Documenting my family's past for future generations. My family tree includes the Smith/Mansell families of Alabama and Oklahoma, the Castle/Day families of Kentucky and Oklahoma, the Wheat/Ming families of Texas and Oklahoma, and the Bell/Roberts families of Mississippi, Tennessee, and Oklahoma.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Ode to Poetry

April is Poetry Month, and I can't let the month go by without writing about how important poetry has been in my life and how it still brings back memories of my family.

As I mentioned in my post, "Grandparent #2: Frances (Fannie) Lou Castle," my grandmother could recite long narrative poems that she learned in the 4th grade. When I think of them, they bring back memories of childhood Christmases and birthdays, occasions when we begged her to recite them. I have searched in vain on the Internet and in old poetry books for copies of these poems. I guess the point is that, while I don't remember them in their entirety, some verses are there in my mind and come back to me clearly, even today.

So do more familiar poems, the kind by famous authors that you find in poetry anthologies. She was always reciting some small snatch of a favorite poem and certain situations still bring them to my mind. The weather or season often elicited from her some little part of a poem; on a beautiful autumn day she would talk about "October's bright blue weather." The whole first stanza of the poem by Helen Hunt Jackson says:

          O suns and skies and clouds of June,
          And flowers of June together.
          Ye cannot rival for one hour
          October's bright blue weather.

I always liked that one because October was my birthday month.

The sight of a bird in winter brought this nursery rhyme. 

          The north wind doth blow,
          And we shall have snow,
          And what will poor robin do then?
          He'll sit in a barn,
          And keep himself warm,
          And hide his head under his wing,
          Poor thing.

Stubbornness on my part might cause her to recite:

          There was a little girl
          And she had a little curl
          Right down in the middle of her forehead.

          When she was good
          She was very very good 
          And when she was bad she was horrid.

Out driving on a winter day, as we often did, might bring these first lines of "Snow-Bound" by John Greenleaf Whittier:

          The sun that brief December day
          Rose cheerless over hills of gray,
          And, darkly circled, gave at noon
          A sadder light than waning moon.

Haven't you seen winter days just like that?

My dad was my grandmother's pupil at Pleasant Porter Elementary School in 6th grade. He especially remembered two exciting narrative poems that they studied while in her room: "Sohrab and Rustum" by Matthew Arnold and "Horatio at the Bridge" by Thomas Babington, Lord Macaulay. Carrying on this warlike theme, I remember choosing "The Charge of the Light Brigade" by Alfred, Lord Tennyson as my poem to recite in front of the class in 8th grade. (I was in love with the 1930s/1940s actor, Errol Flynn, and had seen his movie of the same name.) I still remember most of the poem, including the refrain

          Cannons to right of them
          Cannons to left of them
          Cannons in front of them
          Volleyed and thundered.

I can't believe I stood up in front of my 8th grade class and recited:

          Into the mouth of Hell
          Rode the six hundred.

The other poem I remember from school was one we were required to recite in 9th grade. I hated it--probably because, at age 14, I didn't really understand it. I still remember lines from it, though. It was "Invictus" by William Ernest Henley.

          Out of the night that covers me
          Black as the pit from pole to pole
          I thank whatever gods may be
          For my unconquerable soul.

Nothing I had endured up until 9th grade--even reciting this poem in class--had led me to think my soul was in danger of being conquered.

My mother also loved poetry and made her own book of her Favorite Poems when she was in 6th grade.

It's nice to know that she also loved Emily Dickinson.

In his later life my dad identified with a poem by John Burroughs called "Waiting." After a couple of truly tragic things that happened to my dad in his life, it gives me peace to know he could face his future as fate tempered with hope. Here is the first stanza of "Waiting."

          Serene, I fold my hands and wait,
          Nor care for wind, nor tide, nor sea;
          I rave no more 'gainst time or fate
          For lo! my own shall come to me.

In my grandmother's later life, when she had lost so many siblings and friends to death, she often recited "The Last Leaf" by Oliver Wendell Holmes. I can only remember the final stanza:

          And if I should live to be
          The last leaf on the tree
                    In the spring;
          Let them smile, as I do now
          At the old forsaken bough
                    Where I cling.

But the poem of my grandmother's that I remembered when she died in 1992 at age 95 was "The Chambered Nautilus," also by Oliver Wendell Holmes. With some difficulty and tears, I read it at her funeral service.

          Build thee more stately mansions, O my soul,
          As the swift seasons roll!
          Leave thy low-vaulted past!
          Let each new temple, nobler than the last,
          Shut thee from heaven with a dome more vast,
          Till thou at length art free,
          Leaving thine outgrown shell by life's unresting sea!

