John R. Estes has been one of my favorite ancestors since I discovered him, not terribly long after I began to do genealogy, which was itself, a happy accident on a blizzardy winter’s day back in 1978. It has been a very long and twisty path, with more than a few boulders, dead ends and false starts, to another blizzardy day, as I write this some 37 years later.
John R. Estes would become my obsession and eventually, I would come to know him very well, or at least as well as someone born in the 20th century can know a man born in the late spring or early summer of 1787.
John was a legend and even if he did remain in the shadows most of his life, he still left quite a legacy – scattered about like scraps from a quilt – which I would gather over almost four decades like colorful Easter eggs placed lovingly in a basket as each one was found.
It’s impossible not to be fascinated by this man who lived to just under 100 years of age and survived two wars – serving in the War of 1812 as a solder and living in the battlefield of the Civil War in Claiborne County, Tennessee, near Cumberland Gap. The second, ironically, far more dangerous than the first.
Much of the information about John R. Estes has dribbled in, bit by bit, over the years. Other segments have had to be pieced together by process of elimination. The quilt of his life wasn’t easy to reconstruct – and there are still a few missing pieces.
Based on working with all of the old records, and their dates, I’ve been able to narrow his birth date to sometime between March 13th and June 12th, 1787. But it took all of the records and 37 years to be able to do that. Genealogy is not for the easily discouraged or faint of heart!
It was just last year that we think we finally found a picture of John R. Estes – maybe. One of the Estes cousins visited the family of an elderly Estes family member who had passed on, and based on who owned this picture both currently and previously, and its relative age compared to other photos we can identify, we believe this to be John R. Estes.
The original tintype is very dark. John died in 1885, so for this to be John, it would have to have been taken prior to that time, and the man in this tintype does not look to be incredibly elderly, so perhaps taken in the 1860s or so?
A family member restored and enhanced the photo, digitally, and this is what was forthcoming.
Much like his picture, John R. Estes lived in the shadows for his entire life. Cousin Garmon summed it up when he said John “flew under the radar.” Why?
For example, we know that John had 3 land grants, which he immediately sold, along with at least two inheritances. Yet, he seemed to have very little in terms of worldly goods. Not owning land and is the antithesis of the American dream, especially for pioneers pushing the frontier. If you didn’t own land, you couldn’t vote, you couldn’t sit on a jury and you were a second class citizen. And John R. Estes clearly had that opportunity and traded it for immediate cash…three different times over a 30 year period. Why?
Why is a question I would ask over and over again. So much didn’t and still doesn’t make sense.
There is much we don’t know about John R. Estes, beginning with his middle name. That is one piece of information that has always eluded me, although we do have a hint. His grandson, John Reagan (or Regan or Ragan) Estes is supposed to have been named for him. If that is true, then Reagan is likely one of John’s ancestral surnames.
We know the names, positively, of three of John’s grandparents and probably the 4th as well. But of his great-grandparents, 4 are entirely unknown, one has no surname and one is speculative. You’ll notice in my pedigree chart below that John R. is numbered (14) – that’s because I had to number the Johns in this family to sort out who was whom. The Estes family, like most families, tended to reuse names generation after generation, and that combined with a trend towards slow westward migration mixed the stew, so to speak. Figuring out who belonged to whom was quite a challenge.
I just know that John R. is someplace having a good chuckle because I’ve never been able to figure all of this out, at least not to my satisfaction – especially that issue of his middle name. It will give us something to discuss one day when I get to meet him in person. I have a list of questions for all of my ancestors for when that day comes.
I first discovered John R. Estes in Claiborne County, Tennessee, the progenitor of the Estes family of Estes Holler off of Little Sycamore. Today, that’s Little Sycamore Road, but when John R. Estes first settled there, the road would have been nothing more than a wagon path along Little Sycamore Creek.
In the satellite view below, which covers about about 2.5 miles from the left to the middle arrow, Estes Holler is to the far left with the arrow pointing to the land owned by John R. Estes’s sons. The middle arrow is the Campbell homestead. We know John R. Estes lived in close proximity, as his son, John Y. Estes married Rutha Dodson, being raised in that home by her Campbell grandparents. Based on what little information we have, John likely lived most of his adult life between these two arrows – and Little Sycamore is the road that runs along the Creek in that Valley. You can see it just below the middle arrow.
At the end of John’s life, he had moved to Yellow Springs after he married the Cook widow, which is the third arrow at the right. After moving to Claiborne County, he spent most of his life on Little Sycamore, the little white road in the valley where the Campbell homestead stood, beside Liberty Church today.
I first started searching for my family heritage information in 1978 and I discovered John R. not long after. But it would be at least another 20 years until I discovered the name of his father, and where John R. Estes was from. It was a long journey, and it took me many trips and miles on a labyrinth rollercoaster adventure. All the time, with every journey, getting to know John a little better, his life, his children, where he lived – and where he didn’t.
Let’s share the journey and let’s start where I found John
Tazewell, that’s the name of the town nearest to where John R. Estes lived in Claiborne County. I initially thought he lived in that town. Little did I know. I would discover how remote Estes Holler was when I would first visit, but until that time, I didn’t know there WAS an Estes Holler and I really had no concept of the beautiful mountain ruggedness of Appalachia just south of the Cumberland Gap. I grew up in Indiana, which was, in essence, flat.
The photo below is of the Powell River, Wallen’s Ridge on the right, just below Cumberland Gap, photographed from the Pinnacle.
This is the land of my people, my ancestors. Their bones rest here. Their lives were lived here in these remote and stunning mountains.
Not all of me was Hoosier, because when I first visited Claiborne County, I knew in my heart that I had indeed, come home. Those mountains spoke to a part of my soul that I never knew existed. That part of me was dormant until I drank in the view and the essence of this amazing land. My heart lives in Appalachia.
Back in the 1970s and 1980s, in-between motherhood duties, a career and graduate school, I wrote letters to people who lived in Claiborne County. They sent me snippets and stories once they came to trust me and accept me as one of their own kin. Claiborne County and that entire region is very clannish, or was at that time. They might feud like hell between themselves, ala the Hatfields and McCoys, but let a stranger enter the picture and they were solidly one front, at least for the minute. Eventually, they would forgive me for being a Yankee, knowing I had no choice in the matter of where I was born.
I used to wait excitedly for the mailman to arrive. If I wasn’t home, the first thing I checked upon arrival was the mail, because some precious genealogy or family document might be in the days booty. Letters were treasures. Otherwise it was just junk mail or bills.
One day, a letter arrived from one of the “Old Widows,” as they called themselves, with a juicy, wonderful tidbit – a newspaper clipping. She had been able to find information about a man named John R. Estes.
Up to this point, I had been scavenging all of the old court records, reading them page by page, and the deeds and any other early records I could find hoping to find a connection between my John Y. Estes and any earlier Estes male. There were several Estes men who came and went through the county, found in the early records, often as road hands. There just had to be a connection, and I was determined to find it.
In Claiborne County, P.G. Fulkerson, a local lawyer, born in 1840 and who died in 1929, had kept a ledger where he wrote information when he talked to the old families. After his death, someone had written a series of articles from information out of his ledger which were published in the Tazewell Observer, the local newspaper, every Wednesday beginning in 1979 and extending into 1981. The locals referred to “The Fulkerson Papers” as “The Genealogy Bible.” After all, he knew most of the early settlers or their children, he interviewed people and he, thankfully, wrote down the results!
