a tree-rific journey into family history

Archive for the month “August, 2012”

Reading Illegible Records: can you help me?

Many of the best family history records are handwritten. Old census records, marriage licenses, death certificates, letters, and names on pictures can be scribbled in such a way that will cause confusion even if you know what you are looking for. Usually, by the time you get to the documents, they have faded, burned, flooded, and smudged. Even if you can make out the letters, you also have to account for misspelling. Most online databases have been sorted by indexers who tried their best to decipher your ancestors’ records, but they often make understandable mistakes in transcription. I recommend always looking at a copy of the original record if one is available. Speaking of original handwriting, can you help me make sense of these three names?

My great-great grandmother, Pearle F. Woods Holman (1879-1975) left behind a large collection of photographs. Only a few had any identification (such as a family dog), and this one is t0o difficult for me to read. Click to enlarge and give me a guess on the first name. I am assuming Woods for the surname.

Owens Cemetery is south of Plumerville, Arkansas and contains many of my wife’s paternal ancestors. One branch, the White Family, is interred in a large plot about halfway up the hill. Can you find a first name or a date?

My wife’s great-grandmother Myrtis Morris (1892-1926) appears to have been born between her mother’s initial marriage to Ned Freeman in Franklin County, Georgia and her later Conway County, Arkansas marriage to Steward Clinkscale. Since Myrtis used her mother’s maiden name, the best chance I have at finding the father’s name is her death certificate. After paying $10 through the Arkansas Department of Vital Records, this is what I received. The informant is her mother’s husband so I assume he would know the name of his step-daughter’s father. Ben James? Benjamin? I cannot find either of those guys.

Thanks for your help, detectives!


A Short History on African-American Settlers and Communities at Center Ridge, Arkansas

The Sweet Home Church and the Mt. Zion Church, two historically African-American churches in the rural town of Center Ridge, Arkansas, will hold a community homecoming September 1-2. I have been asked to present a history of the Sweet Home and Mt. Zion communities at the Sunday morning service.  Please keep in mind this is still a draft and is ultimately meant to be shared orally at the homecoming.

The Friendship School atop Morris Mountain boasted a large number of pupils in the circa 1905 photograph.

A History of African-American Settlers and Communities at Center Ridge, Arkansas

(prepared for the Sweet Home and Mt. Zion Community Homecoming September 2012)

White settlers arrived in the Lick Mountain Township (a few miles west of Center Ridge) in the late 1830s. Many of these families were staunch supporters of the Union during the Civil War which put them at odds with Confederate rebels in other parts of the county. The city of Center Ridge, Arkansas was founded in 1878. Twelve years later, Center Ridge boasted 250 residents, four general stores, two hotels, a drugstore, a school a mill, and a cotton gin. Most of the African-American settlers made their homes in rural communities outside town.

In the 1870 census, taken a few years after the Civil War, no African-Americans are recorded in the Lick Mountain Township (which included what would soon be Center Ridge). The following decade (1870-1880), the population of African-Americans in Conway County increased over 400%. This mass migration of African-Americans came from many former slave states such as the Carolinas, Georgia, Mississippi, and Tennessee. The following decade (1880-1890), the number of black citizens again doubled. Many of these pioneers were former slaves and their children who sought a better life in and around Center Ridge, Arkansas. They established communities in rural Conway County that thrived for decades. The vast majority of these pioneers were farmers but some also worked as blacksmiths, carpenters, preachers, and teachers. Some received federal homestead grants, and these settlers built schools, churches, and homes around Morris Mountain, Cypress Creek, and Hogan’s Creek.

Churches became the social and spiritual focal point of the communities. Most churches had a large bell to announce special events and deaths in the area. Churches often included cemeteries to recognize those who had passed on. Many early churches services included an Amen Corner and a Moaners Bench. The Mt. Zion Methodist Church was founded in 1879 and is the oldest surviving African-American church in Center Ridge. Early families include the Morris family from Georgia, the Brockman, Clinkscale, Dunbar, Gaylord, Govan, Gilreath, Mayfield, Oates, Roseburrow, and Vaughan families from South Carolina, the Tyus family from Tennessee, and the Foster family.

A picture of an older edition of the Mt. Zion church as taken from their 1979 Centennial Anniversary booklet.

