Monday, September 9, 2019

Reconstructing a Pre-1850 William Adams

Growing up, my least favorite part of every new school year was roll call. I was always at the end of the list - the curse of my "W" surname. And then, the teacher would inevitably call for me with my first name - which nobody knows me by. "Here! But, I go by Sam, please." Looks of confusion would ensue until I explained that Samuel was my middle name.

I never liked my first name. It helped me identify with my friends who had complicated or "ethnic-sounding" names. Not everyone likes to stand out. It's no surprise that immigrants changed their names after living in the United States for a bit (and no Ellis Island didn't change their name!) But for the genealogist, we yearn for different sounding names for our ancestors. Not so different that they're constantly spelled differently...but different enough that you don't have five men of the same name in the same town!

Alas, I was blessed with a family full of Williams, Adams, Smith, and the like. So what is a genealogist to do with an ancestor like "William Adams"? And worse yet, a William Adams who lived his entire life before the 1850 census that collected names according to household?

Introducing William Adams

The first I discovered that I had a William Adams ancestor was in the 1838 marriage record in Powhatan County, Virginia of my third great-grandparents Joseph Williams and Ona Ann Adams. In this record, Ona Ann's father is listed as William Adams. So I looked for William Adams' marriage record, and I found that he married Mary (Polly) Moore in Powhatan in 1801. I turned next to census records, and found only one William Adams in Powhatan County for the 1820, 1830, and 1840 U.S. censuses. Since these censuses do not list family members besides the head of household, I noted the numbers and ages of those listed in his home including the enslaved.

The 1850 U.S. census was the first to list all members of a household, but unfortunately I cannot find William Adams or his son-in-law in the 1850 census. By 1860, I see Mary Adams (presumably now a widow) living with Joseph Williams and Ona Ann in Powhatan. So why can't I find any of them in 1850? Did William Adams pass away before 1860?

Since there are no death records in this time for William, I have to turn to other records to discover more.

Where there's a will...

Though there didn't seem to be a lot of records on William Adams, he had one thing going for him: he wrote a will! And where there's a will, there's a discovering our ancestors!

William Adams wrote his will in Powhatan County on 3 Jan 1843 and within his will, he mentions his children as Sarah OBryant, John Adams, William Adams, Richard J. Adams, Peter F. Adams, and Ona Ann Williams. He also includes his grandchildren John T. Moore and Catherine Watkins. Catherine Watkins was the daughter - I have since discovered - of William's daughter Pernetta who appears to have passed away before her father. I haven't discovered how John T. Moore fits into the story yet.

There are a few other nuggets of information that are hidden away in this will. The first is that William desired to have his estate kept together for ten years after his death. "At the expiration of the said ten years my will and desire is that all of my estate be divided between my beloved children and grandchildren," he goes on to write. We will see that this little detail will prove helpful in creating more records!

Did we ever discover when William passed away? The bottom of the will gives us some clues about this too. We see that on 1 Apr 1844, "the foregoing last will and testament of William Adams deceased was presented in Court and proved by the oaths of Wm. R. Moseley and Joseph Goode and the solemn affirmation of Ro. M. Moseley, the subscribing witnesses to the same, and ordered to be recorded."

This tells us that William Adams passed away between 3 Jan 1843 (when he wrote his will) and 1 Apr 1844 (when his will was proved in court). We also now have a list of three witnesses to his will: one of which - Robert M. Moseley - gave a solemn affirmation instead of an oath. Some take exception to taking oaths - particularly the Quakers - so law allows these individuals to solemnly affirm in lieu of swearing an oath. These are new individuals to research who may also have records that include my family. I also plan to look at Quaker records for Robert M. Moseley.

Taxes taxes taxes

Genealogists really ought to love taxes! I've written about them before, and I'll keep sharing how much we can find in these records. Since censuses were every ten years, tax records - both land and personal property - help fill in the gaps in the lives of our ancestors.

William Adams is found in land tax records from 1828 through 1844. In 1842, when Joseph Williams first appears paying land taxes, his property is listed as a contiguous tract - sharing a border - to William Adams. The property of William Adams was noted as being 168 1/2 acres "by deed from Edward Haskins" and connected to the estate of H. W. Watkins. In 1845, the property appears as the estate of William Adams. His widow Mary Adams begins paying taxes on her portion of the property in 1855, and the estate of William Adams continues to be taxed through 1868.

Personal property taxes are also very helpful, since all males 16 and older were included by name. William Adams appears every year in Powhatan beginning in 1802.

Militia records

In checking Powhatan County militia records, I found that William Adams appears in an 1805 Powhatan Militia list. It was an unexpected find, but fun! The record says it was "for the purpose of forming a rifle company" with William Moseley as Captain, John T. Swann as Lieutenant and Samuel Davis as Ensign.

The beauty of chancery records

If you have Virginian ancestors, I really recommend that you search the Library of Virginia's index for chancery records! For Powhatan County, you can even view the scanned records from home! And guess what? William Adams is included as the subject of two chancery files: one from 1854, another from 1860.

Within these 106 pages (of course I read them all!) of legalese, there are tons of golden nuggets about the family of William Adams. The chancery files deal with the settling of William Adams' estate. Based on his will - as you may remember - they had to wait ten years after he died before they could divide up his estate. But, William seems to have forgotten someone in his will: his wife Mary!

Mary Moore Adams was very much alive ten years after her husband when his estate was being divided between their children and grandchildren. But, William's will did not provide for her! These records show how the estate was divided to provide for her - her 1/3 due as dower rights - as well as their children. The larger chancery record also includes the names of the six people enslaved by William Adams who were divided along with his estate. [The divisions of the enslaved are mentioned on pages 33, 36, 40, 41, 44, and 47, among others.] On page 41 is a bill of sale from 1848 involving Joseph Williams - William Adams' son-in-law - selling Amy and Sam to Benjamin Watkins.

These chancery records even solved a mystery that tied together various records and DNA evidence, painting a clearer picture of my William Adams!

Lost and found cousins

From the will of William Adams, I knew that he had a son named John Adams and that he was still living in 1843 (when the will was written). But I couldn't find anything more about him. I knew there was a John Adams who married Lucy Ann Williams in 1832 in Powhatan, but I didn't know what came of him.

In my descendancy research for Joseph Williams, I found that Joseph and Ona Ann's daughter Eliza had two Adams men living with her and her husband Archer Hoye in 1860. They're listed as being born in Tennessee, one is William Adams, a 17 year old nail cutter, and the other is "A Adams" a 22 year old sailor. I didn't think anything more about them because they were born in Tennessee and because the 1860 census didn't note relationships to the head of household.

But then, I read the chancery records involving William Adams! And they confirmed that "A Adams" was Aurelius and that he had a brother named Marcus. Their father was John Adams who had passed away by about 1853. That means that William and Aurelius were first cousins to Eliza, with whom they were living in 1860. But I never would have discovered their relationship - or where John Adams went off to (Tennessee!) - without chancery records!

Road Trips and DNA

Over the years, in building my list of DNA descendants of Joseph Williams and Ona Ann Adams, I have connected online with some of my DNA cousins of William Adams. Two of these I had the pleasure to meet in person this July!

