Finding Foster

As many of you know, I’m currently researching a book about a man, William Macon Waller, who took about 20 of his slaves to Mississippi in 1847-48. His plan was to sell the slaves in Mississippi to cover debts he had at home in Amherst County, Va.

Part of my research has involved finding out what happened to the individual slaves. I haven’t had much luck yet. After all, the men Waller sold the people to were mostly large landholders with hundreds of slaves. Finding evidence of one, among all the others (some of which had the same names) is, not surprisingly, difficult.

So, I decided to focus on one for now: Foster.

On the off chance that someone else out there, possibly a descendant, also is looking for Foster, here’s what I know about him:

Foster was probably not an old man in 1847, when Waller and his slaves left Amherst, Va., bound for Mississippi, via the overland route through Virginia, Tennessee, Alabama and Mississippi. He had to be able to walk 25 miles a day.

So, I’m guessing he was born sometime between 1810 and 1830.

Also, when Foster was eventually sold, he sold for $1,200, two or three times more than anyone else sold by Waller on that trip. In fact, Waller took Foster to New Orleans, where he would bring a better price. So, it’s my assumption that Foster was a skilled worker of some kind, maybe a carpenter or something like that.

Waller and Foster left Vicksburg, Miss., on a steamship called the Mount Vernon sometime in the first week of January 1848. The ship took them down the Mississippi River to New Orleans. Waller left Foster in New Orleans, where he was sold, sometime around the first week of February.

And that’s all I know, except that it’s likely Foster was born in Virginia.

Maybe you’re looking for an ancestor, named Foster, who was black or mulatto, and a slave born in Virginia. While he was sold in New Orleans, based on shipping manifests that I’ve seen online, he could have ended up in Texas, Alabama, Mississippi, or some other slave state. And if he survived to Emancipation, he could have returned to Virginia or ended up someplace else.

If this rings a bell with anyone out there in Cyberspace, please let me know. I’d like to know more about your ancestor and talk to you, too.


A visit to the Virginia Historical Society (and doughnuts)

A visit to the Virginia Historical Society (and doughnuts)

Recently,  my good friend and fellow blogger Paula and I traveled to the Virginia Historical Society in Richmond. I needed to look at some letters for a project I’m working on, and Paula — lured by the prospect of going to Sugar Shack for doughnuts and just getting out of town in general — agreed to come along.

Prior to visiting the VHS, I had to buy a membership. Because I’m a researcher, I was able to get an annual academic membership, which costs $50. I could have paid less for a short-term membership, but figured this would not be my last trip to Richmond.

Before leaving home, I also filled out the forms required to research and take photos. Because research is so tedious and time-consuming, I wanted to be able to take photos of the documents, rather than make copious, handwritten notes. Filling out the forms in advance would save me valuable time for research once I got to the VHS.

After stopping at one of Sugar Shack’s locations on the outskirts of Richmond — the apple cake doughnut rocks, by the way — Paula and I went to the VHS. We found the parking to be free and plentiful, which was a big plus. I’m a freelance writer and researcher, but often not a paid one, so anything free is awesome.

Once inside, I ordered the records from one of the librarians and got to work.

For a couple of years now, off and on, I’ve been transcribing letters that Amherst County, Va., slave owner William Macon Waller wrote to his family and friends while taking a group of slaves to Mississippi. They traveled the overland route through Virginia, Tennessee and Mississippi.

Waller and the slaves — India, Ellin, Henry, Sarah, Lucy, Louisa, Sarah Ann, Susan, Emily, McDonald, Nelson, Foster, Anderson and others — traveled more than 900 miles during the fall and winter of 1847 and 1848.

From what I’ve read in the letters, Waller rode a horse or mule most of the time, while the slaves — some young children — walked 20 to 30 miles a day.

This drawing, made in the mid-1800s by Lewis Miller, shows what the Waller party might have looked like. The original is in the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum, the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, Williamsburg, Va.

One of my goals with this project is to find descendants of the slaves so I can tell them what an amazing and brave walk their ancestors made almost 170 years ago. I haven’t found any descendants yet, but I’m hopeful I will.

