William D. Butterworth (1849-1937) – who’s your daddy? (Solved)

So a huge part of my genealogy hobby as an adult has been going back and redoing all the haphazard research I did at 14. (And I don’t beat myself up about the fact that 20+ years later I’m nowhere near finished with this project. See “Online Family Trees or ‘How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Live with Bad Genealogy.’“)

The Lazy Genealogist’s Hypothesis

Today I was feeling kind of lazy. I wanted to work on some genealogy, but I also didn’t want to immediately get mired in a rabbit hole with the oh-so-common Dunn and Wests. So I had the bright idea to browse through my family tree for uncommon names. And aha – it jumped out at me – Butterworth.

Butterworth fits the lazy genealogist’s criteria:

  • There probably aren’t 9000 ways to spell it
  • It’s fairly uncommon

In fact, according to the 1990 census, Butterworth was the 8,076th most common surname in the United States. Most of the other names I have to work with break the top 200.

So I dug in and started trying to cite some sources.

My Beginning Assumptions

This is one of the family lines I’ve never looked into very much, but I’ve had forever that my 3rd great-grandfather William D. (possibly Decatur) Butterworth was really truly my 3rd great grandfather. (Tl;dr I knew my great-grandmother, who knew him, and we have a picture of him with his second wife that I will find and post.)

I’ve also had forever that his parents were John Bevel Butterworth and Martha Center, and that John B.’s parents were Isaac Butterworth and Parkey P. Hix. However, I wanted to make sure all that as proven out by records.

All of William’s entries in the census, as well as his death certificate, showed that he was born in Georgia, so I was feeling pretty sure about that, too.


I’ve been working in timelines lately because they tend to show discrepancies and pretty easily.

For example, if I see a male ancestor married to a woman named Mary on every US Census between 1850 and 1880 it’s easy to assume she’s the same Mary. But when working with timelines, it’s easier to notice that “Hey, Mary is suddenly 15 years younger and there was an 8 year gap in children in this family.” Which leads me to research whether, instead of being married to the same woman for 30+ years, that guy really liked women named Mary and married two of them.

Today, I started with William D. Butterworth, since I was sure of him.

First, I realized that William D. died in 1937 in Georgia, which meant that he should have a death certificate readily available online. Now, I am known for my love of death certificates, but I also know to take historical info in them with a grain of salt, especially when the informant is a child or an even more distant relative. So that’s why I was surprised, but not overly surprised, when William D. Butterworth’s father was listed as “William Butterworth” instead of “John Bevel Butterworth” like I expected.

William D Butterworth Death Certificate

William D. Butterworth’s Death Certificate

But, moving on, I set about finding all instances of William D. Butterworth in US Federal Censuses and transcribed them into an Evernote Note.

This was when things started getting a little weird. I started on Ancestry, and I immediately noticed that I hadn’t found William D. in many censuses yet.  So I started working backward. But starting in 1870, things got hinky.

I found 21 year-old William D. Butterworth living in Cherokee County, GA in 1870 with his older sister Elizabeth (23) and his younger brother Henry (19), but the adults in the house were William Center (70) and Elizabeth Center (59.) Oh no! Were they orphaned and living with their grandparents? (I had assumed that William’s mother was named Martha Center, after all, so while not total verifiable proof, it would stand to reason that this new couple – at least the 70-year-old William Center – would be grandparents.)

I was drawing a curious blank in 1860, so I decided to come back to that one.

In 1850 Lumpkin County Georgia Census, I found a John Butterworth, age 29 and born in South Carolina, living with his wife Martha (22 & b. Tennessee), and Georgia-born children Elizabeth (3) and William (2) all living in the Martin’s Ford district, with John working as a miner.  (Lumpkin County was the site of the Georgia gold rush, but my ancestors were sadly late to the party.)  The names and ages of children William and Elizabeth seem to match with the 1870 William and Elizabeth.

I decided to look for William and Elizabeth Center, and sure enough, found them in the same county in nearby town of Auraria. (Now a really cool and tiny Georgia ghost town.) William Center was also working as a miner.

And that’s when things that were hinky became interesting. When I found William and Elizabeth Center in the 1860 Hall County GA Census, who was living with them but Elizabeth Center (13), William Center (11) and Henry Center (9)?! After doing a bit more research, it seemed clear that these kids, though listed as Centers, were the Butterworths. At this point, I’m drawing the conclusion that something horrible has happened to John and Martha Butterworth. Mining disaster!? They decided to try their luck in California and left the kids behind? My mind boggled. That census was taken on 14 June 1860.