Earlier in the month, I finally got to meet Donna Adams McGrath! She is descended from William's son John Adams, through William Marion Adams. That's the William Adams who was living with his cousin Eliza I just mentioned. We suspect that John Adam's wife Lucy Ann Williams was also the sister of my Joseph Williams. [This is going to take more time to prove though!] Donna and I are 4th cousins once-removed - she and my dad are 4th cousins. She came down to Virginia Beach with her husband John and we had a great lunch together at the Bread Box Cafe.

This past summer, I led a service trip to Tijuana and on my way south I was able to meet with another William Adams descendant in San Diego! Joan Adams-Reynolds descends from William's son William Adams Jr. and is my 5th cousin. We met while my group enjoyed delicious tacos from Tacos el Gordo. It was great seeing Joan on the other side of the country!

Not only had our traditional genealogy research brought us together, but DNA evidence has also linked us as family. Our shared DNA, along with shared DNA matches connect us as sharing William Adams as our common ancestor.

It just took a few road trips and nearly 200 years to bring our family back together again!


It can be a challenge researching ancestors with common names, especially before 1850. But no challenge should make us give up seeking our ancestors and telling their stories!

We can put down on paper all that we know about them, noticing all the little details in these records, and look for them in new record sets we might just have to dig for. Through our research, we may even get to meet distant cousins on road trips and find that our ancestors have stuck around in the gifts they've passed on to us, hidden in our DNA!

This post was inspired by the week 18 prompt "Road Trip" of the year-long series that I'm participating in with Amy Johnson Crow's 52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks.

My ancestors - and your ancestors - deserve the best researcher, the most passionate story-teller, and the dignity of being remembered. So let's keep encountering our ancestors through family history and remembering the past made present today!

Saturday, July 27, 2019

A DNA Inspired Family Reunion - Part 3

This is the last post in a three part series about my DNA inspired family reunion. If you missed the first two posts, you can check out Part 1 by clicking here, and Part 2 here.

In Part 1, we looked at the process I took to identify DNA cousins, confirm our common ancestors, and plan the event that brought us all together for the first time. In Part 2, we looked at the evidence that proves we are family, that none of us are out of place. And in this post, Part 3, we'll see how the reunion went and how a place of worship became our place of reconnection.

The game plan

The structure for the family reunion was pretty simple: eat, presentation, fellowship, field trip.

As people arrived to the fellowship hall at the church, they signed in with a sign-in sheet I had made in advance. It had their name, address, phone number, and e-mail address. If a section was missing, I asked if they would fill in the information. This is helpful because now I have a better resource for next year's reunion. Also, now we can keep in touch better!

Next, I gave them a name tag with different colored stars for them to put next to their name. The original idea - as I wrote in Part 2 - was that there'd be families from different branches of my great-grandparents' family. This helps everyone have a visual - "oh you have a blue star too!? We're cousin through the ____ family!"

Since it was a potluck lunch, we wanted to start with the food. For a reunion with (mostly) Southerners, I knew food wouldn't be a problem! And I wasn't wrong.

We had chicken, macaroni and cheese, green beans, sandwiches, sides galore, and tasty desserts! better believe we had sweet tea. Because Virginia, y'all!

Once everyone had finished eating, I began a short presentation explaining how everyone in the room was related. I had my laptop and projector, so I was able to project my family tree onto a screen for all to see. I talked about David Stratton and his ancestors; where they had come from in Chesterfield before moving to what became Powhatan County. I explained that David had been married twice - to Susanna Norris and then to Jordenia E. Hopkins. And then I explained the story of Kate and her mother Sally.

It's hard to condense years of research of a complicated story into minutes of an easy to understand explanation, but I tried by best.

Three Branches

For our first reunion, I'd say attendance was pretty good! We had 40 people - including spouses and kids. Together, we represent the three branches of David Stratton's family through three women: Susanna Norris, Sally, and Jordenia E. Hopkins.

David Stratton fathered a lot of children over a long period of time. His last child was born when he was 64 years old! His first marriage began in 1808 and produced six children. Most of these children moved west to Alabama and then to Kentucky. One of them, Mary Elizabeth Stratton, returned to Powhatan where she raised her children. Three descendants of Mary Elizabeth came to the reunion.

Kate Stratton was born after Susanna's children, in about 1830. Descendants of two of Kate's children were able to make it: even Trisha made the trek from Maryland for the special day!

After Susanna, David married Jordenia E. Hopkins in 1832, which produced seven children! Descendants of three of these children were at the reunion: Louisa, Edmonia, and Douglas. I wrote about Douglas in a post entitled Douglas E Stratton: A Bachelor by Law. We even had a more distant cousin - descended from a first cousin of David Stratton who stopped by on her way to New Jersey (a special shout out to Sally!!)

Family rediscovered

After working to discover the story about Kate and her family, it was a joy to get to meet some of her descendants. And since discovering the story about Douglas and his daughter Suvella (make sure you click on the link to his story above!), I was thrilled that three of her grandsons came as well - from North Carolina and New Jersey! In the photo above, there are four descendants of Jordenia E. Hopkins (three from Douglas E. Stratton and one from Edmonia - yours truly!) and one from Kate.

And no family reunion in the 21st century would be complete without a selfie.

I also just couldn't handle there being anyone not in the group photo - thanks Jerry for the official group shot! 

Family memory

One of the benefits of collaboration in family history is that you get to harness the power of memories that are passed down from person to person. For whatever reason, my line of David Stratton seems to have forgotten all of these stories...but that's not the case of Mary Elizabeth's descendants!

Matilda and Frances Hicks

Not only do the descendants of Mary Elizabeth Stratton have memories that have been passed on - stories and traditions - but they have furniture, a family Bible, family records, and photographs!

In the photos above, you can see two of Kate Stratton's daughters: Matilda and Frances Hicks. The photo of Frances was passed on in the family of Mary Elizabeth. They called her Aunt Frankie. It was a special moment for these two sides of David Stratton's family to meet, and for Frances' descendants to be able to see her face for the first time.

Remembering the departed

Remembrance is a powerful thing. Meeting long-lost family, speaking the names of our ancestors, learning their stories, and visiting their graves are all a part of this remembrance. And who doesn't love a field trip, right?

So before we finished our reunion, we had one last thing to do: honor our family by placing flowers on their graves. We headed out to the Hague cemetery where Louisa Stratton and her family are buried. Her sister Susan is buried there too, and interestingly enough so are some of Kate's descendants.

There, in the same clearing that is the overgrown Stratton family cemetery is the grave of Rosa Bates, the daughter of Frances Hicks - Aunt Frankie.

It may be that these were once two cemeteries - one white, one black - or perhaps they were always together. Today, weathered by time and covered by an encroaching forest, our Stratton family - both black and white - stands together in those Powhatan County woods.

And I'd be remiss if I didn't honor my great-grandparents once more: Arthur Lewis Williams and Mary Susan Wooldridge. The flowers we used to decorate for the reunion were put to use again - to decorate the graves of our loved ones. The church that was once the center of my great-grandparent's lives, Graceland Baptist, has now became the home of a new tradition - the Williams and Wooldridge Family Reunion!

With that said - family! - mark your calendars for our second annual reunion:

June 20, 2020!


My family has lost a generation of family reunion memories, but I think it's safe to say we've brought the tradition back. We will never know why those reunions really stopped, or if my great-grandmother knew about her cousin Suvella, or her cousins through Kate. We will never know how David grappled with the reality of a family blended across the line of slavery, or what it was like having to live with secrets that everyone seemed to understand already.

