Book review: Jefferson’s Daughters

I’ve just finished my second reading of Jefferson’s Daughters by Catherine Kerrison. I have to say it was a very enlightening and illuminating read.

Let’s face it, my ancestral cousin Thomas Jefferson’s life has been poured over in great detail in his lifetime and down the generations. As has his relationship with my other ancestral cousin, Sally Hemings. I can understand anyone thinking that everything that could be said about Thomas, Sally, and their children has already been said, many times over. Ms. Kerrison, however, has mined fresh territory. I’ve had a glimpse into my cousin’s lives and characters that I’ve never seen before.

Instead of a dry history book about Jefferson the Statesman, or about Jefferson the Founding Father and Revolutionary War patriot, Kerrison introduces us to  an engaging and lively history of Jefferson, the father. She has done a superb job getting beneath the superficial.

I won’t spoil anything by revealing too much. Let’s just say that where his daughters Martha and Maria a were concerned, Jefferson was a hard task master. The reader won’t come away with any knowledge about what Jefferson thought about his third daughter, Harriet. There is a simple reason for this: he didn’t write anything about Harriet. Or, if he did, his words about his third daughter were either lost over time, hidden from public view, or destroyed at his death by his white heirs. 

Truly, Harriet’s name only appears in Jefferson’s Farm Book, where he noted day-to-day things related to the lives of those he enslaved: food and blanket rations, births, deaths, the properties where his enslaved people resided, work productivity, the dates some of his enslaved people were sold (and who they were sold too), etc. It’s an odd remembrance of a daughter. However, it’s either all that Jefferson left us regarding his third surviving daughter – or all that anyone can publicly access.

The history Kerrison related regarding Sally and Harriet Hemings had me gripped.

Kerrison made the best use of scant contemporary written material about Sally and Harriet, the daughter she had with Jefferson. Sally left nothing that was written by herself. Or, if she has, those records have been lost or remain from public view by the Hemings family. Once Harriet crossed the colour line, adopting a white identity and a new name, she literally disappears into history. We know she “married well”, and lived in Washington D.C., where he family prospered. This we know from her brother Madison’s account of their family.

Where Kerrison has excelled is in her portrayal of Sally during her time in Paris, where her relationship with Jefferson begins, and where their first child was concieved. Kerrison’s account of Sally’s time in Paris mirrors what is already been related to me by family members years ago.

For those who question the origins of Sally and Thomas’s union really ought to read this book. All I’ll say is that Kerrison has portrayed a strong-willed, savvy, resolute, capable teenager who determined her own fate, as well as the fate of any children she would have by Jefferson. This too squared with what I’ve been told about her.

Kerrison realistically portrays the complexities of slavery in general, and the added layers of complexity of a union the likes of which Sally and Thomas shared. Kerrison does not pull her punches. I appreciated that.

I am often irritated when I see people making free with Sally’s history on Facebook and Twitter. I become annoyed because the usual statements that are made are conjecture based on assumptions without truly knowing what that history was. They’ve reduced her into a 2-dimension victim when her actual history is far more complex and nuanced than their 2-dimension portrayal allows. If  you’re sincerely interested in gaining a fuller understanding of her life while she was enslaved, buy this book.

While Sally and her children don’t feature as much as Martha and Maria Jefferson do – Kerrison has used the research material she accessed (which was monumental!) to great affect.

The other aspect of this book that impressed me was Kerrison’s detailed search for Harriet and her brother Beverley in Washington D.C. Beverley too crossed the colour line, taking a white identity and changing his name in the process. Kerrison’s genealogical research strategy for Harriet and Beverley was impressive. She threw everything at this task. I too know how tough a task this is. I have scoured DNA matches for myself as well as my father siblings – to no avail. While I easily found matches to Sally’s other children, as well as descendants of her other Colbert, Hemings, Brown, and Bell family – I haven’t found anything yet that links back to Harriet or Beverley.

This either suggests that Harriet and Beverley’s descendants might not have taken DNA tests (for a variety of reasons), or they haven’t tested on AncestryDNA or Family Tree DNA. Or, if they have tested on those services, they have surnames that I simply haven’t associated with the Hemings and Jefferson families.

Kudos to Kerrison, however, for her attempt to find them…which she does a superb job in relaying and detailing. She had a sound research strategy that, in itself, is informative.

I definitely recommend this book. I can put it this way: if gripped me so thoroughly that I had to read it twice.

Available for purchase online, and offline in all major bookstores.

