Monday, February 6, 2017

Mystery Monday: What's the What With David Whaley?

I’ve been researching my paternal Whaley family for a few months now. I know that a number of Whaley – children of Kit Whaley and his wives Julia and Grace – moved to Steubenville, Ohio in the early-mid 1900s, and that, before this, they lived in Baker Co., Georgia.

So I was pretty surprised when, as I was researching these Whaley siblings, I came across a 1918 Death Certificate for a 14-year-old “David Whaley alias Wilson” in Pittsburgh, PA. Huh?

As you can see, David’s parents are Kit Whaley and Julia Jones, from Georgia – it’s pretty likely he’s part of the same family I’ve been researching. But why is he in Pittsburgh, especially as a 14-year-old boy? (The other Whaleys appear to at least have been in their 20s when they left Georgia for Ohio.) And who is this Emma Wilson with whom he’s living? What’s the story here – what can I find out?

I’ve done a little digging and I have a hypothesis, but I need more evidence before I’m satisfied.

I’ve found Emma Wilson in the 1920, 1930 and 1940 census records for Pittsburgh. They state that she was born in Georgia, and suggest a birth date sometime between 1888 and 1894. Likewise, her husband Willis Wilson and their two children, Willis Jr., and Oscar, were also born in Georgia.

I've also found Emma Wilson’s death certificate. Again, her birthplace is given as Georgia. More importantly, it gives the names of her parents: Henry Jones and Margaret.

Remember: David Whaley’s mother is listed as Julia Jones. If Emma’s maiden name was also Jones and she’s also from Georgia, perhaps she and Julia are related.

So, I turned to the census to see what I could find in Georgia for a household with Henry and Margaret Jones.

Success! Here’s a household headed by Henry and Margret Jones in 1870 in…Baker County, GA, the same place we find the Whaleys! Notice that there's a 9-year-old Julia Jones in that household.

1880 gives us what appears to be the same family, still in Baker County, except that (because the universe never makes this easy) the mother is listed as Jones Jones. Notice that it lists both a Julia Jones and an Emma Jones as their daughters!

Now, here’s what’s challenging: the ages don’t match up. The Julia Jones who is married to Kit Whaley in the 1900 census was born about 1872, whereas the Julia Jones in the household of Henry and Margaret was born between 1861 and 1864. And the Emma Jones in that same household was born about 1873, whereas the information on our Pittsburgh Emma Jones suggests a birth year between the late 1880s and early 1890s.

Yet, we know that records – especially ones created when an individual is much older – can get birth years wrong. So I’m not ready to toss this Baker County Jones family aside. Instead, I’d like to look for more evidence.

But wait – I’ve found another tantalizing bit! Information about Oscar Wilson’s death is available on (remember, he’s one of the sons of Emma and Willis Wilson) and it say he was born in Tifton, GA.

A search on Ancestry for Willis Wilson in and around Tifton brought up both a marriage certificate for Willis Wilson to Emma Jones (Berrien County, 1899) and a 1900 Census Record for the pair (Berrien County). Berrien County is just a few counties east of Baker County, a modern drive of about an hour and 15 minutes.

Two things to notice about that census record:

1) Look at who else is listed on the page: a widowed Margret Jones, born about 1840:

2) And, look at the household with Carlie Jones, who has named two of his daughters Emma and Julia.

The Margret Jones on this census is the same approximate age as the mother of Julia Jones and wife of Henry Jones in the 1870 census. The Carlie Jones listed here is born within the date range for the Charlie Jones who is listed as a child of Henry and Margret in 1870 and again in 1880. (You can see him next to Julia in the relevant census snippets above.)

People often named their children after their siblings; this Carlie Jones is probably Henry and Margret's son. None of this seems like just a coincidence.

So my hypothesis is that 1) Emma Wilson and Julia Jones were sisters, and thus 2) that David Whaley was living with his maternal aunt Emma in Pittsburgh.

