Author Archives: 8families

About 8families

Diversity. Evidence-based. Entitlement. Vulnerable.

Wright Johnson, Part 3: A Clue in the Search for His Parents

Wright Johnson was born about 1774 in North Carolina. He married Nancy Wilks about 1802, and they had eight known children. He was a farmer, land owner, local preacher, and Methodist deacon. He died about 1866 in Surry County, N. C.

Mary Elizabeth King, a fifth-generation descendant of Wright Johnson through his daughter, Nancy Johnson Norman, wrote that his grandfather, unnamed, was an officer in the Virgina militia and was killed in 1755 in the French and Indian War, at a battle called Braddock’s Defeat.

A list of officers killed at Braddock’s Defeat in 1755 includes a Lieutenant Wright, but none named Johnson. The information was originally taken from a publication called Gentleman’s Magazine, from that year. Because the mother’s or grandmother’s family name was often used as a given name, I have pursued the possibility that the ancestor mentioned in King’s story could have the surname Wright.

Further information about Lieutenant William Wright can be found in a book called Annals of Augusta County, Virginia. Braddock was a British general who led American colonists in a disastrous battle of the French and Indian War in July of 1755. Lieut. Wright was said to have been killed by Indians, July 12, 1755, at a place called Reed Creek.

“The ensign left to hold the fort was William Wright. The Governor wrote to him on the 12th, [Feb. 12, 1755] instructing him to “keep a good look out,” to be exact in his duties, to make short excursions from the fort, and to apply to Colonel Patton, in case of danger, to have some of his militia ready at an hour’s warning.”

“The Preston Register…’A register of the persons who have been either killed, wounded, or taken prisoners by the enemy, in Augusta County…’ ” lists in “1755…July 12–Lieut. Wright and 2 soldiers, Reed Creek, killed.”

On page 63 a William Wright is mentioned as a commissioner and trustee, in 1747, in receipt with others of 110 acres of land for the use of the Presbyterian congregation of Tinkling Spring in Augusta County. The county is located in the Shenandoah Valley.

© Glenda Alexander 18 April, 2019

Sources:

“I have a Memory Trace,” by Mary E. King, in Grandmothers: Poems, reminiscences, and short stories about the keepers of our traditions, edited by Nikkii Giovanni, (New York: Henry Holt and Co., 1994) pp. 115.

William Armstrong Crozier, editor, Virginia Colonial Militia 1765-1776, (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1965) p. 120.

Joseph Addison Waddell, Annals of Augusta County, Virginia, from 1726 to 1871, Second Edition, (Staunton, Va.: C.R. Caldwell, 1902) http://www.archive.org/details/annalsofaugustac00wadd, accessed Nov. 14, 2011. Original from Harvard University, Digitized Sep 12, 2006 by Internet Archive; pp. 63, 102-103, 154-155.

Wright Johnson, Part 2: Nancy Wilks, His Wife

Nancy Wilks, wife of Wright Johnson, was born about 1784 in North Carolina, calculated from census reports of 1850-1870. Her family name was stated in the death certificate of her daughter Elizabeth. The census indicates that she did not learn to read or write.

Nancy married Wright Johnson about 1802, calculated from the earliest birthdate indicated for her son Henderson Johnson. Nancy was about 18 years old, her husband, about 28.

The records show eight children. Her children’s birth dates were calculated from census, marriage, death, and burial records. The ages of Nancy’s oldest children are hard to pin down, but there appear to be gaps of several years between some of her childbirths, so it is quite possible that she gave birth to other children who didn’t survive.

  1. Henderson was born between 1803-1810.
  2. Wesley, between 1805-1810.
  3. John, between 1810-1820.
  4. Jemimah, about 1814.
  5. James, 1816.
  6. Mary, about 1821.
  7. Nancy, about 1824.
  8. Elizabeth, 1825.

When Wright walked from Westfield to Norfolk for his ordination in 1836, he was about 62 years old, and Nancy was about 54. Seven of their children probably lived in the family home at that time. Henderson and Wesley were married, and records indicate that Henderson may have continued to live with his parents. Over the decades, all the children except John W. are listed in the census near their parents.

