Bricks, Bricks, All the Way Down

Brick Wall – 52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks

Sometimes, it feels like the brick walls just keep going and going and going and we’ll never get over, around, or through them. After thirty years of researching my family, it feels like all I have left are brick walls.

My Mom won’t even help me research her family. She says that I’ve found all the easy stuff, leaving just the really hard things to find. She’s right, of course, but my step-dad’s family is no picnic, either. All of her brick walls are written in old German script and are stored overseas. At least all of my records that I need that don’t actually exist were lost on this side of the ocean!

When we run into something that we can’t seem to figure out, we call it a brick wall. We search all the regular sorts of records. We try everything we can on-line. We try to reach out for records from other sources, like the courthouses. We visit archives and libraries and cemeteries and dusty basements. We lament burned courthouses and preachers who never returned marriage licenses and census takers who seem to have missed whole towns.

But, I think the bruises on our foreheads from beating our heads on the wall may be our own fault. How often, when in the middle of trying to solve a problem and get around a brick wall do we follow a rabbit down a hole and get lost in a whole different line of research?

Or, do we fail to make a plan and wander around aimlessly as we try to follow the bricks and get to the corners or the end of the wall?

But eventually, our tree may grow over the wall. Or the roots of our tree may break through the wall. And we can get to the other side. And we can find out more about our families and move on to the next mystery.

close up root of old giant tree growing at vintage brick wall

So, if you’ve made it this far, you might have guessed that I don’t have a strong story for this week. I am in the middle of a brick wall exercise right now. I thought I was making progress, but then yesterday, it fell apart again.

Mary J. Sartain married Thomas M. Higgs on Christmas Day, 1857. I think you’ve met these two before. They are my great-great-grandparents. Mary was, supposedly, born in Decatur, Morgan County, Alabama, in 1834. In all of my research, I have yet to find any families that look like they could be hers in that area. I’ve been at a loss.

Another researcher (Page), years ago, told me that she felt sure that her ancestor, Susannah Sartain, was the sister to my Mary. I failed to follow up very well on this at that point. But, with Ancestry’s new ThruLines tool, what does it suggest, but that Susannah Sartain was the sister to my Mary. So, I contacted my research partner again and we began to talk.

Yes, in fact, she heard stories from her family for years about my great-aunt Lida and about her brother Jere Will. She understood that Mary and Thomas even helped raise Susannah’s daughter for a period. So, that’s a pretty good family connection. Maybe we need to pursue this again.

I took to the census. Long ago, I (and my research partner and others) had identified a candidate family for Mary and Susannah. Alfred Sartain and Susannah Sarah Ramage were living in Northport, Tuscaloosa County, Alabama in 1850 and had daughters named Mary J. and Susannah who were exactly the right ages. Looks pretty positive, so far.

Just to add to mix, there was another Mary J. Sartain, also born in 1835, in Tuscaloosa County. What are the odds? I can’t find Sartains anywhere, but all of a sudden, I have three Mary J. Sartains born within 18 months of each other! A little quick research here found a marriage record for this Mary to a Benjamin Sexton which clearly stated that she was the daughter of Jacob Sartain Jr.

This starts to help piece the steps of the ladder over the wall. Jacob Sartain Jr and Alfred Sartain appear to be sons of Jacob Sartain, Sr, who came to Tuscaloosa from Spartanburg, South Carolina before Alabama statehood.

Now, what about the rest of Alfred’s family? You know the FAN club ought to be investigated. I really want to find something that can connect my Mary to Page’s Susannah to Alfred, and ultimately Jacob Sr.

It seems like this Sartain family stuck together. In 1870, Alfred’s married children were all within a house or two of his on the Census. It really seems like this family stuck to Northport, Tuscaloosa County. (I was unable to ever find any of these families or any of their 1850 or 1870 neighbors in the 1860 census. It seems like this whole community may be lost in the census.) Mary doesn’t appear in the 1870 census in Alfred’s house, but that’s what we expect – she should have been married to Thomas and moved to Arkansas by then. Alfred’s son, Jesse, married Sarah Ann Sexton and then died in the Civil War. Alfred’s daughter Sarah Ann married Horace H. Sexton. She died in 1876, at which point Horace married her sister Susannah.

Hmmm. That doesn’t sound right. Page’s ancestor, Susannah Sartain, married James C. Hicks in Florence, Lauderdale County, Alabama on 10 Oct 1850. What’s this being single in 1870 in her parents’ house but also being married in 1850?

