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

Thursday, October 27, 2016

(Train) Tracking William Taylor Slaughter

My great-grandfather, George B Slaughter, was a railroad man.  His father, William Taylor Slaughter, was a railroad man and his son likely would have been one too had George not died when his son was only 2 months old.

Frisco Watch Inspection Card for
G B Slaughter
(in possession of author)

 William Taylor “WT” Slaughter (1848-1927) has been a difficult ancestor to track.  I know he was married in 1876 in Obion County, Tennessee.  He was in the 1880 Federal census in Weakley County, Tennessee.  By 1900 he had moved to Southeast Missouri where he lived the remainder of his years.  Much circumstantial evidence puts him as born in Meriwether County, Georgia in 1848 and living in Tallapoosa County, Alabama in 1860.  However, he is not with his family in Gadsden, Etowah County, Alabama in 1870 and I have not been able to locate him anywhere in the federal census for that year.

Save for one instance WT declares his occupation as railroad related:
1880 (Federal Census, Weakley TN) – Engineer
1900 (Federal Census, Dunklin MO) – Farmer
1910 (Federal Census, Cape Girardeau MO) – Hostler RR (someone who moves
                                                                    trains around in the train yard)
1912 (City Directory, Cape Girardeau MO) – Fireman
1920 (Federal Census, Scott Co MO) – Engineer, retired

Frisco Rail Yard
Chaffee, MO
c 1914

The Slaughters were employed by the St Louis – San Francisco (Frisco) Railway which ran through southeast Missouri in the early 1900s.  Frisco had a roundhouse in Chaffee, Missouri where the Slaughters lived in 1920 and thereafter.  Though it had lofty goals, the railroad never actually made it to San Francisco concentrating more in Missouri, Oklahoma, and Texas. 

However, Frisco did not run in Western Tennessee where WT lived before 1900.  So what railroad employed him?  Would that help me find him in 1870?

In 1876 WT married Margaret Neoma Ellis in Obion County, Tennessee.  The Ellis family lived just outside of Union City.  According to Obion History books, Union City was a crossroads of railroads.  The East to West railroad was Nashville, Memphis and St Louis (NC&StL) and North to South the Gulf, Mobile and Ohio (M&O).  WT lived in Greenfield, TN in 1880.  The M&O railroad ran through that town.  So it’s likely WT worked for the M&O railroad as an engineer in 1880.  He could have worked for either line in 1876.  According to the History of Greenfield, the railroad didn’t come through until 1873, the first dwellings built there in 1875 so WT couldn’t have been there in 1870. So where was he?

Railroading has a colored history in the United States.  Many fortunes were made and lost over the years building and operating rail companies.  When our country was first settled by Europeans, rivers were the best means of transport of goods.  The frontier had paths not roads.  It was not until the 1830’s that the railroad industry began to grow.  A small group of investors (usually the community leaders) could pool their resources and build a small rail line to connect with a main system for the sole purpose of moving their own goods to market.  These small companies were often bought by a large railroad or sometimes failed to make a profit and went defunct.  Companies came and went with alarming frequency.

Daily Ohio Statesman
Columbus OH
23 Aug 1867
The Civil War brought havoc to the railroads in the south.  Lines were damaged by both sides in an effort to keep the enemy from shipping supplies.  The M&O was no exception.  After the war, the executives reported the entire line across Tennessee was in need of repair.  However, this also brought opportunity.  Gadsden became an industrial center of Alabama.  A young man, like WT, with some mechanical skills would likely be drawn to the town for work.  Many workers were needed to repair rail lines and this could have taken WT across several states in the 1870’s. One of the railroads thru Gadsden connected with the M&O in Mississippi.   It’s entirely plausible that a migrant worker like this would have been not enumerated at all in the 1870 census.

Memphis (TN) Daily Appeal
23 Oct 1871
Railroad work was difficult and dangerous.  Most people identify train robberies with the Wild West, but they happened in Tennessee as well.  Workers would strike over poor working conditions and this could lead to violence in the railyard.  It’s possible WT moved from company to company, state to state, as jobs started and ended.  Railroad employment records could help me find WT, however not many from the 1870’s still exist.  So discovering which railroad(s) he worked for may be impossible.  

But I haven’t yet given up on finding WT in 1870.  I’m obsessive after all.  

William T Slaughter
M Neoma Slaughter
Fairmount Cemetery, Cape Girardeau MO

Friday, October 14, 2016

Where was David Robinson in 1870?

A common practice of genealogists is finding their ancestors in all census records available.  This helps identify geographical movements, children’s names (where noted), and neighbors who may also be kin. I have a spreadsheet that I have check-marked years as I find each record for an ancestors’ lifetime.

