I come from Alabama….

….if not with a banjo on my knee, then at least with a new set of possible ancestors to research. When I arrived in Birmingham last Sunday for the Institute of Genealogy and Historic Research, we had one possible connection to Alabama. According…

….if not with a banjo on my knee, then at least with a new set of possible ancestors to research.   When I arrived in Birmingham last Sunday for the Institute of Genealogy and Historic Research, we had one possible connection to Alabama.  

According to the 1860 U.S. census for Hempstead County, Arkansas, Alabama was the birthplace of Jesse G. Williams, our 3rd great grandfather of Mom’s paternal line.(1)  (Family legend has it that Jesse was killed in 1864 in the Battle of Little Blue River in Missouri;  1860 is the last census in which he appears.)  As it turns out, that single piece of evidence directly conflicts with the prior census. The research is far from complete but, using a more formal (and scholarly!) narrative style to report, here’s why I think South Carolina is the more likely birthplace.

[Note:  I  made several big leaps on the Alabama front last week, during breaks from the Military Records class. More will be written about both, but, in the meantime, a big thank you to the staff of the Special Collection section of the Samford University Library, particularly Liz Wells and Mark “sorry-I-didn’t-get-your-last-name.”]  

 Where was Jesse G. Williams (ca. 1836-1864) born? (2)

Although the enumerator for the 1860 federal census in Spring Hill, Arkansas, recorded the birthplace of Jesse G. Williams as Alabama, other evidence suggests that Jesse was born in South Carolina, the son of Burgess D. Williams and his wife Rebecca.  To establish that relationship and the alternative place of birth, we will first review the 1860 census then examine newly gathered records.  

The 1860 Census

The entry for Jesse G. Williams and his family on the 1860 census is immediately preceded by another Williams household.  This table of extracted information displays the household number, gender, sex, and place of birth for individuals with the surname Williams (3):

Household

Name

Age

Sex

Place of Birth

788

Williams, James M.

27

m

S.C.

 

Williams, Sarah A. E.

27

f

Alabama

 

Williams, Syntha E. J.

8

f

Do

 

Williams, James A.

5

m

Do

 

Williams, Emily M. 

20

f

Do

789

Williams, Jessee G.

23

m

Do

 

Williams, Christian J.

23

f

Do

 

Williams, Ellison

3

m

Arkansas

 

Williams, Amanda

1

f

Do

Although family relationships were not explicitly recorded, the entries suggest two young families living side by side, with a younger, single sister of the two men residing with the oldest brother.  If the families arrived in Arkansas together, it would have been about 1856, between the births of cousins, James, age 5, and Ellison, age 3.  The occupation for both James and Jesse is listed as farmer.  Only James, however, reported ownership of real estate, property valued at $1,900. The physical proximity suggests that James and Jesse were working James’ acreage together.  

Marriage Records of the Couples 

James M. Williams and Sarah A.E. McDowell were married in Pike County, Alabama, on 29 December 1850. (4)  Consistent with that marriage date, their first child, Syntha (probably Cynthia), age eight in 1860, was born in the latter half of 1851 or the first six months of 1852. 

Jesse G. Williams and Christean Johnson were married in 13 May 1857 in Hempstead County, Arkansas. (5)  Ellison’s age of three may or may not be overstated.

The 1850 Census

In 1850, James, Jesse, and Emily Williams, were all members of a household in Pike County, Alabama, headed by B.D. Williams. (6) Their ages match up almost exactly with the ages reported in the later census.

Name

Age

Sex

Place of Birth

B.D. Williams

42

m

SC

Rebecca

43

f

Robert

20

m

James

18

m

John  

16

m

Jessee

14

m

Rebecca 

13

f

Ala

Emily

10

f

Elizabeth

8

f

Louisa

5

f

Amanda

2

f

Delilah Williams

13

f

NC

As in 1850, family relationships must be surmised.  It looks to be a father, mother, nine children, and a young relative. Given her placement in the list, Delilah Williams, listed with her full name, and a different birth location, might have been a niece.  [CORRECTION:  I have heard from another Williams researcher and descendant of Emily Williams that Delilah’s age is incorrectly stated in the census, and that she, in fact, was the mother of B.D., and grandmother to the children. That’s why you can’t rely on piece of evidence!]  The names, ages and birth locations of all the children were probably supplied by Rebecca, the apparent mother of the nine children. There could scarcely be a more reliable informant, particularly given the circumstances surrounding the expansion and migration of the family. Note that James named one of his daughters Emily and  Jesse named his oldest daughter, Amanda; both names connect to the previous generation. 

The Williams family appears to have relocated from South Carolina to Alabama in 1836 or 1837, after the birth of Jesse, and before the birth of Rebecca.  If so, they were part of a large contingent; 881 South Carolinians by birth are listed in the 1850 census for Pike County, compared to 532 born in Alabama. (7)

“Pike County was at this time a wilderness, abounding in game and fish, furnishing sport and food for the early settlers.  These settlers came from the Carolinas and Georgia and settled in neighborhoods principally of these who had been neighbors in the older states…They set out in wagons for the wilderness called Alabama. Roads were poor and travel slow.” (8)

The Probate Record for Burgess D. Williams

Burgess D. Williams, resident of Pike County, being in “feeble health”, wrote a will on 13 December 1851, directing his real estate to remain unsold until his youngest child came of age, at which time the property was to be divided, share and share alike among his heirs. (9) His wife was not mentioned; sons Robert H. Williams and James M. Williams and his “trusty friend” John M. Thompson were named as executors.  The will was presented on 9 February 1852. Probate documents list the following minor children, in the same order as the 1850 census, with the loss of Louisa, age five in 1850, and the addition of Alace at the end:

Jesse Williams
Rebecca Williams
Emily Williams
Elizabeth Williams
Amanda Williams
Alace Williams

One of the witnesses to the will was Alex McDowell, perhaps the father of Sarah A. E. McDowell, and father-in-law of James.  