Nancy was named in her husband’s will in 1866: “My beloved wife Nancy Johnson for her natural life or widowhood…the remainder of all my estate both real and personal of every description.” Wright died soon after the making of his will.

In the census of 1870, Nancy still lived in the family home in Westfield, age 86. She and her son Henderson both died before the 1880 census. Henderson apparently still lived with her, with his second wife and several young children.

Many of the Johnson family’s death certificates state that they were buried in a Norman family cemetery in Westfield. That cemetery is now abandoned and located on a private farm. Few of the graves in that cemetery have stones with names on them, but those that do are consistent with the individual death certificates. Mount Herman Methodist Church, near the Johnsons’ home place, was apparently their church and has many unmarked graves in its cemetery.

Sources:

Death Certificate of Elizabeth McMillion, Virginia Death Records, 1912-2014, database on-line, Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2015. Original data: Va. Deaths, 1912-2014. Va. Department of Health, Richmond, Va.

Will of Wright Johnson, Will Book 5, 1853-1868, Surry County Register of Deeds, Dobson, N. C.

Wright Johnson, Part 1: Preacher Right

Wright Johnson was born ca. 1774. His name first appeared in the Surry County, North Carolina, census in 1820, when he was about 46 years of age, along with what would appear to be a wife, four sons, and three daughters. He first appeared in Surry tax lists in 1813.  He owned land in the northeast corner of Surry County, bordering on Stokes County, North Carolina, and Patrick County, Virginia, in the area of Archie’s/Archer’s Creek.

In the late 1700’s, John Wesley sent missionaries to America to spread his beliefs among the colonists. A man named Francis Asbury came to America around 1771 and traveled and preached throughout the colonies. Asbury later became a bishop of the newly established Methodist Church. Methodism was spread by means of camp meetings and itinerant preachers who took their doctrine into remote settlements. By the middle of the 1800’s the Methodist denomination was the largest Protestant church in America. Their services were known for their exuberant singing, shouting, and preaching.

Wright Johnson was ordained as a Methodist deacon in 1836, when he was in his sixties. The story is told that he walked the entire distance from Surry County to Norfolk, Virginia about 275 miles, for his ordination. He was described in the Virginia Annual Conference Minutes as a local preacher of the Surry circuit, elected to the office of Deacon by Bishop Elijah Hedding and others on February 17. Consider how healthy and strong he must have been to walk that distance in the depth of winter.

A story in the 1894 Yadkin County News, by Bill Whitehead, told how a Methodist preacher named Right Johnson waded through creeks to preach at a home somewhere near Mount Airy, on “The Cold Friday.” There are a number of “Cold Fridays” on record early in the 19th century, when the temperature did not rise above zero and set records all over the East Coast. One exceptionally cold winter was recorded in Tennessee in 1835, when many livestock froze to death and snow drifted deep. This was only about 100 miles from Wright’s home on the border of North Carolina and Virginia.  Whitehead wrote:

“I recollect on the ‘cold Friday’ that Right Johnson waded the creeks and came to our house to preach. The creeks I speak of are those crossed in traveling from Mount Airy to our house. Where can you find in this day any person who would even ride in a fine rig and go to a common log cabin to preach in such weather as the ‘cold Friday’?

“But the old preachers of an early day had many hardships to encounter. I will mention some of their names. Of the Methodist–Thos. Bryant, Wiley Patterson, James Needham, John Hix and Right Johnson, and later on William Rawley and one of the Roberts. Of the Baptists–John Jones and Jonah Cockerham. The Methodists generally, except Rawley and Roberts, were very poor men who did the most of their traveling on foot.”

© Glenda Alexander, All Rights Reserved.

Sources:

William Lee Grissom, History of Methodism in North Carolina: from 1772 to the Present Time, (Nashville, Tenn.: Publishing House of the M. E. Church, South, 1905).

Mary E. King, “I Have a Memory Trace,” in Nikki Giovanni, editor, Grandmothers: Poems, Reminiscences, and Short Stories about the Keepers of Our Traditions, (New York: Henry Holy and Co., 1994) pp. 114-132.

1820 Census of the United States, Population Schedule of North Carolina, Surry County, Capt. Lachrys District, Wright Johnson household, pp. 760-761.

