Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

An interesting question with a number of issues

In response to a recent blog post, I received the following question through a comment:
Can you recommend a place to seek advice on breaking through brickwalls of the more recent (19th century) variety? 
I have a "brickwall" for which I've gathered some interesting evidence, but the evidence suggests a possible unmarried, interracial relationship between a white female from a fairly well-off, well-known family and a seemingly poor black male in 1870's rural Georgia. Anything is possible, of course, but this seems unlikely considering the social conditions of the time. Also, the children are always described as white, never mulatto. There are a few other unexplained oddities, too. 
I'd like to get a clearer view out what happened in this family, but I don't know the best way to proceed. I've thought about hiring a professional...
Although the details are not set forth in the question, there are a number of responses possible. As the commentator notes, unlikely is not impossible. One suggestion, that is also very unlikely to happen, is to put together a DNA study of the descendants of the alleged relationship and see if genetic markers indicate a black racial heritage. This may or may not be possible given the availability and social attitude of the putative descendants.

You might note from my earlier comments that I acknowledged that out-of-wedlock situations can be an end-of-line issue as far as identifying the father and if the child was put up for adoption, raised as the legitimate child of the grandparents or others, or left as a foundling for foster care, there may be no clear path to solve the lack of information.

The commentator refers to some "other unexplained oddities." These additional facts may be the key to whether or not a solution is available for this "situation." This is the type of incident that needs to extend the research to both the immediate family and to the surrounding family members and neighbors.  Because of the time period involved and the possibility that the situation was the subject of comments by family members and acquaintances in letters or even newspaper articles, this type of information should be carefully sought.

The commentator does not identify the county in Georgia, but a quick look at the Library of Congress Newspaper Project shows 861 newspapers published in Georgia during the 1860 to 1880 time period. The researcher doesn't indicate whether or not any of these newspapers have been searched. I would think that the first level of research would concentrate on the child or children who supposedly came from the union and were "described as white." I would consult school, church and other records about the child or children to see if there is anything indicating a race issue. It is always helpful to look to alternate birth record sources also.

In this instance, I would carefully review all of the records available. See Georgia Vital Records in the FamilySearch Research Wiki for a start. I would also review United States Birth Records and United States, How to Use Birth Records for further suggestions about how to proceed. For some general instructions, also see United States, How to Find Genealogy Records. Another Research Wiki article that might help is How to Find Birth Information in the United States. This last link contains a long list of alternative sources for finding birth information all of which possibly apply to this situation.

If you do decide to use a professional researcher for assistance, I would suggest reviewing the FamilySearch Research Wiki article on Hiring a Professional Researcher.

The commentator did not indicate whether or not he lived in or near Georgia. The distance the researcher lives from the source area may also be an issue. The types of records likely to have information helpful for solving this situation are not likely to be on or

I am sure that more suggestions would occur to me if I spent some time looking at Georgia records, but what I have written above will give you some places to start.


  1. Thank you so much for your thoughtful response.

    You're right: I need to make a more thorough search of the local newspapers. I've done some searching, but a much more aggressive approach is in order.

    I hadn't really considered a DNA study, but it's an intriguing suggestion. Unfortunately, a y-DNA study won't be helpful/possible with the evidence I currently have. I'll read more about the basic science behind autosomal DNA tests and see if this might be a viable option.

    If you're curious about the details, here's a quick run-through:

    In 1898, Sallie Williams married Willie Thigpen in Laurens County, Georgia.

    When Sallie died in 1953, her son reported for her death certificate that her father was George Williams and mother unknown. Sallie's obituary describes her as "a lifelong resident of Laurens County" and reports that she's survived by a sister "Mrs. Julia Carter, of Soperton [Treutlen County]" and brother "Jordan Williams, of Florida."

    Sallie's sister Julia died in 1956. Her death certificate reports that her parents are George Williams and Lizzie Norris. Her obituary says she was "born and reared in Johnson County"--inconsistent with Sallie's supposed lifelong residency in Laurens County, although these counties are adjacent.

    The 1900 census shows that Julia and her husband Charlie Carter lived next door to Jordan Norris and his wife Julia in Lothair, Montgomery (now Treutlen) County.

    Intriguingly, Jordan and Julia had a daughter named Elizabeth, as shown in the 1860 and 1870 censuses. In 1870, Elizabeth was 14 years old, and just twelve houses away, there was a 19 year-old black male named George Williams living with his mother Sallie Williams.

    Notice that Sallie and her siblings Jordan and Julia share the same names as their (proposed) grandparents Sallie, Jordan, and Julia.

    As you can see, the evidence strongly suggests an interracial relationship between black male George Williams and white female Elizabeth/Lizzie Norris.

    Jordan Norris died in August 1915. His obituary, published in the Montgomery Monitor (of Montgomery County, GA), lists "Mrs. Charlie Carter" as a surviving daughter--not a granddaughter. This is one of the unexplained oddities I was referring to.

    I haven't found any estate records for Jordan or Julia Norris. I heavily searched Montgomery County's records and lightly searched the records of nearby counties.

    I haven't found an obituary for Julia (wife of Jordan), but as I said, I need to do a much more aggressive search of the newspapers.

    I've done some preliminary research on the other survivors mentioned in Jordan Norris' obituary. I haven't found anything particularly helpful so far.

    1. You might want to work through the dates with the changes in county boundaries shown in the Newberry Atlas of Historical County Boundaries