a tree-rific journey into family history

Archive for the month “May, 2012”

Still I Rise: problems and opportunities in African-American genealogical research

African-American genealogy presents some unique challenges and opportunities. Of course, every family, every branch, and every individual of every tree is unique and challenging, but African-American research is especially difficult because of the lack of records pertaining to black Americans prior to the 1860s. Although some Africans immigrated after the Civil War and some individuals may have lived as free persons prior to the war, the majority of black Americans are descended from slaves. I have traced my own white roots in one line as far back as my 14x great-grandfather in the 1500s and can name as many as nine countries my ancestors came from. When I began researching my wife’s heritage, I found myself having a lot of trouble going beyond a few generations. I have heard genealogists and family historians refer to this as The Wall. This is also a deterrent to many black Americans who feel their own history will be too difficult or too painful to trace. They would rather not consider the difficulties their ancestors endured. When I research my European branches, I like to imagine how my forefathers chose to come to America for a better life. I sympathize with the hardships they endured seeking the American Dream in their new home. Slaves did not choose to come to America. Their history and that of their descendants (especially in the South) was difficult. When learning the stories of those who came through slave trade, genealogy forces us to consider harsh realities that are very strange to us in 2012.

The further back you go, the less records exist for any group, but the slavery system made it much worse. Slaves were property and left no real paper trail. Here are a few barriers to genealogical research:

  • Families were split apart. The importation of slaves ended in the United States in 1807. By the time slavery itself ended, you have an entire generation that has known only slavery. Obviously much of their original identity and history is lost.
  • Slaves did not record their marriages at the county courthouse.
  • Southern states had laws prohibiting slaves from learning to read and write. You aren’t likely to leave behind a lot of records when you’re illiterate.
  • Census records did not name slaves. They simply gave the age and gender of each belonging to a specific owner.

  • Many female slaves were forced to breed with their white owners. With modern DNA testing, we are starting to piece together those lineages, but the reality is painful to all involved and difficult to prove.
  • After the Civil War, many former slaves took the name of their masters. Others may have simply made up names. This creates quite a mess for genealogists. I have one branch where two sets of Morris families from Franklin County, Georgia kept intermarrying. At first I thought they were incestuous until I realized both groups had likely come from the same plantation.
  • Many families migrated after slavery, but the trails are very difficult to follow as they did not have written records.
  • Many former slaves were poor, and records are always scarcer for the poor. You can forget about a fancy headstone.
  • Blacks were not likely to make the mainstream newspapers even decades after slavery.

Reading all of those barriers, one might be very discouraged about researching African-American genealogy. The harder it is to find records, the more important it is to record the stories. I want my children to know as much about their mother’s side as mine, if possible.  There are some unique records that are helpful in tracing your African-American roots:

Freedman’s Bank Records: The Freedman’s Savings and Trust Company was incorporated in 1865 as a bank for former slaves and their dependents. These records provide names and descriptions of people right after slavery. Great source!


Much of what is known about my wife’s 4x great grandfather, Civil War Veteran Henry Graves, comes from his Freedman’s Bank Record.

Church records: Church traditionally played a huge role in African-Americans communities. Some of these records go back even before the Civil War. They may include former pastors, ministers, membership, or even minutes of business meetings.

Slave narratives: In the 1930s, the Federal Writers’ Project of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) recorded 17 volumes worth of oral tradition from surviving slaves. Obviously most had young in the 1850s, but their stories still give a remarkable description of slavery and the time after.

Benevolent Societies: Organizations such as the Mosaic Templars or Circle of Friends served as insurance companies for blacks after the Civil War and sometimes included neat membership rituals.

African-American Newspapers:  Many didn’t survive, but a lot of the larger ones can be found in archives.

Wills: Sometimes slaves are named in the wills of their owners, but this does not always help establish kinship for family history.

Minority Status: Sometimes it is easier to research an ethnic minority. Many old marriage records listed Colored beside the groom’s name. Browsing a census record is easier if you can ignore all the whites (majority).

All family history is full of tragedy and triumph. When researching the lives of slaves and their legacy, remember the words of renowned poet Maya Angelou in Still I Rise:

Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
I rise
Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear
I rise
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
I rise
I rise
I rise. 

Friendship School atop Morris Mountain in Center Ridge, Arkansas around 1905. These students are the children and grandchildren of slaves who came from Georgia and South Carolina seeking a better life after the Civil War. Shouldn’t someone tell their story?


A Cougar and Her Cubs: the children of Martha Altic Aitkens

Martha Marie Altic (1850-1937) with her granddaughter and namesake, Francis Martha Aitkens (1913-2002, my great-grandmother).

