Thursday, May 17, 2018

Using Census and Vital Records to Scale a Brick Wall

I have a common surname. I mean a really common surname. I remember as a kid looking at the white pages for Richmond, Virginia and seeing page after page of Williamses. Even then I knew there was little chance those names represented my family.

As I began my family tree, there were certain family lines I was most interested in. I was curious about my mom's German ancestors and her relationship to Patrick Henry. And I wanted to know anything I could find about my paternal grandparents whom I never had the chance to know personally.

But adding name after name, pushing back generation after generation, I found that the hardest line to follow was my paternal surname line. That Williams line was proving to be the trickiest of all.

So how have I worked on discovering my Williams roots? How am I scaling my brick wall?

1. Stand on solid ground

If I'm hoping to scale my Williams brick wall, I have to make sure I'm standing on solid ground first. That means building a firm foundation of genealogical research on all of the generations from myself back to my brick wall. It's only with my feet on solid ground that I can even get close to that genealogical hurtle.

This post will show how I built solid ground around my grandfather's paternal line. He was named Arthur Marvin Williams and was born 23 March 1914 in Powhatan, Virginia. He passed away on 11 February 1989 in Chesterfield, Virginia and is buried at Graceland Baptist Church in Powhatan County. Gratefully, his parents are also buried at the same cemetery, so I knew their names (Arthur Lewis Williams and Mary Susan Wooldridge) and their dates of birth and death from their tombstone.

Unfortunately, tombstones alone are imperfect sources of information because the person giving the information might not have highly reliable information themselves. So instead of assuming the dates are correct, my best bet is to follow the trail and build the tree keeping in mind the names and birth years of his parents. I also have my grandfather's parents' names confirmed from his marriage certificate.

2. Census and Marriage Records

Since I know Arthur Marvin Williams was born in 1914, the first U.S. census to include him would be the 1920 census. When I view the 1920 census records, I see that there are three possible townships in Powhatan County. As I can read on the Library of Virginia website, the 1870 Virginia Constitution called for each county to be divided in at least three townships (amended in 1874 to be magisterial districts). Powhatan was divided into the following districts: Macon, Spencer, and Huguenot.  I find my grandfather in the Huguenot District of Powhatan County.

1920 U.S. Census for Huguenot, Powhatan County, Virginia

The 1920 census gives me some helpful information as a foundation. I can't build firmly if I only follow him and his parents, and their parents. I need to include all of the siblings on each line. Each individual will produce various documents over the course of their life that will in turn provide new or corroborating information. [Note: You would also want to find the 1930 and 1940 censuses to follow this family forward in time.] So what do I see here in 1920? I see my grandfather Arthur with his parents Arthur L and Mammie S. (Mammie or Mamie being a common nickname for Mary) along with his little sisters Inez and Thelma. Especially helpful to me are the names of three of Arthur Lewis' brothers: Clyde A., George L., and Emmerson. This will be helpful in confirming relationships as we move along. I also see estimated ages for each person which can give me an approximate year of birth.

Since I see that Arthur Marvin was the oldest of Arthur Lewis' and Mary's children, I can initially assume (note: this is just an *initial* assumption, it could be wrong!) that Arthur Lewis and Mary were married between 1910 and 1920. After searching the marriage index for Powhatan County, I find their marriage on 21 August 1913 in Powhatan. I will note the names of both sets of parents. Arthur Lewis Williams lists his parents as Jos. (abbreviation for Joseph) and Mary Williams. So my next step is to find a Joseph and Mary Williams with sons Arthur, Clyde A., George L., and Emmerson (which I learned from the 1920 census). 

I find Arthur Williams in the birth index for Powhatan County as being born on 30 February 1883 to Joseph and Mary Williams. This means that the first census he could have been included with his parents would have been the 1900 census (most - including the Powhatan records - of the 1890 U.S. Census was lost in a fire). Unfortunately, I can't find Arthur Lewis Williams living with his parents in either the 1900 or 1910 censuses. He is living with others (which I have since discovered are his aunt and uncle) for both years. So instead, I decide to check out the 1900 census for Joseph Williams. 

1900 U.S. Census for Huguenot, Powhatan County, Virginia

In 1900, Joseph E. and Molly J. (Molly being another nickname for Mary) are living in Huguenot district with nine of their children. Note that the 1900 census gives the number of years a couple has been married and also provides the number of children a woman has given birth to and how many of those children are still living. In this situation, Molly J. Williams has given birth to ten children, all of whom are still living. I know these are the parents of my Arthur Lewis Williams because I see his three youngest brothers in the record as Clyde A., George L., and Eugene E. Arthur Lewis is the oldest child and is the tenth child not in this record.

Now that I have an approximate date of the marriage of Joseph E. and Mary J. (1881 based on the 1900 census), I want to find that marriage record. I find the marriage record for Joseph E. Williams and Mary Jane Barley in Powhatan County on 27 July 1881. Joseph E Williams' parents appear to be Jos. or Jas. and Anne Williams. The letters "o" and "a" can commonly be confused in records from the 18th and 19th centuries which could make Jos. or Jas. the abbreviations for Joseph or James. Since Joseph E. Williams was married in 1881, and I know his birth to be either May 1852 (based on the 1900 census) or 1851 (based on his marriage record), I go looking for the 1880 census. 

