Saturday, December 6, 2014

Finding Clues in Land Records

When and where did my 4th great-grandfather Burr Zelah Dornon die? The investigation continues. Recently, through the Ancestry.com online community, I was able to connect with a distant Dornon cousin who's also interested in this question.

In October, she was able to visit a Lawrence County, Ohio library and locate a small collection of land records that shed more light on Burr's dealings in his final years.

Do these land records provide subtle clues about Burr's death?


Bookend Records
Readers of this blog are familiar with the ongoing research into Burr's death (see Running From the Rebels and Stone Broke). The historical documents we've located to-date have enabled us to narrow his passing to a six-year window.

Burr and his family are living in Jackson County, Virginia (soon to be West Virginia) on July 7, 1860 when the U.S. Federal Census is enumerated.

B.Z. Dornon Family enumerated in Jackson County, VA 1860

According to his son Andrew, we know that the Dornon family fled Jackson County in 1862 when the Confederates briefly took control of the county. The family fled west to Ohio where they had previously lived.

The marriage of Burr's daughter Anna helps us to bookend his life. Anna Dornon and Albert Benedick (my 3rd great-grandparents) obtain a marriage license in Lawrence County, Ohio on October 20, 1866. 

The marriage record indicates that they demonstrated, "consent of the mothers of the above named parties and that their fathers are dead." Burr Zelah Dornon is alive July 7, 1860, but has passed away by October 20, 1866.

Anna Dornon & Albert Benedick - Ohio Marriage License October 20, 1866

Land Records
My Dornon cousin was able to locate two records where Burr purchases land in Lawrence County, Ohio in July and August 1856.

First, on July 29, 1856, he pays $300 for two tracts of land - one consisting of 40 acres and the other 60 acres. The land is being sold to settle the debts of the recently deceased John McComas.


July 29, 1856 $300 Land Purchase by Burr Z. Dornon

I was able to locate journal entries from the Lawrence County probate court overseeing the settlement of Mr. McComas' estate. On July 29, 1856, the probate judge approved the sale of  some of Mr. McComas' property and "ordered that said petitioner [James White who is the appointed administrator of John McComas' estate] execute and deliver to the purchaser [Burr Z. Dornon] a deed in fee simple for the real estate..."

John McComas probate record, FamilySearch pg. 272

The next month, on August 18, 1856, Nathaniel and Matilda Burcham sell 40 acres to Burr Dornon for $75, "paid by means of John McComas deceased." I'm not exactly sure what this wording regarding payment means.

Burchams sell land to Burr Dornon for $75

These are the only land records found that mention Burr by name. The next set of land records are dated June 3, 1863. On this date, Burr's eldest son Albert pays $120 for land belonging to two of his siblings: Mary Susan and Joseph. Curiously, the land's description matches the land descriptions that Burr purchased in 1856.

Did Burr die and bequeath this land to his children? And why are both of them selling land on the same day to the eldest son? Is Albert the appointed administrator of his father's estate?

Albert Dornon pays $60 to sister Mary Susan for land

Albert Dornon pays $60 to brother Joseph for land

On July 30, 1873, over a year after the death of Burr's wife Sophronia, their son Lorenzo pays $200 for 100 acres of land belonging to Burr's heirs: Abigail, Lucinda, Andrew and Anna. These are the remainder of Burr's children. Again, the land description matches the land bought by Burr in 1856. It seems they are all parting with their inheritance.

Lorenzo Dornon buys land from Burr's Heirs
The critical document that remains missing is a probate record for Burr Dornon. Can we infer that he died before June 1863 when two of his children are selling their stake in land that he purchased in July 1856? I speculate yes.

If a probate record doesn't exist, what other documentation could help answer this question? Perhaps tax records? For each year I find him paying taxes we know he's still alive, and when those payments stop we can assume he passed in that year, right?

The questions persist and the search for answers continues.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Why I'm Attending FGS + RootsTech 2015

I'm excited to be attending the genealogical conference event of 2015.

If you haven't heard (where have you been?!), the Federation of Genealogical Societies (FGS) and RootsTech are joining forces to host a joint conference in Salt Lake City, February 11-14, 2015. This is big, folks. Huge!

Why am I going? Three key reasons:
  1. Professional Development: As a newbie to the field of genealogy, I'm keen on growing my nascent genealogy skills. This first of its kind joint event will play host to a slew of skills-building sessions facilitated by the field's rock star experts. Don't take my word for it. See for yourself! Check out the schedule of sessions for FGS and RootsTech.

