Copyright © Janice Tracy, Mississippi Memories

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Former Mississippian Stokes McMillan Wins 2012 Mississippi Author Award

A couple of years ago, I had the pleasure of reviewing here on this blog One Night of Madness, a book written by Stokes McMillan, a native of Attala County, Mississippi.  It was McMillan's first book, a true account of events that happened in that county, in the racially-charged 1950s.  According to the author, a series of photographs taken by his father who worked for the local family-owned newspaper in Kosciusko, Mississippi, the Star-Herald, was the impetus for the book. McMillan's gripping tale of  murder and mayhem in rural Mississippi is well-researched and written and is spell-binding as the events in the story unfold. The book was published in 2009 and was very well-received, earning McMillan an EDGAR award the next year. A husband, father of three sons, and a grandfather, McMillan is a graduate of Mississippi State University and retired last year from a long engineering career with NASA in Houston, Texas. His plans to write another book are on hold, at least for the present, since he is currently involved in a second career working for a private company in Colorado.

Fast forward to 2012.....

McMillan and his book seem to have made an impact on the literary world, at least in Mississippi, as evidenced by a recent article in Publishers Weekly. The transcript of that article is included below.

"Stokes McMillan's self-published book, One Night of Madness, was named winner of the 2012 Mississippi Author Award.  Inspired by articles written by his journalist father in 1950, McMillan's One Night of Madness is the true story of how local, white citizens in the pre-civil rights South unite to hunt down racist white murderers in a small Mississippi town.  A book with an unusual story gains a unique honor with the win.  According to vice president Lynn Shurden, 'this is the first time that I'm aware a self-published book has son.' Published in paperback through Amazon's CreateSpace in November 2009, the book has sold modestly with around 4,000 copies to date. 'Due to my very busy day job, I have not been actively pushing it so sales have slowed accordingly.  I have, however, signed a contract with a movie producer who is working to make it into a movie,' McMillan said. Past winners of the Mississippi Author Award include Eudora Welty, Charlaine Harris, and Kathryn Stockett.  One Night of Madness previously won a gold medal Independent Publishers Book Award in 2010.  McMillan is represented by Wendy Schmalz of the Wendy Schmalz Agency."

Stokes McMillan and his book are now part of Mississippi's literary history, and his name is among others on a hallowed list of authors who call that state "home." Although he is staying busy with other projects at the moment, I predict we will see more of McMillan's talented story-telling. 

Stay tuned.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

It's All In The Name

Our names are important - they belong to us alone and make us unique. At least, that was once the case in a less populated universe.  Interestingly, naming conventions have evolved over centuries based on geography, ethnicity, and cultural and societal norms. In early England, one’s surname was usually a locational name, designating the place where a man held his land or where he already lived. After the Norman conquest of 1066, a few individuals passed on hereditary surnames, but most of the population seemed to exist fairly well without the use of more than one name. As the number of people in a specific geographic area grew, surnames emerged out of labels that distinguished an individual’s occupation or trade, such as baker, cook, cooper, and porter. As the population increased, the use of surnames to denote heredity increased in popularity, and by the14th century, most of the population had acquired a second name.

Prior to the mid-nineteenth century, families used the patronymic naming system to name their male children. In other words, a child’s personal name, consisting most often of a first name and a middle name, was the same as that of an earlier male ancestor. Generally speaking, firstborn sons commonly were named for the child’s father or grandfather. Female children also were named using a similar system, meaning they were named for female ancestors or another close family member. The primary purpose of each naming concept was to convey lineage.  But more often than not, offspring born to more than one sibling bore similar names, and the practice created confusion not only in extended families, but to family history researchers as they attempted decades later to develop a family tree. By the turn of the nineteenth century, most American families had discarded these naming conventions, although the custom remains in place today in a number of locations throughout the world.

When I first attempted to unravel the traditional names given to sons and daughters of my own ancestors a number of years ago, an article published in "The Genealogical Helper Magazine” explaining naming conventions proved helpful to me. According to the article, a family’s oldest son was named for his paternal grandfather.  Second and third sons were named for the maternal grandfather and the father’s paternal grandfather, respectively. A fourth son was named for his mother’s paternal grandfather, a fifth son was named for his father’s maternal grandfather, and a sixth son was named for his mother’s maternal grandfather. Daughters were named in a similar fashion, with the first daughter born named for her maternal grandmother and the second daughter named for her paternal grandmother. A third daughter born to the family was named for her mother’s maternal grandmother, and fourth and fifth daughters were named for the mother’s paternal grandmother and the father’s paternal grandmother, respectively.  If a sixth daughter was born to the couple, her name was predetermined to be the name of her father’s maternal grandmother. The entire concept invited duplicity of names and general confusion.

As strange as the convention may seem to us today, it was customary, also, to name the next daughter or son born within a second marriage for the deceased husband or wife. If a father died before a male child was born, the infant was named for his deceased father.  Similarly, if a mother died in childbirth and the child was a girl, the father named his infant daughter for his deceased wife.

Although history tells us that our personal names evolved for the simple purpose of establishing family lineage or for identifying heredity, names have become vital links needed to function in today’s social and economic settings. But our names are much more.....they link us to our families, past and present, and they tie us to future generations to come.  As the saying goes, “It’s all in the name.”