Given that the Claiborne County courthouse burned in 1838, destroying many, but not all, records, some of the information provided by Fulkerson would otherwise have been lost to posterity. Some of the information Fulkerson gleaned, of course, would never have been in those records in the first place.
On January 2, 1980, the column was about the Estes family, as follows:
John R. Estes came prior to 1800 from Fairfax County, VA to Little Sycamore Creek. He married Nancy Moore before coming. His children were: Jechonias who married Nancy Bray, William married Jemima McVey removed to Loudon Co., Tempy married Adam Cloud, removed to Ky, Mary married William Hurst, Nancy married William Rudledge, removed to Iowa, John Y married Martha Dotson, removed to Ky, George married a Willis removed to Iowa, Lucy married a Rush. John R. Estes died at the age of 104.
This was it, the proverbial jackpot – the gold vein – the mother lode. Not only did I now know the identity of the father of John Y. Estes, I also knew the name of John R. Estes’s wife and where he came from. Bingo, BIG BINGO.
I took this to the proverbial genealogy bank and began my search in Fairfax County, Virginia. That was a long search, a veeeeerrrrryyyyy long, and extremely unfruitful search that took years between ordering and reading rolls and rolls of microfilm. Why was it so unfruitful, producing absolutely nothing? Because P.G. Fulkerson was wrong.
Now, with the benefit of hindsight, we know that John R. Estes did not come to Tennessee prior to 1800, but in roughly 1818 or between 1818 and 1820. He did not come from Fairfax County, but Halifax County, Virginia. William married Jane or Jennie McVey not Jemima and he died in Kentucky, not Loudon County. Tempy married Adam Clouse, not Cloud. John Y. married Rutha Dodson, not Martha Dotson, and her father removed to Kentucky, not her or John Y. Estes who removed to Texas. George married Ollie Pittman, not a Willis. And John R. Estes did not live to be 104, but he only missed it by five or six few years.
Let’s just say that over the years, as I painfully discovered how many errors were in the P.G. Fulkerson papers, he rather fell off of his pedestal of perfection. At least he did have the names of all of John R. Estes’s children – which is more than any other source ever provided and gave me a base to work with. And he was right about one thing – John Y. Estes was the son of John R. Estes.
However, I think P. G. Fulkerson did us one other favor. In the early 1900s, before 1910, the local newspaper, the Claiborne Progress ran a series of articles called “Our Early History” and I think those articles were written by Fulkerson. In one article, the author tells a funny story about John.
John R. Estes came here before the county was organized from Virginia. He had a son John who lived to be an old man. John said his wife had a lot of ducks that bothered him. One Sunday she went to visit a neighbor and left him to keep house. The ducks came up to the porch to be fed. He said he then remembered that his wife had a lot of dried beans and he went to feeding them. After a while they went to the spring branch to get a drink and then as usual with a duck they were ready for more and they again got all they could eat. Soon he could see their crops were swelling and the ducks were getting restless. After a while he heard one of their crops pop and then for a quarter of an hour he had a big fourth of July fireworks and afterwards a big paddle duck funeral.
Again, when he arrived isn’t accurate, but the story gives us one of the only glimpses into John the person and his personality. I can only imagine how unhappy his wife was with him when she returned home. Clearly, it became a community story that amused many for a long time.
In another article, Fulkerson tells us the following about John:
In discussing the tariff I compared Robert Patterson the manufacturer with his brother Jas. Patterson the farmer, and showed what each had accumulated. Uncle John Estes was present and I frequently called on him to verify my statements. When the speaking was over Uncle John took me about 100 yards from the crowd and said, “Now I stood by you like a man didn’t I. Well, I didn’t mind it this time, but I thought I ought to tell you that if you want any more blamed lies proved you must get someone else.”
I don’t know here if Fulkerson is the one with the sense of humor, or John Estes, or both!
I spent a lot of time reconstructing the family of John R. Estes based on early census and remaining marriage records, and was able to verify most of Fulkerson’s information. There was another male Estes in Claiborne County at this same time, Elisha, a distant cousin to John R. Estes, but thankfully not in Estes Holler and with children having entirely different names except for Nancy and John, but Elisha’s son John was John J.F. not John Y.
I found, quite by accident, a land survey for John R. Estes in 1826.
This was quite an unexpected find, because it was not indexed to John R. Estes. He sold it immediately, signing off on the actual survey, and it was indexed to the next owner.
The actual survey metes and bounds on subsequent pages is against the “Old Indian Boundary,” a statement that alone sparked years of speculative discussion within the family.
Note John’s signature is the bottom right of the survey page relinquishing his rights and this land to John Harris “for value received.”
John had lived in Claiborne County 6 or 8 years by this time. Shortly thereafter, John and Ann would have their last child. Their children were:
- William Estes born about 1812, married Jennie McVey and removed to Kentucky where he died in 1864. Two of his sons and two of his son-in-laws served in the Union Army.
- Lucy Estes born April 7, 1813, married Coleman Rush in 1833 and removed to Waubaunsee County, Kansas where she died in 1878. Coleman fought for the Union.
- Jechonias Estes born in 1814 in Halifax County, Virginia, married Nancy Bray in 1841, the same week and perhaps the same day as his brother John married Rutha Dodson. Jechonias died in 1888 and is likely buried in the upper Estes cemetery in Estes Holler in Claiborne County, TN, on his land.
- John Y. Estes born Dec. 29, 1818, married Rutha Dodson in 1841, had several children before he and Rutha divorced by 1880. He walked to Texas (twice) where he died in Nocona, Montague County, in 1895.
- Temperance “Tempy” Estes born in 1817/1818 who married Adam Clouse about 1835. In 1880 they were living in Madison County, KY. Adam fought for the Union in the Civil War.
- Nancy Estes born about 1820 married William Rutledge and then Nathaniel Hooper before 1850. Widowed before 1870, she died between 1880-1900 in Claiborne County.
- George William Estes born about 1827, married Ollie Pittman in 1847 and removed with her family to Iowa in 1852 where he departed to the California gold fields, never to return, and presumed died.
- Mary Estes born 1830/1831, married William Hurst in 1851.
- A female child shown in the 1830 census as born between 1820-1825 but who did not live to the 1840 census or married young. In any event, we don’t know her name. She may have been the first Estes buried in Claiborne County or vicinity.
Next Stop – Halifax County, Virginia
It would be at least another decade before a letter from my cousin, Garmon, would arrive with a new piece of information. A composite list of Virginia marriages had been published, and Garmon noted that John Estes had married Ann Moore in Halifax County, Virginia on November 25, 1811.
Halifax County, not Fairfax County. Just two little letters difference – and a world apart.
Garmon had dug around a little more and felt sure that this was “it,” just as I had been sure about Fairfax County a decade earlier, thanks to P.G. Fulkerson. Nonetheless, we had to search.
This time, I just got in the car and drove to Halifax County. Garmon wasn’t getting any younger and I had wasted so many years on Fairfax and other wild goose chases. I own more Virginia County history books than you can shake a stick at. In an absolute moment of insanity, I had promised Garmon, years before, that I would find the answer – and I meant to honor that commitment – even though I kicked myself from here to Virginia for making it in the first place.