In transcribing the letters, of which I had only photocopies, there were words and in some cases big passages I couldn’t read. My hope was that seeing the originals I could fill in the blanks. With Paula’s help — “Does this word look like ‘murmuring’ to you? — we’d filled in all the blanks we could in a couple of hours.

It’s a good thing, too, because I find transcribing old handwriting somewhat exhausting, and didn’t know if I could hold out if it took six or eight hours.

One might say, “Exhausting? Seriously?” Sure, it’s not ditch digging, but staring at handwritten documents, trying to figure out, by looking at the letters or through the context — or both — what someone wrote (and meant by it) almost two centuries ago is quite tiring. At least it is to me. Maybe I’m wimpy, who knows?

Since we were done early, Paula and I had the opportunity to spend a little time exploring the collections of the VHS. In addition to the research library, there’s a museum that has lots of information and artifacts concerning Virginia history and material culture.

One thing we saw was the “Woodson musket,” a 7-foot-long musket that was supposedly used by a Lt. Col. Thomas Ligon to defend the Woodson home, in Prince George County, Va., from an Indian attack in 1644.

The Woodson musket, third from top. Virginia Historical Society.

Another story I’ve read is that while Ligon — who’s also been described as a “shoemaker” and “schoolmaster” — used the musket, Sara Woodson — some kind of great-great-great relative of mine — “brained” and threw boiling water on Indians that climbed down the chimney.

While Sara did this, one of her sons hid in a “potato hole” and the under a washtub. Because of this, Woodson descendants are known as either “potato hole” or “washtub” Woodsons. Right this second, I can’t remember which one I am. I’m thinking “potato hole” but could be wrong.

Sara’s husband Dr. John Woodson was killed during the uprising, reportedly within sight of his home.

The “Crown of Thorns” bureau or chest of drawers. Virginia Historical Society.

In another room at the VHS, there was a circa 1890 chest of drawers that’s been called the “Crown of Thorns.” This “tramp art” piece obviously got its name from its spiky appearance.

Here’s the VHS’s description of it:

A folk type popularized by African Americans “Tramp Art” took its name from its use of ordinary woods. This type embodied the ideals of this period: it was new and expressive with varied surfaces and materials and abundant decoration. This piece was owned by George G. Lander, a black physician in Lynchburg.

Paula, a much more avid housekeeper than I am, pointed out that it would be a nightmare to dust. Indeed, it would be.

Paula and I also visited the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. It’s located next door to the VHS and has free admission. The VMFA currently has an exhibition of Faberge items, many of which belonged to the last Russian royal family, the Romanovs.

Czar Nicholas II and Alexandra, along with their children, were executed in 1918 during the Russian Revolution. Many of the Fabrege items owned by the Romanovs were later acquired by Lillian Thomas Pratt. In 1947, Pratt bequeathed hundreds of Fabrege items to the VMFA. If you’re a fan of Russian history or just opulent objects, it’s worth a look.

DNA Results are Back!

Kiss me, I’m four-percent Irish!

OK, don’t kiss me — unless you’re my husband, and then you can kiss me all you want — but I am four-percent Irish. That’s according to the “ethnicity estimate” on my AncestryDNA test results, which I received via email a few days before Christmas.

A few weeks before that, I blogged about sending off my DNA sample. At the time, I wondered what surprises might be contained in that small vial of saliva. Well, I’m here to tell you the results weren’t earth-shattering, but were definitely interesting.

According to my DNA test, I am composed of the following:

36 percent Western Europe (Germany, France, Switzerland, etc.)
34 percent Great Britain (England, Scotland, Wales)
11 percent Iberian Peninsula (Spain, Portugal, northern Morocco and Tunisia)
8 percent Scandinavia
4 percent Ireland
3 percent Italy/Greece
2 percent Finland/Northwest Russia
1 percent Caucasus (Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Iran, the “Stans,” etc.)
Less than 1 percent Eastern European

The three surprising things  — I figure the Scandinavians were Vikings who sailed to Britain or somewhere like that — were the 11-percent Iberian Peninsula, the one-percent Caucasus, and the fact that there was not even the tiniest bit of Native American.

