat goal setting quite the same as the usual, schlepping, dewy-eyed New Year's Eve party participant might have done. He promises a system which can be tackled within five days--a good thing for someone like me, who has only ten days to put my research plan together.

I like his promise to teach me a "proven way" to set and achieve goals. Scientifically based, his system shepherds readers through such pitfalls as the despondence of wanting to quit, or the malaise of feeling stuck. I need tips to propel me past those danger spots, so I can accomplish those research goals.

If I keep my eye on the goal, you'd think I'd be energized enough with that, but I know myself better. I can easily get bogged down in the particulars—especially when the nitty gritty of the process gets me bogged down. Here's hoping his field-tested advice doesn't fall victim to the weak spots of my lesser nature.

Of course, I've always seen this blog as my accountability partner, so I'll be reporting on progress as I travel through the places of my Florida roots early next month. Before my flight takes off, though, I'll not only be using Hyatt's guide, but doing a lot of preliminary research—and hopefully contacting some key people—to maximize the results, once I get those boots on the ground in Florida.

After all, what is learning for, if not to apply what we've gained in such great classes as what was offered at SLIG this past year? I'm looking forward to transforming others' how-to suggestions into my own pursuit of answers.

Friday, January 18, 2019

We're All Chasing Stories

Let the story come to you; let it talk to you.
~J. Mark Lowe, SLIG 2019             

How many times do we struggle to learn more about our elusive ancestors? We chase their story from document to obscure document, hoping to find a clue to unravel their mystery. All along, the proof of their existence might have been waiting for us, if only we knew the right place to look.

When I'm not directly in pursuit of those ancestors, I'm in learning mode, trying to find a better way to chase those ancestors. That's why I spent this past week in Salt Lake City, attending my selected course (Southern Research) at the Salt Lake Institute of Genealogy. I was in plenty of good company—well over four hundred fellow researchers from forty eight of our fifty American states, plus attendees from other continents. And all too soon, we are wrapping up our last session today.

In the meantime, I have now been equipped with several new ideas on how to proceed in tackling my problem ancestors. Despite their silence over the years and through the lack of documents, I now have new places to look for them.

But it is not a push/pull fight any more. As Mark Lowe, our instructor, observed, the stories are out there. Inevitably, if we know where to look, we will find them. Or, more to the point, as we continue the search, the stories will find us. We just have to know how to listen. To keep our eyes open. To learn to ask ourselves questions when facts don't seem just right when considered at face value.

We need to spot those cues, those puzzles prompting us to ask questions. Then follow the paper trail until we find even more answers. The trail is hinting to us: there's a story in those details.

I'm a strong believer in Story. I don't doubt there are more stories out there. It was worth the price of SLIG admission to gain those resources—more importantly, to adjust the researcher's way of thinking, of framing the research question. And by gaining those resources, those ideas, I now am convinced I'm armed with plans to tackle a few longstanding research challenges that have been sitting in the shadows for far too long.

Once that process starts uncovering more facts, I know they will usher in stories. One can't help but have family with stories. I'm convinced Story is part of the human condition, and I'm primed to tell some more of them.

Thursday, January 17, 2019

Giving a Listen

The other day, J. Mark Lowe, our Southern Research instructor at SLIG, introduced us to the phrase, "Listen to the Mule."

If that were not enough work for one researcher, today, he advised: listen to the testimony of the people living around your ancestor. They will tell you the stories you want to hear about your people.

True, the only way we can accomplish that "listening" is through the documents that recorded the minutiae of their lives—agricultural schedules, tax records, mortgage records, business transactions. Like a mosaic, those slips of paper can piece together a picture of just what life was like for a specific relative, long before we ever came on the scene to become eye-witnesses.

Just like that mosaic which we build to allow ourselves to see the reality of our ancestors' lives, we can glean a mosaic of what it's like to attend class at the annual Salt Lake Institute of Genealogy. Since I'm in the company of a few fellow genea-bloggers, I've noticed that they, too, are telling what's important to them this week. Here's a little overview of what others are saying.