I'm grateful today though that we have the opportunity - through records and through DNA evidence, through laws and a country driven to continually improve - and the blessing to be able to call one another family and to move forward making new memories for the generations to come!

This post was inspired by the week 17 prompt "At Worship" of the year-long series that I'm participating in with Amy Johnson Crow's 52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks.

My ancestors - and your ancestors - deserve the best researcher, the most passionate story-teller, and the dignity of being remembered. So let's keep encountering our ancestors through family history and remembering the past made present today!

Thursday, July 25, 2019

A DNA Inspired Family Reunion - Part 2

When I set out to organize a family reunion for my great-grandparents' family, I hoped I'd get cousins to come from all different parts of their family. I specifically chose Powhatan County for our reunion because all of the grandparents of my great-grandparents lived in Powhatan. My roots in Powhatan go deep, y'all! My great-grandfather - Arthur Lewis Williams - was a Williams, Adams, Barley, and Wilburn; my great-grandmother - Mary Susan Wooldridge - was a Wooldridge, Beazley, Stratton, and Hopkins. 

Over the years, I've made connections with second to fourth cousins that share all of these various family lines. But when all was said and done, the common connection for everyone that came to the family reunion this year was the Stratton family. We are all descended from one man: David Stratton (1787-1871) of Powhatan County. 

In the first post of this three part series, we looked at the process I took to identify DNA cousins, confirm our common ancestors, and plan the event that brought us all together for the first time. In this post, we'll look at the evidence that proves we are family, that none of us is out of place, that we all belong as Strattons.

Stratton family DNA research

With organization comes clarity. And this was all too true for my work with the Stratton family. Last year, I began making a DNA chart  - as I describe in Organizing DNA Matches - for descendants of the Stratton family from Powhatan County, Virginia. Since then, I've developed an evolving list of 146 people (so far) who qualify with all three criteria: they have been DNA tested, they descend from the Stratton family from Powhatan, and they match other Stratton descendants. 

I work primarily - but not exclusively - with AncestryDNA because they have the largest database of DNA-tested individuals. So when a new person shows up in my aunt or my dad's DNA match list, I first look at their "Shared Matches" tab. Since I have my matches organized, I can quickly see if they're matching other Stratton descendants. My next task is to figure out who this match is and how they fit into my tree. Once I've figured that out, I include their line in my tree - which my Aunt Patsy calls my family "forest" - and I add them to my Stratton DNA Project chart.

The denser my "Family Forest" has gotten, and the more confirmed Stratton DNA matches I've identified, the easier it is to see if a new match is a Stratton relative. But genealogy is all about family - not just names and dates - so we need to collaborate and connect with our matches.

Facebook collaboration

You never know when and where you'll meet that previously unknown cousin with a golden nugget of family history knowledge, a photo of an ancestor, or a Family Bible. Facebook is a great place to make these connections with family, to collaborate with others with a shared surname or with people from the same ancestral area. And on 28 July 2015, I learned something through Facebook about David Stratton that has propelled my Stratton research and has expanded my family in ways I never thought possible.

Hoping to make some Powhatan County connections, I providentially joined a Facebook group called Powhatan County, VA Genealogy. I made a post to the group listing the surnames of my ancestors from Powhatan, and just hoped to find some distant cousins. Well, two minutes later, I got a response from Trisha who shared something I wasn't expecting! 

She told me she's a descendant of Kate Stratton, a woman who had once been enslaved by my ancestor David Stratton. 

Kate Stratton & Holman Hicks

I had so many questions. How did Trisha know that David Stratton had enslaved Kate? Had Trisha been DNA tested? Were we related?

I began to research Kate Stratton, and soon I saw that she was indeed connected to my family. I started to incorporate her and her family into my family tree, although not connected to the Strattons just yet. Instead, I added her and her husband, Holman Hicks, and their children and then worked on researching their descendants. The birth records for Kate's children during the period of their enslavement show that they were indeed enslaved by David Stratton in Powhatan County. At the time, there was only one David Stratton in the county and in the 1870 Census (the first after the fall of slavery), the Hicks family was enumerated only four families before my David Stratton. 

And then Trisha's mom's DNA results came back. And guess what? She matched my aunt, and her shared DNA matches with her were all Stratton descendants. As time went on, more and more descendants of Kate Stratton popped up in our DNA match lists. The highest match so far is a cousin L.C. who shares 65 cM across three DNA segments with both my aunt and dad. His great-grandmother was Kate's daughter Matilda Hicks. Matilda's birth was recorded in the Powhatan County list of births as being in Nov 1856, the daughter of Kate, and enslaved by David Stratton. Looking at L.C.'s shared matches with my aunt, the first seven matches are all descended from David Stratton. Nine others, more distant matches, are descendants of David Stratton's siblings, while still others are descended from David's first cousins. 

If Kate Stratton was enslaved by David Stratton, and her descendants are DNA matches to known descendants of David, how exactly were David and Kate related?


No one wants to accept that their ancestors participated in arguably one of the worst community sins of this country's history: chattel slavery. Fewer still want to admit that their male ancestors may have taken sexual advantage of enslaved women: people whose very station as personal property gave them no voice to say yes or no. So how was I to interpret the story of David and Kate? What was David's relationship with Kate's mother?

Kate was born - based on census and death records - about 1830 in Powhatan County. This would place her birth around the time David's first wife Susanna Norris passed away and right before he married his second wife (my ancestor) Jordenia Hopkins. From Kate's death record, we learn that Kate's mother was named Sally. Do we have evidence that David ever enslaved a woman named Sally? In this case, it was important to look at records of other families connected to David.

The 1815 will of Thomas Norris - the father of David's first wife Susanna - reveals that Susanna inherited an enslaved woman named Sally. The will also mentions some of Sally's children - including Reuben and Fleming, uncommon names we also see (perhaps coincidentally) repeated several times in the descendants of Kate Stratton. This means that David Stratton did in fact have in his household a woman named Sally by 1815. 

Additionally, descendants of four of Kate's children share DNA with a long list of David Stratton's descendants. This isn't an isolated event - such as a distant descendant of only one child of Kate matching one of David's descendants. Instead, descendants of four of her children match known descendants of several different children of David Stratton, as well as descendants of David's siblings, and first cousins. Genealogical research proves that Kate was enslaved by David Stratton. Genetic genealogy proves that Kate's descendants are genetically related to descendants of David Stratton. So was Kate the daughter of David Stratton? 

Reason says yes, and acceptance has given my family the gift of newfound long-lost family.


Thorough research of both paper records and inherited DNA has given me a much richer view of my Stratton heritage. A family that before I had known only through the research of others has become fuller because of my own research and being open to collaboration. Since I first discovered David Stratton's link to slavery - not only through records but now as a connection to living descendants of those he enslaved - my genealogical research is substantially deeper, more three-dimensional, more contextual. 

My questions today no longer stop at names and dates of my family but reach out to find the names and stories of those so often forgotten but whose names are hidden away in wills and deeds, tax records and chancery records - the many men, women, and children who were enslaved by my family. But sometimes they too - as we have seen - turn out to be my family. And by God's grace - and with modern technology - we are beginning to reconnect, and discover who our ancestors were and what family means for us today in the 21st century.

