Category Archives: wythe

Leila Sheffey-Taylor: A life lived in the turn of the 20th Century black press

Part of what drives my genealogy journey is putting flesh to the usual vital statistics details for my ancestors. Vital statistics are unquestionably important.  However, it’s rather dry stuff. For me, it’s about making the ancestors three-dimensional, living, breathing people with personal histories, quirks, and foibles.  You know, the things that make people, well, people. I face the same challenges in researching ancestors who didn’t move among the great and the good as any other genealogist. There is a distinct lack of anecdotal materials, letters, journals, or diaries to achieve this goal.

My Newspaper.com membership, however, is enabling me to catch glimpses of the personal lives for quite a few of my ancestors and ancestral kin.  Actually, that membership is working overtime. However, it’s a double-edge sword.  The lives of my less melinated ancestors and kin who were middle class or wealthy have been fairly well documented in old newspaper clippings, letters, journals, and diaries.  Not so for my ancestors and kin who were poor or people of colour. From my experience to-date, people of colour rarely appeared in your everyday newspapers.  If they did, it was for reasons that weren’t very happy or positive.

Enter newspapers whose audience were primarily people of colour. These papers have proven to be an information goldmine.  They chronicle the social lives and careers for their community – as well as state and national news that directly affected their readership.

leila-a-storm-sheffey

Leila A Sheffey , 1906

When it comes to Leila A “Storm” Sheffey, a cousin who descends from a different Sheffey line than mine, African American newspapers have revealed a story worthy of a Jane Austen romance: a plucky, astute, and educated heroine; solid middle class values; a trip; an illness; a society courtship; and a marriage. OK, this being an Austen story comparison…a good marriage.

The heroine of this real life version of Austen was Leila. Of course, none of the clippings I’ve read explain that ‘Storm’ nickname. Although one of them certainly commented about it. She was the daughter of a middle class NW Washington DC family. In 1899, her father, Isaac Taylor Sheffey, was a successful carpenter while her mother, Laura Ann Woodson, worked for the US Bureau of Engraving.

leila-a-storm-sheffey-visit-10-mar-1899The thing that strikes me about the 1899 article above is a sense of the seeming innocence of a bygone age. It would be inconceivable to print anyone’s full address in this day and age. Yet, there hers is.

Even better, there’s a snippet about her general demeanor: unassuming and positive in a marked degree. It just makes me think of the Parthenon of strong leading ladies amongst Austen’s heroines.  Aspects of Elizabeth Bennett, Emma Woodhouse, Anne Elliott, Catherine Morland, and Elinor Dashwood spring to mind.

The other thing that immediately sprang to mind was the sheer distance and expense of travelling from Washington DC to Des Moines, Iowa. In 1899, that would have been quite the journey by train.  It was definitely an adventure. This too tells me something about her.

The last thing that struck me about this seemingly superficial account was the strength of family connections. George Woodson was the nephew of Leila’s mother, Laura Ann Woodson. George and Leila both had deep roots in Wythe County, Virginia. While Leila’s family moved to Washington DC, George struck out for Iowa.  Both families clearly remained in contact despite the distance between them.  I can imagine the letters that passed between both households in Iowa and Washington DC: catching up on all the usual family news that fill such letters. The fondness, and the bonds between them, were clearly strong.

The article describes Leila’s cousin, attorney George Woodson, as ’distinguished’. His career certainly was.  However, and this will be touched upon in a further newspaper clipping, the paper was conveying another emphasis through the word ‘distinguished’. Leila’s mother, Laura Ann, was believed to be the 3x great-granddaughter of President Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemmings. This Woodson-Jefferson family link is hotly –and I do mean hotly – contested between the Woodsons and the Monticello Organization. In this instance, we have a strong oral family tradition butting heads against a DNA test showing otherwise. Nevertheless, in 1899, this is what was believed.

On her father’s side of the family, she was a great grandniece of Virginia Congressman, Daniel Henry Sheffey (1770-1830), who was quite the politician in his day.

I can only suspect it was these family associations that led to the length of the article. What strikes me is that details of their respective family backgrounds were known. I have to laugh, it took me years of research to reclaim this lost knowledge.

leila-a-storm-sheffey-visitor-28-oct-1904

From 28 Oct 1904, Iowa State Bystander

Between Oskaloosa, Des Moines, and Washington, DC, there are plenty of snippets for Leila like the one above. Whether it was singing at recitals, or fetes, family gatherings, or visits, there’s been a wealth of short print pieces that bring her to life. I’ve included an extra one below:

leila-a-storm-sheffey-visit-24-oct-1902

Her 1906 engagement announcement is simply pure gold:

leila-a-storm-sheffey-engagement-9-nov-1906

Again, there is a hint to another Presidential link.  Her future husband, Dr Charles Sumner Taylor, was believed to be either a descendant of, or cousin to, President Zachary Taylor.

Putting modern American black viewpoints about such associations to one side, as genealogists and historians, we can only view things from our ancestors’ point of view. Generations ago, such family associations clearly meant something. That would be the ‘belonging to the first families of the old dominion’ bit. No matter how we feel about such things today, you don’t get a newspaper article like the one above without such connections meaning something to the reporter who wrote the article, the publisher, and the community in general.

Honestly? There are other parts of the story I find far more insightful. She was a respected court reporter. She clearly worked, and worked hard. In doing so, she earned the respect of her peers. This was no easy feat for a woman in 1906. She was active in her community. And the couple seems to have been generally well-liked and admired.

And, of course, I can’t help but wonder if she met Dr Taylor during her earlier visit in 1899, the visit where she fell ill. Was he the doctor who tended to her? What a story to tell their children and grandchildren. Did that first meeting, and his courtship, lead to her permanent move from Washington DC to Iowa? She’d clearly been resident in the town for a few years prior to her engagement and marriage. Whether this is how their romance happened or not, the newspaper snippets and articles I found for her truly transformed her from a name on my family tree to a living and breathing person.

I heartily recommend checking out both Newspapers.com and ChroniclingAmerica.loc.gob to find your own ancestors’ stories.

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Ann St. Clair of Wytheville, VA: Finding my lost connection to the St. Clair / Sinclair family

Actually, the title of this post should have been finding my father’s and my sister’s connection to the St. Clair / Sinclair / Sinkler family. Their DNA tests have proved a long-held suspicion of mine. It doesn’t look like I inherited enough St. Clair DNA from my DNA test to prove it. That’s the autosomal DNA inheritance roll of the dice for you. If you’re also using DNA tests to confirm and/or discovery family connections, this is another reason to have a number of people from your immediate family do the old spit or swab in tube thing.

In my decade-plus long ancestral journey, DNA testing has unlocked some surprising discoveries. It’s confirmed some things my family knew. It’s also disproved other theories. One thing it’s proven so far is that my African-descended family didn’t take the names of enslavers they liked or who may have treated them ‘well’ within the American chattel slavery system.  Nope, they took the surnames that were theirs through birthright. All of them.

My link to the St. Clair family is via my father’s paternal grandmother, Jane Ann White.

ann-st-clair

I was confident that my paternal St. Clair ancestors from Wytheville, Virginia were somehow connected to the European-descended St. Clair family who were spread throughout Virginia.  This family also includes the Sinclairs and Sinklers.  I will collectively refer to them as the St. Clair family.

The challenge was finding the European-descended man who fathered my ancestral line.

The St. Clair family was fairly straight-forward to research. It’s a well-documented family. It all begins with Alexander “The Immigrant” St. Clair. Alexander was born in 1666 in Glasgow, Scotland. That’s the one thing genealogists and St. Clair family historians can agree upon. Some claim he was related to the St. Clair family of Rosslyn – you know, the family made famous in Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code.  The family who owns that marvelous and one-of-a-kind chapel.   I’m a bit doubtful about that connection.  However, I’m keeping an open mind. Some of Alexander’s direct male descendants have formed a DNA project to prove or disprove this claim (for more information about this project, please visit the St Clair family DNA Research project via http://www.stclairresearch.com)

What is known is that Alexander arrived in Virginia from Scotland in 1698.  He sailed aboard the ship The Loyalty. He arrived as an indentured servant, serving a term of 4 years.

Alexander married Mary Wyman in 1706 in Stafford County, Virginia. Together, they raised a family of 10 children in Stafford County. The detective work would begin with tracing the male descendants of their 4 sons: Wayman, John, Robert and George.

Around two-thirds of the Virginia St. Clair family had moved to Ohio, Missouri and Kentucky by the time Ann St. Clair, my 2x great grandmother, was born in 1830.  I had a drastically reduced pool of candidates to research. In the end, I had a baker’s dozen of St. Clair men who could have been Ann’s father.  This was based on their ages. There was a problem.  All of these men lived in the wrong part of Virginia. When it came to triangulation, they were a match. However, the team felt they were a generation or two distant from where Ann’s St. Clair father ought to have been in terms of shared DNA with my father and sister.