When Ginger LaRue Mary Stuart—"My red hair gives me super powers"—of Ginger Doodles mentioned that her family refers to Salt Lake City as "Genealogy Disneyland," I could see why her trek from Georgia was so joyfully in relation to the research reason she was here. Attending D. Joshua Taylor's course, Bridging the Gap: New England to the Midwest, she stalked proof of the Kentucky land grant of her fifth great-grandfather with ear candy of Survivor's "Eye of the Tiger" playing in her head.

Fellow California resident—and recently board-certified genealogist—Lisa Gorrell shared her take on the same class I'm enrolled in, Advanced Southern Research, in a recent post on her blog, My Trails Into the Past. Lisa's maternal line is all southern, similar to mine. She took the opportunity last night at the specially-arranged SLIG night at the Family History Library to try her hand at the practical aspect of locating the resources we're learning about in class. Then, too, Lisa and I grabbed the chance yesterday to enjoy lunch together and chat about our research interests. Sometimes, it takes going to a conference seven hundred miles from home to spend time with the genea-friends we hardly ever get to see when we're back home.

Those are not the only courses being offered at SLIG. There are, in fact, fifteen classes running concurrently this week, with more to come next week.

One of the courses this week is a crash course on reading Gothic Script and Fraktur. The intrepid Nancy Loe of Sassy Jane Genealogy, having never even attempted a high school German class, has launched herself into F. Warren Bittner's course at SLIG. Her fun pop quiz, hinting at what she's learned so far, just goes to show that we go to these in-depth educational programs precisely so they will teach us how much we don't know. And we're okay with that. In fact, many of us keep coming back, year after year.

After all, who wouldn't want to come back to "Genealogy Disneyland"?   

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Squirrel !

We may be—as LaBrenda Garrett-Nelson reminded us Monday evening at SLIG—"all in this boat together," but when it comes to genealogically delving into the south, I'm seeing evidence that our co-instructor Anne Gillespie Mitchell was spot on: family life in the south was built upon clusters.

I, however, am not as circumspect about my genealogical research plans as she might have hoped. I've already fallen victim to what Anne refers to as, "Squirrel!"

Case in point: yesterday, co-instructor Kelvin Meyers toured us through the finer points of the Draper Manuscript Collection and a related collection, the Shane Manuscript Collection. It just so happens that that second, and smaller, Shane collection was compiled by a man named John Dabney Shane. A Presbyterian minister himself, Reverend Shane sought to collect all the material he could find on the expansion of the Presbyterian church in the United States, particularly on the American frontier of the time.

While that tidbit of information may be significant for those of us intent on researching our families' southern past, there was one small detail that caught my eye: the Shane collection was compiled by a man whose middle name was Dabney.

Dabney?! I have that family name.

And faster than Anne Mitchell could shout, "Squirrel!" I was off, flying through the virtual genealogical wilderness in search of a factoid. After all, if this were a southern family, that Dabney could just as well be a surname from deeper in the family tree. A maiden name. A connection. I've seen a lot of that in the southern families I've researched.

It didn't help that, in all this detail about both Draper and Shane, Kelvin mentioned another name that caught my ear. Somehow, the name Gabriel Jones was connected.

Gabriel Jones? Yep, you guessed it: I have that name, too.

In a quick and dirty exploration of John Dabney Shane's own family tree, it may be that the name Dabney came from his maternal grandmother's maiden name. I can't say for sure; I haven't proved it for myself. But it makes a reasonable explanation for how someone named as plainly as John could acquire such an unusual middle name.

Meanwhile, it just so happens that the Dabney connection in my own tree comes from a descendant of the same Taliaferro who qualified me for eligibility to DAR: his granddaughter Mary Penn (nicknamed Polly) married a minister named Dabney P. Jones.

How this particular Reverend also acquired a name as unusual as Dabney, I can't yet say, but I do know that after her passing, the widow Mary Penn Jones, dying intestate in 1874, had one Gabriel Jones appointed as administrator of her estate. Was he the same gentleman as the one connected to either of the researchers?