I hope you'll come back for Part 3, when we'll see how the reunion went - for all three branches of David Stratton's family (see the image above to see how we're all connected) - and how a place of worship became our place of reconnection.

This post was inspired by the week 16 prompt "Out of Place" of the year-long series that I'm participating in with Amy Johnson Crow's 52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks.

My ancestors - and your ancestors - deserve the best researcher, the most passionate story-teller, and the dignity of being remembered. So let's keep encountering our ancestors through family history and remembering the past made present today!

Wednesday, July 24, 2019

A DNA Inspired Family Reunion - Part 1

Only recently, as a genealogist, have I come to terms with my evolving sense of family. Some grow up in large families woven together by patriarchs and matriarchs, stitched to one another through holidays and family reunions. Others, like me, grow up distant from extended family: more familiar with funerals than planned quality time with extended family.

But there's only so many funerals you can go to hearing the familiar refrain, "We really ought to get together for a happy occasion for a change!" before you decide something's just got to be done.

So, that's what I did! I planned a family reunion this year for the cousins and descendants of my great-grandparents Arthur Lewis Williams and Mary Susan Wooldridge of Powhatan County, Virginia. But this reunion was more than a family reunion; it was a rediscovery of family, a meeting for the first time of cousins - from across the man-made divisions of race and ethnicity - who had never before had the honor of knowing one another.

And it's a reunion that would have never been possible, if not for the affordability of DNA testing and the accessibility of genealogical records. 

In this post, we'll look at the process I took to identify DNA cousins, confirm our common ancestors, and plan the event that brought us all together for the first time. In Part 2, we'll look at the evidence that proves that none of us are out of place, that we're family. And in Part 3, we'll see how the reunion went and how a house of worship became our place of discovery and reconnection as family.

Identifying DNA matches

Apart from my dad's siblings and first cousins, everyone else at our family reunion this year was found through DNA testing. So how exactly does this work and how can we be so sure we're actually related?

We first need to understand some of the basics of DNA. Take a look at my post about descendancy research and DNA for a primer. But the important concept to remember is that in every cell in our bodies, we have DNA that we inherited from each of our parents. And while half of our DNA came from each of our parents, we did *not* inherit the other half of their DNA. That means that half of what they inherited from their parents did not get passed on to us. Why does this matter? Because it affects how much DNA from any particular ancestor is passed on to their descendants. When that ancestor lived can then be deduced by comparing how much DNA two of their descendants share with one another. 

When you take an autosomal DNA test from AncestryDNA, they provide a list of DNA matches organized from the closest family members to the most distant. But how do they figure out the estimated relationship between you and a match? It's based on the amount of shared DNA, measured in centimorgans (cM). The higher the number of cM, the more DNA is shared, the higher the likelihood they share a more recent ancestor. Here's a fun shared cM tool you can use to see the possible relationships you could have with a given DNA match based on your shared cM of DNA.

Now that we can look at our DNA match lists and see how DNA testing companies - Ancestry, MyHeritage, 23andme, FamilyTreeDNA, LivingDNA - organize our matches, let's see how I was able to confirm relationships with those I invited to our 2019 family reunion!

Confirming common ancestors

When it came to identifying my dad's DNA cousins on the Williams and Wooldridge sides, I had to start with his closest matches - those with the highest shared cM of DNA - and figure out how he's connected to each of them. It helps to begin with first cousin matches first since you can more easily determine which side of your family they connect to you through. Then it's a matter of finding who in your match list connects to both you and your first cousins, second cousins, etc.

This is where organization really matters. How am I going to keep track of these cousins? How can I keep all these names straight? I wrote a piece on organizing DNA matches, which I recommend you check out. Since the time I wrote it in December 2018, AncestryDNA has put out some new tools which have updated how I organize my matches within their system. Now, I can also organize my DNA matches with different colored dots that I have labeled with the names of different ancestors. For some matches, if I haven't proven the connection yet - I'll label them with a particular color that shows a suspected relationship so I can come back to the match later. 

In my dad's case, both he and one of his sisters have DNA tested with AncestryDNA. Additionally, three first cousins - who share Arthur Lewis Williams and Mary Susan Wooldridge - have also tested at the same company. So I was able to quickly narrow down the large list of DNA matches to those who share the ancestors of my great-grandfather or my great-grandmother. 

Planning the reunion

Sometimes you just have to make something happen - or else it never will. When it comes to family reunions, it's a matter of finding a few dates that work with key players (family you know you can count on to come), finding a location, and reserving the space. I knew I wanted to do our reunion at Graceland Baptist Church, because it was the church my great-grandparents and grandparents attended and where they all are buried. 

After I had the date and the location reserved, I made a free flyer with postermywall and an online form that family could use to RSVP for the reunion. I used Google Forms this year, but I plan to use SignUpGenius next year because of the different ways you can adapt the form for your event's needs. You can see a cropped version of the flyer I made above (the full form includes a link to RSVP and my contact information).

I also made a Facebook event and invited as many of my family members whom I have as Facebook friends. I included the link to the sign up, I shared the flyer on the page, I posted regular reminders about the reunion, and I asked everyone to invite their sides of the family. I also sent the flyer out by e-mail to more distant family members that I had connected with online, and mailed the flyer to family whose mailing addresses my aunt already had. The event was planned as a potluck so we reserved plenty of time so we could relax and get to know one another. 

All that was left was to wait and hope people would come!


Planning a family reunion takes a lot of determination, stubbornness, and being completely comfortable with being (potentially) annoying to close and distant relatives in the process. Before this reunion, I thought it was just my generation (I'm a Millennial) that was bad at RSVPing and committing to events, but I've decided it's just a 21st century issue more generally. But none of this DNA inspired family reunion would have been possible without first identifying DNA matches and confirming our common ancestors. 

But how do lists of DNA matches, organized by dots and charts, lead to newfound family enough for a reunion? How does a group of strangers develop a sense of family just by taking a DNA test? 

Stay tuned for Part 2 to find out!

This post was inspired by the week 15 prompt "DNA" of the year-long series that I'm participating in with Amy Johnson Crow's 52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks.

My ancestors - and your ancestors - deserve the best researcher, the most passionate story-teller, and the dignity of being remembered. So let's keep encountering our ancestors through family history and remembering the past made present today!

Saturday, July 6, 2019

Why Genealogists Ought to Love Taxes

There's something ingrained within the American psyche that loves to hate taxes. Perhaps it's the Boston Tea Party, perhaps it's our Founding Father's distrust for central government, or maybe we just don't like giving up what's ours! Either way, taxation doesn't exactly summon happy feelings, does it?

It's not surprising then, that genealogists aren't always jumping up and down to dive into tax records. Taxes aren't as glamorous as marriage records, not as revealing as death records, and not as exciting as wills or inventories.

But tax records come with their own, varied, sets of information that can prove vital to the eventual crumbling of our ancestors' brick walls. To show how illuminating tax records can be, let's look at some records of various Williams men from Powhatan, Virginia. We've already looked at land tax records, so in this post we will investigate the roll of personal property taxes in the case of a brick wall ancestor.

Why should genealogists love taxes? What can personal property tax records tell us that we don't already know? In this case, we'll see how personal property tax records can help us determine the father of Joseph Williams.