Saturday, October 6, 2012

The Pee Dee River Colony in SC

This post was first published on my original blog, Attala County Memories, on September 30, 2008. 

Pee Dee River Valley (SC)
Many who settled in the north central area of the Mississippi Territory and later migrated, sometimes en masse, to the counties formed there after statehood from Alabama, Georgia, North and South Carolina, and Virginia. came from South Carolina. It is a well-known bit of history that many of those who settled in Attala County, Mississippi and in the surrounding area came there from the Pee Dee River in South Carolina. This area is sometimes called "the low country" or the coastal area because of its proximity to the marshlands of South Carolina.

Recently, while reading a book entitled "Black Indians, A Hidden Heritage,"written by William Loren Katz, I found some interesting information about the Pee Dee River area. According to Katz, the story of the Pee Dee River area is quite unique, and he calls it "the first foreign colony on U. S. soil." It seems that Lucas Vasquez de Ayllon, a wealthy Spanish official who lived in Santo Domingo on Hispaniola, founded a colony in the area in June 1526. The settlement, Katz says, was founded "six decades before Roanoke Island, eight decades before Jamestown, and almost a century before the Mayflower landed at Plymouth Rock."

Katz believes that De Ayllon's effort was perhaps overlooked for two reasons: first, because most historians prefer to believe that life in the new world actually began when Anglo-Saxons who were British citizens and spoke English arrived; secondly, Ayllon's settlement suffered a tragic fate, including death, disease, and a slave revolt. Although the settlement"failed" in Ayllon's eyes, the inhabitants who survived these tragedies were reborn as a different people in the woods to which they escaped, and according to Katz, they were "not considered a part of the white U. S. heritage."

The two explorers sent to the New World were Captain Francisco Gordillo, who was charged with locating a suitable landing site and with building friendly relationships with the native inhabitants or local tribesmen, and a slavehunter, Pedro de Quexos. Their efforts during the initial landing included capturing seventy Native Americans, free men and women, and taking them to Santo Domingo to serve as slaves. De Ayllon was not pleased and with the assistance of Diego Columbus, "the Indians were declared free and ordered returned." Spanish records fail to show whether the order was actually carried out. Sometime later, after his explorers landed on the wrong coast and had to return to Santo Domingo, Ayllon formed another crew and sailed with other Spanish citizens who were his followers and settled near a "great river...probably the Pee Dee."

Sailing from Puerto de la Plata were a total of "six vessels carrying five hundred Spanish men and women, one hundred enslaved Africans, six or seven dozen horses, and physicians, sailors, and Dominican priests." As the ships arrived, the Native Americans who lived in the area took to the woods to escape the newly-arrived settlers. The Spanish colonists had difficulty coping with the climate, growing the food they needed, and adverse living conditions quickly caused uprisings within the colony. The discord that resulted caused many of the Africans to flee into the woods and live with the Native Americans. De Ayllon became ill and died, but he had named his nephew, John Ramirez to succeed him after death.

And thus the Pee Dee Colony, or "San Miguel de Gualdape" grew to be an amalgamation of people, Native Americans, Africans, and those who spoke Spanish as their native language.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Genealogy and Adoption

Last year, over 120,000 adoptions occurred in this country, and according to statistics, approximately five million of all U.S. residents are adopted. Of course, this number does not include tens of thousands of other children who have been living without the benefit of adoption in foster care or with close relatives or family friends. Contemporary adoptions, often in concept, seem to be an accepted part of today’s culture. They are celebrated by families and friends with the same fervor and happiness that surrounds the birth of any new baby. 

But this fairly new attitude towards adoption in general was not a societal norm in years past. As those of us who are older can attest, adoptions occurring during our generation, as well as those before, were more likely to be cloaked in mystery, surrounded with silence, whispered about in secret, and sometimes hidden from others, even from the adopted child. Speaking from the standpoint of a family history researcher, this practice, along with few or no available records documenting so-called adoptions, an otherwise uneventful family research event can come to a screeching halt. 

 How to proceed successfully with genealogy research depends on any number of factors, such as the existence of oral history that discusses the adoption, handwritten information, including entries made in a family Bible, personal diaries, or names and details found in wills. But the unavailability of many of these records often causes the researcher to hit what is known in genealogy circles as the proverbial brick wall. More often than not, guardianships and adoptions during the last two centuries resulted when one or both parents died, often from disease, illness, accident, or sometimes war. And in countless situations, other family members may have assumed care of an orphaned child, even changing the child’s surname, with or without the benefit of a legal document. Other adoptions occurred as a result of various societal issues, such as unplanned or unwanted pregnancies, child abandonment, addiction, or incarceration. In these situations, child welfare or other public agencies may have been involved, and laws in place at the time dictated that discretion be used to ensure confidentiality and to protect the identity of the people involved. 

The resulting information, or lack thereof, has created major problems for adoptees, their descendants, and family researchers alike in answering questions about ancestry. If a child was adopted from a children’s home or orphanage, depending on the type of facility, the year, and the state, some records may be available to the researcher. But depending on when, where, and how the adoption actually occurred, particularly if the process was a "closed" adoption, legal assistance may be needed to determine the existence of records and to help obtain copies, if they are indeed releasable. If the surname of the adopted child at birth was the same as that of the adoptive parents, the fact that an actual adoption occurred may be less obvious to the researcher. In this particular situation, oral history and the possible comparison of census records that list names of family members in several households, may be the only available sources of information. 