We began researching St. Clairs who lived a reasonable distance away from Wythe County. This search encompassed Grayson, Roanoke, and Augusta. I struck gold in the form of Alexander Robert St. Clair who was a resident of Staunton, Virginia. His children and their descendants were residents of Staunton and Roanoke. His sons were born within a few years of Ann, which automatically ruled them out. We struck pay dirt when the team triangulated the DNA tests from me, my father and my sister against Alexander Robert St. Clair. When it came to my father’s and sister’s DNA tests, there was no doubt that he was Ann’s father. Shared St. Clair DNA matches began to pop up all over the place for my father and my sister (see the screen grabs at the end of this article).  In terms of generational distance and shared DNA, they were as close to a perfect match as we could have wished for. That was one mystery solved.

ann-st-clair2

Now, because this is me and my direct line, there were bound to be some wrinkles. When it comes to my genealogy, few things are 100% straightforward. It’s a good thing I thrive on puzzles, mysteries, and challenges.

The mystery of Alexander Robert St. Clair

Alexander Robert St. Clair has been a longstanding mystery for St. Clair family researchers. It didn’t help that he switched it up between using the names Alexander/Alex and Robert. It took us a while to confirm that Robert St. Clair of Staunton and Alexander/Alex St. Clair of Staunton were the same man. While there has been a general consensus that he was a direct descendant of Alexander “The Immigrant” St. Clair from Glasgow, no one had any idea of how these two men were related. Alexander and Robert were very popular names in the family, which was one clue. However, this was far from being a definitive clue. Nor was it the best clue.

So it was back to the drawing board to determine who his father was. The team had accounted for 98% of the St. Clair men of Virginia and their descendants. Through a process of elimination, we arrived at George St. Clair I (1775-1831) of Botetourt County, Virginia. Triangulation and research pointed to George as the most likely man to be Alexander Robert St. Clair’s father.

alexander-robert-st-clair

Again, once the connection was made, shared DNA hints began to pop up for my father and my sister with other members of George’s family. His immediate family had connections with Botetourt and Smyth Counties (St. Clair Bottom) in Virginia.  This group of St. Clairs in southwestern Virginia were displaced as a result of fierce engagements with Native Americans.  Later incursions with Native Americans could explain why Alexander Robert resided at such a distance from so many of his family. Most of his brothers removed themselves to Jackson County, Missouri as well as Kanawha County, West Virginia. Two of his brothers left for Roanoke with Alexander Robert.

While I would still love to discover a paper document to confirm Alexander Robert’s connection to George, DNA will have to do for now. Too many documents have been lost or destroyed over time for us to ever be certain that any written document will ever be found.

Solving the conundrum of where Ann St. Clair was born

Another wrinkle was my 2x great-grandmother Ann’s cited place or birth.  Her daughter, Jane (White) Sheffey (my great-grandmother ), cited Tennessee as her mother’s place of birth in the 1870, 1880, and 1900 Census returns. Now, there is a St. Clair County in Tennessee.  However, extensive research didn’t provide any connections between St. Clairs/Sinclairs who lived in that county and the St. Clairs of Virginia.  To date, we haven’t found any St. Clairs who left Virginia for Tennessee between 1690 and 1820. To be honest, we’re not sure who that county was named for.

In the end, the team believes that Ann was born in Virginia, either in Staunton, Roanoke, or St. Clair Bottom in Smyth County. Perhaps St. Clair Bottom became confused with St. Clair County in Tennessee when it came to Ann’s birthplace.  Closer inspection of the same information provided by Ann’s siblings (Robert and Phoebe) cite Virginia as their birthplace.  To add an extra wrinkle, I can’t find Ann or her husband Cornelius in the 1870 Census. Ann had passed by 1880.  There are no known death or marriage certificates for her. Her name only appears on her children’s marriage and death certificates. Why Tennessee was cited as her place of birth will remain a mystery.

Determining how I’m connected to the St. Clair family solved the mystery of why I was matching European and African descended members of the Snodgrass, Feazel(l), Shirley, and Patterson families. These families were intertwined the St. Clair family.

alexander-robert-st-clair

My sister’s St. Clair shared DNA hints on Ancestry

There is one caveat with Ancesty’s Shared DNA hints. The accuracy / usefulness / reliability of these hints lay in how well researched online family trees are.  In the instances provided below, I will say that I’ve only used screen grabs from matches with well-documented source materials and citations. On the whole, these individuals and my research team, used the same historical texts and published family history materials that have been scoured over for decades. The St. Clair branches of our family trees are perfectly aligned.

st-clair-dna

My father’s St. Clair shared DNA hints on Ancestry

Ann St. Clair was my father’s great grandmother.  As such, he is one generation closer to her than me or my siblings. So it doesn’t come as a surprise that he would have a far greater number of St. Clair-related DNA cousin matches than either me or my sister.

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The screen grab below is an important one. It not only illustrates Ann St. Clair’s connection to Alexander Robert St. Clair, it also illustrates Alexander Robert’s connection to George St. Clair I, and George’s connection back to Alexander “The Immigrant” St. Clair via Alexander “The Immigrant”‘s son, Wayman (Mary Shirley was Wayman’s wife)..

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Another paternal brick wall smashed: Margaret Clark(Wythe, Virginia)

Hot on the trail of discovering the most likely paternity for one of my paternal 2x great grandfather, Cornelius White of Wytheville, Wythe County, Virginia…I’ve smashed yet another brick wall for a 2x great grandparent in Wytheville.

Another very length spell of DNA triangulation  has provided a strong indication of the man who fathered Margaret…Randolph Fugate Clark. Like Cornelius White, this result isn’t 100% definitive. Again, it has to do with a high degree of endogamy in the European-descended Clark family line. No. Seriously. First-cousin marriages, two brothers from one family marrying two sisters from another family…and those sisters were their cousins…

This meant that quite a few Clark lines share an unusual amount of common DNA. What clinched it for Randolph, in the end, was the number of DNA segments I share with his descendants, and the length of those segments. Family Wills, which  read to track the movement of slaves within this family, also lead to Randolph being the most likely Clark male to have fathered Margaret.

And then matches like these began popping up on my AncestryDNA account.

Fugate-Clark

Now, the hunt is on to determine the identity of Margaret’s mother, who will be one of 5 women mentioned in relevant Clark family Wills and estate inventories.

 

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Genetic Genealogy & Endogamy: Identifying the father of Cornelius White using DNA Triangulation

The paternity of my 2x great grandfather, Cornelius White, has been a mystery ever since I began my ancestral journey in 2010. All I had was the usual information that could be gleaned from online record sources. He was born about 1829 in Virginia, either in Wythe, Smyth or Augusta County. He married Ann St Clair, who was born in Tennessee. Together, they raised a small family in Wytheville, Wythe County, Virginia.

The only census return I could positively associate with him was the 1880 Census, where he, Ann, and their small family is listed. I had hoped to find him in the 1865 Cohabitation Records for Wythe County. Neither he nor anyone else from his immediate family were listed in this invaluable African American genealogy resource. Nor could I find them in Smyth County, another central location for my extensive extended family. Frustratingly, similar records for Pulaski and Augusta, additional counties that feature largely in my southwest Virginia family’s history, have either been lost, destroyed or undiscovered. So I put Cornelius on the back burner. I’d return to him from time to time – only to put him back on the back burner. I just couldn’t make any headway with him.

I continued my overall genealogy research, on a county-wide level, adding more extended families into my tree. At this point, I have most of late 18th Century to late 19th Century Wythe, Smyth, Pulaski and Augusta county family groups in my tree.

Thanks to endogamy (where groups of people marry amongst themselves, creating one large extended family group over time), I’m related to most of the people in these counties – black, white and Native American – with pre-1900 roots in these counties through a succession of cousin marriages from the early 1700s onwards.

This beautiful region of Virginia is nestled within the Blue Ridge Mountains. It’s sparsely populated even to this day. Before the automobile, it would take a day or more to walk from town to town in this region. So you tended to marry who you knew, which was going to be someone in the same community. Which meant you either married a cousin of some description. Or you didn’t marry at all. I’d imagine that newcomers, who mixed the gene pool up a bit, were feted.  I went through something very similar when I moved to a fairly isolated part of Cornwall in southwest England. I was single at the time and invited to every manner of dinner party, church gathering, local dances, parties and saint festival days you could imagine…with single daughters, grand-daughters and nieces being introduced to me left, right, and centre for the first two years I lived there.

Around 18 months ago, an interesting picture was beginning to emerge where Cornelius was concerned.

Both Cornelius and his wife Ann had something to do with Colonel James Lowry White (1770 – 1838) of Staunton, Virginia. Ann, I believe, was owned by James White. James was the Rockerfeller or Vanderbilt of his day. He was one of the richest men in America with vast business enterprises, land holdings and slaves in Tennessee (Knox County, Ann’s place of birth), Alabama (Huntsville, Madison County), West Virginia and Virginia. For now, Ann’s trail has gone cold. A trip to Tennessee will hopefully reveal more information about her and her immediate family in Tennessee.

Cornelius was a different prospect. I just kept returning to the notion that Cornelius and James were blood relations.  James White fathered one known child by my enslaved 3x grandmother, Elsey George (wife of Jacob Sheffey).  Could he also be the father of Cornelius? I wouldn’t have been surprised. I kept looking at the year Cornelius was born (1829) and the year James was born (1770)…and a father-son relationship just didn’t seem likely. I shouldn’t assume that, I know.  I have distant relations who were still fathering children in their 60s, 70s and 80s. And looking at his family tree below, he was clearly still having children by his wife at the time Cornelius was born.

Could these two men be a grandfather and a grandson? That seemed the most likely prospect. I can’t explain it.  It felt right.

It was time to delve in to the DNA matches I had on Ancesty, FamilyTree DNA and Gedmatch.