Piecing together enslaved family relations at Monticello

I have spent the past few months doing a deep dive into the early colonial enslavement of my Varina, Henrico County, Virginia Bates line. My connection to this family is via my great grandmother, Julia Ella Bates Roane, the mother of my paternal grandmother, Susan Julia Roane Thomas Sheffey. 

DNA tells a story of a genetic connection to many of the oldest enslaving families in Henrico – as well as up and down the James River: Bates, Bolling, Christian, Fleming, Jordan, Piersey, Pleasants, Price, and Woodson. Julia’s DNA also connects me to some of the known and unknown 20-and-odd Africans who were brought to this part of colonial Virginia in 1621 such as Cornish, Johnson, and Gowen/Goins/Goings. This makes sense through the prisms of time and location. My Bates and allied family lines were in Varina from the beginning of the colonial period of Virginia…and never left. Their DNA mixed with the DNA from the other old Varina and James River families down the centuries.

I know the wherehow and the why behind my connections to these families: slavery. Centimorgans (cMs) and SNPs have provided a solid glimpse into when this DNA became part of my genetic makeup (mid-to-late 17th Century and early 18th Century). 

In some instances, I even know who contributed this DNA to my genetic inheritance. Not enough, however. Too few instances, if I’m honest. Hence the past few months have been spent trying to unravel the story behind the forgotten individuals who form this part of my ancestry. This has meant delving into and stitching together a patchy paper trail of probate records for the enslaving families tied to this family history and ancestry, deeds of sale and deeds of gifts, letters, farm books, journals – any available puzzle piece that could shed light on this research.

You should expect a few detours when you do research of this nature. Detours are part and parcel of the work we do as genealogists and family historians. In my experience, I’ve rarely found these detours to be a waste of time. Typically, for me, they reveal something important. This is one of those instances.

There I was, chipping away at adding Bolling family enslaved people (EPs) to my tree when I came across deeds of sale between a John Bolling and Thomas Jefferson. John Bolling married Thomas’s sister, Martha. It made sense that EPs would pass between the two of them.

Again, the purpose of this article is how to apply different strategies in researching enslaved ancestors. It isn’t a commentary on the selling of human beings. If I use language that may seem insensitive, just know I don’t mean it to be. Trust me, I have plenty of skin in the game. I can only write about researching  enslaved people because I have ancestors who were enslaved. So please, don’t get hung up on language. It’s the research methodology that’s the subject.

In order to understand the history of the EPs Thomas Jefferson sold to his brother-in-law, John Bolling, I needed to find out more about them while they were with Jefferson. I was able to achieve this via discovering a digitized copy of Jefferson’s Farm Book: a ledger where he noted all manner of things about the EPs held by him. It is genuinely a genealogical goldmine in terms of Jefferson EP family research.

Thomas Jefferson’s Farm Book, available through The Massachusetts Historical Society via

https://www.masshist.org/thomasjeffersonpapers/doc?id=farm_c2&mode=lgImg

It was time to add Jefferson’s hundreds of EPs to my family tree. Their details came straight from his Farm Book. Sally Hemings’ immediate and extended family were already in my tree as they were a known family from our common Wayles link. She and her Fossett, Brown, Bell, and Colbert kin have been exceedingly well documented. There were no new revelations to be found there with regard to her family.

This time around, I was focused on Jefferson’s EPs who worked the land. These are the lesser known  and researched of his EPs. Some of these EPs were my kin via transactions with other enslaving families who were my ancestors or kin. Families like Christian and Woodson.

The first thing I had to tackle where numerous EPs with the same first name. When you’re dealing with one name ancestors, this is a nightmare. 

Take the name Suckey, for instance. There were around two dozen entries in Jefferson’s Farm Book for different Suckeys. Thankfully, Jefferson was pretty consistent in the details he provided for many of the Suckeys in this book. It appears there are at least 6 Suckeys covering three generations. There may be a seventh and an eigth Suckey – I’m still trying to work out if these last two Suckeys are different women from the 6 known Suckeys or just poorly notated Suckeys from the 6 who are known.

Were all of the known Suckeys related? Four of them were: mother, daughter, a grand-daughter and a niece. I suspect the other two Suckeys are related to this family group based on what they named their children. However, Jefferson didn’t provide information about either of these two Suckey’s parents or siblings. I suspect both are additional nieces to the eldest Suckey (“Old Suckey”) via unknown or undocumented siblings of Old Suckey.

When it comes to this kind of research, naming patterns matter.

