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 Ancestry.com.
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.