Well, you know a soul spirited away by the sight of a tempting research squirrel—this non-hunter prefers to refer to this as going down the rabbit trail—can't just stop there. So, multi-tasking through the remainder of class (true confessions), I poked around to see what else I could find.

You know the search is long from done at this point, especially when encountering more squirrel, er, rabbit trails. In the process, I followed the paper trail for all the descendants I could find in this line—we are, after all, supposed to uncover the clusters which tie our southern kin together—and discovered that a great-granddaughter of Mary Penn and Dabney Jones married a man who later married another woman and fathered (or possibly was the step-father of) the man who was the film director who brought us the motion picture version of the Harper Lee novel, To Kill a Mockingbird. Now, isn't that all so very southern?!

Whether this is the kind of "connected" my Southern Research course instructors intended, I can't say. And I can't yet claim to have acquired the disciplined restraint of the professional genealogist. Follow the trail, connect the dots, and pretty soon we're all part of the family constellation. 

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

"A Northerner Walks Into
a Class on Southern Research . . ."

Sound like the beginning of a joke?

I'm feeling somewhat disoriented, surrounded by so many southern accents and roots reaching south of the Mason-Dixon line. I may have grandparents who claimed kin in places like Tennessee and Florida, but they moved up north before my mom was ever born. All my life, I knew nothing of a non-snow winter existence (well, at least until I moved to California), having been born and raised in the New York City metro area. I never even set foot in either of those two states of my family heritage until I was well into adulthood. The closest anyone in my immediate family came to replicating a southern lifestyle was that momentary lapse into "southern hospitality" when, on family visits, my aunt would insist we take second helpings at dinner.

But here I am, sitting in class at the Salt Lake Institute of Genealogy, listening to research luminaries such as J. Mark Lowe and Anne Gillespie Mitchell speak of the ins and outs of researching this unique region.

They even talk different. Is there a separate lexicon for folks who speak Southern?

Mark Lowe exposed us to the concept, "Listen to the mule." Perhaps, if you are southern, yourself, this phrase is no stranger to you. I, northerner that I am, had some learnin' to do. When the tale was told, though, I learned by osmosis just what the zeitgeist behind that phrase really meant: you can learn something from the one who is doing all the work; you just have to know how to listen.

I'm listening.

Equipped with maps—soil maps, even—we examined migration possibilities for our southern farming ancestors. We talked deed maps, county line change maps, tax- and business-related maps.

And websites. Oh, the resources.

I couldn't wait until class was I didn't. Had to try my hand right away at finding stuff as the information was unfolding. With Anne Gillespie Mitchell's sessions, I discovered some of the geographic locations she was focusing on were in the vicinity of ancestors in my family's lines, snatched up those website URLs she shared and put them through their paces. And yes, there is light behind some of those impenetrable brick walls.

As far removed from southern life as I may seem to be, it's not as far from that history as you think. I'm not as "northern" as I may think I am. You see, like so many of us, I have a dark southern secret, something I wish were never there, but undeniably, historically, was. Perhaps that is why it was so much easier to claim an adopted northern identity, and to ignore that centuries-long detour from my Mayflower kin to my Virginia, Tennessee and Florida heritage.

As artfully as LaBrenda Garrett-Nelson put it in last night's plenary session, though, "We're All in the Same Boat Now!" In her call for us to see genealogy as a "force for social change," she urged us to be part of the solution by striving for accuracy in how we represent the historical records touching our family's stories—to expand our concept of the ethical obligation to share the full story of our past, especially through those dark times we'd rather smudge out even further. The parts of our story that we'd rather forget may, shared, become the key to help someone else find the first inkling of their own family's history. 

Monday, January 14, 2019

Goin' Southern on Y'all

To be a genealogist means to always be learning. At least that's my opinion, and I've been chasing my family's history for almost my entire life. And still learning.

Ever do something, just as a special treat for yourself? This week is one of those special times for me. I'm spending the next five days in Salt Lake City, where the Utah Genealogical Association is hosting the annual Salt Lake Institute of Genealogy just a few blocks away from the largest genealogical library in the world.

I know, I know: some people pamper themselves with a day at the spa. A romantic weekend getaway. A trip to Hawaii. Me? I go to Salt Lake City in January.

