Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Following Leads to Church Records

Detail from photo by Nathan Dumlao

Last time, I wrote about researching the clergy listed in our ancestors' marriage records. Since then, I had the opportunity to research at the Virginia Baptist Historical Society (VBHS) on the campus of the University of Richmond in Richmond, Virginia. In this post, I'll share how I made new discoveries about Joseph Williams and Ona Ann Adams, my brick wall ancestors, through research in church records.

1. What church(es) did my ancestors attend?

After finding the names of clergy in marriage records and doing preliminary research on those clergymen, I was able to make a list of potential churches Joseph and Ona Ann may have attended. As all but one were baptist churches, I decided to focus first on those baptist communities in the area this couple lived. Since they lived in Powhatan, but on the border with Chesterfield County, I focused on the southeastern corner of Powhatan County and the southwest corner of Chesterfield County.

I determined from this research that my family had a connection with Skinquarter Baptist Church in the Moseley area of Chesterfield County, Virginia. I also knew that my father grew up at Graceland Baptist Church, whose Sunday School began in 1888 with the then pastor of Skinquarter Baptist. So I had good reason to research Skinquarter. I also knew that Old Powhatan Baptist Church was the resting place of some of my father's other family. I decided I'd see what the VBHS might have on Old Powhatan Baptist too.

2. Research at the Virginia Baptist Historical Society

The first step of doing research at the Virginia Baptist Historical Society is to call ahead and set up an appointment to view the records. The VBHS is an amazing resource for anyone researching Baptist churches in Virginia. The communities I'm interested in are part of the Middle District Baptist Association. This is important to know because the various churches belonging to this association met regularly over the years. Each of these district meetings has minutes that can be viewed and studied, in addition to the minute books for many of those local communities.

I started with Skinquarter Baptist Church. The VBHS has minute books for 1824-1844, 1868-1879, and 1880-1896. I scanned the pages for familiar surnames - particularly those of my ancestors and pastors who I had previously noted. Though I came away with notes on pastors and various members, I didn't find the names of any of my ancestors. I did, however, learn that Skinquarter Baptist Church left the Middle District Baptist Association during the years 1836-1848. Several times, I noticed there being some sort of conflict with the neighboring community of Mt. Hermon Baptist Church.

Feeling slightly discouraged, I moved on to Old Powhatan Baptist Church. The VBHS holds the 1845-1900 minute book for this community. Here, I saw many more familiar names. I saw relatives listed from other parts of my family, and finally I found Joseph and Ona Ann!

I learned that Joseph Williams and Oney (Ona Ann) Williams had been received as members at Old Powhatan Baptist Church by letter from Mt. Hermon Baptist Church on 17 July 1859. Joseph Williams also attended church meetings through at least May 1875. Next, I turned to the 1835-1854 minute book for Mt. Hermon Baptist Church. I hit gold! I discovered that Joseph Williams was baptized by Elder Samuel Dorset on 21 August 1842 and "Mrs. Joseph Williams" was baptized on 1 September 1842. Joseph Williams was then an active participant at Mt. Hermon from 17 September 1842 through at least 11 February 1854.

3. Follow-up research

I was absolutely thrilled to have clear evidence of membership at two communities in the area: Mt. Hermon Baptist Church and Old Powhatan Baptist Church. And more than that, I now have the dates of the baptisms of both Joseph Williams and Ona Ann Adams! But I wanted to know more. What brought them there? What could I learn about them based on their chosen communities?

I learned that Mt. Hermon Baptist Church was formed on 3 June 1835 from members at Skinquarter Baptist Church. The community at Skinquarter voted for their next pastor from between Rev. Edmund Goode and Rev. Samuel Dorset from New Jersey. Rev. Edmund Goode was against mission work, while Rev. Samuel Dorset was pro-missions and had an emphasis on Sunday School. The majority voted for Goode, and the minority left with Rev. Samuel Dorset to form Mt. Hermon. It was there, seven years later, that my ancestors were baptized.

The Daily Dispatch, Richmond, Virginia, 17 June 1878.
I found an article in The Daily Dispatch describing the history of Skinquarter Baptist as well as the disagreement the community had with the founders of Mt. Hermon. A similar story is told in the biographic sketch of Rev. Samuel Dorset found in Virginia Baptist Ministers, Third Series published in 1912. Here, I learned that my ancestors chose in Rev. Samuel Dorset a pastor "described as 'well informed, sound in doctrine, and liberal in his views'" and a church community that "committed themselves to missions, Sunday schools, temperance work, and an educated ministry."

4. How far did my ancestors travel for church?

By researching land deeds and studying 19th century and modern land plats for Powhatan County, I know that my Williams family lived on Moseley Road in Powhatan County. I also know the location of a family cemetery on that same property. By using the location of the family cemetery as the approximate location of the Williams homestead, I made a map with Google Maps along with the locations of Skinquarter Baptist, Old Powhatan Baptist, and Mt. Hermon. 

A. Family Cemetery, B. Skinquarter, C. Old Powhatan, D. Mt. Hermon
All three churches are roughly equidistant from the family cemetery. By using modern roads, it is a 4 mile trip from the cemetery to Mt. Hermon, and a 6 mile trip to both Skinquarter and Old Powhatan. In the 19th century, travel would have been on much rougher roads and by horse and carriage. That my ancestors made church attendance a priority - as well as participation in church meetings recorded in minute books - despite the distance speaks to their determination and commitment. 

Map showing border of Powhatan County and Chesterfield County

I have been researching Joseph Williams and his wife Ona Ann Adams for years, but much of their story has remained a mystery to me. By noting ministers in marriage records, and following through in researching those ministers and their church communities, I was able to find my ancestors in church records. I have specific dates for when my ancestors were baptized and joined two local communities. I even know now how the Dorset area of Powhatan County got its name - from my ancestor's beloved pastor from New Jersey! I grew up driving past Dorset and Mt. Hermon, and I went to high school next door to Old Powhatan Baptist Church - all the while never knowing my family's connection to these places. Little by little, this little hometown of mine is proving to be home indeed!

Have you ever researched church records? How could church records give you a clearer picture of your ancestors?

Join me next time as we continue to encounter ancestors through family history and remember the past made present!

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