However, I then felt the dark pull of an Ancestry hint.


The Ancestry hint: Beware it’s seductive thrall

According to a census taken on 2 July 1860, a J. Butterworth was shown was head of house working as an “Overseer” in Talladega County, Alabama  along with an M.A. (Martha?!) Butterworth (30),  and children E. Butterworth (15 – female), A.B. Butterworth (13 – male), M. Butterworth (11 – female), J. Butterworth (9 – male), and J. Butterworth (1 – male.)

Now, this sort of fit but sort of didn’t. Could Elizabeth, William and Henry been staying with their grandparents in June of 1860 but then went to live with their parents by July of 1860? I mean, sure, I guess they could have made the trip during that time and been counted twice.

Also, “E” could be Elizabeth Butterworth, just listed as a couple of years older than we’ve previously seen her. The same could go for “J” aged 9. (I had also somewhere in there learned that the Henry we see living with his grandparents in 1860 was actually named James Henry, so the J initial worked.)And they were all listed as being born in Georgia which, except for my previous census record of Martha Center Butterworth, fit. Of course, “A. B.” didn’t quite fit with William D. And where did this 11-year-old “M” come from?? (But hey, people do foster children and things like that.) I stuck that one in my shoebox for further noodling.

Things stayed hinky. In 1870, William and Elizabeth Center had moved to Cherokee County Georgia, and guess who was living with them? Elizabeth (23), William D. (21), and Henry (19) Butterworth. There was no sign of A.B., M, younger J., etc. from the Talladega Census entry.  That sort of led me to believe that The Butterworth Kids had stayed with their assumed Center grandparents rather than go off to Alabama to live with the mysterious “J.” and “M.A.” Butterworth.

At this point, I was thinking that something happened to John Butterworth and Martha Center Butterworth between 1851 and 1860, and the kids stayed with their grandparents. Or, I had another thought that maybe Martha Center Butterworth died and their dad John left them with their grandparents. This would not be the first time in my family history that I’ve found older children with dead mamas living with grandparents while their fathers happily start a new family.

And then I realized I had a death date and Find a Grave entry for John Bevel Butterworth. 1898. And that John Bevel Butterworth had served in the Confederate Army in Alabama. Ooof. Maybe I was right about him.

That led me to marriage records. I found where John Butterworth married Martha Center on 20 June 1844 in Lumpkin County, GA (where I first found them together in the Census). So that essentially checked out. Plus, it made a bit more sense to be looking for gold in 1844 than it did in 1850 when the Georgia gold was pretty much played out and folks were heading to California instead.

And then I found in the same Georgia marriage database where John Butterworth married Christian Harriet Jones on 11 May 1856 Hall Co. GA.

Now this would make my “new wife, new kids” theory make sense. Martha Center Butterworth died and John Bevel Butterworth remarried and started up a new family.  It also turned out that John Bevel and Harriet C. began appearing in Hall County, GA censuses together. Only, the 1860 Talladega Census wouldn’t really make sense if “J” were married to “C. H.” or “H. C.” rather than M.A.

So, knowing that John Bevel Butterworth had served in the Confederate army in Alabama, I poked around Talladega some more. And that’s when I came across:

Also in Talladega County in 1850 lived J. Buterworth (38 – M and I was wrong about not mangling the spelling of this name), H. Buterworth (28 – F), V. Buterworth (4 – F) and [blank] Buterworth (2 – F). The initials were right, and when compared with the 1870 census I couldn’t help but notice that John Bevel Butterworth and Harriet Christian (or Christian Harriet) Butterworth then had a 13-year-old named Viola (there’s that “V” initial), though they did not have an 11/12 year old female child in the house.

At this point I was at my wit’s end. So was John Bevel Butterworth even really the father of William D. Butterworth and his siblings? Or had those people truly died between 1850 and 1860 and we’ve had the wrong parents for or Willam D. all these years?

That’s when I started Googling “Butterworth” “Hall County Georgia.” And wouldn’t you know it? I came across a 2002 transcription of a Bible record that seems to answer all my questions.

Now, before I tell you what I figured out, two disclaimers:

  1. This is a 2002 transcription of a microfilm of a Bible record. I need to see that microfilm for myself. (I’d love to see the Bible for myself, but I have no idea where it is yet. Maybe the microfilm will help me.)
  2. This was almost way too neat and tied up in a bow, but sometimes that genealogy serendipity works for you.

