19th Century Families Built on Tragedy and Loss

As was often the case during the 19th century, Zedic Hamilton ‘Zed Hamp’ Willis was born into a family that had known its fair share of tragedy and loss. His parents, James Franklin and Mary Jane Buckner Willis had each lost their fathers to early death. According to probate files, J.F.’s father had died when J.F. was about two years old after having been ill for quite some time, leaving the family insolvent. His mother, Amy Collins Willis, had married her brother-in-law, William Jabez Willis, following the death of her sister, Judah, and completed the task of raising her nieces and nephew as well as the one child born to her from her marriage. Following the death of her husband, she lived as part of a trio of widows that included Sarah Collins Graham (her sister) and her three sons, and Eady Caroline Willis Ballenger (her stepdaughter and J.F.’s half-brother) and her two sons – a farm household of three women and six boys. So J.F. was raised by a single mother in a time when women usually had to have a husband just to survive.

Zed’s mother Mary Jane Buckner Willis’ father had died when she was about six years old as a result of illness contracted on a battlefield during the Civil War. After being a single parent for almost six years, her mother remarried a much older widower and added five more children to the four from her first marriage. Zed’s mother died sometime before 1900 – family tradition suggests she died in childbirth around 1885, when Zed was four. His father never remarried so the woman in Zed’s childhood home was his grandmother, Amy Collins Willis.

His father, J.F., was a Baptist minister who presumably was required to spend his days as a farmer to provide for his family because the monies paid to him by the churches he pastored was too minimal to suffice. Prior to leaving South Carolina, his father, mother and both sets of grandparents had participated in a church that focused on sin and discipline, where the congregation was encouraged to name names and deeds within the regular congregational meetings and those so named were disciplined by removal from the fellowship of the church family until they could show cause their behavior warranted a return to fellowship. [Not very pleasant reading but the link above is provided for anyone who wishes to review attitudes toward sin in early churches.] I suspect this resulted in a home environment of the mixed messages of love as well as guilt and punishment.

When Zed married Mellie Jane Welch November 15, 1900 in Fayette County, Alabama his family history merged with hers, which included its own pain and loss. Mellie Jane’s father had also been raised by a mother who remarried following the death of his father when he was about two years old (we tend to think blended families are a relatively new invention due to divorce but earlier times had them due to early deaths as well divorce and desertion). Mellie’s mother was the only one of either family raised in a home with both parents – although it’s difficult to imagine it was an ideal home since her father had a mistress living in the same small community with whom he had three children during the same years he was having children with his wife [full siblings born when Mollie was 2, 8 and 11 and half siblings born when she was 7, 9 and 11].

Compounding the losses they had already sustained, Zed and Mellie’s first child, a daughter, Mary Eunice, died shortly after she was born about 1902-1903. During the next few years, they had four sons and a daughter who were healthy and survived into adulthood. Those same years of adding children also included the deaths of the grandmother who had raised Zed, sometime between 1905 and 1910, and Mellie’s paternal grandmother as well as Zed’s sister, Margaretta Willis Ward who died leaving two sons, 14 and 10 to be raised in various households throughout their lives. Christmas Day of 1910, Zed and Mellie had another son and again in 1913 a sixth son. In about 1914 they had another daughter, Rachel, who also died as an infant.

Mellie’s sister Dena married Zed’s brother Rufus and two of their eight children died at birth – in 1916 their daughter, Estelle, and again in 1918, their son, Kilby. In addition to the personal losses within the family during this decade, our country was at war – World War I with friends and family being called to foreign lands to battle again for freedom and adding economic strain to the whole country.

Dena apparently did not fare well emotionally [family members who knew her said she was ‘crazy’ although she seemed quite normal to me when I met her in 1958]. The census records for Dena and Rufus show them living alternately in Fayette County, Alabama and Itawamba County, Mississippi. Then in 1936, Rufus committed suicide; my Aunt Rubye told me he stabbed himself in the heart as though that might stop the hurting in his heart.

In addition to the deaths of immediate family members, tracking Zed and Mellie through census and land records indicates a relatively unsettled life [map below shows their migration pattern]. They were both living with their families in Fayette County, Alabama for the 1900 census (marrying in November of that year) and their first three children were born in Fayette County in 1902, 1903 and 1904. By the 1910 census they were in Itawamba County Mississippi, about 60 miles northwest of Fayette County with children born in that county in 1906, 1907, 1909 and 1910. Their last son’s birth in 1913 was back in Fayette County. The 1920 census had them in Smithville, Mississippi, a community about 50 miles northwest of Fayette and about 17 miles south of their former home in Itawamba County. According to a letter from my aunt by marriage, Madge Lowell Willis, Zed and Mellie were in Purcell, Cleveland, Oklahoma by about 1923;, in Hockley County, Texas for the 1930 census; Oklahoma City in a 1936 city directory; and in Noble, Cleveland, Oklahoma from 1937 until Mellie’s death in 1938. Zed remained in Cleveland County until his death in 1942, although according to a 1942 draft registration, he was living in Norman rather than Noble.

Zed & Mellie Migration MapAlthough tragedy and loss still visit every family, we can be grateful to have been blessed in the progress of medicine and technology to give us better odds than those faced by our forebears.

My Family – 100 Years Ago – Saturday Night Genealogy Fun

Randy Seaver in this week’s Saturday Night Genealogy Fun has given us this mission:

Your mission, should you decide to accept it (cue the Mission Impossible! music) is to:

1)  Determine where your ancestral families were on 1 January 1913 – 100 years ago.