Endogamy, endogamy, you will be the end of me!

The first hurdle I was face with was this:  a descendant of the old Quaker White family who had originally settled in Cumberland, Pennsylvania, James Lowry White was already my blood relation 3 different ways:

  1. My mother was a descendant of the same family via her Quaker Harlan lineage;
  2. My father’s maternal Roane ancestors shared common Parke, Dandridge, Henry and Carter ancestors with the James’s maternal Lowry ancestors; and
  3. A marriage between James’s half-sister Margaret and my 5x great uncle, Major Henry Lawrence Sheffey, meant an entire Sheffey line were also shared blood relations between us.

So, in his own right, James was already a cousin twice over – as well as my great uncle. He was also a relation through marriage. Let that one sink in for a minute. That is the joy of endogamy. So, no matter how I looked at it, all of his descendants were going to be my cousins. So how was I going to crack finding Cornelius’s father if James and all of his son were already my cousins?

All of their lines were going to be genetic matches to me.

DNA triangulation was going to be the key

DNA triangulation. So what’s that? In autosomal DNA testing, triangulation is the term used to describe the process of reviewing the pedigree charts of people who match on the same autosomal DNA segment(s) to see if a common ancestor can be found. The technique is best used in conjunction with chromosome mapping. It is a long, long process requiring meticulous attention to detail, care and copious notes.

Triangulation has helped me identify a number of white men who had children – and indeed whole second families- with enslaved as well as free women of colour in my family.

This time around, I knew I couldn’t look at any of the men in James’s tree because they were all already related to me.  I had to look at the women who married them and research their families.

First generation descendants of Colonel James Lowry White of Staunton, Virginia

First generation descendants of Colonel James Lowry White. Click for a larger image.

Looking at the abridged family tree above…there were quite a few sons with wives who required researching.  Triangulation was going to take some time. In this instance…18 months!

The reason why it has taken so long is I had to go back anywhere from 5 to 8 generations for each woman who married into the family in order to be certain that I wasn’t genetically connected to any of them. If I was related to any of these women, triangulation wouldn’t produce the result I needed. In other words, I’d get a false positive as a result.

So let’s start with James Lowry White II’s mother, Ann Marie Lowry.

I wanted to start with Ann Lowry to see if I had any matches on her maternal line. I couldn’t look at her paternal Lowrys. I already knew I shared their DNA.  I had to look at her maternal Boggs line.  As far as I am aware, I only have 1 line of Bloggs.  Sure enough, there they were in my DNA matches: Boggs from her mother’s side of the family. This put all of Ann Lowry’s sons, including James Lowry White, in the frame. The only way I could have a combination of White, Lowry and Boggs matches would be via a son, who would have passed DNA from both parents down to Cornelius, who passed enough of this DNA down to me for me to have strong autosomal DNA matches.

However, just to be certain that I should only be looking at the sons of James, I researched the families of Colonel James White’s sisters in law (James II’s aunts) and came up empty handed. I didn’t share any matches with the names in their trees. Now, that could be because none of their descendants have taken DNA tests – or at least not with AncestryDNA. That’s always an option. Or they haven’t uploaded their results to Gedmatch or FamilyTree DNA. Or not enough of this DNA has been inherited for a positive result.

However, thanks to being active on numerous Virginia genealogy-based Facebook groups, I know of descendants from these allied families who have taken DNA tests. Armed with Gedmatch kit numbers to compare, we quickly confirmed that we didn’t share any DNA. I feel safe to say that while I would be a distant relation to these people via marriage, we are not blood relations. Not through their maternal lines, at any rate.

At this stage, I was confident that I had eliminated Colonel James White’s nephews from the list of paternal candidates for Cornelius.

Next, I began looking at Colonel James White’s sons. One of them would be the strongest candidate to be the father of Cornelius.

I eliminated half of them almost immediately. William Young Conn White I died in infancy, so it wasn’t going to be him.

James Lowry White II was a strong candidate, as were his brothers William Young Conn White II, and Francis Smith White. All of the remaining brothers would have been too young to father a child in 1828/29.  Out of 9 brothers, I had whittled the list of candidates down to 3.

As soon as I began researching James Lowry White II, my heart sank. It was my worst nightmare. His wife, Margaret Rhea Preston, wasn’t just a cousin to me…she was a double cousin. I’m related to her on both her Rhea and her Preston lines.

Undaunted, I continued.

I began working on William Young Conn White II’s wife’s family. It wasn’t long before I hit shared families with her paternal and maternal lines in Pennsylvania, Ireland and Scotland. She was another double cousin. I remember looking out my window and muttering “Are you kidding me?” I was seriously ready to walk away from the whole thing at this point.

I turned to Francis Smith White. He presented another kind of difficulty.  I found very little information about him in the official records or the Virginia genealogy books that form the core of my trusted genealogy research resources. I wasn’t overly dismayed about a lack of results for Francis. Born in 1814, I felt that he to would have been quite young to have fathered a child in 1829. Not unheard of, but quite young nonetheless.

With two White family wives turning out to be my double cousins, I was going to have to tackle this from a different direction. I was going to have to compare degrees of genetic separation between me and the descendants of James White II and his brothers.

I began comparing degrees of estimated relatedness and the amounts and lengths of DNA segments that I shared between the descendants of James II and the descendants of his brothers. My matches are between 1 to 2 generations closer when it comes to James II’s descendants when compared to my matches with his brothers’ descendants.  I share more, and longer, DNA segments with James II’s descendants.

The long and short of it is that James Lowry White II is my prime candidate. However, I have to acknowledge that his brothers William and Francis could also be Cornelius’s father.

I know, it seems an awful amount of work to do to not arrive at a definitive answer.  Sometimes in genealogy – and especially genetic genealogy – there isn’t a clear cut answer.  Not when you have endogamy in just about every corner of your family tree.  All you can do is eliminate the impossible and/or improbable and keep chipping away at the probable until you arrive at what will be the most likely result.

That’s all I can do until a death certificate surfaces for Cornelius. That is, if one exists. If he died before the turn of the 20th Century, there most likely won’t be one. The other possibility is that if a death certificate does exist for him, it won’t necessarily follow that the names of his parents were provided. I could be facing my even older nemesis: ‘parents name unknown’. It’s always worth remembering that such records are only as insightful as the information an informant provided at the time.

At least AncestryDNA offered a kind of consolation prize: 2 shaky leaf hints related to Cornelius. These appeared 48 hours after I placed James White II as his father. One hint shows that James II is a common ancestor between me and another of his descendants. The second showing James II’s father, Colonel James Lowry White, is the shared ancestor between me and one of his daughter’s descendants.

That’s about as good as it’s going to get for now!

This exercise is adding more information about the names freed slaves took after Emancipation. So far, the majority of my formerly enslaved ancestors took the name of their  blood relations. They didn’t just adopt a name they liked. Or pull one from the galactic ether. Which, of course, makes we wonder about the handed down notion that freed slaves chose family names of owners they liked or felt had been kind to them. Or merely because they liked a name. If only a handful of my ancestors had randomly chosen names like that, I wouldn’t give it a second thought. My DNA results are suggesting something fundamentally different.

Interesting too are the minority of my ancestors who could have taken a surname based on a blood connection to a family who owned them – and didn’t. A small percentage of those we’re aware of didn’t simply because they either didn’t like, or didn’t want to be associated with, the paternal European-descended side of their family. Instead, they opted for another kinship-based surname.

It’s an interesting area of research.

 

 

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Jemimah Sheffey – figuring out family relationships via census records

Map of Virginia - showing Wythe County

Map of Virginia, Showing Fort Chiswell & Speedwell Counties

Map of Fort Chiswell & Speedwell Counties in Wyth, Virginia

Map with close ups of Fort Chiswell & Speedwell Counties

Sometimes, unexplained inspirations are sometimes the sources of great breakthroughs. If I’ve learned anything through this genealogy journey, I’ve learned to respect my hunches.

I’ve mentioned previously my habit of making notes about family groups that crop up in censes returns.  I do this even if the family group’s relationship to my family tree isn’t apparent.  Chances are favourable that their relationship to my ancestors will become apparent at some point.

I’ve made notes of countless ‘orphan’ Sheffey family groups.  These family groups span from 1800 to 1900.  The other day I was relaxing with a cup of coffee and a pretty simple idea occurred to me.  Why not focus on the 1870 census returns for Wythe, Virginia by printing them out.  I thought it would be a good idea to see how many Sheffeys there were in this county, and if they lived anywhere near each other.  I hoped that having papers laid out on the floor next to each other might unveil something that viewing digitized records on the computer wouldn’t.

My Green credentials cried foul at the amount of paper needed, but this was an idea I was going to run with.

Quite a few print outs later, I duly laid out the censuses returns, in their proper order by house number.  I highlighted all the Sheffeys cited. The table below is a simplified version of the information that I gathered.

