Separating Genealogical Fact from Fiction

For instance, my father told me that my great grandmother’s brother, John, fought for the Confederacy, was court martialed, and sentenced to be shot. At the last minute, he inadvertently gave a secret Masonic sign, and it saved him. After the war, John became a 32nd degree Mason. Here is the true story in my own words as presented by researcher Dara Sorenson based upon James Nisbet’s book Four Years on the Firing Line:

John Countiss was raised on Sand Mountain, Alabama, and enlisted as a private in the 21st Georgia Infantry during the Civil War. He attained the rank of captain, but in 1863, just before the Battle of Gettysburg, he was court martialed for disobedience, lost his commission, and was expelled from the military. Instead of going home, John fought so bravely at Gettysburg that he regained his commission on the recommendation of every officer present. A year later, he was wounded in the second battle of Winchester when a bullet lodged beneath the skin of his forehead. After being treated, he went back into battle. As I discovered through additional research, Uncle John received a Confederate pension from the state of Alabama.

Great Grandma Lizzie 
Another interesting story that I uncovered concerns my maternal great grandmother, Lizzie, who died three weeks after her son, Russell. Most of the following account was written by a daughter-in-law, but I’ll put it in my own words and add information from other sources: 

On June 21, 1911, Lizzie looked from her sickroom window to see her thirteen-year-old son become enveloped in flames while cleaning clothes with gasoline. She rolled him on the ground, but he died on the scene, and she died thirty-two days later in the Mississippi state mental hospital. The Kosciusko, Mississippi, newspaper reported her demise as follows:

“The death of this estimable lady is painfully sad. It will be remembered that only a few weeks ago, while on the bed of affliction, she lost her youngest son in a most tragic manner and never recovered from the blow. She was taken to the Sanitarium at Jackson and placed under eminent specialists by her husband, but got no relief, and death claimed her Sunday morning."

Grandpa Jason
Eight years later, her son, my grandfather, Jason Black, shipped out from Mobile Bay on the merchant ship, Pascagoula. Researcher after researcher reports that he died at sea the same year, but I can find no evidence for the claim (amateur genealogists are notorious for their non-critical acceptance of information obtained from other genealogists). The nearest I’ve come to proof is Jason’s seaman’s certificate from August 19, 1919, and the fact that seven U.S. Navy ships went down three weeks later in a hurricane off the Florida Keys. 

Much to my surprise, Jason’s grandfather—my maternal great grandfather—owned slaves. I say “much to my surprise” not because I thought my family was better than that, but because I didn’t know they had the money. However, given that both sides of my family lived in the South for generations, I suppose I should have been more surprised if they hadn’t owned slaves. In fact, one of John Brown’s men at Harper’s Ferry was an escaped slave with my surname, although I haven’t gotten far enough in my research to know if a relative owned him.


Emma Springfield said...

Researching one's family is enlightening. I discovered that some of my direct ancestors were here before the Revolutionary War. I thought no one came to this country until after the Civil War. I also discovered some small scandals. One uncle was married before he married the aunt I knew. They had four children, two of whom were born within a couple of months of each other. I discovered relatives I did not know existed. According to an old Irish expression we are who we come from.

Sue in Italia/In the Land Of Cancer said...

Did you get your DNA tested Snow? I did and distant cousins keep popping up.
In the late 1700s, on my father's father's side, they owned slaves in Virginia. My maiden name is a common African-American name so I always wonder if any of them were owned by my ancestors.

Sad that your relative saw her son burnt alive. No wonder she didn't recover.

Stephen Hayes said...

Thanks for providing some fascinating family history.

Elephant's Child said...

Lovely to see you back in the blogosphere with some intriguing snippets to share. My family history is a mystery to me. My father made an oyster look garrulous and my mother was a stranger to the truth. Some day...

Snowbrush said...

I understood you to say that one woman had two children two months apart, but I assume you meant that wife number one and wife number two had babies two months apart. Either that or you were simply reporting what the census said. According to census records, Peggy's father's parents were black, but all of their children were white. On my side, I found that the same people were born in different states on different dates, and that they regularly changed the way they spelled their names.

Did you get your DNA tested Snow?"

Not yet. It's supposed to take six weeks, so I'm assuming I'll get an email when it's ready.

angela said...

I would love to trace my families roots. But as most of the information is overseas in Greece I think it would be too hard
I don't read or write Greek either so even harder.
I find it all so fascinating

PhilipH said...

