Category Archives: Johnson

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, can be found here: https://8families.blog/2020/02/02/i-wright-johnson-of-the-county-of-surry/

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.)

 

Tuberculosis

September 25th, this week, was “World Lung Day.”The World Health Organization, concerned about a world-wide epidemic of tuberculosis,  got a hearing this week at the United Nations to ask for funding to fight the leading infectious killer of human beings in the world today.

The United States gained control over the disease during the mid-20th century, after the introduction of antibiotics and x-rays. I remember the mobile x-ray unit that used to visit the county seat at least once a year. My mother and other people with family members who had the disease were required to get a yearly x-ray so that the illness could be promptly diagnosed and treated. My brothers and I would wait in the car on the courthouse square while she stood in line.

Apparently this was a common experience all across the U. S. The American Lung Association raised money from the sale of Christmas and Easter Seals, stamp-like stickers you could put on your cards and letters, advertising the organization’s efforts against “lung diseases, air pollution and smoking.”

My mother’s half-sister, Reba Oakley, and Reba’s mother and grandfather, from Surry County, N. C., all died of tuberculosis. In 1912, when Reba was born, T. B. was causing more deaths than heart disease or cancer, and The American Lung Association was less than a decade old. Reba’s mother died of the disease only 3 years later.

Reba’s grandfather, William Tyson Snow, had already died in 1906, of “consumption,” as it was called then. The family apparently believed that the infection was latent in Reba’s lungs for decades. She became ill as an adult and was treated at a state sanitarium for several years, before succumbing to the debilitating effects of T. B. at age 34.

A latent infection from T. B. is now said to be very rare. It is possible that Reba was infected as an adult. However, because of her infection, her family were all required to be x-rayed yearly for several years. Fortunately, they all remained healthy.

Poverty contributes to the prevalence of the disease in Africa and Asia today. However, it’s easy to forget that only a century ago, many of our own citizens were working on subsistence farms and spending long days in textile and other factories, where their exposure to lint and other air pollutants made them sick. As unemployment and homelessness grow in our population, so do diseases we often consider misfortunes of the past.

Copyright 2018 by Glenda Alexander.  All Rights Reserved.

More about Reba Oakley and family:

http://home.earthlink.net/~glendaalex/reba.htm

Sources consulted online:

http://www.lung.org

Esther Johnson of the Surry County Genealogical Association commented, concerning the Mt. Airy Granite Quarry: “That was one of the things that happened to people who worked in our Quarry here in Mt. Airy. Everyone at school had to take a test for TB.”

Learning to Be a History Detective

I knew my grandmother was important. She was a modest little lady, even considering that she could put anybody in the family in their place with a sharp remark or a stern look. She never had her hair cut or wore a skirt any higher than mid-calf. She ignored the doctor’s advice to take a walk every day because she thought it unladylike to go walking down a public street like that. She preferred to stay out of the sun and do needlework, read her Bible, and watch the soaps and country music shows.

Fannie Johnson Oakley was a middle child, with four older siblings and five younger ones. She used to keep up with her siblings by letter. Remember snail mail? Born in 1892, she passed in 1976, when Bill Gates was barely out of high school.

Important to my research, I have been able to use her collection of photographs, and the list in her handwriting of her family’s birthdays, in lieu of a family Bible. I recall sitting in on conversations between her and my mother and Aunt Opal, who all remembered the family’s life in Surry County, N. C. The hints I remember from those conversations have been important clues for me in playing history detective.

However, once sister Fannie was gone, no one kept up with the Johnson family. There was no one to send an obituary to or share pictures of the grandchildren with. Now they’d be posted on Facebook or Instagram for everyone to see. I find pictures from my own Facebook albums whenever I go searching for clues on the web.

In 1976, Grandma’s sister Mary also died, without any of her nieces, including my mother, knowing. The last of the Johnson family, the youngest brother, Elijah, passed about eight years later, as I learned from a Social Security record on Ancestry.com.

Ancestry.com’s DNA tests and website helped me connect with a grandson of Mary, but Elijah had no children, and he moved to an area far from the rest of the family. I didn’t think that a long drive to his last known home town would accomplish anything.

Then I discovered that Rootsweb had a message board for Russell County, Virginia, where Elijah died. I joined and posted a message about my search and got an immediate reply that someone found a listing for Elizah Johnson in a cemetery book. I searched the web to see if such a book was available to me and found that it was in a number of far-away libraries.

