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Finding Hidden Fruit in Your Genealogical Garden
What Do You Do When You Hit a Brick Wall?
Say you've got a pretty decent start on your family tree. You've interviewed family members, looked up records, and maybe you've even made a few attempts to look up some records online.
My own family history research went pretty well - for a while. Then my family tree hit a brick wall and stopped growing. This particular wall had me stumped for a few years. I couldn't get past it for a long time. I almost gave up, but I'm glad I didn't because it led to one of the most interesting stories I've yet discovered in my family history search.
Here's how I knocked down my brick wall. Maybe my story will inspire you to overcome the obstacles you are facing in your own genealogical research.
Planting the First Seeds
I started my genealogy research with my father’s side of the family because there was a ton of online research available on my paternal grandmother’s family (the Blankenships). I found a lot of information on both free and paid sites (Ancestry.com being the one I eventually decided to pay to join). That line was traced back to Ralph Blankenship, who immigrated from England sometime in the early to mid 1600s and settled in Virginia.
So, naturally, I got excited about everything I was finding on her side of the tree, so I began to wonder about my paternal grandfather’s ancestors. Who were my Austin ancestors? My father had always supposed we were related to the famous Stephen F. Austin, but he had no proof. So, I started digging.
Start With What You Know
The best way to start any dig back into your family history is to start with what you know. I knew my father’s name. I knew his father’s name and birth and death dates. I had a pretty good idea of what my grandfather’s father’s name was, and a little digging turned up his full name and birth and death dates. But I couldn’t find any information on who his parents were.
So, armed with his birth name and dates, I sent 10 dollars and a printed request form to the Office of Vital Statistics in Frankfort. For a small fee, you can order a copy of any birth certificate, as long as you are a relative. So that’s how I found out who my great-great-grandparents were: William H. Austin and Mollie A. Mayes.
I just looked at their web site as I was writing this, and it looks like things have changed slightly from when I got my great-grandfather's certificate. For one thing, you have to know the names of the birth parents. For another, you can only request a certificate for someone who was born less than 100 years ago. Other states may have different requirements, though.
Tompkinsville, the County Seat of Monroe County, KY
Then You'll Discover Things You Don't Know
But who were William H. Austin’s parents? I knew his name, but I didn’t know anything about him, other than the fact that he was born in Monroe County, KY. So that’s where I started, and I decided to go back to Ancestry.com to do a census search.
I really don’t remember whether I knew, at this point, when William H. Austin was born. I think I might have because I found a marriage record for Mary A. Mays (signed by her father, Henry W. Mays) and Bill Austin.
A trip to the Kentucky Historical Society in Frankfort allowed me to use Ancestry.com for free. And a search in the 1860 Census for Monroe County, KY turned up a W.H. Austin who was one year old at that time.
Unfortunately, his father, sister, and brother were all listed by their initials. His father was listed as M. Austin, born in Tennessee - not Kentucky, circa 1831. But his mother, thank goodness, was listed by her full first name, Jane. That would be the key that would later open up more doors for me.
M. Austin, age 29 in 1860
I had an initial, and I had an age and a birthplace, so I started from there and found - nothing.
Well, I did find some things, like quite a few Moses Austins who were born around that same time. It turns out, I was barking up the wrong tree with those guys, though. I don't even remember now how I found that out.
M. Austin, blacksmith, born circa 1831 was my brick wall. What did the M. stand for? And why wasn't he listed in the 1870 Monroe County Census? Jane Austin is listed with her three children as living alone. So, one would assume that M. Austin died between 1860 and 1870.
Hmm ... Let's see ... What was going on in this country between 1860 and 1870? Ah, yes! He died in the Civil War! That really should make it easier to find out more information about him. But, no, it didn't. The only M. Austins I could find in those records were Moses Austins, and they weren't living in Monroe County.
Read More About the Civil War in Kentucky
M or N?
By this time, I was starting to get a little annoyed by the lack of recorded information about my "Civil War hero" ancestor.
I decided to try a Google search using "Austin" and "Jane" and "Monroe County" just to see what I could come up with since I'd had some genealogical luck with Google before.
I couldn't believe my eyes when I actually found a web site listing Monroe County, KY marriages (transcribed from a book from the wonderful genealogical researcher Sandy Gorin) from 1854. And there they were: 13 Aug 1854, Nathaniel Austin married Jane Crumpton.
Huh? Nathaniel? Who's Nathaniel? That doesn't start with M!
