Wednesday, January 19, 2022

The Déjà vu of Wiregrass Country


It was only yesterday, when perusing my Twitter feed, that I came across Judy Russell's pertinent comment in The Legal Genealogist:

Genealogy is as much a matter of geography as it is of history.

Of course, she had no idea I was on the search for the whereabouts of my fourth great-grandfather's parents somewhere in North or South Carolina; she was looking for her, ahem, "German" ancestors.

While the point is well taken—as we've already discussed here—that borders do move from time to time, geography is a pertinent part of genealogy for more reasons than those shifting borders. As I find in so many of my family history puzzles, it helps to know the places where our ancestors settled. Like, really get to know them.

Instead of trying to trace my line backwards through time—following unsubstantiated reports that my fourth great-grandfather Job Tison came from Pitt County, North Carolina—I want to tack in a different direction. Here's why.

As I explored the place in Georgia where Job Tison and his future father-in-law, West Sheffield, came to call home, learning about Glynn County and Wayne County gave me this strange, déjà vu feeling, as if I had been there before. I guarantee you, the only time I've ever been to Georgia was to fly through the Atlanta airport when my original wintertime flight home had been cancelled due to predictable weather eruptions. In other words: I've never set sights on Georgia from any way other than an aerial perspective. So how could reading about those two counties make me feel as if I had been there before?

Simple: I learned about Wiregrass Country.

Glynn County, where Job Tison settled, and neighboring Wayne County where West Sheffield established his home, were considered to be part of what is called Wiregrass Country. Named for the aristida stricta (or "wiregrass") warm season grass native to the coastal plains of the Carolinas, the region in which it best grows stretches from there southward to Georgia and the Florida panhandle, and westward toward Alabama. 

The wiregrass region used to cover far more of Georgia than it does today, and it featured some other characteristics which I also found strangely familiar. The sandy soil of the region featured one additional familiar feature: the longleaf pine. Far more prevalent in that wiregrass region in past centuries, the longleaf pine was useful not only for timber, but for turpentine. And that is precisely why the look of the land seems so familiar to me: I had seen this same geographic appearance over the miles while driving to the ancestral home of my McClellan line in Suwannee County, Florida—where Job Tison's daughter Sidnah moved after her marriage to George Edmund McClellan around 1830.

Perhaps I am belaboring this point, but it is for good reason. Not only have people sought out new places to live which seemed familiar to them, but those who were accustomed to living off the land developed ways to assess whether new territories had the natural resources to enable them to continue making their living with the skills they already possessed. I'll never forget Mark Lowe's instruction on southern research at the Salt Lake Institute of Genealogy, advising his students seeking their disappearing ancestors to pay attention to soil maps. If those ancestors moved, they likely removed to a place with the same farming conditions required by the crops they had raised back home.

As it turns out, there was a particular migration pattern bringing people into the southeastern Georgia Wiregrass Country. While I'm still working on framing that picture, it appears one typical inbound route brought settlers from the Carolinas, seeking a familiar environment in which to engage in "self-sufficient" farming and livestock herding on cheap land with open range and relatively few other settlers.

While that description doesn't necessarily solve my research dilemma—were Job's parents from North or South Carolina?—it does at least warm me up to the idea that he didn't originate from another location.

There is another bright side to exploring this geographical angle. Once learning about Wiregrass Country, one can't help but realize that the land's unofficial moniker inspired a massive biographical work to catalog the many Euro-American settlers to the region. Called Pioneers of Wiregrass Georgia, the original seven volume set was written by Folks Huxford, with five additional volumes compiled by the Huxford Genealogical Society.

As you can imagine, obtaining all twelve volumes can be a prohibitive process—though a trip to Homerville, Georgia, during their pandemic-limited hours could gain you entrance to the Huxford collection of notes and books which became the impetus of what is now billed as "one of the largest privately owned genealogical libraries in the United States." Not on your itinerary for 2022? No problem: you can check the Pioneers of Wiregrass Georgia index online for your ancestor's name, then tap the book's listing at in search of the right volume closer to home.

I've already checked for Job Tison: he is mentioned in volumes four and five. West Sheffield? He's there also, in volume three. And why stop there? A glutton for more research resources, I checked for Charles McClellan, father to Job's future son-in-law George as well as witness to Job's will, and even another promising connection by the name of Andrew McClellan.

Now, all I have to do is actually find a library which contains all those volumes. If there's nothing closer, looks like that will be something to add to my to-do list for my next trip to Salt Lake City. I know there's a library there which can help...  


  1. This brought to mind migration in my area. Dutch farmers settled here in Northern Ohio just a little south of me in what we call the "Muck". Muck is a special soil or peat that is very wet and loose and so, so black, in areas that were swamps hundreds of years ago. It is especially good for raising vegetables. The small village where our "muck" is located is actually named Celeryville. People come from all over the world for tours since there are very few muck areas. And those settlers came here from a muck region in the Netherlands and their descendants still live there.

    1. An interesting example, Miss Merry. Thanks for sharing that. If we remember to adapt to the mindset of our ancestors--so many of whom were farmers--we would see the importance of soil in a much clearer light. Who would have thought that "muck" would be powerful enough to draw people to Ohio from as far away as the Netherlands? To us nowadays, it doesn't seem to make sense, but it was an important part of our ancestors' livelihood.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...