Here’s the John Bevel Butterworth family Bible transcription that I found.

Lo and behold, the first children of John B. Butterworth listed are Elizabeth Butterworth, Thomas Butterworth (who only lived a few months), William D. Butterworth, and James Tev Butterworth (possibly James Henry) with birthdates that closely match census records.

I also finally learn the tidbit that Martha (Center) Butterworth – mother of Elizabeth, William and James Henry – died Apri 21, 1854. Which means John B. Butterworth would have been totally free to marry Christian Harriet Jones in 1856.

Now, I still have some sleuthing to do, but it looks like the “new wife, new kids” theory holds up. But hey, I guess at least the older kids got their names in the family Bible. And – as always – we can’t judge people from nearly 200 years ago by our own standards, so I’ll strive not to judge my ancestor. Because, even though I do have a bit more work to do, I’m pretty darn sure now that the answer to “William D. Butterworth – who’s your daddy?” is “The guy we always thought it was.”

And last but not least, there are a couple of hints in records that show that maybe the oldest three Butterworth children were a-okay with their grandparents. We can’t forget that relatives reported William D. Butterworth’s father as “William,” meaning that maybe he told people, or people believed, that William Center was his father. And, in the 1880 Cherokee County Georgia Census, Elizabeth Center is now a 70-year-old widow living in the household of her granddaughter Elizabeth and her husband Moses Asberry Hughes. She’s listed as “living with daughter.” And that’s pretty sweet.

Have you ever had an up and down roller coaster with a relative? Tell me about it in the comments!




Letter from George W. West to Paschal West, 1887


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Buffalo Bill Cody

Buffalo Bill Cody in 1893, just a few years after this letter was written

I’m thrilled to finally be able to transcribe and publish another one of the letters from the late 1800’s my cousin Ron West sent to me. These letters are from my West ancestors and are true treasures!

The other two I’ve already transcribed can be found here:

A Letter from Jennet Cowen West, 1888

A Letter from Edith West Harris, 1882

All of these letter were written from the West family in the Hightower Community, Forsyth County, Georgia to their son/brother Paschal West and his wife Rebecca (Westray) West, who had moved to Milan, Yell County, Arkansas. To find out more about this family, check out my West ancestors here.

A Letter Between Brothers

If the first letter made me fiesty and the second letter made me cry, this one made me raise my eyebrows and laugh. It was written to Paschal West (1845-1921), the oldest living son of George W. and Jennet West by his younger brother, George W. West (1874-c. 1930).

To put this time in historical perspective, people in the South were still trying to negotiate the new lay of the land after Reconstruction. Grover Cleveland was president. Just as Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show was opening in London, barbed wire was subduing what was left of it back home. Earlier in the month when the letter was written, Annie Sullivan taught Helen Keller the sign for “water” over in neighboring Alabama. The Eiffel Tower was under construction.

And George W. West was writing this letter to his brother. I’ve tried to keep to his original spelling while adding enough punctuation to keep it readable.

April the 30 1887

Hightower Forsyth Co,

Dear brother and sister,

I embrace the present opportunity of dropping you a few liens which leaves us all well at the present. I hope this liens will reach you all in due time an find you all well. I received your letter and was glad to hear from you all. I have no news to write that will interes you, but it looks like I ort to have a go at it this time as I haven’t wrote you a letter so long a time and I think you had room to write a liddle more your self than you did. Well Paschal the connections is all well so far as I no. Mother cant walk any yet without her cruches and I am feared she never will anymore. Times is hard for her. No money at this time of the year. Well I have got me a wood shop and a black smith shop and do some work in them and make some money. I sold a two-horse wagon the other day for $52.50. And I have got one horse wagon a bout done. Will Paschal I am a going to make a crop this year and I have all the carpin (carpenter) work that I can do on houses after crops is lade by. Well you wrote that you was a going to run your shop again and wanted to get all ready bye fall. When I come I would be glad that I could get out thar this fall. But I am in det a write smart and don’t no whether I can make the trip or not. I think if I was there we could make money. Write a long to me if you will come out this winter and bring a liddle money a long with you more than you would need yourself, about 75.00, and I will go back with you. Well, I have 4 children 2 boys and 2 girls. I will tell you thar names. Homer, Lizzey, Dora and Perry. Paschal tell Phlem that Epehram is tolable well. Paschal, A. H. McClure come back from Ark with the tale of the rong end but (Pham?) like the country mighty well. Tell Eddy that Homer said that he was coming to Arkansas when he got to be a man if I didn’t go and carry him. Well Paschal we have strong talk of a rail road through this country. Well I guess I have wrote anuff without it was better so I will quite for this time. Write soon.