I looked back at the census record to see if maybe I'd read the letter wrong, but I hadn't. It was definitely an M. Still, it could have been a census-taker error, so I wasn't ruling it out completely. Nathaniel and Jane in 1854 were the right ages to be the same M. and Jane Austin listed in the 1860 census, so I was pretty sure I had my man.
Digging Further on Google
Since I'd had so much luck finding the marriage record of Jane to Nathaniel Austin, I decided to try another Google search on Nathaniel Austin. Nothing.
Then I remembered the tip the experts tell every genealogist hobbyist: think of nicknames and shortened versions of the same name. So I tried Nathan. Nothing. Nate - ditto.
That wall was building back up, and I was beginning to get frustrated again. I decided I had to do something to break through, so I went back to Ancestry.
An Excerpt of Spear's Letter to Downing
[14 Aug 1862]
The guerilla warfare is working its ruin as a cause produces its effect yesterday about 2 o clock PM there were two union men killed on the road leading from my house to Thompson Arterberrys. [Oliver Perry] Hamilton and about 30 other men came into Tompkinsville yesterday morning about 8 oclock am and had Nathaniel Austin and a young (Bill) Heflin prisoners they shot Austin through the head and his brains was scattered in the road and they shot Heflin in several places. You are acquainted with Austin and Heflin. Both neither of them you know never belong to any army ...
Ancestry.com Is Miracle Gro for Your Tree
I found an 1850 Tennessee census record for a Haywood N. Austin, born in 1832. I cross-referenced this with some member trees listed on the site and came across a very interesting note for this individual: "sometimes listed as Maywood."
Maywood? Maywood N., as in M.N. Austin? Now, granted, this part is all my conjecture, but I think I have enough evidence to back it up. The names match up. So do the birth dates. I was so excited!
I was even more excited when I came across another note for a Nathan Austin listed in another member tree as being married to Jane Compton, daughter of David (turns out Crumpton is some kind of regional distortion of Compton). This note included a transcribed letter from Monroe Co. Sheriff Bennett Spear to D.E. Downing (I'm not even very sure who D.E. Downing was - maybe a local judge?).
An Excerpt from From Whence Came Gamaliel
Someone stole some guns and ammunition from Morgan’s men. Time after time, Gamaliel residents were interviewed in an attempt to locate this loot.
The people either did not know about this or would not tell. Dr. BOBO, Bill HEFLIN, and Nat AUSTIN were taken to McMillan’s Landing and shot as an example to the remainder of the citizens. Nat AUSTIN was an ancestor of Miss Glennie COMPTON and William C. HARLIN.
Not a Civil War Hero, After All
I finally had my answers about who Nat Austin was and why he wasn't listed in any Civil War records. He wasn't a soldier. He was just a murder victim. But why was he killed - gunned down in the middle of the road by Confederate soldiers?
I did a little more Google searching and found an excerpt online from a little local history book called From Whence Came Gamaliel. I think it was published in the 1950s.
He was killed because he happened to be in the way and wouldn't tell the Confederate soldiers what they wanted to know about their stolen horses. Maybe he was one of the ones who stole them. Who knows? I guess that could have qualified him as a Civil War hero, if he did. Or would he just be a criminal?
Visiting the Scene of the Crime
When I showed my husband the excerpt from the local history book, he immediately said, "I know where that is."
So we decided to take a little road trip (it's about a three-hour drive from our house). It was so amazing to be standing right on McMillan's Landing, where Nat and the two other men were shot as an example to the rest of their community.
There is still a ferry that crosses the Cumberland River there at the spot (Tompkinsville is actually split down the middle by the Cumberland River, so if you want to go to certain parts of town, you have to take the ferry). My daughter loved getting to ride across it, although she is too young to understand the full significance of why we went there. Someday I will tell her, though, so that she will know more about the hidden fruit on her family tree that her mommy discovered and picked for her.
I've just completed my first historical novel, which is the first in a three-part series covering the last 40+ years of a Civil War widow's life. And it's based on the story of my own great-great-great-grandmother, Jane Compton Austin. It's currently available in both paperback and Kindle versions.
Keep Working to Break Through Your Brick Walls
Do your own genealogical brick walls have you feeling frustrated and discouraged and ready to throw in the towel? Believe me, I know how you feel. I still have a few of my own that are just standing off to the side, being ignored until I can muster up the strength to tackle them again with my sledgehammer.
Just know that all your efforts will be worth it. You and your children, and their children after them, will all have a better picture of who you/they are and where you/they come from. And you might learn something really exciting in the process!