Using church names and obits to find your ancestors in rural areas

When it comes to genealogical research, few places in America have challenged my grey matter like the Old Ninety-Six region of South Carolina.  I’m laughing as I write this next bit: old Ninety-Six has literally given me a few grey hairs.

South Carolina Districts 1769

There are a few simple reasons for this:

  1. Everyone with roots in Old Ninety-Six , regardless of ethnicity, are related to one another.
  2. Not only are people from this region related to one another, they are related in multiple ways. One cousin and I share no less than seven common pairs of ancestors – who were related to each other, as it so happens. This is due to entrenched endogamy. We’re talking cousin marriages that stretch back to early colonial Virginia. In some cases, generations of cousin marriages began in Great Britain. By the time my British-descended ancestors began producing children with enslaved African-descended women, they passed this inter-related mix to their mulatto children. These children, in turn, also married other mulatto and black cousins.  By the time of the Emancipation Proclamation, no one in Old Ninety-Six could move without bumping into a cousin of some sort or another.  This brings me right back to point #1 above.
  3. DNA segment triangulation is a nightmare. Try applying specific surnames to DNA segments with a fourth cousin when the two of you share an above-average amount of DNA across more segments than fourth cousins should typically share. In the case of the cousin I mentioned above, you would think we were second cousins rather than fourth cousins.
  4. While a slight exaggeration, everyone in a rather huge extended family used the same dozen or so names for their children. Everyone. I have enough Old Ninety-Six Janie Lou’s – white and black – to fill a modestly sized New York City music venue. Even a name like Hazeltine, which should be more or less unique, was commonly used.  It makes identifying records for a specific person a challenge.

So when it came to dealing with a family tree that is exploding in size due to the Moses Williams Project…I had to think of another way of finding the records I needed for specific individuals myself and the project team has been researching.

A different approach hit me out of the blue.

My Old Ninety-Six ancestors and family worshiped at specific churches.  Churches like Springfield Baptist Church, Liberty Springs Baptist Church, and Shaws Creek Baptist Church were established and built by members of my family. Their descendants still worship at these churches to this day. That was the clue that I needed. It’s one of those clues that has been under my nose the entire time.

I decided to do a general search on the terms ‘Liberty Springs Baptist Church’ and Greenwood, South Carolina’ on Newspapers.com. I struck gold immediately.

newspaperscom

There they were…dozens upon dozens of obituaries and news accounts specifically related to Liberty Springs. Surnames that I now know as well as my own – Adams, Gilchrist, Moore, Parks, Keys/Keyes, Dean, etc – leapt out at me.

I took a gamble. I decided to try and do a bit of reverse engineering.  I added a new orphan profile page on Ancestry.com for the first few individuals I found on Ancestry.com.  By ‘orphan’, I mean the individuals I added  weren’t attached to anyone else in my tree.  They were stand alone ancestral profiles. I keyed in the relevant information from the obituary I was working from:  full name, date of birth, date of death, county of birth, county of death, their parents’ names, the name of their spouse, children’s’ names (and their places of residence based on the date of the obituary), siblings’ names (and their places of residence based on the date of the obituary), and any other family members who were mentioned. And…bingo!  Ancestry produced the correct records for the person I whose obituary I had. I didn’t have to trawl through two dozen possible death records or Social Security Claims Index records for a dozen or so Willie Mae Joneses in the hopes that I could find the right record for the specific person I was researching.  Ancestry gave me the correct one immediately.

The reason is pretty simple:  I already had all of the correct, specific, vital life information. This included maiden names, which are gold dust.  Having all of this information made it far easier to locate correct census returns. I could easily place this person’s branch of the tree into my overall tree within two to three generations.

Even better…I was picking up the trail of my black family members who left the south as part of the Great Migration into the northern states. It still strikes me as nothing short of miraculous that family deaths in places like Washington DC, Newark, Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Newport News, Detroit, Chicago, and Boston were being reported back home in South Carolina.

Using this approach enabled me to plug some serious gaps in the Old Ninety-Six, South Carolina part of my tree within a matter of three days.  OK, three days of rather intensive focus using this approach.

This approach works for a few simple reasons. My Old Ninety-Six family stayed in the same place between 1860 and 1890. The family members who left as part of the Great Migration stayed in contact with the family left behind in South Carolina for at least one generation afterwards. Last, but not least, those family ties to their family church remained – and continue to remain – strong.