I’ll give you another example. It’s an example I’m currently working on.

While reading about Jefferson and his EPs, I came across some accounts in history books about how the British stole a number of Jefferson’s EPs in Cumberland County, Virginia during the Revolutionary War. It turns out these EPs weren’t stolen. They actually fled to the British in a bid for freedom. But more on that at another time.

Once I entered the details of the EPs who fled to the British to my tree, the relationship between a number of them was immediately appraent. One of Jefferson’s enslaved families made a bid for freedom:

Emanuel and Patt’s bid for freedom, along with their children’s, did not end well. With the exception of Isabel and her brother Peter, the rest of the family died in the British encampment. Emanuel died of cholera – one of the hazards of military camps of the time. The other being typhus. I can only presume cholera is what killed Patt and most of the children.

Keep the names Sam and Sall in the back of your mind.

Two other family groups who lived among Emanuel and Patt’s family also fled to the British in Cumberland County at the same time. Note their names:

So…we have Sall (“Black Sall”) and a Sam  who also fled to the British.  Emanuel and Patt had children by these names. Is there a connection between these 3 family groups? My instincts say yes. What does the paper trail say? The jury is out. So far, nothing on paper proves or disproves a family connection. 

Looking at this logically, fleeing to the British as an enslaved person wasn’t easy. Add the fact you were taking young children with you. On the one hand, Emanuel and Patt probably thought the disruption of war would provide the best chance of escape, and ultimately, freedom. They may have thought this was their only, best hope for freedom. So they planned. And planned some more. What they were planning, if they were caught planning it, would have landed them in a world of hurt. At the worst, if discovered, their entire family could have been split up and sold away from each other. My cousin Thomas Jefferson had form for this. So it was a genuine possibility and a reasonable fear.

With stakes this high, Emanuel and Patt wouldn’t have told just anyone. The risk of someone alerting Jefferson or the overseers was just too great. If you were bound to disclose such plans at all, you’d only do such a thing with people you trusted with your life, which would include family.

It’s for this reason I don’t believe that it’s a coincidence that Black Sall and Sam joined Emanuel and Patt when they fled their bondage. Little Sally and little Sam were named for an aunt and an uncle – a naming practice that is entrenched in this part of my ancestry.

The question remains who, precisely, Black Sall and Sam were related to. Were they Emanuel’s siblings or Patt’s. I don’t have an answer for that yet.

The elder Sall, Black Sall, may be the answer to a question that I have. Little Isabel and Peter lost their entire immediate family while encamped with the British. They were young, both under the age of 12. So how did they get back to Jefferson? I believe that the elder Sall brought them back along with her surviving children. Sall’s two youngest daughters died in the British army camp. Little Jamey was ill. Perhaps some of her surviving children were ill too. She was ill. Weighing her options, perhaps she believed returning to Jefferson was the best chance for the survival of her remaining children, and possible neice and nephew. At this stage, I have no doubts that she was the person who brought Isabel and Peter back to Monticello. Truly, Sall was faced with a dire choice. 

Sall died of cholera herself shortly after her return. Her surviving children would all be passed to Jefferson’s son-in-law, John Wayles Eppes. I’m still researching them to find their descendants in order to see the surnames they went by. Seeing the surnames used by the descendants of her son, Billy Warny (I believe his surname was actually Warner, not Warny), if he had any, would shed some light on how this family group would have identified itself. 

Emanuel and Patt’s surviving son, Peter, will also provide clues in this regard. His trail has been difficult to pick up once he returned to Jefferson. There are too many indistinguishable Peters for me to be certain if he’s the Peter who went to Thomas Mann Randolph, the one who went to Thomas Jefferson Randolph, or the one who went to John Wayles Eppes. Or the Peter who was sold outside the family. He may be one of these Peters – or none of them.

Researching EPs means working with limited information in more cases than I’d like to think about. It means working from the known to the unknown…and then using critical thinking to bridge gaps. Which this article illustrates.

So what are the next steps?:

  1. Finding the estate inventory for Peter Jefferson (Thomas Jefferson’s father). I have his Will, which cites a scant few EPs. What I need is his complete estate inventory which would list all of his EPs, with possible ages and family relationships cited. This will hopefully show how Black Sall and Sam were related to either Emanuel or Patt;
  2. Finding the estate inventories for Jane Randolph, Thomas Jefferson’s mother, for the reasons provided in Point #1. Again, I have her Will, it’s the estate inventory that’s needed;
  3. The 1823 estate inventory for John Wayles Eppes, to pick up the story of the EPs he received from Jefferson; and
  4. The estate inventories for John Blair Bolling (aka John William Bolling), and his wife, Martha Jefferson, to pick up the trail of the EPs they received from Jefferson.