Without a doubt, connection to family is a vital part of our lives. And the search for our ancestors most often results from our need to be part of a the larger universe, to know more about who we are and from whence we came, and to understand how we fit into a bigger picture. With the concept of open adoptions, maybe it will be easier in the future for those who have been adopted and family researchers alike to obtain parents’ names and relevant family information. 

According to Judith and Martin Land in Adoption Detective: The Adopted Child," secrecy and lack of disclosure in adoptions can result in what has been referred to as "genealogical bewilderment." In their book, published in 2011, the authors point out that discovery of genealogical roots can be a pathway to understanding an individual’s true inner being and the potential source of psychological grounding.  Although the reference is specifically directed to adoptees who are searching for birth parents, the same premise is true for those of us who are not adopted and who search for ancestors from generations past about whom we may know nothing at all.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Crossing the Color Line

Last month, I received a release from As a subscriber, I often receive electronic copies of the company’s press releases. But this particular release was different.  It announced research that had been completed by some of the best genealogists and family researchers in the field about a man named John Punch and the descendants of the man’s son, John Bunch. (No, the first letter of these surnames is not a typo, but is rather an example of how the spelling of names often changed phonetically in a time when standardized spelling was non-existent.) The Bunch family story spans multiple centuries and is a most fascinating one. This press release was even more significant, because it announced the discovery that John Punch was likely the first slave in America.  Even more significant was the finding that President Obama may be descended from John Punch through his deceased mother, Stanley Ann Dunham. According to the well-researched and documented Bunch family history, John Punch, a black man, was an indentured servant in early Virginia.  As punishment  for running away, the landowner to whom he was indentured enslaved him for life. According to research findings, John Punch’s son, John Bunch, a mulatto male born to an unnamed free white female, became the progenitor of the Bunch family in America. Although his father was a slave, law in effect in Virginia at the time of John Bunch’s birth dictated that he could live his life as a free man because his mother was free. The rest of the story traces the lineage of John Bunch and his family from Virginia into North Carolina and continues as descendants move south and westward, where they would eventually settle throughout several states. A link is provided here to read an earlier blog post about the Bunch family in Mississippi.

If you have watched episodes of NBC’s “Who Do You Think You Are?” and PBS’s Finding Your Roots” hosted by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., the discovery of a  family’s biracial roots is not a new one. But what is new is the fact that we seem to be more accepting of what has become a fairly common and sometimes public discovery. Although it was a shameful and often hidden part of a family’s history and our country’s past,  numbers of biracial children resulted from illegal interracial unions that occurred during slavery. But open relationships between the races and interracial marriages did exist and were not uncommon in early America until certain laws were enacted during the late 1700s and early 1800s.  In my own family research, I found  that one of my paternal lines descends from the Gibson family of North and South Carolina. Interestingly, Port Gibson, Mississippi, and Fort Gibson, originally in Indian Territory, are named for members of this family.  But the most interesting part of my research was finding that Gideon Gibson, the patriarch of the Gibson family in South Carolina, by most accounts, was descended from an interracial union that also occurred in Colonial Virginia.  

DNA testing and the popularity of genealogy research are changing the complexion of family history findings and are showing us as a nation that we were never neatly divided into black and white. Contributing to the availability of information about the construction of race in this country are a number of books written about American families that have biracial roots.  One of the best known of these books, entitled Free African Americans of Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Maryland and Delaware, was written by Paul Heinegg, a respected lay genealogist and historian. With a poignant foreword by Ira Berlin, the book includes a lengthy list of surnames with known biracial beginnings and discusses the lineages of the families named. A more recent book is The Invisible Line, written by Daniel J. Sharfstein, a graduate of Harvard College and Yale Law School. Published in 2011, Sharfstein’s deeply researched historical narrative addresses the complexity of race in early America as it chronicles the lives of three American families named Wall, Spencer, and Gibson, who did, in fact, cross the color line.

At  a time when ethnicity and racial identity often cause wars and domestic discord, maybe we should take a closer look at  the congregation of individuals who helped form our country. We have always been a nation of immigrants, but history tells us the colors of our people have not always been well-defined.  If we know who we are and where we have been, knowing where we are going is made easier.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Bunch Family in Mississippi

Yesterday morning, I opened my email and found a copy of a press release from announcing the result of several years' research into the family lineage of President Obama's deceased mother, Stanley Ann Dunham.  Specifically, the research suggests that Ms. Dunham's ancestry is linked to John Punch of Virginia, likely America's first slave, and relates how John Punch's son, John Bunch, was born to an unnamed free white female. The story of John Bunch, a free mulatto, and his descendants, complete with references, can be read on links provided on's website. As I began reading the fascinating history of the Bunch family in America, I recalled hearing my paternal grandmother occasionally mention this surname in conversations with our relatives from Attala County, Mississippi. In addition, I have frequently seen the surname Bunch while researching census records in counties where my ancestors lived in Mississippi, including Attala.  Also, I recalled finding Bunch family connections while searching for my elusive Gibson ancestors in North and South Carolina. With my interest now piqued by the story of John Punch and John Bunch and his descendants,  I decided to do a little Bunch family research of my own.

