Saturday, September 01, 2007

Debunking A Family Myth

I've written about this before, but it fits this topic exactly, so I've reached into the archives and dusted this one off.

Matilda Manson is listed in the 1850 census of Talbot County, Georgia, with her mother, Jane Manson and her sister, Mary Manson. Matilda's age is given as 6 years old; Mary is reported to be 4, and their mother Jane's age is listed as 24. All three are described as "mulatto." Matilda next appears in federal census records in 1880 in nearby Upson County as 30 year old "Mat" Manson with a 9 year old son, Otis. They are both described as "mulatto." Sometime during the 1880's, Matilda and young Otis relocated from Georgia to Milam County, Texas. Otis married Bettie Sanford (1872-1955) and they had seven children. Matilda Manson was my great-great-grandmother.

I asked my father why Matilda and Otis left Georgia for Texas and he said:

She was Spanish. And he [Otis] was the only Spanish boy in school in Georgia at that time. So I think he was being picked on . . . and she decided they had to leave . . . That's what I heard--that she was Spanish.

No doubt they had to leave when somebody realized that she wasn't Spanish.

So Matilda Manson and her son Otis had to leave Georgia . . . .okay, but why did they chose little ole Rockdale in Milam County, Texas? Well, maybe they knew somebody there.

For months, I stared at the 1880 census of Hootenville, Georgia, until I saw it. 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.

"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.

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. . . .

"The Farmer Next Door" was George Preston Birdsong, born May 25, 1841, died 1905. (The Birdsong Family website is a useful). He wass 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.

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 . . . .

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.

Rockdale, Texas, is about 15 miles from Cameron, the seat of Milam County. The 1900 census shows George P. Birdsong living in Cameron.

The second son of Otis and Bettie Manson is named Preston, which is George Birdsong's middle name.

So now we start to get a picture of why Matilda and Otis went to Texas. That picture is rounded out by another family legend. According to this family legend, Otis and Bettie would take their children to the train station in Rockdale occasionally. They would wait for the train coming from Cameron. A white man would get off that train, visit with the family and give them money, then leave on the next train back to Cameron.

I wonder what the Birdsong family legend is about why George Preston Birdsong went to Texas? Maybe because he was involved with a "Spanish" lady?


Dana Huff said...

That was really, really interesting, Craig. Isn't it funny how things get "hushed up" over time?

George Geder said...

Excellent detective work!

I guess 'massaging' the census records is the lesson for the day!

"Guided by the Ancestors"

Janice said...


This is indeed a fascinating story of following the documents to discover the truth (or at least a portion of it).

You have aptly demonstrated why, when transcribing census records, it is best to take note of those living close by.


Craig Manson said...

The census records are really a two-dimensional view of the neighborhood. Always a good idea to look around and see where you are and who else is there! This has paid off for me many times now.

Miriam said...


Susan Kitchens said...

Fascinating, and excellent way to use the census record to fill in blanks and suggest details to ponder, pursue and mull over.

This post reminds me, in a way, of reading a detective novel. I like observing the mind of the sleuth in action.

(and yes, it takes a while to make it through all the carnival entries)

Cheryl said...

Interesting detective work. Your work actually proved very helpful to me. My relatives are from Roberta, Georgia (Crawford County), Beasley as well as Thomaston, Georgia (Upson County) and I had not realized that Hootenville was the Upson County/Crawford County area. The 1880 census has helped me tremendously. My family relatives are Murchison, Jordan, Danielly, Preston, Dent, and Minter and we are a hodgepodge of Blacks, Indians, Mulattos, and Whites.

Cheryl said...

Thanks for sharing your story. I have family listed on the 1880 census (Hootenville) and reading your family account was the first time that I realized that Hootenville is associated with Thomaston and Roberta, Georgia areas (Upson and Crawford County). I have family who lived in Salem and Beasley areas: Murchison, Jordan, Danielly, Preston, Dent, and Mintor. We are a hodgepodge of Blacks, Indians, Whites, and Mulattos. The historical record of lives lived has been fascinating to me. I am new at geneaology.

Craig Manson said...


Welcome to the fascinating world of genealogy and family history! One thing that's important and helps find the true story is getting accurate sources. So be careful that that you find documented sources!