Halifax County, VA was quite different from Claiborne County, TN. While Claiborne is unquestionably mountainous, Halifax is more rolling foothills. There is a lot more flat land and the hills are much gentler, slower to rise and fall.
This photo is the land that was owned by Nancy Ann Moore’s father, William Moore, looking off in the distance. If you travel an hour west of Halifax County, you are into the Smokey mountains, but Halifax was still the land of colonial gentleman farmers and their rolling plantations manned by slaves, tenant farmers (meaning generally poor whites) and indentured servants.
In the days when my ancestors lived in Halifax County, anyone wanting “day work,” white or black, would gather on the courthouse lawn in the morning, and anyone needing day workers or laborers would show up and hire folks. My ancestors were surely there, some in the capacity of laborers and some likely as farmers hiring workers….and it was this courthouse that I would be visiting. The same steps to the same building my ancestors had climbed for generations – to get married, pay taxes, file deeds and attend court – the social event of their time.
The first thing I did upon arrival in Halifax County, as you might imagine, was to confirm that marriage record. Indeed, it was there and contained both the signature of John Estes and William Moore, Ann’s father. However, it was mis-indexed as Ann Moon.
Given the propensity for this family to send me off on wild goose chases, I would have felt a LOT better if this document had said John R. Estes, not John Estes, but it didn’t and it was the closest thing we had to a document at the right time in the right place.
We knew that John R. Estes had migrated to Claiborne County sometime around 1820, or slightly before, based on the birth locations of his various children. We didn’t have many years to look for him in Halifax County. There were many, MANY other Estes men, and I spent my week in Halifax extracting dozens of records from the court records, deeds, marriages and anything else I could find to extract while I was there.
The old court records are kept in the dusty, moldy courthouse basement. It’s actually a blessing to get to work there, because you are not in the hustle and bustle of the realtors and title people needing to look through the more current records. Nice as those people are, novices are clearly in the way upstairs. Besides that, the basement could have been a movie set directly from the 1700s with the stone and brick walls, not modern, except for one hanging light over the one table, so you have a much more realistic setting for looking in those old books with the handwritten notes. It’s easy to lose yourself in those records and be transported back in time, reading the rhythmic handwriting of the court clerk in the 1700s.
Occasionally one of the ladies that works there will come downstairs to check and see if you need anything, or have died since you were last checked on. I told one of the women that I was a bit overwhelmed with the sheer number of shelves of old record books and I wasn’t sure I was looking in the right places. She asked me the family name and I told her Estes. She looked at me again, doing a bit of a double take, and said to me, “Honey, your people aren’t in that book (plaintiffs), they are in this book (defendants.)” Then she went and got another book and brought it to me and said, “And in here too.” The court minutes. I didn’t realize the significance of what she was telling me at the time, because I was just starting out with my Halifax research, but suffice it to say that she was right – my families role in lawsuits had not changed much over the generations.
I love my colorful family. Those court records were just full of good stuff….like Rebecca Estes, a white woman, who was prosecuted for living with a black man, and then prosecuted for living in sin, unmarried….but according to Virginia law at that time, a white person was prohibited from marrying a black person…so what was she to do? Next she was prosecuted for having a “mulatto bastard.” Yep, my family for sure and the court clerk some 200 years later STILL knew it! Rebecca had a lot of spunk, because she ran a business and sued people for debt and other infractions. I liked and respected Rebecca a lot. I also felt terribly sorry for what she had to endure – and I always wondered what happened to her, because she simply disappears from the records. Perhaps she moved on…perhaps not.
Another Estes female, Susannah Y. Estes, had 5 children and NEVER married. According to depositions about her estate after her death, she “had always conducted business as if she had been a man.” Susannah and Rebecca, it turns out, were John R. Estes’s family. Susannah was his sister and Rebecca was either his niece or cousin. My family was nonconformant and unconventional. I knew I had found the right family – and indeed – I had. I come by it honest. You might say it’s in my genes!
I didn’t find much that trip to tie things together, but I found a lot of fodder, scraps and puzzle pieces. I found enough that I knew I would have to make a second trip after I went home and put the pieces of the puzzle I was gathering together.
The War of 1812
By the time I got back home, with my piles and piles of paper, another document of interest had surfaced out of Claiborne County. It seems that back in the 1930s, the WPA (Works Progress Administration) had indexed some records in Claiborne County.
In those records were depositions for Claiborne County men who filed for military benefits for either the Revolutionary War or the War of 1812.
In the records titled, “Abstract of Pensions of the Revolution, War of 1812 and All Wars Prior to 1883 of Claiborne County, Tennessee” compiled by Annie Walker Burns Page 78 – Section 69, we find:
John R. Estes or John R. Estis: War of 1812, So. 2273, S.C.2147 Bounty Land Warrants 29686,40-50 and 52720-120-55
He served as a Private in Capt. Grief Barksdale’s Company Virginia Militia, enlisted 9-1-1814, discharged 12-6-1814, residence of Soldier 1851, 1871 Claiborne Co. Tenn, at Tazewell, marriage of soldier and widow 11-25-1811 Halifax Co., VA., maiden name of widow was Ann Moore, death of soldier was 5-30-1885 Yellow Springs, Tenn.
There is a huge amount of information in this document, and from John’s own mouth. First, it confirms for us that indeed we do have the correct John Estes and Ann Moore. Thanks Heavens! Second, it tells us that John served, and where, that he received land, and when he died.
As it turns out, according to his service records from the National Archives, John R. Estes applied for three different benefits, at different times, spanning 20 years – all three necessitating an application then which was a goldmine now. It’s interesting, because when I ordered his pension file then, and comparing it to the file on www.fold3.com now, there are some different documents in either set that aren’t in the other.
John completed an application on Sept. 28, 1850 and signed the document on February 3, 1851 swearing to his service in order to apply for a service-based land grant based on a Congressional Act of September 1850. It seems it did not take long for word to travel. He wrote the application the same month as the congressional act.
In this document, John R. Estes states that he was 63 years of age, which I presume was in September 1850 when he completed the form. That would put his year of birth about 1787, assuming he had already had his birthday by September. This was one of the documents used to reconstruct his birth month and year.
Forty acres was granted in Milan, Missouri in January 1854 which John R. Estes sold to George Estes of Claiborne County, TN and which was registered on April 22, 1857 in Missouri.
The land office however, included a very interesting letter that says in part:
Military land warrant # 29686 issued to John R. Estes under the Act of Sept. 28, 1850 located by Joshua R. Barbee at…..on Sept. 18, 1852 and returned to the land office for the reason that there was some name erased and another (Mr. Barbee) inserted. Affiant says that the name erased was George W. Estes that he (affiant) erased the name of George W. Estes by the knowledge, consent and direction of said George W. Estes. That said Estes went to California some time in the year 1853 and that he is supposed to have died at any rate his whereabouts is unknown to his relatives in the section of the country. Sworn and subscribed before me this 2nd of March 1857.