According to early census records for territorial Mississippi, Elijah Bunch and Jacob Bunch were already living in the area as early as 1800, showing up as residents of what was once called the Southwest Mississippi Territory.  Further research established that Elijah Bunch likely migrated from North Carolina, where he had purchased land in 1791 in Chowan County from an individual named Hance "Pond," or maybe "Bond."  And just three years after he purchased the land in Chowan County, Elijah married Ann Parrish on August 26, 1794, also in Chowan County. According to North Carolina records of marriage bonds, Abner Bunch, whose relationship to the groom is undetermined, was the Bondsman, and Joseph Blount witnessed the marriage ceremony.

In 1820, the U. S. Census conducted in Mississippi shows Jacob Bunch and John Bunch as heads of households in Wilkinson County, Mississippi.  Elijah Bunch does not appear on either the 1810 or 1820 census. On August 7, 1820, John Bunch's household in Wilkinson County included 16 free white persons and 4 slaves. And it was in Wilkinson County that a Rebecca Bunch married Felix E. Stephens on October 19, 1828.  Jacob Bunch married Phanner R. Hornsby several months later, on January 1, 1829, also in Wilkinson County.  More research is needed to determine relationships that may have existed between Elijah, Jacob, George, Paul, and John Bunch, all early residents of territorial Mississippi, as well as Rebecca's relationship to Jacob Bunch. Further research is needed, also, to determine if Jacob's marriage to Phanner Hornsby was his first marriage or a subsequent union and to determine names of their children, if any, born during the marriage.

A review of the U. S. Census of 1830, recorded in Franklin County, Mississippi, adjacent to Wilkinson County, shows Margarett Bunch, a white female over 50 years old, living alone with two children under 20.  Since she was listed as head of household, it seems reasonable to believe at this point that she was widowed.  Interestingly, Samuel Porter, one of my paternal ancestors mentioned earlier in this post, and another Porter male, Tillet Porter, were enumerated on the same census page that listed Margarett Bunch. Ironically, members of the Bunch and Porter families would eventually move to Attala County and the surrounding area, where many of their descendants still live today.

Hunting For Bears, comp.. Mississippi Marriages, 1776-1935 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Operations Inc, 2004. Original data: Mississippi marriage information taken from county courthouse records. Many of these records were extracted from copies of the original records in microfilm, microfiche, or book format, located at the Family History Library. U.S. Census Reconstructed Records, 1660-1820 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Operations, Inc., 2011. Original data: Census Publishing. State Census Records. West Jordan, Utah: Census Publishing, 2003-2009. North Carolina, Marriage Bonds, 1741-1868;[database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Operations Inc, 2000. Original data: State of North Carolina. An Index to Marriage Bonds Filed in the North Carolina State Archives. Raleigh, NC, USA: North Carolina Division of Archives and History, 1977.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

My Magnolia Memories and Musings in Poems - A Book Review

On the last page of her second book of poems, Patricia Neely-Dorsey quotes William Faulkner, who said "To understand the world, you must first understand a place like Mississippi." After reading Neely-Dorsey's newly-published book of poems, "My Magnolia Memories and Musings in Poems," it is evident the Tupelo resident not only understands her native state, but that her poetry is indeed a labor of love. 

Beginning with the book's first section, aptly named "Southern Sights, Scenes, and Sentiments," Ms. Neely-Dorsey takes the reader on a unique journey through poems entitled "Natchez Trace," "The Delta (Black, White and Blues)", "Memphis," "Front Porch (Hospitality Headquarters)", and "The Truck Patch...Gone, But Not." And in subsequent sections, she sentimentally recalls memories that deal with childhood, church, the (neighbor) hood, and love. Through her poems, Ms. Neely-Dorsey offers the reader an insightful glimpse into southern culture, specifically Mississippi's own unique culture, one that is often misunderstood by those who have not experienced it.  Patricia Neely-Dorsey is truly an ambassador for the State of Mississippi, and through her newest book of poems, she has invited the world to experience the people, places, and ideas of "a place like Mississippi."

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

If Only The Walls Could Talk....

At this point, most of us have heard someone make this remark about an old house or building, or you may even have said it yourself.  And it’s so true - those walls have heard it all ---some have heard more and for a lot longer than others.  Old houses, churches, and other historic buildings have always fascinated me, not just because they are beautiful or architecturally unique, but because each building represents a vital part of the history of a family or of a specific geographical location. I’m certain you will agree that much of a town's history is based on events that happened within the confines of some of its oldest houses and buildings, many of which are still standing today. It was within those walls that babies were born, children were educated, sons and daughters were married, important business deals became reality, and grieving families held wakes when family members passed to the great beyond.  And the list of events could go on and on. 

Although researching the history of old houses is not an entirely new concept, it has become an ever increasingly popular one during the last decade. As a younger generation of urban workers continue to buy up older properties for renovation in an effort to lessen daily commutes by living near downtown, the desire to know the history of the house or building they plan to call "home" has taken on a new significance. Just as tracing one’s family history often changes one’s perspective on life, discovering the history of an old house, can be a source of pride to the new owners. The facade of an old house or building too often can be misleading in relation to the actual events that may have taken place inside the structure. And as another group of individuals known as this nation’s “baby boomers” attain retirement age, another phenomenon is growing around America.  Many of these retirees, at least the ones who still have funds to do so, are searching for and buying up historic properties to restore into full-time homes, inns, and sometimes a bed and breakfast. 