Notably missing is the 1870 census record for David Robinson, my 3rd Great Grandfather.  David was born in 1818 in Southeast Missouri.  He married Jane Seabaugh 10 Aug 1841 in Cape Girardeau County, Missouri.  I have located him living in Cape County in 1850, Bollinger County in 1860 and 1880.  He died in Patton, Missouri 27 Sep 1897.  He and Jane had several children, including David Jr. my 2nd Great Grandfather born in 1854.

I have scoured the 1870 census pages for David and family but they are nowhere to be found.  It doesn’t seem likely for David to move away and come back.  Perhaps that page of the census has been lost or illegible.  Or perhaps David had other reasons for avoiding the census taker.

The 1870’s were difficult times in Southeast Missouri.  The Civil War had just ended and the area was still rebuilding.  Missouri did not join the confederacy but many folks in the area had immigrated from Tennessee and North Carolina and sympathized with the South.  Each side set up ‘home guards’.  No major battles were fought in the area but constant skirmishes between the home guards, military detachments, and guerilla fighters left towns and agriculture in ruins.  Being confederate sympathizers (and some former rebel soldiers), people there were not happy with the government in general.

So, given these harsh conditions, how was David to support his family? Likely he did what many of his neighbors did, set up an illicit distillery.  Yup, moonshine.

1870s Excise Tax Stamp

 As this was way before Prohibition (1920-1933), a person could make liquor but you had to have a federal license (or stamp) for your still.  In 1872 a stamp cost $25 – around $500 in today’s money – much more than poor farmers like David could afford.  These federal excise taxes were introduced in 1862 along with the income tax to pay for the war.  After the war the income tax was allowed to expire but the excise taxes remained.  These taxes made up over 1/3rd of the government’s income so they were strictly enforced.

1880 Census of Bollinger Co Missouri
John Bollinger and David Robinson

John Bollinger
  On 11 Jan 1872 David Jr. married Mary Emeline Bollinger, the daughter of John Bollinger.  In 1880 the Robinsons, including David Sr., were living next-door to the Bollingers.  I located a newspaper article from 1878 describing the criminal case of John Bollinger in St Louis Federal court for illegal liquor manufacture.  (Evading the excise tax was a federal offense.)  The article describes John as an old man but a persistent and determined offender.  Another article describes the arrest of Damon Robinson for the same offense.  Damon was a cousin of David Sr.  Other articles from newspapers across the country describe southeast Missouri as a hotbed of illicit whisky manufacture, citing numerous arrests and destruction of stills.   At one point the militia had to be called in as backup for the federal agents against a mob of local citizenry determined to keep them out. 

St Louis (MO) Post Dispatch
July 12, 1878

So it’s likely David was also involved in this illegal activity.  Avoiding government agents, even just a census taker, may have been a normal response.  A thorough search of the archives of the Federal Court dockets may yield an arrest or conviction.  Something for the to-do list.  By the turn of the century the Robinsons and their neighbors in southeast Missouri settled back to agriculture as a profession.  David Jr. died in 1922 and is buried in Patton Missouri.

 Also interesting to note, several of the newspaper accounts describe the women in these situations as being profane and abusive to the federal agents.  I prefer to think of it as strong-willed and determined in defense of their family and homes, at least when it comes to my heritage.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Hiram Smith Neely and the Fort Pillow Massacre

Recently I was involved genealogy group discussion about vacations and genealogy research.  Members talked about planning their travels around visiting ancestor locations.  I cannot do that.  My husband has no interest in genealogy and I can’t imagine him waiting outside a county clerk’s office while I look up old documents.  Likewise, my kids would never put up with me dragging them to a middle-of-nowhere cemetery to find final resting places of people long dead.  I can accept that.  They aren’t obsessive like me.

However, my husband does have an interest in history, particularly of the Civil War.  So, now as empty nesters, I was able to convince him to make a side trip to a Civil War battlefield this summer where my 2nd Great Grandfather fought.  

Hiram Smith Neely's
Civil War Service Record

Hiram Smith Neely was born in 1837 in the small town of Hornbeak located in the western part of Tennessee.  Although Tennessee did secede from the Union in 1861 there was much division of sentiment in the state.  Both Union and Confederate units were formed here.   In December of 1863, Smith and his brother, John, joined the Union 13th Tennessee Cavalry also known as Bradford’s Battalion.  

This unit was involved in one of the more controversial battles of the Civil War.  In April of 1864, Smith and his unit were stationed at Fort Pillow, Tennessee, a small bastion on the Mississippi River, just north of Memphis.  Making up about half of the men assigned to this post was a unit of African-American soldiers.  The Union deployment of black soldiers had profoundly angered the Confederacy.  As a result The South passed laws saying any black soldier captured would be tried as a slave insurrectionist, a crime punishable by death.  African-Americans who enlisted showed extraordinary bravery in light of the consequences if they were captured in battle.  