All this to figure out how, exactly, my Varina, Henrico County, Virginia family is genetically connected to some of the EP families coming from Jefferson’s various farms and properties. Deeds between Jefferson, the Bollings, the Christians, and the Woodsons are the hows. Now, it’s a matter of tackling the who.

It may be the mother of all detours, however, I see how it leads back to Varina. Time, perserverance, and patience will reveal the specifics. In that, I have absolute faith.

Pleasant Roane Part II: An unexpected link to Thomas Jefferson and Monticello

There are times when my adventures in genealogy blow my mind.  This is one of them.

I wrote about my visit to Monticello last week (Visiting Monticello via https://genealogyadventures.wordpress.com/2017/08/04/visiting-monticello )  What I didn’t say in that post is that the day after my visit to Monticello, I received an email from a Steven D. Now, Steven had no idea that I had visited Monticello the day before he sent his email.  No one did.  My phone battery had died by the time we reached the estate, so I had no way of sharing that adventure on social media.

So imagine my surprise when I received the email from Steven regarding the remarkable story of Pleasant Roane (Pleasant Roane (Rowan) and the road to manumission in Lynchburg via https://genealogyadventures.wordpress.com/2017/01/28/pleasant-roane-rowan-and-the-road-to-manumision-in-lynchburg):

His [Pleasant’s] father was Peter. Peter was owned by [John] DePriest, but Peter, his wife and a son were purchased from Thomas Jefferson in 1791. I have copies of John Sr and Jr, wills regarding the slaves they kept and sold.

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Thomas Jefferson

Monticello and Thomas Jefferson…again.

I also now have the name of one of Pleasant’s parents, which I didn’t have previously: his father, Peter. This short email has opened a new line of research for Pleasant and his family. 

To clarify, Steven is a DePriest family descendant. I literally had goose bumps when I read Steven’s email. I was just there. I had just stood on the ground where Peter, Pleasant and their family had lived and toiled until they went to John DePriest. Take away the modern developments, and the trees that were planted by the subsequent owners of the estate…I had just seen the same vista that they would have seen. That’s some powerful mojo.

This is the perfect reason why genealogy is a powerful actor in my life. I never know what discovery is on the horizon.

Needless to say I’m in touch with the people at Monticello to see what records exists for Pleasant, his parents, and his siblings.

Visiting Monticello

I had the opportunity to visit Monticello the other day. Considering my recent trip where I visited some of my Roane family relations on another plantation in Louisiana, I knew It was going to be a day of mixed emotions.

While I knew Monticello sat atop a mountain, it never occurred to me exactly what went into its actual construction. Enter our (amazing) tour guide, Mary. One of the first things she told our tour group was that it had taken hundreds of enslaved people to literally level the uppermost part of the mountain in order to create the flat plateau visitors to Monticello see today. It didn’t occur to me until long after our tour had finished to ask how much earth had been removed as part of that human engineering feat. It was an exceedingly hot and humid day when we visited. I couldn’t image the physical toll that endeavor must have taken. While the view from the house and the surrounding gardens and terraces are stunning…they came at a real human price.

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The land surrounding Monticello is what remains of the top of a mountain which was cleared away through the labour of enslaved people

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The image above gives you some idea of the view of the surrounding area from Monticello.  You can literally see the surrounding countryside for miles in every direction.

Thomas Jefferson, the man behind the building of Monticello, was a practical man. The tons of earth his enslaved population removed, in order to clear the land for the estate, were used to make the very bricks which built the house. It was also used to daub the gaps of the cabins built for his enslaved population. Very little, it seems, went to waste.

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The bricks used in the construction of the house and the surrounding terraces and outbuildings were made with the distinctive red soil that was removed in the creation of the flat plateau.

At the start of the tour, Mary asked people in our group where we’d come from. I mentioned that I was from London and Boston. I can’t remember the exact question that prompted my next answer. It had something to do with was I excited about being there. I laughed as I told her I was, but for a reason she probably would find very hard to believe. She countered with “Try me.” So I mentioned that Thomas Jefferson was an ancestral cousin via one set of known common ancestors – Thomas Grey, 2nd Marquess of Dorset, and his wife, Margaret Wolton. Mary didn’t blink and answered with something of a cheeky grin: “Why on earth would I find that hard to believe?” There are other common ancestors via my Randolph line, however, I need to do much more work on that family to find the relatively more recent common ancestors via that line. My sister mentioned that Sally Hemmings was also a cousin and a Sheffey family relation via her Woodson descendants.

