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.
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!