Baker

What’s in a surname?

I grew up with a surname I hated.  It was unpleasant to the ears, hard to spell, and easy for school children to mock.  I was eager to get married in life if for no reason more than I wanted to change my last name.

I think I was about 14 the first time I realized in talking to my Great Grandmother that it was only a twist of fate that gave me that much disliked name and that biologically I had zero connection to it.  In a different world, under better circumstances, I would have been born with the last name Baker.  The countless hours I wasted in my life spelling my maiden name could have all been saved if not for that one adoption.

A Dark Page in Family History

My Great Grandmother, Lillie Weatherspoon, was in her early teens when she married her first husband.  His name was Willie Baker and they had one child together, my grandfather Jay Dee.  In the tale shared with me by my Great Grandmother her first husband was a mean tempered man who liked to drink a lot and become physically abusive.  According to the story shared with me while sitting on the front porch of her house on Niagra Street in Flint, Michigan some 60 years later the last night she spent living with Willie was around the year 1930 and they lived near Paragould, Arkansas.  My Grandfather was just a baby at the time.  Willie had gone out for a typical night of drinking.  Lillie said she had reached her breaking point and resolved to not be beaten when he returned home and spent hours wandering the house armed with a knife before finally going to sleep.  She said by some miracle he never came home that night.

Willie did return the next morning.  While sitting at the breakfast table he spilled hot coffee on the baby.  That was the final straw and Lillie laid him out with a cast iron pan to the head, grabbed the baby and started running.   She didn’t stop until she reached Iowa.

The next decade of my Great Grandmother’s life was a dark period that she didn’t like to discuss.  Somehow over that time she managed to make it from Iowa to Michigan and meet and marry the man I would know as my Great Grandfather.  Moman Harold Fulkerson was a childless widower several years older than Lillie who adopted my Grandfather and raised him as his own child, including changing his last name from Baker.

Digging Up Old Skeletons

Willie and the surname Baker became a closed chapter that was more or less forgotten.  Growing up I never realized my Great Grandfather wasn’t truly my Great Grandfather.   It was only by chance that I sat down with my Great Grandmother that one afternoon and started prying into her past.  When I talked to my Father about it I was surprised to learn that he too was aware of the family history but beyond that the topic was laid to rest again.

It would take another 20 years before I would research information about the mysterious Willie Baker.  All my great Grandparents, my grandparents, even my Father were deceased before I decided to dig into the forgotten biological Baker branch.  Relying on hazy memories of that afternoon so long ago I decided to see what I could find out about him.

The Puzzle Pieces

A marriage license from September 24, 1926 in Lake City, Arkansas was my first hit.  Lillie Weatherspoon married W.D. Baker.  I had confirmation that the name I recalled was likely correct.  It was time to hunt up more.  I found the 1930 census for Greene County, Arkansas with William Baker, wife Lillie, and son J.D. living on a farm.  Their divorce was recorded Greene County, Arkansas in 1938.  The 1940 census finds a divorced William Baker still living in Greene County, Arkansas as a lodger and working as a timber cutter.  The last record for Willie Baker is a simple tombstone in the New Friendship Cemetery in Greene County, Arkansas with a death date of 1950.  He never remarried and fathered no other children.

I have managed to find a few details about Willie’s family but nothing extensive so far.  His parents, James Baker and Viola Morgan, were both from Crockett County, Tennessee and brought their small family to Greene County, Arkansas sometime between 1901 and 1908.  Tragedy struck the family and both James and Viola died within months of each other, James in October of 1915, Viola in February of 1916.  I haven’t found a cause of death yet but both pneumonia and malaria was prevalent in the area at the time, Viola received several doctor’s visits in the last couple days of her life.

James and Viola left 5 orphaned children when they died.  The children were split up and boarded out to various different people.  A receipt included in Viola’s estate documents show George Ferguson of Greene County, Arkansas receiving payment for the boarding of Willie; likely the same George Ferguson that is present in the 1930 household of Willie, Lillie, and their son.   Willie would have been about 16 when his parents passed away.  By the time of the 1920 census he had moved on from the Ferguson farm, I’m currently unsure where he was located at that time although records indicate he probably wasn’t far from the area he spent his entire life in.

Questions Remain

In all my research so far I haven’t located much that would reveal the character of that mysterious Great Grandfather that never was.  I can only wonder if the tragedies that befell his early life with the death of his parents and the subsequent experience of being an orphan in rough region led him to become the person my Great Grandmother described.  I haven’t located any indication that Willie Baker ever had any legal troubles during his life.  There was no indication he ever harassed my Great Grandmother after she left him so perhaps Willie recovered from his drinking problem after the loss of his family.  He appears to have lived an uneventful life.