The lack of connection to America’s first people blows apart some of the oral history from my mom’s side of the family, particularly that my great-great grandpa, John Wesley Miles, was half Native American. It’s a story I heard a lot, growing up, but according to my DNA test, there’s nothing to support it.

I blogged about John Miles, who was a colorful character to say the least, several months ago and you can read that article here.

john w_0001
Oral history in my mom’s family says John Wesley Miles, my great-great-grandpa, was half Native American.

My great-great-grandma, Josephine Lee Miles, always looked Native American to me, but alas, there’s nothing in my DNA to prove that either. You can see a picture of Josephine, taken with her son, daughter-in-law and granddaughter, here.

As most of the family names I’ve seen in my genealogy are British or German, who these Iberians are is a mystery. It could, however, be related to the “Black Dutch” rumor in my mom’s family. When you Google “Black Dutch,” you do come up with Melungeon, and one of the stories about Melungeons is that they were descendants of Portuguese sailors, or claimed to be.

As for my other family history mysteries — what John Miles was doing in the West for 20 years, for example — maybe I’ll find answers from some of the many cousins I’m now connected to on the AncestryDNA site. It will take a lot of work and luck, but if I unravel anything, I’ll let you know.

Who do I think I am?

A few days ago, I sent off for the AncestryDNA kit. It was Cyber Monday and they were running a 30-percent-off special, so I figured, “Why not?” Actually, my sister Theresa told me Ancestry was running the special and offered to pay for half of it, making the offer even more attractive.

Considering Theresa and I shared a womb, as two thirds of a set of triplets — the other’s a boy — it can be assumed that we have the same ethnic background. So, no need for two tests. What a bargain!

With lots of English and German surnames in my genealogy, I suspect my results will be pretty boring, but I’m hopeful there will be a surprise or two. One mystery I hope will be unraveled is the rumored “Black Dutch” ancestry on my maternal grandmother’s side.

My mom’s family, at least back to the early 1800s, were from eastern Kentucky, particularly Knox and Whitley counties, near the town of Barbourville.

When I was growing up, Granny always told us her family was Black Dutch. I never knew exactly what she meant, and still don’t really, as there are so many explanations for the term. Depending on the source, Black Dutch has been used to refer to German gypsies, Melungeons, Sephardic Jews, Native Americans, mixed-race people and others ethnic groups.

Theresa saw a photography exhibit at the Smithsonian many years ago about German gypsies and she said the people in the photos looked a lot like my mom and her siblings.

Granny, Allie Arizona Miles, is in the center, front. Her parents are on either side. Allie’s siblings, Ike, Julie, Vida and Ethel (although I might have the order wrong), stand behind them. Circa 1915.

My Granny, Allie Arizona Engle, was the daughter of John Jefferson Engle and Louisa Melinda Warfield. John Engle was descended from Melchor Engle, who immigrated to the U.S. from Germany in the mid-1700s.

You can read more about Melchor here at

Being the only known German surname on my mom’s side of the family, I suspect the Engles are the source of the Black Dutch story.

Another family history mystery I’d like to solve through DNA testing is that of what my great-great-grandpa, John Wesley Miles, was up to in the late 1800s. I blogged about him a while back, and you can read that here.

To paraphrase, in about 1880, John left his wife and young son in Kentucky, saying he was headed out for a sack of cornmeal. He didn’t return for about 20 years.

josephine bill sidney claudie.jpg
Maybe some Native American ancestry comes from Josephine Lee, first wife of John Wesley Miles. She’s pictured here, standing behind her son, Bill, and his wife, Sidney. Sidney is holding my great aunt, Claudie. Circa about 1900.

The story I always heard was that he had a Wild West adventure, heading to Oklahoma, Texas or Arkansas. There, he was rumored to have started a new family before eventually returning to Kentucky, toting a sack of cornmeal like nothing ever happened.