Further inquiries on the board were lost in a flurry of messages saying the moderator of the list had died, which he then informed the group, he had not, and that was followed by apologies and people unsubscribing because irrelevant posts were filling up their email. In the meantime, I called the cemetery, and a helpful young woman found my kin in the records and confirmed that Grandma’s brother and his wife were indeed buried there. This gave me a record that qualified as genealogical proof.

I posted a message on the board to thank them and let them know that I had found Elijah with a “J.” No one lol-ed or even tehe-ed, and I know, being genealogists, they are at least as old as I am, and they should get the reference. I will excuse them, however, as most of them have unsubscribed and moved over to the Facebook page. Message boards are apparently becoming history, too.

 

Copyright 2018 by Glenda Alexander–except the Liza image–All Rights Reserved.

International Women’s Day: Honoring My Great-Grandmothers

This is a quilt honoring my four great-grandmothers.

Left:  Martha Frances White Johnson (1862-1933) claimed Native American ancestry, and her maternal grandmother was said to have come from the Powhatan Reservation.

Right:  Margaret Matilda Stillwell Alexander (1847-1931) was an identical twin. She startled the neighbors at her sister’s funeral. Her husband was also a twin.

Top:  Mary Arabella McDonald Richardson (1867-1935) was the grand-daughter of immigrants from the Western Isles of Scotland. She loved to walk on her land in the Sandhills.

Bottom:  Margaret Jane Willey Oakley (1858-1934) gathered wild herbs for a living and ran the farm after her husband’s death. Her six children were all boys.

 

Copyright 2018 by Glenda Alexander.  All rights reserved.

How Quilts Contain History

I remember visiting New York City and experiencing its layered texture and gray color.  A huge number of people in a small space for centuries have left their patina of smoke and dust on every surface.  Handbills layered endlessly on every available wall made impromptu collages.  When I entered museums and galleries for the always main purpose of my visit, to see great art, I was struck by the number of 20th century pieces that reflected those surfaces outside.  They were obviously made in the city, which has long been an artists’ mecca.

Later, I took another trip to a museum in coastal Virginia to see works by the famous quilters of Gee’s Bend, Alabama.  The quilts were made mostly for home use, but they have become famous for their obvious roots in West African textile design, preserved by an isolated community of African slaves and passed on to their descendants.

The quilts were almost casually made, for practical reasons, but with roots in a distinctive type of design that the women of Gee’s Bend learned from their mothers and grandmothers and aunts.  They grew up with patchwork quilts that repeated geometric designs originally produced by narrow looms.  The quilts came from an organic process, not an academic tradition or formal instruction.  They came from an environment with fresh, bright colors, not automobile exhaust and building dust.

There was a quilt in the collection, however, made of material with a faded patina and rough surface, namely the work pants of a man who obviously did hard physical labor.  For me, it was the most impressive quilt in the collection, although I did love the vibrant colors and neater designs of the other quilts.  This quilt, by Lutisha Pettway, was rough, but it embodied history and emotion and spoke of the life of the family it came from.  The maker said that she made it when her husband passed away, so that she could wrap herself in his love.  She cut the pants legs apart and arranged the pieces so they formed a large rectangle.  The resulting design was simple and rhythmic.  The stained, worn, and faded denim had a surface interesting enough for any abstract expressionist, but this surface told a life story. 

Unlike the paintings in the Museum of Modern Art, this artwork didn’t compete for status and money, this artwork spoke sincerely of life and emotion.  It embodied the economic struggle of a family and their day-to-day labor, and a wife’s grief.

Pettway lacked academic training and credentials, however, her work’s emotional power was greater than that of any I saw in New York.  I know that statement would make most (maybe all) of my university art professors dismiss everything I have said.  Their prejudice kept them from seeing the art in the work of females, minorities, or anyone without a university degree.

I still love the museums.  So much beautiful and inspiring art is to be seen in them.  After all, it was museums and galleries where quilts were finally hung as works of art and treated with respect.

Copyright 2018 by Glenda Alexander.  All Rights Reserved.

See a variety of “work-clothes” quilts here:

http://www.soulsgrowndeep.org/quilt-categories/work-clothes