Attached to the certificate is the sale document where John R. Estes sold his land on April 23, 1852, after which time his son George left Claiborne County with the intention of settling on that land in Missouri. You can see the “erasure” in the second line below where Joshua Barbee’s name has been overwritten over something else.
Following this document is an affidavit in which Joshua Barbee says that George W. Estes directed him to remove his (George’s) name and insert his own. He also tells us that George went to California in 1853 and his family doesn’t know his whereabouts.
This land was registered in 1857 for Barbee, so apparently something convinced the land office of the legitimacy of Barbee’s claim.
We know for a fact that George W. Estes and family set out from Claiborne County for Missouri where George planned to claim his father’s War of 1812 Bounty Land. However, something along the way changed his mind and it appears that George Estes never made it to Missouri. There are three different accounts of this story, and although they differ in details, they all agree in substance, as told by the family.
In the spring of 1852, three families living in Claiborne County, Tennessee, traveled west by covered wagon seeking a new home. They reached a spot on the line between Missouri and Iowa and there they settled. The place at that time was known as Pleasant Plains and eventually became known as Pleasanton, Iowa.
The families were those of Patrick Willis, George Estes and James Pittman, father of George Estes’s wife, Ollie Pittman. But Patrick Willis and George Estes didn’t stay long in Iowa as they had heard of the discovery of gold in California. They left their families in Iowa and went to make their fortunes.
In the course of a couple of years, Patrick Willis returned with a small fortune. George Estes was doing so well he decided to stay and add to his fortune, apparently having several productive gold claims. In the summer of 1854 George Estes wrote to his wife that he was returning, and that was the last that she ever heard from him. He sold his claims and left with a man from Kentucky. When he didn’t return, the man was contacted. He said that Estes had become ill and that he was taken to a hospital in St. Louis. Inquiries were made but the hospitals had no record of him, and no trace of him was ever found. It’s believed that he was murdered for his money, probably by the man from Kentucky.
Another version of this story says that George was robbed and killed on the way to California. Is it possible that he was carrying the money from his father’s land that he had sold? Or maybe his father’s land grant was the seed money for those gold claims.
On March 19, 1855, John R. Estes applied for additional land due to him based on the Act of Congress on March 3, 1855. Again, word traveled fast – this time 16 days. In this application, he says that he sold the original 40 acres to George Estes.
When the warrant wasn’t forthcoming, an inquiry was sent on behalf of John. I suspect that John could not write, or not well enough to compose a letter.
We don’t know if his application went missing or the office was just overwhelmed with lots of applications for land, but on August 4, 1856 John R. Estes was awarded an additional 120 acres of land in Plattsburg, MO.
When we sometimes wonder why pioneers moved from the states east of the Mississippi to Missouri, these land grants were probably a big part of what spurred the exodus. Most of the veterans were too old to homestead, and many of them had already done it once. But their sons were looking for land, cheaper land, and enough land that they weren’t hemmed in by their brothers and sisters. Plus, that pioneer spirit was burning.
John R. Estes sold this second land grant to John W. Wilson from Mifflin, PA on March 17, 1856. There must have been some kind of exchange or system for buyers and sellers to come to arrangements, because assuredly John R. Estes was not in PA and it’s unlikely that John Wilson was in Claiborne County, TN.
On March 13, 1871, John R. Estes applied for a pension. If John thought the land grant process was cumbersome, he hadn’t seen anything yet.
John completed an application form – yes – they had printed forms back then, and signed as the applicant – although his handwriting is a lot shakier at 83 than it was at 63.
This document tells us a great deal, like that he was drafted and did not volunteer. He served from September 1814 to December 1814 when he was discharged at Ellicott’s Mills in Maryland. He served in VA., and Maryland was under Col. Greenhill and Gen. Joel Leftridge and had resided in Claiborne since March 1814 (which we know is incorrect) and currently lives 4 miles east of Tazewell. This document also says that he is married and his wife’s name is Ann Moore and gives their marriage date along with his age as 83, if he remembered correctly.
This information is confusing, because the 1870 census tells us something different.
In the 1850 census, John Estus, age 61 is shown as a shoemaker with his wife Nancy, age 65 and youngest daughter Mary, age 19. It does not appear that John lives in Estes Holler at this point, based on the neighbors, but does live in the general vicinity.
Martha Cook is a 35 year old widow, her youngest child being age 2. John and Martha live no place close to each other.
Based on the neighbors, by the 1860 census, John has moved down into the Estes Holler area, probably slightly east, near John Campbell and the Cook land. Note that there is a Cook cemetery in Estes Holler, so these families certainly lived adjacent. In the 1860 census, both John R. Estes and Nancy Ann were living. He is shown as a miller with no real estate but $65 worth of personal property. So, how does a miller mill with no mill? Just wondering. Obviously he works for someone else, but I don’t see a miller nearby.
In 1860, Temperance’s daughter, Mary Clouse is living with John R. and Ann Estes, although it could be for her to help them as they are in their 70s.
John is living beside Thomas Campbell and a group of Cooks. One house away we find the widow Martha Cook, significantly his junior, raising her family.
Of course, between 1860 and 1870, the Civil War ripped through Claiborne County like one forest fire after another, pretty much devastating everything in its wake. John R. Estes was more than 75 years of age. We don’t’ know when John’s wife, Nancy or Anne (she went by both names), died, but it was sometime in that decade. We have no idea what happened to them during the Civil War. There are no family stories that have been handed down.
What we do know is that John R.’s son, John Y. Estes fought for the Confederacy and was held as a Prisoner of War. This must have worried John R. Estes terribly, presuming that somehow they had received word. Otherwise, he was just gone…and for too long.
By this time, John’s son George had perished, or more accurately, “disappeared.” John’s son, William, died in Kentucky in 1864, but we don’t know the circumstances. It may have been related to the war. William’s sons and sons-in-law both fought for the Union. John’s daughters had all married and moved on, except for Nancy and perhaps Mary. Lucy and Tempy’s husbands were fighting for the Union. John’s daughter-in-law, Ruthy lived close by and managed to feed her children while John Y. fought for the Confederacy. And of course, on top of everything else, Nancy died.
By 1870, John R. was married to Martha, age 67 (born 1803), the widow Cook, shown with daughters Rachel and Nancy, ages 25 and 21, above in 1860. I believe these to be the Cook daughters, which is how we identified who John R. Estes married. Note that Martha’s daughter Nancy is noted as “idiotic” on both census schedules.
John R. Estes applied for a pension from the War of 1812 in 1871, stating that he was married to Ann Moore. Did he forget who he was married to? Was there confusion about who he was married to at the time of the war versus who he was married to when he applied for the pension? Was he not married to Martha Cook? If that was the case, then where was Nancy? She is not listed living with anyone else in the 1870 census.
John R. Estes could have married Martha Cook in Hancock County, as the Hancock County records burned, but why would they have married in Hancock County, given that they were both Claiborne County residents?
John R. Estes stated that he lived 4 miles East of Tazewell. We know that John’s children owned land at the end of Estes Holler behind Pleasant View Church, and this works out to be about 4 miles, so I’m sure this is the vicinity where John R. Estes lived too. Jechonias is shown on the tax lists with land in 1851 in this area and John Y. Estes lived in Estes Holler in 1851, according to a lawsuit. Jechonias bought the adjacent land in 1874. The census shows that John R. lived in this area as well.
