Wednesday, April 29, 2009

My surnames being researched

Before I continue on with Lee's story, I feel compelled to give a brief description of the other surnames that I am researching. Though Lee's family was the impetus to get me started, I have since branched out to pursue my other grandparent's families as well. The list includes the following:

HARMON from Clark Co, South Dakota (1880s to 1960s); Whiteside Co, Illinois (1840s to 1880s); Berkshire Co, Massachusetts (? to 1840s). Lines related to the Harmons include ZIMMER, HEATH, and ARMSTRONG.

ARTHUR from Clark Co. and Moody Co., South Dakota (1870s to 1950s or so); Rice Co, Minnesota (1850s-1920s); Ashtabula Co. and Trumbull Co., Ohio (1840s-1850s); and New London Co, Connecticut (? to 1830s). Lines related to the Arthurs include BROWN (Ashtabula Co, Ohio), MYERS, STRUBLE (from Union Co, Pennsylvania) and COCHRAN (also originating from Union Co, Pennsylvania).

HIBY/HOIBY from Clark Co., South Dakota (1880s to present); Dane Co, Wisconsin (1860s to 1900s), and Norway. Also related is NELSON of Norwegian descent.

HANSON from Clark Co., South Dakota (1880s to 1960s); Winneshiek Co. and Buena Vista Co., Iowa, and Houston Co., Minnesota (1850s to 1880s); and Kongsvinger, Norway prior to 1850. ANDERSON is another related surname.

SCOTT from Johnson Co, Kansas; Furnas Co, Nebraska; Nodaway Co, Missouri, Davis Co, Iowa and Hendricks Co, Indiana; Associated surnames include PITTS, JONES, SHERER/SCHERER, and the mysterious SWIFT. There is great speculation and family lore indicating that a Scott was originally a Swift. It's a puzzle I'm still working on.

GREATHOUSE from Wright and Webster Co, Missouri (1860s-?) Greathouse branches also are in St. Clair county; Kentucky and Virginia (1790s-1830s). Associated surnames include JOHNSON, COX from Randolph Co, North Carolina (they were Quakers), and ALGOOD/ALLGOOD.

My serious research begins - Part 1

About 1998, I began to get serious about trying to pursue my family history. I wanted some cold, hard facts and at the time I think I mentally prepared myself for the worst and secretly hoped for the best, or at least something better than the worst. I had no idea what I'd find out about Lee or if I could even find someone still living who would remember him or his family.

The cousin my grandma had communicated with in the 1980s had sent a typewritten chart prepared by Charles L. McNeill, Lee's father, that covered at least four generations of Charles' ancestry as well as his wife's, Della Grindstaff. It listed five children of Charles and Della with no birthdates: Lee Wesley, Anna Kate, Ora Belle, Ben Arvel, and Riley Barton. The tree also indicated Charles (1886-1970) was the son of Robert McNeill (1858-1932) and Margaret Ledford (1848-1927) while Della (1893-1979) was the daughter of Isaac Grindstaff (1852-1936) and Mary Jane Woody (1853-1946). Part of Lee's story was that he was born in Asheville, Buncombe Co, North Carolina. However, the cousin told us that the McNeills and Grindstaffs were actually from Mitchell Co, North Carolina, but had later moved to Asheville to find work. So I had a starting point...........

Thank goodness for the internet. I began by reviewing message boards and mailing lists on various websites including Rootsweb,, and I could find quite a bit about the earlier generations of Grindstaffs, Ledfords, McNeills and Woodys, but little from the early part of the 20th century. I naively made some attempts at posting some messages after lurking for a long time and got a few replies, but nothing that was a pot of gold.

Next I turned to online census records. At the point I got this far it was probably 2001 or 2002. I remember all the excitement over the release of the 1930 census and I could hardly wait to see if I could find Lee and his family. While I waited for the 1930 North Carolina census records to be on the website, I diligently searched the 1920 and 1910 censuses for Charles McNeill and Della Grindstaff. This was also about the time I realized that spelling is least as far as the name McNeill is concerned.

The first discovery was the 1920 census. Charles L. McNeal and wife Della were listed as the first household in Snow Creek Township, Mitchell Co, North Carolina (1). Charles was age 33, married, and a farmer born in North Carolina. Wife Della is age 26, also born in North Carolina. Seeing the following children is what gave me chills up my spine: Lee Wesley, son, age 8; Anna Kate, daughter, age 6; Ora Belle, daughter, age 4. Also living in the household were Charles' parents listed as Robt N., father, age 61, occupation is blacksmith, and Margrett, mother, age 72. Both were born in North Carolina as well as their parents. As I looked to the top of the page to find the date the census was taken (2nd & 3rd of January, 1920), I noticed that the census taker was actually Robt. N. McNeal. What better household to begin with than your own!