Hand-written records dated “Norfolk 1836,” in the 1800-1840 Virginia Annual Conference Minutes, located in the McGraw-Page Library Special Collections, Randolph-Macon College, Ashland, Va.

Wright Johnson, Deed of Trust, Surry County Register of Deeds, Dobson N.C., Book X, pp. 206-207.

Wright Johnson, Grantor, Wesley Johnson, Grantee, Deed to Land on Archie’s Creek, Surry County Register of Deeds, Dobson N.C., Book 9, pp. 12-13.

Bill Whitehead, “Oldentime Memories,” Vol. 14, #50, The Yadkin Valley News, Mount Airy, N.C., Thursday, July 5, 1894, p. 1.

David Ludlum, “Historical Weather Facts,” http://userpages.chorus.net/wxalan/wxfact/feb.html, accessed Feb. 18, 2006, Aviation Weather Center, Kansas City, Missouri.

24-7 Family History Circle, “The Year Was 1835,” blog hosted by Ancestry.com, Copyright © 1998-2006, MyFamily.com Inc., 17 September 2006, accessed Sept. 11, 2009.

Iris Harvey, Surry County, North Carolina Tax List-1813, (Raleigh, N. C., author, 1991) p. 48.

A Grandmother’s Heroism

Mary Johnson Hemmings died tragically, trying to save a grandchild in a runaway car.

The Mount Airy News of September 1, 1927, reported on page one: “While trying to stop a car from rolling down an embankment with her grandchild in the car, Mrs. J. F. Hemmings dropped dead near the quarry Monday morning. Her son had parked the car near the house and his five year old boy was playing in it when the car was seen to begin rolling down the hill toward the big shed. Mrs. Hemmings managed to reach the car and had taken hold of the rear fender and tried to hold it back, when she suddenly dropped over. Relatives found her unconscious and rushed her to the hospital but she never rallied, and it is thought she died suddenly, either from a weak heart or from a ruptured blood vessel caused by straining to hold the car back.

“The car rolled on down the bank and the child suffered no ill effects, mashing its nose a little as it fell from the seat, and a fender was bruised on the car.”

A photograph made about 1924 of a grand-niece of Mary Hemmings, sitting on a Ford Model “T” touring car of that era. The weight of such a car was about 1200 pounds, and they were made almost entirely of steel.

Mary Frances Johnson was born in 1874 in Surry County, N. C., to Jessie Allen and Elizabeth Gray Johnson. Her mother died in 1876, likely from the same tuberculosis that took her grandmother’s life a few years previous, and also may have taken her grandfather’s life in 1876. In 1881, Mary and her older brother Lindsay were the only surviving children of their parents. Their father remarried in 1877. Records do not show who raised Mary, but she learned to read and write. Lindsay, who was a teenager when their mother died, married about 1880.

Mary was married in 1891, to James Franklin Hemmings of Surry County, son of Washington and Elizabeth Kenner Hemmings. The wedding took place at her father’s home in the Mt. Airy township.

Mary and James lived on the McBride Road near Mt. Airy, where they owned a farm, and raised nine children. They lost one child before the 1900 census. Mary’s father and his wife and his step-son, William Everhart, were their neighbors. Mary’s brother, Lindsay, lived in Mt. Airy with his wife and children and worked in a furniture factory.

Between 1910 and 1920, James Hemmings and at least one of his sons went to work for the North Carolina Granite Corporation, where James was a foreman. Their home apparently was near the quarry. The account of Mary’s death said that the car rolled toward “the big shed,” probably a cutting shed or other work area at the quarry.

Mary was buried in the Midkiff Cemetery on Quaker Road, near her home, the first in a family plot where one of her sons would join her only four years later, and in two more years, her husband.

Copyright 2019, Glenda Alexander. All rights reserved.

