Thursday, December 30, 2004

BREAKING NEWS: New Year's Eve Breakthrough--maybe

Breaking Down the House

The most frustrating experience for a genealogist (or anyone else, come to think of it) is to run smack head-long into a brick wall. Genealogical brick walls are those mysterious deadends that seem to make one's research goals impossible to attain. They're frustrating because we know somebody must know the key to the riddle--but who? Where? When? And why, for goodness' sake?! Of course, part of the problem is that most genealogists are obsessive-compulsive Type A characters who don't know when to let go. Yes, I'm talking about me (see Resistance is Futile ).
So I've had my share of head-banging in this endeavor (see The Magnificent Blogcession ). The most intriguing, and therefore the most perplexing, problem has been to ferret out the paternity of a key ancestor, Otis Manson, born in Hootenville, Upson County, Georgia, c. 1871.


Perhaps the only thing more frustrating than hitting a brick wall is the sudden realization that the path through or around it may have been apparent all along had one only paid a little attention to detail. So for months, I'd been staring at the 1880 census of Hootenville, Georgia. Right there on the first page it says:

1 1 BIRDSONG, GEO. P. M W S 38 Farmer

2 2 MANSON, MAT F Mu S 30 Servant, House
- - ---------, OTIS M Mu S 9 At Home
- - McCRARY, ELIZA F B S 18 Farm Laborer

3 3 DAWSON, ELLEN F B S 22 Farm Laborer
- - ---------, JOHNSON M Mu S 5 At Home
- - ---------, HORACE M B S 3 At Home
- - ---------, FANNIE F B S 20 Farm Laborer
- - --------, MAT F B S 3 At Home

To decipher that: At the second household in the neighborhood (2), which was also the second household visited by the enumerator (2), the enumerator recorded that he found "Mat" (Matilda) Manson, a female (F), mulatto (Mu), who was unmarried (S) and thirty years old (30). [Age in the 19th century censuses is often an estimate or a guess. With no government records, limited literacy, and few compelling reasons to know one's exact age, enumerators and citizens sometimes missed the mark by as much as a decade. In this case for example, we know that Matilda was older than thirty in 1880, because she is listed as six years old on the 1850 census of Talbot County]. She was a household servant.

Living with Matilda is her son Otis, age given as nine years [later census records show his birthdate ranging from 1867 to 1876; presumably the 1880 estimate may be closest to correct, having been given by his mother]. Also living with them was 18 year old Eliza McCrary, a black girl who worked on a farm.

"Next door" to Matilda (that is, in the next household in the neighborhood), lived Ellen Dawson, a 22 year old farm worker, and her two sons, Johnson and Horace. Also in that house were Ellen's 20 year old sister, Fannie, and her young daughter, Matilda.

For months, I studied the data about Matilda Manson. Traced back to her native Talbot County, where I learned her mother's name was Jane and her sister's name was Mary. Followed her out to Texas--particularly perplexing because I didn't know why we were going there [see She's Spanish] . Went to Wilkinson County, Georgia, via cyberspace and studied the large Manson family based there. Indeed, I was making plans to travel physically to Georgia, when the genealogical epiphany occurred.

Following a Developing Story . . .

It began like this: if Matilda was a household servant, whose household was she serving? If her teenaged ward Eliza McCrary was a farm laborer, just whose farm was she laboring on? And who were the Dawson sisters working for? Well, it's not as if they were commuting anywhere in 1880 in Hootenville, Georgia. What about the farmer who lived "next door" to Matilda and Otis? Maybe they worked for him . . .hmmmm. . . .

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