 Of course, there are many other reasons, not any less important, for wanting to know the history of one’s house or an old building where one conducts business. Sometimes the desire to discover who built the house or building, who owned and who lived there, or what actually happened inside the structure is simply personal.  It may be something as simple as the fact that one’s ancestors lived or died in the house or made its living in the building. In other instances, new owners may want to restore the property to its original state and need to know specifics about the time period in which it was built and the materials used in its construction. Those who are interested in completing historic restorations, for obvious reasons, often also have a strong desire to obtain a state or national historic marker for the property. More about this process can be found by visiting your state's historic commission website or by reading a National Register Bulletin published by the Department of the Interior, National Park Service available at 

 In reality, the history of our cities is woven within the stories of the families who lived in its old houses, made a living in its old buildings, and walked along the old streets of its historic downtown. And just as each human life is unique and has meaning, each of these old structures has a story that is worth telling. 

If only the walls could talk............

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Developing An Ancestor's Profile Through U.S. Census Records

Last April, the National Archives (NARA) released the U.S. Census of 1940 to the public, a day that genealogists and family history researchers throughout the country had been anticipating for years. You may be asking yourself why the 1940 census was still private - it had been more than 70 years since the data was recorded. 

Well, here’s the reason. Where U. S. census records are concerned, the federal government enforces what is called “The 72 Year Rule.”  What this means is that census records are not available for citizens to search through and view personal information contained in the records until 72 years (an average lifetime) after the information was gathered. Although the U. S. Census of 1940 was released to the public and is available for viewing at,,, and other sites, the data contained there is not easy to navigate without an index. Because of the sheer volume of the data, census records for only a few states have been indexed. The good news is that through the efforts of paid individuals and thousands of unpaid volunteers, we are closer than ever to having indexed census record data from the U. S. Census of 1940 available for researching in all 50 states.

Poring through the rolls of the 1940 census would have helped me tremendously last week.  I had taken on the task of assisting someone in putting together her mother’s family history. But data for the states I needed to search had not been indexed, and I had to “make do” with data found in census records from previous years. As I reviewed and searched  through countless digital images of documents from several states, beginning with 1850 and ending with 1930, I began to develop visual profiles of the relatives my contact had never met, even some she never knew existed. And it was all because of small bits of personal information available on census records. It’s true. Almost everything any researcher might ever need to know about an ancestor, except for a physical description, is contained within those handwritten entries on these priceless documents. 

As I continued my review and diligently searched for more facts, census entries answered one question after another.  When was the individual born?  Where was he/she born? And who were the parents? Where were the parents born, and what language did they speak? 

But wait; that’s not all. There is so much more information contained there, information that goes well beyond the basic facts. Many of these old census records reveal how many years a couple had been married, whether they had been previously married, and if so, how many times, and how old they were when they were married the first time.  Staring out at me from these images was data that detailed a woman’s childbearing history. How many “live births” had she experienced? And what was the total number of her children who had survived childhood? Just how personal can we get here? But when one considers the importance of this information to a developing country in preventing infant mortality, these facts suddenly become much more than sad reminders of how difficult having a child really was back then. 

As I continued my research, I realized that by simply reading a line of words across a page, I could determine the dollar amount of an individual’s assets, the value of his house or farm, the occupation at which he or she was employed, and whether a child had attended school that year. Since we are a nation of immigrants, census records also provide details about when an individual immigrated to this country, if that individual has been naturalized, and if so, when the naturalization occurred. Also, I began to formulate visual images and mental impressions of people caught in a micro-moment of time, sometimes daring people who were forging life out of the elements, but always people whose lives were eternally linked together in this universe by blood, hard work, and often tears. 

I knew my contact would be pleased with what I had found. And it was because the census records of this country tell a moving story of its people, a story that consistently makes tracing one’s roots a powerful and enlightening journey.  

Monday, July 2, 2012

Wills, Family Photos, and Aunt Susie's Diary

Old family photos, wills, and diaries are often invaluable items that can help solve a family’s puzzle of life. On a number of occasions, I have seen these sentimental items in antique stores, and it always make me wonder why these potential family artifacts are not among the treasures and keepsakes of the individuals’ descendants. As someone interested in family history and its preservation, it makes me sad to see these special pieces of history lost to posterity. 

More than likely, you have heard the saying that “a picture speaks a thousand words.”  And in the case of old family photos, this could not be more true.  Not only do many of these old photographs have the names of those pictured written on the back of the photo, but the name and address of the photographer may appear on the photo, as well. Just a simple bit of information like the address of a photography studio may lead a family researcher to look for information about one’s ancestors in a location previously unknown to the family. And in other cases, the date of the photograph may be determined from information about the photography studio’s years of operation. Examination of old family photographs is always fascinating, since close observation of facial characteristics and how the individuals are dressed in the photos may reveal clues that will be helpful in further research.  Some of these observations may assist a researcher in determining an ancestor’s social status, ethnicity, and even possible religious affiliation. Always interesting is the fact that old photographs often reveal facial similarities and other physical characteristics to known living relatives. Our genes speak loudly and very clearly.