Since the first hour of SLIG registration last summer—where I sat, poised at my computer with my trigger finger on my mouse, prepared to pounce on my class selection the minute registration opened—I've been preparing for this week's experience. I had heard great reviews of one particular SLIG instructor, years ago, from fellow blogger Michelle Taggart, and when I saw he was one of the 2019 speakers, my goal became to get into J. Mark Lowe's Advanced Southern Research class.

To prepare for this class, I knew I had to attend to my sorely-forsaken maternal grandmother's family tree, for it is her McClellan line—and related kin in Florida—on whom I'd like to focus for this week. For the past half year, that has been my primary research project, which will either sound like an impressive claim, or give you an idea of just how badly my attention was needed on this branch of the family tree. (Hint: go with the latter.)

Now that Monday, SLIG, and I have all coincidentally arrived at the same place, I'll not only hear from the well-recommended Mark Lowe, but also receive research guidance from Anne Gillespie Mitchell, familiar to many through her position as product manager at and blogger at (and evangelist for) Cluster Genealogy. And since SLIG uses a team-teaching approach for many of their courses, I'll also get treated to instruction by Deborah Abbott and LaBrenda Garrett-Nelson, featured speaker at the plenary session this evening.

That is just the first of five glorious days of genealogical instruction—my week-long immersion in all things southern at SLIG 2019. 

Sunday, January 13, 2019

Keeping Track of a New Year

It's the start of a new year, which means it's the start of a new tracking form for research progress. It may not seem like much, but I find great encouragement from a biweekly review of what I've accomplished, in pursuing this always-elusive "finished" (don't snicker) family history record. So, out come the old charts, amended with new dates. I'll start up a new year's worth of counting, just for personal encouragement, if nothing else.

The benchmarks for 2019, at least in my case, will be the starting numbers for this year. I'm still tracking four separate family trees—one for each of my daughter's four grandparents. For the first count of the year, I'm starting with 16,546 in my mother's tree, 15,941 in my mother-in-law's tree, 1,514 in my father-in-law's tree, and at the very bottom of the pile, my dad's tree at 516.

In the next twelve months, some of those numbers will grow by leaps and bounds—most likely the ones for which I have specific research goals to complete—and others will seem to sit still. The tree that has been growing the fastest, lately, is my mom's tree, and for a specific reason: I'm taking the Southern research class at the Salt Lake Institute of Genealogy this week, and my mother's sadly-neglected tree needed some serious attention. This, I'm happy to say, has been my research focus in preparation for this class ever since I signed up at the opening of registration last summer.

The second-fastest growth was in my mother-in-law's tree—well, at least until I put the brakes on in mid-summer. Since then, the only additions have been when I spotted an obituary for a distant cousin and added in all the updated names while the record was on hand. Other than that, my only other reason to add any entries was if I ran across a good DNA match—meaning one who actually responded to emails, or at least had a tree publicly posted where I also have a subscription. Can't pass an opportunity like that to update records.

I'm not sure yet what my next research goal will be. At the close of this week's class at SLIG, I'll have a ten day break to recuperate from all this learnin'...and then I'll be heading to Florida, home of my maternal grandmother's roots. That should be rich soil for digging up records. At least, that is what I hope. If all goes well, my research goals in the beginning of 2019 will not be much different than they have been for the past six months. Sometimes the flip of a calendar page doesn't do much to usher in a new research protocol.

On the other hand, I'll wait until I get through these next few weeks before I reassess my research plans. Sometimes, it is refreshing to just take a break from that laser-like focus on one research arena. Switching to Irish or Polish research might just be the break I'll need.

In the meantime, it's off to SLIG I go, for a week of listening, learning, trying new ideas, meeting new friends, and enjoying the challenge of mastering new ways to tackle a research problem.

Saturday, January 12, 2019

Now Indexing — Or at Least
Getting Back Into the Routine

The holiday season leaves me with the feeling that I haven't done any volunteer indexing work for aeons; certainly not the few weeks that it more accurately was. I feel as if I haven't done any indexing online for ever.

