The Fascinating Facts, Fiction, and Frustrations of Family History and My Obsessive Desire to Possess Them All.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

When the Mississippi Ran Backwards

People have different reasons for doing genealogical research.  Some want to be related to famous historical figures.  Some strive to go as far back as possible.  Some want to find distant cousins and make connections.  That’s not me.  I want to know my people.  Part of knowing them is learning about how they lived day-to-day and how they reacted to what was going on around them.
Daniel Boone Escorting Settlers through the Cumberland Gap George Caleb Bingham (1851-2)

Many of my father’s family lived in Southeast Missouri around 1800.  They emigrated from North Carolina and settled in what is now Bollinger County.  They were largely farmers and ran mills to process grains into flour.  There was little trouble with the Native Americans in the area.  It was a hardscrabble existence but life was good for my ancestors.  That was all to change on December 16, 1811. 

US Geological Survey
Publication GIP118

The first of the Great New Madrid Earthquakes occurred.  Because there were no seismographs at the time, scientists have estimated the first to be of at least a magnitude of 7.  Over the next 3 months, 2 more large (7-8 magnitude) earthquakes occurred.  The quakes were felt as far away as Pittsburgh, PA and Charleston, SC.  
The Maryland Gazette
(Annapolis, MD)
Feb 13, 1812

As the area was sparsely populated by European-Americans, there were not many eye-witness accounts of the happenings.  There were reports of the ground heaving and large chasms opening.  The log buildings of the area actually held up fairly well, the logs allowing for some flexibility but the stone chimneys fell leaving the settlers with no means of heat – and it was winter.  Some fled to boats thinking the Mississippi to be safe during the shaking but the great movement of the earth under the water made the river flow backwards for a time and left the riverbanks devastated and nowhere for the boats to safely dock.

During the months after the initial quake, aftershocks, some large themselves, were constantly felt – as many as 2 or 3 per day.  The ground was constantly in motion.  What may have been your farm pond may suddenly raise and flood your crops and home.  Sand may heave up onto what was once productive cropland.  It was years before the shaking subsided completely.  The effects can still be seen today in the area.  Although my ancestors stuck it out, many people fled the area.

Tree with Double Set of Roots
from the New Madrid Earthquake
Near Reelfoot Lake, TN

 In 1815 the Federal Government passed the New Madrid Relief Act, the first disaster relief act in US history.  Naturally, that lead to the first fraud of a disaster relief act.  The government plan allowed a landowner in the affected area to swap their land for other unowned land in the Missouri Territory.  Communications of the time being what they were, many speculators of St Louis and the large cities of the East converged on the rural area before the local citizens were aware of the program.  Residents sold their farms cheaply to the speculator who, in turn, exchanged it for more valuable land, typically near St Louis.  Not to be outdone however, the locals soon began selling their land multiple times leaving court battles to rage for years afterward.  While I have no evidence my ancestors engaged in such activities, it’s entirely possible.

They say, “May you live in interesting times.”  Genealogy is so much more than names of parents and dates of birth.  People then, as now, were products of their times.  Knowing the trials and tribulations your ancestors experienced is as important as their successes.  Hopefully some of their grit and determination has passed on to current generations. 

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

The Heitmans: Coming to America

When people think of their ancestors immigrating to America two scenarios usually come to mind – the story of the Pilgrims and the Mayflower or the ‘huddled masses’ arriving at Ellis Island.  What about the thousands of Europeans who arrived between those times? 

Almost all of my ancestors immigrated in the 1700’s.  The Pilgrims arrived in 1620 and Ellis Island operated from 1892-1924 so my folks fell into the ‘in between’ category.   The last of these ancestors to arrive was my 3x Great Grandfather Christian Heitman (1810-1880) and family.  They are listed on the passenger list for the ship “Element” arriving at New Orleans from Bremen, Germany on January 9, 1846.