Now, as always, there is a caveat.  Obituaries were not the preserve of everyone prior to 1940.  Not in South Carolina at any rate.  If your family was poor, regardless of race, the chances are slim there will be an obituary.  In terms of this part of South Carolina, prior to 1940, the handful of obituaries I’ve seen for people of colour fall into two categories:  1) either the ancestor was classed as an ‘exceptional negro’; or 2) he or she did something remarkable (like live to be 115 years old and have over 40 children).  If your family was poor and white, well, your ancestor had to do something extraordinary and/or heroic to warrant an obituary.  After 190 is different – blacks, and whites of modest means, begin to have obituaries in the local papers in this part of South Carolina.

Basically, there are three things you need to have in order to make this research approach work:

  1. A family tree that has more than your immediate family line (in other words, it also has the siblings of your ancestors, and their extended family and descendants;
  2. Familiarity with all the families your ancestors married into (allied families); and
  3. The name of the church where your ancestors and their family worshiped.

I’ve only used this approach for family who lived in a very rural area.  I haven’t applied it to those who lived in cities.

I hope it’s an approach that works for you.  Let me know!

 

Advertisements

Obituaries matter when it comes to genealogy research

I am blessed to have a small army of genealogy foot soldiers when it comes to researching my Edgefield County, South Carolina ancestry. This army of researchers are all cousins spanning the melanin range. I’m grateful to have their enthusiasm and expertise. Edgefield is the Mount Everest of genealogy.  Hands down, it has given me the most challenges and barriers.  Oh yeah, it’s given me plenty of grey hairs and headaches over the years. It’s also made me grow and develop my working practice as a genealogist.

Edgefield is challenging for quite a few reasons. The first reason is everyone in Edgefield and the Old Ninety-Six region of South Carolina are related.  Cousins married cousins over and over again down the generations. The second reason is the use of family names. Pretty much every branch of these big, inter-connected families, had a fondness for the same handful of family names when it came to naming their children.  Take the name Willie, for example. It was (and is) widely used for both males and females in my Edgefield family. I’m not kidding when I say I can easily come across dozens of Willie Petersons or dozens of Willie Holloways when I’m trying to find details for a specific individual by that name.

When it comes to the African American branches of my Edgefield family, we can add 3 big pulses of migration out of Edgefield to the mix.  The first pulse came at the close of the Civil War and the Reconstruction Era.  The second pulse was the between 1920 and 1930 as the Jim Crow laws really bit down hard. The third was between the 1940s and 1950s – partly due to Jim Crow and partly due to new job opportunities in the northern states during, and immediately after, World War II

These migration pulses provide some of the most challenging barriers when it comes to researching the descendants of Edgefield.  For instance, if I’m researching a Willie Mae Peterson, born in Blocker, Edgefield, South Carolina in 1919…is this the same Willie Mae (Peterson) Gilchrist who was born around 1920 and living in Greenwood, South Carolina? Or is she the same Willie Mae (Peterson) Blocker who was born about 1917 and living in North Augusta, Georgia?  Or the same Willie Mae Peterson, born about 1919, living in Washington, DC. Or the same Willie Mae (Peterson) Settles, born around 1916, living in Baltimore, Maryland?  Or one of a dozen other Willie Mae Petersons living in Boston, Newark, Detroit, Philadelphia, New York City, Dayton, or a dozen other places where southern migrants settled?

Add to the mix that all of these women will more than likely be part of the same extended family.  However, in and amongst this myriad of Willie Mae Petersons, I’m trying to research a single individual.

Enter obituaries. Okay, I’ll be the first to admit that reading through hundreds of obituaries is more than a little morbid.  But hey, we’re researching people who are no longer among us.  So it’s part and parcel of the research that genealogists do. Believe it or not, obituaries are also a goldmine of information.

When it comes to my Edgefield ancestors and kin born after 1870, it’s become my practice to start researching and finding obituaries for the males in a family first.  I do this simply because their surname doesn’t change.  Well, not usually, at any rate. It’s easier for me to find obituaries for them.  From there, I can find crucial information – the names of parents, where they born and raised, details about their spouses and children….and details about their siblings. This leads me to other obituaries which plug further information gaps.