In early September 1891, eleven Regular Baptist churches in rural Conway County formed the Cypress Creek Church District. This new association included five churches from the Center Ridge area: Cypress Creek Church, Friendship, Hopewell, Mt. Abel, and New Hope. South of Center Ridge, the Cypress Creek Church included the Stevenson family from Georgia, and the Garlington and Payne families from South Carolina. On top of Morris Mountain, Friendship church’s early membership included the Crymes, Dooley, Flood, Kemp, Knox, and Morris families from Georgia, the Green family of North Carolina, and the Govan, Langston, McCrary, and Smith families from South Carolina. Between Center Ridge and the Van Buren County line, the Hopewell community included the McFarland family from Georgia, the McDaniel family from South Carolina, and the Green and McCoy families from Tennessee. South of Center Ridge, Mt. Abel (pronounced A-bell) included the McDaniels from South Carolina and the Brown family. New Hope in Center Ridge included the Stokes family from South Carolina. By the writing of the Cypress Creek District History in the 1950s, Cypress Creek church, Mt. Abel, and New Hope were extinct and Hopewell would follow a short time later. The only original Cypress Creek district church from Center Ridge surviving today is Friendship which holds its own homecoming every other year.

The Sweet Home Baptist Church was established in 1897 and early families included the Cain, Knox, and Stevenson families from Georgia, the Hawkins the family from Tennessee, and the Dials, Hemphill, and Rhodes families from South Carolina. The Sweet Home church bell was borrowed years ago by unknown persons, and the church still awaits its return. A Church of God in Christ was later founded in the community. The COGIC organization boasts over seven million members with churches in over 60 nations, and their founder, Bishop C.H. Mason, actually spent some of his childhood in Conway County at the Mt. Olive community.

In addition to, and often as a part of these early churches, these pioneers set up schools for their children. Friendship School sat atop Morris Mountain, Hopewell School in the Formosa area, and Union Special near current day Hemphill and Sweet Home roads. After some of these early schools closed, African-American students in the area were bused over twenty miles away to school in Menifee. Eventually the county schools were desegregated, and the first black student graduated from Nemo Vista High School in Center Ridge in 1968.

The Sweet Home and Mt. Zion communities shared a school called Union Special.

These early families worked, studied, and worshipped in their new communities throughout Northeast Conway County. Their relationships with one another strengthened through marriages and childbirth. The 1920s, 30s, and 40s sent many of these early pioneer families’ children and grandchildren away to seek jobs in urban areas such as Denver, Kansas City, Omaha, and Los Angeles. Whereas in 1890 African-Americans represented around 40% of Conway County’s population, today, they account for only 13%. Though many of these groups are now gone from here, their descendants remain to carry on their legacy.


Sharing Family History… with Your Family!

Family history is best when shared, especially among family. Whether the sharing is a simple story or a large collection of research, communicating such information with others ensures the legacy and tidbits of our ancestors are passed on. While we may sometimes feel ownership over our hard-sought information, the heritage belongs to them as much as it does the person who researched it. The family members may not understand the painstaking effort and time you put into every detail of the family tree, but most will appreciate the overall narrative you made available. Names and dates do not interest everyone, but juicy and provocative stories do. A family history provides a sense of belonging in the greater historical context. The stories of our ancestors bring entertainment, pride, and motivation. Family history helps older family members recognize their role in bridging past and future generations. Younger relatives may recognize better their own heritage and connections to family and community.

Simple Ways to Share

Show Them: People like to see artifacts and records that provide insight into the lives of their ancestors. I have a hallway full of old family photos, and if anyone related to us in any way visits, I make sure to show them. Pictures are wonderful visuals, and I have not found anyone yet who has said, “I do not want to see what my great-grandmother looked like.” Heirlooms, antiques, newspaper clippings, or other items that belonged to someone in your tree make great conversation starters. Show people their heritage.

Take Them: There is a special feeling when standing on the same ground your long-gone family members stood. When sharing your family story, take people on a “family tree field trip”: a journey to the very spots their ancestors lived, learned, worked, and worshipped. A few months ago, I took my aging grandmother on a genealogy journey to a county seven hours away. We saw the town that our ancestor helped build, drove to the old home place (now a horse pasture), and visited grave markers that honored many of our forefathers and mothers. Cemeteries provide great visuals for our genealogical relationships. Last year, I showed my wife a spot where her great-grandfather pastored a church in the 1890s. She grew up seven miles away and had never seen it.

Give to Them: Printing a family tree or family history booklet provides someone with their own copy of your research. I have printed a few booklets for relatives, and most of them seem to take pride in having their own copy of the family story. Obviously a great deal of work goes into a book, and you may discover vital information later. But a printed document can be a real treasure to that person. Even a simple, inexpensive gesture such as printing a photo or pedigree chart could mean a lot to someone.

Share your story. You’ll probably learn something new when you do!