I’d like to find the descendants of that other family in Texas, Oklahoma or wherever they are.

Also, John Miles claimed half-Native American ancestry, so I’d like to know if there’s any truth to that. The alleged Native American ancestry also might have come from someone else, or might not exist at all. Hopefully, DNA will shed some light on that.

So, that’s it for now. I haven’t even got the test kit yet, but when I send it off and the results come back, I’ll be sure to let you know what it says. I’m hoping for surprises, scandal and intrigue, but I’ll settle for not boring.

Skeletons in the Closet

Sometimes, our ancestors do things that are less than admirable. As I discovered recently, in the 1790s, my fourth-great-grandpa, Buckner Jones, fathered a child out of wedlock — or “bastard child” as it’s written in the 18th-century court records.

john wesley miles
Great-great-grandpa John Wesley Miles

In about 1880, my great-great-grandpa, John Wesley Miles, left his wife and infant child in Kentucky for a Wild West adventure. As the story goes, John told his young wife Josephine — and I’m paraphrasing here — “Hey, Sweetie, I’m going to go get a sack of cornmeal, OK?”

Then he left and didn’t come back for 20 years.

When he did return, he was carrying a sack of cornmeal, which I guess proves he had a sense of humor. By then, however, Josephine had moved on, marrying — or at least taking up with — the older brother of her son’s wife. It’s said she held no grudges, though, and loved that scoundrel John until the day she died.

After returning to Kentucky, John married two more times, had more children and supposedly died at age 106. I say “supposedly” because the dates of birth I’ve found for him range wildly. The record of his marriage to Josephine says he was born in 1859. The 1940 U.S. Census estimates his birth at 1853. An article written about his 105th birthday claims 1850. His death certificate says 1851.

In short, who the heck knows?

So what was John doing for all those years away? That’s where things get even fuzzier. The story I always heard was he went to Oklahoma or possibly Texas, where he sold trinkets to the Indians, started a new family and — according to tales he told after he returned home — joined the U.S. Marshals.

In the 1950s, John told a newspaper reporter he tried to serve a “desperado warrant” on Cherokee Bill of the infamous Dalton Gang. He said he met U.S. Presidents Lincoln, Garfield and Teddy Roosevelt, and heard Gen. Ulysses S. Grant speak in Springfield, Missouri.

It would take lots of work and a good bit of luck to find out if any of those things could possibly have happened, and it might not be possible. However, according to “Uncle John,” as the reporter called him, he did go through Springfield en route to Indian country, so the Grant story could be true.

The reporter wrote that in Kentucky John “met up with another man and they walked to the nearest railroad and caught a train to Springfield, Mo. He says from there he walked over 300 miles into the Southwestern part of the country.”

In the 1880 U.S. Census, I found a John W. Miles working as a cowboy on a cattle farm in Jack County, Texas. This John Miles reported he was born in Virginia, but he’s 27 years old, which fits into the range of birth dates, and it’s in the right part of the country and at the right time. Could this be him?

john w_0001
All dressed up

Somewhere out West, there’s another family with a similar story: of a tale-telling man who came from Kentucky, started a family, and then left after 20 years — in their case, never to be seen again. I’m pretty sure I have relatives out there somewhere, and I’d love to find them someday.

I never met John Miles. He died in 1957, before I was born. My mom, aunts and uncles, however, recall him fondly. He’s a beloved figure in their family and no one is allowed to say anything bad about him. I might be ostracized at the next family reunion for calling him a “scoundrel,” but how else would you describe him? Loveable scoundrel?

The thing is, at this point, it’s not so much scandalous or shameful as it is interesting. So let those skeletons pour out of the closet.

Pittsylvania Jones-ing

My sister, Theresa, and I headed down to the Pittsylvania County Court House in Chatham, Virginia, the other day in search of dead relatives. More specifically, we were looking for the Jones family, who lived in Pittsylvania County in the late 1700s and early 1800s.

But first, here’s how the Joneses fit into my family tree.