You never know what a genealogical dig will uncover. Those so-called "good old days" turn out as "bad old shit days" in many cases. I find the phrase "...owned a slave" quite abhorrent. It sickens me to read of people being brought to court for keeping a person as a slave, often because the poor 'slave' is a prisoner of the scumbag who holds them.

My Dad frequently boasted that he was 'one of nineteen' children sired by his father, my paternal grandfather. I never really believed him; he just liked to spout such boastful things after he'd had a few beers. However, I was approached by a couple of visitors whilst I was on duty in the library at Mellerstain House one afternoon. The chap came up to me and gave me a large envelope, saying "This is for you". Long story short: this man was one of my cousins, Peter Harfleet. He and his wife were visiting Mellerstain with the hope of finding me there. In the envelope was a printed family tree and a photo of my grandfather. I'd only seen my grandfather ONCE, during WW2 when I was taken to stay with him for a week, staying in his house in Guildford.

That afternoon in 1996 I not only met an unknown cousin of mine but also learned, from the family tree papers, that my grandfather sired not nineteen but TWENTY-TWO children, with the help of two wives, the grandmothers I never even know of!

So, apologies Dad. I should have believed you, even though you didn't know the full story of your father's prolific breeding records.

I wonder how many aunts, uncles, cousins I might have had?

Charles Gramlich said...

Some harsh stuff. a reminder I guess that life has always been rather brutal and unforgiving. I've never researched this kind of stuff on my family. A couple of my nieces have gathered some info. My direct ancestors seem to have fought for the North. They later settled in Arkansas.

Winifred said...

Crumbs that's very sad. I haven't felt the need to find out about any of my ancestors although my husband is obsessed with it.

I'm quite happy with what I know of the relatives I met apart from my grandmother's brother who died at the Battle of the Somme aged 17. There was just a year between them so they were very close. She have me his bible & a photograph of him but I've not visited the Somme because like many thousands his body was never found. There's just his name on the Thiepval Memorial in Pickardy, France.

Sometimes it's best not to know about your ancestors.

All Consuming said...

Desperately sad, in many respects, but also interesting and really it's down to whether what people find out will really upset them too much or not. I find the whole subject quite fascinating. All histories will involve terrible tragedies and horrors some way along the road, but also happiness and joys. It's just that the events noted down are usually those that shocked people, rather than made them happy. Great post sweetie x

Snowbrush said...

“My father made an oyster look garrulous and my mother was a stranger to the truth.”

My parents were quite happy to talk, and most of the information I started with was recorded by my mother, but I didn’t ask enough questions. My maternal grandmother was, like your mother perhaps, a compulsive liar. She’s the only person I’ve run into in my family for whom I have no respect.

“But as most of the information is overseas in Greece I think it would be too hard.”

You might try a two week free trial on just to see what you can turn up. Just gather whatever information you can before you sign up.

“I find the phrase "...owned a slave" quite abhorrent.”

I would certainly agree, but I have had cause of late to reflect that slavery might not have been the worst that could happen to a person simply because slaves were worth money. I’ve been reading Jack London’s book (which was sent to me by another British friend,), “People of the Abyss,” which is about the lives of the impoverished in London around 1900. This same friend sent me an equally distressing book about the lives of the working class of Manchester in the mid and late 1800s. While these people weren’t beaten, raped, or separated from the families—as were slaves—they did die from the effects of extreme poverty.

“I wonder how many aunts, uncles, cousins I might have had?”

Doing genealogy, I’m having to ask myself how far I want to go in populating the family tree. I decided to leave off cousins because everyone in my family seems to have had ten children, so, like you, I would have so many cousins that it boggles the imagination. I took two genealogy classes, and my teacher told of having 10,000 people in her family tree. I think of genealogy as like putting together a never-ending puzzle.

“My direct ancestors seem to have fought for the North.”

I think of fighting for the South the same way I think of Southerners voting for Trump in that they are both instances in which the common people of the South acted against their own interests in order to support the interests of the wealthy. I can at least understand why a rich person might want to own slaves, but why in the hell would a poor man fight to defend those slaves—or vote for an amoral billionaire?

“I haven't felt the need to find out about any of my ancestors although my husband is obsessed with it.”