One thing I’m still missing, though, is clear proof that the Julia Jones who married Kit Whaley is definitely the Julia Jones whose parents were Henry and Margret Jones. So I’ll be hunting for anything that connects these three individuals: a birth record for Julia, records for her marriage to Kit Whaley (perhaps an application for a marriage license would have her parents’ names?), a death certificate, etc.

After that, there's still the question of why David was living with his (likely) aunt Emma in Pittsburgh, when almost all of his siblings were still in Georgia. I'll keep digging, but that'll be a story for another day!

Ideas? Suggestions? Please leave 'em in the comments section below!

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Upcoming Speaking Engagements!

I love genealogy, and every now and then I'm lucky enough to get to share that love publicly. Two such opportunities are coming up in February.

First, on Tuesday, 2/7, I and several other members of the awesome African American Genealogy Group (of Philadelphia) will be participating in a post-show conversation following the Philadelphia Theatre Company's production of Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters' First 100 Years, at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre. Details here, under the PEP and Special Events heading on the right:

Then, on Thursday, 2/16, I'll be the featured speaker for the Genealogical Society of Pennsylvania's Third Thursday program. In honor of Black History Month, the topic will be Finding Your African American Ancestors. Details here: (Note: the listing will be updated soon with a bio and details of my talk.)

Perhaps I'll see you there!

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Visiting the Cooper-Thomas Cemetery, Burke County, GA

**This looks like a long post, but it's full of pictures!**

Last July, my mother, sister and I traveled to Georgia to meet up with her siblings and extended maternal family at the Cooper-Cummings Family Reunion. While there were lots of nice moments at the reunion, some of which are pictured here, the highlight for me was absolutely getting to visit the family cemetery on our final day in Georgia.

Driving toward the cemetery, in Burke County, Georgia.

 A little over a year ago, I wrote a very excited blog post detailing my discovery of my maternal great-great-grandmother Scoatney Scott Cooper’s will. Written in 1924, the will describes how she would like her land – yes, her land – divided amongst her children, and it’s such an amazing record to have been left behind by a woman who was likely born in the early years of the Civil War. It is on this land that the Cooper-Thomas Cemetery rests.

Driving to the land from any of the surrounding cities requires traveling down ever-smaller highways and roads, until you leave paving behind altogether and kick up red dust as you drive down narrow dirt lanes.



The cemetery, and family land, are in Burke County, Georgia, near the unincorporated town of Gough. The land on which the Coopers lived (and on which some still spend their time) was simply Coopertown. Before they and their children moved up to Washington, DC, my maternal great-grandparents Noah and Nancy (Thomas) Cooper lived on this land, alongside Noah’s siblings like Julia, Daniel, and Andrew.

Noah Cooper and Wife Nancy (Thomas) Cooper
Watching the trees and fields go past as we drove, stepping out of the car into the dirt lane next to the cemetery, seeing the old buildings in Gough as we left – it felt like a trip not only through space but also time; I’ve always lived and worked in cities. 

This wooden shack sits on land that was owned by my great-grandfather Noah's brother Daniel.

The shack on Daniel's land.

Imagining the darkness at night, the sense of community but also of danger for African Americans clustered together in the wake of the Civil War and Reconstruction – I wonder what life was like for Scoatney, her husband July, and their kin on this land. What did they see and experience?*

The cemetery itself is fairly small. It’s surrounded on three sides by trees and brush, bordered on the other by a dirt lane, across which is a field. There were 44 burials that we could count, and perhaps more that have been grown over. 

Two views of the Cooper-Thomas Cemetery, and of the Cooper/Thomas descendants exploring it.

Not every grave appeared to be marked, and some that were were barely legible. Still, we tried our best to get down as much as we could about each grave and while my mother and sister took photos of each headstone or marker, I worked on a diagram of burials for future reference.