An often overlooked source of valuable information about our ancestors who lived and died prior to 1900 are probate documents. Commonly known during the 18th and 19th centuries as one’s “Last Will and Testament,” these old documents contain first hand information provided by the deceased about his family at a defined snapshot in time.  Following English Common Law, upon which our nation’s legal system was based, the oldest son inherited lands owned by his father. Therefore, the names of the decedent’s oldest living male heir, the name of his widow, and the names of his other offspring are included in the text of the will, provided they received bequests of real property, household or personal property, or money. Other valuable information resulting from the examination and review of a will may be the maiden name of the widow of the deceased, married names of his daughters, and the names of grandchildren who also received bequests. Since names of females were not listed on U. S. census records prior to 1850, finding the married name of a female ancestor in a will is a cause for celebration.  And in many instances, the names of other close family members may be among those who served as witnesses to the signing of the will. In the last decade, online access to early probate documents has increased tremendously and continues to grow by leaps and bounds.  Free access to large numbers of information from probate records is available at  And a subscription to will allow a researcher to view information gleaned from millions of probate documents housed in thousands of locations throughout the U.S. without ever leaving home. Of course, the ultimate dream of most family researchers, if they will admit it, is to search through hundreds of old dusty and musty courthouse records until they find and actually hold the probated copy of an ancestor’s Last Will and Testament in his or her hands.

I guess I am a sentimental sort, because I believe anything written by a family member or loved one, young or old, is something worth keeping.  Within the family history research community, I am not alone.  These statements bring me to “Aunt Susie’s Diary.” Not everything our relatives leave behind is valuable to their descendants. Most of us know that, particularly if we have helped someone move or assisted in closing out an estate of an elderly friend or loved one. But if that individual maintained diaries or other handwritten records of personal thoughts and activities, photos of trips taken and picture postcards received, or letters from those who lived in distant places, these items may become family treasures in years to come. All are worth keeping, not because they are museum quality or have monetary value, but because they tell the story of someone’s life.  And who knows, that story may be just what someone needs a half-century or more from now to complete a family’s puzzle.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Stories Told in Stone

On Memorial Day, numerous ceremonies were held throughout the United States and elsewhere honoring this country’s veterans.  Many of these ceremonies will take place in cemeteries where hundreds, even thousands, of simple gravestones mark the burial places of those who fought in wars dating back to the American Revolution. Not only do their gravestones remind us of our nation’s history and the freedoms for which our men and women in the Armed Forces fought, they remind us, also, of just how fragile life often can be.  And sometimes the only reminder of that life many years later is a simple gravestone in a cemetery among others like it. 

Cemeteries and the gravestones contained in them are among the most valuable sources of information for family history researchers throughout the world.  Inscriptions on gravestones often reveal not only a birth date and a date of death, but they may include other vital information as well. This additional information often includes where the deceased was born and limited relationship information, such as a spouse’s name, parents’ names, or a woman’s maiden name. In older locations in the United States, it is not unusual for several generations to be buried alongside each other in a cemetery that bears the family’s surname. And often, families who intermarried may be buried in the same cemetery in close proximity to each other.  Discovering a family cemetery and especially one where allied family members are buried is simply “pure gold” for genealogists everywhere.

The cemetery where your parents or grandparents are buried may be the first place to visit if you have decided to embark on the journey to trace your family’s history.  And some amazing discoveries about a family’s origins and relationships within that family often have been made from just one trip to the cemetery.  Most of us are not fortunate enough to have families that have lived in the same location for several hundred years. But if you are one of those people, that one trip to the cemetery may provide you with enough information to fill the branches of your entire family tree. In reality, the one cemetery trip scenario is certainly not the norm, simply because our early ancestors were adventuresome people who seemed  to be forever “on the move,” searching for personal freedoms, land, and always a better way of life.

If your ancestors were already living in the south, the southeast, in Indian Territory, or in other locations west of the Mississippi River in the early to mid 1800s, tracing your roots certainly will involve trips to more than one cemetery.  Most of the early settlers to these areas of our nation’s expansion, migrated through the Carolinas, Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama, and Mississippi.  Some later moved into northern Louisiana, Texas, and to points further west. Many who began the trip decided the journey was too long and too arduous and decided to put down roots somewhere along the way. Others settled for a time near family and friends, eventually choosing to forge ahead to distant places where others waited for them in newly opened lands to the south and to the west.  Because the Great Migration took years to complete, family members often died along the way and were buried wherever it was convenient to do so.  

Because such a large majority of our families’ early generations were so transient, it was extremely difficult at one time to determine a location to begin researching a family’s origins. The free database known as Find-A-Grave (, however, now makes it easy to pinpoint the locations where our ancestors lived and died - all without ever leaving home.  Although it is only one of many tools available to family history researchers, this website is absolutely among the best.

If you are among the many families throughout the country who attend summer family reunions, consider taking the time this year to visit a family cemetery. Talk to older family members whose ancestors may be buried there. And take a few photos of the never know what you might discover.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Tracing Your Family Tree

Blogger's Note: Last month, I began writing a column entitled "Tracing Your Roots," for my local newspaper.  Beginning here today, and continuing each Monday, I will be posting a copy of the article as it appeared in the newspaper on the previous Friday.

