Research in Elbert County, Georgia

Eric’s ancestors, and thus my children’s, lived in Elbert County for over 100 years, from its formation in 1790 to the very beginning of the 20th century.  Representing fifteen different surnames, several were Revolutionary War soldiers, some were wealthy plantation owners, and many were well known and respected in their community.  So I knew that my research in Elbert County would be a bit overwhelming.  With so many prominent ancestors, there would be plenty of records.

I learned about Eric’s Elbert County clan through other people’s research.  I’ve done very little research on these lines myself, except for what I’ve found on Ancestry.com.  So my objective is to confirm these relationships by locating original documents and forming my own conclusions.  Some of this research can be done online, and some must be done onsite.  While I’m physically here in Georgia, I need to prioritize locating the records which aren’t yet online.

After some poking around on the internet, I determined that I should research in land records, so I went down to the Courthouse last week to see what I could find.

Elbert County Superior Court

Elberton, Georgia is a sleepy little town of 4,500 souls, and there wasn’t much going on at the courthouse.  The clerk led me into a vaulted room where all the old deed books are kept, and left me alone all day.

In addition to the usual manual indexes and the many huge deed books, there were three published books which contained abstracts of Deed Books A through W, including an index, which covered the time period from the inception of the county through about 1835.

Deed Abstract Book

These books were a lifesaver.  I didn’t think to check in advance to see whether they existed, but I will from now on for all future counties.  And I wish there were abstracts for deeds after 1835.  The books save a huge amount of time in three important ways:

  1.  The original deed index is very hard to read, so when I initially tried using it,  I wasted a lot of time guessing the book and page numbers for the deeds I needed to scan.
  2. I usually abstract all of my ancestors’ deeds, which is very time consuming.  The abstracts in the book make that unnecessary.
  3. The index includes every mention of the person’s name throughout the book, which means you also get all the deeds your ancestor witnessed, and all the deeds which name your ancestor as a neighbor.  This information helps to put your ancestor in a place and time, and it’s also a huge advantage when you’re trying to identify your ancestor’s relatives and FAN (Friends, Associates, Neighbors) Club. It saves a tremendous amount of time compared to reading every deed yourself.
Example of manual index, which is faint and hard to read

So I used those books to locate all the deeds for ten of our surnames through the first two abstract books, and that’s pretty much as far as I got in that one day.  I took digital pictures of the original deeds and the corresponding abstracts from the books, and I’m in the process of cropping, sorting and filing them in my digital files.  I’m planning to return to Elberton as many times as I need to in order to finish the project.

One of the deeds which an ancestor witnessed is priceless and I had to share.  I’ve only seen the abstract so far:

Deed Abstract for deed witnessed by James Bell, found in the book pictured above

Some things don’t change in 200 years, eh?  She told on me?  It’s little gems like this that make our ancestors really come to life.  And why is this recorded with the deeds??  It certainly gave me a chuckle back there in the courthouse vault.  I’ll have to get a copy of the full deed to see what other details might be there!

It seemed like one of our fifteen surnames was mentioned on just about every page of those abstract books, and I felt like they would be incredibly valuable in my future Elbert County research, as I become more familiar with these families and all the collateral lines.  So I decided to buy them.  I would rather have digital copies, but they don’t exist. I ended up ordering them directly from the author, who lives in Texas.  He’ll be shipping them to my campground here in Georgia by the end of the month!

 

Florida to Georgia

After lots of packing and cleaning, both the RV and the Sarasota house, I’m back in my little traveling home.  Last Sunday, I drove 500 miles from Sarasota, Florida, to the Athens, Georgia area, where I’ll stay for a month.  It’s the perfect place to get re-adjusted:  I’m familiar with the campground because I stayed here last November, and there’s a truly amazing mobile RV mechanic here who doesn’t mind when I call him on a Sunday with a stupid question!

Before I left Sarasota, I took the RV in to a local dealer to have them inspect the engine, do an oil change, replace the little awning topper on the slide-out, and flush the water system.  Everything checked out, and we were both rarin’ to go!