Family Group Names Year of Birth Age
(on 1870 Census)
County Name,
Virginia
Daniel Sheffey 1820 50 Fort Chiswell, Wythe
1. Margaret Sheffey (née Clarke) 1822 48 Fort Chiswell, Wythe
Wade Sheffey 1857 13 Fort Chiswell, Wythe
Daniel Sheffey 1844 26 Fort Chiswell, Wythe
2. Mary Sheffey  (née Drew) 1854 16 Fort Chiswell, Wythe
Margaret S. Sheffey 1868 2 Fort Chiswell, Wythe
3. Jacob Sheffey 1825 45 Fort Chiswell, Wythe
Giles Sheffey 1831 39 Speedwell Township, Wythe
Ann Sheffey 1830 40 Speedwell Township, Wythe
Maria Sheffey 1848 22 Speedwell Township, Wythe
4. James K. Sheffey 1852 18 Speedwell Township, Wythe
Riley Sheffey 1855 15 Speedwell Township, Wythe
William Sheffey 1857 13 Speedwell Township, Wythe
John Sheffey 1865 5 Speedwell Township, Wythe
Mitchell Sheffey 1832 38 Speedwell Township, Wythe
Dicy Sheffey 1841 29 Speedwell Township, Wythe
Edmond E. Sheffey 1858 12 Speedwell Township, Wythe
5. Harris C. Sheffey 1858 12 Speedwell Township, Wythe
William Sheffey 1864 6 Speedwell Township, Wythe
Darthoula N. Sheffey 1865 5 Speedwell Township, Wythe
Amelia J. Sheffey 1869 1 Speedwell Township, Wythe
6. Tazewell Sheffey 1835 35 Speedwell Township, Wythe
Jemimah Sheffey 1770 100 Speedwell Township, Wythe
7 Betty Sheffey 1866 4 Speedwell Township, Wythe
8 Joseph B. Sheffey 1868 2 Speedwell Township, Wythe
Alelia Sheffey 1869 1 Speedwell Township, Wythe

What I was looking at more or less spoke for itself.  And to use a cliché, it was one of those jaw dropping moments.

Family group #1 shows my great-great-grandfather Daniel Sheffey with his wife Margaret Clark Sheffey and their youngest child Wade.

Family Group #2 referenced my great-grandfather Daniel Sheffey and his first wife, Mary Drew Sheffey. Mary’s age varies wildly in various census returns and her marriage record. However, I knew immediately who this group were.  My previous research had indicated that Crockett Sheffey (the Buffalo soldier in my previous post) was their firstborn. However, it would appear that their firstborn was daughter Margaret. As she wasn’t cited in the 1880 Census, I can only presume that Margaret died in infancy.

The houses for Family Groups 1, 2 and 3 are all on the same road.  While I knew the relationships between Family Groups 1 and 2, their relationship to Jacob Sheffey was unclear.  It still remains unclear.  Based on Jacob’s age, my guess is that he is either Daniel Sheffey, Sr’s brother or cousin. Jacob lives in a shared household with people bearing different surnames.  Without another Sheffey residing in that household, it’s difficult to ascertain his kinship to Daniel Sheffey Sr.

My attention turned to Family Groups 4 and 5. These families lived next door to one another. I immediately felt that Giles Sheffey and Mitchell Sheffey were brothers.  I researched marriage records on Familysearch.org and this confirmed what I suspected.  Elsi (also spelt Elsey) Sheffey was cited as mother to both on their respective marriage records.  Jacob Sheffey, Sr was cited as father to both on the same records.  So I had my brothers.

Noting counties is an important aspect of family research.  I noted that Speedwell Township and Fort Chiswell Township are neighbouring counties in Wythe.  Looking at distance and ages, I began to suspect that Daniel Sheffey, Sr was Giles and Mitchell Sheffey’s brother.

I returned to Familysearch.org and did a marriage records search filtering on all marriages that referenced Elsi or Elsey Sheffey as mother.  Giles and Mitchell came up again in the results, as expected, with some additional results:  Daniel Sheffey, Sr and Tazwell (also spelt Iazwell, Fazewell and Fazwell) Sheffey.  And again, Jacob Sheffey was cited as the father.

I was pretty excited.  Three previously ‘orphaned’ family groups were now bona fide branches of the family tree.

As for wee Elizabeth “Betty” Sheffey, I have yet to find her connection to the family.  She was living with the Gannaway family, a few houses away from Tazwell and Jemimah.  Presumably, her father was a Sheffey and her mother a Gannaway.

Joseph B. Sheffey and his sister Alelia, were the children of Tazwell Sheffey, who lived a few houses away.  At the time of the census, these children lived with their Hill family relations on the mother’s side of the family.  Further research showed their mother was Tazwell’s wife, Mary Ellen Hill, a free born woman of colour.

My remaining question, apart from Jacob Sheffey in Family Group 3, was Jememiah’s relationship to Daniel, Giles, Mitchell and Tazwell.  Aged 100, it was unlikely she was their mother.  She and Tazwell were living in a communal household with no other Sheffey’s in residence – although they did live next door to Mitchell Sheffey and his family. It didn’t seem likely that she could be an aunt. The idiom “all things being equal…” sprang to mind.  And the answer seems straightforward:  Jemimah is their grandmother.

If this hunch is correct, this would make Jemimah the African-American “mother” of many African-American Sheffeys living in the United States today. There are further hunches which require investigation.  If the census information is correct, there is only one Sheffey who could have been her master: Maj. Henry Lawrence Sheffey (1776 – 1824).  An 1820 Property List shows Henry with 7 slaves.  Unfortunately, only their ages and genders are cited.  However, he is the only Sheffey in Virginia at this early date to own slaves.  Given his moderate wealth, my guess is the slaves in his household came via his marriage to Margaret White. Margaret’s father, Captain James White, was a large scale slave owner…one of the rivhedt men in the country. I believe Jemimah’s story begins with this man.

Jemimah was born in Virginia, and not Africa (accoridng to the census record). Born in 1770, I’m probably 1 or 2 generations away from finding her African ancestry. ‘Exciting’ doesn’t begin to describe how it feels to be on the cusp of that kind of discovery.

The family connections I outlined in the table above could be made mainly because this family didn’t leave the area it was familiar with after the Civil War.  The family stayed.  And more importantly, family members stayed close to each other. It was only through this proximity that I could question their relationship to each other. For me, this is one of the reasons why the 1870 Census is so important for African Americans researching their family.

And to think a cup of coffee and an inspiration could bring to light a potentially marvellous family discovery.

The younger generations of the family still ask why I embark on this journey.  Will we ever know what our ancestors were like, what they thought or what their day-to-day lives were like?  Probably not.  Our journey is part of a much larger journey.  To go from a 100 year old slave woman named Jemimiah to 2011 is a journey the magnitude of which I can only grasp glimpses. The stories that emerge, and are yet to be shared here, are a part of us.  With every name and every tale I learn a bit more about myself as well as my family.

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50 years a slave: the Findley family’s battle for freedom in Virginia

Update 1 May 2014: More information about how Rachel’s story came to light can be found here: 50 Years a slave: Rachel Findley’s story continues to receive media coverage http://wp.me/p1fqOP-jR

UPDATE 16 April 2014:  A search in Google Books yielded some possible answers as to how Henry Clay came to possess the two Choctaw children, Chance and James. Basically, the likelihood of finding one definitive answer is exceedingly remote. The book Kentucky Clay: Eleven Generations of a Southern Dynasty by Katherine R. Bateman covers this subject (http://books.google.com/books?id=ZxScKF_nkyUC&pg=PT45&lpg=PT45&dq=henry+clay+kidnaps+choctaw+children&source=bl&ots=p-0KypKNMf&sig=DzN1ZQLf8I2yTXJt899KMwK5qUs&hl=en&sa=X&ei=_oxNU_C5GOrNsQSkz4D4Dg&ved=0CCgQ6AEwAA#v=onepage&q=henry%20clay%20kidnaps%20choctaw%20children&f=false from Page 28 onwards) . The possible answers to this mystery the book provides have been compiled from witness testimonies and depositions in the various Findley court cases. Taken decades after the actual kidnappings of Chance and James, no two explanations as to how Henry Clay came to acquire the children are the same. Given this was a time before the Choctaws wrote their history down, it is unlikely there is an oral story that has been passed down through the centuries within that tribe. We would first need to know which Choctaw group the children belonged to and what part of the Choctaw territory they lived in. We’d also need to know their Choctaw names, which would not have been Chance or James  those were the names given to them by Henry Clay. Given this pivotal period of Choctaw history (the tribe’s dealing with Europeans) the story of two stolen children would have easily been lost.

Once again it’s the ladies in my family’s tree who provide an incredible detour and a truly remarkable, if not disturbing, tale. The story of Chance Findley and her descendants in Wythe County, Virginia is a multi-generational saga of the fight for freedom from an illegally imposed enslavement.

An email from Rob F, a distant relation through marriage, sent me down another rabbit hole of discovery. His email introduced me to the story of Rachel Findley, an ancestor of Mary Drew, my great-grandfather Daniel Henry Sheffey’s first wife (I’m a descendant of his second marriage to Jane White).

The family tree below charts my line’s connection to the Findley family. Please note, the Findley (aka Findlay) family is too large to include a full family tree featuring all of Chance Findley’s descendants. I’ve traced the direct line of descent for Mary Drew, noting the other children born within each generation of the Findley family for illustrative purposes.

Malinda Findley Cleaver Drew's family tree

Malinda Findley Cleaver Drew’s family tree – click for larger image

 

Rachel Findley: 12 years a slave – and then some.

So how did I come to learn about Rachel Findley?

