Monday, February 25, 2019

"Wiped Out"

Sometimes, the only way we find mention of our ancestors may be through material written about other people's families. Such may be the case—if ever so brief—with the booklet about the life of a former slave named King Stockton. While the stories of King Stockton's life may have been preserved in this brief biography, along with his story come his recollections of others who lived in the frontier community where he grew up.

Among the unfortunate families mentioned in the King Stockton biography as having been "wiped out" during attacks by local tribes during the early years of territorial Florida settlement were four surnames. They are given by the writer, A. L. Lewis, as Peterson, Clemmon, Sykes, and Tilley.

"Tilley," as we've already discovered, turned out to be spelled Tullis—at least in the 1840 census for Columbia County, the designation at that time for the land that eventually became part of Suwannee County in northern Florida. With that spelling change in mind, I thought it might be helpful to see whether any of the other names could be corroborated by either local histories or by the actual documents themselves. Of course, knowing both handwriting issues and spelling issues over the decades of the 1800s, it is no surprise to see multiple renderings—but it is still helpful to see what the consensus might have been, over the years and through multiple records, for each family's surname.

One of those surnames was indeed repeated in other local histories: that of the Clemmon family. This family apparently settled by one of the forts which had been set up by the United States Army, precisely because of concerns for the safety of the increasing number of settlers in the area. The fort, established in Suwannee Springs in what was later to become Suwannee County, is said to have kept records of the raids after each occurred.

While the King Stockton narrative only mentioned the Clemmon family by name, another—from Echoes of the Past—included more detail. There, the name was rendered as Clemons, and the book explained that "the Clemons family left the fort to settle in an area five miles southeast of what is now Live Oak." Having settled his family on the new property, Mr. Clemons returned to the fort to gather the rest of his belongings. While he was away, the attack occurred in which his entire family was massacred.

Unfortunately, the narrative in both the King Stockton biography and the Echoes of the Past version do not include anything but the surname of the head of the family. However, in looking up the 1840 census record for territorial Florida, there were two possible listings for this Clemmon or Clemons family in Columbia County, the county of record at that time—two, at least, if you grant liberties for creative spelling.

One of those entries was for the household of one William J. Clemments, which included one man between the ages of thirty and thirty nine, one woman between twenty and twenty nine, and three younger females around fifteen, ten, and under five.

The other possible entry might have been the 1840 household of John W. Clemments with a similar head count, but having two younger males and one younger female. This household, incidentally, was close to that of George McClellan's brother, Andrew McClellan, which might have explained why King Stockton—as a slave at the George McClellan property—would have been aware of this tragedy. On the other hand, the William Clemments family would have been more vulnerable to attack in the absence of the head of that household.

Of course, all that is conjecture without any actual reporting on the identity of the victims. Plus, if the attack occurred before 1840, there might have been no name left for the census enumerator to record. Or perhaps that explains the additional adult male listed in the John W. Clemments household—a widower staying in the household of his brother.

I couldn't help but take a peek to see what could be found in the 1850 census for anyone with that surname—whether Clemon, Clemmon, or even Clemments. I could find a John W. Clements and wife Sarah in the 1850 census, with three children under the age of ten. Perhaps this was the unfortunate widower, having remarried, now raising a second family, as there were no older children reported in this household.

The only William I could find in the 1850 census was one of two minor children of that same surname in the household of one Samuel and Mary Barber—possibly children of Mary Barber from a previous marriage, or perhaps the Barbers served as guardians owing to a different relationship.

Sometimes, those early reports yield very little information, other than the fact that something horrible has happened, setting everyone else in a state of alarm. Perhaps accessing the actual reports supposedly kept at the fort might reveal better details—if any such report has been preserved, rather than simply being alluded to. After all, there were no newspapers in the vicinity at the time to rely on. What else would there be to provide a glimpse of what life was like for those early settlers other than such reports as the one shared by King Stockton in his modest biography?


  1. With all those massacres, it’s a wonder anyone left the fort.

    1. It seems I've seen this type of story repeated, no matter where the location--in the Virginia frontier, the region that is now Indiana, or there in Florida. Settlers were there to get land and farm it, no matter how far from the protection of the fort it might have been. Perhaps they were just over-confident gamblers.

  2. Replies
    1. True, but it also speaks to how determined those settlers must have been, in the face of such risks.

  3. It is interesting to think about what must have been a conflict between wanting to stay safe in a fort or a city - versus getting out there and clearing land to build one's own farm. Seems sad that often the women and children were attacked when they were most vulnerable, when the husband was not near. With the Clemons and maybe north Florida settler histories in general, you have another story to piece together. I like coming by to see the developments.

    Regarding the King Stockton story, what you said makes perfect sense. But wouldn't the Rose Library, and the history community in general, benefit from research on the pamphlet and its publication? I'll bet they would respond favorably if you ask permission to do that.

    1. Once I have a plan for publication, Lisa, I will be asking for permission to use the material. The Rose Library has been very gracious in their response to my questions already. But I also believe that the true copyright holder would be the author, A. L. Lewis--or his estate, if he is no longer living--and it is also to them that I would need to make any request. You know there is always just one more question that needs answering in research...


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