The trip took me about 8 1/2 hours, including three quick stops along the way.   I love to get on the road really early on a Sunday morning, like 4:30 or 5 am – that way, before I hit any traffic, I’m already halfway there.  Maybe I like to do it that way because it’s what my parents did when we did car trips as a family, and it worked well.  I get to my destination well before dark, with plenty of time to set up camp and put dinner together.

After a four month hiatus, I was kind of worried that I would forget everything Eric taught me about operating the RV.  I had to do everything slowly and deliberately at first, but it all came back to me just fine.  I knew I must be pretty comfortable with it when I was deep in thought, and then suddenly realized I was going 75 mph and passing a huge truck!  And I set up camp just fine on arrival in Georgia, including slapping on some stickers which my thoughtful son gave to me for Christmas:

My son knows his Mama!!

I love it here!  My little campsite faces a pond so I have a lovely view and lots of privacy.  Spring is here and the weather is PERFECT, in the 80’s during the day and 50’s at night. I keep all my doors and windows open so I can hear the birds all day, and the crickets and frogs all night.  Probably about ten times a day, and also when I wake up during the night, I find myself saying out loud, “OMG, this is so friggin’ awesome!!”.

My happy home in Georgia
View from the front door

During the day, I work outside under the awning at the picnic table or in my comfy chair.  I take long walks around the campground, chatting with people here and there.  I’m in the middle of reading a long novel.  I spent one day this week doing deed research at the Elbert County Courthouse in Elberton – more on that in another post.  And I’m trying to finish up a series of genealogy classes toward earning a certificate, which I started a few years ago.

So, to quote my favorite Native American saying, my heart soars like an eagle these days.  I get to be outside as much as I want, and do genealogy all day long – I am one lucky lady!!

China

China wasn’t on my bucket list, so I never would have chosen to go to there on my own, but when my ex-husband found a very inexpensive two week tour and asked if I would join him, I figured I may as well go and have an adventure.  I love history, and certainly China has that in spades.  And the four day cruise on the Yangtze River looked stunning.

We used a company called Sinorama, which I would very highly recommend.  They were organized and efficient, and the various Chinese guides were terrific.  The 15 day tour included airfare, two in-country flights, a 500 mile trip on a bullet train, a four day cruise on the Yangtze River, five star hotels, and most meals – all for about $1,400 per person.  I’ve never ever traveled with a tour before, but I wouldn’t do China any other way.  I didn’t expect to enjoy being on a tour (I prefer to travel independently), but I found it fun to be with a group of people, most of whom we liked very much.

We flew from Seattle to Shanghai and spent the first two nights there.  We toured the city on a bus, went to a museum, and then a shopping area. Unfortunately, the weather was rainy/drizzly/misty, and it stayed that way for about the first 9 days of the trip.  One thing I noticed on the first day in Shanghai was a lot of people wearing face masks.  We learned they did that because of the smog. We saw it all over China.

Typical Skyline in China

Next, we took the bullet train from Shanghai to Wuhan, about 500 miles west, where we stayed one night before boarding the cruise ship.  I love to cruise, and enjoyed being on the water.

Chinese flag on back of cruise ship

The highlight of the cruise was going through the famous Three Gorges area.  A huge dam was built there, the largest hydroelectric project in the world and an engineering marvel.  The ship had to move through five different locks, taking almost four hours.  The picture below shows the two ships ahead of us moving into the first lock.

First Lock at Three Gorges Dam

 

View from cruise ship

Although the Three Gorges dam was fascinating, I was generally underwhelmed with the scenery on the Yangtze River.  Much of it was spent passing through various cities.  The Three Gorges area itself was more remote and lovely, but it wasn’t spectacular – I guess I got totally spoiled with the New Zealand landscape!   The river itself is extremely polluted, and I’m pretty sure the ship was dumping its trash directly into it.

Another scene along the Yangtze River

I’m not generally a complainer, and I’m definitely not that picky about food, but I am an experienced cruiser, and I thought the cabins on the ship were tired and worn – stained carpet, unpleasant smell – and the food was very marginal.

