Monday, April 18, 2011

More little gifts: Where they lived

It's been a while since I've written about my favorite hobby--genealogy. This is perhaps because the big a-ha moments don't come as frequently as they did when I first began researching my family history.

In the beginning, when I knew next to nothing about my family beyond the lives of my grandparents, and even those details were half-remembered and scarce, every new census or draft registration or birth certificate--documents that are pretty easy to find online these days--was a momentous discovery filled with new information.

Five years on, my job as an amateur genealogist is harder. For the most part, I know dates of births and deaths and marriages. I know who lived where and whether they owned property or not. Now I'm trying to put meat on the bones of my research. I'm trying to understand what my ancestors lives (between the being born and dying) were like. And I'm trying to do this, in some cases, for people who, when they lived, were property. That's hard.

It takes a lot of digging and digging and finding nothing, then digging and digging some more, and then, (maybe) finally--something. Sometimes it's something small--a minor fact heretofore unknown. Sometimes it's potentially something big. (Like the delayed birth certificates for Clarence and Ulysses Tillotson, which both note the name of an aunt who provided an affidavit confirming the two men's birth details. This may mean that I have identified a sibling for Clarence and Ulysses' father, Emmett Tillotson, my great-great-grandfather. Until now, I've been unable to confirm any parents or siblings for him. Now, if only the state of Kentucky would allow me access to that affidavit...) But sometimes, the find is big--no doubt about it. I call those finds "little gifts." They're the presents that keep me motivated.

I received a little gift a month ago--one that gave me a window into the life of my great-great-great-grandmother, Lucinda, who lived as a slave in Southwestern Kentucky.

I know very little about Lucinda, except that she gave birth to her children, Larkin and Hettie, at the W. H. Fortson Mill in Pembroke, Ky., and those children, and presumably Lucinda, were the property of William Henry Fortson. Lucinda later gave birth to a daughter, Georgia Ann, who would marry Emmett Tillotson and become my great-great-grandmother. After emancipation, Lucinda and her children lived as servants to the Massie family, cousins to the Fortsons.

This is about all I know. To learn more, I've had to do what all descendants of enslaved Americans have to do--research the people who owned my relatives. Searching around the Internet, I discovered that the Fortson home and land, called Maplewood Plantation, is now on the National Register of Historic Places. The agency is generously digitizing their records and making them available for free online. And so, within moments of learning the name of the place my ancestors once lived, I had in hand detailed information about the site, including history and pictures (see one above)! Additional contact with the Kentucky Heritage Council yielded even more, including an old article on Maplewood Plantation with pictures of the basement slave quarters and details on how slave labor built the home that, as far as I know, still stands in rural Kentucky.

I can now envision the archways and doors through which my ancestors walked; the place where they served; the basement they may have made "home." This information is surely a gift--meat for the bones. This is worth every hour in chilly libraries and time spent challenging my sight with old, scribbled documents. This is why I do family research.


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