(1) 1920 U.S. Federal Census (Population Schedule), Snow Creek Township, Mitchell Co., North Carolina, Dwelling 1, Household 1, Charles McNeal household, jpeg image, (Online: The Generations Network, Inc. 2005) [Digital scan of original records in the National Archives, Washington, DC], subscription database,, accessed 2002.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Just the facts, ma'am

When my grandparents had been married a few years, Grandma was cleaning out a hutch cabinet and sort of wedged into the corner was a photo of an unknown individual. On the back was written something about this being "my father" and the man's surname was Davis, all in my grandfather's handwriting. When confronted with the photo, Grandpa Lee apparently became angry and ripped up the photo, leaving my grandmother confused about who he really was.

Over the course of their married years, he would apparently tell a few pieces of his early life story. He said he was from Asheville, North Carolina and that his surname had originally been McNeill, not Davis. He said he lied about his age to join the Navy where he served as a pharmacist's mate. He always said he was born in 1915. During his time in the Navy, he had been sending money home to save for medical school. And that when we came home he found there was no money. This occurred sometime during the Depression. And as we know from today's lousy economy, funds are tight and that it was even worse then. His father was named Charlie and had a temper, there was a falling out and he left home, never to be seen again by his McNeill family. He left the beautiful Blue Ridge mountains and went west to California, apparently arriving with only 45 cents in his pocket.

Lee died an early death likely of a heart attack in 1971. In the 1980s, my grandma began to search for his family. She wrote a letter to the Asheville newspaper where they published a note in their human interest area. It may have even been under a specific genealogical-related column. She got a few responses from a couple of people who recognized the few names she had been able to provide. One response proved to be the most useful. The respondant gave her the name of Lee's cousin who was a minister living in Hickory.

The cousin told a story of how Uncle Charlie (Lee's father) was a stern man and had a temper. While on a Navy furlough, Lee had a terrible disagreement with his father, snuck out a window and was gone. They never knew what happened to Lee and whatever searching they did was to no avail. I guess he was always the unspoken question that nobody ever wanted to bring up.

So what are the facts versus the fiction of this family saga? Stay tuned.

Coming of age

I began college at the onset of the rise of the internet. I remember as a freshman getting my first email account and playing with a new program called Internet Explorer. Soon all the tv commercials included a plug for their new website. It was the dawn of a new era and changed the world of commerce (and genealogy) forever.

But life and college got in the way of my various starts at research. I graduated, married, started my professional career and spent a great deal of time studying for a professional licensing exam. Still I had this feeling that I needed to start searching for answers. Looking back, I think the biggest time I wondered about my family history was when I was preparing to get married and change my name. I should have been changing it from McNeill, but I wasn't. And why not?

About a year after my husband and I married, we visited with my paternal grandmother. During that visit, we spent a lot of time talking about my late grandfather. She told me the few things that she knew about his past that he had told her about and then what she had learned after his death. I acquired copies of some family group charts, a typewritten family tree that my great-grandfather prepared, and a name of a cousin that she had corresponded with more than 10 years prior. I headed home and to the internet......

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

The puzzle

In the beginning....
I remember a junior high social studies assignment that required we draft a family tree and learn something regarding our ethnic heritage. So home I went with a list of questions and my mom was helpful in answering what she could. I was 1/4 Norwegian, some English, some German, and probably some Irish and Scots-Irish.

Two memories of this project stick out in my mind. The first was learning that one relative was was a bit on the "premature" side as in her parents married about six months before she was born at a very healthy full-term birth weight. I remember being shocked and realized why I'd never really been told this story before. As an adult I can now understand the stigma the child felt as she grew up in a small Midwestern town and that she passed along to her future generations.

The second memory compelled me to start my research in earnest about 10 years ago. My parents are divorced and I didn't have much of a relationship with my father, but very much did with my paternal grandmother. She had been doing research on her late husband's family (my paternal grandfather) and his somewhat mysterious past. She had determined he was from western North Carolina. She thought we might be related to Daniel Boone which made good fodder for my school presentation. But the most important fact was that he'd had a falling out with his parents and just left. He changed his surname from McNeill and started a new life on the West Coast without apparently ever looking back.

So with few facts and an old family tree, I began the journey to determine The Pieces of My Past.