Friday, December 31, 2004

BREAKING NEWS: New Year's Eve Breakthrough--maybe, Part II

The Farmer Next Door

In the 1880 census of Hootenville, Upson County, Georgia, the first entry reads:

Birdsong Geo. P. Self M S W 38 GA Farmer

The second entry is that for Matilda Manson and her son Otis. Their neighbor is George Preston Birdsong, born May 25, 1841, died 1905. (The Birdsong Family website is an outstanding work).
He is the eldest son of George Lawrence Forsyth Birdsong and Susan Francis Thweatt Birdsong. Several interesting and unusual facts about George Preston Birdsong can be gleaned from available sources. First, according to information on the Birdsong family site, he was one of twelve children, nine of whom were boys. Apparently, three of the boys did not survive into adulthood. Of the six surviving sons, George and his brother Albert are the only ones for whom there appear to be no record of marriage. As shown above, even as late as age 38, George remained single.

It's Always Darkest Before the Lights Go On . . .

George Preston Birdsong lived with his mother and brothers at least until he was nearly thirty(see 1870 census of Upson County, Georgia) on property his mother had homesteaded in 1868.The Birdsongs were collectively and individually well-off after the Civil War. Mrs. Birdsong's real estate was valued at $3,000, while George's personal property was worth $350--not insignificant sums for the Reconstruction Era. Before the War, the Birdsongs had one of the top-valued farms in the county. George was a veteran of the War, having served with his brother in Company K, 5th Georgia Regiment, which unit surrendered to Federal forces at Greensboro, North Carolina, in April 1865. So in 1880, when he appears to be living alone, George P. Birdsong (a) has survived the deadliest war in American history; (b) is accustomed to family living; (c) seems to be a successful farmer. In other words, he would seem to be a highly desirable marriage prospect and being a man of his time, would seem naturally to gravitate toward marriage and a family of his own. And yet, approaching 40, elderly in relative terms, George Preston Birdsong remained unmarried, without a family of his own, or . . .so . . . it . . . would . . . seem . . . .

Call in the Experts!

What's going on here? Well, let's turn to two noted experts on the sociology, psychology, and genealogy of the South. Lalita Tademy's 2001 work centered on her own Louisiana family iscalled Cane River. Edward P. Jones won the 2004 Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics
Circle Award
for The Known World, a study set in Virginia. Both pieces are novels that unflinchingly explore the complexities and subtleties of race in the antebellum and Reconstruction South in ways that explode stereotypes. In Cane River, a book in which all of the characters actually existed and the major events really occurred, Tademy tells the story of a slaveowner who marries a white woman he does not love as cover for his relationship with the black woman he does love. A key character in Jones' book is a slaveowner who essentially maintains two families--one white, one black.

There was no one else in the county who could have gotten away with putting a Negro and her two children in a house on the same block with white people.
. . .
Except for the skin a shade and a half darker and the differences in their age, Dora was the very image of the daughter Robbins had with his white wife.

The Known World
,
Copyright 2003 by Edward P. Jones

And Now The Breaking News

As has been noted, Matilda Manson and her son Otis left Georgia for Milam County, Texas,sometime between 1880 and 1890. By 1890, Otis had married Bettie Sanford. By 1900, the year of the next available census, Otis and Bettie had three sons and Matilda lived nearby in Rockdale. The question is why did Matilda go to Texas in the first place?

Rockdale, Texas, is about 15 miles from Cameron, the seat of Milam County. During the first week of June, 1900, census enumerator W.G. Gillis was working Cameron's First Precinct, a neighborhood of many German and Bohemian immigrants. On June 5, Gillis visited his 139th household in the precinct, a small abode owned by a 25 year-old Bohemian salesman and his bartender brother. The brothers rented a room to two night watchmen, one from Alabama, the other from Georgia. The Georgian, a man of about 60, identified himself as George P. Birdsong.












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