This land would be owned by several generations of Estes families. The photo above is taken from the oldest Estes cemetery, near the top of the ridge, looking down the mountain across Estes lands. I don’t know that John R. Estes ever actually lived on this land, but he assuredly lived close, because the name of the neighbors are all familiar and eventually, many would become relatives by marrying his children and grandchildren. He is likely buried here. Jechonias was the only Estes to own land at the time that Ann and John died.
Ironically, we know, at least as of 1871, how John R. claimed to have sided in the Civil War. Men were required to have someone sign an affidavit that they were loyal during the Civil War to apply for a War of 1812 pension. John had William Cunningham who fought for the Union, sign as testimony for his allegiance. Whether he was always a Union man or this was revisionist history in order to obtain his pension, we’ll never know, but given that a Union veteran signed for him, it’s more likely to be true. William Cunningham continues to be connected with the Estes family, eventually loaning Rutha money to purchase the Estes lands after John Y. Estes left for Texas.
This wasn’t the end of the paper work however. There are at least 7 different bureaucratic documents and filings in John’s pension file relative to people testifying that neither John R. Estes nor his witnesses were Confederates and internal memos from one department to another requesting verification of John’s service record….and on the right forms please. The postmaster at Tazewell testified that William Cunningham served for the Union in the Civil War.
If John R. Estes really was a Union man during the Civil War, this may have put him at odds with his son, John Y. Estes, who fought for the Confederacy, but John R. Estes did sign as a witness for John Y. when he signed all of his worldly goods over to his teenage son in 1865 a few months after returning from the Civil War. Furthermore, John Y. names his last son, born in 1871, after his father, so it doesn’t appear they were at odds with each other.
I think if your son was held as a POW, and lived to tell the tale, after being injured, you wouldn’t care which side he fought for – only that he was back home again. But he wasn’t home permanently. In 1879, at about age 61, John Y. Estes left Claiborne County, walked to Texas and established a new life there. Some say that was his second trip to Texas on foot, that he walked the first time, returned to Tennessee and then went back. John R. Estes, at age 92 or 93, said goodbye to his son for the last time. I wonder how John R. felt. Was he sad to see John Y. go, upset that he was leaving his family or glad for his new opportunity? Maybe some of each.
In 1880, John R. Estes, age 93, is shown as a pensioner and living still with Martha, age 66, and her daughter Rachel O. Cook age 35, noted as step-daughter. Martha’s youngest daughter, Nancy, is gone and has probably died.
John R. Estis died May 30, 1885, at Yellow Springs, TN, in Claiborne County.
The postmaster of Yellow Springs signed an affidavit as to his date of death. John had outlived at least 4 of his 9 children.
Yellow Springs is an area towards Hancock County from Estes Holler and it’s clearly more than 4 miles from Tazewell, so John moved once again between 1871 and 1885 when he passed away.
Now that we know when John R. died, and about his years in Claiborne County, let’s look back and see what we can discover about John’s life in Halifax County before moving to Claiborne.
We have discovered a lot about John R., but we still don’t know who his parents were.
Halifax County, Virginia
After my return from trips to Halifax County and Claiborne County, I ordered every microfilm available for either county and read them, page by page, at the Family History Center.
I made spreadsheets of what I found, because Halifax County was not only a popular place for Estes men to settle, but it was a popular “stopping off point” it seems, on the way west. A few years there and then they were gone.
Complicating things further, there were several men named John.
The Tax Man Cometh
One of the most valuable tools turned out to be the two types of tax records.
One type of tax was taxes paid on land owned and the second type was paid on personal property. That way, they could tax everyone on something and some people on both. Personal property tax included tax on males over the age of 16 and items like cows and horses. Some years they taxed people on far more, like clocks and curtains. The sheriff took the list for each district and was responsible for collecting the taxes due.
Once you knew who the neighbors were in each location you could tell which John was which, for example, based on where they lived, which district, and their neighbors.
Now all the Estes men in Halifax County did not behave and stay put – they wandered around a bit – especially the young land-free ones. I suspect they rented land or were laborers for others. The men who owned land, of course, could be reliably found on both lists year after year in the same location, with their sons showing up as neighbors as they came of age and married.
John R. Estes never owned land. Plus there were about a dozen John Estes’s. Many were easy to eliminate, because they appeared on the tax list too early to be John R. Estes, or they were clearly associated with a specific family group, or had a middle name that didn’t begin with R.
Through this associative process, I eliminated all but 3 or 4 Johns.
Even more confounding was that the Estes families in Halifax County lived in the eastern half of the county, in and near South Boston and in the far northeast corner of the county. On the other hand, the Moore family, William Moore, Nancy Moore’s father lived on the far western side of the county, almost to the Pittsylvania County line.
This situation was very unusual and didn’t make sense, at least not at first. Remember, you don’t marry who you don’t see, and in that time and place, you normally saw your neighbors, your family and the people who attended your church. How did John R. Estes come to meet Nancy Ann Moore?
Hint – Ann’s father, William Moore, was a minister for a “dissenting religion,” according to the court records – those radical Methodists. He married many members of John R. Estes’s mother’s family, according to marriage returns. Of course, we didn’t figure this out until after we figured out who John’s mother was!
The 1810 tax list shows a John Estes where a John Estes never resided before, in the western part of the county, whose taxes were taken the same day as James Moore, who was exempt due to age. James Moore was Ann Moore’s grandfather. Perhaps John R. Estes was farming James Moore’s land for him or helping on his farm. John was taxed for 1 white male and 1 horse.
But wait. To add confusion, a second John Estes was also taxed in that district, and he was taxed the same day as William Moore, Nancy’s father, for 1 white male and 1 horse. These tax lists were taken a month apart – so it’s possible but unlikely that the John Estes record was a duplicate.
From painstakingly recreating all of the Estes families over the previous decade, I know that there are four John’s of about the same age. One is John, son of Abraham, one is John son of Bartlett who died in 1804, a third is John, son of Bartlett (son of Moses) and Rachel pounds and fourth, John, son of someone else. But I wasn’t sure which John was ours and telling them apart was sometimes a challenge.
John, son of Abraham is easier to discern, generally, because he does not tend to live in the Estes cluster that includes Bartlett and other descendants of Moses Estes Jr, in South Boston. His father, Abraham, lived in the northeast corner of the county. Bartlett who died in 1804’s son was younger, born in 1793 or 1794, so he isn’t listed early. He also lived in the north part of the county. Bartlett and George Estes were brothers, sons of Moses Jr. and lived adjacent, on their father’s land, in what is now South Boston.
The 1811 tax list shows us one very, very important clue. This is probably the most subtle clue I’ve ever received. Do you see it?
|Mar 4||Moses (2)||1||0||6|
|Mar 4||Josiah||1||0||0||Son of Moses|
|Apr 9||William||1||0||1||Son of Bartlett (son of Moses)|
|Apr 9||Marcus||1||0||1||Son of George|
|Apr 9||George||1||0||1||Son of Moses|
|Apr 9||John||1||0||0||Son of Abe or Bartlett?|
|Apr 10||John (SG)||1||0||0||Son of George|
|Mar 19||Bartlett (north)||1||0||0||Son of Moses|
|Mar 25||Bartlett (north)||2||1||6||Son of Bartlett, son of Moses?|
SG – that’s it – that’s the clue. In the vernacular of how Halifax County tax lists read, that means “son of George.” Glory be. That is our answer. Our John R. Estes is the son of George.
