In search of Leonard Wilson Roane (1874 –1912): death in the shipyard

image of Leonard Wilson Roane

Leonard Wilson Roane, circa 1900

I’ve been pretty fortunate tracing Leonard Wilson Roane, my paternal great grandfather’s, life through a rich array of digitized records. His brothers’ and sister’s descendants have also kindly provided snippets of information about his parents and his siblings. I have been blessed in that regard. Until I began this journey, I knew nothing about the Roane side of my father’s family. I’m glad to say that’s not the case any more!

So, I’ve been fortunate to uncover knowledge about my great-grandfather in a wider context. What I have found next to impossible to uncover are the circumstances of how he died.

But first thing first.

Life in Varina, Henrico County, VA

image of the Immediate family tree for Leonard Wilson Roane

Immediate family tree for Leonard Wilson Roane

Leonard was the youngest child born to Patrick Henry Roane, Sr (1833 – 1907) and Susan Price (1832 – 1892). He came from a very close and respected family who lived in in Varina, Henrico County, VA. This respected part was no mean feat considering his parents were freed slaves and his family were ‘coloreds’ living in Virginia in the Jim Crow Era. All the same, his family were respected members of the community.

His family were educated (i.e. could read and write) in a time when, regardless of ethnicity, not everyone was. By all accounts, the family lived up to the ideals the Roane surname instilled in them.

image of 1880 census return for Patrick Henry Roane

Caption: Patrick Henry Roane, Sr’s household in Varina, 1880 (Group 194) with Leonard, aged 6. Patrick’s brothers Anthony and Edmund Roane are living on the same property shared by their Smith, Allen and Waring relations. Citation: Census Year: 1880; Census Place: Varina, Henrico, Virginia; Archive Collection Number: T1132; Roll: 24; Line: 17; Schedule Type: Agriculture.

It’s only when Leonard left the family fold between 1896 and 1899 that he became somewhat tricky to find in the records. This is partly due to there being another Leonard Roane, on the white side of the family, who was born a few days before my great-grandfather – and who died a few days after my great-grandfather (bizarre or what?!).

Tricky though it may have been keeping records for these two men straight, I’ve been able to piece together a fairly straightforward narrative for Leonard.

Leonard’s Adult Life

Leonard married Julia Ella Bates, also a native of Varina, on 1 April 1896. They married in their hometown.

This part of Leonard and Julia’s story ignites my writer’s imagination. Had they been childhood sweethearts?You know, that young couple who had always known one another, grew up together, with a growing fondness for each other and deepening of feeling as they grew older. Did they exchange secret glances every Sunday at church? Did they blush when those looks were noticed by others? Were they teased by their siblings? I mention this because I can’t recall ever hearing stories of – or reading about – romantic accounts for African Americans in the 19th and early 20th Centuries. It’s very rarely broached in television shows or in Hollywood films. It’s just not part of the 19th and early 20th Century African American iconography. To be fair, it’s not an idea or ideal associated to any working class peoples, regardless of ethnicity.  Such sensibilities have more been associated with the wealthy and the elite.

I know, from the descendants of his brothers and sister, that Leonard’s parents had been childhood sweethearts. The marriages of his brothers and sisters indicate the same. I digress..

Not long after Leonard and Julia married, they moved to Newport News, VA. In the 1900 Census, Leonard is shown working at the Newport News Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Company as a general laborer. His elder brother, Bacchus Roane, was already employed there, as were a number of their Essex County and King & Queen County Roane cousins.

The image below is a pretty fair representation of a large shipyard in the early 1900s. It certainly was a far cry from Leonard’s rural roots:

image of US shipbuilding yard, circa 1900

US shipbuilding yard, circa 1900

One of Leonard’s brothers, Wyatt Roane,  was a carrier for the Daily Press newspaper in Newport News and and didn’t live all that far from Leonard and Julia. Another brother, Patrick Henry Roane, Jr., was a nearby grocer. Leonard and Julia were pretty much surrounded by both immediate and extended family members. Again, the Roanes were a close-knit bunch.

These Roanes were part of that great early 20th Century migration which saw huge numbers of people trade their rural farming way of life for work in the industrial cities. Just like their cousins who left Virginia behind for cities in the north.

Leonard and Julia set up house at 2312 Jefferson Avenue:

image of 2312 Jefferson Ave  Newport News VA today

Sadly, the original house at 2312 Jefferson Avenue doesn’t exist any longer. The old properties were pulled down and replaced with a condominium community.