  2. Networking: I'm eager to connect with attendees who share my passion for family history. Likely to be among the largest-attended genealogy conferences, I look forward to the opportunity to meet and learn from folks from across the country...heck, the world! Who knows, perhaps I'll meet a few distant cousins with similar research interests who want to tear down brick walls.

  3. Genealogy's Capital City: Salt.Lake.City. Need I say more? The conference is hosted in family history's capital city. I'm on a pilgrimage to the land of all things genealogy, and hope to log an hour or two (I joke, more like a day or two) in the Family History Library.
Those are my reasons, and I think they might be compelling for a few of you, too. If they are, register for the conference online. I hope to meet you there!

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Sadness in Those Homes

On this Veterans Day, I recall and honor the service that many of my ancestors gave to their country.

It's also a time to remember those service member's families who sacrificed when their loved ones were overseas.

I recently came across a poignant note from my own family. A cousin - who I met through Ancestry.com, shared with me a June 1918 letter to the editor that my 3rd great-grandmother Amanda Miller (Johnston) Hawks wrote to the "Journal-Advance" about the impact of World War I on the home front. An excerpt from her letter succinctly illustrates the war's toll.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Tweet & Tell: Oral History Surfaces

Did you know Family Sleuther is on Twitter? Social media has been a tremendous asset in my genealogy research. Twitter is particularly helpful because it can serve as an educational clearinghouse providing loads of information and resources focused on family history. Sometimes, though, you really hit the jackpot.

Trawling through a slew of Tweets the other night, I landed on one posted by Ancestry.com that caught my eye. They had just updated their Oklahoma records to include oral histories about early Indian and Pioneer life in the state.


Having just wrapped up a family history road trip through Oklahoma, I thought it was worth plugging my Oklahoma family surnames into the database to see what would pop up. To my great surprise, a June 1937 oral history interview with my great-grandfather James Thomas Upton surfaced.

I know very little about him outside of what census records tell me in black and white. When asked to describe his father, my grandfather shrugged and succinctly surmised that James was just "some old man."

According to this oral history, James says he was born in Aurora, Arkansas. I knew he was born in Arkansas, but the city is new information. Furthermore, he sheds new light on the path his parents took to Oklahoma. James says his family came "by covered wagon to Webbers Falls, Indian Territory in 1877" and "that his parents farmed there one year." He continues by tracing the family's move to Kansas and back to Indian Territory.

James says that, "In 1880, they moved with horse teams and covered wagons back to the Indian Territory and settled in the Creek Nation some four miles north of Muskogee."

Aside from family movements, I learned more about James' life in Indian Territory. The interviewer surmised that, "Mr. Upton knows a great deal of old pioneer days pertaining to...the life and customs of the whites and Indians of the Five Civilized Tribes."

According to the interviewer, James Upton was an "agent" who was tasked with overseeing assimilation of members of the Osage and Blackfoot tribes into western society. While James shares a nuanced description of their cultural dress and burial practices, the interview paints a picture of a man not entirely sensitive to tribal culture. He describes one tribe as "savage, lazy and shiftless." It's quite clear James expects them to cease their nomadic lifestyle and settle into lives aligned with early pioneer settlers.

The oral history covers seven pages. Early in the text, the interviewer notes that James' experiences and recollections are similar to others already presented in the historical compilation. As a result, James' every detail would not be recalled for the reader. That's my loss, and I'm left particularly curious about the interviewer's final comments.

James "is a real pioneer and has suffered many adversities but is a true, loyal Oklahoman." What adversities does he allude to? I know James' first wife passed away, but is there something more? After highlighting that some of his children received an education, the interviewer concludes, "Mr. Upton himself is uneducated having only attended a three-month subscription school which cost his parents $1.50 for the three months."

This is genealogy gold. These are the details that make the fabric of a life, and put flesh on the bones. For better or worse, I have a clearer understanding of who my great-grandfather was and about his place in history. All of this, I owe to a Tweet.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Family History on the Road - Day Five & Homeward Bound

After an evening in Muskogee catching up with family, we woke early on day five and headed to Greenhill Cemetery.

My maternal grandfather is buried on the grounds, along with his parents and paternal grandparents. These older Upton family graves are below a cluster of evergreen trees, casting shadows on the monuments below.


This was my first visit to the cemetery since my grandfather passed away in 1993. Although they had divorced in 1959, it felt important and appropriate that we visited his grave on the same trip we buried my grandmother. It felt as though there was a certain element of closure.

