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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.)

 

“Grand-daddy, which way did the cows go?”

I learned a lot of folklore from my mother, who grew up in the edge of the Blue Ridge Mountains Her ancestors from the British Isles were no doubt the origin of a lot of the stories, nursery rhymes, games, superstitions, etc. that she shared with me when I was small.

Before tv, video, and cell phones, children relied more on one another and whatever was at hand to amuse themselves. They learned more about nature–plants, animals, weather, etc, because it was their world.  In our day of pesticides and well-sealed houses, we regard any bugs in our homes as pests and deserving to be squashed or sprayed. A hundred years ago or so, they might have been a source of amusement.

Mama taught us a game when we saw a spider-like creature we called Grand-daddy or Daddy Long-Legs. It loves damp basements, as well as your garden, and it hunts for small insects it can eat with its tiny mouth parts. When threatened, it often bobs up and down with its long, thin legs, perhaps trying to look fierce or disguise itself as twigs blowing in the wind. What children used to do is say, “Dance, Grandaddy,” and the critter would entertain them.

grandmammy spider

They also would ask, “Grand-daddy, which way did the cows go?” and it would lift one leg off the ground, appearing to point. The two longest of its eight legs function as antennae, and “Grand-daddy” was, no doubt, trying to figure out what kind of danger it was in.

The real name of these animals, according to scientists, is Opiliones. They belong to the same class of animals as spiders–Arachnids–and are kin to scorpions as well. Some people believe they have a venomous bite, but according to those scientists, that just isn’t true.

The one that lives in my bathroom at the moment is a differently-abled arachnid, as it is missing two of its legs. It has the ability to drop a leg and run, while the leg twitches and distracts the predator, in this case, probably, a house cat. Most unfortunately, this grand-daddy long legs has lost one of its “antenna” legs, which makes its existence more fragile.

“Grand-daddy” is completely unresponsive to the request that he dance, but perhaps that is a lot to ask of one who is surviving with only one food-finder and a missing leg. I have decided to live and let live, as he is very quiet and doesn’t bite, eat crops, carry disease, or do any other thing that is harmful to humans or house cats.

Copyright 2018 by Glenda Alexander.  All Rights Reserved.

Old-Time Musicians in the Family

The Old-Time music genre is rooted in the British Isles in centuries-old dance tunes, ballads, and folk songs. Pioneers in the Southern Appalachian Mountains brought the music with them when they came to America for a better life. They put their own designs on it when they played and sang about the Rights of Man, a Soldier’s Joy, and the Wife’s Lament. Their music blended with the music of other immigrants and African slaves and became the foundation of Bluegrass, Country, Rock’n’Roll, Rhythm and Blues, and Jazz.

musicians012 copy 2 (1) copy

Searching through a box of photographs that belonged to my grandmother, I found a picture of two musicians that no one in the family could identify. The photograph was obviously a snapshot, slightly tilted. The building in the background looks like a very large house with a high-ceilinged porch. The musicians were standing on a large rock in front of the steps. The style of the men’s shirts and ties is typical of the 1920’s, which fits the look and condition of the photograph itself. That makes this picture almost a century old, and the people who would remember it are long gone. (The illustration here is cropped from the mentioned photograph. I like the shadow of the guitarist’s fingers on his guitar. I also like the way he rolled up his sleeves and flipped his collar up–shows a sense of style.)

My grandparents came from Surry County, N. C., so I did an online search of Surry County musicians and came up with a photograph of Da Costa Woltz’s Southern Broadcasters during the 1920’s.

The banjo player, James Franklin Jenkins, had a strong resemblance to the one in our picture. He was also known as “Fiddlin’ Frank” for his skill on the fiddle, which he played in his own band, the Pilot Mountaineers, which included his son, Oscar, on banjo, and Ernest Stoneman on guitar. His portrait with that band helped to confirm the identity of our banjo player to my satisfaction.

So, who is the guitar player in the picture? Comparing him to photographs online of Ernest Stoneman as a young man, I think he should be considered as a possibility, although I’m not convinced. I have made note of any old-time musicians who cropped up in my family history, but no one seems to be the guitar player in our photograph.

Frank Jenkins was born in Surry County, N. C., in 1888, making him the same age as my grandfather, Ed Oakley. He spent his life in the Marsh Township, south of Dobson, while the Oakleys lived north of Dobson, in the Round Peak area. Frank sometimes played music with a neighbor of the Oakleys, Ben Jarrell. Like the Oakleys, the Jarrells moved to Surry from Rockingham County. Ben also played with Houston Galyean, a relative of Ed Oakley’s first wife, Maggie Snow. Ed’s aunt, Matilda Oakley, married Gideon Moncus (1855-1943) who belonged to a family of musicians, the Moncuses and Prevettes. That family moved from Surry around the 1920’s and worked in the mills of Rockingham and Davidson Counties.

My mother once mentioned some uncles or cousins who played music and made a recording. I often feel that I am chasing ghosts in fragments of remembered conversation. Could the guitar player be one of those relatives? It may have to be enough that those musical ghosts whisper a fiddle tune in our ears once in a while, or pass on their legacy by inspiring a song.