It was at that point that I clocked her surname…and spent the rest of the tour impatiently waiting for a chance to ask her a question about some of her ancestors. Mary’s surname is one that I know very, very well from years of researching my Virginia family. Because I haven’t had an opportunity to ask her if she’d be fine with me using her full name (I’m positive she would be. However, it’s always good to have that permission), I’m not going to publish her surname.

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My brother (left) and I chatting to our newfound cousin Mary (centre). The small building in the background is where Thomas Jefferson and his family lived during the construction of Monticello.  Picture courtesy of Khoncepts

So, as we moved to one of the terraces, I asked her if she was a descendant of a famous Jamestown family. She readily answered ‘yes’. I explained how I was a descendant of the same family via a labyrinth of Ball-Mottrom marriages on my father’s maternal line through his Roane line, as well as Poythress-Strother marriages on his paternal side of his family through his Clark line. She laughed out loud. That was it. We were cousins. I had to laugh myself. I joked with her that she couldn’t have expected that as she got ready for work that morning. She couldn’t resist sharing that piece of news with the rest of the tour group.

Which just goes to prove one of the central premises behind Genealogy Adventures: Americans are connected to each other in amazing, surprising, and long forgotten ways – regardless of race, ethnicity, or other measures used to divide us from one another.

Things took a decidedly deeper, more contemplative, and spiritual turn as my siblings and I made our way to where Sally Hemmings had her rooms.

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My brother and I standing in front of Sally hemming’s rooms. Picture courtesy of Khoncepts

Where she lived is currently an active archaeological dig site, so we were not able to actually go in and see. Nevertheless, in the moments before the above snap was taken, I spent some time contemplating the life of this familial relation. The range of emotions was wide and varied.

Next came Mulberry Row.  It was here that I stood inside a cabin for enslaved people for the first time in my life. The Hemmings cabin, as it’s called, is a reproduction – and by no means your typical slave cabin. From what our second tour guide told us, it reflected the status of the Hemmings family – well, as much ‘status’ as any enslaved person could attain  Just to put that into a realistic context.

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Exterior shot of the Hemmings cabin

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Interior shot of the Hemmings cabin

Too many thoughts went through my head to share here. Everywhere I looked, I returned to the thought than an entire family would have shared this humble space. I went pretty quiet as I contemplated that existence.  Suffice to say it was a powerful and stark experience. My only comment was to my brother as I said that, while I knew there were many African-descended Americans who couldn’t make the same claim – that our family had come a long, long way from the days this cabin represented. That’s all that needed to be said.

Our final stop before we left was the cemetery for the enslaved people. That space hit me the hardest.

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There are 400 known enslaved souls who toiled at Monticello. To-date, only 40 of their burials are known. No one knows who any of these 40 individuals were. They are nameless. The area of the demarcated cemetery is small. It would take a minute to walk across its width, and about a minute to walk across its length. It’s small. As for headstones or engraved markers? There are none. Just a few rocks.

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The image above is a plaque with a list containing the names of only a fraction of the enslaved souls who died at Monticello.  It is not an indication of any of the 40 known graves in the fenced off portion of the cemetery.

To say this hit me hard would be an understatement. It was like being sucker punched. I simply wasn’t expecting it. Nor was I alone. A friendly, middle-aged European-descended couple arrived just as my siblings and I were leaving. The wife asked us if we knew where the slave cemetery was. My siblings and I pointed to the space in front of us , and said, almost in unison: “This is it.”

Both of them looked perplexed. And the wife asked us another question: “But where are the headstones?” My voice was pretty flat as I spoke. “Those handful of rocks. That’s it.” Both of them were horrified, and visibly upset. All I could offer them was, “It is what it is.”  Really, that’s all I could say.  In that instance they got it.  I knew they got it. I could see it on their faces. And, I suppose, that is the unspoken power of places like Monticello.

That’s the full circle of my experience at Monticello.  At the start, it was visiting the ancestral home of a distant cousin.  The latter, the stark reminder of why I am related to Thomas Jefferson at all….through slavery. It’s quite the thing to wrap my head around at times and face.  However, as I said to the couple at the cemetery for the enslaved, it is what it is.

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.

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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.

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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:

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Her 1906 engagement announcement is simply pure gold:

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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.