Interest in genealogy research, or tracing one’s family tree, is a hot topic these days. Once viewed by many as simply a hobby, genealogy has become one of the world’s newest industries.  In case you haven’t heard, family history research is the subject of two very popular television series, NBC’s “Who Do You Think You Are?” which airs on Friday evenings at 7 p.m.,  and the Sunday evening PBS program “Finding Your Roots,” hosted by Harvard professor, Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. If you haven’t watched either of these shows, I encourage you to do so.  

The current interest in family research and the fast growing number of resources available for conducting that research have made it easier than ever to search for one’s family roots.  But if you are like most individuals who want to begin the journey down the family history trail, you may be asking yourself the question “Where do I begin?”  And that’s what I want to discuss here today.

Family history research is like a puzzle - one piece is added to another, and another, and another, until the entire picture is visible.  Often the puzzle’s picture tells a story.  And the search for our ancestors sometimes begins with just one piece of information - the name of a known ancestor. Luckily for most of us, we know the names of our grandparents, possibly the names of our great-grandparents, and more often than not, we also know where they lived.  Armed with just a single name, one can successfully search literally dozens of online databases that contain bits of data about our ancestors.  

One of the best sources of genealogical information out there are census records, and thanks to, a website maintained by the Latter-Day Saints (LDS) Church, the information there is free. This same website also contains information gleaned from birth, marriage, and death records. Probably the most widely publicized source of online family history information is, which requires a subscription to access the millions of records contained in this huge database.  According to its website, the company “has spent more than a decade building the world’s largest family history resource” that includes birth, marriage, divorce, death, military and census record information.

Some of the least known but best sources of free information for beginning family history researchers are genea-blogs. When I first began blogging in 2008, there were only a few hundred of us who were writing blogs about our family history. Now there are over two thousand genea-bloggers who hail from around the world, and many have become leaders in the genealogy community. Thomas MacEntee, well-known as one of those leaders in the genealogy world and a blogger himself, maintains the website, where links can be found to each member’s blog.  This site also features a search function where anyone can search a family name contained in the many blogs listed there.  

An important source of free information for online researchers is the website known as, a site that contains information and photos of millions of cemeteries and gravestones throughout the world.  Founded by Jim Tipson, the website was originally maintained as a place for posting photographs of the celebrity graves he visited, a hobby of his. However, the site no longer contains just photos of celebrity grave stones - it contains over 80 million grave records, including photos of gravestones posted by its 800,000+ volunteers.  According to statistics available on the website, more than 11 million pages were viewed today by its visitors.

The resources mentioned in this article are but a few of the thousands of databases, repositories, and publications available to family researchers.  But if you are ready to start the search for your own roots, they are excellent places to begin.


Saturday, March 24, 2012

Surname Saturday

Surnames I am researching, along with geographic areas of interest, are the following:
Baldridge - Ireland>PA>NC>SC>TN>MS
Branch - VA>NC>TN>MS
Coggins - NC>SC>GA>AL>MC
Fenner - RI>NC>GA>AL>MS
Gibson - VA>NC>SC>TN>MS
Merriwether (Meriwether/Merriweather) - VA>KY>SC>GA>AL>TN>MS
Motte - Dublin, Ireland>West Indies>SC>AL>MS Territory
Netherland (Neatherlin/Netherlin/Neatherland) - VA>KY>TN>GA>AL>MS
Pettus - VA>KY>TN>GA>AL>MS
Porter - PA>VA>NC>SC>AL>MS
If your ancestors share these surnames, I would love to hear from you.  Who knows...we may be cousins!

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Fortner-Porter Cemetery, Hinds County, Mississippi

It all started in February 2011 when I contacted an individual named Carol Hughes about her post on an message board.  According to the post, Carol and I were researching the same individual, Anastacia Porter Lawson Porter. Known as "Gracy" to family members, Anastacia was the second wife of William Porter, who died in Hinds County, Mississippi in the 1800s. According to most accounts, William Porter was the son of Landlot Porter and Winnie Palmer Porter. More about the Porter family of Hinds County, Mississippi can be read here

Shortly before reading Carol's post on the message board, I had read about a small family cemetery near Raymond, Mississippi that allegedly contained the graves of Gracy, her husband, William, his father, Landlot Porter, and other Porter and Fortner family members. I shared this information in an email to Carol, and was struck with amazement when I received her reply telling me that she lived within a few miles of the cemetery's  location.  Although she had no previous knowledge of the cemetery's existence, Carol readily volunteered to locate it and kindly offered to photograph whatever headstones she might find. As most of us know, family obligations, weather, and life in general often take precedence over family research activities, and almost a year went by before Carol was able to make the trip to the cemetery. Although Carol had actually located the cemetery this past January, she discovered it was located on private property and permission to access the property was needed from the owner. 

But Carol was persistent, and on February 20, 2011, her visit to the cemetery became a reality, albeit a bittersweet one. Although the cemetery is located on privately owned property, it has been vandalized and some of the heavier stones and monuments have been toppled.  Gracy Porter's stone was one of those that had been overturned. Landlot Porter's grave marker is still standing, and with Carol's permission, I have posted a photo of it here today.  