Census substitute

Census records are vital to creating a firm foundation for our family history research. The only problem is that they only happen every ten years! How many places have you lived in the last decade? If you were to rely on records of my residence from only 2009 and 2019, you'd assume I had never left Virginia. But within that decade, I've lived in three other states - and multiple apartments on top of that! You see, a lot can happen within a decade.

For Powhatan County during the 19th century, we have the federal census available for the following years: 1810, 1820, 1830, 1840, 1850, 1860, 1870, and 1880. Some states filled in these gaps with state censuses, but Virginia did not - with the exception for some counties from between 1782-1786. That's where personal property tax records come in. They help identify who was living in a county over a certain age in any particular year. And instead of being only every ten years like a census, personal property taxes were recorded every year!

And like census records, personal property taxes are filled with clues and details that flesh out the lives of our ancestors.

Goldmine of clues

Personal property tax records can serve as a yearly census substitute. But they're also filled with all sorts of clues that can lead us down the right path of revealing our ancestors' mysterious forefathers.

In personal property taxes from Powhatan County, Virginia from 1831 and before, we are given the following information:
- the name of persons chargeable with the tax
- the number of enslaved above 12 years old
- the number of horses mares, mules and colts
- the number of stud horses and jackasses
- the value of any 2 wheel carriages (gigs) or 4 wheel carriages
- the date the information was received

Here's an example of the heading for personal property taxes from 1831 Powhatan County:

Beginning in 1832, Powhatan County personal property taxes give us a tad more information. But the details make all the difference! See if you can notice the extra bits of gold they might offer:

Did you notice what's new? In addition to listing the name of the person responsible for the tax, beginning in 1832, we now have a number of white males above 16 years old. Why might this be important? Because as young men get older, they'll begin to show up within their father's household. Then they'll move out and be taxed separately by name. This can be used in coordination with 1830 and 1840 federal census lists which designate the number of individuals by age range.

Additionally, with the 1832 personal property tax records we now have an additional listing for those enslaved over the age of 16. We also have the number of free negroes and mulattoes. For some years, free people of color are listed on their own, while in other years they seem to appear within the households of white families only to reappear in later tax lists.

Case study: Joseph Williams

Knowing now that genealogists should love what personal property tax records have to offer, how can we actually *use* these rich record sets? Let's look at some clues I've gathered relating to my ancestor Joseph Williams.

Since I knew that Joseph Williams married Ona Ann Adams in 1838 in Powhatan, I first looked for him in the personal property taxes for that year. 

Joseph Williams appears here in Powhatan County, along with James H Williams and George W Williams. From 1838, I checked the 1837 tax list to see if Joseph appeared there too.

But Joseph Williams isn't in the 1837 list. This page shows only John Williams and James H Williams, and on the page before, there's George W Williams. So Joseph isn't in the 1837 list but a new person, John Williams, is there. But do you see the curious new detail next to John Williams? There are two white men above 16 years old. Could this John Williams be the father of Joseph Williams? For the years 1834 through 1837, John Williams lists two men over the age of 16. John Williams then does not appear in the personal property tax records for Powhatan County in 1838, 1839, or 1840.

From 1832 - when the tax lists began listing numbers of men over 16 - until John Williams last appears in 1837, there are only four white Williams men listed by name in Powhatan County: John, George W, Henry, and James H Williams. Only John Williams lists more than one white male over 16 years of age during that time period, and he does so beginning in 1834.

So what does all this mean?

Well, we've either struck gold, or I'm playing in fool's gold! So let's reevaluate what we know so far.

Federal census records consistently record the date of birth for Joseph Williams as 1817. We know that he married in 1838 in Powhatan. And we know that the first time there was another Williams male over 16 years old in the household of John Williams was in 1834. This unknown Williams male would have been born about 1818 and - assuming there weren't different men over the age of 16 growing up and leaving the county each year - this same man lived with John through 1837.

When Joseph begins to show up in the personal property tax records in 1838, John Williams is no longer living in Powhatan. Therefore, we seem to have three options as to the relationship between Joseph and John Williams.

1. Joseph Williams is the son of John Williams, and John passed away between 27 Apr 1837 (the date John's taxes were recorded) and 29 Mar 1838 (the date Joseph's taxes were recorded).

2. Joseph Williams is the son of John Williams, and John left the county in 1837.

3. Joseph Williams moved to Powhatan between 27 Apr 1837 and 29 Mar 1838 from another county.

Whew! Who knew you could find out so much just by looking at personal property tax records!?


Nobody likes to pay personal property taxes. Mine always seem to sneak up on me each year. But these same taxes leave crumbs along the way, evidence of where I've lived from year to year. They fill in the spaces from one federal census to the next. And, in the case of Joseph Williams from Powhatan County, his personal property taxes might even have identified his father!

We genealogists really ought to love taxes...well, at least the record of when our ancestors paid theirs!

Have you ever used personal property tax records for your brick wall ancestors? How might you use tax records as a census substitute? 

This post was inspired by the week 14 prompt "Brick Wall" of the year-long series that I'm participating in with Amy Johnson Crow's 52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks.

My ancestors - and your ancestors - deserve the best researcher, the most passionate story-teller, and the dignity of being remembered. So let's keep encountering our ancestors through family history and remembering the past made present today!

*Photo by Randy Fath on Unsplash*

Friday, May 31, 2019

Keeping up our Waddill Appearances

Charles City, or "Cha'les Citeh," as it's said in my ancestors' non-rhotic dialect, is a place steeped in American history and interwoven with my own family story. Situated between Richmond and Williamsburg, Virginia, Charles City County was first established as Charles Cittie in 1619.

I was in high school when I took my first trip to the Library of Virginia with my mom to look into our proud connection to the Waddill family from Charles City County, Virginia. 

There at what has now become one of my happiest of places - y'all really need to take a trip to the Library of Virginia! - I had my first experience of learning about my ancestors from a printed book. I felt like royalty: "You mean we come from these people? And someone wrote a book about them!?" I suppose everyone wants to feel like they come from some higher more sophisticated stock than the lot they've been given. And that's how I felt all those years ago holding The Majors and their Marriages written by James Branch Cabell and published in 1915.

And as I've learned more about my Waddill side, the more I've wanted to hold on for dear life for some of their famous connections too. Because I, like Hyacinth Bucket, have some intrinsic interest in Keeping Up Appearances too.

So what is my connection to the Waddills and why did James Branch Cabell write a book about them? Since I have two Waddill lines, let's take a look into the life of Edmund Thomas Waddill.

Early Years

Edmund Thomas Waddill was my maternal grandfather's maternal grandfather - or put another way, my 2x great grandfather. He was born on 19 Sep 1844 in Charles City County, Virginia to Samuel Waddill and Sarah Irby Stagg. 

He was born first, followed by Mary Alice, William J, and Sarah. His mother passed away in 1864 and the following year his father married Henrietta M Bradley, and in 1870 his youngest sister Annie Virginia was born.

During the Civil War, he served (according to his wife's later widow application) with the Confederate Topographical Engineer Department from Ruthville in Charles City County. By 1870, he's listed as a laborer living with his father, but by 1880 he's listed in the census as being a storekeeper employing his brother William as a clerk in the store. He was a merchant "on the up and up!"