I pretty much think that as busting this line of attack. It makes it clear that Alfred and Susannah Ramage Sartain are not the parents of either Mary J. Sartain who married Thomas M. Higgs or Susannah Sartain who married James C. Hicks. Nor is Jacob Sartain Jr. the father of my Mary J. Sartain.

So, being methodical and following the research through to a clear conclusion at least allowed me to avoid spending any more time on this line. It also made it clear that this candidate, which initially looked very strong, was not at all strong.

But, what to do next? I think a geographic search may be the right approach. Lauderdale, Morgan, and Limestone counties, where the events we know about happened, are all in northern Alabama, near or bordering Tennessee. I think the next step is to look for some new openings in the wall in northern Alabama. It may well be that we reconnect to Jacob Sartain Sr. back in South Carolina. But who knows!


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Family Photo – 52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks

More than I had ever wished for

I try to post an interesting family photo each Wednesday for #WordlessWednesday, but these new ones require a few words.

I was recently talking to my cousin, Bob Lee, asking him whether his father had any old family pictures. His dad was Griff Calicutt Lee, Jr, a very well-regarded engineer and a generally good guy. I only met him a couple of times, at my grandparents’ funerals, but was always impressed by him. He recently died, himself, leaving behind his wife Eugenia.

Years ago, when I was first starting in my genealogy, I would correspond with Griff, but never got a chance to visit at his home in New Orleans. It was just too far and out of my budget. But, it always seemed like he had access to a lot of old family papers. His mother was the eldest daughter and the sort of person who had a particular interest and pride in “her people”. So, I always suspected that he might have things I had not seen.

Well, Bob told me he was going to visit his mom and would take a look at what his dad had left behind. When I started getting a stream of pictures on Facebook Messenger the other evening, I was surprised beyond words! A number of the pictures that Bob sent me were things I either have copies of or have seen. But, there were these three.

First, there is a picture of the Will Higgs family. Lida Cason Higgs is seated with four of her five children. This was taken in 1904 before her 5th child, my grandmother was born. The children are (clockwise starting with Lida) Morton Thomas Higgs, Jere Will Higgs, Lida Higgs, and Bettie Higgs. I had never seen a baby picture of Bettie before, or a young picture of Lida, or a young picture of Morton & Jere. What an amazing family group! I wonder why Will isn’t in the picture. Maybe he was working out of town for an extended period. As a newspaper editor, he sometimes did that.

Second, there is a picture of the Reverend Jeremiah H. Cason as younger man. The only other photos I have of him are much older. I can’t tell whether this would be before the Civil War, before he lost his left arm. The left arm in the photo looks like it’s full, but it’s hard to tell. J.H. Cason was Lida’s father. He was a Baptist preacher for over 50 years, a missionary to Africa in the 1850s, and a Captain in the 41st Alabama Infantry.

Lastly, there is a picture I had never even hoped to imagine. Thomas Morton Higgs and Mary Sartain Higgs. Thomas and Mary are Will Higgs parents. Will Higgs is Lida’s husband. Thomas and Mary are probably my longest standing brick wall. I never expected that I would find a picture of them! I can’t even find them in a census; how could I ever find a picture!

I started trying to learn about my family thirty years ago. I was lucky enough to get copies of notes that Lida Higgs (the young Lida, not the mother Lida) had written about her family. She noted that Thomas and Mary married in Athens, Limestone County, Alabama on Christmas Day 1857. True enough. Limestone has a really nice archives and I’ve visited it several times. I’ve gone through every old volume they have, along with every other record of surrounding counties that I can find. The original marriage record for Thomas and Mary is easy to find. But, I can find no other mention of them. Nor can I find any Higgs or Sartain families anywhere around! So, they have always been my mystery. Maybe I can find more hints in Griff’s records.

This is why family photos are so exciting. They are a way we can connect not only to our ancestors, but to each other as we share what we have and what we know. I am so excited about this that now I want to go visit Eugenia and I want to go spend more time with my cousins. Time to get the calendar out and make it happen!

Challenge – 52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks

It’s sort of ironic that the theme for this week is Challenge. My biggest challenge lately is finding time to sit down and think about this blog. I spent this week in Toronto. I have not been home for a whole week since Thanksgiving and won’t be home for more than a weekend at least until mid-February. I guess for all of us, time is always the biggest challenge.

