a tree-rific journey into family history

Archive for the month “July, 2012”

Never Trust Anybody: sifting through the avoidance, lies, mistakes, and secrets taken to the grave in family history research

When I began doing family history research, a friend warned me: “The old people lie.” This lady knew what she was talking about as her nearly 90 year-old grandmother refused to tell anyone who her first husband was. Once we found the marriage date for the second husband, we realized that the first husband might actually be my friend’s real ancestor. I would think that’s something she would need to know, but Grandma is taking that secret to the grave. Most family history interviews I have done (with any age) have been very positive and fruitful. Allowing someone to tell their story will provide lots of valuable information that will not be found on any census forms or county courthouse records. They provide an opportunity to reminisce and remember those people who have been gone for many years. Just realize they are telling you their story the way they heard it and choose to remember it.

Sometimes the falsified stories and records are attempts to cover up situations the old-timers wanted to protect. Often this included paternity, health issues, or criminal activity. In a country where around 40% of children are now born to unwed mothers, many of these stigmas are disappearing. We understand more about mental health, substance abuse, and other hard realities of life. In other words, the secrets great-grandmother kept might not even turn a head today. While I believe in honoring privacy as it affects the living, I suspect most of the secrets the dead held do not matter much today. My 4x great-grandfather, James B. Brown (1810-1905) confessed on his deathbed that he had moved to Alabama after getting in trouble with the law for counterfeiting up North and surviving a shootout. He changed his name to James B. Brown to avoid detection. Too bad he failed to reveal his original name. There is quite a bit of mystery and intrigue surrounding this guy, but that may be an entry for another day. By refusing to reveal his original name, he created a dead-end for my research.

My 3x great-grandfather, Isaac Van (Dock) Brown (1847-1919), was the son of a scoundrel. The criminal activity is not what made him a scoundrel, but, rather, his refusal to pass on the whole story!

While some ancestors lied and falsified records to protect secrets, many simply told what they thought was true. My wife’s great-grandfather, Lenon Hersey Newsom (1897-1970) alternated between two completely different birthdates and appears as Leonard on many records. As if that was not difficult enough, when he applied for a delayed birth certificate later in life, he listed his mother as Beatrice Akers. He also passed this name through oral tradition to his grandchildren.  For a long time, this Beatrice Akers was a huge barrier for me because I could not find anyone close to a Beatrice Akers in Tate, De Soto, or Marshall Counties in Mississippi that matched her. When I finally drove to Tate County and found the marriage record, her name was Beatrice Echols. Lenon Newsom no doubt believed his mother was an Akers, but, unbeknownst to him, he was spreading bad information. He was a small boy when his mother died, and he moved to Arkansas as a young man (reportedly to help his brother relocate after killing a man). He no doubt had little contact with the Echols and simply reported the mother’s maiden name as he remembered it.

Lenon Hersey Newsom inheritated that Akers swagger from his mother which I later found out was Echols swagger!

It really isn’t surprising he did not know his mother’s maiden name. According to this man’s grave, draft card, and signature, his name is Lenon. In his daughter and wife’s obituaries as well his marriage and delayed birth certificates, his name is Leonard. According to his grave, he was born June 5, 1897. On his WWI draft card and Social Security information, he was born February 10, 1897. On his delayed birth certificate, he was born June 5, 1901. Finally, his eight children used no less than three varieties of spellings for Newsom. Welcome to genealogy!

A record is only as accurate as the person who provided the information, and many people will pass on inaccurate history for a variety of reasons. When doing family tree research, never assume anything is true. Always try to back it up with multiple sources, and if you do find some bad information, that could mean there is a juicy story hiding in there.


Walking in Memphis: my great-great grandfather, Harry T. Holman

My great-great grandfather, Harry Thomas Holman, pictured in 1923.

Harry Thomas Holman, my great-great grandfather, was born in Lincoln County, Tennessee on March 26, 1878. He was the fourth of six children born to Civil War Major Daniel Wilson Holman (1832-1885) and Fannie Landess Holman (1843-1923). The Holman roots run deep in Lincoln County as my 5x great-grandfather, Hardy Holman (1774-1826) surveyed and laid out the city square for the county seat, Fayetteville. On July 22, 1901, Harry T. Holman married Pearle Feeney Woods (1879-1975). He graduated from Vanderbilt in 1902 with literary and law degrees and represented Lincoln County in the state legislature. They had one child, Julian Claire Holman (1903-1977), and the family moved to Memphis in 1907 where Harry T. Holman was later appointed Assistant District Attorney.

Harry Thomas Holman I

The Holman family lived in a few spots in Memphis including 1747 Autumn Avenue.

Over the next 30 years, Harry T. Holman practiced law and according to his obituary, “A colorful and popular member of Legal Row, General Holman distinguished himself in many instances in the local courts, particularly in criminal cases.” Although he was likely on the side of the state as assistant attorney general, oral tradition suggests that he made his later career defending criminals. City directories indicate that Harry T. Holman worked for years as a lawyer out of an office in the same building as political boss E.H. Crump during the height of his reign over Memphis. Harry’s son, J.C. Holman, initially followed him into the law profession, but there are rumors that he lost his license in scandal. Perhaps the work was too much for Harry T. Holman as he developed severe stomach ulcers and died on March 13, 1938, shortly before his sixtieth birthday. He is interred at Rose Hill Cemetery in Fayetteville, Tennessee in the shadows of his parents and grandparents.