G. W. West and family

to P. P. West and family

(I’ll put up a copy of the letter when I get a new scanner. If this message is still here when you read this, feel free to remind me!)

Letter Analysis

Of the thing that made me laugh was how the letter started out with news and well wishes and quickly turned into, “Hey, maybe you could float me a little money until I could come out there and we could both make it big?”

But aside from that, there are lots of interesting things in this letter to me as a genealogist and from a historical perspective.

The “Det”

The way the economy at the time worked, most people were in debt. After the Civil War, more and more famers moved from mostly subsistence to growing a little cotton for cash to growing mostly cotton and buying what they needed for subsistence from general stores. You probably see where this is going. Farmers would buy on credit and find themselves farther and farther in debt.  George W., the letter writer, mentions that he laid a crop by, but from what I can tell he wasn’t a landowner. His father, though, owned about 200 acres more or less and, from tax records and censuses, I’m pretty sure George W. the younger farmed on his father’s land.

I did find a record from 1894 where he borrowed $50 at 8% interest from Coggins and Jones of Canton, GA. (Those two rich old Canton, GA founding fathers are another story altogether.)

Mother’s Cruches

Jennet Cowen West was becoming very infirm by that point. A letter from her written in 1888, also to Paschal, confirms that she can barely walk and has to “take the hippo” to feel better. (Which I think is the hypodermic needle.)

The Brotherly Jabs

“I have no news to write that will interes you, but it looks like I ort to have a go at it this time as I haven’t wrote you a letter so long a time and I think you had room to write a liddle more your self than you did.” These letters are full of family guilting each other about not writing more or more often. (LOL The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.)


George W. sold a wagon for $52.50. Many of these letters mention money (usually crop prices), which is an indicator of what was on people’s minds.

Phlem and Ephram

I have no idea who these people are but I want to find out! Also, A. H. McClure is George and Paschal’s brother-in-law. He married their older sister Sarah Jane West. I wonder how he got the “tail on the wrong end”? There’s a story there I’m dying to find out!

The Children

George’s son Homer West would have been 10-years-old at the time this letter was written. That’s just about the prime age to want to adventure out west with your Arkansas cousin. (I think the Eddy mentioned is Paschal’s son Eddie, who would have been about 13 at the time.) George and his wife Margaret Redman had two more children, Markest Paschal and Sarah Jane (both named after George W’s Arkansas-dwelling siblings.)

In just a handful more years an illness – perhaps an outbreak of the Russian flu – would kill and four of his six remaining living siblings. Though I don’t know the circumstances, he would fail to post bond to administer his father’s estate in about 1895, and the next we hear of George W. the younger he’s a widower living with his children near his brother Paschal in Arkansas in 1900.

I don’t know what became of George W. West after the 1920 census, despite seeking out his Arkansas death certificate. Some of his family kept moving westward so I’m going to look into whether he may have died in Oklahoma or elsewhere.

On a final note, one account by Jessie West Newman in 1984 recalls that George W. West was a “handsome man.” From reading this letter and the wily way he works at getting what he wants from his brother, I do not doubt this one bit. I’d love to find a picture of him!

Of course, if anybody has any information about George W. West or the West family who moved from Union/Spartanburg County, SC to Forsyth County, GA to Yell County, AR please contact me.

Happy detecting!

Of Smothering in the Most Beauteous of Counties


Upon doing some light Sunday evening reading in the 1850 U.S. Federal Census Mortality Schedule, I was delighted to discover this little gem about my home county, Cherokee County, GA.

These notes are written by the census taker beneath the schedule of people who died between June 1,1849 and June 1, 1850:

1850 U.S. Federal Census Mortality Schedule Cherokee County GA p3

Transcription: There has been no prevalent malady this season. In a word, this county has ever been remarkably healthy. The water generally is free – some of the purest character. In the western and northern part, there are limestone springs, the water however is pure. Also a good many mineral springs. As to the natural growth of timber, black – post – white – turkey – red and Spanish oak.