Let’s take a look at this in practice with the obituary below.

susie-anna-holloway-obit

click for larger image

Susie is my second cousin, three times removed.  Her husband, A P Scott, is also my cousin. Her parents are my cousins.  Both of A P Holloway’s parents are also my cousins. That’s classic Edgefield.

I found Susie (Holloway) Scott’s obituary via an obituary for her father.  In his obituary, she appeared with her married name. Using Newspapers.com, and searching for her under her married name, I found her.

From there I could update my tree with information about her children and her surviving sibling.

Obituaries have some pretty basic information which is sometimes overlooked:

Death dates

An obituary provides a date of death – or at least a month and a year – and town and/or county of death. Plugging this information into Susie’s page on my Ancestry.com tree resulted in finding the correct death certificate for her, as well as relevant census, social security, and other records.

Last known place of residence

The places where her children were residing at the time of her death. I’d spent an age trying to research her son, Lawrence.  I’d been searching for him in Edgefield, Greenwood, Abbeville, and Newberry in South Carolina.  I couldn’t find him.  And there was a very simple reason why.  He wasn’t in South Carolina.  He was in the Bronx in New York City. When I added his residence as the Bronx in 2008, I found him and information about him (notably New York City directory listings).

Married names for daughters, sisters, and mothers

When it came to her daughters, I found their married names – enabling me to research them and their families.

It’s not unusual for me to discover that the women in the family married more than once due to the premature death of a husband. Which explains why I struggled to find them in additional records after a certain date. There was an additional  marriage to the one I already knew about.  I had no reason to suspect that she had re-married. This meant I was looking for these women under the wrong name. In just about every case, I found the additional records for them that I was seeking once I had a new married name.

Clearing up how people wanted their names spelt

Last, but by no means least, I can confirm how my kin preferred to spell their name. For instance, that Ocie Peterson used ‘Ocie’ and not Ossie or Osie. It may seem like a small, seemingly insignificant thing.  I like to honor the ancestors by using the form of their name they preferred and used.

Turning names into people

I can also learn a little something about them: what their interests or hobbies were or their various occupations and achievements. This lifts their story above the usual dates of residence, birth, marriage, or death. It makes them 3 dimension people. In Susie’s case, that she was a member of the Springfield Baptist Church, which is a church founded by the ancestors. I’ve heard quite a bit about this church and its community from various Edgefield cousins.  That she was a member of one of the committees of this church tells me a little something about her standing in the community.  And, of course, her picture is priceless. Her features reminds me of people from my immediate family with roots in Edgefield. It’s a connection to a person I’d never met nor heard of until I began researching the family.

Thankfully, I have 3 Edgefield cousins who are super sleuths when it comes to finding obituaries for our very extensive and complicated family.  If I ever become stuck, I know I can call on them to find an obituary when I struggle to do so.  They do so, and we all share them on Facebook when we find them, because we all know just how important they are in our research.

So if you’re not using obituaries as part of your own family research…I heartily recommend that you do. They are worth the effort it takes to find them.

Finding lost branches through obituaries

I’m a pretty active member on a number of family genealogy Facebook groups. These groups continue to be a source of pure gold. Even if I don’t immediately realize it sometimes.

 

The other day, a member of one of these groups shared the obituary on the left, which lead to a pretty exciting discovery. I was able to reconnect a lost branch of my Holloway family to my overall Edgefield County, South Carolina family tree.

 

Sometimes it’s easy and straightforward to peel back the generations to connect a newly found branch to my family tree.  This wasn’t one of those time. It was a pitched battle of wits going back in time, generation by generation. For whatever reason, this branch of the Holloways stubbornly tried to keep its secrets of how, exactly, I was related to this family group. I’m a Holloway in more ways than I care to think about thanks to endogamy. So I was like a dog with a beloved bone…there was no way I was letting this mystery go. I was going to find Willie’s place in my tree.

In this case, for whatever reason, there was a complicated rhythm to unravelling this mystery. I had to use a unique combination of Newspapers.com, Google Books, FindAGrave, FamilySearch, and AncestryDNA.  Umm hmm, I was that determined to crack this!