 

 

Wednesday is for Weddings

Weddings are a gift to the genealogist

Marriage records are invaluable when performing pre-1850 genealogical research on female ancestors.  Prior to 1850 only heads of households were listed on the census.  Locating that elusive 200-year-old marriage record could make all the difference in the quest for great-great grandmother’s name.

Here is a favorite wedding day photo of mine.  The photo is from May 28, 1949 when my paternal grandparents, Jay Dee Fulkerson Jr and Loree Jane Ashley, were married in Flint, Michigan.  Pictured with the new couple are both sets of parents.

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Left to Right: Moman Harold Fulkerson, Lilly Mae Weatherspoon, Jay Dee Fulkerson Sr, Loree Jane Ashley, Sarah Eckler, Myron Ashley

Prior to this photo I had never seen a photo of my grandmother’s parents.  In fact, my grandmother’s father, Myron Ashley, pictured on the right with a cigarette in his hand died the year after this photo was taken.  His wife, Sarah Eckler, and my grandfather, Jay Dee Fulkerson Jr, both died before I was born.

During early periods in history, marriage was one of the few instances in a woman’s life when her full birth name might be recorded on documents.  In lucky cases a bride’s parents may also be listed in the marriage record.  Frequently, in the case of someone who was married more than once it can be a puzzle trying to locate each different surname, and surname changes are the cause of more than a few brick walls.  Tracking down every marriage, and searching out not only maiden names but other possible surnames is a vital part of tracking maternal lines.

Frequently locating those marriage records can be a tricky endeavor because couples would travel to another area to get married.  Other vital records searches are simplified by the fact they were typically recorded in the county or state where the person lived.  Marriage records can be located in places the couple never resided.

My grandparents were from West Virginia and Michigan; they married in Angola, Indiana.  Yet another set of grandparents further back in my line, both born and buried in Michigan, they married in Canada.

Tips while researching marriage records

  • Always begin with searching for marriage records using the groom first; his surname was more likely to stay the same and if her surname is unexpected you know to look for other possible marriages.
  • Don’t limit the geographic region of your search, people have been eloping forever.
  • Marriage records can provide the bride’s maiden name….but not always… remember women changed their surnames, sometimes more often than we realize.
  • Don’t disregard a record merely because both spouses don’t match.  Dig deeper to see if it is truly different people or if there is more to the story.
Here is the marriage record of Lucy Bell Brown and Dallas Finley Shuck.

 

finlucyshuck

There are two things that could make this record tricky to locate.

  • First, Dallas Finley who is listed only as Dallas F Shuck commonly went by the name Finley during life.  You had to realize that his legal name was Dallas to locate this record.
  • Second, Lucy was a widow when she married Finley so her last name is recorded as Jamison instead of her maiden name of Brown.

 

Till Death Do Us Part…. Or Not

On the flip side of the wedding coin another valuable source of information can be divorce records.  While it’s easy to think of divorce as a modern-day habit, it happened more often than we realize in history.  Ancestry.com has a wealth of historical divorce records on their site.  Tracking down divorce records can make all the difference between accusing great grandpa of being a bigamist or realizing he might have had a few personality flaws that made him hard to live with.

My great-great-great grandfather, Leming Eckler, kept the marriage and divorce clerks of Michigan busy late in his life.  I have found several marriage and divorce records for him dating from 1858 to 1907.  As a male ancestor his surname never changed making following his trail possible.  If he had been a female ancestor it would have been nearly impossible to follow the trail of rapidly changing names.

Divorce records also help to do something few other records do; they paint a more human picture of the person being researched.  Most historical records show basic vital stats while divorce records might show character flaws such as abandonment, cruelty, or failure to support.  They may not reveal some of the more flattering details of a person but it’s another way to see a new perspective on an ancestor’s personality.

From start to end weddings leave a trail to be followed

Marriage and divorce records can hold bits of information that can be vital to putting together the lineage puzzle.  Locating marriage and divorce records can be challenging but the reward for success makes it  worth the time investment.

 

Source Information

Ancestry.com. Michigan, Marriage Records, 1867-1952 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2015. Original data: Michigan, Marriage Records, 1867–1952. Michigan Department of Community Health, Division for Vital Records and Health Statistics.

Ancestry.com. Michigan, Divorce Records, 1897-1952 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2014. Original data: Michigan. Divorce records. Michigan Department of Community Health, Division for Vital Records and Health Statistics, Lansing, Michigan

“West Virginia Marriages, 1780-1970,” database, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:FTHY-MZQ : 4 December 2014), Dallas F Shuck and Lucy Belle Jamison, 1926; citing Nicholas, West Virginia, United States, , county clerks, West Virginia; FHL microfilm 495,646

http://www.wvculture.org/vrr/va_view2.aspx?FilmNumber=495646&ImageNumber=474