1850 U.S. Federal Census Mortality Schedule Cherokee County GA p2

Transcription: Hickory – black and white walnut – chestnut – sassafras – a species of magnolia – poplar – yellow pine – black gum – sweet-gum – mulberry – elm and the commons. As for fertilizers, lime and marl in abundance. There are a number of gold-mines both vein and deposit in different parts of the county. There is almost an infinite quantity of iron ore of different kinds of the best character. There is in the

Cherokee County GA Census Mortality Schedule 1850

Transcription: northern part of the county mountains of marble of various kind and character, enough to supply the world. There are a great many other minerals of rich and varied sort which could not be detailed here – as a mere list of them would be too voluminous for a schedule of this kind.

I love this. Who wouldn’t want to live in that place? Nobody’s sick, the minerals are too abundant to list and there are gold-mines! I love how he underlined “gold-mines” as if to emphasize “Come live here now, people. Do business here. Too bad this guy is long dead – we need him for Cherokee County’s PR! (Can you imagine? “There are workers who don’t expect anything resembling basic human decency fro their corporate overlords. And we have a lake now!”)

I was less delighted to find listed in this same document and county, 2 little enslaved girls, dead at ages 1 month and 8 months. Cause of death: “Smothered.”

Another infant and toddler died of worms, the charms of which went noticeably unmentioned in the list of our county’s assets.

Those causes of death are terrible, but I’m not trying to turn this into a negative post. I think one thing that has always drawn me to the study of history is it’s tendency to pet your hair and then kick you in the teeth. It’s a beautiful, maddening way of life. Which is just the way I like my ways of life.

On that note…

Happy Detecting!

Lightner West and the Horrors of War


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Yesterday I inadvertently had a War Movie Day. I happened to be at my mom’s while she watched Monuments Men, and then I went with my dad to see the new Brad Pitt WWII tank movie, Fury.

Strangely enough, I had just hours earlier been perusing the Compiled Civil War Service Records for my 3rd great-grandfather, Lightner West. The records didn’t amount to much. He cropped up as a private on the roster of the 56th Georgia Infantry, Company D (the “Hall Volunteers”) and that was about it. As it turns out, most of the records were affidavits from his young wife, Sarah E. Moore West, swearing that yes indeed she was married to him and that she was owed the $50 bounty he never collected for volunteering for the war effort.

Lightner West civil War

So I guess, with this, and Veteran’s Day coming, war was on my mind when, in both movies I watched yesterday, I made the connection that each relied on a small incident involving a child soldier.

I suppose child soldiers are supposed to illustrate the horrors of war. But are we so desensitized to the horrors of war that we need to show little kids with guns getting shot or blown up to shake us up?

War is already horrible. Everybody already suffers. There are the soldiers who find themselves making excruciating choices on the battlefield, or the occupied who chew on shoe leather to stay alive, or the woman who can choose to collaborate and feel the scorn of her community, or watch her children’s stomachs swell as they slowly starve to death.

Yesterday, I made a sad timeline.

Lightner Leander West was born in Spartanburg or Union County, SC in January 1842.

He married Sarah E. Moore in January 1862. He conceived their only child with her sometime that spring.

In May of 1862 he enlisted in the Army of the Confederate States of America.

In October of 1862 he died, probably from illness, in Tazewell, Tennessee.

He was 20-years-old, and a schoolteacher, and a father who never met his son. He had blue eyes and fair hair and died, suffering, far away from anyone who loved him.

War is already horrible. We shouldn’t need to see child soldiers in every war movie to remember that.

[52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks] Edward West, My Rabble-Rousing 87-Year-Old Grandfather


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Early on in the year, genealogist Amy Crow of No Story Too Small challenged all blogging genealogists to write about one ancestor per week for 52 weeks. This is my first entry in the 52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks Challenge.

I think it’s fitting that the first ancestor I blog about in the 52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks Challenge is alive and well and – thanks to a little recent instigating – eating better than ever.

My grandpa, Edward West, is an interesting fellow for many reasons. His early adventures include:

  • Developing his snuff dipping habit at the tender age 7 after stealing the can from his mother’s apron at night
  • Breaking his arm riding a bull
  • Serving in Germany in WWII
  • Acting as a union representative at Lockheed, his place of work for many, many years (this comes into play later in this story)
Edward West Ellabel Duncan West Luanne West

Ellabel West, Luanne West (i.e. the cutest baby to ever sit on a lap) and Edward West, c. 1960

Adventures of a Nursing Home Rebel

But what I want to talk about today is his latter day adventures. Because he may be 87-years-old, but he hasn’t slowed down a bit. In fact, December 2013 was a banner month for my grandpa.