Married Life

It wasn't until 19 Jan 1882, when Edmund was 37 years old, that he finally married. He chose Elizabeth Avery Waddill, his 17 year old 4th cousin whom he married in Isle of Wight County, Virginia. Though she was born in Lynchburg, Virginia, her paternal side had deep ties to Charles City County - along with Waddill connections, her family was also descended from the Majors and Marables. On her maternal side, she was a Cabell, Syme, Meriwether and Avery - families deeply connected to Virginia gentry. 

Edmund and his wife Elizabeth had ten children, with two passing away as infants or young children. The names they gave their children reflect a clear pride for their ancestors and the importance of their family history: Samuel Cabell, John Lamb, Elma Leigh, George Major, Edmund Thomas, Julian Avery, Patrick Henry, and Sarah Alice. Ancestral surnames abound, while some are named directly for ancestors or famous cousins. 

Patrick Henry Waddill, for example, was named for Elizabeth Avery Waddill's 2x great grandfather's little brother, the famous Patrick Henry. And it was this connection that I had always grown up hearing about, though no one was quite as precise in recounting the story. "We're Patrick Henry's cousins!" was all I knew until I investigated the story for myself. My mom was even named Patricia in his honor.

My great-grandmother - Sarah Alice Waddill - was the youngest child of Edmund and Elizabeth. She born when Edmund was 58 and Elizabeth was 37. The photo above is of the three of them in front of "The Glebe," their family home in Charles City County.

Later Life & Death

In lieu of attempting to retell his later life, I'll share instead his obituary in full. This was his moment in the limelight, his moment "In the News." He passed away on 8 Oct 1916 in Richmond, Virginia and his obituary was published in the Richmond Times-Dispatch from 10 Oct 1916, on page 3.

"The funeral of Edmund Thomas Waddill, who died suddenly at his home, 911 Lamb Avenue, Barton Heights, Sunday afternoon, was conducted at 3 o'clock yesterday afternoon at Bethany Church, Charles City County, by Rev. O. E. Buchholz, pastor of the Overbrook Presbyterian Church, of Barton Heights. Mr. Waddill was seventy-three years of age.

Mr. Waddill leaves a widow, who was Miss Lizzie Waddill; two daughters, Mrs. L. B. Adams, of Charles City County, and Miss Sarah Waddill, of Barton Heights, and six sons - Cabell Waddill, of South Hill; John Waddill, of Giant, Cal.; George M. Waddill, E. T. Waddill, Avery Waddill and "Pat" Waddill, of Barton Heights. He is survived also by two sisters, Mrs. George Hubbard and Miss Annie Waddill, of Charles City County. Mr. Waddill was a first cousin of Judge Edmund Waddill, Jr., of the United States District Court, and of Samuel P. Waddill, clerk of the Henrico County Circuit Court.

Only a week before his death Mr. Waddill moved to Barton Heights from Charles City County, where he had been a merchant and farmer for many years. He was a Confederate veteran."

The obituary mentions several things worthy to note. First, Edmund was buried at the family church, Bethany Presbyterian, in Charles City County. He had only moved away from Charles City County the week before, to Barton Heights, a town that had only a few years prior been incorporated into part of Richmond. It was an up and coming area, and the family wanted the world to know their connection to a famous judge and circuit court clerk. 

Their home no longer stands, but some of the old homes from that period still stand in the neighborhood. Even Overbrook Presbyterian moved out of the neighborhood a few decades later. 


Most families have a ancestral legend, an origin story, of famous connections or roots in royalty. For me, the stories were always about my family's connections in the Waddills of Charles City County. We no longer have first cousins as federal judges, and barely anyone has heard of the Waddills or Cabells anymore. The family homes are no longer in our family, and everyone has moved away from Charles City. But I'm still happy to keep up my Waddill appearances. After all, my ancestors weren't the only ones to write about their family connections...I make a habit of that myself, too!

What legend did you grow up hearing about your family? Are you descended from or related to someone famous?

This post was inspired by the week 13 prompt "In the News" of the year-long series that I'm participating in with Amy Johnson Crow's 52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks.

My ancestors - and your ancestors - deserve the best researcher, the most passionate story-teller, and the dignity of being remembered. So let's keep encountering our ancestors through family history and remembering the past made present today!

Friday, May 24, 2019

Indie Lee Ogburn

Indie Lee Ogburn. I love everything about my great-great-grandmother's name.

It's fun for me to find a unique name, like that of another one of my 2x great-grandmothers, Edmonia Harriet Stratton. The hope is that it will be easier to research someone if their name isn't so common. That there won't be such a mystery surrounding them.

And mystery abounds when it comes to my Grandma Nora's family. There has always been this cloud over my understanding of her past, like a sheet keeping me from seeing what lies behind it. But Indie - my grandmother's grandmother - is shedding some light on the mystery that surrounds my Grandma Nora's family. Discovering Indie is an encounter with part of Nora. For me to understand what lies behind the mystery, I have to get to know Indie Lee Ogburn. 

From Brunswick to Dinwiddie

Indie Lee Ogburn was born in either 1864 or 1865 in Brunswick County, Virginia to James A Ogburn and Martha Elizabeth Smith. All of her grandparents were born in Brunswick as well, a county situated on the border with North Carolina. Besides the Ogburn family, she was also descended from the Browder and Smith families, all of which have deep roots in Brunswick.

Indie was the third child born to her parents, and she had eight younger siblings! In 1870, the family was still living in Brunswick County but by 1880, the family had moved northeast into Dinwiddie County to a small town called Darvills.

Now, there's some question as to when Indie was actually born. From 1880 on, she lists her birth year as 1865. But there's reason to believe she was born late 1863 or early 1864. Indie's sister Lucy - whose birth record shows she was born August 1865 - was listed as 4 in the 1870 census while Indie was listed as 6. So Indie must have been born a year and half or so before that. Unfortunately, there seems to be a gap in birth records from Brunswick County from 1863 and 1864.

Life in Dinwiddie

On 2 March 1887, Indie married James Thomas Vaughan at Rocky Run Methodist Church in Dewitt, Dinwiddie. Considering both families were living in Darvills at the time, I'm not sure why they went 11.5 miles east to get married instead of to the Methodist church around the street. This is another one of those stories I'd love to figure out.

She married well, it would seem, because her husband proved to be an industrious man! James was a farmer and blacksmith - which seems industrious enough to me. But he also ran a general store, a grain and lumber mill, a funeral home, and the post office! On 28 February 1908, their home burned - which made the local paper - but they were able to rebuild a home which still stands today.

Indie and James had ten children, three of whom passed away as children. Indie's husband James passed away on 20 December 1919 in Darvills at the age of 54. Their grandson Edgar Thomas Vaughan understood that he died somehow in an accident at his mill. His death certificate simply says he died of apoplexy - a sudden loss of consciousness and paralysis, generally meaning a stroke.

Personality and legacy

From what I can gather, Indie was a character. She must have been a tough cookie, someone who came from a large family and created a new one of her own. She helped her husband with his many business pursuits and worked to make sure people paid their debts to their family. As Indie was nearing the end of her life, she began to suffer from Alzheimer's or dementia and she passed away on 12 April 1944 in the county she had called home for most of her nearly 80 years.

Part of Indie's legacy, unfortunately, is a strained relationship with her daughter - my great-grandmother - Josephine (Josie) Lee Vaughan. At some point, Josie was disowned as Indie wrote her out of her will. While I don't have access to Indie's will at the present, I suspect the problem may have had to do with Josie's marriage. Josie seems to have eloped at the age of 15 with my great-grandfather Grover Steven Hite. They went down to Warrenton, North Carolina to be married by a Justice of the Peace on 28 May 1915, and their marriage record even lists Josie as 18 years old instead of her actual age of 15.