This would remain their home for the next decade. This is one of the great befits of using City Directories in your research. Here’s one of many that I’ve found for the period of 1902 – 1911 which shows Leonard and his Roane relations in Newport News:

Image of the Roane family in Newport News, VA in 1903 via City Directory

Roane family in Newport News, VA in 1903. U.S. City Directories, 1821-1989 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Operations, Inc., 2011.

Directories like the above, when matched to census records, can be a great help in family research and genealogy – especially when there are popular names used within a family over many generations.

My grandmother, Susan Julia Roane, arrived in 1896. She was followed by her sister Ella Bates Roane in 1899.

image of 1900 Census return for Leonard Roane's houshold

Leonard’s name misspelled and given as Lemuel on the 1900 Census. Citation: Year: 1900; Census Place: Newport News Ward 2, Newport News City, Virginia; Roll: 1735; Page: 29A; Enumeration District: 0077; FHL microfilm: 1241735.

Julia Bates Roane passed on 16 December 1901. I haven’t located a death certificate to learn the cause of her untimely death at the age of 25. Given the family dynamic of the Roanes, I am certain that Leonard and his young daughters had plenty of support from their surrounding family members.

In 1906, Leonard married Abigail “Abbie” Smith of Varina, VA. I can almost image the family conversation: ‘You need a wife and your daughters need a mother. You remember little Abbie Smith, Pleasant’s daughter? Well, …’ The 1880 Agricultural census shows Abbie and her family lived next door to Julia’s family. Talk about a small world!

Image for 1880 census return showing Ella Bates householed

Ella [maiden name unknown] Bates’s household in 1880. Citation: Census Year: 1880; Census Place: Varina, Henrico, Virginia; Archive Collection Number: T1132; Roll: 24; Page: 36; Line: 29; Schedule Type: Agriculture.

Taking another look at the 1880 Census for Leonard’s family, Abbie Smith may have also been a Roane family relation. In other words, Leonard and his family had known Abbie for years.

There were two accounts, one by my grandmother and another by my great aunt Ella, that the relationship between them and their step-mother were strained and far from cordial.

image for Leonard Roane's household on the 1910 Census.

Leonard Roane’s household on the 1910 Census. Citation: Year: 1910; Census Place: Newport News Ward 2, Newport News (Independent City), Virginia; Roll: T624_1637; Page: 4B; Enumeration District: 0081; FHL microfilm: 1375650.

Leonard made advancements at the shipyard where he became an outdoor ship machinist at some point around 1908. I was a bit curious about what, exactly, this entailed. While it required skill and acumen, it was also dirty, sweaty and very dangerous work. If you’re interested in such things, here’s a training manual I found online: . While the manual is dated 1942, I can’t imagine the trade had changed much from Leonard’s day. Reading through it was a great way to connect with my great grandfather.

image for Leonard Roane's burial

On or about 20 December 1912, Leonard died. This would have a profound effect on his two daughters.

Whether she was incapable of looking after her step-daughters, or simply didn’t want to, my grandmother and her sister were split up. My grandmother, it would seem, went into service with a prominent white family in Richmond, VA at the age of 14. Her sister Ella, aged 11, was sent to Henrico County to live with Roane relations. Evidence would suggest Ella grew up in Harrison. Five years later, Ella married into the Christian family of Harrison, Charles County, VA.

Abbie would go on to marry widower Richard Lacy, a Harrison town resident, on 15 April 1917. They married in Harrison and that is where she seems to have remained. Yes, this is the same town where her former step-daughter Ella Roane, who by this time had married Thomas Matthew Christian, also lived. I can only imagine that must have been awkward for both. It was (and remains) a small place. They were bound to have seen one another more regularly than not when in public.

Search for a death record & accident report

Naturally, I’ve asked my father how his grandfather died. All he could say is that it was a shipyard accident. It was something his mother just couldn’t bring herself to talk about.

So I decided to do some sleuthing. Three years later and I have zilch. I’ve thrown everything I could think of at solving this one and have come up empty handed. But I can tell you just about everything about how the other Leonard Roane died. Family research does that sometimes.

I’ve put and FamilySearch through their paces using all manner of esoteric search tricks….and nothing.