We might think that people who live in assisted living centers are in the twilight years of their life. Bingo, visiting on the porch, and craft activities rule the day and that’s about it, right?

But not for Papa. Despite having a perfectly good house, he CHOSE to live in the assisted living center. He says he likes hanging out with his childhood friends, Shorty and Leon. Plus, the nurses took really good care of my Granna for a long, long time during her decline from the cruel combination of Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.

…But that isn’t to say that Papa isn’t going to do a little rabble rousing if he has to.

Around Thanksgiving, we had the following conversation.

Papa: Jennifer, do you know how to type?

Me: Yes, Papa.

Papa: I want you to type me up a petition. The food here is no good. The cook in there can’t even boil an Irish potato.

We were both stung by the injustice of it all. Ninety folks in an assisted living center with very few teeth between them being forced to eat hard potatoes! This cannot stand!

So this is the petition we came up with:

We the residents of X in Canton, GA would like to request better quality food. We feel that the food we are currently served is not high quality, filling or well prepared. We request that management reviews the food buying and preparation processes and increases the quality of the food we receiving in the dining hall. 

Within a couple of days, he had walked, walkered and walking caned his way around the whole place, and about 1/3 of his fellow residents had signed the petition.

Today – 2 months later – the quality of the food has vastly improved and they get choices at every meal. That’s solidarity, my friends.

(It’s a good thing that the traits of stubbornness and inability to take no for an answer don’t run in this family….)

Local Celebrity Tells All

Look what else happened:

Edward West Cherokee Tribune Dec 7 2013

Article on the front page of the Cherokee Tribune, December 7, 2013. Article by Joshua Sharpe and photographs by Todd Hull.

Edward West Cherokee Tribune Dec 7 2013 p2

p. 2

Papa was also recently in the newspaper. You can read the story (about Pearl Harbor) for yourself, but I especially like the picture on the second page. That picture of my Granna, his wife for 61 years, sits on his bed every day while he’s awake and lies on the table by his side while he sleeps.

She was a beautiful woman, but it isn’t the most glamorous picture of her. It was taken right before she died, and she looks anxious. But it’s the picture he wants and, as I think we’ve already established by now, what my Papa wants, my Papa gets.

[(Almost) Wordless Wednesday] Forsyth County Georgia Marriage Book G “Colored”


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When you see this…

Forsyth County Georgia Colored Marriage Book

Microfilm copy of outside cover of Forsyth County, Georgia Marriage Book G, “Colored” Marriages

And then you see this…

The Times Recorder Manufacturer Americus Georgia

Also a microfilm copy of outside cover of Forsyth County, Georgia Marriage Book G, “Colored” Marriages

And realize there was once a company with some line on an order form somewhere asking: Aha, you want to buy a marriage registry book for your county? How about a nice volume for “Colored” marriages?

(The Times-Recorder is Americus, Georgia’s newspaper to this day.)

The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.

Need Genealogy Software Recommendations


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Tl;dr – I’m looking for a genealogy app or software for Mac that’s really heavy on place and migration route research. Know of anything?

Help with Genealogy Software

Seriously. Helllllp!

So you guys know that I’m an amateur genealogist. And like any amateur, I find myself starting out with cobbled together tools. I use Ancestry.com a lot, just because it’s so handy for accessing so many databases, and I have the Mac version of Family Tree Maker, which I rarely use because it isn’t use-friendly AND it hogs resources. I also use Evernote and a complicated system of digital folders to keep track of various research about families and places. Oh, and some paper folders for copies of things I haven’t gotten around to transcribing yet.

So basically my research is spread over 4 places. I’d like to firm that up a little bit.

Second of all, what I’m really most interested in is the history of the places my people came from and their migrations. Family Tree Maker attempts to address this a little bit, but I would love some kind of software that allows me to layer migrations and places where I knew my ancestors to be on top of one another so I could really study them (I.e. Why did 3 of my 4th great grandpas end up in Place X? Aha there was a gold rush!)

I’d also like a way to make notes on the various migration patterns, not just the people themselves. But I want to be able to do it visually, and to keep all my information together.