The next year, 1812, cements that relationship.
We show John SD or SB. SD makes no sense, because there is no D Estes male, but SB would be son of Bartlett. Bartlett is George’s brother and they live adjacent in South Boston. We show George with his other son Marcus. The John with Marcus would be John (SG) because the other John is SD or SB, leaving John on the 27th unaccounted for and likely son of Abraham from the North. John, son of Bartlett who died in 1804 is still too young to be shown on the tax lists individually.
|Apr 4||Moses (2)||1||0||5|
|Apr 18||Josiah||1||0||2||Son of Moses|
|Apr 29||John (SD or perhaps SB)||Son of Bartlett|
|Apr 27||John||Son of Abe|
|May 5||George||1||0||2||Son of Moses|
|May 12||Marcus||1||0||0||Son of George|
|May 12||John (SG)||1||0||0||Son of George|
In 1815, John is once again listed as (SG) and in 1816 and 1817, he is listed as John R. Estes instead of John (SG), but living in this same cluster. Hallejuah!!!!!
These tax lists are one way that we know when John R. Estes actually left Halifax County.
Serving in the War of 1812
John R. Estes served in the War of 1812 while living in Halifax County, VA. He was drafted for the period of three months. What did he do while he was away in the War, serving in Grief Barksdale’s company?
According to the 1812 Virginia Historical site:
Capt Grief Barksdale’s Company of Riflemen from Charlotte County, VA during the period Sept. 1, 1814 until Dec. 1, 1814. His company was attached to LT Col William C. Greenhill’s 4th Regiment of Virginia Militia and sent to Camp Fairfield on the James River near Richmond. This regiment was made part of Brig General Joel Leftwich’s 2d Brigade and on October 12th it departed from nearby Fort Mimms and arrived at Camp Snowden, MD on Oct. 27, 1814., then it proceeded to Camp Crossroads near Elliot Mill’s, a few miles from Baltimore arriving there on November 9, 1814. They arrived too late to have any contact with the British and were discharged in late November 1814. Source: Butler’s ” A Guide to VA Militia Units in the War of 1812″, 2d edition dated 2011, pages 24,57,& 240.
On page 240, the author indicates that Lt Col William C. Greenhill’s 4th Regiment was a part of the 2nd Brigade commanded by Brig. General Joel Leftwich which was created on September 5, 1814 at Camp Fairfield located near the James River leading into Richmond. On October 5th it was ordered to march with General Breckenridge’s brigade to Washington, DC. On October 12th it left Camp Mims near Richmond and arrived at Camp Snowden, MD on October 27th. The brigade arrived at Ellicott Mills near Baltimore on November 9th and was discharged at the end of November. The Battle of Baltimore had taken place on September 13th and after their defeat the British had left the area. Colonel Greenhill’s regiment consisted of seven company sized units from the counties of Pittsylvania, Halifax and Charlotte.
The conditions, however, were punishing. Rains that fall were unrelenting. At one time, three fourths of the men were ill.
In a letter of September 18, Brig. Gen. Thomas Marsh Forman, commander of the First Brigade, Maryland Militia, wrote of “a most tremendous Northwester which is punishing our poor soldiers, most of whom are in very thin clothing.”
Thus, John R. Estes was not involved in any encounter with the enemy. John R. was lucky. He was in the right place at the right time and avoided warfare, even though he was probably waterlogged. In years to follow, because he did serve, he would obtain two land grants and a pension for his service of $8 a month. That pension probably made a big difference in his quality of life.
John’s son, Jechonias, was probably born while he was gone.
Courthouse Basement Finds
Another find in the basement of the Halifax County courthouse was the chancery records – and I don’t mean the index or minutes – I mean the actual case packets – tied neatly in bundles with little ribbons. Chancery court is a court that focuses on solutions for civil actions as opposed to criminal prosecutions for breaking the law. Today, divorces are held in chancery court since a solution as to the division of property, assets and debts needs to be found.
These old chancery records have been indexed and scanned and will soon be available at the State of Virginia archives site – so no need to sort through boxes in the basement anymore. It’s a good thing too, because those case bundles which included all kinds of information had a habit of walking away – not to mention many were in bad shape. Being 200 years old will do that to you!
A long and complex case in which Thomas Yates and his wife, Phoebe Combs Yates sues Joseph Farguson about the ownership of a slave styled “Halifax Co., Va. Chancery 1812-019, Yates vs Farguson and Combs” includes depositions by John R. Estes and also his father George Estes whose mother was Luremia Combs.
John Eastes says that some time since Dec. 25, 1811 he saw Joseph Farguson carry the negro boy Jess to Thomas Yates and told him he did not consider they had any right to him, but if they would pay him what they were owing him on account of said negro, he would give him up and they refused to do it.
Given under the hand and seal Nov. 27, 1812. Sarah Farguson signed with a mark, Thomas Douglas signed, Lemuel Moore with a mark, Joseph Denman with a mark, John R. Estes signed.
Agreeable to a court order dated June 15, 1813 we met at the dwelling house of Jacob Farguson decd and proceeded to take the depositions of Sarah Farguson, Thomas Douglas and John R. Estes. All three of these depositions are the same as given earlier except there were two questions posed to John R. Estes:
Q: By the plaintiff who were they that refused to take the negro boy Jesse and pay up the money?
A: I saw Mrs. Phebe Yates and Mrs. Combs
Q: By the same did you not understand that Thomas Yates about that time was gone to Linchburg?
A: Some time before that I did
Q: How long was it before you carried the notice for to take deposition at Chalmers Store?
A: I don’t know.
This day John R. Estes came before me and made oath that he delivered a true copy of the within to Thomas Yates on the 19th (of July) given under my hand this July 23rd 1814. Charles Harris. There is a note in John R. Estes hand (in light pencil unfortunately) that says On the 19th of July 1814, I John R. Estes delivered a true copy of the within to Thomas Yates.
Another note dated Nov 27, 1814 that John R. Estes came before Joseph Sanford, a JP, and made oath that he delivered a true copy of the within notice in Thomas Yates house to Mrs. Combs and William Yates.
Yet another note dated July 19, 1814 that John R. Estes of lawful age personally appeared before William Bailey and made oath that he delivered on the 24th, 25th or 26th of November 1812 a copy of the within notice in the dwelling house of Thomas Yates with Mrs. Combs and Yates wife.
Deducing John R.’s Father
In summary, there were only 4 possible fathers for John R. Estes; Bartlett who died in 1804 and lived in the north, Abraham whose son John who married in 1808 and moved to Charlotte County, Bartlett who married Rachel Pounds or George who married Mary Younger. There were no other men who don’t already have sons John attributed to them and accounted for, who lived in Halifax when John R. was born about 1787 and who remain in Halifax County until he reaches 21 in about 1809, so we have no other reasonable candidates.
Bartlett and Rachel had a son the same year or within a year of when John R was born, also named John. However, one John is designated as SG, and one as SB or SD, so we now know that George did in fact have more children than just Susannah Y., including a John of exactly the right age.