Obituary of my great-great grandfather. Click to enlarge.

Aren’t You Finished With That Tree Yet: the overwhelming mathematics of your family tree

There are many ways to do family history research. Some genealogists dedicate their efforts to tracing just one surname or one branch. Other family historians focus primarily on direct ancestors but not their siblings or other kids. Others hunt for any blood relatives while ignoring in-laws and step-people. For my own research, I try to get anybody that is connected. If a branch has spent a lot of time in a specific area, they have probably married into many of the same families. Social circles were much smaller in 1880. For example, both sides of my wife’s family have lived in the same rural communities for 120 years. Since there were only so many other African-American families living in the area, I see many of the same last names come into play again and again. I go ahead and research those families too. It takes a lot more time, but it is fascinating to see how some of these groups are intertwined.

Theodore Roosevelt Clinkscale was born December 17, 1902 in Conway County, Arkansas and died August 9, 1985 in Los Angeles County, California. Pictured here is his second wife, Isabella Payne Johnson Clinkscale. She was born February 10, 1905 in Arkansas and died April 29, 1997 in California. I include them here as an example of how some familes are so interconnected. Theodore (known as Theodie) is related to my wife two ways, and his wife a third. This means if they had children, those children would be related to my wife on three different branches. I also included this picture because they look so pretty (another trait that runs through her family).

So when will my tree be finished? Probably never… Let’s say you only researched your direct ancestors and left all those cousins alone, you could confidently get back to maybe your 6x great grandparents on most lines. When you go back centuries ago, there are fewer records, but there are more descendants. This means you have more people trying to research that person than who are trying to research your grandfather, but there are far fewer records to choose from.  Excluding incest, everyone has:

2 parents

4 grandparents

8 great-grandparents

16 great-great grandparents

32 great-great-great grandparents

64 great-great-great-great grandparents

128 great-great-great-great-great grandparents

256 great-great-great-great-great-great grandparents

We’ve got a lot of folks floating around inside us! I traced one line back to my 14x great-grandfather William Jolliffe (born 1530 in Dorest, England). Most lines I couldn’t go back that far, but he happened to be from an English-speaking nation with lots of online records. Besides Papa Jolliffe, I have 65,535 other 14x great-grandparents. I doubt I’ll ever find them.

Even once you go so far back, then coming back down is a challenge. My 4x great grandfather, James W. Holman (1812-1892) and his wife Jean Flack (1810-1888) of Lincoln County, Tennessee had ten known children. Of course, some people have many kids and some few or none, but imagine if each of them had an average of five. That gives James and Jean 50 grandchildren, 250 great-grandchildren, and, ultimately, 31,250 great-great-great-great grandchildren like me. I’ve got a lot of fifth cousins out there, and that’s just one branch!

This entry was not the most scandalous or exciting post, but I hope it gave you some understanding of why a genealogist’s work is never done. As a way to thank you for reading, here are some old pictures!

Gravestone of my 5x great-grandfather John Kinney. He was born May 30, 1775 in Tolland County, Connecticut and died September 21, 1850 in Madison County, New York. Remember, he is just one of 128 great-great-great-great-great grandparents.

Benjamin Cohee is another of my 128 great-great-great-great-great grandparents. He was born September 10, 1788 in Kent County, Delaware and died January 7, 1863 in Clinton County, Indiana.

Henry Graves: black soldiers fighting for freedom in the American Civil War

This past week, we celebrated America’s independence from England. For many African-Americans slaves, independence was not realized until almost a century later during the American Civil War. Many slaves became soldiers during the war and literally fought for their freedom by supporting the Union armies against the rebelling Confederate states. Known as the US Colored Troops, these soldiers made up 10% of the Union army by the war’s end. All Civil War soldiers endured hardships and risks, but these black men were especially subject to cruelty. One of these men was Private Henry Graves, my wife’s great-great-great-great grandfather.

The discharge paper for Henry Graves indicates his suffering from rheumatism. I later discovered this was a common cause for medical discharge in the American Civil War.

Henry Graves was born in Newton County, Georgia in May 1832 to Isaac and Maria Graves. His parents were originally from North Carolina and produced seven known children. Henry eventually married Melissa Ferguson, and they made their way to De Soto (later Tate) County, Mississippi. They had nine children including my wife’s ancestor, Caledonia C. Graves Hardiman (born 1857). After the Union armies captured Ft. Pickering in Memphis, Henry Graves crossed into Tennessee and joined the Northern armies.  He served from November 1864 to October 1865 as a battalion cart operator in the Third Regiment Heavy Artillery US Colored Troops.

There are many great photographs of the US Colored Troops available online. This one of Sgt. Tom Strawn from the Library of Congress site is especially meaningful because he served in the same regiment as our ancestor, Henry Graves.

The Freedman’s Bank Records provide valuable information about Henry and Melissa Graves. Notice the mention of her facial scar.

After the war, Henry worked as a woodchop (1870 census) before moving to Plumerville, Arkansas to farm (1880 census). His daughter Caledonia Hardiman made her way to Plumerville in the 1880s and has many descendants there today. By the 1890s, Henry and his son youngest son Ulysses Graves operated Graves & Son (a fuel company) on Chester Street in downtown Little Rock. Perhaps this was a taste of the American Dream he had fought for some thirty years prior.

I have no pictures of Henry Graves, but this is a picture of his grandson, Rev. Sam Henry Hardiman (1878-1959). Henry Graves fought so that men like Sam here could have a chance at a better life.

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