Perhaps, for everyone else, the exact opposite was the case, for when I went hunting for a candidate project to tackle, I found none of my usual go-to topics. I like to focus on record sets from the places where my ancestors once lived—in the desperate hope that I will somehow unearth the hidden record which will answer all my research questions.

This time? There was none of that. None, especially, of naturalization records for that New York port of entry which has been my prime target for entering ancestors.

Well, that was not entirely so. There was a quick batch of names of people entering New York, which essentially meant a potluck of a few cards, mostly illegible, which volunteers had probably given up on in the usual series. I'm afraid I've sent more than my fair share of these quick batches into the reject pile; the readability of some cards was nearing zero. I did, however, give it my best shot.

I'm looking forward to putting more effort into indexing projects in this new year, and hope there will soon be many fresh projects on the docket for eager indexers like me. The current offerings—at least for North American records—seemed quite slim, especially in the face of fresh volunteers still high on New Year's resolutions. Hope no one wastes this opportunity.

Friday, January 11, 2019

Finding a Friend at Find a Grave

It is never easy to foretell how complicated the path will be from rescued photograph to reunion with family members. Having a name and a location may seem to be the golden ticket, but as we've seen with Mr. and Mrs. Albert Roberts of Council Bluffs, Iowa, it hasn't helped much so far.

While digitized documents, easily accessible online from virtually everywhere, make the search infinitely easier than it ever has been in the past, there is only so much you can do, in the case of dual candidates for the same name. That's why, now that I've checked all the census records, vital records, and newspaper entries, it's time to move on to less typical resources.

One resource I've found helpful is to trawl through all the posted family trees I can find online. I look for direct descendants, of course, but I also keep an eye out for more photographs of the ancestors I'm seeking.

One such photo I ran across wasn't on Ancestry, though. I found it on Find A Grave. It was a photo of Mr. and Mrs. Charles Edwin Parkison. While it is unlikely that you've followed the minutiae on another person's family tree closely enough to recognize that Parkison name—actually, two Roberts descendants married someone by that surname—this particular Mrs. Parkison was the former Ruby Viola Roberts, also known as Ola.

Looking at the photo of Albert and Alice Roberts' daughter Ola, I wasn't sure she resembled either of the people in the photograph I had found, out here in northern California. But just in case I was mistaken in that first assessment, I decided to write the Find A Grave volunteer who had posted the portrait. My main reason for contacting her was to see if she had any other photographs—a picture of Ola's parents would be just what would do the trick—but I also asked her for permission to post the photograph of Ola and her husband here. That way, you can see what you think for yourself, so take a look below.

Of the few Find A Grave volunteers I've contacted, there has always been a prompt reply. Reaching out to connect with fellow researchers at has not been quite as productive. Still, there are time—many times—when I need to connect with a direct descendant of the subjects of the photos I've found. All I can do is reach out and hope.

There is, for instance, a photo posted on Ancestry of what might be the father of the second candidate for our Albert Roberts. But since I haven't heard back from the researcher who originally posted the picture, I haven't received permission to post it here. You can, however, take a look at the original site, if you are a member of See if this picture resembles our Albert Roberts enough to peg him as Albert Marion Roberts, son of James Roberts.

Of course, I prefer any researcher who actually answers messages. This puts me in the odd position of hoping that the identity of the photo I found of Albert Roberts turns out to be the oldest of the three Alberts we've discussed so far. But I can't just conduct a thorough search based on such likeability factors. It's likely this search will find itself grinding on in the genealogical equivalent of sausage-making. And you know what I've said about that...

This Albert Roberts, whoever he is, will likely have to wait until those interminable behind-the-scenes searches finally draw to a conclusive end. Moving beyond any Roberts identities, as for what we'll be discussing next week, I have some travels planned.

Above: Photograph of Albert and Alice (Dooley) Roberts' daughter Ruby Viola Roberts and her husband, Charles Edwin Parkison of Riverton, Fremont County, Iowa; used by permission of Find a Grave volunteer and second great-granddaughter of Alice Roberts' brother, George Dooley. His family photo, also shared with us thanks to this same volunteer, is posted below, with Ola's Uncle George seated on right.