Furthermore, John, son of Bartlett appears to still be living in Halifax in 1837 during Moses’ estate settlement, eliminating him as a possibility for our John.
Abraham’s son John lived in the north and goes back and forth between Halifax and Charlotte Counties.
I have never been able to find the John, son of Bartlett who died 1804. However, he is too young regardless, having been born in 1793/1794. Based on a subsequent lawsuit after Bartlett’s widow’s death in 1824, I believe that this John died, which would eliminate him from being our John.
George Estes who married Mary Younger and had a son John (designated as SG), was previously unknown, and is the most likely candidate for the father of our John R. John R. named one of his sons George and one of his daughters Mary. John R. also named one of his sons John Y. George’s daughter Susannah was named Susannah Y. and his son was named William Y. John R’s daughter Lucy had a daughter whose middle name was Younger. Neither Bartlett’s name nor those of any of his children appear in John R’s family. George Estes’s wife was Mary Younger.
Therefore, I concluded that John R. Estes’s parents were George Estes, son of Moses Estes Jr., and Mary Younger, daughter of Marcus Younger.
The final confirmation of John R’s parents came from a most unexpected set of records.
Mary Younger Estes’s parents were Susannah and Marcus Younger. Marcus died in 1816, but in 1842, a chancery suit was filed having to do with the distribution of his estate after an unmarried daughter’s death.
I extracted data from the “Younger, Marcus Chancery Suit 1842-057, Halifax Co. Va.” and in the documents from that suit, I found the payments made to the various heirs of Marcus Younger. In the case of John Estes, he was listed as an heir because his mother was deceased. John was listed as married to Nancy and as living in Tennessee.
It is noted that Mary Younger Estes’s children will receive one sixth of her one quarter share of the 83 acres to be sold following the death of Mary’s unmarried sister.
The children of Mary Estes were listed as: John Estes, William, Susannah, Sally wife of T. Estes, Polly wife of James Smith and a grandchild name Mark Estes. So, not only do we have John’s name, we have the entire list of his siblings.
This was followed by another document listing the locations of the heirs, including:
Younger Wyatt and Polly his wife – Rutherford County Tennessee
John Estes and Nancy his wife – “ditto marks” under Rutherford County. John was actually in Claiborne at this time and there was no John Estes in the 1840 census in Rutherford County. John’s wife was Nancy (Ann) Moore. None of the other John’s married Nancys or Anns.
This was an EXTREMELY long way around the block to discover the identity of the parents of John R. Estes – and it’s nothing short of a miracle that I did actually find the information scattered in extremely obtuse locations – like a genealogy version of a scavenger hunt. There were many times I just wanted to give up and asked myself if it was really, REALLY that important.
The night I made the discovery of “SG” on the tax list, I knew in that instant who John’s father was. I was in the Family History Center and they were closing for the evening. I was excited, very excited – decades of searching Happy Dance excited. The librarian virtually patted me on the head and told me to go home.
I was far too excited to just do that. I lived half an hour away so by the time I got home, it was getting late.
I decided to call Garmon, regardless of how late it was. After all, he had been searching for the answer for 45 years, which made my 20 or so look puny.
Garmon answered the phone groggily, “hhh….hello.”
“Who is this?”
“Your cousin, Bobbi.”
“Yes Bobbi. I know who John R. Estes’s parents were.”
Very alert now….”You DO???”
“Yes, do you want to know?”
“Do I want to know? I’d stand in the corner on my head and clap my hands to know.”
“George – it was George Estes…and Mary Younger.”
“Well, I’ll be.”
As I looked out my kitchen window at the peaceful moon that night rising over the trees and happily visited with Garmon, my long time research buddy and cousin, telling him the story of “SG,” I had no idea of the landmines that would lurk in the future, threatening to derail our discovery.
The DNA Landmine
When I first visited Halifax County, DNA testing for genealogy didn’t yet exist.
When I first visited Halifax County, Virginia, after the advent of DNA testing, autosomal testing didn’t yet exist and we were happily testing for 12 and then 25 Y DNA markers.
In the Estes DNA project, we had several descendants of the immigrant, Abraham Estes who had tested, but so far, no one proven from his son, Moses’s line.
Garmon, of course, was the very first Estes to test, but we didn’t know which line we descended from. We were just pleased that we matched up to Abraham’s Y DNA genetic profile.
Abraham, the immigrant had a son, Moses, who settled in Halifax County, VA, who had a son Moses Jr., who remained in Halifax County and had several sons as well. Moses Jr.’s son, George served in the Revolutionary War and we would eventually discover that he was the father of John R. Estes, my ancestor. George also had three other sons. These several generations of men made up the pool of many of the Estes families in the southern part of Halifax County.
I was fortunate to be able to meet one elderly Estes gentleman, we’ll call Beau, and spent several hours on multiple days listening to his stories about his life and ancestors, including “Granpappy George” who died at either 105 or 116, depending on which version of the story you liked and which day he was telling it.
His cousin, a female, Pat, was also very involved in genealogy and she joined us as well. We drank iced tea and sat in the shade under trees so old they probably had stories about our ancestors themselves, had they been able to talk. Glorious summer days in the south.
I had discovered the location of the old family land and Pat knew the story of why and where the graves had been moved. There was no resting in peace in this family.
Beau and Pat’s line of the family descends from George, the Revolutionary War soldier, through his daughter Susannah Y. Estes who reportedly married her cousin, also an Estes, some say Tom Estes, which is why her surname remained Estes. She lived among the rest of the Estes clan on Estes land owned originally by Moses Jr., father of George. Susannah’s son, Ezekiel, from whom Beau descends, is shown below in what I believe is a death photo, taken in 1885.
Ezekiel bears a striking resemblance to his uncle, John R. Estes.
This Estes line descends to Beau and Beau was quite eager to take a DNA test to represent our George Estes line. As a responsible genetic genealogist, I of course had a DNA kit handy, and Beau happily swabbed as I timed the event. I brought his kit home and mailed it to Family Tree DNA.
A few weeks later, I received a message that Beau’s DNA results were available, but as a project administrator, I didn’t receive the notification that the other kits in the project had matches. I remember thinking, “that’s odd.”
I signed in to see Beau’s results, and what awaited me was every genealogists nightmare. The George Estes line, represented by Beau, did not match the ancestral Abraham Estes line. And yes, to answer the next question, we had tests from several descendant lines from Abraham, so we know positively what his DNA looked like – and it looked nothing at all like Beau’s.
I was sick, just sick. It took me a day or two to process this information. Truthfully, I was in shock and it threw a terrible monkey wrench into genealogy?
Should I stop researching my Estes genealogy since we were obviously not Esteses in the original sense of the word? Was Moses Sr. not Abraham’s son? Was Moses Jr. not Moses Sr.’s son? Was George not Moses Jr’s son? Who didn’t begat whom? And under what circumstances? How come Garmon matches the Abraham ancestral line, but Beau didn’t? Was I in the wrong damned county barking up the wrong tree…..AGAIN????
And then that little voice started talking to me……was Susannah Y. Estes ever really married to her Estes cousin?
I had to know.
