Friday, March 8, 2019

In the Meantime...

Thinking, as I've discovered, takes time. And hurts, I might add—but then, I digress.

With the listing of all Job Tison's slaves mentioned in his will, I want to take a long sheet of butcher paper and hang it on the wall in my dining room to mark in where each person was willed to go. After all, the Tison will was executed—or at least started—in 1824; what became of each of these people in the next few decades? Were they young enough to live until emancipation? I keep remembering LaBrenda Garrett-Nelson's admonition to use our research skills as a force for social change, and I want to connect the dots with these discoveries.

In the meantime, as that will be a messy research project to tackle in the background of our pursuit of King Stockton's story, last night I went back to examine some DNA matches. Ever since learning about it through this current project, I had wondered why King Stockton's mother, Hester, had taken the surname McClellan, rather than assuming King's father's surname. Granted, Hester had meant a great deal to Sidney Tison McClellan—though we have no way of knowing whether that opinion was reciprocated—but it hardly would give enough impetus for that enslaved person, once freed, to assume the former master's surname.

I have always wondered why someone in that position would choose to take on the surname of the people for whom they once were considered no more than mere "property." And, based on that guess, I have just as often been surprised when people of color mention to me that they assume their ancestor took on their surname for that very reason—it was where they once had been enslaved.

I think: really? Some very understanding genealogy students of mine, patient enough with me to bear with my incessant questions, seem to see my point when I ask whether they, in the same position, would have made a choice like that. We have had a number of such conversations—uncomfortable, perhaps, to some, though my kind students have been willing to reverse roles and become, for a time, my teacher—and yet, I still wonder what the universe of reasons might have been for why liberated slaves chose the surnames they did. Invisible to the "white" world, theirs was a network of family connections as well—albeit often torn apart, in many cases, they knew how they were connected to each other.

And so, I explore those DNA matches to see if there was any evidence tucked away in chromosomes that we could coax to open up and share some of those ancient family secrets. I also couldn't help but notice that, in the 1870 census, though of African descent, Hester's son King and all his household were listed as mulatto, rather than the expected "black." How did enumerators in the south go about the task of determining what to write in that column labeled "race"? Did they directly ask each head of household? Or did they just assume, based either on appearance or the small-town dynamic of just "knowing" everyone else's business?

My thinking had previously been, since Hester and her infant son King had come to Florida upon the marriage of Sidney Tison to George Edmund McClellan, that Hester had originated on the Tison plantation. Indeed, she was specifically named in Sidney's father's will. But had she always been there on the Tison land? More to the point, who were her parents?

As it turned out, among my DNA matches was one researcher who may be connected to the King Stockton line. And, as it turns out, she and I have matches in common with other McClellan kin. That is not surprising, of course, for some of those McClellan cousins are also Tison cousins—they and I descend from both George McClellan and Sidney Tison.

The key to help differentiate the genetic inheritance of each of those families—separating the Tison line from the McClellan line—would be to find another DNA match who descends from one of those ancestors, but not the other. As it turns out, last night I think I found an answer: one match we have in common, who comes from only one of those lines.

Directly the opposite of what I had expected, that match didn't descend from the Tison line; he comes from a McClellan line—the very McClellan branch I knew nothing about until my trip to Florida last month, when I met that board member of the Suwannee County genealogical organization who just happened to also be a McClellan.

Now that I've been checking that McClellan branch and adding it to my database, I can easily trace this DNA match's ancestry—all McClellan with no Tison (that I know of, so far). Our nexus is my third great grandfather's parents, Charles and Elizabeth McClellan, who in later years lived only one county to the west of George McClellan in north Florida. But in earlier years, as we just saw from the Job Tison will, Charles and Elizabeth did live, for a time, close enough in Georgia to have closely known Job Tison.

There are, of course, pitfalls to this theory of the isolated McClellan line. One problem is that no researcher has yet been able to discover Elizabeth McClellan's maiden name. What if the reason Charles McClellan was so close to the Tisons was that his wife was born a Tison? I don't know that, but I can't yet rule out that possibility.

In the meantime, it seems as if I've found a DNA match that infers—possibly—that Hester may well have been a McClellan, after all.


  1. I had always thought genealogy to be kind of dry, a study of endless names. Your way of doing genealogy is to get down into the nitty-gritty of history. Every time you write a post, new trails open up to lead in different directions. But you mark them, categorize them, then turn back to the mission and drill down towards the buried treasure. It’s all so fascinating to follow.

    I’ve read with interest what you and reader ztoomes say about the Slave Narratives. These are so interesting, but so hard to parse. Do you know if any more modern historians have analysed them, or dealt with them in any way?

    1. Lisa, I'm sure someone has done that, although I can't point to any specific writers--though I would certainly want to know of them, as well!

  2. Jacqi, Do you think some freed persons might have kept the surname of their former masters in the hope that the surname might help them find other family members from whom they had been separated? I don't think this would have been widespread, but they might have hoped the surname would indicate a connection to the plantation where they had once all lived.

    1. Linda, that is a good point. Whether anyone would have taken on a surname for that specific reason, I don't know, but I do know, from examples I've read, that people did remember on whose property their loved ones once worked. I don't have the name of the resource right now, but there was a publication in which those freed tried to search for their missing relatives, and often the reference to specific properties was made.


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