Mary Drew’s great grandmother, Rachel Findlay, was recently honored by the Library of Virginia as part of their “Women in History” programmes. This is what Rob F wrote to me about in his email. Each year the Library of Virginia develops and distributes educational resources for Women’s History Month. The Library uses this occasion to honor women who have made significant contributions to Virginia’s history and culture. The Library honored Rachel Findley this month as one of those women. Rob F was kind enough to share the award ceremony information with me as well as particulars about the award evening.

Virginia's Women in History 2014

Why did Rachel Findley warrant such recognition? She was among a number of Findley’s descended from an illegally enslaved Choctaw Native American woman, Chance Findley, who successfully sued the Commonwealth of Virginia for their freedom.

Virginia's Women in History 2014

The hows and whys of Chance Fielding’s enslavement remain a mystery. All is known is that in the early 18th Century, one Henry Clay of Virginia brought back a Choctaw girl he called Chance and a Choctaw boy he named Frank. He enslaved both regardless of the laws of the land which prohibited the enslavement of Native Americans.

While other Findley’s legal fights for freedom were more or less straightforward – they sued the Commonwealth of Virginia, they won their cases and they were freed – Rachel’s road to freedom was a bitter one.

Rachel Findlay was born into slavery in the early 1750s in Virginia in an area that would later become Powhatan County. Her maternal grandmother Chance was an illegally enslaved Indian woman. Which meant that Rachel’s mother, Judea Findley, was also illegally enslaved. It’s presumed that Rachel’s father was an African descended slave. His name is not known. Virginia law dictated that the children of enslaved women were also slaves, so Judy Findlay and her children were born enslaved. Rachel Findlay, her brother Samuel, and her young daughter Judy sued their owner, Thomas Clay, on the grounds that because their grandmother’s enslavement was illegal, they were also illegally enslaved.

This suggest to me that Chance remembered who she was and where she’d come from in her early childhood in order to convey the injustice of what had been done to her, and her children, and her ever-increasing family. How her children and grandchildren arrived at the decision to sue for their freedom is unknown. Nor do I know what legal advice they were given or who counselled them. The General Court ruled in May 1773 that they were free. In a turn of events worthy of a Hollywood movie, the Clay family sent Rachel and her daughter Judy west before the court reached its verdict in 1774. The Clay family cynically sold them to John Draper. Draper and his family held Rachel and Judy in slavery in Wythe County.

Bill of sale for Rachel Findley and Judy Findley

Image

Rachel Findlay again filed suit in the Wythe County Court in 1813. Her suit was to obtain the freedom to which she had been legally entitled but had never known much less enjoyed. After seven years of delays and difficulties – and the transfer of the case to the Powhatan County Court- Rachel once again won freedom for herself on 13 May 1820.

Powhatan court verdict for Rachel Findely

The decades of the injustice of illegal enslavement was undone with a simple sentence. This single sentence freed Rachel Findley and Judy Findley. Image courtesy of Rob F.

Chance Findlay’s approximately forty descendants- which included her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren – were therefore legally entitled to become free too. Freedom was not automatically granted to them even in the face of the illegality of their enslavement. Several of Chance Findlay’s descendants successfully sued for their freedom. Others may have never known about the suit and its outcome, or were prevented from also suing for their freedom; regardless, they remained enslaved.

Summaries of the numerous Findley suits against the Commonwealth of Virginia can be found here:

Image

http://books.google.com/books?id=JcF6E75ZAeUC&pg=PA487&dq=rachel+findlay,+indian,+virginia&hl=en&sa=X&ei=Ml9FU9D7D8O-sQS58YGwBw&ved=0CDkQ6AEwAw#v=onepage&q&f=false

Malinda Findley Cleaver Drew: 19th Century Virginia adds insult to injury

There is another side of Virginia’s history of slavery, one that further impacts on the Findley family’s history. According to Virginia law, slaves freed after May 1806 were required to leave the state within one year or face re-enslavement. Newly emancipated slaves could petition the State to remain, however, approval for such petitions was by no means guaranteed. Virginia simply did not want a large population of free blacks.

And so it came to pass that Malinda Findlay Cleaver, the grand-daughter of Rachel Findlay’s daughter Judy, was sued by Virginia for not leaving the state upon the attainment of her freedom. It’s worth noting at this point that many from the extended Findley family had left Virginia for the mid-West when they won their individual freedoms from the courts. Rachel, Judy and Malinda chose to remain. Malinda’s full case paper is available for review here:

Image

http://books.google.com/books?id=VvGRAAAAIAAJ&pg=PA238&dq=malinda+cleaver,+virginia&hl=en&sa=X&ei=NFtFU7jZDNWwsQTSy4GwDg&ved=0CC0Q6AEwAA#v=onepage&q=malinda%20cleaver%2C%20virginia&f=false

In the end it wasn’t the illegality of her childhood enslavement that saved Malinda from either imprisonment, re-enslavement or a fine. It was the fact that the 1806 Act, which decreed that freed slaves must leave Virginia within a year of their freedom, wasn’t ratified until many years after she’d already been freed. In other words, it wasn’t ratified until after she had been freed. Therefore, she was not bound by its conventions. She remained in Virginia where she would marry Lewis Drew, son of an old, established family of free blacks, and presided over her family.

The court proceedings didn’t serve to further enlighten me on the nature of slavery nor the injustices or corruption that were rife within it. Nor its fundamental inhumanity. I’ve been well schooled on such things already. These court proceedings, as unfortunate and as unnecessary as they were, provided invaluable genealogical information. I would go as far as to say I wouldn’t have been able to construct the Findley family tree without them. I would have known by the family name that various Findley’s were connected to one another. These papers and proceedings told me exactly how the various family groups were related to one another.

More interestingly still is the emphasis on the women. Nowhere have I been able to find information about them men who fathered four generations of Findlay women’s children. It’s not surprising if my assumption that they were enslaved men of African descended slaves is correct. These men, the sons of enslaved African women, could never have their status as slaves overturned and, as such, would be irrelevant to any court proceedings. So their existence is as much a void in the court papers as they are in the Findley family tree I’ve researched.

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The 1926 Lynching of Raymond Byrd Part II

The August 1926 lynching of my second cousin twice removed, Raymond Arthur Byrd, remains one of my most read posts. Every week. Thanks to Google Analytics, I’ve been able to monitor the reach with posts relating to Raymond’s story. It doesn’t surprise me that Black History/Studies academics have read it. I can gauge this from all of the readers accessing the original post from university computers (e.g. IPs associated with accounts like .edu and .ac.uk). The NAACP has certainly read it. As have journalists from CNN, Al Jazeera, the BBC the UK’s Channel 4, Italy’s La Repubblica and the French newspaper Le Monde. It’s also been read by people at Twentieth Century Fox. It’s reach led to a British PhD student to get in touch with myself and one of Raymond’s descendants as part of her research into race issues in America.

This is a widely read story.

I’ve published one chapter of the story. That post covered  the circumstances which led up to Raymond’s lynching (Love and Lynching in Wytheville: Raymond Arthur Byrd https://genealogyadventures.wordpress.com/2013/06/26/love-and-lynching-in-wytheville-raymond-arthur-byrd).

I’d drafted a second chapter which discussed the immediate aftermath and the effect it had on his wife and children. I’ve never been able to bring myself to publish it. However, the poem written by Raymond’s widow, Tennessee “Tennie” Hawkins speaks to this far more eloquently and poignantly than I ever could:

In the cemetery at Murphysville where the flowers gently wave
Lies the one I love so dear in a cold shallow grave.
Folks may think I have forgotten and may think the wound has healed,
but they do not know the sorrow that is in my heart concealed.
I do not know the pain he bore
I did not see him die,
but this I know,
he had to go and did not say goodbye.
Sleep on, Sleep on, early fallen in your green narrow bed.
I will see you in eternity where no more goodbyes are said.

picture of WWI veteran Raymond Arthur Byrd with his wife, Tennesse "Tennie" Hawkins. Image courtesy of Anthony Q.

WWI veteran Raymond Arthur Byrd with his wife, Tennesse “Tennie” Hawkins. Image courtesy of Hayes family and Anthony Quinn. This image is subject to copyright protection. Permission is required for use.

With a story as horrific and tragic as this, there is always more to be told. This is a painful story. Raymond’s descendants still feel the pain of his loss and the circumstances behind that loss. So needless to say they are not always up to the task of discussing it. No one wants their family defined by personal events like this. His descendants have been. And that is a hard past to live with.  I write this update mindful that thousands perished in the southern states due to lynching:  African Americans, Irish, Italians, Hispanics and Chinese. The pain of Raymond’s family is one that too many families will be all too familiar with.

Raymond’s lynching was big news in America in 1926. Time Magazine and several newspapers around the country wrote several articles about it. I’ve embedded a number of contemporary articles at the bottom of this post.

My cousin Anthony Q recently provided more information about the aftermath of Raymond’s lynching.  Anthony’s wife is Raymond’s direct descendant. Anthony has provided a glimpse into an aspect that I’ve never really thought about: how did those who did the lynching live with themselves afterwards? 90 years later people are still uptight speaking about it.

I’ve seen pictures of lynch mobs. All those proud and smiling faces. Seemingly righteous and congratulatory  in their actions. I’m now asking myself if this was always the case. I’ll let Anthony’s own words do the talking:

Raymond Byrd, Wythe County, Virginia, was lynched (shot in the head, beaten about his head, dragged from his jail cell and taken about 9 miles and hung from a tree near a church) in 1926. He was a married man, age 31, veteran of WW1, of 3 daughters. He became involved with a young white woman (employer’s daughter) and she was impregnated by him. They hid the pregnancy but tried to find a home for the baby. They eventually found one.  However, by then, the walls were caving in.

