Genealogy, or the tracing of one’s family history, can be a fascinating and frustrating enterprise. We are almost certain to stumble upon some surprises. Watching the show Finding Your Roots recently, I saw a Jewish comedian from New York, Larry David, learn that he had Jewish ancestors from Alabama who owned slaves. He had no idea. One of my neighbors was quite shocked to learn that his Southern ancestor was in the Union Army. That, by the way, is not uncommon in this area. Five of my great-great grandfathers served in the Confederate Army, but the other three were in the Union Army, all from northeast Alabama.
Sometimes these surprises are pleasant ones. I’ve been doing some research for one of my former students and just a few hours into researching one of her lines, I discovered she had an ancestor who crossed the Delaware with George Washington. That was an exciting find.
But several years ago, I was contacted by a lady from another state who was interested in finding out more about her birth father and his family. She said that he was from Dade County and that while stationed in New Jersey during World War II, he met and married her mother, and she was born while he was in Europe. She said he was killed in action and understandably, she knew almost nothing about his family in Dade County. One of the things I learned was that he was buried in a cemetery in Wildwood, and that he didn’t die in WWII, but died much later and was buried beside his wife there. Awkward!
Who practiced the deception here? Was it the soldier from Dade County, or perhaps the woman’s mother who didn’t want her daughter to know the real circumstances of her birth? I wasn’t sure what I should do, but I decided to tell her the truth and hope for the best. She took it pretty well. Maybe she was already suspicious.
Another thing you learn while doing genealogy is that you may be related to people and have no idea about the connection. I met Larry Williams when we both taught at Dade County High School. Larry was an agriculture teacher, a Methodist minister and the founder of Agrimissions. I learned a bit later that he was also an avid genealogist, and guess what? His wife and I have a common ancestor—Thomas Dean—and dozens of people in Dade and Dekalb Co., Ala., are descendants of Thomas Dean, including Larry’s wife Marianna, my friend Donna Street, the Dean family in Rising Fawn, and even Eddy Gifford, the publisher of the Sentinel. Before long, Larry and I were sharing family trees.
Another thing we learn about in doing genealogy is the “brick wall.” That’s what we call it when we get to a point in our research where we just aren’t able to go back any further. This is very frustrating, but thrilling when we finally break through that wall. Genealogists also find that sometimes one bit of information may lead to a dozen more questions. But don’t we love a mystery? And even though the place to start in researching your family history is to interview family members, we often learn that those family stories handed down through the generations may be either completely true, partially true, or complete fiction.
Larry Williams recently shared some of his family history with me and it includes one of those “brick walls,” a mystery dating back to the Civil War, and some interesting, if questionable, family stories.
Larry Williams’s “brick wall” is his great-great grandfather Isaac H. Williams. He was born about 1804 in North Carolina and then shows up on the 1840 census in south Nashville, Tenn. Before 1850, the census did not give the names of all the people living in the household; it gave the name of the head of household and then only the sex and age of the other household members. Larry hasn’t been able to find out who Isaac’s parents are. His genealogy stops with Isaac for now. After we get back past 1850, we have to depend on other sources like family Bibles, probate records, deeds and so on. They don’t always exist, but we keep looking.
In 1850 Isaac Williams and family are still in Nashville, but by the 1860 census, he is living in Dade County, but his mailing address is Shell Mound, Tenn. His occupation is that of a Bar Keeper. Living with him are his wife Clarinda, 47; children, Amanda, 18; James, 11; Thomas, 16; Clarinda, 14; plus William Johnson, 20, a fisherman, and Robert T. Williams, 21, a fisherman. Now, Larry takes a look at some of the family stories that have been handed down to him. The comments in parentheses are Larry’s findings about these stories.
Isaac Williams lived in Shell Mound, Tenn., during the Civil War. He had seven sons (I have only found four) and one daughter (I have listed two). One son was James Henry Williams, our ancestor. (We have no information on the rest of the family.) Isaac was a wealthy man (records indicate otherwise unless he was wealthy prior to moving to Nashville, in 1850) with lots of slaves (there are no records of this at all). His son James had his own slave boy named Jim (no record of this either). Now the town he lived in is under water. Another part of the story that will probably never be verified is that one of Isaac’s sons moved West during the gold rush after the Civil War or maybe just prior to it and that he was killed for his gold.
That’s what we often find with family stories handed down: some are true, some are fiction, and some remain a mystery. By 1870, Isaac Williams is living in Trenton with his son James Henry Williams. James Henry is a carpenter, and Isaac is listed as a retired carpenter. Isaac’s wife and the rest of his family are either dead, married, or have moved away. Larry has only found records for James Henry (Larry’s ancestor) and one sister, Clarinda. What happened to the rest of the family is still a mystery.
But now we come to the most intriguing mystery in Larry Williams’s family history, one going back to the Civil War, in the form of a very interesting letter. As I mentioned before, Isaac Williams was a bar keeper in 1860. A paper he received from a Yankee colonel has been passed down in the family and on April 19, 1946, an article about it appeared in the Chattanooga News-Free Press along with a picture of Clara Williams Newman, granddaughter of Isaac Williams. It read:
A Yank Colonel’s letter saved the home of the grandfather of Mrs. W.J. Newman of 1613 West 40th Street from destruction at the hands of Yankee forces during the War Between the States. She is pictured holding the letter to her grandfather, Isaac Williams, who owned a farm, store and saloon at Shellmound, Tenn., from a Col. Thomas D. Ledgewick, a commander of the First Brigade and Post of the Union Army. The letter reads: “A safeguard is hereby granted to Mr. Isaac Williams, a loyal citizen living about one mile from Shellmound on the Coal Mine Railroad. All officers and soldiers are commanded to respect the house and property of said Isaac Williams and to afford, if necessary, protection.”
Now this is a fascinating, but curious document to possess. What did Isaac Williams do to put this Union officer in his debt? Larry has not found any relation or connection between them and I didn’t either. What did Williams do to convince this Colonel of his loyalty to the Union? Or was he just there at the right time with some liquid refreshment?
I did some searching as well and the only thing I could add to Larry’s research was that I think the author of the article misread the name of the Colonel. I have never heard the name Ledgewick and when I did searches for him, nothing came up. But in the elaborate cursive writing on the Civil War era, capital Ls often look like a capital S, so I researched Col. Thomas D. Sedgewick. This time, I found a lot. Col. Thomas D. Sedgewick was indeed the commander of the First Brigade in the Union Army. There is a lot of information on him in Civil War records. He was in the area and he was at the Battle of Chickamauga, but I, too, failed to find a more direct connection between him and Isaac Williams. So, for now, this remains one of those very fascinating family mysteries. Unfortunately, although the family has a copy of the contents of the paper, the original was lost in a house fire sometime after the article was published.
If you’re interested in learning more about your own histories and mysteries, the Dade County Historical Society has volunteers at the library who can help you, and occasionally we have workshops where we have several volunteers available to assist researchers. Maybe we can help you knock down a brick wall. Look for announcements about these meetings in this history column.