I can't be sure, but I suspect Indie held a strong grudge. And even though Josie moved back to Darvills where her four children were born, they didn't stay for long. Josie died after suffering for four months with pelvic inflammation and puerperal sepsis on 27 July 1927. This fact itself is curious. Puerperal sepsis is a common postpartum infection, which would imply Josie had been pregnant recently. But her youngest child - that we know of - was born three years prior. There's more to this story, I suspect.

Grover took their three girls (including my 7 year old grandmother) to an orphanage in Richmond and he raised his son himself. Since my grandmother grew up north in Richmond, far from her Darvills family, she was never very connected to them. Interestingly enough, Grover remarried in the last year of his life - 1943 - to another of Indie's daughters (Erma) who had also been widowed.

Indie's family was a large one. In the photo above, from about 1976, Indie's grandchildren (including my Grandma Nora) gather at the old home in Darvills. One of my Grandma Nora's first cousins, Preston Parham - who's also in the photo - recalled that moment long ago as a little boy, when his cousins were driven away to the girl's home in Richmond. 

It's only been through genealogy, the wonders of modern technology, and a bit of Indie's stubbornness that her descendants have once again been able to reconnect. I've visited Indie's home, I've gotten to spend time at Josie and Grover's graves, and I've benefited from the determination of other descendants of Indie's who are working to keep alive our ancestor's memory


Indie Lee Ogburn was a strong woman. She managed her home, she managed her family, she managed her businesses. And perhaps her strength and determination also translated into a cold stubbornness once she had made her will known. At the very least, it didn't help hold her daughter Josie close despite their personal differences. And that trickled down as my Grandma Nora seems to have later identified Darvills with pain and loss. I still wonder though if Nora ever got to develop a relationship with her grandmother Indie before she passed. 

While some questions may forever remain unanswered, Indie has certainly helped me paint some of the picture of my Grandma Nora's past. And all of this reminds me of the importance of family, and the clarity that no feud or disagreement is worth decades of lost relationships.

Does the number 12 represent anything in your family? Do you have an ancestor who had nearly 12 children or does anyone have an anniversary, birthday, or death date on the 12th?

This post was inspired by the week 12 prompt "12" of the year-long series that I'm participating in with Amy Johnson Crow's 52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks.

My ancestors - and your ancestors - deserve the best researcher, the most passionate story-teller, and the dignity of being remembered. So let's keep encountering our ancestors through family history and remembering the past made present today!

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

The Evolution of Family

Family is an adaptable institution. Or rather, we're adaptable to it's changing and evolving place in our lives.

As a genealogist, I make it my purpose to dive headfirst into my own family's history and the histories of many others...and yet, I don't often think about the varying roles family has played in my own life.

As my family has evolved, morphed, broken and formed anew, so too has my appreciation for family in all its beautiful diversity.

When I was a child...

When I was a child, I loved like a child. When I was a child, my understanding of family was narrow and limited. But as I've grown, so has my family! So humor me for a minute, as I quote St. Paul:
Love never ends. As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away.
When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways. For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known. So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love. 1 Corinthians 13:8-13
When I was a child, I limited family to my family of four. When I became a man, I embraced the family that God put in my life.

When I was a child growing up in Chesterfield, Virginia in the 90s, family meant my dad, my mom, my sister, and me. And then there was Maggie Antionette, our beautiful and devoted Rottweiler. We weren't a perfect family, but we always knew to say "I love you," and to give each other a hug and a kiss every day. These were the only people I knew to say "I love you" to, the only people I knew were unequivocally my family. My imperfect family. But, my family nonetheless.

First cousins, aunts and uncles, grandparents...those all seemed like extended family. I don't know if it was just our odd family dynamic, but I rarely saw them. My parents' first cousins lived minutes away, but I never met them until I was an adult. When I was a child, my family was a family of four but then it became a mosaic.

Family Mosaic

No mosaic would be beautiful without broken stones. And so it was for what became my mosaic of a family. Between divorce, remarriages, the births of nieces and a nephew, my family has grown through breaks and reformation. The family of four became a family of...well, quite a bit more! And, I'm all the richer for it.

I went from being the baby of the family to a big brother a week before my 15th birthday! I went from Sam to Uncle Sam a year and a half later! Not much later, I gained two more sisters, and a big brother. In the precise world of genealogy, where we know the difference between a first cousin twice removed and a second cousin once removed, we also have to know when not to distinguish between step, full, and half. They're my siblings. They're my parents. They're family.

This big kid is the baby I'm holding earlier!

The Body of Christ

When I became an Orthodox Christian in 2005, I couldn't have imagined just how much the Church would become another family. One big fat tight-knit world-wide family.

Whether I was in Egypt or Palestine, Lebanon or Greece, India or Kenya, I was at home. Where nationality raised walls, Christ tore them down. When I seemed a tourist, a simple "Christ is risen!" after Pascha (Orthodox Easter) or making the sign of the cross would make me a brother. 

And then I went to seminary!

There's nothing quite like an Orthodox seminary to make brothers out of a group of strangers. We prayed together, we studied together, we argued, we laughed together, we became family.

The Church has also given me sacramental family. I may not have a son of my own, but I have my adorable godson Teddy! He came out of the waters of baptism and into my arms - SUCH a powerful moment for me! I'm also the godfather/sponsor to Maria, John, Caleb, and Justin. And now I'm the koumbaros (wedding sponsor) to Thomas and Elizabeth. My Church family is growing, y'all!

As my family grows around me, I've also been discovering how big my family has been all along.

Long Lost Family

It wasn't until I dove into family history that I found just how big my family has always been.

The further I research my family, the more cousins I add to my tree, the further back I take a family line, I see that my family is gigantic! And with each passing day, I get new DNA-proven cousins, too! Some of these DNA cousins I would have never found without the help of science. Many are adoptees, or the descendants of children of unknown parentage. And yet others DNA has connected to me when their research hadn't gotten far back enough to discover our shared ancestor.

Plus, there's the genealogy family that gathers at local, state, and international conferences each year. And the online community that connects through genealogy companies, FamilySearch, blogs, Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. Not all of us are biological family, but we're all family in our shared love for family, for stories, and for connection.


From my childhood conception of family, to my mosaic family, to my church family, to my new-found family discovered in genealogy research, I've grown to discover I have quite the large family.

How has your perception of family changed during your life? Has genealogy taught you to view family differently?

This post was inspired by the week 11 prompt "Large Family" of the year-long series that I'm participating in with Amy Johnson Crow's 52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks.

My ancestors - and your ancestors - deserve the best researcher, the most passionate story-teller, and the dignity of being remembered. So let's keep encountering our ancestors through family history and remembering the past made present today!

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Douglas E Stratton: A Bachelor by Law

If you go far out enough in Powhatan County, and drive south on route 13, you'll eventually hit the town of Macon right before the road curves sharp west. Well, today it's not really a town. It's just a Macon sign, a curve in the road, and a stop sign. But in the 1800s, there was a tavern, a post office, and a town store. It was the administrative center for the western portion of the county. And it was there that the patriarch of the Stratton family, David Stratton, ran a tavern, was Constable, and the town postmaster. After him, his daughter Louisa Catherine and his son Douglas also ran the post office. The Strattons were faithful members of Peterville Baptist Church and after the fall of the institution of slavery, the African Americans who had once been owned by the Stratton family went on to found Pine Hill Baptist Church.