One of my ancestors I find particularly intriguing and tragic is my great-great-great grandmother, Martha Marie Altic Aitkens Mullins (Feb 17, 1850- March 20, 1937).Martha Marie Altic was born on February 17, 1850 near Mulberry, Indiana to Joel Altic and Sarah Sink Altic. I met a distant relative on who claimed Martha was a “full-blooded Indian,” but I have no documentation of this. She married John Calvin Aitkens (1847-1905) in Clinton County, Indiana on April 7, 1870. Around 1889, they settled in Jackson County, Arkansas. After her husband’s death, she married Samuel Mullins in 1908. He was 34 years old and she was a day shy of 58. While a 24-year age gap may not turn many heads today, I have not seen many women in that time period who marry much younger men. Thus, I affectionately call her The Cougar. (I have seen plenty of men in their 60s and 70s who marry 18 year old girls in my research, but that’s a blog post for another day.)


The tragedy lies mostly in the demise of her children. She raised ten children of which she outlived six of them. None of those six even lived to age 50. Grab a tissue box, and I’ll give you a sketch on each of them.

1) Joseph Hugh Aitkens (June 2, 1871- January 9, 1938) is my great-great grandfather. From various sources, he was a land surveyor, farmer, womanizer, Mason, Woodsman, Klansman, and devout member of the Baptist church. Somewhere in there, he found the time to have 4 children with his wife, Susan Koller Aitkens (1878-1956).

The oldest son

2) Sarah Bell Aitkens (abt 1873- May 5, 1921) was the oldest daughter. She married five times. Sarah Bell Aitkens Abbey Reagan Long Casteel Land had six known children, two of which died in infancy. Her third husband was previously married to his first cousin, and he later died of influenza. After she divorced her fourth husband, Hiriam Casteel, he had some difficulty letting go. According to the newspaper account, Casteel became “insane on the subject.” She lived 200 yards away, but moved after he shot at her one day. The court let him go, and he vowed to kill her the next time she came back to the neighborhood. He made good on the threat, shooting her in front of her 12 year old daughter with a revolver. He then shot himself in the heart, crawled to her body, and shot her three more times. (Newspapers provided a lot of details back then). Sarah Bell is buried between her murderer and her third husband in an unmarked grave.

3) Hattie Mae Aitkens died at age 37 and is interred in an unmarked grave.

4) Jessie Pearl Aitkens (1878-1965) probably beat the bad luck of the family because she moved back to Indiana.

5) Mary Ann Aitkens (1880-1960) also moved away, but I did find a great picture of her on

She moved to Missouri. Can’t say I blame her.

6) Manton Marble Aitkens (August 24, 1882- Septmeber 16, 1896). Shortly after turning 14, he was shot in the head by a friend while coon hunting. Another unmarked grave.

7) Nettie Cleveland Aitkens (December 1, 1884- November 8, 1905) died at age 20 just five days before her father. I’m sure there’s a great story there, but Arkansas didn’t begin keeping death certificates until 1914.

8) Joel Henry Aitkens (February 24, 1886-January 1969) is the youngest son. Known as Dock, he was disabled and unable to work or care for himself. His mother tended to him until her death. He then went to live with his sister in Indiana, and after outliving her, he was placed in a residential facility in Indianapolis. While smoking one day, Dock caught his clothing on fire and died from the burns. A happier day is pictured below.

The last 3 survivors

9) Edna Blanch Aitkens (August 9, 1888- September 28, 1916) married and had two children before dying at age 28. Also known as Daisy, she is buried in an unmarked grave.

10) Roxie Charlotte Aitkens (July 25, 1890- September 7, 1890) was the final child born to Martha Altic Aitkens Mullins. She lived about 6 weeks and is buried in an unknown grave.

My relatives had it pretty tough in rural Arkansas in the late 1800s and early 1900s.  I like to imagine this sadness and misfortune is why my great-grandmother was sent to a boarding school in Indiana as a young girl in the 1920s and 1930s. I am sure her parents worked hard to pay for her education because they wanted her to have a better life and more opportunities than many of their kinfolk. She received a high school education and later a college degree.

Great-grandma grew up around a lot of the people discussed above, but for some reason, she never told us all the bad stuff…

Pictures of the Past

I attended two graduations this week, and I realized how drastically pictures differ in our lives than for our ancestors. We can take a picture anywhere or anytime, snap as many as we wish, and then go home and edit them to our heart’s content. Our ancestors did not have this luxury, and, of course, did not even have photographs until the more recent generations. For those mid-late-1800s relatives, they may have only had their picture made once or twice in a lifetime. Having a family portrait or picture was a big deal. As the years passed, pictures were taken more. Without having done any research on the subject, I imagine they were more common in cities and among the wealthy. In the twentieth century, photographs became more common even for the common man but still were primarily for special occasions. They had to be developed and printed unlike today where we can store thousands on a telephone.