Around Fort Pillow, the sight of black soldiers caused outrage and fear with the area citizens uncomfortable with seeing former slaves in uniform and armed.   These Rebel sympathizers appealed to the Confederates to rid the area of these black soldiers.  Their cry was heard by Nathan Bedford Forrest, a southern General known for his ruthlessness.  While Fort Pillow was not necessarily a strategic position, it did have a large store of supplies that the confederates desired.  On April 12, 1864 the battle commenced.

Via National Archives
photo in public domain

 Within a few hours the Confederate force of about 2000 overwhelmed the 600 or so Union men of Fort Pillow.  The Neely family story goes that Smith and John were going down to the river to surrender when they heard that the Rebels were not taking prisoners but just shooting all Union soldiers.  They decided against surrender and rather they would just go home.  Yes, they deserted.
Official reports differ as to what actually happened at Fort Pillow.  Northern accounts say the CSA continued to shoot soldiers after they had surrendered.  Forrest contended the fort never surrendered and therefore no quarter was given.  While the CSA suffered negligible loses, almost half of the Union soldiers were killed.  And of the remainder only about 20% of the black soldiers were taken prisoner while 60% of the white soldiers were listed as POWs.  Others, like my 2x Great Grandfather, were not accounted for.

The National Republican
Washington DC
April 15, 1864

The “Massacre at Fort Pillow” as it became known in the North caused much discussion in the press and reached the highest levels in Washington.  Southern newspapers termed it a minor victory and blasted wild Yankee exaggerations.  President Lincoln polled his cabinet as to what his response should be.  It was agreed that for every black soldier that had been killed it should be returned in kind.  While that policy never went into effect, General Grant insisted captured African-American soldiers be treated the same as white POWs.  When the South balked at that Grant suspended prisoner exchanges.  Prisoner exchanges had been common during the Civil War.  Captured troops signed a largely ignored ‘loyalty oath’ promising to not fight again and were traded for captured troops from the other side.  Suspension of prisoner exchanges lead to overcrowding in POW camps resulting in atrocities like those in the notorious Andersonville (where unfortunately some of the Fort Pillow POWs were sent).  It is incredible how such a small battle had such a profound effect on the entirety of the Civil War.


The battle of Fort Pillow is also featured in the novel and mini-series Roots, with the author’s ancestor, Chicken George, being one of the black soldiers of the fort.  A museum dedicated to this part of history is located in nearby Henning, Tennessee.

Hiram Smith Neely married Sarah Jane Rhyne Aug 7, 1856 in Obion County Tennessee.  They had 3 children, including my Great-Grandfather Thomas Andrew, before Smith went off to war.  They had 3 more children after he returned and about 1875 moved to Southeast Missouri.  Sarah died in 1882 in Stoddard County, Missouri.  Smith applied for a Civil War pension in 1891 but he was denied because of the desertion.  Frankly when his choices were death or Andersonville, I think he made the wise decision.  Smith died May 5, 1901 in Dunklin County, Missouri.

Fort Pillow State Park
Battlements 2016
Photo by author

Fort Pillow today is a small state park.  The trenches and fortifications are largely being overtaken by the forest and the channel of the Mississippi has moved west such that the battlefield no longer borders the river.  Although much has changed, standing there I can still imagine the chaos and the life-and-death decisions made by my ancestor over 150 years previous. 

Read More:
National Park Service Battle Summary – Fort Pillow

Controversy at Fort Pillow – History. com

Alex Haley Museum in Henning , Tennessee

Tennessee State Parks – Fort Pillow

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Adventures in Genetic Genealogy – Part 1 “Who’s your Daddy?”

The latest tool in every genealogist’s tool box is the DNA test.  This post will focus on the Y-DNA test, the one that men only take to determine the patrilineal line.

To best understand your results and accurately gauge your expectations you really need to know a little about the science of genetics and DNA.  It’s been a long time for me since high school biology class but here goes:  Every cell in your body contains your DNA.  Strands of DNA are wound up and organized into dense structures of genetic material called chromosomes. Humans have 46 chromosomes – 23 pairs.  DNA is in the shape of a double helix – a twisty ladder like in the picture.  The ladder rungs are called Base Pairs.  There are 4 different bases and the different sequence they fall into codes for different genetic traits.  Not all genetic traits are constantly expressed in every cell, which allows them to do different functions, like be a liver cell or a white blood cell.  On your 46 chromosomes there can be a million ladder rungs each – so you can see how many different possibilities of sequences there can be. DNA is found in the cells of all living beings from fungus to human.  It is the different sequencing that determines our differences whether it is a completely different species or just different hair color.

All of your body cells contain identical DNA, except the sperm and the egg (whichever ones you make).  They contain only 1 chromosome of each pair (23 instead of the normal 46).  So when the two combine – The Miracle of Life -- you get exactly ½ your DNA from each of your parents for a complete set of chromosomes. 