Copyright 2018 by Glenda Alexander, including above photograph.  All Rights Reserved.

Sources consulted:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frank_Jenkins_(musician)

Bob Carlin, String Bands in the North Carolina Piedmont, (Jefferson, NC: McFarland and Co., 2004) pp. 24-25.

Tony Russell, Country Music Originals: The Legends and the Lost, (accessed online at https://books.google.com/) p. 10.

Death Certificate of James Franklin Jenkins, North Carolina Death Certificates, 1909-1976, database online at Ancestry.com; Original data: N. C. Bureau of Vital Statistics, Death Certificates on Microfilm in State Dept. of Archives, Raleigh, N. C.

Census Reports on N. A. R. A. Microfilm, accessed online at Ancestry.com.

https://oldtimeparty.wordpress.com/category/dacosta-woltzs-southern-broadcasters/

http://www.bluegrassmessengers.com/ernest-stoneman-.aspx

The Good Old Days–Dirty Dogs in the Senate

There was name-calling on the U. S. Senate floor in 1888.  So nothing has changed, except that a newspaper editor in the 19th century would report that as shocking.  If they only knew what was coming in the 21st, when “lie” would be a daily headline and “dirty dog” would sound like a compliment compared to things politicians admit and even brag about.

The editor of the Chatham Record, in Pittsboro, N. C., was relieved (and perhaps a bit self-righteous) to report that neither of the verbally abusive rascals was from the South.  They only sent gentlemen to the Senate down here.  However, it sounds like the Mid-Westerners knew how to play to an  audience:

“The most disgraceful scene probably ever witnessed in the United States Senate was that between Ingalls and Voorhees, a few days ago. The most abusive language was used–such as ‘liar’ and ‘dirty dog’–and the galleries indulged in uproarious laughter and applause. We are gratified to know that neither of the Senators was a Southerner: one being from Kansas and the other from Indiana. To make the disgrace still deeper is the fact that one of them (Ingalls) is the presiding officer of the dignified (?) body.

Source:  Chatham Record, Pittsboro, N. C., May 10, 1888, p. 2; on https://www.digitalnc.org/newspapers/chatham-record-pittsboro-nc/, accessed 5 May 2018; Puck Magazine illustration from 1881, U.S. Senate Collection (cat.no. 38.00519.001)

copyright 2018 by Glenda Alexander–all rights reserved

My Intro to DNA

I am not making this up:  I have an ancestor named Isreal White.  When I found his name in an old census book in a library. I laughed out loud.  Then I saw his wife’s name:  Lily White.   The librarian looked at me like he might come out from behind that counter, hoist me up by my shirt collar, and frog-march me out of there.

Ironically, the White family claimed Native American ancestry, but they could not get their names added to a Cherokee census made by the U. S. government in the 1930’s.  The reason was that they had never lived within 150 miles of Cherokee territory.  Nevertheless, that family legend persists.  When Ancestry.com offered to test my DNA and tell me my ethnic background, I whipped out my charge card, spit in a bottle, and sent it off in the mail.

When I received my results, I was shocked to be informed that I am 34% Irish.  The only ancestry for which I have proof is Scottish and English.  The pie chart shows another third of British Isles, which I guess covers that.  The remaining third is countries close to Great Britain, many of whom invaded it or were invaded by it over the centuries.

I am pretty sure my so-called Scotch-Irish ancestors scooted through Northern Ireland pretty fast on their way over here.  I am not well versed in that history, but it has something to do with England’s mistreatment of the Irish, and such an unwelcome reception for Scottish settlers that they remembered it as “the killing time.”   A couple of Irish hitch-hikers on the ship to America could not account for 34%.

Native American ancestry might still show up in my siblings’ DNA, as each child gets 50% of their DNA from each parent, but not exactly the same stuff, unless they are identical twins.   This explains why I look like my maternal grandmother and my sister looks like our paternal grandmother, and therefore, we don’t look like we come from the same family.  A White descendant says one of our great-great grandmothers came from the Powhatan reservation in Virginia.  The Powhatan tribe lived on the coast, where our English ancestors entered the American continent.  This sounds more likely to be true than Cherokee ancestry.  Pocahontas might be our cousin.

No one in this country should be surprised, considering what we know about American history, to find multiple races in their DNA pie chart.  I was ready to embrace it all, as I love the diversity of my nation, and I was disappointed to find out how vanilla I am.

However, I got the results right before St. Patrick’s Day, so I thought I should celebrate my Irish heritage.  I went online looking for events.  I learned that Savannah has a parade and Chicago dyes a river green.  Sadly, closer to home, I found one activity:  drinking.  Many people do that every day, so to make it special, they dye the beer green. 

If I was going to choose a cultural stereotype, I would choose something better for my people.  Drinking for its own sake is an addiction.  Drinking green dye is just reckless.  However, drinking to relax your inhibitions so you can sing and dance in public is a party, and I guess that’s okay.  I love Celtic music and have been known to sing and dance with no alcoholic support whatsoever.

So, I am quite happy to be Celtic-American.  With my real-whiteness and my reddish hair, green is my best color.