If Susannah was not married to an Estes cousin when she had son Ezekiel, from whom Beau descends, then the DNA wouldn’t be Estes, but the surname would be, given that the child took her surname.
But the family was sure, absolutely positive. I called Pat and talked to her about this without saying too much, and she was very indignant that Susannah absolutely had been married to her cousin and that George, Susannah’s father, “would not have put up with any other kind of behavior.”
I could tell that another trip to Halifax County was in the offing. I needed more records and I needed to concentrate on Susannah, someone I hadn’t necessarily neglected, but who I certainly wasn’t focused on.
On my return trip, the first place I went was the courthouse, to find Susannah’s marriage record. Some of the Halifax records are either very thin or missing altogether. For example, there were virtually no marriage records during the Revolutionary War. Now you know people were still getting married, but since they didn’t know who was going to win the war, they weren’t paying any money to have anything registered – or the records have disappeared, all but 2 or 3 of them. It’s this type of information you can’t glean from just finding your own ancestor’s records, because you have no idea if they are the only person in the marriage records for the year or just one of several thousand. Context can make a big difference in how you interpret a missing record.
Susannah was born about 1800 and her first child, the son in question, Ezekiel, was born about 1814. That is awfully, awfully young and there was no marriage record. In fact, this is so young it smacks of a nonconsensual relationship of some sort.
Susannah’s next children were born in 1818, 1825, 1828 and 1835. Three were females and one additional male, Marcus, who died between 1850 and 1860. In Susannah’s estate after her death in 1870, she said and her heirs say she had no idea where Marcus’s wife and children are or were and that she did not hear from them after they left the area years before. She didn’t know if she had grandchildren through Marcus or not, but she had provided for them if she did. How sad for Susannah. She had no idea she had outlived her son by 10-20 years.
However, since there was no marriage record for Susannah, I was dead in the water at this point, with no proof of anything and DNA that didn’t match what it was supposed to match. I felt like a fish flopping out of water, gasping, with no help in sight.
One of the things I learned a long time ago about genealogy is that the more work you do, the better the chance of opportune accidents happening. In other words, sometimes fate takes pity on you – or maybe it’s just your turn.
When I extract records for a particular surname, I extract all of the records of the relevant timeframe and often beyond. I worry about putting them together later….and yes…I’m fully aware that I waste a lot of time doing work that turns out to be irrelevant. But sometimes, it’s not entirely irrelevant and there may be tidbits that are extremely important….later.
Like the marriage records of Susannah’s children, for example.
Her eldest son, Ezekiel Estes married Martha Barley on December 10, 1854.
The clerk’s office had the actual minister’s return and it was chocked full of information, including that both Ezekiel and Martha were illegitimate, and both of their fathers’ were unknown, or at least not named, and that they married at the home of the bride’s mother.
Oh. Illegitimate…no father’s name. Nonmatching DNA. Hmmmmm….
Let’s look at Susannah’s other children who married in Halifax County. Another child’s entry says that the father is unknown and a third simply has a line drawn through the father’s name space. Another child married out of the county, but I had what I needed.
Finally, after Susannah’s death when Ezekiel was trying to settle her estate, depositions were taken regarding the division of her estate and in particular, the validity of some debts.
In this testimony, from various people, it is verified that Susannah never married and that she conducted all of her own business – in other words, there was never a male partner in her life.
Through the sources we would normally use to verify a marriage, we come up empty handed – but lack of evidence does not constitute proof that she never married. Absence of evidence is not necessarily evidence of absence. Susannah could have married in an adjacent county. However, the fact that her children’s marriage licenses all reflect an unknown father and an illegitimate legal status sheds light on Susannah’s marital status, as do the depositions after her death. And Susannah’s surname never changed. She was born an Estes and died an Estes too.
So, Pat was wrong, but not entirely wrong – because if you look back at the chancery suit distributing the assets of Mary Younger Estes, John R.’s sister, Sally, did marry a T. Estes. So the family had taken the information that one of George’s daughter’s married an Estes cousin and attached that information, opportunistically, to Susannah. It made sense, and given that both of the women’s names began with S, it would have been easy to genuinely confuse the daughters, especially a generation or two later.
George indeed did tolerate Susannah having illegitimate children, 5 of them apparently, and he supported her through the process, eventually signing his Revolutionary War bounty lands over to her as well as his assets in Halifax County. I’m sure he knew all too well that she needed the help. After the death of George’s wife, between 1830 and 1842, Susannah likely took care of George until he died in 1859. In fact, it was her son, Ezekiel that reported George’s death. So George stood by Susannah and Susannah took care of George.
So, back to the DNA. Based on Ezekiel’s marriage license, we know that his mother, Susannah was not married at the time of his birth. We also know, from the DNA itself that she did not get pregnant by an Estes male.
The DNA of George’s line has since been confirmed by other Estes male descendants.
When I did eventually explain this to Beau, he wasn’t very happy, but I explained to him that his line can be proud to establish a new Estes DNA line and what a strong woman Susannah had been. However, when I explained that he is still related to Granpappy George, through Susannah, just like he always was, and he carries Granpappy’s George’s surname, he was much MUCH happier. He didn’t really care about the DNA, but he surely cared a lot about being related to Granpappy George.
Out of all of this, I have to look at Susannah through a different lens. Yes, I do wonder why. Why did she get pregnant so young and why did she never marry? Why did she continue to have illegitimate children? But I also have grown to have an admiration for Susannah, knowing how difficult it would have been in that time and place to hold your head upright in spite of everyone and the hateful and derogatory things that were assuredly said about you behind your back and in front of your face. She must have been quite a spunky lady. She raised her children, took loans, bought property and pretty much acted like any man of that day. She was assuredly a woman born before her time.
But as for that pesky DNA issue – this type of situation is exactly why it’s so very important to test more than one male line from each ancestor. You just never know if one line really represents that ancestor otherwise – unless they match a descendant of someone further upstream or a descendant of another son.
This also illustrates why it’s important to verify information provided. I’m sure at some point that a conversation about Susannah went like this:
“Why did Susannah still have the Estes surname after having 5 children?” and the answer went something like this:
“She must have been married to her Estes cousin. Grandpappy George’s daughter married her Estes cousin, you know.”
That not entirely untrue answer probably took on a life of its own and became Susannah’s family truth.
I’m glad this wasn’t the first Estes DNA participant test or we could have been led badly astray. I’m also glad that we were able to find additional descendants of George to test for DNA validation.
Over the years, I’ve become quite the skeptic about the “full truth” of both family stories and single DNA tests for any line and now I need proof of everything! I’m not saying I think people intentionally tell untruths, I think it’s generally more like that childhood game of telephone where you whisper a phrase like, “Beau has brown shoes,” in your neighbor’s ear and 15 whispers later to 15 other people, the end result is something like, “Bows are brown mushrooms.”
I’m sorry I wasted the time in Fairfax County, but even the frustration in Halifax County caused by the Beau’s unexpected DNA results wasn’t a waste. Indeed, it caused me to dig deeper, and even though I was searching for information about Susannah at that point, and not John R. Estes, I found more and more about the entire family that provided perspective and understanding of their life and times – including that all-important chancery suit naming Mary Younger Estes’s heirs.
It was just a jig in the road and not a dead end after all, but it certainly seemed like a disaster at the time.