The three earliest headstones that remained at all legible were those in the upper right hand of the diagram above, numbers 5, 6, and 7:

Dedicated to the Memory of Jane P. Thomas...departed this life June 21, 1853

Bodner A. Thomas...Died Aug. 10, 1835

Dedicated to the Memory of William Thomas...June 15, 1853
The remaining numbered ones we noted as follows:
  • 1: toppled headstone of Jackson Keppler, died June 1909, aged 55.
  • 2: small stone (footstone?), no marks
  • 3: small stone (footstone?), no marks
  • 4: illegible gravestone
  • 8: small stone (footstone?), no marks
  • 9: small stone (footstone?), no marks
Most of the (legible) headstones are from deaths in the mid-late 20th century, but the cemetery is still active, with burials as recent as 2014. 

I don't know how everyone in the cemetery is related to me - many of the names are unfamiliar. But there are a few I recognized right off the bat: my great-great grandmother Scoatney Cooper, her daughters Mandana Sheely and Julia Cooper Davis, Julia's husband John Hildery Davis, and my great-grandfather's brother Andrew Cooper, on whose land the cemetery rests. There are others where I need to do some sleuthing, interviewing my living relatives (including Julia and John Davis' children!), and checking the historical record.

In any case, just being on the land where my ancestors lived, worked, played and died was a magical - almost unreal - experience. That tangible connection to the people who came before - the dirt, the tombstones, the landscape itself - I can't put into words was it meant to be able to be there. So many people don't know where their people are, or where they came from. My people - for at least 2 generations - were right there.

*Julia’s son (and Scoatney’s grandson) France Davis – who we chatted with at the reunion - writes about Coopertown and his childhood in his book, France Davis: An American Story Told. His brother Clarence drew us a map to help us find the cemetery!

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Hopes and Goals for 2017!

 Friends and Family, Happy New Year!

2016 was a pretty great year for my family history research. Almost 10 months of it were part of my great Year Off, giving me spans of free time and mobility to go off and research that working full time doesn’t allow for. I definitely took advantage of it!  

I attended a national genealogy conference in Fort Lauderdale; I took 2 trips to Alabama, getting to both conduct archival research and meet a branch of my maternal grandmother’s family that we hadn’t even known existed in the process; I attended my maternal grandmother’s family reunion in Georgia and not only got to connect with family I haven’t seen in years but also got to visit the family cemetery on ancestral land, with burials from the mid-1800s!; I visited my paternal grandfather and started a family history conversation that’s already opened doors to fascinating stories; and much more!

All of that said, I know that 2017 will be a different kind of year, not least of all because I have a full-time job again and won’t be doing the kind of travel last year involved. However, I have quite the backlog of information and stories to share, plus a few other hopes and goals for both my research and this blog in 2017.

Here are just a few:

  1. Get my family involved in guest-blogging. One of my original goals for this blog was that it wouldn’t just be about research, but about memories, and that it wouldn’t just be a place for my voice, but also for members of my family. Be it sharing a photograph, a quick story, or something more, I need to work harder to get my extended family involved in sharing.

  1. Publish at least 26 posts this year. I know this is only 1 post every 2 weeks, but I’m being realistic about the mental demands of my new job this year. If I do better than this, I’ll count it as a win!

  1. Work on clearing out my backlog of already-researched posts. There are quite a few stories that are pretty much written in my head, with the documents to support them in my possession, but that haven’t made it onto “paper” just yet. Like actual details about the Cooper Family Cemetery in GA (DONE!), or the mysteries I’m slowly unraveling on both my maternal and paternal lines, or even just an update on my quest to solidly research my 1870 ancestors (as a pre-cursor to Civil War and slavery research). I’m going to knock these out!

  1. Continue to work on making this blog readable, useful, and enjoyable. I want the stories to be engaging, the explanations of my research process to be easy-to-follow, and for my family to have no trouble finding information about specific people, places or topics.

I’m really looking forward to 2017, and to continuing to research and share stories of my family. I hope you’ll stick around and add your comments, questions, and helpful advice as I search, struggle along, and hopefully knock down a few brick walls!

Monday, November 14, 2016

The Fish Are Biting!