Saturday, April 19, 2014

What's in a Name?

A friend of mine recently got her DNA results from and was showing me her Ethnicity Estimate. I remembered that Ancestry had come out with a whole new version of ethnicity results last fall, and I had never really looked at mine since the new version appeared on their website. So I did.

On a previous post, "Where in the World Am I From?" I reported the results from my first ethnicity profile on Ancestry. I was 44% Central European, 33% British Isles, 21% Scandinavian, and 2% Uncertain. I knew that Ancestry got a lot of flak from experts in the field of DNA genealogy for the high proportion of Scandinavian ancestry in a large number of people who wouldn't be expected to have it. I wasn't especially skeptical of my Scandinavian numbers, because first of all, it's cool to be a Viking, and second, I figured my Irish and Scots forefathers probably did have some Scandinavian ancestry.

Well, now they don't. My new Ethnicity Estimate is 79% Great Britain, 15% Ireland, and 6% Trace Regions. These include 3% Europe East, 1% Europe West, 1% Italy/Greece, <1% Scandinavian, and <1% Iberian Peninsula. I've gone from 21% Scandinavian to less than 1%. However, I'm not really surprised at my overwhelmingly English/Scots/Irish roots, as I would be hard-pressed to find a surname in my tree that can't be traced to those regions.

I thought it might be fun to do a little survey of the surnames in my tree--where they come from and what they mean. Since none of my ancestors are recent immigrants and I haven't been able to trace very many of them conclusively to their mother country, surnames are the only evidence I have for country of origin. Let's see if my surname origins match up with the origins that estimated from my DNA.

FYI: Surnames did not come about until the Middle Ages, when populations grew large enough that individuals with the same given names had to be differentiated from each other. There are four major ways in which surnames were given: based on the father's name (for example, Johnson, "son of John"); based on the occupation of the individual (John the Baker, John the Carpenter, etc.); based on a place (John Hill, John Meadows, John London); or based on a characteristic (John Little, John Brown.)

On my dad's dad's side, I have Smith, Williams, Simmons, and Soles. Just for fun, let's throw in Banks and Perkins, the surnames belonging to my brother's y-DNA matches. We know they are related to us--we just don't know how. I'm using's surname information, which can be found at

SMITH--English: occupational name for a worker in metal
WILLIAMS--English (also very common in Wales): son of William
SIMMONS--English (southern): son of Simon, or Anglo-Norman: son of Simund
SOLES--Old English; from sol, a muddy place, or possibly from Middle English (Latin solus), "single" or "unmarried", or if spelled
SOULE or SOULES--uncertain origin; perhaps derived from "soul" as a term of affection
BANKS--English or Scottish: name for someone who lived on the slope of a hill or by a riverbank
PERKINS--English (also mid and south Wales): son of Perkin

On my dad's mom's side, surnames include Castle, Sargent, Bays, Day, Lewis, Reed, Horton, Kendrick, Lea, Oney, McGrady, Cock, Patrick, and Henson.

CASTLE--English: someone who lived or worked at the castle (However, if the original spelling was Kassell or Cassell, as many Castle genealogists have speculated, my Jacob "the Longhunter" would have had a German, not English, origin.)
SARGENT--English and French: originally, an occupational name for a servant
BAYS--English: son of Bay
DAY--English: a pet form of David or other personal name; or, from a root word meaning "to knead" (related to dough), name for a dairy maid or servant of either sex
LEWIS--English (but most common in Wales): from the Norman personal name Ludovicus, or from the Welsh Llywelyn, or from the Irish/Scots Lughaidh
REED--English: nickname for a person with red hair or a ruddy complexion
HORTON--English: from one of many places in England with this name; from Old English horh "dirt" + tun "enclosure" or "settlement"
KENDRICK--Welsh, Scottish, or English: from the Welsh personal name Cynrig; shortened version of the Scots MacKendrick; or from the English Cyneric, meaning "royal power"
LEA--English: someone who lived near a meadow
ONEY--English: probably originally Olney, from two different places in England. One meant "Olla's island"; one was originally Onley, "single" + "clearing"
MCGRADY--Irish: son of Bradach, "proud"
COCK--English: "male bird or fowl," originally someone who struts like a rooster, then became generalized to "youth" and incorporated in names such as Alcock and Hancock
PATRICK--Scottish and Irish: son of Padraig, originally Latin Patricius, "son of a noble father"; popularized, of course, by St. Patrick, patron saint of Ireland
HENSON--English: son of Henne (short for Henry), Hayne, or Hendy

On my mom's dad's side, I have Wheat, Farris, Stephenson, Whitley, Ming, Beasley, Fullen, Bordley, and Logan.

