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.

If my great-grandmothers were alive today…

Post Script to my post on great grandmothers–

I love what KristenLynn Writes on her blog:

“If our Great-Grandmothers would’ve had Facebook and Twitter when they were young mothers…”

This is hilarious…mostly.  “#roughtimes”

https://kristenlynnwrites.wordpress.com/2014/03/04/if-our-great-grandmothers-wouldve-had-facebook-and-twitter-when-they-were-young-mothers/

My grandmother Loula & her sister, Pearl, when they were young mothers.

Copyright 2018 by Glenda Alexander.  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

Aberdeen

Moore County, North Carolina has one of the largest populations of Highland Scottish descendants in the U.S.A.  About 150,000 Scottish people emigrated to America between 1600 and 1776, and North Carolina had the largest number of Highland settlers in America.  Between 1739 and 1776 about 50,000 Highlanders came to the the Cape Fear River Valley for relief from economic and political repression.  Remnants of the Highland culture survive in local names, liberally sprinkled with Mc’s, the suffix which meant “son of” in Gaelic, in numerous Presbyterian churches, and place names like Caledonia, Cameron, and Aberdeen.

Last week, I was in Aberdeen, driving along Bethesda Road, also called N. C. Highway 5.  I was surprised to pass under a large archway with large letters reading “Bethesda Cemetery.”  Immediately in view was an old white wood frame church, Bethesda Presbyterian, with a large cemetery on either side of the road.  I then drove under a matching archway and was back in residential territory.  I had to go back for a closer look.  I immediately recognized the McDonald and Patterson names in the oldest part of the Cemetery, and I saw that many of them were born in Scotland in the 1700’s.  Back at home, I found many of their names in Highland Scots Pattersons of North Carolina, by Alex Patterson, a volume you can find in most libraries in the state.

Because of the frequent naming of offspring for their parents and grandparents, the many  Duncans, Malcolms, Anguses, Daniels, and Archibalds, as well as Marys, Margarets, Floras and Jennets have made the McDonalds and Pattersons two of my greatest challenges in searching out the family history.  Read the stones in the cemetery, and you will see.

Sources:

David Dodson, The Original Scots Colonists of Early America: 1612-1783, (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1989;)  Douglas F. Kelly, Carolina Scots: An Historical and Genealogical Study of Over 100 Years of Emigration. (Dillon SC: 1739 Publications, 1998) pp. 79, 81, 209-211; Alex M. Patterson, Highland Scots Pattersons of North Carolina and Related Families. (Raleigh: Contemporary Lithographers, Inc., 1979;) Glenda Alexander, “John Finlayson McDonald & Jennet Isabella Patterson and the McDonald Family Cemetery, Crains Creek,” http://home.earthlink.net/~glendaalex/cemetery.htm.

Copyright 2018 by Glenda Alexander.  All Rights Reserved.

Valentine’s Day

William Edgar Oakley married Jessie Fannie Johnson on December 24, 1916 in Surry County, N. C.

In July of that year, they had survived the worst flood in western North Carolina history.  Ed, a widower with a small daughter, had his entire house swept away by rising water.  Fannie, on the opposite side of the river, (probably the Ararat, a tributary of the Yadkin) didn’t know their fate until days later, when the rain stopped and the water receded enough for people to cross the river and check on their neighbors and family.

I don’t know if this photograph was taken before or after the flood, but the tree behind them is in full leaf, so it must have been in advance of their Christmas Eve wedding, which took place at the home of Baptist minister J. R. Cruise in Mt. Airy.

Valentine’s Day

How did your grandparents meet?  You might find clues in the census.

William Franklin Alexander married Loula Isabella Richardson on July 13, 1910, in Moore County, N. C.  (On the left is their wedding portrait.)  In May of that year, the census said he operated a shingle mill and was a boarder in the John D. Richardson household.  John Richardson was a farmer, and other records indicate that he  owned a saw mill.  His daughter Loula and her sisters were employed on the farm at the occupation of “chopping,” while their brothers did plowing.  Adjacent to the Richardson household on the census page was George Morgan, who was a laborer in the shingle mill.  In the same year, Loula’s sister Pearl would elope with George.  Two of her nieces told me that she slipped out of the house at night, with the help of some female cousins of the McDonald family.  George drove his buggy to Virginia, where they married across the state line.

Like many contemporary couples, these people met at work.  The shingle mill was located on the farm, and Frank actually lived in the household of his future wife.

Last fall, at the North Carolina State Fair, I saw a steam-powered saw mill in operation, which was probably similar to the one used by Frank and George for cutting wooden shingles for roofs and siding for buildings.

Source:  1910 U. S. Census, Greenwood Township, Moore County, N. C., E. D. 7, p. 9A; Family Bible records of the Alexander family in possession of Glenda Alexander.

Copyright 2018 by Glenda Alexander.  All rights reserved.