Chipping Away at a Dickson Brick Wall – Part 2

This is the second in a series where I try to unravel and figure out my Dickson ancestry. I am not necessarily working toward a narrative goal here.  I am mostly capturing my research to be sure that I have a sensible understanding of the family.

In the first part, we started with our most recent known facts and started to work backwards.  We began with my grandfather, Robert Harrison Dickson, Jr, and traced his family and movements backward.

Eventually, we found him in a family as a child with his parents, Robert Harrison Dickson Sr. and Ethel Garner Dickson. Tracing that family back through the census, we found Robert Sr, as a child in the family of his parents, John H. Dickson and Martha A. Dickson.  We stopped at the first census where Robert Sr. appeared – 1880 US Federal Census of Prairie County, Arkansas.

In this post, we will try to round out John H. Dickson’s immediate family a little bit so that we can make some more progress.  We will also identify a possible family of origin for him that we will look at more later on.

On the very first day that I ever went to a library to search in the census, back in 1988, in the 1880 census, I found John H. Dickson and his young family in Bridge Bend Township, Prairie County, Arkansas.  We identify the family because we find Robert H. Dickson Sr, his brother Cecil, and his sister Minnie in the household.  The 1880 census is important because it gives two new pieces of information not found on previous censuses.  First, it shows the relationship of a person to the head of household.  Second, it shows where a person’s parents were born.  Robert, Cecil, and Minnie are listed as children of John, so we know for sure at least who their father is.  We are pretty sure of the mother, but the proof is not quite as solid yet. 1

1880 US Census - Dickson2
1880 US Federal Census, Bridge Bend Township, Prairie County, Arkansas

This census reports that John H. Dickson was born in Alabama, his father was born in Tennessee, and his mother was born in Virginia.  His wife, Martha, reports that she was from Alabama.  The two older children (Robert and his brother Cecil) were born in Mississippi and the youngest child (Minnie) was born in Arkansas.  The information on the children fits what we already know, so we are confident we are looking at the right family.

The oldest child is 4 years old, indicating a birth in about 1876.  If we look for marriage records, we find a record in a database of Mississippi marriages for J.H. Dickson to Martha A. Taylor on 12 Sept 1872 in Desoto County, Mississippi. 2  This fits with where Robert H. Dickson Sr. reported that he was born, so we are fairly certain this is the right marriage.  But it also tells us that we will not find the couple together in the 1870 Census.  Instead, we will have to look for each of them (John and Martha) as children in homes of thieir parents or else as individuals or else as parts of other families.  John’s age indicates that he could have had a previous marriage; Martha’s age indicates that a previous marriage is unlikely for her.

Searching the census for a family where John H. Dickson, born about 1836 in Alabama, perhaps with parents from Tennessee and Virginia, we find one family that is a good fit.  In 1870, in Desoto County, Mississippi, we find the family of David Dickson with a number of children. 3  This appears to be our most likely candidate family.  In fact, it seems like the only one we find in a census search that comes very close.  However it has its own issues that we will need to work through.

1870 US Census - Dickson
1870 US Federal Census, Township 5R7,  DeSoto County, Mississippi

In particular, the way the surnames are reported looks a little odd.  Typically, when a line or ditto marks are shown, that means that the surname is the same as the one above.  If that were the case for this entry, then we would expect this family to be David and Eliza Dickson, Mary E. Williams, John H. Williams and a number of other Williams folks.  We might think that John must be Mary’s husband from this or a brother in a different family.  So, it’s a confusion that we need to work through.  Our initial suspicion is that Mary is in fact Mary Williams, but the ditto marks for the rest of the family refer to Dickson rather than Williams.  That would mean that she probably was a daughter who married and is now listed back in this family rather than in her own family.  So, we will look further and come back to see if this holds up.

Stepping back one more census, to 1860, we again look for John H. either in his own family, his parents family, or somewhere else.  When we look again at David Dickson / Dixon, we find his family, along with John, in Leake County, Mississippi, in the center of the state rather than the north of the state. 4  In this family, David and his wife Eliza and John are all consistent.  The children change somewhat, but they appear to be consistent with the later census.  John is listed out of order from the rest of the children, presumably because he is old enough to be on his own, so is considered by the census taker separately from minor children.

1860 US Census - Dickson
1860 US Federal Census, Carthage, Leake County, Mississippi

If we take one more step back in the census, to 1850, we find John as a child in the home of David and Eliza again. 5  At this point, they are located in Marengo County, Alabama about 140 miles east of Carthage, their location in 1860.

At this point, it might be valuable to summarize the family across the censuses.  The following table shows the individuals in David and Eliza’s household across the census years, along with ages and birth places.

Name 1850 Census
Marengo, Ala.
1860 Census
Leake, Miss.
1870 Census
DeSoto, Miss.
1880 Census
David Dickson 42, Tennessee 52, Tennessee 62, Tennessee
Eliza 38, Virginia 48, Virginia 58, Virginia (in the home of J.F. Pardue, Tate, Miss.)
60, Alabama
Mary 14, Alabama (Mary E.Williams)
35, Alabama
(Mary Gates, in home of A.J. Gates,
Lonoke, Ark.)
44, Alabama
John 12, Alabama 22, Alabama 32, Alabama (Prairie, Ark.)
44, Alabama
Lucinda 8, Alabama 18, Alabama
Frances 5, Mississippi 15, Mississippi 25, Mississippi
Ann 3, Alabama (Hester A.)
13, Alabama
(Hester Ann)
22, Alabama
William 8, Alabama 18, Alabama (W.A.,
Tate, Miss.)
29, Alabama
Lucy A. 5, Alabama 15, Alabama (L.A. Pardue,
Tate, Miss.)
25, Alabama

As we mentioned before, the 1870 census is interesting in that a large number of young children are listed, all born in Mississippi.  These appear to be the children of Mary  E. Williams.   The oldest is 13 years old and the youngest is 7 years old.  This could put some brackets around a possible date for when she and her husband were no longer together and give us a way to search for what happened to him.  There is also a 63 year old woman, Lucy Vaugh, born in Virginia in the home.  A theory would be that she could be Mary’s older sister.  This is worth pursuing.

All of this is pretty good circumstantial evidence that John H. Dickson, my ancestor, is a part of this family.  The census isn’t iron-clad proof, though.  And I still don’t have anything that says “David is John’s father” or “John is David’s son.”  I’m close though.

In the next post, I will share a picture that tied this together, at least to my satisfaction, and can let me move on to the next step.


  1. 1880 US Federal Census, Prairie County, Arkansas, pop. sch., Bridge Bend Township, ED 247, page 211, dwelling 218, family 218, John H. Dickson. 
  2. Ancestry.com, “Mississippi Marriages, 1776-1935,” database, Ancestry.com (http://ancestry.com : accessed 26 May 2012), J.H. Dickson to Martha Taylor, 11 Dec 1872, Desoto County. 
  3. 1870 U.S. Federal Census, Desoto County, Mississippi, pop. sch., Township 5 R 7, page 52, dwelling 365, family 365, David Dickson. 
  4. 1860 U.S. Federal Census, Leake County, Mississippi, pop. sch., Carthage post office, page 67, dwelling 426, family 426, David Dixon. 
  5. 1850 U.S. Federal Census, Marengo County, Alabama, pop. sch., Not stated, page 44, dwelling 304, family 304, David Dickson. 
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