I didn’t foresee becoming “obsessed,” but the word would certainly seem to apply. Peggy, like your husband, isn’t interested, although I very much wish she were. Maybe I mentioned that her grandparents were listed as being black in a census, although all of their children were described as white (I knew her grandparents, and they were very much white).

“Sometimes it's best not to know about your ancestors.”

I regard learning about them as a way to honor them, and I can’t imagine there being anything that I wouldn’t want to know, although if one of them should turn out to have been thoroughly evil, I would find it distressing. As for my Grandma Black’s sad death, it just made me feel close to her because I can imagine the same thing happening to myself. I so wish I could have known her. I can give no good reason for it that doesn’t suggest prejudice against men, but I’m more interested in my women ancestors than in the men because I imagine that they would have been more accepting of me and more capable of meeting at a heart level. I suppose the feeling came to me because of the closeness I felt toward my father’s mother. I like to think that all of those women who were my direct ancestors would have felt for me the way she did. In other words, they would have been the most loving mothers imaginable.

“It's just that the events noted down are usually those that shocked people, rather than made them happy.”

Tragedies are simply more compelling, and after them, perhaps, come acts of nobility and evil, rather than things that make one happy.

joared said...

Those are fascinating stories. I've enjoyed learning my genealogy another blogger researched back to 1300's for me and put together in a lovely book, including some pictures new to me along with a few of my own I provided. Some of them came to this continent long before our nation established, then select few fought in the revolution. Family stories also had a couple brothers fighting against family for the Queen, then leaving for Canada when the war for them was lost. Family were all damn Yankees in the Civil War though, surprisingly to me, records found of one having a colorful slave. Probably shouldn't be surprised as even some leaders of our new country had slaves.

Joe Pereira said...

Hi Snow, it's good to be back for a catch-up on the blogs I followed. I'm glad to know you're still posting :)

Snowbrush said...

“I've enjoyed learning my genealogy another blogger researched back to 1300's for me and put together in a lovely book.”

I have no idea how people do that, my very limited experience being that the further back I go, the less evidence there is. I rely heavily upon censuses, but prior to 1850, censuses were basically a head count with very little information given (only the head of the house was even named). Likewise with marriage records, death records, and so forth. I have observed that most amateur genealogists have an appallingly low standard of proof, but that the further back such people go, the more the likelihood that they care enough to want to do it right. I have also found that, the further back I go, the less interested I become, partly because of the lack of sources, and partly because the people I’m studying just come to seem like names and dates.

“I'm glad to know you're still posting :)”

Good to see you again, Joe. I’m not posting so frequently, largely because of this genealogical research. It’s new to me, and I’m like a kid with a toy.

rhymeswithplague said...

Hi, Snow. The most interesting thing I have learned about my ancestors is that my maternal grandmother's father, Solomon Aarons, came to the U.S. from England as a young boy and was a teenaged drummer boy in a Pennsylvania brigade during the Civil War. My dad's mother liked to say she "was descended from the Hydes of Scotland" but my dad's dad would remind her that a relative also had been hanged for horse rustling. Don't know if the story is true, but my dad would smile every time he told it. This is the grandmother who makes me an eighth cousin of Grover Cleveland, three times removed. Fascinating stuff. My wife isn't the least bit interested.

Myrna R. said...

I thought of you and realized I hadn't read your blog in a long time. I hope you are well, at least better. I find your ancestry very interesting. I know so little of mine.

Snowbrush said...

“my maternal grandmother's father, Solomon Aarons, came to the U.S. from England as a young boy and was a teenaged drummer boy in a Pennsylvania brigade during the Civil War.”

I’m sorry to hear this, and can but hope that he wasn’t too badly scarred. I learned during our weekends phone to Peggy’s father that one of Peggy’s uncles committed suicide in 1962 at age fifty because he could no longer endure his war memories. Even today, veterans have an extremely high suicide rate, which makes me damn glad that I’ve never been to war. Life is hard enough without that, as I’m sure you’ll agree. If I had a kid who wanted to go into the military, I would plead with him or her to join the Coast Guard as being the least hazardous service after the Navy and Air Force.

“I find your ancestry very interesting. I know so little of mine.”

If you’re ever interested, I would recommend as a very user friendly site with tons of information. The only bad thing I can say about it is that I see person after person after person getting information from other people’s trees without verifying that those people had good reason to put that information in their trees. This practice is so common that I hardly even look at other people’s trees anymore.