So, does anybody know a really geographic/place-heavy genealogy software ideal for the Mac? Is or this something that has yet to be created? Is there any program that perhaps integrates Google Earth so I could do this myself? Am I asking too much? What’s the meaning of life?

(Okay, I’m done now.) Happy Detecting!

Behind “Farm Laborer”: A Peek at Working Whites of the Old South


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If you’re like me you’re grateful when you find a relative in a census or other source holding an occupation anything – ANYTHING – other than “farmer” or “farm laborer.”

…But a book I’ve been wanting to read for over a decade and somehow finally just procured has me realizing that – like with just about everything in the entire history of the world – there’s a lot more to “farm laborer” than milking cows and putting by crops for Pa.

The Confessions of Edward IshamI’m talking about The Confessions of Edward Isham: A Poor White Life in the Old South. If you have antebellum ancestors in the South, this book’s dissection of a short, brutal life will give you a first person peek into what those lives might have been like.

Now, I’m not saying our “farm laborer” ancestors were all Edward Isham’s. Isham was a landless white man from Carroll County, Georgia who made his way through life working itinerant jobs and/or taking up with women. Oh and gambling. And a bit of robbing. Also lots of fighting. We know all of this because in 1859 Isham found himself on trial for his life for murdering a North Carolina farmer, who he claimed cheated him out of his fair wages.

You know that old saying, “Nothing else can kill you when you’re born to be hanged?” Well, I won’t give away the ending, but…

So, sure, not all poor white landless men in the South were Edward Isham’s, but the book does make a good case that fighting and frolicking were par for the course for pre-Civil War poor whites. For example, apparently men used to keep their nails long and sharp, as a handy eye-gouging weapon. Seriously.

I’ll detail the things that struck me about this book, with an eye toward family history, in no particular order.

Working Poor White Men in the Old South

As a student of American history, I vaguely remember all of those mini-depressions and financial crises the U.S. suffered through in our short history until the Glass-Steagall Act stopped that boom and bust cycle. (Until it was repealed. Don’t even get me started.) As they always are, these recessions were hardest on people who didn’t have much to begin with.

Isham and his fellow laborers were no exception. Then add geography into play. Isham was born about 1826 and his father moved the family to Carroll County, Georgia after making a successful draw in the 1832 Georgia Land Lottery. By Edward’s own account, his father, Edward Sr., was a “dissipated” man who moved the family frequently and taught Edward how to fight at a young age. Edward grew up in Carroll County when it was a mining area and where a man could make a living independently scratching for gold.

As Edward grew up, the wild Georgia frontier was slowly tamed, and the chances for a man to make his own way in the world independently slowly dried up. Many landless white laborers were forced to trade their mining kit for bosses and wage labor.

How working under a landed farmer’s stern eye must have stung after you had spent the first part of your life making your own way staking out your own claims. (I feel it. It’s why i’d rather sleep in a cardboard box than sign on as someone else’s employee ever, ever again.) The whole time I read this book, this song keep running through my mind:

Oh, and then there are the other laborers in the South at the time – slaves.

“The existence of black slavery in the South dictated the kind of occupational and geographic mobility experienced by Edward Isham and other poor white laborers. Slavery both stunted the growth of industrial wage positions and limited the need for white workers, as well as the wages paid to them, in the region. Because many Southerns who needed additional labor for their various enterprises relied on slaves, the market for white labor in the antebellum South was one of infrequent work and low pay.” (Charles C. et al. 1998)

Interestingly, the paradox that landless white laborers faced back in the day reminds me of the paradox that “unskilled” workers of all kinds often face in the U.S. now. (I put “unskilled” in quotes because I’d say that breaking your back, enduring physical hardship and swallowing a whole lot of crap to keep a roof over your family’s head is certainly an admirable trait, if not a skill.) The jobs that would pay decent wages go overseas or to undocumented or otherwise disenfranchised immigrants willing to work for low wages, further depressing the economy. One hundred and fifty years later we don’t blame the enslaved for the state of the antebellum economy. Will it take another 150 years for us to figure out who to blame for today’s economy? Probably so.


The editors make it plain that not all landless whites in the old South were like Edward Isham. For one, Isham took up with a lot of women but didn’t ever let any of them tie him down. Most other men weren’t so lucky… I mean, most other men worked alongside their nuclear families. In fact, when seeking out farm laborers, the landed gentry often looked for men with families because they could benefit from the labor of the wife and children as well. Single male workers like Isham were probably the least desired class of worker, but would do in a pinch if you needed a ditch dug or a fence built.