In genealogy circles, family history blogs are sometimes known as "cousin bait." It's a term I'm not necessarily in love with, because I think of my blog first and foremost as a way to *share* information, not solicit it, but even I have to admit, there's truth in the idea! Heck, I want people to reach out to me when they have information or stories I'm missing! I want this blog to allow me to connect with folks, whether they're family or they just love genealogy and history.

Well guess what? That's exactly what's happened recently!

About two weeks ago, I received a message connecting me with a young man - a high school student - who is descended from another branch of my Whaley line! With the help of one of his teachers, he's recently begun researching his family history, and lo-and-behold, they came across my "Time Traveling Along the Whaley Family Tree" post! If their research - and mine - is correct, his 3x Great-Grandfather is my 2x Great-Grandfather. That man, Kit Whaley, married (at least) twice, and we are each descended from his relationship with a different spouse.

I won't be sharing this young man's information online, for obvious reasons, but I have invited him to write a personal message to be shared here on the blog so he can say hello to my branch of the Whaleys. We'll see what happens from there!

Then, on the other side of my family, I actually received a message right here on the blog from a National Park Service employee, in regard to my Grandfather's time in the Civilian Conservation Corps. The camp at which he served  in the early 1940s was later turned into an NPS site and they are currently researching the history of the two all-black camps that were located there. While I don't have much information on my Granddad's service, I certainly hope I can be of help to them - the stories of the CCC camp workers deserve to be researched and told! And if I'm lucky, they'll have lots of info that I don't, info that will provide context to help us better understand my Grandfather's experiences there. How exciting would that be?!

So, score one for my blog as "bait," lol!

P.S. Yes, it's been mighty quiet around here. I've recently started a new job, so a lot of my brainpower is being used up learning a new body of knowledge for work. But I haven't abandoned my research, and I'll be posting as I can.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Time Traveling Along the Whaley Family Tree

Well, you know the first thing I did after visiting with my paternal grandfather was spend a few days researching my Whaley family roots. I'm actually surprised by how far back I was able to go in such a short amount of time! Armed with his memories, birth certificates that connect me to his dad (my great-grandfather), and the census and vital records available on and, I have a pretty credible chain that takes me back to a man named Joe Whaley, who was born about 1823! This makes him - my 3x Great-Grandfather - one of the earliest relatives on my family tree!

Here's a quick and dirty climb up the family tree, starting with my Great-Grandfather, Morris Lee Whaley. (Note: Because my grandfather is still alive, I'm not posting his personal information here. This is my general rule on this blog, for privacy's sake.)

This is the 1920 Census for Morris, living in Baker County, Georgia. He's barely a teenager - 13 years old - and living with his parents, my 2x Great-Grandparents, Kit and Grace Whaley:

He can also be found in Kit and Grace's household in 1910, though his name is written as "Moise," "Maise" or something similar. Given his age and the presence of siblings he would be close to, and even follow out of state, once they set off as adults, I have little doubt that this is him. His death certificate also gives Kit and Grace as his parents.

So, let's jump back a generation. And this is a 40-year jump. Here's Kit Whaley (sometimes listed as Kip or Kib. Or Kirt or Kitt, because, well, you know how it is!). It's 1880 and he's 23 years old, helping out his parents Joe and Sue Whaley as a farm laborer. And if Kit's age here is correct (other documents suggest it is), he was born about 1856, making him a pre-Civil War ancestor. He - and his parents and older siblings - were probably born enslaved.

1880 Census, Baker County, Georgia

Now let's take a smaller jump back in time, to the earliest census record I have for the Whaleys: 1870. It's definitely the earliest one I have for Joe and Sue, my 3x Great-Grandparents. And it's probably also the earliest for my 2x Great-grandfather, Kit. But if you look closely, you'll see why I say "probably".

1870 Census, Baker County, Georgia

Yeah, instead of a male Kit, there's a female Kittie listed. (Oh Census gods, why do you do this to me??) The age is right. I guess it's possible that Kit had a twin sister, though there's no other evidence of that anywhere (although if you look again at 1880, you'll see there does appear to be a set of twins). More likely, the census taker simply got his or her info wrong, or perhaps the family was hesitant to provide information about their oldest son residing in the house at a time when tensions in the country were still running high. (1870 is during the post-Civil War Reconstruction Era. It was a time of great promise for African Americans, but also great hostility towards them, especially in the South.)

