I’ve been getting to know the white Nances by reading The Nance Memorial. It’s a meaty read, and virtually itemizes the Nance family, a sprawling clan whose roots in the United States begin in Virginia and spread to Tennessee, Indiana, Kentucky, Missouri and Texas.
With my great-great-grandfather Henry Nance (c. 1835– 1926) being a Nashville native, of course, I was most interested in the Nances of Nashville, Tenn. According to my family’s oral history, he took the name of his owner; a while ago I had identified some possible slave owners using Tennessee tax records, which included a Josiah Nance of Davidson County, Tenn.
Reading The Nance Memorial, I scanned the text for anything that might lead to more information about Henry: Davidson County, negro, slave and Nashville. (Shout out to the find function in Google Books). I quickly zeroed in on a passage about William Howe Nance (1779-1837). He and his wife had 13 children, including a son named Josiah. This particular line jumped out at me:
“. . . when Josiah married in December 1829, he gave him 50 acres on the southeast corner of his land on which he settled and raised his family of 12 children and 15 negroes.”
I had two immediate thoughts:
- William Howe Nance must have been a man of means to have had 50 acres to give to his son.*
- This Josiah must be the same one I came across in the tax records, and these 15 negroes could have included one or both of my great-great-great-grandparents, William and Lula Nance. Or neither. The only way to confirm is with some sort of document– like an inventory, a receipt, a bill of sale, or a will, like the one I found listing my great-great-great grandmother Sallie Whitehurst. (NOTE: in 1829, my great-great-grandfather Henry Nance hadn’t been born yet).
This bit of context could be the clue I’ve needed to begin to piece together Henry Nance’s life in Tennessee.
*I was right. More on that later
Of the approximately 90 years my great-great-grandfather Henry Nance (born c. 1837 – 1926) spent on this Earth, I can only find remnants of the last third, the part he spent in Coffee County, Ala., as property owner– not owned property. I’ve been spending time with records from the Freedmen’s Bureau to see if I can piece together Henry Nance’s life between 1865 and 1880– his own Reconstruction, so to speak.
The Freedmen’s Bureau was established as the Emancipation Proclamation was handed down, which flung millions of formerly those enslaved into this thing called freedom. The idea was that the Bureau would equip freedmen and freedwomen with the skills necessary to survive and thrive. The Bureau kept meticulous records– from labor contracts to medical information to criminal activity. For a person trying to learn more about a formerly enslaved ancestor– such as myself– the Freedmen’s Bureau records can potentially reveal details of the lives of those slavery tried to erase.
I happened upon a record that may fill in some blanks. A Henry Nance of Tennessee is attached to a complaint of disorderly conduct dated Oct. 16, 1865. It’s not clear if this Henry Nance is the subject of the complaint or the complainant himself. It’s not even clear who this Henry Nance is exactly; there is no other identifying information on the record.
Like other documents I’ve found, this raises more questions than it aenswers, and this one in particular has prompted a theory: What if this disorderly conduct charge was the reason Henry Nance fled Tennessee?
One of my most mysterious relatives is my great-grandmother Rachel Bryant. When I started my research, I knew very little about her other than her name and that she gave birth to my maternal grandmother, Lula Bryant, on May 25, 1925.
She turned up in just one U.S. Census– in 1900 when she was a five-year-old living with her parents and six siblings in Stewart County, Georgia. That was all I could find. Until now. Maybe.
I found a marriage certificate dated December 1919 between a Rachel Bryant and Simon Healey. The two got married in Stewart County, Ga. If this is my great-grandmother, that means she would’ve been about 25 when she married this Simon Healey character. (Simon Healey himself is a man of mystery; I couldn’t find him in any other records either).
But that’s where it ends. The Healeys don’t appear anywhere else. I Not in Census records, not in a city directory, not in a death certificate. Nowhere. Apparently they lived happily ever after — maybe — under the radar.