Weighing the 1850 and 1860 Census Evidence

Clearly an error occurred in regards to Jesse’s birth place in either 1850 or 1860.  There are three possibilities:  

1. Incorrect information was provided by informant.
2. Information was incorrectly recorded by enumerator.
3. Information was copied incorrectly onto another form.

1. Incorrect information was provided by informant.

Although it is not possible to know with certainty the identities of census informants, it was probably not Jesse himself in either year.  In 1850, he was 13 years old, not likely to be designated as the family spokesperson.  The informant is more plausibly his mother, an eyewitness to, and major participant of, the event in question. 

Jesse was farming in 1860 and probably in the field when the enumerator arrived, not around the house.  Christian, his wife, is the more likely candidate, but whoever it was, he or she could not have had first-hand knowledge.  It would not be surprising if his wife was unsure how his birth fit into the family migration chronology. Jesse would have been, at most, one year old when he arrived in Alabama with his family. His younger siblings were all born in Alabama.  By 1860, he had been in Arkansas for at least four years.  

On the other hand, Christian is also listed in the census as having been born in Alabama.  Given that the couple married in Arkansas, it is more likely that she was born in that state. She wouldn’t have erred reporting her own place of birth.

2. Information incorrectly recorded by enumerator. 

In both cases, the birthplace was recorded as a “ditto” of the person listed above Jesse.  In 1850, the person was his apparent father and head of the household, whose place for birth was “S.C.”  The state of birth for his sister Rebecca, listed immediately below him, is entered as “Ala.” One can imagine their mother being very clear with the enumerator when to make the change from South Carolina to Alabama.

In 1860, the person for whom the place of birth was explicitly recorded was Jesse’s sister-in-law, Sarah A. E. Williams, a member of the previously enumerated household.  It’s possible that the information was gathered in one session with both Williams wives present, perhaps increasing the chance of confusion. 

3. Information was incorrectly copied from an earlier version

The handwriting in the 1860 census is more carefully and elaborately penned than in 1850 and is possibly a copied version rather than one prepared in the field.  If so, an error could have occurred in that transfer. Further research is necessary to determine if additional versions of the census sheet exist for either year.

Far from Finished

Other than census records (original sources that contain at least one error), the evidence gathered so far is from derivative sources and has only involved two states.  To more definitely assign a nativity state to Jesse G. Williams, research must be expanded into South Carolina and, at the same time, delve more directly into original sources.

[Note: I’d be surprised if any but the most devoted genealogy fans make it to the end of this post — if you did, congratulations!] 

————————————————————————-

(1) 1860 U. S. Census, Hempstead County, Alabama, pop. sched., Spring Hill Post Office, p. 803 (stamped), household 789, Jessee G. Williams; digital images, Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 2 June 2010); citing NARA microfilm publication M653, roll 42.

(2) The name Jesse appears in the census (and in some military records) as “Jessee.”  In his father’s probate record, it is spelled Jesse.  The latter version, consistent with the spelling used by namesake descendants, was used in this narrative.  

(3) The census extract excludes two individuals listed as members of the two households who did not have the surname Williams; one was listed as a “con laborer”; the other as a schoolteacher. 

(4) Jean Smart compiler, “White Marriage Records I – Pike County, Alabama, 1830-1950: Pike County, Alabama,” Papers of the Pike County Historical and Genealogical Society (Troy, Alabama), 38 (1 & 2): p. 239 citing Volume 2, p. 55.

(5) Dodd, Jordan. “Arkansas Marriages, 1851-1900.” Database. Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com: accessed 14 May 2010), entry for Jesse G. Williams and Christean Johnson, 13 May 1857; citing marriage licenses issued for that county.

(6) 1850 U. S. Census, Pike County, Alabama, pop. sched., no Civil Division entered, p. 269B, household 1849, B. D. Williams; digital images, Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 20 June 2010); citing NARA microfilm publication M432, roll 132.

(7) Margaret Pace Farmer, One Hundred Fifty Years in Pike County Alabama 1821-1971 (Anniston, AL: Higginbotham, Inc., 1973), 38.

(8) Ibid.

(9) “Pike County Al Archives Wills…..Burgess D. Williams December 9 1851,” transcript by Karen Tapley, at USGenWeb Archives (http://files.usgwarchives.net/al/pike/wills/wl19.txt : accessed 20 June 2010); transcription of original records found in Box 46 in Pike County Courthouse basement in 1997, contributed 20 May 2003.  Several other derivative sources were located for the administration of Burgess D. Williams’s estate in Pike County, Alabama.  The sources are at odds on points not relevant to this discussion and must be reconciled.  One describes the decedent as “late of Hempstead County, Arkansas”, suggesting that the entire family migrated to Arkansas, leaving land in Pike County. 

 

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