Sources:

  1. Estate Settlement Proceedings for Jeremiah Gray, Sept. 8, 1881, Surry County, North Carolina, Estate Records 1771-1943; Ancestry.com; Original data in N. C. Dept. of Archives, Raleigh.
  2. Lorna W. Barrett, Surry County, North Carolina Marriages 1869-1899 (Toast, N. C.: Published by author, 1998.) p. 188.
  3. Census Data: 1880 Census: Westfield, Surry, North Carolina; Roll: T9_983; Enumeration District: 177; p. 12D; 1900 U. S. Census, Mount Airy, Surry County, N. C.; Microfilm Roll: 1219; p. 9B; Enumeration District: 112; 1910 U. S. Census, Mount Airy, Surry County, N. C.; Microfilm Roll: T624_1133; p. 15B; Enumeration District 136; 1920 U. S. Census, Mount Airy, Surry, North Carolina; Roll: T625_1316; pp. 9A-B; Enumeration District: 256.
  4. “Dies While Trying to Save Little Boy,” Mt. Airy News, Mt. Airy, N. C., 1927; “Loses Life to Save Grandson,” Danbury Reporter, Danbury, N. C., 31 Aug. 1927, p. 1. Images on digitalnc.com
  5. Visit to Midkiff Cemetery, Jan. 26, 2019.
  6. “How much does a Ford Model T weigh?, “ The Frontenac Motor Company , Copyright 2016, URL: http://modelt.ca/.

Mystery Musician Identified!

Several weeks ago, I posted a snapshot that I found among my grandmother’s family photos, and identified one of the two individuals as Frank Jenkins, a musician from Surry County, N. C.  His companion, who held a guitar, now has a name:  Walter Barney Smith.

Walter Smith wrote several songs that are known to old-time music fans. He recorded several with the Carolina Buddies in the early 1930’s. “Otto Wood the Bandit” and “The Murder of the Lawson Family” were based on real events that took place in North Carolina. Apparently Smith led tours of the Lawsons’ cabin in Stokes County and performed his song as a finale. The 78 rpm record label pictured is from my mother’s copy of the record.

The Carolina Buddies and Charlie Poole’s North Carolina Ramblers contained many of the same personnel over the years, including Posey Rorrer and Norman Woodlief. However, I find no record so far of Smith performing with Frank Jenkins, his partner in the photograph.

Smith’s wife and three daughters performed with him over the years. In the Smithfield, Va. Times of July 20, 1939, was an ad which read: “On Stage In Person! Kid Smith and Smith Sisters WGH Radio Station Stars in Their New Radio Hillbilly Show–Good string music with harmony singing–Featuring Expert Tap Dancer Little Lorene” (Smith’s youngest daughter.)

At the top of the page is a portrait of the four of them, with “Kid” dressed as a clown, and daughters Dorothy and Thelma with ukulele and guitar. WGBH was a station in Newport News, Va.  Kid performed many humorous songs, including some he learned from his father, Luther B. Smith, such as “The Cat’s Got the Measles and the Dog’s Got the Whooping Cough,” and some which he wrote, such as “Evolution Girl.”

I found several photographs of Walter Smith online which helped me identify him in my family snapshot. (Including one with his collar stylishly turned up.)

A good illustrated article about Smith can be found in Tony Russell’s book, Country Music Originals: The Legends and the Lost, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007) pp. 87-90.

Many of his songs can be found on Youtube. His songs have been covered by many other artists, including Doc Watson and the New Lost City Ramblers.

Walter Smith died in 1977 in Virginia.

Sources consulted:

At https://www.discogs.com/Walter-Smith-Carolina-Buddies-And-Others-Vol1/release/4168817 is a discography and an album cover photo showing his distinctive haircut.

https://www.discogs.com/Walter-Smith-Friends-Volume-2-March-1930-February-1931-North-Carolina-Blues/release/6194294 covers more of his recording career.

Smithfield Times, Volume 20, Number 16, 20 July 1939, p. 4.

Copyright 2019 by Glenda Alexander. All rights reserved..

Genealogy Skills: Transcribing Old Documents

How do you read these words: lefs, witnefs, acrofs? Is the name spelled Wright, Right, or Rite? What did they mean when they described a woman as a man’s consort?  Documents created before we had keyboards are hard enough to read.  Even hand-writing was different back then, sometimes with completely different symbols for letters of the alphabet or for key words.

I found some good clues in this webinar by Diane L. Richard on “Accurate Transcriptions for Historical Records”  https://www.ncgenealogy.org/accurate-transcriptions-historical-records/ on the North Carolina Genealogical Society website.

The author’s most important advice for me was, don’t try to clean up the document to make it easier to read—you may actually be destroying important information. She has some good methods for copying the document just as you see it, warts and all.