Thursday, January 10, 2019


I can't say how many times I've seen the list of photographers in one particular blog I follow daily. Do you think I'd remember that resource when struggling to identify when a specific studio was in operation? All together now: "Of course not!"

After all this time of working on the portrait of a "Mr. and Mrs. Albert Roberts" taken in Council Bluffs, Iowa, it finally occurred to me that I should seek out more details on the studio in which the picture was taken. Locating a sequential collection of city directories for Council Bluffs was not giving me the stretch of years I was seeking, so I turned to the local library's reference desk for answers.

In reply to my question, Ben Johnson, a Council Bluffs librarian, informed me that, according to the 1894-1895 city directory, a Mr. Charles H. Sherraddan and family were living at 625 Willow Avenue, but that the studio in question was called Riley & Sherraden. Mr. Sherraden apparently had a partner, C. A. Riley.

With that tip, I was off, searching for any details I could find on both Charles Sherraden and C. A. Riley. It wasn't long until I realized the partnership was not a long-lasting one. While some photographs in several different online collections contain labels with the two names together, there are several with just the Sherraden name, as was the picture I found of Mr. and Mrs. Albert Roberts.

Remembering that the blog I follow—The Cabinet Card Gallery—includes an index of posted topics, specifically kept by photographer's name, I scrolled through that blog's listing to see if either Charles Sherraden or his former partner, C. A. Riley, were listed.

Unfortunately, they were not. But that didn't keep me from searching for other such locations online. Just as I discovered for the many Facebook groups dedicated to rescuing abandoned photographs, there are several online resources sporting information on photographers of the earlier decades of the craft.

One such resource is the similarly-entitled Cabinet Card Photographers, where I found an entry for Charles Henry Sherraden, as well as a separate listing for his former partner, Clarence A. Riley.

The twin timelines published there served me well. For one thing, they allowed me to isolate the dates in which the photographs taken by Sherraden would likely be labeled specifically and only with his own name.

Those dates, however, are all across the board. Charles Sherraden, for instance, was listed as a photographer in Council Bluffs in the 1880 census, and likely operated his own studio up until his partnership with Clarence Riley in 1893. By 1895, though, Riley had opened a separate studio, and we can presume that Charles reverted to use of the Sherraden name for his studio following that date.

One item of particular note on the Sherraden timeline is his departure from Council Bluffs for Salt Lake City in 1900. In that year, he was listed both in the census for Council Bluffs in June, and in the city directory in Salt Lake City (though not as a photographer). From that point until his death in 1908, he remained in Utah.

During a span of business operation as lengthy as Sherraden's, his studio labels certainly changed a great deal. Examples of Sherraden studio labels can be found in a number of locations—Council Bluff's own library's collection, and in unexpected other places like the Snoqualmie Valley Historical Museum in North Bend, Washington. There, three samples, undated, of unidentified women, may come from different time periods in the Sherraden studio's history, with one, in particular, seeming to bear a similar label to the one in our Roberts portrait.

Still another resource led me to more photos taken at the Sherraden studio. Archives West, the Orbis Cascade Alliance, pointed to three Sherraden pictures in the Couch-Derickson Family photograph collection. The three of interest to us were dated from 1890 through 1898.

Now that I was on a roll finding bits and pieces of Sherraden work, how could I stop without checking out ArchiveGrid? Once again in this little here, little there story, I found a reference to a Sherraden photograph now held by the Sonoma County library, not far from me here in California. Though the photo itself bore a different logo design than the one in my possession, it was similar in layout—simply the surname on the left of the lower border, with the city listed on the lower right. Unfortunately, the archive had dated the photograph as having been taken anywhere from 1881 through 1900, not providing us any help in determining how to date our own mystery Sherraden portrait.

It may seem as if each detail is so small as to be insignificant, but collecting enough of these clues may lead us to an answer if we are persistent enough. We can't just rely on gathering the history of this one photographer, of course, but there may be other tidbits of information we can find, if we continue digging deeper with those local resources.
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