WHEAT--English: grower or seller of wheat, from hwit, meaning "white" because of its use in making white flour
FARRIS--Scottish: son of Fergus; in southeast England, possibly variant of Farrar, "worker in iron," "shoer of  horses" 
STEPHENSON--English and Scottish: son of Stephen; sometimes shortened to Stinson. My Stephensons are supposed to be Scottish.
WHITLEY--English: place name, from hwit "white" + leah "wood"
MING--English: of uncertain origin; perhaps from shortened version of personal name, Dominick
BEASLEY--English: from a place in Lancashire; perhaps beos, meaning "bent grass" + leah, meaning "woodland clearing"
FULLEN--English: same origin as Fuller, an occupational name for a person who helped make cloth by wetting and walking on it
BORDLEY--English: place name, originally bord, "board" + leah, "woodland clearing"
LOGAN--Scottish or northern Irish: from a place name, originally lagan, "hollow"

And finally, from my mom's mom's side of the family: Bell, Roberts, Powell, Fowler, Crudup, Cooper, Battle, Dixon, and Huff. DNA evidence also points to Pharris, Broyles, and Wilhoit.

BELL--Scottish or northern English: bell maker, or someone who lived near the bell
ROBERTS--English: son of Robert. Very frequent in Wales and west central England.
POWELL--English (of Welsh origin): Anglicized form of Welsh ap Hywel, "son of Hywel," a personal name meaning "eminent"
FOWLER--English: occupational name for a bird-catcher (a common medieval occupation)
CRUDUP--Probably an Americanized version of North German Gratop, a nickname for an old man. From German gra (gray) + top (braid)
COOPER--English: occupational name for a maker and repairer of wooden barrels
BATTLE--English and Scottish (of Norman origin): habitational name from the place of a battle
DIXON--Northern English: son of Dick
HUFF--English: habitational name, meaning "spur of a hill." German: from the personal name Hufo. My Huffs were Dutch, so probably the German meaning.
PHARRIS--Irish variant of Farris. I'm still not completely certain that my Farris and Pharris ancestors weren't originally the same family.
BROYLES--American form of German Breuhl (one of my Germanna families)
WILHOIT and various spellings--German: from Willeit, wil "small settlement" + leite "slope" (another Germanna family)

Kindof fascinating, isn't it? Certainly bears out the ethnicity estimate of almost 95% Great Britain and Ireland. It's also fun to see what characteristics distinguished a person or place back then and to compare medieval occupations to those we have today. Can you imagine having a job that required you to walk on wet cloth or catch birds?

Try this little exercise with your own list of surnames. What does it tell you about the origins and occupations of your ancestors?

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Sugar Camps, Stills, and Saltpeter Caves

If you have researched Jackson County, Tennessee, you have probably heard the name of Betty Huff Bryant. I knew she had written a couple of books about Jackson County, but I had never seen them and didn't know if I could find them. I recently discovered that they were available from a genealogical book store and finally broke down and bought them. Thank goodness for her and the people that she calls Specific Historians--the volunteer researchers that "want to know how things really were and who was really there." (From Building Neighborhoods, 1992.)

The two books that she wrote make it possible for those of us unable to travel (for the moment) to Jackson County or to the Tennessee State Library and Archives (TSLA) in Nashville to have access to court cases and land records of the 1800's. In addition, she has done the hard work for us--deciphering the handwritten entries and abstracting the important details.

One book, titled Jackson County, Tennessee Chancery Court Minutes 1840-1861, contains abstracts of the minutes of the Chancery Court. According to the website of the Tennessee State Courts at, “Chancery Courts are courts of equity that are based on the English system in which the chancellor acted as the ‘King’s conscience.’ A chancellor, the judge who presides over chancery courts, may modify the application of strict legal rules and adapt relief to the circumstances of individual cases. Chancery Courts handle a variety of issues including lawsuits, contract disputes, application for injunctions and name changes. A number of matters, such as divorces, adoptions, and workers’ compensation, can be heard in either chancery or circuit court.”

You can see why details from these court cases could be very helpful to a genealogist. In addition, her notes on various cases are instructive, and her explanation of the various men of Jackson County named James Pharis might have actually, finally, straightened them out in my mind.

The other book, the one I want to talk about in this post, is Building Neighborhoods, in which she abstracts early land records (prior to 1820) of Jackson County. In her introduction she tells readers that she did this research in "an attempt to discover exactly who were the earliest settlers on Martin's Creek." One of the few things I know about my Elzina Huff is that she said in her 1874 divorce complaint that she had lived her entire life on Martin's Creek. Luckily for me, the very records researched by this Specific Historian are the ones I am specifically interested in. If you want to know "how things really were," there are certainly clues in these land records.