I’ve searched using every online news archive service available…and nothing. I figured a shipyard death would get at least a few lines in the local press. And then, when I thought about how many men died at shipyards at the turn of the 20th Century, I did feel kind of naïve.

I’ve used every combination of:  his name (including variations) + machinist death(s) + shipyard death(s), December 1912 +Newport news + Virginia + Newport News Shipbuilding & Dry Dock Company that you could think of…and nothing.

Google Books…nothing.

And nothing on the online vital records service sites.

So I’ve had two last rolls of the dice. Both of them longshots. I’ve emailed the Clerks Office in Newport News enquiring if his death certificate exists, and, if does, how to obtain a copy. This is the most likely of the two options to return a result.

As a backup, I’ve emailed the Newport News Shipyard enquiring whether there is an accident report and/or company account of Leonard’s death. OK, so the likelihood that 1) a report/enquiry was done, and 2) that a 102 account or record still exists in the company archive is remote. Very remote. But I’m a big believer in ‘if you don’t ask, you don’t get’.

So we’ll see if either of these avenues provides any answers.

This information vacuum is all the more interesting in light of the obituaries for his brothers, which follow below. Again, it’s worth bearing in mind that obituaries for African Americans at this time were rare:

Patrick Henry Roane, Jr

image of Patrick Henry Roane Jr obituary

7 February 1907 obituary for Patrick Henry Roane, the Daily Press. Courtesy of The Library of Virginia Original available via——190-en-20-DP-1–txt-IN-roane—-1907

Wyatt Roane

image for Wyatt Roane's obituary

22 March 1907 obituary in the Daily Press. Courtesy of The Library of Virginia @ Original available via——-en-20–1–txt-IN—–

Josephine Roane (sister-in-law, wife of Bacchus Roane)

image for Josephine Roane's obituary18 February 1909 obituary for Josephine Roane in the Daily Press. Courtesy of The Library of Virginia @ Original available via——190-en-20–1–txt-IN-josephine+roane—-#

In closing, I can’t help but note that Leonard, Wyatt and Patrick, Jr. all died tragically premature deaths. Leonard was dead at 38, Patrick at 44 and Wyatt at 38. Bacchus was 50 when he died – by Roane standards that was still quite young. Like their relations in Baltimore and Philadelphia, Leonard and his brothers life expectancy was cut by a third when compared to other male Roane relations who remained in the countryside.

However, to leave on a positive note, the obituaries above illustrate just how well thought of my Roane ancestors were.

A tale of two Scheffe/Sheffey families in America: Northern vs Southern customs

There are some definite benefits in tracing a family line from its earliest starting point down through the centuries. You can begin to start all manner of trends. So while it may take a (seemingly endless) amount of time – you can get a deeper sense of how a family can change over time.

I’ve spent the past few weeks working through Peter Scheffe’s (1669 – 1749, Herschberg & Thaleischweiler, Sudwestpfalz, Rheinland-Pfalz, Germany) female descendants. I still have a way to go…however, some interesting patterns have begun to emerge.  Specifically, these are patterns relating to the 18th and 19th Century American immigrants descended from these ladies.  The main families included in this maternal group are:  Ankney, Mattil, Hoh and Kieffer.

There is a distinct cultural difference between the American immigrant descendants of Peter Scheffe. This difference kind of neatly falls into two groups:  descendants who arrived in the American South and those who arrived in the North. Their journey and experience is almost a story of two different Americas.  

One family line is descended through Peter Scheffe’s son, Johann Adam Sheffey. The other line is composed of a group of families either descended through Peter Scheffe’s daughters or their daughters – maternal lines, in other words.

The American South & The Sheffey family

The identification of the Sheffeys with Virginia is so strong, and so prevalent, that I tend to forget that Johan Adam Sheffey actually settled in Frederick, Maryland. His daughters remained in Frederick, MD, where they married and raised families. Their descendants can be found there today. His sons did not. Daniel Henry Sheffey and Henry Lawrence Sheffey settled in Virginia.  Their brother John would go on to settle in Tennessee.

Daniel, Henry and John Sheffey would take wives from distinctly non-Germanic colonial families. Daniel Henry Sheffey first married Maria Hanson andthen Nancy Lewis. Henry Lawrence Sheffey first married Margaret White and, later, Ceny Nuckolls.   John Sheffey married Margaret Thompson.

For all intents and purposes, it seems, Johann Adam Sheffey’s sons left their German roots behind.