Even someone who is not very interested in genealogy will usually enjoy seeing pictures of their long-gone relatives. I have a display in our hall that includes about 50 of our ancestors and it attracts a lot of attention from what few visitors we receive. A picture is worth 1000 words. Old pictures can also add a lot to your family history research.  They can answer questions and help you find more questions you didn’t know you had. You may have heard that the camera doesn’t lie, but I assure you the stories surrounding the pictures are subject to error. That’s if you’re even lucky enough to have any oral tradition surrounding the pictures. It seems like no one ever thought to label who the pictures included or where and when they were taken. I’ve also seen some where people came by later and mislabeled them. My grandmother inherited some old pictures that belonged to her father from his mother (my great-great grandmother) Pearl Feeney Woods Holman (1879-1975). Great-Great grandmother had an amazing collection of very old pictures including a daguerreotype picture, but unfortunately she never considered that she might die and no one would be left to identify these 100+ year old pictures. Too bad…

We know the name of the photographer and his city, but we have no clue who these four handsome fellows are…

Through the magic of, I met my wife’s fourth cousin. A fourth cousin means they share a set of great-great-great grandparents, and in this case, he happened to have a picture of my wife’s 3x great grandmother, Claracy Thompson Bobo Clinkscales (1829-1895). One of the first things I did was to print a copy for my wife’s 92 year-old grandmother. Despite probably being named after Claracy, she had never seen a picture or even heard of her. As a child, she had met Claracy’s son (her grandfather). When I showed her the picture of her great-grandmother, she was delighted. She was impressed with how pretty and well-dressed her ancestor appeared. Of course I was not surprised, as being a fox runs in my wife’s family.

I didn’t write the name across the picture, but I will take what I’m given.

I do not know much about graphic design or Photo Shop, but I did recently learn how to make a basic collage. I like these because they do a great job of showing certain family groups or blending multiple generations and branches. Here are some elementary collages I made a few weeks ago.

My paternal lineage (In other words, kin folk on father’s side)

My wife’s paternal heritage

One last tip: older and distant relatives may not want you to take their photos away to make copies. Instead, offer to simply take a picture of a picture. I take pictures of old pictures on my cell phone, and they turn out pretty good. It is a lot better than being told “No” and ending up with no picture at all.

What do you think about old pictures? Or this blog? Or anything? Leave a comment!

Why Genealogy? Why This Blog?

I like genealogy because it is a big, never-ending puzzle. Even if you found all the ancestors you possibly could, you could still spend a life time following each of their descendants and other relations. As someone with a history degree, I like analyzing data and sources. I think it is important to preserve our past, but I know genealogy is not for everybody. Sometimes when I start mentioning names, dates, and relationships, I notice the person I am talking to is looking for an escape. While genealogy may not interest most people, I think family history does.

Family history goes beyond just endless names, dates, locations, and lineages. It includes stories, artifacts, pictures, and context. Family history helps us to see our family’s movements, struggles, and triumphs in the broader historical context of the time. If I tell you my great-grandfather left Russia in the mid-1910s, that’s just a boring fact. If I tell you he left during the Russian Revolution, that’s a little more intriguing. If I tell you he was a soldier, the story suddenly means a lot more than just the date. Family history is the flesh to genealogy’s bones.

My wife (like most people) has 8 great-grandparents. A few days ago, I gave her a pop quiz, and despite my 18 months of genealogy research, I am ashamed to tell you she could hardly name any of them or their birthplaces. I was excited to see, though, that she remembered stories about them. She knows that one was born a slave in Tennessee and later helped establish the church district she grew up attending. She knows one great-grandfather was supposedly poisoned, and another is buried in an unknown grave. She remembers one great-grandmother was known as Big Mama and another moved to Kansas. That’s family history, and that’s probably a lot more interesting than their names and dates anyway.

I started this blog as a way to share some family history stories as well as my experiences with the discipline of genealogy. I hope to get comments and interest from the people I already know outside of this blog, and get feedback from other family historians as well. I have some ideas for topics such as ancestor bios, how research is done, cemetery preservation, our local genealogy society, African-American research, reasons people do genealogy, genealogy tv shows, family tree field trips, etc. I imagine I will use this space to post new discoveries as I find them and cool, old pictures.

What about you? Anything you’d like to see discussed here? Do you hate genealogy? Leave a comment so I know someone actually read this. At the top of the page, I have permanent links about who I am researching, who I am, and genealogy tools. Take a look!

These poor ladies never had a chance to read a blog, but you do!

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