The white woman’s [Minnie Gubb] father and locals found out about the affair. They tried to coerce the young woman to lie and say he raped her. She wouldn’t do it. They then made her 12-year-old sister lie and say he ‘came after’ her. This statement in hand, locals arrested him on these charges. After threats, and people warning to move him to a jail where he would be better protected were ignored, 50 white men in masks came in the jailhouse that night (sheriff/deputies somehow were nowhere to be found) got the keys and brutalized and killed him in a manner to warn other African Americans who thought about stepping out of what was deemed acceptable in that town.

Minnie never got along with her father after the killing and had as little as possible to do with him.

Floyd Willard was the only man indicted by a Grand Jury for the lynching bragged about being involved. He was acquitted after only ten minutes of deliberation during the trial on July 19, 1927. His family lied and said he was home during the whole time of the killing.

Walter White, later head of the NAACP, helped the family to investigate the murder.


Click for larger image.

It’s the next piece of the story that Anthony recently shared that really hit me.

Talking to descendants and others, most of the men involved [in the lynching] all died terrible deaths. There was a case where a man was on his death bed saying, “Raymond Bird! Leave me alone. Leave me alone! Help me someone. Get him out.” I’m not sure how true this is, but many people I spoke to who don’t know one another told similar stories about how some of these men died. Many of them seemed to be haunted by [Raymond].

Haunted. In its rightful context, it’s a powerful word. And apt. The more I learn about this part of my family’s history, the more the facts reveal themselves, the more I realize that no one came out of this unscathed.

While a social and legal justice did not serve Raymond or his family, another form of justice seems to have prevailed on those who killed him.  That’s where I’m going to leave this post.

Note: I expect there will be a number of comments for this post. Please note that I read and approve every comment before it’s published. I also check each and every backlink to Genealogy Adventures posts. There will be a short time lag (usually an hour or two) before comments are published and/or backlinks approved. It’s a very sad commentary of our times that just because something can be said – no matter how incorrect, faulty or just plain nasty – doesn’t mean that it should be. So I take these measures to ensure that this blog remains respectful and, well, a safe place for conversations to be had and viewpoints shared.

I’ve provided clips below to indicate the scale of this story in Virginia and the rest of the country. The clippings are courtesy of https://www.newspapers.com. Please click on each to see a larger image. Raymond’s surname was changed from Byrd to Bird. It’s a guess, but I’m of the mind that this was done to disassociate Raymond from then Virginia Governor, Harry F Byrd, who may or may not have been a distant relation.

Clippings

The first article below shows how quickly misinformation spread. The 3 children mentioned in this article were most likely the daughters he had with his wife, Tennie Hawkins. He only had one child with Minnie Grubb, also a daughter. Despite claims made at the time, Minnie was the only other woman Raymond had relations with.

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My working practice for my African American genealogy research

This post is a glimpse into my working practices when it comes to researching black ancestors who were enslaved. On the one hand, it will probably look like Olympic standard mental gymnastics. On the other, I hope it gives a good framework for other African Americans researching their own enslaved ancestors.

In this post, I’m going to concentrate solely on my Sheffey ancestors in Wythe County, Virginia.

A tale of a very tight knit family

Part and parcel of researching ancestors who were enslaved is acquiring knowledge about the family who owned them. Any chance of discovering such ancestors can only be accomplished through the records kept by slave owners. Our enslaved ancestors’ lives were inextricably linked to their owner’s family. Obvious, I know. Still, I’m stating this for a specific purpose. My enslaved Sheffey ancestors were kept together within the extended Sheffey family. I have no overall understanding of how usual or unusual a practice this was. The fact that the black and white sides of the Sheffey family were related may have had a part to play in this. With an increasing knowledge of the beliefs and quirks of the slave owning Sheffeys, I wouldn’t be surprised if this kinship was behind keeping my black Sheffey ancestors and relations together.

Not only was the family structure of my enslaved Sheffey ancestors and relations kept intact, it definitely seems as though the extended black Sheffeys were in regular contact with one other. It makes sense. My white Sheffey ancestors and kin were a close knit and very sociable bunch of people. Going from family home to family home, with slaves in tow, seems the most obvious way my black Sheffey cousins kept in regular contact with one another and maintained their closeness.

How do I know the black Sheffeys were every bit as tight knit as their white counterparts? The 1870 Census. Whether it’s Wythe County towns like Wytheville, Cripple Creek, Ivanhoe or Black Lick (and Marion in neighbouring Smyth County) – there they all are, my black ancestors, all living near to one another. And through numerous marriage records showing second and third cousins from the different Wythe County towns (and Marion) marrying one another.

In other words, it wasn’t the habit of Sheffey slave owners to split the families of their black relations apart. Which has made researching my black ancestors an easier task than if they had been sold all over the southern states. Research is showing that my black Sheffey ancestors and kin were passed, intact, by my white  Sheffey kin to other Sheffey family members in their Wills.

An example of how I identify which Wills and probate records I'll need for my research. Click for larger image.

An example of how I identify which Wills and probate records I’ll need for my research. Click for larger image.

Now all I need is to find the Wills to actually prove this. Which segues quite nicely back to my opening sentences.

Enter genealogy: Focusing on the oldest known generation of back & mulatto Sheffeys

Let’s take a look at the oldest known members of my earliest known black Sheffey ancestors.

Snapshot putting my oldest known black Sheffey ancestors into context. Click for larger image.

Snapshot putting my oldest known black Sheffey ancestors into context. Click for larger image.

I’m going to focus on three people: Jemimah, her son Jacob Sheffey and his wife, Elsey George.

Once you’ve identified an owner for an enslaved ancestor, it’s a good idea to do a rough work-up of that owner’s family tree. Slaves were usually passed from generation to generation. Doing a genealogical work-up of a slave owner and his family can provide clues about your enslaved ancestor’s genealogy – identifying siblings, parents, aunts, uncles, cousins to additional children they may have had.

Once you have done an outline of a slave owner’s family tree, the next step is to find any Wills, estate records, estate inventories (usually done as part of the probate period), tax records, letters and journals – anything that might make reference to slaves by name.  I have uncovered previously unknown family lines through this practice.

If an enslaved ancestor lived to an advanced age (say, seventy or older), and appears on the 1870 Census, you stand a good chance of tracing who owned them when they were born and then all the subsequent family members who owned them and their family. The caveat is this works so long as they were kept within the same family.

I find that it helps my research if I draw some outlines of inter-connections and relationships between enslaved ancestors and how they connect to various owners. Visual aides always help my research. Like the working example below:

Outline of black and white family connections. Includes avenues to investigate to identify Godfrey Taylor Sheffey's parents. Click for larger image.

Outline of black and white family connections. Includes questions to answer and avenues to investigate to identify Godfrey Taylor Sheffey’s parents. Click for larger image.

The image above is a working outline I’ve shared with some Sheffey DNA cousins trying to place their ancestor, Godfrey Taylor Sheffey, into my overall Sheffey family tree. We know there is a connection. The men in their line bear an uncanny resemblance to me and many of the men who are descendants of Jacob Sheffey and Elsey George. Seriously! It’s like the men in Jacob’s line were cloned!

Through plotting the image above, it’s my hunch that Godfrey Sheffey’s parents were Jacob Sheffey and Elsey George. Laying out all the known, pertinent facts – as they have been in the image above – just makes that hunch even stronger.

However, the image above serves a few purposes. There is more within it than meets the eye at first.

Jemimah’s origins remain a mystery. By that I mean I have no clue who owned her when she was born in 1770. This void means I have no clue about who her parents were, or the identity of any siblings – or what family name her family would have used. Her early life requires a lot more work. She was born before the second generation German-American Sheffey’s (e.g. Daniel Sheffey and his brother Henry Sheffey) arrived in Virginia and became save owners. Daniel and Henry were still children themselves in Frederick County, Maryland. So she couldn’t have originally been owned by them. I’m hoping a trail of Virginia Slave Deeds of Sales will lead me back to her first owner.

Some Deductive Reasoning and Critical Thinking

Now the next bit requires deductive reasoning and critical thinking. These are not ideal tools of the genealogist. However, my previous critical thinking and deductive reasoning has led to some remarkable genealogy breakthroughs.

Our enslaved ancestors’ stories are inextricably linked to the story of the families who owned them. This includes their Properties and Places of residence – I refer to this as P&P.

Here’s a working example:  In order for Jacob and Elsey to have a ‘union’ and produce children, they were more than likely resident within the same Sheffey household. So which one? My thinking is that Jacob and Elsey were owned by Henry Sheffey. And here’s how I came to that deductive conclusion:

  • Elsey’s first child was by James Lowry White, Henry Sheffey’s brother-in-law. Elsey and James were both teenagers when that child was born. So it makes sense that she was owned by James’s father, William White, and not by James. Carrying this deductive reasoning further, it seems highly probable that Elsey was born into William White’s household. William White more than likely also owned her parents and siblings – I’ll come back to this in a bit**.
  • Elsey more than likely became a part of Henry Sheffey’s household through his wife, Margaret White. I’m guessing that Elsey was part of an inheritance. And she came with her first born, the son she had with James White. In order for Elsey to meet and be courted by Jacob, I can only see this if he was already established in Henry Sheffey’s household.
  • If Jacob was already part of Henry Sheffey’s household, there is a strong likelihood that Jemimah, his mother, was also part of this household.