In my guest bedroom is Great-Great-Grandma Elizabeth Holt’s bed. The big oak bed was likely made in the late 1800s. It was stored in a shed for many years, which is why one side is a little warped, but I wouldn’t give it up for anything because it’s the one “family piece” I have.

Having old, family furniture — even one slightly warped bed — makes me feel aristocratic and Southern, when in truth, I’m a middle-class, Ohio native.

Elizabeth Holt Lawson Bays
Grandma Holt

Anyway, “Grandma Holt,” as she’s known in the family, was born in Tennessee. Her parents, Pascal Holt and Rachel Jones, were from Virginia. They married in Henry County in 1822.

Rachel Jones was born in Pittsylvania County and her parents were Buckner Jones and Nelly Wilson. Buckner is a great name, and if you search “Buckner Jones” you’ll find lots of them — black and white and from various parts of Virginia.

Buckner’s parents were Mosias Jones and Lyddia Clarke. Best I can tell, Mosias’s parents were William Mosias Jones and Lucy Foster.

What I was really aiming at was the Foster clan, because if Lucy is my sixth-great-grandmother, then I’m related to the folks who built Foster’s Castle, a 17th-century, Tudor-Stuart-style house in New Kent County, Virginia.

Finally, an “ancestral home” for me! If you’ve been following the blog, up until now only my husband, John, had ancestral homes. I had to go back 330-some years to find this one, but I’ll take it.

Foster’s Castle was built by Col. Joseph Foster in about 1685. According to the National Register of Historic Places nomination form, it’s “one of Virginia’s four surviving Tudor-Stuart style structures with porch projections,” which was “a major seventeenth and very early-eighteenth century Virginia building form.”

Col. Foster, who would be my seventh great-grandfather, also supervised the construction of St. Peter’s Church, where George Washington and Martha Custis were married.

Foster’s Castle still stands. While I don’t think being able to prove I’m the seventh-great-granddaughter of the guy who built it will get me a private tour, it’s kind of neat to know. I wouldn’t turn down a tour, though, in case the current owner sees this.

But back to Buckner Jones and the Pittsylvania crew. Before I could start planning tours of my ancestral home, I had to prove that Buckner’s parents were Mosias and Lyddia and that Mosias’s parents were William and Lucy.

So, off Theresa and I went to the Pittsylvania County Court House, home of some really old records.

Pitt CH
Pittsylvania County Court House

Pittsylvania County was formed in 1767, and while this is its third court house, they’ve never had a fire. That means the records are as old as the county.

A lot of times, when looking for old records, you find out that the court house burned down. The Yankees came through and torched it or someone knocked over an oil lamp or something. Regardless, the records went up in smoke.

Deeds, wills, court orders, etc., are kept at the county clerk’s office. Most of these books have alphabetical indexes. The indexes direct you to the book and page where your ancestor can be found. If your ancestor is mentioned in one of the books, they’re not too difficult to find.

The folks at the Pittsylvania County Clerk’s Office are also really nice and helpful, so don’t hesitate to ask for help when you’re doing this kind of research.

While I didn’t find anything about William Mosias and Lucy, who might have never lived in Pittsylvania County, I did find out some things about Buckner’s dad, Mosias. In his 1796 will, Mosias gives Buckner and his sisters one shilling sterling each.

And a 1797 inventory of Mosias’s estate included the following: “chest, old feathers, pewter dish, Dutch oven & hooks, barrel, poll ax, hoe, chair.” It’s interesting to see what kinds of things people owned centuries ago.

The find of the day, however, concerned Buckner. Late that afternoon, as I was starting to lose steam and interest, Theresa shouted two words from across the room: “Bastard child!”

bastard child
Court order demanding child support from Buckner Jones.

According to a court order dated January 1793, “Ede Harris having charged Buckner Jones of begetting of a Bastard Child on her body it is ordered that he give security for the maintenance of the said Child in the sum of five pounds per annum payable to the overseers of the poor of this county for the term of five years. Where upon Mosiah [sic] Jones his security enters himself as such for the payment of the fine as aforementioned.”