Despite being first generation Americans from immigrant German parents, these three Sheffey brothers appear to have made a conscious decision to break with the family’s German past. As men, it was perhaps easier for them to do this. They had the freedom to choose for themselves. The brothers were also far from the parental sphere of influence.

Virginia itself must have been an active factor, at least for Henry and Daniel. Virginia was the most Anglican of the colonies. That is to say, it was the most English and aristocratic. The English were quite adept at placing their stamp on societies. You either had to be one of them – or aspire to be like them – if you stood any chance of advancement within the English social structure. I don’t dismiss this as a motivating factor behind Daniel and Henry Sheffey’s transformations from German-Americans into American colonials.

John in Tennessee would have a slightly different journey from his brothers. His family married into the hybrid Scottish-Irish culture of Tennessee.

Here’s a quick visual snapshot of some of the Virginia and Tennessee families the brothers forged unions with through marriage:

Sheffey family marriages in Virginia and Tennessee

 The names the brothers gave their children were largely non-Germanic: Robert, William, Serena. Lawrence, James etc.  The brothers gave their children names that were, well, quite Virginian. Not to put too fine a point on it, Daniel, John and Henry’ and their children ‘went native’.  They –  and their descendants – became true sons and daughters of the American south. Within a generation there was nothing of the German about their families at all.

The Sheffey family in Frederick, Maryland

Adam Sheffey’s daughters, however, maintained close ties to their German roots. That’s hardly surprising as it would seem the town of Frederick had a large and tight-knit German immigrant community. Brengle, Geyer and Guiton (French-Germanic Huguenots) were the families Adam’s daughters married into. Their Frederick, MD descendants continued the practice of marrying into German-American families for decades afterwards. Mostly Germanic names feature amongst their children: Jakob, Michael, Johann, Friedrich, Sophia, Maria, Catherina, etc.

I don’t know what it was about Maryland that facilitated immigrant communities actively holding on to their cultural traditions. There does, however, seem to be a marked difference between Maryland and Virginia, the latter which almost seemed to demand compliance with the ‘Virginian way of life’. Then again, Virginia set itself at the pinnacle of southern society – its customs were to be the benchmark for southern society.

Whatever the difference, Adam Sheffey’s daughters and their descendants embraced their German heritage. They had far more in common with their distant relations in Pennsylvania than they did with their brothers.

Sheffey relations in the Northern States

Again, this relates to Adam Sheffey’s cousins, relations through the various female lines of the family: Ankney, Mattil, Hoh and Kieffer.

The families listed above, along with fellow émigrés from the Rhineland-Palatinate region of Germany, basically created a new Rhineland-Palatinate in the Pennsylvania areas they settled. These were vibrant, thriving recognisably German communities in every aspect – merely transplanted to the American colonies. In this instance, Pennsylvania. The religiously tolerant Pennsylvania made no demands upon them to leave their traditions and customs behind. German immigrants could remain German in language, customs and traditions.

This is so clearly shown in the census returns for Pennsylvania from the 1720s onwards. My distant Pennsylvania kin and their community used German names for their children. Nor did they anglicise the names.  Johann remained Johann, and not John. Friedrich remained Friedrich, and Frederick. The used the traditional naming conventions from their culture: Johann Jakob Ankney would be referred to as Jakob, and not Johann. Which was rather good as there could be as many as four or five Johann’s in one family – each differentiated by his middle name. For girls, Anna Catharina Kieffer would be an example. She would be referred to as Catharina.

The families they married into had recognizably Germanic names:

Ankney family marriages

I’m not sure when Germans began to settle upstate New York. However, by the time of the 1860 census, there was a thriving German-American community here too. Have a look at the 1860 census for Oneida in Utica County, NY:

1860 NY Census

1860 Census for Oneida, Utica County, NY – click for larger image

Nor did these German-American kin, or their community, leave these German customs and preferences behind when they quit Pennsylvania and New York for the mid-West in the 19th Century. As late as the 1940s census, I can see these practices in widespread use.  Nor did they cease in a preference for German spouses – or at least spouses from other German-American families. Scandinavians and Swiss got an occasional look in.

The census returns, even for the 1930s and 1940s, made me chuckle. You can almost hear the German-accented English which remained through the centuries. The surname Weiss is occasionally spelled as ‘Vise’ or ‘Wise”. The surname Hoh becomes “Hoey” or even “Hughey”. The name Jakob is spelled ‘Yalkob’. ‘Martha’ becomes ‘Merta’.