Each entry in Building Neighborhoods describes the piece of property involved in a land transaction. Prior to the Revolutionary War, the metes and bounds system was used to describe the boundaries of lands being surveyed. The thirteen original colonies and the state land states, such as Tennessee, used this method. Metes are measures, like poles (16.5 ft.), rods (26.5 ft.), and furlongs (664 ft.) and bounds are physical features that are used as boundary markers. (It reminds me a little bit of the softball games we used to play when I was a kid. “First base is that tree over there, second base is the swing set, third base is the lawn chair, and home base is this rock.”)

That example is not as ridiculous as it sounds. Listen to this description of a piece of land registered by Samuel Huff in 1812: “100 acs Beg on a black oak about 20 poles SW of a spring on waters of Brimstone Cr on N side of Cumberland…” I’m really surprised that the Chancery Court minutes are not full of people suing each other over the boundaries of their properties.

What I found interesting were the references to features that are quintessentially 19th century. Several entries described land that was valuable because it contained a spring, a turnip patch, a cleared field, or a “mill seat,” a location suitable for a mill. Many, many entries included a reference to a “sugar orchard,” or more usually, a “sugar camp.” For example, the book includes this abstract, interesting to Huff researchers: “Enoch Carter…8 acs…dry fork of Martin’s Cr…to include William Huff’s old sugar camp.” Mrs. Bryant doesn’t give a definition of “sugar camp,” although a Google search turned up lots of definitions of “sugar camp”: places in or near orchards of sugar maples where sap is collected to make maple syrup.

The trouble is, that's not the definition I had heard from one of my Huff cousins; she said "sugar camp" was a nice 19th century eumphemism for "still." This definition seems more likely when you read another land description in Building Neighborhoods: “Beg at a sugar tree running east then south…so as to incl William Huff’s Sugar Camp in the dark Cave.” Okay. You surely wouldn’t have an orchard of sugar maples in a dark cave, but you might have a still. (And to give William Huff the benefit of the doubt, the cave could also contain the equipment needed to turn the sugar maple sap into syrup.)

Now maybe there’s some other information that I don’t have that would make this all clear. However, as it often happens, I recently heard a radio story on NPR about a legal battle over the definition of “Tennessee whiskey” that I think might explain why a sugar maple orchard could also be the site of a still. Tennessee whiskey, according to the Jack Daniels distillery which markets 90% of the stuff, is made mostly from corn, filtered through maple charcoal, and aged in oak casks; hence, the location of a still near a sugar orchard would be a definite advantage.

Lynchburg, Tennessee

Jack Daniels Distillery
Lynchburg, Tennessee

I visited the Jack Daniels distillery in Lynchburg on a trip to Tennessee a few years ago. It was a last-minute detour from our itinerary, but it was really interesting, and I was glad that we went. Jack Daniels definitely promotes the idea that their whiskey is Tennessee born and bred. The beef that some other distilleries have with JD’s definition of Tennessee whiskey is that it is JD’s recipe, and there are other ways to make Tennessee whiskey that are just as authentic. The artisanal whiskey makers of Tennessee apparently pride themselves on the spirit of the moonshiners that lives on in their products.

Jack Daniels

Another important feature in many of the land descriptions also required a Google search. “Cave fork of Knob Cr of Cumberland R…the north side of said fk…mouth of salt petre cave formerly worked by…Anderson who erected furnaces several years past at sd cave…”
“On a fork of Knob Cr of Cumberland…to incl Huff’s and Givin’s old salt petre cave.”
“One ac…Brimstone Cr…to include a salt petre cave out of which a hole goes out at the top of the mountain.”

What was a saltpeter cave?

Saltpeter is potassium nitrate and can be extracted from the soil of limestone caves, like those found in Kentucky and Tennessee. It is an essential ingredient in the manufacture of gunpowder. Saltpeter mined in east Tennessee was used to make gunpowder for the Revolutionary War; by the time of the land transactions in Building Neighborhoods, saltpeter from Jackson County was being turned into gunpowder to fight the War of 1812. An apocryphal story has gunpowder processed from Jackson County saltpeter making it to Andrew Jackson’s troops at the Battle of New Orleans.

In 2014 you can buy maple syrup in a bottle at the grocery store, order a Jack & Coke at your neighborhood bar, and pick up some ammunition at the closest Walmart, so it’s hard to imagine making any of this stuff from scratch. This is the beauty of a book like Building Neighborhoods; it gives you a clearer picture of who your ancestors really were, what they thought was important, and what kinds of tasks took up their days.

I've learned more than I ever thought I would from Betty Huff Bryant. I hope you are lucky enough to have a Specific Historian for your neck of the woods!