I don’t know who Ede Harris was yet, although there was an Ede Harris who lived during that time period in neighboring Caswell County, N.C. I also don’t know if the child was a boy or a girl or what happened to them.

What I do know is Buckner Jones had a bastard child, and I couldn’t be happier.

Sunday Drive: Pittsylvania County

On a recent Sunday, armed with a copy of “Pittsylvania County: Homes and People of the Past,” a tank full of gas and snacks, my husband John and I set off to wander the back roads of Pittsylvania County, Virginia, in search of what I’ll loosely refer to as “ancestral homes.”

John’s ancestors (and mine, albeit briefly) lived in Pittsylvania County. Among his people were the Fitzgerald, Crews and Ramsey families, all of which are mentioned in “Homes and People.” The book was written by a Fitzgerald in 1974.

Therein lies a problem: since the book was written 42 years ago, some of the homes could be long gone. For example, the author describes the Fitzgerald-Brown House as “neglected … in its setting of mighty oaks, surrounded by a score of ancient dependencies.”

So, naturally, we headed off optimistically to find the Fitzgerald-Brown House.

The clapboard farm house, with what Fitzgerald describes as “diamond-shaped panes of glass” around the front entryway, was said to be located on Route 832, near the community of Shockoe. Luckily, Siri knew where Shockoe was, but once we got to Shockoe, we couldn’t find the house.

Poss Ancestral Home
We thought this was the Fitzgerald-Brown House, but alas, no.

We drove up and down Route 832. We looked for the “mighty oaks” and outbuildings. We thought we found the house once, but we were wrong. The chimney was different and where were those darn diamond-shaped windows?

We never found the Fitzgerald-Brown House, but we did find Little Cherrystone. The narrow, three-story home is named for a nearby creek and appears to grow out of the landscape.

According to the book, Little Cherrystone was likely built before Pittsylvania County was founded in 1767 and is one of only four 18th-century brick houses in the county that “have survived the ravages of time.”

Little Cherrystone close
Little Cherrystone

One of the others is Belle Grove, which was built in the 1790s but purchased by a Crews in 1875. Another ancestral home for John! Not fair. I want an ancestral home. Perhaps we’ll find out where my ancestors lived when we go to the courthouse.

During our Sunday drive, we also visited the cemetery where John’s great-great-grandfather, William Henry Ramsey, and his wife, Rebecca Mahan, are buried.

Among family, William Henry is known as “The Colonel.” He was a lieutenant colonel in the 57th Virginia during the Civil War, was wounded at Pickett’s Charge, and later surrendered his unit at Appomattox. We have a picture of him on our wall, in his gray uniform, holding a sword.

He looks a lot like my husband, eerily so.

The cemetery is located on a dirt road in the Museville area of Pittsylvania County. In it, there are a few Ramsey and Shelton headstones and dozens (hundreds?) of unmarked, periwinkle-covered depressions.

For those who might not know this, periwinkle has long been used as a ground cover at cemeteries and can be useful in locating unmarked graves.

Mary Ramsey Stone
Mary Ramsey’s grave

I don’t know who is buried in those unmarked graves, but it’s possible they were slaves. According to the 1850 U.S. Census Slave Schedule, some Pittsylvania County Ramseys and Sheltons owned slaves. Perhaps that’s where they are buried.

Also buried there is Mary A. Ramsey. She was born Nov. 7, 1879 and died Oct. 12, 1887, just shy of her eighth birthday. During our visit, I took a photo of the tombstone and wondered aloud, “Who does she belong to?”

When I got home and looked at the photo, it was plain as day: Mary is the daughter of The Colonel and Rebecca. She’s my husband’s great aunt. When we go to the Pittsylvania County Courthouse, I’ll try to find out how she died.

At the bottom of Mary’s tombstone is a sweet poem:

A precious one from us has gone.
A voice we loved is stilled.
A place is vacant in our home.
Which never can be filled.
God in his wisdom has recalled.
The boon his love has given.
And tho’ the body moulders here,
The soul is safe in Heaven.

Very sad, but very sweet. I’ll leave you there.