From Muskogee, we drove to Tulsa to spend the evening with my grandfather's youngest sister. She generously hosted us in her home, and, to my great delight, pulled out family photos that had been in the collection of my great-grandmother Mary Pauline (Wagnon) Upton. Fortunately, I was prepared for such a situation. Like any genealogist worth his salt, I had brought my scanner along and was able to make digital copies of dozens of images.

Many of the pictures were old black and white cabinet cards. Some were labeled and featured my 2nd great-grandmother Annie Charles (Winkler) Wagnon. Sadly, many of the pictures, including a small handful of tintypes, were not labeled. I've added these photos to the collection of Unknowns with the hope that someone will chance upon a picture and be able to help identify the subject.

Among the old family photographs, was a small bible that belonged to Annie Wagnon. It was a copy of the New Testament, small enough to fit in the palm of my hand and bound in faded red fabric. The bible was wrapped in an old hankie that belonged to Annie. Inside, on several blank pages, she had inscribed the birth dates for her children, herself and her husband Wilburn Wagnon.


The following morning, it was back to Kansas and then on to Colorado. In total, we traveled nearly 2,200 miles, ventured into five states, and paid our respects at the graves of 36 direct ancestors. Throughout the journey, we celebrated the life of my maternal grandmother. She revered her family, and she instilled that love and respect in me. In a way, this blog is a direct result of her passion.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Family History on the Road - Day Four

Yesterday's rainstorms subsided and gave way to a beautiful morning. We were ambitious for day four of our family history journey with lots of ground to cover on the agenda.

Our first stop was Hester Cemetery near Baldwin, Arkansas on the outskirts of Fayetteville. There's a small sign alongside a two-lane county highway pointing down a gravel road. Keep your eyes peeled, or you'll miss it!

Wheel ruts have been carved deep into the dirt path. The tires of my rental car sank into these canyons while the molded lump of earth between the ruts dragged along the underneath of the car's frame. I worried that we would tear loose the vehicle's undercarriage. (Take note, family history road warriors, rent an SUV!) After a short distance, the road opened up into a small grassy parking lot in front of a gated cemetery that's well maintained.

Hester cemetery is where my 2nd great-grandparents Wilburn Malley and Annie Charles (Winkler) Wagnon are buried. The Wagnons were dealt a traumatic blow when they lost their 15-year-old son Wayne in 1937. According to a newspaper account, Wayne was run over by a "loaded truck" at his parents' home when he tried to board it. "He lost his footing and fell under the machine, which was loaded with rock, with a wheel passing over his body."

A homemade stone marker sits on his grave with his name scrawled into the monument's skyward-facing surface. Later in the road trip, an aunt shared with me a haunting photo of Annie visiting the grave of her son, laying flowers at the base of his headstone. Clearly, the heartache and loss was something she carried with her the rest of her life.

Today, the stone's inscription is difficult to read. On either side of Wayne's grave are two small square-sized numeric markers embedded in the grass. To the left of Wayne is a stone marked 47 and to the right is one marked 49. These are the graves of Annie and Wilburn. Unfortunately, I don't currently know who is buried in which plot.


Our next scheduled stop was Neal Cemetery in Madison County, Arkansas. It's an old cemetery with the last burial more than 70 years ago. My 4th great-grandmother Elizabeth (Powell) Reeves was buried here in 1884. She was the wife of Jeremiah Turner Reeves, the War of 1812 ancestor whose grave we visited on day three. For unknown reasons they were buried in different cemeteries.

Following directions from FindAGrave and ArkansasGraveStones.org, we searched for an unnamed dirt drive that turned off Highway 74. There were several. The GPS kept conking out as the cell signal was lost deep in the Arkansas hills. One of the drives was sealed with a gate. Another shot upward at an insurmountable incline for the rental car. A third drive led to a private residence with no cemetery in sight.

Back on Highway 74, I pulled off the pavement alongside a lush green pasture populated with a dozen calves. I stepped out of the car to see if I could catch a cell signal. The cows paused their grazing and cocked their heads left and then right, curiously eyeing me as I walked with my iPhone futilely trying to reactivate my GPS. Although we knew we were close, we were at a loss and our day didn't have time enough to accommodate continued search efforts. We decided that Great-Grandma Reeves would be the reason we would come back. And hopefully with better instructions!

We left the hills behind us, and pulled into Strain Cemetery - the final resting place for my 3rd great-grandparents John and Mary Jane (Calfee) Wagnon (parents of the above-mentioned Wilburn). When Mary Jane pre-deceased John in 1914, he erected for her a modest-sized monument. Although there's no inscription on the stone or separate marker for John, his 1923 death certificate confirms that he was also buried in Strain. I believe he's buried beside his wife.