Germany in the 1800's
When Christian left home, Germany was not the unified country it is today.  Then it consisted of loosely allied principalities ruled by various princes, dukes, and other monarchs.  On the passenger list Christian lists his home as Hanover, an area in what is now northern Germany.  Christian lists his occupation as farmer and is traveling with his wife Sophia, his 4 children (ages 3-11), and his widowed father, Heinrich, age 69.  It is not known what motivated this family to pack all their belongings in 4 boxes and move to the other side of the world.  Perhaps it was the lack of opportunity in their homeland or the promise of cheap farmland drew them to the United States.  Whatever the reason, they listed their destination as New Orleans.

Passenger List of "Element"
arrival January 9 1846

Travel was done by sailing ship at this time.  Steamships did not come into Trans-Atlantic use until the 1850’s.  The trip took 10-24 weeks, depending on weather and destination.  We can imagine that The Heitman’s trip was one of the longer ones as they were traveling all the way from the North Sea to the Gulf of Mexico.  Sanitation was often a problem and sometimes disease would breakout amongst the passengers.  Food supplies may run low if the weather caused the trip to be longer than planned. But boredom was the most common complaint of immigrants. My kids thought 3 days in the mini-van to the Grand Canyon was arduous; imagine 4 months cooped up with nothing to look at but the ocean.   Of the 177 passengers on the “Element”, 4 died and 2 babies were born enroute.

"New-Orleans (Louisiana)"
Lewis Henry (1819-1904) artist

New Orleans became part of the United States with the Louisiana Purchase in 1803.  By 1840 New Orleans was the wealthiest and 3rd largest city in the US.  It must have been quite a sight for the new arrivals.  Although New Orleans was their destination on the passenger list, the Heitmans soon left for Cape Girardeau, Missouri, probably traveling by paddle-wheeler up the Mississippi.  I am unsure why they picked that area to settle.  There was an established German community there but most of those folks came from North Carolina in the early 1800’s.  Many times immigrants were joining family already settled in an area but there were no other Heitmans listed in the early census records.  There were other passengers on the “Element” destined to St. Louis so perhaps the Heitmans were convinced to go north by them.  They are listed in the 1850 census of District 14 of Cape Girardeau County.


In 1849 Christian purchased 40 acres of land in Bollinger County.  In 1854 he purchased an additional 80 acres and had moved his family of now 10 children there.  His children married into the established German families of the area, the Hahns, the Conrads, and the Younts.  It does not appear that any family members later joined the Heitmans from Germany.  Christian died in 1880 and is buried in Yount Community Cemetery in Perry County, Missouri.  His wife, Sophia, lived until 1902 and is buried with him. 

One has to admire Christian Heitman and his desire to better his life in the United States.  He packed up his entire family to move over 4000 miles to strange land, knowing no one at his destination.  What an adventurous spirit, what courage this took.  He was just one of many to make this journey but that does not diminish what he accomplished.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

The Buchanans and Bibbs : Family Lore – Fact vs Fiction

My Great-Aunt Athena did genealogy the old-school way before the internet.  Writing letters to courthouses and reading unindexed census records on fuzzy microfilm.  She would cold-call people in distant cities who happened to share the surname she was researching just to pick their brains on their grandparents.  She was the keeper of family stories.  But does the family lore hold up to modern scrutiny?  

Before she died I got some of her notes on the Buchanan and Bibb families.  She noted:  Duncan Buchanan emigrated from Scotland.  His mother died on the voyage over.  The Buchanan brothers married Bibb sisters and B. F Bibb married Jane Buchanan.