Now deductive reasoning requires a paper trail in order to convert reasoning and deduction into fact. Henry Sheffey has stymied me in this. He died fairly young. Some of his sons were raised by his brother, Daniel Sheffey, while others were raised by his brother-in-law, James White. If Henry left a Will, I haven’t been able to find a copy of it. Nor have I been able to find any reference to a Will. Nor have I been able to find any probate or estate inventory papers. This means I have no idea what happened to my ancestors when he died. Did his sons inherit them? Were they held in trust by the boys’ guardians? I don’t know. In short, there is no paper trail to follow…yet.

Jacob and Elsey had their first child while Henry was still alive (this was my 2nd Great Grandfather, Daniel Henry Sheffey, Sr). Jacob and Elsey’s remaining 5 children were born after Henry Sheffey’s death. Jacob and Elsey were clearly together. But where? In whose household? That remains a mystery.

What I do know is the trail picks up in the Wythe and Smyth Cohabitation Records that were compiled in February of 1866. The Cohabitation Records cite the last slave owner for each formerly enslaved person cited within it. And many of my Sheffey ancestors and relations are listed within these documents. By and large, all were owned by members of the extended Sheffey family.

In this image, I'm focussing on the central figures in this specific research exercise. The diagram shows inter-relationships between the black and white sides of the family, with contextual notes and questions. Click for larger image.

In this image, I’m focussing on the central figures in this specific research exercise. The diagram shows inter-relationships between the black and white sides of the family, with contextual notes and questions. Click for larger image.

Intricately Connected Lives

Last Wills and Testaments would answer so many of the questions that I have. And these are proving stubbornly elusive. Wills for Henry and his brother Daniel would answer quite a few. Their children’s Wills won’t provide any answers.  They all died after the end of the Civil War. There were simply no slaves for them to bequeath. Added to this, not all of their children, notably the Reverend Robert Sayers Sheffey, owned slaves.

The two Wills I have mentioned, however, would shed some light on:

  • Which of Henry and Daniel’s children inherited family slaves before the onset of the Civil War
  • How my family members came to be with extended family members like the Morrisons, Spillers, Robertsons, Sanders and Porters.

Knowing this would better enable me to understand how formerly enslaved Sheffeys came to reside where they did within Wythe and Smyth Counties. In other words, this knowledge adds missing context to their lives and their histories.

**Now, back to Elsey George, her family, and how their lives were so closely entwined with that of the White family (let’s not forget I’m related to this family too through my mother’s Harlan lineage!).

William White owned extensive land holdings and enterprises throughout Virginia as well as Kentucky (Harlan County) and Alabama (Hunstville, Madison County). His son, James White, expanded upon his father’s business and became one of the wealthiest men in the southern states. William and James moved slaves throughout their various estate holdings in Virginia, Tennessee, Kentucky and Alabama. And in all the places they owned property, I find members of the George family.

Every. Single. Place.

It’s going to be quite the adventure to stitch the George family story back together. I have yet to find a copy of William White’s Will. James White died intestate. However, his billion dollar estate (in today’s money) resulted in a long and protracted lawsuit between his heirs. His estate holdings, if reports are accurate, were well documented as part of this lawsuit. And I’ve found where all of his estate and personal papers are kept: The University of Virginia Library http://ead.lib.virginia.edu/vivaxtf/view?docId=uva-sc/viu00730.xml This collection will be a goldmine of information when it comes to piecing together the George family tree. I’m also hoping it will shed some light on Henry Sheffey’s estate, including which family members inherited Henry Sheffey’s slaves.

 So, let’s recap.

There’s no getting around it. You have to do some genealogy work on the family or families that owned your enslaved ancestors. Yes, it’s extra work. Rather a lot of extra work, if the truth be told. In my case, it was part and parcel of my family genealogy research because the people who owned my enslaved Sheffey ancestors are blood relations.

Once you’ve done a genealogical outline of the family who owned your ancestors, the next thing on your list is to track down any existing Wills or probate estate inventories that will cite and list the slaves. Provided your enslaved ancestors were kept within the same family for generation after generation, you can trace them from place to place, and by    generation after generation.

 

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Isaiah Francis Grubb & Melinda Straw: a tale of love across 19th Century colour lines

I’ve been spending some time researching my distant Sheffey relations in Wythe County, Virginia. Specifically, I’ve been researching the free families of colour these relations married into. My research gave me a genuine ‘wait, what?’ moment the other day.

This moment came via an 1870 Census return for Isaiah Francis Grubb and Melinda Straw, which you can see below:

1870 census image showing Isaiah Francis Grubb, Melinda Straw and their family in 1870

Isaiah Francis Grubb, & Melinda Straw with some of their children and grandchildren in 1870.  Source Citation:
Year: 1870; Census Place: Black Lick, Wythe, Virginia; Roll: M593_1682; Page: 406B; Image: 192; Family History Library Film: 553181 |  Source Information:
Ancestry.com. 1870 United States Federal Census [database on-line].

I did a double take when I saw Isaiah’s race listed as ‘white’. Everyone else in this household is listed as mulatto. While I can’t find a marriage certificate for Isaiah and Melinda, they were clearly openly living as man and wife. This was illegal in the State of Virginia of 1870.

If they weren’t legally married, Isaiah clearly acknowledged his children by Melinda. All bear the name of Grubb. To date, I’ve found very little about Melinda Straw in the official records prior to 1860. Most bearing the Straw surname in Wythe County between 1800 and 1870 were white. How she is related to the handful of other mulatto Straws in the same county remains unclear.

A union that broke long-standing state laws.

I won’t go into the history of anti-miscegenation laws in the US. There’s a great Wikipedia article that covers this: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anti-miscegenation_laws_in_the_United_States . Suffice to say that from the 1660s onwards, it didn’t matter whether two people from different races were officially married or not – unions between two people of different races was illegal. It was punishable by flogging, fines, imprisonment or a combination of all 3.

I recall Henry Louis Gates, Jr covering his own family tree in his TV series Finding Your Roots. He shared the story of a white male ancestor with a black wife and mulatto children in a census return. This wasn’t as uncommon as it sounds. Like others in similar circumstances, white men and women living with spouses of colour most likely adopted a false mulatto identity to live peaceably and without threat of prosecution from the authorities.

Isaiah Grubb, then, would be appear to be openly defiant in this regard. And that was no small feat for a man breaking the law in the Wythe County of the early to mid 1800s. It was a very rural community. Everyone knew everyone else. And no matter how fair his mulatto common law wife may have been, she was still not white. They were breaking the law. And everyone in this community would have been aware of this.

image of Isaiah Francis Grubb family treeGoing back in time, his tale grew even more interesting. The first known child of Isaiah and Melinda was Alfred Grubb, born in 1836. This gives an indication of just how long Isaiah and Melinda had been together. However, in 1860, Isaiah isn’t living with Melinda, although all 11 of their children had been born by this point. Instead, Isaiah is living in his father Lewis’s household. Interestingly, there is a James Jackson, a free mulatto, also living in this household. James Jackson would go on to father at least one child with one of Isaiah and Melinda’s daughters, Frances “Fanny” Grubb.

James Jackson is a mystery. How he came to be in Lewis Grubb’s household is a mystery. Was he related to the Grubbs or did he work for them? The census return provides no answers. Lewis Grubb and his family, it would seem, were pretty relaxed when it come to race relations. It’s pretty remarkable.

The 1850 census also shows Isaiah in his father’s household, cited by his middle name, Francis. He resides with his father all the way back to 1820.

I ask myself what changed between 1860 and 1870 for Isaiah to leave his father’s house to set up house with Melinda. Channeling my inner romantic, I figure he was a man getting on in his years who simply wanted to live with the woman he had loved all his adult life. He wanted to finally live with the mother of his children. His father Lewis died in 1861. Perhaps he waited until the passing of his father to live the life he wanted.  I’m guessing that not hiding his race in the 1870 Census was an act of quiet defiance.

If anyone didn’t like it, that was just their tough luck. That’s my guess. Right or wrong, I like him for it.

Trying to put American miscegenation laws into an overall context

an illustrative image showing an American interacial cople in the mid 1880s

This is an illustrative image. The picture shows James William Evans (1814-1883), his wife Mary Eliza Hoggard, and their children William, John and Mary Evans. Mary Eliza Hoggard was a descendant of the free African American Cobb and Bazemore families of Bertie County, North Carolina. James William Evans was from Dorchester County, Maryland. Source: http://www.beyondblackwhite.com

I’ve tried, in vain, to find a ball-park figure for the number of couples in America charged with marrying someone from a different race or living as common law man and wife from the mid- to late 1600s (the period when universal passage of miscegenation laws were passed in all 13 colonies) until the landmark Lovings vs Virginia Supreme Court case in 1967. I haven’t been able to unearth a number. I haven’t been able to even find a ballpark figure – or an educated guess. That’s not to say that I haven’t found plenty of cases and instances. I just haven’t been able to find a definitive figure that says between 1690 and 1967 ‘X’ number of people were charged and indicted under American miscegenation laws. Without a figure, I can’t gauge how widespread or commonplace miscegenation prosecutions were.

