Lots of historical happenings can make searching for your ancestors complex and/or difficult. For example, the 1890 census was almost completely lost in a fire; that leaves a twenty-year gap in which the high mortality rates, moving and remarriages often took place, making it harder to find them. Additionally, in Fayette County, Alabama there was also a fire in the County Courthouse following the Civil War that burned most of the marriage, birth, death, probate and land records that were recorded prior to the fire.
My great-grandmother, Mary Jane Willis nee Buckner, is one of those that has been difficult to track. We found a marriage license index that indicates she married J.F. Willis in 1872 in the home of Joshua Watson when she was, according to census records, 16. We found her listed in the 1880 census with her husband and children. The 1890 census was burned and she is missing from the family by 1900, although by the ages of the children living with J.F. we learned she had two more sons in 1881 and 1883.
Her husband, my great-grandfather, was a Baptist minister/preacher and, according to family tradition, they were buried [albeit at divergent times] in the cemetery on the grounds of the church where he pastored and attended at various times over the years – Mt. Lebanon Baptist Church. This fact is a little confusing because there is a Mt. Lebanon Baptist Church Cemetery and an Old Mt. Lebanon Baptist Church Cemetery, both of which have listings of those interred there and my great-grandparents aren’t listed in either one of them. When we visited Fayette County in 2002, a distant cousin and his wife took us to the fenced and locked grounds where the church and cemetery and their graves had been located [there is currently nothing on that land except the almost buried remains of a razed building and presumably still-buried bodies] and that location is different from the other two still existent cemeteries – in other words, there are no headstones to provide clues.
With no forward clues, the only thing to do was search for backward clues. There is an 1855 Blount County, Alabama marriage license index for a John Buckner marrying Nancy M. Foster. There is also an Internet source document on the Foster family that lists the Nancy M. Foster who married John Buckner as being the daughter of Anthony Edward Foster and Mary King Foster. We found an 1860 census for a John and Nancy Buckner with three children: Mary (4 years old and age appropriate to be my great-grandmother Mary Jane), William (2 years old) and Sarah (4 mos old). Neither John nor Nancy Buckner are listed in the 1870 census. Because of the Civil War, discovering a fighting-age man is missing in the 1870 census would give you the clue to search Civil War documents to see if you find him there. I did find a John Buckner who as a member of the 41st Alabama Calvary Unit was killed in 1863 and whose widow, Mrs. Nancy M. Buckner, filed the necessary documents to receive monetary benefits.
There was an 1866 Fayette County census in which I find a listing for Mrs. Nancy Buckner with four children: one son under ten, two daughters under ten and one daughter over ten. That would match the children’s ages from the 1860 census except that there is another daughter born after the 1860 census.
We found a marriage license indexing that shows Mrs. Nancy Buckner married Joshua Watson in 1868 in a ceremony that, if she is Nancy Foster Buckner, would have been officiated by her sister’s father-in-law. That same 1866 census shows Nancy Buckner living very near Joshua Watson, who was at that time living with his wife and children. Searching earlier census records for 1860 shows Joshua Watson and his wife, Phebe, living in Fayette County relatively near an older John and Rachel Buckner, who were likely John Buckner’s parents – in other words, Nancy likely had known Joshua Watson, who was a contemporary of her father-in-law, for many years.
The 1870 census supports the fact that Joshua Watson married Nancy Buckner because Joshua and Nancy are together in that census and have a son, John B. Watson, who is one year old. The four Buckner children are living with them, including that under ten daughter born after the 1860 census – Nedora Buckner born in about 1860-61. The information is, as is way too frequently the case, also confusing: the 1870 census most frequently listed initials rather than names and, although the older child has the right initials, M.J. (for Mary Jane), the sex is listed as male and the age is listed as 12 rather than 14. Since the other family information as well as children’s ages and initials match, my assumption is the census enumerator got sidetracked during the recording and made an error. A local cemetery listing indicates Phebe Watson, Joshua’s wife, died in 1867, which fits in with the time period in which the widower Joshua Watson married his widow neighbor, Nancy Buckner.
A few other details that would support Nancy Buckner being the daughter of Anthony Edward Foster are that following the death of her husband, Nancy was living not only in close proximity to the Watsons, but very near A.E. Foster Sr. and A.E. Foster, Jr – presumably her father and brother. Also, living very near were Mrs. Amy Willis and her young son, James Franklin or J.F.
That brings me full circle back to the license index for MJ Buckner and JF Willis. Additionally, the marriage index clue that the wedding was held in the home of Joshua Watson is another indicator that M.J. in the 1870 census was likely female, in that her wedding was held in the home of Joshua Watson and presumably hosted by her mother.
The Internet Foster family document listed that Nancy M. Foster Buckner died in 1869. Unfortunately, that information doesn’t fit with her being listed in the 1870 census, which indicates either the death date belongs to another Nancy Buckner or my great-great-grandmother was not Nancy Foster. There is another John and Nancy Buckner that were living in Blount County (who may incidentally have belonged to the Blount County marriage license) and who have a completely different group of children than the Fayette County John and Nancy Buckner. All the Ancestry.com family trees have used this Blount County John and Nancy Buckner and indicate this Nancy died in 1869; John than remarried, had additional children and died in 1876. Obviously, this is not the John Buckner who died in the Civil War nor, by extension, the Nancy M. Buckner who signed off as his widow, remarried and had other children after 1869.
The Blount County connection is not a stretch for the marriage license; Blount County is the next county northeast of Fayette County and is where John and Rachel Buckner, John’s presumed parents, were living in 1850 although they were in Fayette County in 1860. There are also land records for all the Buckners – John, Sr., John, Jr., Thomas, Levi – in Blount County.
Joshua Watson, who had lived in Tennessee near Memphis at the time of the 1850 census, but had lived in Fayette County for nearly twenty years, moved his family to Marshall County, Mississippi fairly near Memphis by the 1880 census. Although the record for his wife is confusing – her name is Nancy who, if she is Mary Jane’s mother, should be about 42 years old, but who is listed by the enumerator as being 60 years old in the 1880 census – the children’s first names generally match the children living with Joshua Buckner in 1870 (except the census enumerator listed the last names of the Buckner children as Watson). There are, additionally three more Watson children born during the decade that would have, if the age for Nancy is correct, have been born to a woman between 52 and 58 year of age.
Nancy’s second daughter, Sarah, married in 1890 in a ceremony in Fayette County held in the home of Mrs. Nancy Watson and her first son, William R. (for Rufus), married in 1892 in a marriage officiated by his brother-in-law, James Franklin Willis. Her son, John B. Watson, lived the majority of his adult life on a neighboring farm near what were presumably two of his mother’s first husband’s cousins – Ira C. and Charley Marvin Buckner.
Although at this time, I can’t be positive my great-great-grandmother was Nancy M. Foster, there is a large amount of circumstantial evidence that supports that theory. I would love to hear from someone who has photographs and supporting sources to either prove or disprove the direction my research has led me thus far – particularly photographs and the dates and locations for the deaths of my great-grandmother and my great-great-grandmother.