Let’s separate fact from fiction.
Duncan Lemonds Buchanan (1841-1923)
Mary E. Bibb Buchanan (1850-1901)
Original from Ray Buchanan

My 2x Great-Grandfather is Duncan Lemonds Buchanan.  He was born Jun 6, 1841 in Carroll County, Tennessee and died October 8, 1923 in Stoddard County, Missouri.  Duncan served in the Union Army in the Civil War and moved to Missouri about 1869.  So not born in Scotland.  However, his father, also named Duncan, consistently lists his nativity as Scotland.  Duncan Sr. married Margaret Lemonds about 1828 in North Carolina.  Their oldest child, Daniel was born 1830 in Montgomery County, NC.  They had 5 more children, moving to Tennessee about 1835.  I haven’t yet found a ship’s manifest listing Duncan Sr.’s voyage to America but he looks to have arrived as a young man probably traveling with his parents.  So she may have had the wrong Duncan but we’ll give a pass for that family lore.

Benjamin Franklin Bibb

Benjamin Franklin Bibb (1829-1920) is in Carroll County the same time period as the Buchanans.  Years ago when I was first starting my internet genealogy research I posted Aunt Athena’s notes on a genealogy message board.  I got a response from a descendant of BF Bibb of Greene County Arkansas. She was searching for BF’s parents excited at this new information.  However, she had BF’s wife as Jane Pattisoll, married in St Francis County, Arkansas.  I had to humbly tell her I was a noob and this was just family stories and I had no documentation to back it up.  

Since then I have dug up more information.  I believe, based on BF’s census and probate records, that BF from Carroll and BF from Greene are the same person.  BF’s daughter, Paralee’s death certificate lists her mother’s name as Jane Buchanan.  Her husband was the informant.  However, BF’s pension request (he fought with the CSA in Missouri) names his wife as Jane Pattisoll married abt 1851 in St Francis AR, though his oldest child in born in Carroll TN. 

So why did BF go all the way to Arkansas for a wife? Explaining discrepancies is part of genealogy.  In the 1850 census, BF in 18 years old, living with the Elijah Faulkner family as a farm hand, 2 doors down from (who I believe to be) his brother William Bibb.  Based on an (unsourced, I know, take with a grain of salt) Ancestry posted family tree, Elijah Faulkner dies in 1856 in St Francis AR.  Of note:  The St Francis County Courthouse burned with loss of all records in 1874.  There are no marriage records to reference.  There is a Pattisoll family in that county in the 1860 census.  So it is entirely plausible that BF went to Arkansas with his employer, met and married Jane and returned to Carroll County to start his family. One should take more credence in first-hand information (BF’s pension request) than second-hand (the son-in-law’s recollection). So I think Aunt Athena got this one wrong.

Carroll County, TN

The Buchanan brothers married Bibb sisters. 
Duncan Lemonds Buchanan married Mary Elizabeth Bibb March 8, 1866 in Carroll, Tennessee.  His brother, John Angus, married Sophonia Bibb abt 1876 in either Carroll TN or Stoddard County, Missouri.  But how are Mary and Sophronia related? 

According to her tombstone, Mary Bibb was born January 13, 1850.  I have not found her in the 1850 census but in Carroll County of 1860 she is, at 10 years old, living in the Edward & Caroline Williams household.  Is she related to them?  Edward Williams married Caroline Swinney January 18, 1859.  Looking through all the marriage records of Carroll County I found David L. Bibb married Frances Swinney Feb 9, 1843.  David and Frances are listed in the 1850 census but no child named Mary.  It’s possible Mary’s birth year was recorded incorrectly at some time.  So it perhaps Mary was living with her aunt (Caroline and Frances were sisters) at the time of the 1860 census.  

What about Sophronia?  According to cemetery records she was born October 13, 1853.  I have not located her in the 1860 census (and I was unable to locate the David Bibb family in 1860) but she is in the 1870 Carroll County census living with the Daniel McLeod family.  Also living in the house is Octavia Bibb (daughter of William Bibb) married to Norman McLeod.  Sophronia doesn’t appear with the William Bibb family in earlier censuses but it’s likely she is related somehow. 

So nothing clearly records Mary and Sophronia as sisters.  However, nothing contradicts it either.  I have written to the Carroll County courthouse requesting estate information for David Bibb and his wife Frances. Maybe there will be clues in his heirs.

So the final family lore?  To Be Determined.