Genealogically speaking, however, here’s one of my current challenges. I hope one of you can offer some ideas as to how I can break through this one.

Thomas Morton Higgs was born 11 Jul 1837 in Athens, Limestone County, Alabama, at least according to his granddaughter. On Christmas Day 1857, he married Mary J. Sartain in Athens. She was supposedly from Decatur, Morgan County, Alabama, born 27 Jun 1834.

I have been to the county Archives in both Limestone and Morgan counties and scoured all of their original records. I copied the marriage record straight from the book where it’s recorded. But that’s the first record I can find of either of them.

Now, normally, to find their families, I would think that the 1850 U.S. Census would be a good place to start. I cannot find any Higgs anywhere around, except for the well-documented family of a Charles Higgs, the local sheriff in Limestone County. Likewise, Sartains / Sartins / Certains / etc. are non-existent in northern Alabama. I do found one family that is a potential one for Mary – Alfred Sartain in Tuscaloosa. But, I cannot find any indication that they came north at all.

I’ve searched tax records, land records, estray records, court records, census records – everything that I could find in northern Alabama and the southern counties of Tennessee.

The marriage record says that they were married in the home of William H. Oglesby. Well, I can find him in Athens. Both he and his son, Fountain, are wagon makers. In 1850, William is 43 years old and Fountain is 19. Both are wagon makers. Now, Thomas ends up as a shoe and boot maker, so I don’t know that there is a connection there. I have not found any connection between the Oglesbys and either Higgs or Sartain.

By 1860, Mary and Thomas have moved to Iuka, Tishomingo County, Mississippi where they are found in the home of John Waldrup. Waldrup is also a shoe maker. My hypothesis is that they were in business together, either as partners or one as an apprentice to the other (Thomas to John since John appears the more established one.) But again, I can find no other sort of connection between the Waldrup family and either the Sartain or Higgs families. It seems like it’s just business.

When the Civil War broke out, like so many in the South, Thomas enlisted. He joined Co. E of the 17th Mississippi Infantry. He mustered in on 27 May 1861 at Corinth, Mississippi and signed on for a period of twelve months. He rose to the rank of 4th Sergeant before being discharged on 10 Jan 1862 due to his health. His early discharge was due to “general disability due to pneumonia and erysipelas”, though other records record “pneumonia, rheumatism, etc.”

My grandmother, Mary Higgs Wren, and her sister Lida Higgs Lee, both said that their grandfather had lost his sight during the war, but I have never found any record that would indicate this.

Thomas and Mary’s first child, John William “Will” Higgs, was born 7 April 1859 in Magnolia, Columbia County, Arkansas. How did that happen? Seems like perhaps they had moved to Arkansas and then came back to Mississippi when Thomas decided to enlist. If that were the case, then I would expect to find some sort of family connection in the area for Mary. But, I don’t. On the 1860, William, age 1, is clearly listed as born in Arkansas, as well as in all future records.

By the 1870 census, Thomas and Mary and their two sons (Will and Ira Thomas Higgs) were now in Hempstead County, Arkansas. They were living in the home of a physician, M.C. Boyce, and his wife Nancy. Dr. and Mrs. Boyce and four of their children were all from Alabama, but I’ve not found a connection there. It would appear that they were in Arkansas by 1857. In the home, there appear to be a number of children, as well as perhaps a previously married daughter and her children. The oldest child born in Arkansas was M.R, aged 13. All before that were from Alabama.

The family Bible records that Thomas died on 4 Feb 1875 in Hempstead County, Arkansas at the age of 37. Mary stayed in Hempstead County for a while, but eventually moved to Texarkana, Miller County, Arkansas, where she died 29 Oct 1887. According to my grandmother and my aunt, they were buried in the old cemetery in Washington, Hempstead County, Arkansas. They both remembered visiting the graves many years ago. When we tried to find them again, we found that the highway had been moved. They thought that the road perhaps had been relocated through the old section of the cemetery, where the stones may have been just stones. So the graves are also lost.

In the end the challenge is this: how can I find anything to connect Thomas and Mary to their families? I think that the Higgs folks probably came to northern Alabama from east Tennessee, above Knoxville. But, how would I connect Thomas as a child to one family or another. Likewise for Mary. I find a candidate family in the 1850 census, but I haven’t been able to find any connection between any of the people in that family and any Higgs folks.

There you have it. Is anyone up to this challenge and can help me find these mystery ancestors?