My great-grandmother, Martha Ann Brown (1904-1986) passed on important family history to my father when he was a boy. He, in turn, shared that with me years after her death. She is pictured standing here with her mother Mary Etta Childers (1877-1966) and sister Lola Mae Brown (1908-1945).



My wife’s great-grandfather, Rev. Matthew Hawkins (1858-1922), received a federal land grant for 160 acres in Conway County, Arkansas in 1890. People may enjoy hearing about it, but there is something special about actually going to the spot he homesteaded.

Phillip Clinkscales: the uncomfortable reality of plantation genealogy

Phillip Clinkscales was born April 27, 1826 and died January 22, 1892. He married Claracy Thompson Bobo (1829-1895) and had eleven known children. He and his wife are buried at Shiloh Baptist Church in Anderson County, South Carolina.  Because few records exist for African-Americans born in the South before the Civil War, Phillip’s parents were a dead end to me. My wife descends from Phillip’s oldest son, Steward Clinkscale, who moved to Arkansas in the 1880s and apparently lost all contact with his parents and siblings. Although he dropped the S in his surname, he did name two of his 11 children after his parents. For a long time, his father Phillip was a brick wall until I found my wife’s fourth cousin online. A fourth cousin means they share a great-great-great grandparent. He also told me that the descendants of Phillip and Claracy Clinkscales have a reunion and have worked to document much of their family history.  In fact, their reunion is this weekend in Detroit, Michigan. They had no idea that Steward made his way to  Arkansas and now had a multitude of offspring who knew nothing of their South Carolina roots.

My wife’s 3x great-grandmother. I didn’t put that text over the image, but I was so excited to get this picture. She was the daughter of Olive Bobo (born 1808 in South Carolina).

When I asked the cousin about the parents of Phillip Clinkscales, he told me they suspected Phillip was the mulatto son of a slave-owner and a slave. Oral tradition states that the white Clinkscales looked out for Phillip as family, and census records show he was a literate mulatto who owned substantial property shortly after emancipation. He may have never actually lived as a slave. The cousin put me in touch with a Caucasian Clinkscales from Texas who was doing a DNA project to link the white and black Clinkscales families of Anderson County, South Carolina. I found a local third cousin of my wife’s who qualified for the DNA test (a direct male-only lineage from Phillip), and we met up at a restaurant. As I ate a free steak, the Caucasian Clinkscales swabbed this man’s mouth for a sample. He also told us that several Clinkscales had participated in the study, and the results confirmed they had all come from a common ancestor. He assumes the ancestor is Levi Clinkscales (1782-1845) although it could feasibly be his father, son, or brother. Because of the uncertainty of which white Clinkscales my wife comes from, I have not added them to my family tree yet. Perhaps I hesitate to add this branch because I do not want to admit what we all know was commonplace on the plantation- white slave owners made babies with their black slave women.

Slavery is a harsh part of many family histories, and both the descendants of slaves and slave-owners often deal with some emotional baggage regarding the world their ancestors lived in.  There were different degrees of brutality and humanity allowed to slaves in various situations, but even in the best-case scenario, people were still property. Although some people attempt to romanticize the sexual relationships between slave-owners and their black mates, it is hard to imagine the situation as anything nicer than rape. Even if the enslaved woman was attracted to the man, she was still his property and could legally never be anything more to him. While the owners may have had motives such as increasing their workforce and property value, this certainly does not justify sexual assault. In fact, many abolitionists used these sexual relationships as a reason to end slavery. Perhaps they were sympathetic to the slave families or just afraid of miscegenation. Interracial marriages did not become fully legal in many Southern states until a century after the Civil War, and some stigma still exists today. The mulatto children born to slave owners may have enjoyed some preferential treatment compared to fellow slaves, but legally they were considered black. Many state laws defined blacks as anyone with “one drop of blood.” Even if freed, they lived as second-class citizens at best.

A likely part of my wife’s family history is that one of her 4x great-grandmothers was a slave who was taken advantage of by her married, white master, but another part of the story is the strength of that mulatto son who no doubt overcame numerous obstacles. Records indicate that he was literate, owned a substantial farm, married a beautiful woman, and raised eleven known children.  Many of his descendants are gathering together right now in Detroit for a weekend of celebration to honor of the legacy of Phillip and Claracy Clinkscales. So, I guess it all worked out in the end.

Phillip Clinkscales is interred at Shiloh Baptist Church, southeast of Anderson, South Carolina. Originally founded as Parker Baptist Church in 1861, it is easy to imagine that Phillip was an early or founding member.

My wife’s grandmother is named Classie. Unbeknownst to her, this is a variation of her great-grandmother’s name. On the death certificate of one of Claracy’s children, her name is given as Classie.

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