Headstone for Mary Jane (Calfee) Wagnon

The journey continued to Baptist Ford Cemetery in Greenland, Arkansas where my 3rd great-grandparents John Wesley and Martha (Bowen) Upton are buried. During the Civil War, John Upton served with Union forces, and readers of this blog will recall that I recently learned from his pension file that he was inoculated with "poison vaccine."

Upton Burial
It was difficult to locate their marker because the inscription was very faint. We discovered that someone had taken an abrasive tool to the surface of the stone to remove the obstructing moss. In the course of their efforts, they inadvertently scraped away portions of the inscription. I'm sure they meant well, but it's disheartening to see irreparable damage to stonework that's over a century old.

I couldn't travel all of this way and not make the extra 60 miles south to Fort Smith National Historic Site. It was at Fort Smith that John W. Upton enlisted with the Union army on October 1, 1863 - more than 150 years ago. Although the soldiers' barracks from the Civil War era no longer exist, I wanted to set foot on the ground where John enlisted and where he received his tainted vaccination. It was a tremendous experience to wander an American historic site with an articulated link to my family's own history.

J.W. Upton's Enlistment and Fort Smith grounds

Closing the day, we drove across the Arkansas River into Oklahoma - our road trip's fifth state. We spent the evening in Muskogee reconnecting with family that we hadn't seen in 21 years.

Day Four Recap
Miles Traveled: 180
Direct Ancestor Graves Visited: 6

Monday, October 27, 2014

Family History on the Road - Day Three

From Joplin, Missouri we drove over an hour east to Crane Creek. Day three of our family history road adventure found the weather uncooperative. The drive had us navigating winding country back roads through intermittent rain showers. Our first destination was Mars Hill Cemetery.

Followers of this blog will recall that I recently broke through my Brickey Brick Wall, and was able to locate the burial for my 3rd great-grandmother Pauline (Brickey) Winkler Lee. It was gratifying to be able to pay my respects at her grave after having discovered her whereabouts less than a month earlier. She's buried in the Lee family plots near the front of the cemetery. Her stone was covered in pale green lichen. I gently wiped the lichen growth off the lettering to make the inscription legible.

Back in the car, we snaked our way south out of Missouri and into the top northwest corner of Arkansas. After another hour's drive, we pulled into Springtown Cemetery. The landscape was a vibrant green, paved with a lush carpet of clovers. If I didn't know better, I'd think I was in Ireland.

My 4th great-grandparents George Henry (Jucket) Hawks and his wife Amanda Miller (Johnston) Hawks are buried on the grounds. For me, this cemetery was like coming full-circle. The day before - in Rossville - we paid our respects at the grave of their son Edmond. 

George also represents a bit of an intriguing family mystery. 

Amanda Miller (Johnston) and George Henry (Jucket) Hawks

There's a question about the identity of his birth parents. Family lore says his father was a Jucket, but when his mother died young, he was entrusted with a maternal aunt to raise him. The story suggests the aunt gave George her surname of Hawks. I'm collaborating with distant cousins - each descendants of George's sons - to crowd-source an answer to this mystery and locate definitive proof to substantiate the stories.

Our final stop was Jackson Creek Cemetery. What an adventure to get here! We turned off a paved county road onto a dirt path. I was apprehensive about whether the rental could manage the ruggedness. The ride was bumpy, but the view was spectacular. Lush hills surrounded a green valley dotted with hay bales and curious cows.

Although it was only four miles, the dirt path made movement slow going. There were no other vehicles to be seen. Eventually, the car began climbing a hillside and a clearing in the dense trees opened to our left. A beautiful fenced-off cemetery was tucked alongside the road. We opened the gate and began searching the old weathered stones.

My 3rd great-grandparents John J. Herriman and Mary Ann "Polly" (Reeves) Herriman were buried beside each other. Their beautifully tall stones were recently decorated with silk flowers. It was moving to see that the secluded location of the cemetery didn't prevent folks from decorating the graves. I added my own.

Mary Ann "Polly" (Reeves) and John J. Herriman
Mary Ann's father was buried to the left of her grave. Jeremiah Turner Reeves was a veteran of the War of 1812. A small gold star commemorating his military service was placed in the ground in front of his stone.


I look forward to researching more about his War of 1812 service, and seeing what records - if any - exist for him in the National Archives.

Day Three Recap
Miles Traveled: 240
Direct Ancestor Graves Visited: 6