A few other things to note:
  • As with Morris' connection to Kit, Kit's death certificate is an additional piece of evidence naming Joe Whaley as his father.

  • If you look at the 1870 Census, you'll see that Joe, Sue and their older children are listed as having been born in South Carolina. While this isn't repeated on most other records I've found to date, the 1910 Census does list Kit and his mother as being born in SC. It's a possibility I'll have to explore. 

  • Looking at the ages of Joe and Sue's children, some were born during slavery and others after. Assuming Sue was enslaved, can you imagine, bringing free children into the world after having born children during slavery?

  • As with other branches of my family - and so many other African American families as well - it seems the Whaley story is one of moving north for a chance at a better, safer future. As my grandfather tells it, when his father Morris was a young man, the family actively worked to get its young men out of the south. Racial violence was heating up - including lynchings - and they wanted their sons out of such clear danger. Between 1920 and 1924, two of Morris' brothers had moved to Steubenville, Ohio, and Morris himself arrived by 1930. My grandfather says as each family member moved north, they worked to pave the way for someone else to join them. By 1934 at least one sister had it to Ohio, and by 1940, two more of Morris' brothers had joined them, meaning at least 6 Whaley siblings made the move north from Georgia in a little over a decade.

Obviously there's a lot more to learn about my Whaley ancestors. And I haven't even touched on my grandfather's mother's family yet! We'll see what else I find; as usual, stay tuned for more documents, and hopefully the stories behind them!

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Midwestern Snaps and Surnames

Chicago, the final stop of my Midwestern trip

I'm just settling in back home after a pretty interesting (and at times super fun) week-long trip to the Midwest. I hung out with my grandmother in Ohio and got to show her a few yearbook pictures of her and her siblings that she hadn't seen in years (score one for the internet!). Then my aunt and I went on a mini-road trip to West Virginia for the main purpose of my trip: interviewing her father, my grandfather, about his family history. And finally, I swung past Chicago for a great few days of catching up with a college friend, meeting her husband for the first time (I was at the wedding, but he was a *bit* busy), and loving up on their adorable baby girl. It was a good trip! Here are a few snaps and notes:

This is my great-uncle Ray West pictured as a first grader in Yorkville, Ohio! 
He is one of four siblings pictured in the 1954 Ductillite, Yorkville High School's yearbook. 
(Second row, far right, look for the chocolatey male.) 
Adorable, right? U.S., School Yearbooks, 1880-2012 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Operations, Inc., 2010.

The hills of West Virginia, viewed from my paternal grandfather's home.
The Ohio River Valley, on both sides of the river, has been home to many members of my paternal family in recent generations.

My aunt, my grandfather and I took an "usie"to commemorate the trip.
This was our first meeting in over 20 years. But now that we're talking family history, we'll be keeping in touch. From him, I now know the names of my paternal great-grandparents, their other children, and assorted aunts and uncles, and know I need to be searching Georgia and Virginia for more info. Among other surnames, I'll be researching Whaley (of course), and Littlejohn. 

Oak Street Beach, on the shore of Lake Michigan in Chicago.  
It may be blasphemy to even say the word Michigan when your family loves Ohio State, but I gotta tell ya, after a few days of planes, trains and automobiles, plus family history research, sitting on that beach with the warm sun on my skin, the sound of the waves breaking at the shoreline, a good magazine in my lap and a good friend by my side was a great way to spend an afternoon!

Now that the ball is rolling on my Whaley family research, stay tuned for more posts as I dig in! But with this plus Operation DC, and whatever lucky hits I get on my Evans and Harris families in Alabama and my Coopers in Georgia, I've got a lot on my research plate. Throw in one last international trip before my Year Off is over and an impending job search, and I've got a lot on my life plate, though, so please be patient with me!