1880 U.S. Census for Huguenot, Powhatan County, Virginia

I find Joseph E. Williams, born about 1851, living with Joseph and Anne Williams. They're also living next door to a William H. Williams who is only eleven years older than Joseph E., so I take note of this in case they're siblings or cousins. Based on this 1880 census record, Joseph and Anne Williams were born in 1817 and 1816 respectively. Further on the right side (not included in the image above) it shows that both of them were born in Virginia as were their parents. This is the first census record to include relationships to the heads of house so I am grateful to see that Joseph E. Williams is listed as the son of Joseph and Anne. Next, I look for the 1870 census. I'm also taking note that the Williams family has been found in the Huguenot district of Powhatan in all of the census records so far.

1870 U.S. Census for Huguenot, Powhatan County, Virginia

The 1870 census record includes more of the children of Joseph and Ann (notice a different spelling than the 1880 census spelling of Anne), along with Mary Adams. Her age might suggest she's a mother-in-law, but the 1870 census doesn't show relationships like the 1880 census does. So let's look at the 1860 census to see if there are any more clues to relationships.

1860 U.S. Census for Huguenot, Powhatan County, Virginia

The 1860 census shows all of the children of the Williams family, except for one (which could be discovered by searching marriage records) named Eliza. Another baby boy was born and passed away in 1858. Important to note in this 1860 census is that the enumerator is clear about the county of birth for each person. The individuals listed above the Williamses were born in Hanover County and Louisa County. But beginning with Joseph Williams, the census enumerator switches back to naming Powhatan County. This 1860 census record also shows that Ann's first name is Ona (here with the nickname of Oney). Mary Adams is living with them this census year as well. The marriage record for Joseph Williams and Ona Ann might clarify this further. 

Joseph Williams married Ona Ann Adams in Powhatan, Virginia on 30 March 1838. Ann Adams is listed as the daughter of William Adams. Unfortunately, as is common, the name of the groom's parents are not listed. We know that Ona Ann Adams' mother was Mary Adams born about 1780 or 1785. But for now, we do not know Joseph Williams' parents names. We have one record (the 1860 census) that lists his place of birth as Powhatan County in 1817. 

The Williams family has yet to be found in the 1850 census. In U.S. census records from 1840 and before, only the head of household is listed. In the 1840 census, Joseph Williams is found in what is then called the Eastern District of Powhatan County. The household has five individuals: one white male aged 20-29, one white female aged 20-29, one white female under the age of five, one white female aged 50-59, and one female slave aged 10-23. 

3. Death Records

We know that both Joseph Williams and Ona Ann Adams were living in 1880 but they are not able to be found in the 1900 census. Presumably, for now, we can assume that they passed away between 1880 and 1900. In a coming blog, I will show how I have narrowed down their estimated dates of death. But their death records are not the only ones which may be relevant here. The death records of their children can also shed light on details of their parents' lives. But, like tombstones, death records are only as reliable as their informants. 

From the records listed above, I was able to discover that Joseph Williams and Ona Ann Adams had eight children who lived to adulthood, and one who died as an infant. Their names from oldest to youngest are Eliza, William Henry, John H., Mary Ann, Emmaline, Joseph Edward, George W., Frances Ellen, and an unnamed infant boy. 

William Henry Williams' death certificate lists his father as Joseph E. while Joseph Edward's death record simply lists his father as Joseph Williams. No other record shows a middle name for Joseph Williams.

4. Conclusions (for now)

I was able to trace my grandfather's paternal line back to his paternal great-grandfather by searching and analyzing census, marriage, and death records. His name was Joseph Williams and he was born about 1817 presumably (based on the 1860 census) in Powhatan, Virginia. He married Ona Ann Adams in 1838 also in Powhatan with whom he had nine children; eight of their children lived to adulthood. We also know an approximate range of his death: between 1880 and 1900. 

While we have a record of Joseph Williams in the 1880, 1870, 1860, and 1840 censuses in Powhatan, no record has been found for him in the 1850 census. The parents of Joseph Williams are still not known. Though we haven't yet scaled this brick wall, we have built a solid foundation of genealogical research. Additionally, we have documented census, birth, marriage, and death records for all of the children of Joseph Williams and Ona Ann Adams. 


The next step is to use descendancy research along with DNA testing and other available records to see how we might get closer to scaling this Williams of Powhatan brick wall.

How have you utilized census and vital records? Do you have a brick wall in your genealogical research? Might you have some shaky ground in your research or have you built a solid base working back to your brick wall?

It takes effort to build solid ground in researching our ancestors. Each census and vital record helps us hone in closer and closer, and each detail helps us paint a clearer image of them. Records are more than data on a page; records are the means for us to encounter our ancestors and to remember the past made present for us today. 

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