As any small town, there were no true secrets in Macon. Especially if you were a Stratton. That was all too true for David's son Douglas who was kicked out of his church, never married, and moved north to New York. But after a while, even country "secrets" start to be hidden.

Well, that is until your third-great nephew goes digging into the family history a century later!

So what happens when you're David Stratton's son and there's something you're trying to keep secret? What would make Douglas E Stratton a life-long bachelor, by law?

1. Douglas' early life

Douglas E Stratton was born 24 Mar 1852 in Powhatan County, Virginia to David Stratton and Jordenia E Hopkins. He was their youngest child, and just a few years younger than my 2x great grandmother Edmonia Harriet Stratton.

Before Douglas was born, several of his older half-brothers moved to Alabama and later to Kentucky. His father was 64 when he was born, so he even had nieces and nephews who were older than him! When Douglas was nine years old, the Civil War began and just one week after his 11th birthday, his brother David Creath Stratton died in the war - just missing his 21st birthday. On the 4th of July, in 1867, his older brother Robert was murdered in his sleep in his home in Gainsville, Alabama. Weeks before Douglas turned 16, he lost his mother Jordenia on 2 Mar 1868. That's a lot of loss for the youngest in the family.

Douglas never even met his grandparents. His paternal grandfather - John Stratton - fought for Powhatan County during the Revolution. His maternal grandmother - Mary H Martin - was of proud French Huguenot stock, descending from John Martin who settled Manakin in 1700.

2. Bachelorhood

After Douglas' mother passed away, he and his father David were living in 1870 with Douglas' sister Emily and her husband Francis Bishop Hague. The following year, on 24 Apr 1871, David Stratton passed away and the next record we have of Douglas comes from the minute book of Peterville Baptist Church.

Just months after David Stratton passed away, Peterville Baptist Church appointed a commission to find Douglas E Stratton. On 23 Jun 1871, he was called a "habitual absentee" from church and Deacon Bagby was appointed to look into his "spiritual state." In July 1871, Deacon James D Bagby "reported he had not seen Brother Douglas Stratton." In April 1872, Deacon Bagby was "appointed and directed to cite Brother Douglas Stratton to attend at next church meeting to show cause why he should not be dealt with for habitual absence from church meetings."

By May 1872, "E. Douglas Stratton was excluded for want of Christian character."

During the 1870s, Douglas served as the postmaster of Macon and by 1800, he was listed as a carpenter. In 1880, Douglas was living with his niece Alice Elizabeth Hague and her husband Walter Henry Harris.

3. The mystery years

We have no census records for Douglas until 1920. He's missing in both the 1900 and 1910 census. Where was he? I'm not quite sure! But, he shows up in other sorts of records just as mysteriously!

4. Secrets revealed

On 3 Jan 1898, a curious record was produced in Powhatan County. A Suvella Stratton married William Henry Brown at Mt. Pero Baptist Church. Suvella lists her father as Douglas Stratton and her mother as Nancy Jackson. Could this be our Douglas Stratton? What's so curious about this record?

Both Suvella and William are listed as "colored." What's more, Mt. Pero is a historically black church founded by previously enslaved members of Peterville Baptist Church. As soon as they were married, Suvella and William moved north and by 1900 were living in Pleasantville, New Jersey.

When Suvella applied for her social security in 1940, she lists her father as "Dove Stratton" and her mother as "Nancy Bromsted." Douglas to Dove. Jackson to Bromsted. Perhaps this is a different person all together, you might say. Why even assume her father is our Douglas?

5. The plot thickens

In 1920, we finally find Douglas again living in Macon. He's listed as single, and living with him is a single "mulatto" woman named Maria Wells listed as his servant with an 11 year old daughter Valeria Edith Wells.

What's more, on 4 Jun 1926, Douglas sold Maria Wells six acres of land (with its buildings, a cow named Bell, a wagon, and farming implements) for ten dollars.

On 30 Oct 1926, Maria Wells passed away. Her death certificate lists her as a single "domestic." She's shown as being buried at Pine Hill (shown in the first photo above) in Macon. And who's the informant? Douglas Stratton of Macon, Virginia. Douglas E Stratton is also a witness to her will she wrote just before her death.

By 1930, Douglas is again living by himself and is a 76 year old single farmer.

The last document we have for Douglas is what appears to be his death certificate from New York City. The parent names add up, but there's no clear evidence it's the same Douglas E Stratton. It doesn't even list his state of birth. He's listed as an 80 year old widowed salesman. He died at a historic hospital, House of Calvary, devoted to offering hospice and palliative care. The back of the document lists the informant as his daughter, Elizabeth Hash.

6. Bachelor by Law

So far, we have random loosely-connected stories for Douglas E Stratton. We have a "colored" woman listing him as her father. We see him intimately connected to Maria Wells, a "mulatto" woman and we see he's a life-long bachelor. And don't forget, there's the gossip of a small town! A living Stratton cousin of mine remembers being told that Douglas was involved with black women and even had children. Children! So far, we only know of one!...right?

Well, more than the paper trail of Suvella Stratton Brown, there is DNA evidence connecting Suvella to the Stratton family. Several descendants of Suvella match my father and aunt as second to third cousins - sharing between 186 cM and 221 cM of DNA with them. More than simply sharing this DNA in common, all of their shared DNA matches are descended from either David Stratton or his father John Stratton. And then I saw a photo of Suvella.

The photo on the left is my great-grandmother Mary Susan Wooldridge. The photo on the right is Suvella Stratton. These two are first cousins, but they could have passed for sisters! The one on the left was white; the one on the right was called "colored," "black," and "negro."

Douglas Stratton could never have married Suvella's mother Nancy. Since a 1691 law, interracial couples could not remain in Virginia. Anti-miscegenation laws prevented marriage between people of different colors in the state of Virginia - even "illicit cohabitation" - until Loving v. Virginia in 1967. So whether Douglas and Nancy had a long-standing relationship or not in 1876 when Suvella was born, it would be another 91 years before that relationship would have even been legal in the state.

That Douglas and Maria Wells were close cannot be dismissed. He sold land to her, he witnessed her will, she lived with him. But whether she was actually his servant or if that was just a cover can only be surmised. I have yet to find a link between Maria's children and the Stratton family. But, we do have reason to conclude that Suvella was truly Douglas' daughter.


My great-grandmother would have been ten years old when her first cousin Suvella married William Henry Brown and moved to New Jersey. It's likely she never met her, but she had to have known her uncle Douglas. If only I could have asked her about his life and what she knew about him. Did everyone gossip about her bachelor uncle? Did he ever get in trouble with the law for breaking cohabitation laws?

Douglas E Stratton may have been a bachelor, but probably not by choice. He was a bachelor by law.

This post was inspired by the week 10 prompt "Bachelor Uncle" of the year-long series that I'm participating in with Amy Johnson Crow's 52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks.

My ancestors - and your ancestors - deserve the best researcher, the most passionate story-teller, and the dignity of being remembered. So let's keep encountering our ancestors through family history and remembering the past made present today!

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