The cruise ended in a town called Chongqing where we visited the zoo.  This was truly another highlight of the trip. It was beautifully landscaped, and huge.  We saw Giant Pandas and yaks for the fist time.  We could have spent all day there!

Giant Panda eating bamboo, Chongqing Zoo

Chongqing is in the Szechuan area of China, and the lunch there was one of the best meals of the trip.  Added to the great food was an actual traditional Chinese wedding which just happened to be taking place in the same restaurant. We couldn’t understand a word, but it was amazing to watch.

In the afternoon, we visited the Old Town there, which was a crazy crowded place, full of vendors hawking their wares, and odd smells everywhere.  We found a little cafe with great coffee on a second floor balcony, where we could look down and watch the crowd – that was fun!

One of the less crowded areas of Old Town Chongqing

After one night in Chongqing, we flew to Xi’an.  The experience of going through security for an in-country flight in China was like nothing else I’ve been through.  They do a completely thorough search of every person.  Our carry-on bags were scanned three different times. Our guide made it clear that if anything was found in our checked luggage which wasn’t allowed, the luggage would be kept by the authorities and we wouldn’t even know that there was a problem until we got to our destination.  Fortunately, all of the luggage in our group passed muster.

Chris and Eric at one of the meals along the way

It was in Xi’an (pronounced SHEE-ahn) that we finally saw the sun, the first day through a haze, and the second a full fledged sunny day. I think Xi’an was my favorite place, and maybe it had something to do with the sun, but I also really loved seeing the Terra Cotta Warriors.  This active archaeological site with an amazing army of 8,000 soldiers is over 2,200 years old.  Each soldier’s face is unique. The army, including horses, was buried with the first emperor of China, and was intended to protect him in the afterlife.

Terra Cotta Warriors
Warriors Close Up
A very special warrior!

After Xi’an, we flew to Beijing, where we saw the Summer Palace, the Forbidden City, the Great Wall, and Tiananmen Square.  I think my favorite part of Beijing was the Hutong District, which is the Old Town.  We went on a rickshaw ride through this part of town, and then had dinner at a resident’s home there.

Scene in Hutong District, Beijing
Rickshaw drive through Hutong District
Arriving at private home for dinner in Hutong District
Cooks in the kitchen at private home in Hutong District
Tiananmen Square
View from the Great Wall
Climbing the Great Wall
Entrance to popular Beijing shopping street
Scorpions for Dinner, Vendor Booth, Beijing

Overall, I thought Sinorama did a good job, but to be completely honest, I could never say “You gotta go!” about China.  There are plenty of negatives that I haven’t mentioned about this communist country, and I wasn’t always happy to be there.  Among many other things, the smog and other pollution was a real turn-off.  I feel very fortunate that I was able to experience China, but I won’t be going back.

Norm and Sal

My grandfather’s longest relationship, and perhaps the love of his life, was with a man named Sal.  I knew that Norm, my grandfather, had lived with Sal for some period of time, but I didn’t know the full extent of the relationship until recently.   My first cousin has been in touch with Sal’s nephew Mark, who lives in Seattle, and she suggested I look him up while I was there visiting my kids for a week before going to China last month.

Sal died in 2005.  Mark is the one who took care of his estate, so he had photos and stories to share which I had never seen or heard before.  I was beyond thrilled to find out more about my grandfather’s life!

Some people might consider Norm’s relationship with Sal to be controversial, or maybe even a shameful “skeleton in the closet”, the type of thing better left alone, to fade into the mists of time until it’s forgotten.  On the contrary,  I embrace my colorful and unique relatives, and I want to know the truth about their lives, and who they really were.  It’s especially important to me to shine a light on this significant relationship in my grandfather’s life, which has pretty much lived all this time in the shadowy background.

Even though I was 29 years old when he died, I unfortunately didn’t know my grandfather very well.  Here’s a picture – how handsome was he?!?

My Grandfather Norm

Norm’s first marriage was to my grandmother, Viola, in New York City, where my mother was born in 1931.  Norm was a 21 year old hairdresser from Pittsburgh, and we’re not sure why he went to NYC, or how long he was there, but that’s where my grandparents met.  The little family moved back to Pennsylvania by May of 1932 when their second child, my aunt, was born. In the mid-1940’s, after fifteen years and four children, Norm and Viola were divorced, which of course had a huge impact on my mother and her siblings.  That’s a whole ‘nother story, but suffice it to say that Norm raised the children from then on.