2)  List them, their family members, their birth years, and their residence location (as close as possible).  Do you have a photograph of their residence from about that time, and does the residence still exist?

3)  Tell us all about it in your own blog post, in a comment to this post, or in a Facebook Status or Google+ Stream post.

My grandparents, Zed Hamp and Mellie Jane Welch Willis were living in New Salem Precinct, Itawamba County, Mississippi April 23, 1910 when the census enumerator listed them. Their children at the time were Franklin (7), Thomas (6) [my daddy], John (4), Earnest (3) and Ruthy (1 yr 8 months). Mellie would have been early in her pregnancy with the next son, Rufus Rex who was born in December 25, 1910. They were family number 155 while family number 158 was Mellie’s brother, James W. Welch, and his wife, Pearlie, and their 3-year-old daughter, Brazzie.

On a visit to the library in Fulton, Itawamba, Mississippi in 2002, we found a 1912 listing of school students and all but Ruth were listed as students in Township 10, Range 9 of Itawamba County. This would have been two to three miles north of New Salem where they were for the 1910 census (Township 11, Range 9). I found an old Itawamba map that shows the township/range on it; I copied just that section to have some idea of where that was.1912 Township 10, Range 9 Itawamba County

By the time of the 1920 census they were just south of the New Salem location in Smithville, Monroe, Mississippi, which might indicate they were somewhere within a 25 to 30 mile straight line  in eastern Mississippi. However, another child, Lee Roy, was born May 17, 1913 and his birth location was Fayette County, Alabama, which was the marriage location as well as the birth location for the first three of their children (the first daughter died in infancy). Whether they had moved back to Alabama for a brief time between 1912 and May 1913 or whether Mellie had delivered a baby on a visit there is not known, although we did find a quit claim deed for 40 acres of land in Township 10, Range 9 that was conveyed in May 1919, which would indicate they were most likely living there from 1912 through 1919.1919 May Quit Claim Deed

Zed Hamp’s father and my great-grandfather, James Franklin Willis was born and died in Fayette County, Alabama. J.F.’s wife had died about 1883  and his mother sometime between the 1900 and 1910 censuses but he lived until 1926. On a trip to Fayette County in 2010, a second cousin, Charles Burns, drove us along Old Gin Road and pointed out locations where JF had lived. The land was totally overgrown with no homes anywhere along Old Gin Road. At the end of the road, we made a right turn onto Ballenger Road and Charles drove us by the last home location for JF when he lived with his son John William. We do have a photo of that home taken in 1961.

John Willis Home ca 1961

Although J.F.’s wife and my great-grandmother, Mary Jane Buckner Willis, had died sometime after 1883, and her father died during the Civil War, her mother lived until 1917. Nancy Foster Buckner Watkins Saling moved to Wise County, Texas sometime around the middle of the 1890s where she married for the third time in 1897. According to a Civil War pension file dated December 1913, Nancy had resided in Decatur, Texas for 20 years. On a trip to Wise County in 2011, we drove through areas we had found records about her and visited Oaklawn Cemetery in Decatur, Texas where she is buried.


My paternal grandmother Mellie’s parents, William Thomas and Mary Monroe ‘Molly’ Sanford Welch were living in Fulton, Itawamba, Mississippi at the time of the 1910 census. Also enumerated in the family home were Jessie Ellis (21), Lovie (16), Essie (15) and Myrtie (11). We do not have any photos of their home. Today would have been their  134th wedding anniversary, having married January 5, 1879 in Fayette County, Alabama at the home of his brother, James Alexander ‘Bud’ Welch. Mellie’s grandparents were both deceased prior to 1913 (in 1907 and 1911).

My mother’s parents, Jacob Wesley and Eva Keithley Lineberry were living in the Capitol Hill area of Oklahoma City. There are city directories for almost every year available on ancestry.com and the majority of them show them living at 318 Avenue D, which is approximately the 300 block of SW 26th Street in Oklahoma City. In 1908 he was a carpenter, 1910 a dairyman, 1913 working in feed and coal – from letters he wrote to his brother, he was actually working in feed and coal in Cushing, Oklahoma and only managing to come visit his family in Oklahoma City periodically.

1913 OKC Directory Listing

The children living in the home on Avenue D would have been Willie (11), Bernita (9), Johnnie (7), Leonard (5), Joe (3) and George (1); my mother would not be born for another year. We were sent a photo of their home by a distant relative who found it in a box of photos in Galax, Virginia, which is where Jacob was from – he had presumably sent it to his sister.

Eva, 3 kids & other woman OKCThe woman on the left is unidentified but the woman on the right is Eva and the children are Bernita, Johnnie and Leonard in Eva’s arms; the picture would have been taken about 1909.

Jacob’s father, George Alex Lineberry, had remarried in 1896 after the death of Jacob’s mother. George (67) and Amanda (37) and their five living children were enumerated the 1910 census in Sulphur Springs, Carroll, Virginia. He was a farmer in the Blue Ridge mountains and we do not have any pictures of his home.

1910 Census Clip

Eva’s parents were both deceased prior to 1913; her mother sometime around 1890 and her father in 1911. Her father was living in Joplin, Jasper, Missouri at the time of his death. Her paternal grandmother died in Lewiston, Fulton, Illinois in May 1912 and we have no information on her maternal grandparents.

None of the residences of my grandparents and great-grandparents still exist and I’ve never seen any of them; in fact all but Zed Hamp died before I was born and he died when I was one year old.