So I’m struggling to put Isaiah and Melinda into an overall context. They weren’t unique. The degree of their lack of uniqueness, however, remains elusive and unquantifiable.

So to round things off, I’ve compiled a couple of factoids about miscegenation laws in the US:

  • Maryland was the first colony to pass a miscegenation law in 1664. It was pretty draconian. Any white woman who married a man of colour faced being enslaved herself. The children of such a union were also to be enslaved. The law failed to state what would happen to white men who married black women.
  • Virginia banned interracial marriages in 1691. Those charged under its law face banishment, death and heavy fines.
  • Pennsylvania becomes the first state to repeal its miscegenation laws in 1780
  • Massachusetts becomes the second state to repeal its miscegenation laws in 1843.
  • 1871: Missouri Representative Andrew King proposes a Constitutional Amendment banning all interracial marriages. It’s the first of 3 attempts. Georgia Representative Seaborn Roddenbery would try in 1912 and South Carolina Representative Coleman Blease would try in 1928. All 3 Representatives were Democrats. This must be the ‘3 strikes and you’re out’ rule. Blease’s attempt was the last attempt at a miscegenation Constitutional Amendment.
  • 1998: South Carolina officially removes its state constitutional ban on interracial marriage.
  • Alabama is the last state to officially remove its miscegenation laws…in 2000.
  • An April 2011 poll of Mississippi Republican primary voters asked “Do you think interracial marriage should be legal or illegal?”. The responses were “Legal” 40%, “Illegal” 46%, and “Not Sure” 14%

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Martha Ann Fowler Hill: Smashing genealogy walls with the correct maiden name

Martha Fowler Hill is an important linchpin in my black Wythe Sheffey family story in the township of Speedwell, Wythe County, Virginia. And while this post is really about her daughter, Martha Ann, Martha certainly had her role to play in this interesting discovery.

Image of map location for Speedwell Township, Wythe County, Virginia

The red pointer marks the location of Speedwell, Wythe County, Virginia. It is a very, rural and sparsely populated area of southwest Virginia.

Two of her daughters had children by two of my 2x great grand uncles. Mary Ellen Hill married Iazwell Sheffey. And her sister, Martha Ann, had William Royal Sheffey Hill with Iazwell’s brother, James Zachariah Mitchell Sheffey.

Martha Fowler Hill’s son, John Joseph Hill, also married a Sheffey cousin, Laura Elizabeth Carpenter.

Suffice to say that roughly half of Martha Fowler Hill’s children married Sheffey family relations in Speedwell. Discovering her ancestry shed some interesting light on the Sheffey story in that part of Wythe County,

When it came to researching one Martha Ann Hill, I kept coming up against one very formidable wall. I just couldn’t find any information about her. Not for love nor money. And there was a very good reason for that. Her maiden name wasn’t Hill. It was Fowler. That Fowler name was like a sledgehammer, no, more of a battering ram, which obliterated that wall of silence…and allowed me to sprint past 1849 (the year of Martha Ann Hill’s birth) back to 1760, the year her grandfather, Granville Fowler, was born.

So why had I spent years looking for a Martha Hill? That was how she was listed on two of her children’s marriage certificates. And a child’s death certificate. Her children weren’t wrong. Far from it.

image of William Royal Sheffey Hill's marriage index record

William Royal Sheffey Hill’s marriage index record. His mother is listed as Martha Ann Hill. Source Information
Ancestry.com. Virginia, Select Marriages, 1785-1940 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc, 2014.
Original data: Virginia, Marriages, 1785-1940. Salt Lake City, Utah: FamilySearch, 2013.

And this is pretty much where I remained with her for the past five years. Thanks to the ceaseless efforts of Angela, a distant cousin of mine, she uncovered additional marriage certificates which shed some light on Martha Ann. It all had to do with her mother, who was another Martha (just to make things that touch more confusing).

Martha Fowler gave Martha Ann her rightful maiden name – Fowler.

I had long suspected, but had no proof, that Martha Ann Fowler was a free woman of color. Armed with her correct maiden name, there she was in the 1860 census (although the name is spelled incorrectly) with her mother, her siblings, an aunt and two cousins.

An image of the 1860 Census with Mary Ann Fowler

Mary Ann Fowler in the 1860 Census. Source Citation Year: 1860; Census Place: District 68, Wythe, Virginia; Roll: M653_1385; Page: 968; Image: 327; Family History Library Film: 805385 Source Information Ancestry.com. 1860 United States Federal Census [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2009. Images reproduced by FamilySearch.

Mary Ann most definitely started life as a Fowler. And a child of a free woman.

While Martha Ann is absent in the 1850 census (which leads me to question her actual year of birth), her mother, Martha Fowler, is certainly accounted for.

An image of Martha Fowler in the 1850 Census

Martha Fowler in the 1850 Census.
Source Citation Year: 1850; Census Place: District 68, Wythe, Virginia; Roll: M432_982; Page: 251B;      Image: 99 | Source Information
Ancestry.com. 1850 United States Federal Census [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2009. Images reproduced by FamilySearch.

The image above shows Martha Fowler (Martha Ann’s mother), with her mother Rosanah Dicy Fowler, as well as her siblings (Martha Ann’s aunts and uncles) and her oldest children.

Martha Fowler’s mother, Rosanah Fowler, born around 1792, had also been born free.

Martha Fowler would come to marry Joseph James Hill from Cripple Creek, Wythe County, Virginia. Whether they were married or we common law husband and wife is unclear. I can’t find a marriage certificate for them. However, with African American genealogy, that doesn’t necessarily mean they weren’t married. It only means that if they were officially married, it wasn’t registered. Or the record simply became lost over time. or hasn’t been digitized. This presents an issue.

All of Martha Fowler’s children were born with the surname of Fowler. However, at some point after 1860 and before 1870, all of her children took the Hill name.  Was Joseph Hill their biological father? Or did he unofficially (or even officially) adopt them?

He appears on more than one marriage certificate for Martha Fowler’s children. Below is the marriage record for daughter Malvina Hill:

Marriage details for Malvina Fowler-Hill.  Source Information Ancestry.com. Virginia, Select Marriages, 1785-1940 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc, 2014. Original data: Virginia, Marriages, 1785-1940. Salt Lake City, Utah: FamilySearch, 2013.

Marriage details for Malvina Fowler-Hill.
Source Information
Ancestry.com. Virginia, Select Marriages, 1785-1940 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc, 2014.
Original data: Virginia, Marriages, 1785-1940. Salt Lake City, Utah: FamilySearch, 2013.

If he wasn’t the biological father of Martha Fowler’s children – or at least the father of all of them – her children certainly thought of him as their father. Only a DNA test from this family line can confirm a biological link.

So now I have Martha Ann’s family tree:

Martha Ann Fowler Hill's family tree

Martha Ann Fowler Hill’s family tree

I had to laugh at this point. Black American genealogy is difficult enough. Name -swapping to this degree made a challenging task even more challenging. I’m happy I stuck with it. And I’m even happier that I have cousins just as keen as I am in unraveling family history…and sharing their discoveries. I owe Angela quite a bit for this stunning lead.

The story of these women didn’t end there.

What I soon discovered was a history of generations of free mulatto women who, while not married to them, raised children with white men. It’s been kind of interesting to see these men listed in one census return with their wives and children – and then listed again in another census return for the same year with their mistress and the children they had by them.

Uncovering Martha Fowler’s correct maiden name is also shedding light on the community of free people of colour in and around Speedwell, Wythe, VA. At this stage in my research, it looks as though this community had been long established by the 1790s. Within it were names from other branches of my Sheffey family tree that I knew very well: Carpenter, Brown, Robinson, and Gannaway. All of these families were free people of color and had been since at least the 1750s (for the Browns and Carpenters) and the 1680s (for the Gannaways).

At this stage in researching this line, I do have one fundamental question. How did a relationship between a free woman of color and enslaved men work?  Iazwell and his brother James were both enslaved. Mary Ellen Hill and Iazwell Sheffey married in 1870, a few years after the close of the Civil War. However, there are hints that they had a relationship before the outbreak of the Civil War.

Her sister Martha Ann Hill had one child with James ZM Sheffey before the end of the Civil War – William Royal Sheffey Hill (born 1864). With a free-born mother, William would not have been born a slave, unlike the majority of his half-siblings. James ZM Sheffey had a number of children with women who were also slaves. All of these children were born enslaved.

It was a situation that must have made for a challenging family dynamic. And this was by no means a unique situation. It was a family dynamic repeated throughout the southern states.

How would a relationship between a free woman of colour and an enslaved male work? Did they have visitation rights? Probably so, if the years of birth of their children are anything to go by. I also suppose it was completely at the enslaved person’s owner whether or not these visits could happen, as well as their frequency and duration. How much access to their fathers did the children of such unions have? And what did they think of the situation? Did it shape how they viewed their fathers?

Did it really matter? Given the number of mulatto children with absentee white fathers, would it have been materially any different to have had a father who was absent due to his slave status?

I have a lot of social as well as practical questions where this arrangement is concerned. As if you couldn’t guess. 😉

My take-away is this: Finding women’s (true and correct) maiden names can be tricky but essential. It’s worth bearing in mind that the name you see for a female relation on a child’s marriage or death certificate may be a name by a new marriage – and not her maiden name. Ultimately, a woman’s death certificate and/or marriage certificate will (hopefully!) provide the necessary details about her parents.

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