In 1953, Norm married my mother’s high school English teacher, Ruth.   The children, mostly grown by then, embraced her as their new mother, and stuck by her when she and Norm divorced in 1963. I grew up on Long Island in New York, about 8 hours away, so we didn’t see the Pittsburgh clan often, and it was a long time before I realized that Ruth wasn’t my real grandmother.  She was the mother and grandmother of our hearts.

Ruth and Norm

And now I’ve learned that Norm and Ruth divorced because Norm had begun a relationship with Sal. At that time, Sal was about 26, and Norm was 54. I’d never seen a picture of Sal until Mark showed me this one:

Norm and Sal

Mark, who is the son of Sal’s sister, told me that Norm and Sal wanted a child, and they tried to adopt him in 1963, when he was a six year old orphan.  Unfortunately, a legal adoption wasn’t allowed.   Norm and Sal were members of the Christian Science Church, and there they were able to find a traditional couple willing to adopt Mark.  Mark visited Norm and Sal often throughout his childhood, so he knew my grandfather much better than I did!

Mark told me that Norm was into classic convertible cars, which I never knew.

Norm in his Impala

My mother had told me that he was into irises, so I was thrilled to see Mark’s picture of Norm’s garden, full of irises, which is also my favorite flower!

Norm’s Irises

Norm and Sal took an annual vacation to Florida in the winter.

Norm on the beach in Florida

They bought a lovely historic brick house on some property in Washington County, south of Pittsburgh. But, it wasn’t long before the nature of their relationship became known (they were seen holding hands), and they were kicked out of the Christian Science Church.  They had to move further out into the country because they were ostracized by that community.  They sold the brick house and bought a farm in the teeny town of Eighty-Four, where they lived a quiet life.

I’m sure I saw my Grandfather when I was younger, and in fact there’s a picture of me as a toddler at Norm and Ruth’s house in Pittsburgh, but my first strong memory of him was when I was 15 in 1970, at the farm in Eighty-Four.  The entire family had gathered – Norm’s four children and all of his grandchildren – because he had had a heart attack and everyone was sure he was going to die.  I must have met Sal then, but all I can remember is a vague awareness that he was there somewhere.  I can’t recall what I knew about his relationship to my grandfather.  I probably just didn’t care – I was much more interested in playing with my cousins, and the farm animals.

My grandfather came to my college graduation in Wisconsin in 1977, and to a family reunion in Los Angeles in 1981.  Then I saw him in 1982, when I stopped in Pittsburgh for a night on my way from New York to California.  And that was the last time; he died in 1984 at the age of 75.  I don’t remember why I didn’t go to the funeral/memorial service, or even if there was one, and if there was, whether or not I knew about it at the time.

Dad, Mom and Norm at my college graduation, 1977

So where was Sal all this time?  According to Mark, Sal took care of Norm until he died.  Mark says they had a 25 year relationship, about as long as both of Norm’s marriages combined, and if that’s true, then they were together well before Norm’s divorce from Ruth.  After Norm died, Sal never had another partner.

I try to imagine what it must have been like to be a gay couple in the 1960’s, and how much they must have loved each other to continue the relationship in the face of rejection from the community.  Norm’s children never really accepted Sal, either – it’s not that I heard anything negative about him, but I didn’t hear anything much about him at all.  It was as though everyone was pretending that he didn’t exist.   That was how it was back then.  I imagine that it would be different today.

As we genealogists often say, I wish I had paid more attention when I was younger, because I would have liked to have known Sal, and I have so many unanswered questions.  Now I’ve added him to our family tree, and when I’m in Pittsburgh next, I’ll find whatever documentation might be available in the public records to flesh out their life together.

You know how we genealogists tend to jump back in time as quickly as possible, without thoroughly researching the more recent generations?  That’s pretty much what I did.  It’s time to focus on my grandfather.