While I will probably never see a picture of these people, I can gain a semblance of familiarity for them by their accents, inadvertently recorded by a census taker.

So there you have it. A tale of two Sheffeys: one southern (ok, ok, Virginian!) and the other predominantly northern. Two different sides of a family that would take radically different paths in their adopted homeland.

Genealogy challenges: Part 3 – The White family of Pulaski County, Virginia

I was elated when I could finally provide my father’s maternal grandmother, Jane, with a surname.  For the best part of a year she was in the family tree as “Jane A”, surname unknown. Seeing her name n the family tree like that was like having a finger waggling at me through time saying “give me my name”.

All I could glean about her was from my first introduction to her: the 1910 Census. It had her approximate year of birth (abt 1861), that she was born in Virginia, her parents had been born in Tennessee, her husband (my great-grandfather Daniel Sheffey) and the names of their children (which, incidentally, were all spelt incorrectly!).  So there wasn’t terribly much to go on.

My grandfather’s marriage certificate provided no further illumination.  She was cited as Jane A Sheffey.

It wasn’t until I saw a physical copy of my grandfather’s death certificate (no digital version of the document exists as of this date), that Jane was given her maiden name: Jane A White.

I inwardly groaned more than a little.  On the one hand I was pleased she had her rightful name.  On the other…looking for a Jane White in online genealogical records would be like looking for the proverbial needle in a haystack.

Further searches did reveal more clues: her date of birth, the county of her birth (Pulaski County, Virginia), her date of death and eventually the names of her parents (Cornelius White and Ann St. Clair).  Ann, as mentioned previously, was born in Tennessee.  I had no knowledge as to when she left Tennessee and arrived in Virginia. Cornelius was a native of Virginia.

Now at this point I did get excited.  I had two very distinctive names to research.  It didn’t matter to me that I didn’t have a year of birth for either parent or a county of birth. Or so I thought.

I made a few assumptions for the initial search parameters.  If Jane White was born in 1860, then her parents could have been born at any point between 1820 to 1840, give or take a half-dozen years either side. That’s a fairly big slice of time to search within.  Technically it’s an entire generation. I wasn’t fazed. I focused on the fact that I had two quite distinctive names to work with.  This had worked in the past.  So why not now?

I started with Cornelius White.  I searched for any Cornelius White born in Virginia between the years 1820 and 1840. The list was staggeringly enormous.  Filtering out all of the white Cornelius Whites still left me with quite a list.  None were married to an Ann. And none with a daughter Jane.And none, as far as i could tell, lived in or were from Pulaski County, VA.

As for Ann, I searched for her through official records in Tennessee and Virginia during the same time period – and again, nothing for her either. Searches for Ann St. Clair and Ann White yielded no results.

I’ve searched for a marriage certificate for Cornelius and Ann – and again, nothing.  Nor have I been able to find death certificates for them.  If they had children other than Jane, I can’t find them either.

So here’s a rare example where having distinctive names to use in your search doesn’t lead to tangible results.

So the White family will join the Turner Family on the backburner.  More than likely it will require a visit to Pulaski County to search through physical records to find more information about them.

Register of Colored Persons cohabiting together as Husband and Wife, 1866 Feb.

The Library of Virginia has an extensive digital collection.  This is a collection of documents that have been digitized and entered into a database that is very easy to search.  It is also free.

This collection of documents can be invaluable to those tracing their ancestry in Virginia.  Amongst other items, it contains will and tax lists.  For African Americans, it contains a document called “Register of Colored Persons cohabiting together as Husband and Wife, 1866 Feb.” – there is a cohabitation document for almost all the counties in Virginia.  Why are these historically important documents?

  • They contain the names of freed slaves living together as man and wife, their children (and their ages). Typically, the wife’s maiden name is the name of record, which enables you to trace maternal lines.
  • They contain the names of their last owners, along with their owner’s county of residence details. This will help you identify counties your ancestors were resident in before they were freed.  You can see if your ancestors remained in the county where they were slaves or if they moved.  If they moved, chances are they could have had kin who chose to remain in the county where they were slaves.

My great grandfather appeared in this register.  I discovered he and his wife had more children than accounted for in the census. This has been pretty exciting for me as it opened up new lines of research.  It also allowed me to tie a family group I had recorded in my research into my family tree.

You can access these records here