The Women of Edward Isham’s Confessions

The book includes Edward Isham’s 25ish page confession, and several essays parsing the document, including “Mothers, Lovers, and Wives: Images of Poor White Women in Edward Isham’s Autobiography” by historian Victoria Bynum.

Edward Isham “married” a couple of times, and also took up with a lot of women. There are so many consorts in the text that I actually lost count. Maybe it had something to do with the fact that Isham, as a wanted man, was described as “rather good looking” with “light hair.” (No know pictures of Isham exist. If you can’t quite conjure up a mental image of Edward Isham, just check out Thomas MacEntee’s My Daugerreotype of Guy pinboard and take your pick.)

The editors posit, and I agree, that the marriages were probably common law rather than state sanctioned. He seemed to abandon his wives and consorts as he found better work opportunities. Interestingly enough, he does admit that some women had power over him. He courts one woman, leaves after some trouble with the law, comes back and steals her from her husband, finds himself cuckolded, and then apparently tries to get her back again but ultimately fails.

Isham also shows a little tenderness toward some women in his life. His 3rd reported wife died in childbirth shortly before he committed the murder that eventually did him in, and he reports being feeling low and drinking a lot during that time.

In other words, if you had any illusions of the prim and proper Victorian lady dwelling in the Georgia frontier, read this primary source for a clearer picture.  Times were tough for everyone and people made choices about marriage and mating for a variety of reasons.


“It is rich people, usually, who live on in biographies, in the pages of the social register. Working people live on in ledgers.”  – Rick Bragg, The Most they Ever Had

Now, every time I come across a male ancestor living with another family in a census or a female ancestor living back home with mom and dad and her children, my imagination will add a more colorful spin to the circumstances. I’ll never look at the “farm laborer” or “laborer” occupation in the census the same way again after reading the Confessions of Edward Isham. I hope, if you come from a family of boring old famers and farm laborers here in the South, that you’ll give this amazing primary source a read, and then you won’t either.


Bolton, Charles C, and Scott P. Culclasure, eds. The Confessions of Edward Isham: A Poor White Life in the Old South. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1998.

[Follow Friday] Your Daguerreotype Boyfriend, Child Laborers, & an American in Paris


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As I approach my 50th blog post, I realized I haven’t done a Follow Friday in forever. …So here goes!


My Daguerreotype Boyfriend – Admit it. You thought Robert Cornelius, the photographer of the very first selfie back in 1839, was hot.  (To me he looks like what Heathcliff should look like.) Well, this Tumblr compiles Cornelius and all of your other daguerreotype boyfriends together in one handy reference list.

Also, you can submit your photos. If it isn’t too squicky for you, maybe your hot daguerreotype ancestor can become someone’s daguerreotype boyfriend. Speaking of historical hotties, check out young Joseph Stalin at #9. (This link goes to Cracked.com which will always, at some point, become NSFW.)

The Lewis Hine Project – Labor Day just happened, so what better time to anxiously peer at photos of child laborers? I’ve already written about Shorpy.com, a historical photograph website inspired by a photograph of Shorpy Higginbotham, a tiny little boy working in a mine in Alabama. If you’re interested in more of Hine’s work documenting child labor, check out the Lewis Hine Project, run by historian Joe Manning. The site also features some mystery photos. Can you help identify these people?


Addie’s Sojourn – After serendipitously finding some old family letters, I’ve been especially interested in older personal writings. That’s why I was delighted to discover that my friend Liz Loveland (@Lizl_genealogy on Twitter) had inherited a copy of her ancestor, Addie Sturtevant Burnett’s diary, kept during her time as an American living in Paris from 1889-90. Addie was a well-educated, if, in Liz’s words “ethnocentric” woman who made an extraordinary decision for her time. The historian in me is especially drawn to issues of race and class, so it’s interesting to see phrases like “We met four people and two Chinese that came over with us on the Gascoygne.” Two Chinese indeed.

Genealogy News

4YourFamilyStory.com – I griped and griped about how I didn’t have any time for genealogy for about 6 weeks due to a big work project. So when I dug my way out, I was happy to see that Caroline Pointer (@FamilyStories on Twitter) had started posting a daily “# Things You Need to Know about Genealogy This Morning” post. Now I’m all back up to speed. Whew.

Happy Detecting!