I decided to practice those skills by re-transcribing an old will, because I had, with good intentions, tried to make it more orderly. The original did not put spaces between the  numbered provisions for the beneficiaries. It had very few periods to separate sentences and few commas to separate the names of descendants.

However, by going back to the starting point and copying just what was there, I discovered an initial I had not noticed before in a person’s name. This is a small detail, but it might lead to finding more records about that person. Also, I was able to read some words that previously  seemed illegible, and I had skipped them instead of setting them out with brackets or notes. Every clue is important, considering how few records we have of our oldest ancestors.

The revised transcription of the Last Will and Testament of Wright Johnson of Surry County, N. C., my 5th great-grandfather, is online here: http://home.earthlink.net/~glendaalex/wright_will.htm

Wright Johnson had eight children and many descendants. His land lay in three counties: Surry, Stokes, and Patrick, on the N. C./Virginia border.

Copyright 2019 by Glenda Alexander.  All Rights Reserved.

Land Records Help Fill Out a Family Tree

I recently learned that records of land sales, taxes, and legal disputes can be as valuable as to a family history as wills and deeds. I found two records that, between them, told a dramatic and sometimes tragic story.

Wright Will (1)

In his will, my 4x great-grandfather, Wright Johnson, left land to seven of his eight children. He had land in three counties: Surry and Stokes in North Carolina and Patrick in Virginia. At his death in 1866, his 460 acres were contiguous and his home was on Archie’s (also called Archer’s) Creek, straddling the state and county lines. The communities of Westfield and Quaker Gap are in that area.

Wright’s son Henderson, my 3x great-grandfather, inherited 100 acres in the northwest corner of Stokes County, containing a small mountain called Archie’s Knob. It was totally wooded with the exception of one cleared field and a road or two that Wright had cut through it.

Henderson first married in 1833, to my ancestor, Amelia Norman Jones, and raised five children, plus a step-daughter, on his father’s land. After about thirty years of marriage, Amelia died, and Henderson remarried in 1865, at about age 60, to Malinda Spangler Hall, who was 21. He soon had four more children, plus a step-son who died young.

Wright died in 1866. His wife, Nancy Wilks Johnson, followed him within about four years. At the time of their deaths, Henderson and Malinda lived with them. In 1873, Henderson, about 70 years old, also died. Malinda was left with four children from one to nine years old, and no means of support.

In the meantime, Henderson had leased his land to a man named Henry Slate, who built a cabin for himself and two other cabins, which he rented. He cleared some land and tried to raise corn and tobacco without much success. He moved out of his cabin, and Malinda moved in. She stayed a brief time, then left for Mt. Airy, where she found work in a factory. She left the cabin rented to a woman named Polly George. Polly and her children had “some trouble,” unspecified, and the family left the area. Malinda then placed an elderly woman named Celia Pringle in the cabin, to take care of “her things,” presumably furniture, and to establish her possession of the property.

Malinda (1)

In the meantime, Henry Slate tried to establish ownership of the property. He nailed the doors of the cabins shut and had a local attorney, John Clark, to take Celia Pringle to the county poor house. Years passed and the dispute went on. Malinda hired an attorney and went to court to assert her ownership, and finally sold the property in 1904.

The grantor deed for the 1904 sale provided a valuable document for my family history, as it listed all the surviving descendants of Henderson Johnson at that time, including children by both wives, grandchildren, and all their spouses.

However, the 37 pages of petition papers concerning the land dispute added even more, such as death dates for Wright, Nancy, and Henderson Johnson, the location of Henderson’s inheritance, and some circumstantial information about Malinda Johnson.

Copyright 2018 by Glenda Alexander.  All Rights Reserved.

Sources:

Will of Wright Johnson, Surry County, NC, Will Book 5: 1853-1868, pp. 25-26, Surry County Register of Deeds, Dobson N.C.

Grantor Deed for Henderson Johnson heirs, filed 22 March 1904, Grantor Book 47 pp. 4-5, Stokes County Register of Deeds, Danbury, N. C..

Account, Petition, and Sales Papers, Probate Records, Stokes County, N. C., 1753-1971; North Carolina, Wills and Probate Records, 1665-1998; database on-line at Ancestry.com; (Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2015.)