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. 


  1. I have many examples of mothers' and grandmothers' maiden names popping up as middle names. When I see JUST a middle initial, I go looking for the women. I never thought of the name thing being a Southern trait though, more generational. But the squirrel thing - definitely universal!

    1. Ah, perhaps it is just a generational thing, Wendy. It's just that, in my own family's southern research, I guess I haven't gotten back far enough to break out of that time period when one could rely on that middle name being a family name. And I've chased down more than my fair share of rabbit trails on that one...

  2. That is exactly why I don't have my laptop in class with me. Too many squirrels. I can't do much searching on the ipad to get me distracted.

    1. True confessions, Lisa: I did all my searching in class, using my iPad. Wouldn't let that little detail stop me from exploring an enticing rabbit trail ;)

  3. You had a very interesting day! My father in laws middle name was his mothers maiden name...he was the first born. He was born in 1914. I wonder how often that happened? But it would certainly help researchers:)

    1. I've seen a lot of that tradition in my family, Far Side. Don't know how prevalent it has been for other families, but I sure know there were some very long names for ancestors whose parents wanted to remember specific ancestors by passing down that exact (and ever-longer) name.


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