HOWEVER, even though your father and mother each got ½ of their DNA from their respective parents, it does not mean you got exactly 25% of your DNA from each of your grandparents.  Each sperm and egg is unique among themselves.  This is why you are just alike but not identical to your siblings.  When the egg and sperm are formed they don’t spilt the DNA right down the middle but take bits and pieces from each side to form their unique ½ DNA. This is called recombination.  

HOWEVER, this is not the case for the sex chromosomes.  The female sex chromosome pair is denoted XX and the male XY.  When a female makes a ½ DNA for the egg it is always contains an X.   When the male makes sperm the X and Y cannot recombine, therefore a sperm is either the same X or same Y.  So the when they combine you get a sex chromosome pair that is either XX (female) or XY (male).  Since the Y part of the pair does not do any recombination it remains FAIRLY intact as it passes from father to son.  Therefore comparing Y-DNA can match a patrilineal line -- a surname -- for several generations.

Sorry, I just wanted to add this picture
“Fairly Intact” is the key phrase in the Y-DNA test.  When DNA is copied it is not always a perfect copy.  These miscopies are called Mutations.  [We’re all X-Men!]  While the Y-DNA is pretty stable mutations will happen between generations.  This is the point where we cease being biologists and become statisticians.  Genetic genealogists have determined a method of predicting how many generations back 2 people have a common ancestor based on the number of mutations that differ between them.  This is called the Genetic Distance.  Basically the more mutations the more generations back you are related, STATISTICALLY SPEAKING.  There is no way to determine when the mutation occurred when comparing 2 men.  It could have occurred 1 generation ago or 10 generations ago.  And the best way to make any statistical conclusions is to have a large sample of data.  

Whew, that’s enough science.

My personal adventure in Y-DNA testing generated more questions than answers.  My oldest patrilineal known ancestor is Joseph W Neely (1810-1854) of Tennessee.  He died in Obion County but anything about his family – parents, siblings, marriage location – are all a mystery.  There are 3 main lines of Neelys in Tennessee, a Virginia Line, a North Carolina Line, and a South Carolina Line.  I had my dad take a Y-DNA test to see which one his YDNA matched into to hopefully break down that stubborn brick wall.

Except I didn’t match anyone named Neely at all.  Yikes.  All my matches (and none that close) were of the surname Worley/Werley/Whorley.  It seems I am a victim of an NPE – a Non-Paternity Event.  

NPE scenarios in the context of genetic genealogy

  • Illegitimacy outside marriage: boy taking maiden name of mother
  • Infidelity within marriage: boy taking surname of mother’s husband
  • Re-marriage: boy taking surname of step-father
  • Rape: boy taking surname of mother or partner
  • Changeling, surrogacy, sperm donation, unintentional embryo/baby swap: boy taking surname of mother or partner
  • Adoption, incl. ‘hidden’, orphan & foster: boy taking surname of guardian
  • Apprentice or slave: youth taking surname of master
  • Tenant or vassal: man taking surname of landlord or chief
  • Anglicization of Gaelic or foreign name: man taking translated/phonetically similar name
  • Formal name-change, e.g. to inherit land: man taking maiden name of wife or mother
  • Name-change to hide criminal past, embarrassing surname, or a stage name: man taking unrelated surname
  • Informal name-change, alias, by-name: man taking name of farm, trade or origin
  • Mistake in genealogy, or in DNA analysis

Source:  International Society of Genetic Genealogy Wiki

There also are not many other male Neelys remaining in my dad’s immediate family.  Although his grandfather had 5 brothers there are only a couple of male descendants still living.   So much for my statistically significant sample of data.

So when could this Non-Paternal Event have happened?  It’s hard to pin down exactly as the mutation could have happened within the last couple of generations or many generations ago.  This is the probability chart of finding the common ancestor as provided by my testing company Family Tree DNA for my genetic distance of 3.


So I need to go back 16 generations to get a 90% chance of a match.  As my dad is only 4 generations removed from Joseph I have a ways to go back.  If you average a 35 year gap for each generation, that is a total of 560 years – so about 1400 AD.  I am of European descent.  Surnames only began gaining popularity around that time.  First surnames were only for aristocracy then commoners began adding surnames to indicate personal attributes, location of origin, occupation, parentage, patronage, adoption, or clan affiliation.  So even brothers may have different surnames:  Robert (the Black) Smith could be brother to John (the) Shepherd to James (the son of) John(son).  Outside of royalty, familial documentation this far back is practically non-existent.  So statistically speaking I have no chance of making a connection.

Back to the sample size.  Family Tree DNA claims to have about 500,000 men in their Y-DNA database.  Given that there are about 325 million people in the United States alone, their sample size is still quite small – about 0.3%.  

So for now my Joseph is still an enigma.  Unless a fellow genealogist someday matches DNA with him, old-school genealogy will just have to solve this puzzle.