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Mocavo Plus - A Review

Several weeks ago, I was contacted by Katelyn Lazor, Marketing Associate for  As part of her community outreach efforts to promote the site, Katelyn offered me a subscription in exchange for writing a review on this blog about my experience in using Mocavo Plus. Although it has taken me a few weeks to write this review, I was not a total stranger to the site before Katelyn and I communicated.  I began following Mocavo on Twitter almost a year ago and had visited the site a number of times during its early development.   My recent visits to the site do allow me to make a positive observation that Mocavo Plus is an excellent place for linking researchers and for sharing information. And it is free. But the Advanced Search function, which seems to be the hallmark of Mocavo Plus, is limited in that a researcher must know the exact date of the life event(s) entered. While my own use of the Advanced Search feature was successful, the resulting information consisted primarily of links to my own blog posts. Overall, the site is a great resource for novice family researchers.  But more experienced researchers who need actual documentation, whether it is census record information or birth, marriage, military or death records, likely will use the site as simply a stepping stone on their genealogical journey. 

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Y-DNA Testing - Halotype Results and Unanswered Questions

Well, the DNA testing results are in.  Actually, the results have been available since late December, but I am just now getting around to writing about what the findings.  The test kit itself was uncomplicated, but the results were delayed twice.  The delays were good, though, since each one represented the lab's dedicated efforts to ensure reliable results.  If I may backtrack for a moment here, DNA testing seemed to be the last resort for me in determining the name of my fourth paternal grandfather, Samuel Porter's father. There were too many Porter men in South Carolina and in Mississippi during the late 1700s and early 1800s to make a definitive match.  So, I joined  the World Family Tree's Porter Surname Project and enlisted the help of a Porter male family member in providing a cheek swab sample for a Y-DNA test.  I chose the test that would yield 37 markers and provide halotype information. If you are unfamiliar with genealogical DNA testing and are wondering what is a "marker" and why one would be interested in 37 (and testing more more than 37 is available), an explanation can be found here.  Now if you are also wanting to know what "halotype" means and why this information is important to genealogical DNA research, an explanation is provided here

The individual who provided the DNA sample for my Porter research was a first cousin, twice removed, and the only living male child or grandchild of my paternal great-grandfather, John James Porter, his father, James M. Porter, and his father, Samuel Porter.  Samuel Porter was born circa 1799 in South Carolina and came to the Mississippi Territory in the early 1800s.  In early 1825, Samuel Porter married Mary Middleton in Franklin County, Mississippi, before moving a few years later to Madison and Attala Counties after the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek opened up land there in 1832.  According to a copy of their marriage certificate, parents' names for neither Samuel nor Mary appear on the document. Although DNA testing has determined that my Samuel Porter is related to John Porter, who lived in the early 1600s in Virginia and to his descendants, Edward Sanders Porter, Elisha Jeter Porter, Hancock Porter, and Stark(s) Porter, I still do not know the name of Samuel's father. There were other male Porter family members living in Franklin County, Mississippi in the early 1800s, including John, Landlot, and James, but I have been unable to find Samuel's direct connection to any of these three men. 

Although Y-DNA testing did not yield the initial results I sought, it did produce a finding that confirms some questions about my paternal grandmother's family that I have had since I was very young.  My father's male family members share the J1 Halotype, indicating they have ancestry that links them to countries in and around the Fertile Crescent . My questions began when I was a young student studying geography and history.  Wanting to know where my own family originated, I asked my grandmother about her heritage and her family's origins.  I remember her reply when she said that "Mama's people were Black Dutch and Papa's people were Moors from South Carolina."  As I grew older, I often recalled her words and wanted to know more about her Porter family's heritage.  There was something unusual about these male Porter family members - besides the fact that most of them were quite tall, they exhibited very distinct facial features, and their skin color was what some might call "swarthy."  When I was older, I wondered even more about the Porter family's ethnicity, as I compared the looks of my own father, and my brothers as they grew older, to his mother's relatives. As I matured and learned more about various cultural, religious, and ethnic traditions, I often wondered if my grandmother's insistence that my siblings and I not drink milk when we ate fish might indicate that we had a Jewish ancestry. Now, thanks to Y-DNA testing results that show a J1 Halotype finding, my questions have been answered. 

For more information about Halotypes, including the J1 Halotype, read here.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Genealogy and DNA Testing

DNA testing is one of many tools in the family researcher's toolbox today, and it is absolutely a hot topic of conversation within the genealogy community. Thanks to a plethora of crime shows on television, most of us know how DNA works.  But genealogy testing goes beyond what is done on tissue and body fluid samples during a crime scene investigation. DNA results obtained from one tiny cheek swab can assist a researcher in finding a connection to an individual's ancestor as well as the part of the world in which the family originated.  Sounds so easy, doesn't it?  Although the test itself is a simple one, the results are much more complicated.  More about DNA testing, the process and the results, can be found here. Several months ago, after searching for years for some of my own paternal ancestors, I decided to join one of the surname projects sponsored by  Watch here for more posts that chronicle a quest for the name of a paternal ancestor that began with a simple cheek swab sample from a male relative and the Y-DNA results from a lab in Houston, Texas.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Back to Blogging

I've been away from blogging for the past few months, but next week I plan to resume posting here.  Although I haven't written posts for some time, I have not stopped researching. So watch for information about results of some recent Porter DNA testing and all about contacts from new cousins.