In broad strokes, these were the steps:

  1. For whatever reason I had to start with a search for an obituary on Newspapers.com. This provided vital information about:
    1. The date of death, an age (which you can estimate, if an exact birth date isn’t provided – e.g. 2010 (death date) – 69 (age at death) = an estimated birth year of 1941);
    2. Children, both living and deceased.  This is especially helpful when it comes to daughters, who usually appear under their married names. Marriages mean records and records will (hopefully!) have information like a mother’s maiden name…which helps you find a marriage certificate for a person’s parents.  It’s always easier if you have the mother’s correct maiden name along with the father’s name. These records will also have information about: A)  birth counties; B) County of Residence at the time of the record; C) names of parents and thier county of residence, etc. These are all vital research clues; and
    3. An ancestor’s siblings, which you can use to find birth, death and marriage certificates…which will also, hopefully, have information about parents.
  2. My next stop was FamilySearch. Armed with specific key ancestry dates, I found the vital records I needed.  I added these to each person’s page on Ancestry.com. This has to do with the database algorithms ancestry and FamilySearch use. Sometimes, it’s far easier for me to find the records I need on FamilySearch in the first instance. Once I enter the information in Ancestry, the same record usually appears afterwards. It is what it is and I have learned to live with this.
  3. Once I had specific vital information, then – and only then – did Ancestry begin to provide the records I needed. There are times, in my experience,  when Ancestry can be very awkward to work with.  This was one of those times. For whatever reasons, Ancestry was suggesting records for everyone and anyone other than the specific person I was initially researching.  It was only when I had exactly, precise information, that I was able to finally locate correct records on the service. This time around, the various Social Security records were the last records Ancestry provided.   I needed to all of the vital information possible in order for the correct social security record to finally appear in order to prove I was indeed making the right connections for the individuals in this family group.
  4. In a handful of instances, I had to surf over to FindAGrave and view the Liberty Springs Baptist Church cemetery records to find one or two additional pieces of information. In one instance, a family history book on Google Books providing the missing key to unlock records on Ancestry.

I knew I was on the right track from the beginning. Willie Thomas Holloway was buried at Liberty Springs Baptist Church Cemetery. This church and this cemetery has a long, long, long association with my Edgefield family. This was clue #1 that Willie was definitely a cousin. There were family names that immediately leapt out from the news clipping: Scott, Gaskin, and Quarles. I was related to these three Edgefield families in a number of ways.

I haven’t been able to connect Willie to my tree via his Holloway line. His grandfather, George Washington Holloway, is a stubborn brick wall. His grandmother, Annie Smith, is also a brick wall.  For now.

However, I was able to find Willie’s place in my tree via his mother, Susie Anna Scott. This was the exciting discovery bit.  It turns out that Susie Anna Scott was the great grand-daughter of my 4th great grand aunt, Anna Peterson.

Annie/Anna Peterson with her siblings and her parents. Click for larger image

Annie/Anna Peterson with her siblings and her parents. I am a direct descendant of her sister, Amanda.  Click for larger image

Anna Peterson has been a mystery and a brick wall for years.  Me, and a hard working core of Edgefield cousins, spent years trying to find Annie in official records. In the end, we gave up.  We simply couldn’t find her. There were simply too many Annie Petersons from Edgefield who were born around the same time as our great aunt Annie. We just couldn’t be 100% certain we’d found the right records for the right Annie Peterson. This was more than a little frustrating as we were able to trace the lines for all of her siblings.  Annie’s line was the only lineage we couldn’t find.  Until now.

Annie Peterson, her husband, Eldred Scott, and their children in Edgefield County, SC.

Annie Peterson, her husband, Eldred Scott, and their children in Edgefield County, SC.

willieholloway4

Reading from right to left: You will see Peter Peterson and his wife Violet on the right hand side of the image. From here, we can see their son, Eldred Scott, with his wife, Susie Reynolds, and their children. Moving to the next generation, You will see Willie Thomas Holloways, parents – Holland Scott and Pinkney Holloway. And everyone you see in the image above? They’re all cousins to each other – and to me. Please click for larger image

In the end, it was a series of marriage records, death certificates and obituaries which finally led back to our Annie.  Think of this like reverse engineering, genealogy style.  Sometimes, you have to take a shot in the dark and work backwards from a latter record in order to scroll back through the generations to get to where you need to be. Sometimes it works.  Sometimes it doesn’t. And there were times when I honestly thought I wouldn’t be able to crack this.

I was fortunate.  Due to location, family names and a family associated church, I knew this wouldn’t be a wasted research exercise.

Now it’s time to return to the drawing board to find Willie’s place in the family tree via his grandfather, George Washington Holloway!