52 Ancestors #3 – Mary Jane Buckner Willis

My great-grandmother, Mary Jane Buckner, was born January 20, 1856 in Alabama as the first child of John Buckner and Nancy M. Foster. There is no specific record of her birth although I believe her birth date was listed on a family group sheet prepared by my aunt and mailed to my daughter. While its accuracy is unsubstantiated it is likely true.

Mary Jane’s parents married in Blount County, Alabama in 1855 but had likely moved to Fayette County by the time of her birth, as had several members of both the Buckner and Foster clans [Blount County land ownership maps of the time show their families were neighbors].

We have found very little surviving information about her. A marriage index and three census records comprise all we know of her life.

1860 censusThe 1860 census (above) for Fayette County, Alabama lists her as Mary (4) along with her parents and brother, William (2), and sister, Sarah (four months). It  was quite a messy process to find the next record for her life. I did not find this family as a unit in the 1870 census and had to undergo vigorous searches for clues in order to find them.

After months of searching and interpreting what I found, I was finally able to conclude that John Buckner had died in 1862 of illness during the Civil War, when Mary Jane was 6. The 1866 Alabama state census, which only lists the name of the head of household and provides tic marks for other members of the household, showed the proximity of Nancy Buckner to Joshua Watson (enumerated with his first wife still living). Her father, Anthony Edward Foster, was also enumerated in the middle of that grouping.1866 censusThe tic marks are identified as follows: the first mark on the left represents William Buckner (the 2nd is the tally showing one male in the household); the next four represent Sarah and a new daughter born after the 1860 census, Mary Jane and Nancy. The right side is again a tally: 4 females for a total household of 5. The final tic mark is for a soldier who had died of sickness in the Civil War.

Fires at the Fayette County Courthouse destroyed many records. Betty C. Wiltshire managed to assemble a partial index of marriage partners and dates and occasionally the name of the person who performed the ceremonies, which she published in a book. Some of those marriages have also been listed on a rootsweb site for Fayette County; both Nancy Foster Buckner and Mary Jane Buckner are included in those marriage listings. Following the death of his wife, Phoebe Watson, in October 1867, Joshua married Nancy Buckner in January 1868.

The 1870 census, although I found it, provides confusing and erroneous information.1870 censusMuch of the 1870 census only lists the initials of household members. Joshua Watson was listed by his full name, which enabled me to find the record. Nancy was listed by initials so it took the additional information on the four Buckner children to ascertain this was the correct family, especially when M.J. [Mary Jane] was enumerated by initials as a 12-year-old male rather than a 14-year-old female. The record also had to be combined with other records to discern that brother William’s middle name was Rufus, and that the additional daughter born following the 1860 census was Medora.

The marriage record for Mary Jane Buckner and J. F. [James Franklin] Willis states it took place in the home of Joshua Watson on July 14, 1872. The 1866 Alabama census page from which I clipped the section showing Mary Jane’s family also listed J.F.’s mother, Amy Willis with a tic mark representing J.F.; in other words, they were neighbors.

1880 censusThe 1880 census shows the household still led by Amy Willis, J.F.’s mother, as co-housekeeper with Mary Jane. By June 1880, J. F. and Mary Jane had four children: Zildia (6), Margaretta (5), John William (3) and Rufus (1).

By the 1900 census, J. F. was still living with his mother and his younger children but listed as widowed, and the 1900 census for Mary Jane’s mother, Nancy Watson Saling, supported the information that J.F. was widowed in the indication that two of Nancy’s children had died. Although Mary Jane was not listed on the 1900 census, we do learn the names of her two additional children, Hamp (my grandfather) and Tommy, born in 1881 and 1883. 1900 census JF

The birth date of Tommy along with the 1900 census gives a time period of 17 years in which Mary Jane may have died. In reaching out to Mary Jane and J.F.’s great-grandchildren, we did get a copy of some notes handwritten by one of her grandchildren, Margie Willis [1918-2012] as she reflected on her own life. Although her information was incomplete, likely gleaned from snippets she heard over the years, she said of her Grandma Willis:

Margie's notesI’ve never been able to find information on Zildia; perhaps the reference to papa’s [John William Willis] sister was an indication that Zildia had died young and was never mentioned in Margie’s hearing; I presume the sister referred to was Margaretta who died sometime between 1901 and 1910. The indication that Grandma Willis died when she delivered a daughter may be an indication there was a child born after Tommy, perhaps around 1885 or 1886, that was a daughter and may pinpoint a more precise death date for Mary Jane.

Although we have a small number of pictures of J. F., we have found no pictures of Mary Jane, no records of her death and only family tradition to identify her burial location at Old Mount Lebanon Baptist Church Cemetery, the family’s local church. We would relish hearing from anyone whose family stories and photos might shed light on the life and character of Mary Jane Buckner Willis.


This blog was prepared as a part of Amy Johnson Crow’s  No Story Too Small 52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks Challenge.