One of the most difficult ancestors for me to research has been my great-great-grandmother Annie Cotton Nance. What I knew about her, I learned from oral history and also from conversations with my cousin Jessie Britt Frazier (1921-2012). Annie Cotton Nance was Jessie’s grandmother, and she lived with Jessie and her mother, Sallie Mary Nance Britt, for a number of years after she and my great-great-grandfather Henry Nance separated.
“Where was she from?” I remember asking “Around here,” Jessie told me, “here” meaning Coffee County.
“When did she die?” I asked. “My ninth grade year,” Jessie said. (I did a little math and that came out to be around 1938 or so).
So for years that was what I knew about my great-great-grandmother, and that she was a teenager when she married a man nearly 30 years her senior and went on to have 14 children. That all changed this weekend, when I met up with a familiar friend– and occasional muse– insomnia.
I found an 1880 U.S. Census showing an Ann Cotton, age 15, living in Dale County, Ala. in the household of Lige* and Ellen Baxter. (Though she’s listed as a sister to the head of household, Lige, I think she might have been the sister-in-law). This matches the information I already had about my great-great-grandmother, who was born in January 1865, and would’ve been 15 in 1880.
Rocky Head, Ala., was a community in Dale County, which is adjacent to Coffee County. When Henry and Annie married, they made their home in the Haw Ridge community, which straddled Coffee and Dale counties. This is another reason I think the Ann Cotton in this Census is my great-great-grandmother.
NOTE: I did some other started to search more to find out about the Baxters and interestingly enough, I realized that one of Elijah and Ellen’s daughters, Claudie, married one of my Tindall relatives and lived on property that later became Fort Rucker.
*Lige is short for Elijah
Some of the most difficulty I’ve had in this genealogical journey is finding out what happened to my great-grandfather J.E. Nance’s sisters, Pearl Nance Hill (b. 1899), Pearlee Nance Stewart (b. 1903) and Dovie Nance Ardis (b. 1902).
I don’t know any of their descendants and growing up, I never heard anyone mention them. All I’ve ever known about them was their names, dates of birth , names of spouses and names of children.
And then ancestry.com came along with its bomb search function. I recently discovered that Pearl Nance Hill didn’t stay married to her husband very long. In 1920 she and her husband, Dee, were living with their infant son in Haw Ridge, Ala., right next door to her parents, Henry and Annie Nance. But 10 years later, Pearl and her son Horace turned up in a 1930 Census living in the Blackmon househould in Enterprise, Ala. Interestingly enough, she’s listed as being a cousin to the head of the household, J. Cleveland Blackmon. (There’s no mention of husband, Dee).
Cousin?! Wait, what?! I quickly did a mental inventory of the vast and extensive of surnames related to mine on my paternal side: Nance, Whitehurst, Brooks, Brown, Tindall, Flowers, Barnes, Cotton, Gilley, Clark… Blackmon? That’s a new one.
On a related note, this seems to validate my long-held theory that I’m related to every black person in Enterprise, Ala., but I digress…
Also, Pearl listed herself as single. Not widowed, but single. That made me wonder what happened to her husband, Dee. It also made me wonder more about the head of this household, J. Cleveland Blackmon.
I have spent the past three months running headlong into brick walls. Figuratively speaking, of course. I’m taking about genealogical brick walls, the moments when you’ve reached the end of the paper trails your ancestors left.
The whole thing is so perplexing, but fascinating.
Take Narcis Pinkard Hamilton, for example. She is one of my great-great grandmothers. Born in Georgia in 1864, she was married at 15 and spent most of her life working as a domestic. She died in Columbus, Ga. in 1934, and her death certificate helped uncover some details about her immediate family. I know she had a younger brother named John, and her father’s name was Henry, but that’s all I know. I don’t know where in Georgia she lived before she married my great-great-grandfather Ike Pinkard, nor do I know her mother’s name.
One of my great-great-grandmothers, Annie Cotton Nance, is another woman whose life is largely mysterious. She doesn’t appear in any U.S. Census until 1900, when she was a 35-year-old married mother of 10 children. I can’t even find a Cotton family in the area that would correspond with the information that’s been passed down. I know that after my great-great-grandfather Henry Nance died, she lived with one of her sons, Oliver, and also with one of her daughters, Sallie Mary. She died sometime around 1938, though I haven’t been able to find a record.
I think this means I have to refocus my research. Instead of focusing on how far back I can go, I should start digging deeper into what I’ve already found.
I was in Alabama last week for the Nance Family Reunion, and as always, I came back having learned something new. This time, I discovered the final resting place of one of my relatives, Obie D. Ardis, one of my paternal grandfather’s first cousins.
Whenever we go to Alabama, we place flowers on the graves of my grandparents, who are buried at Johns Chapel AME Church in Enterprise, and also my aunt and uncle, both buried at Fort Mitchell. We had just finished praying, and I was admiring the orange and green floral arrangement we had placed at my uncle’s headstone, when I looked up and noticed the name on a headstone a couple of rows back: Obie D. Ardis.
I immediately recognized the name as one the sons of Dovie Nance Ardis. She was one of my great-grandfather’s sisters, and someone who had remained somewhat of a mystery during my research. I looked closely and saw that Obie died in November 1999, about a month after my uncle. That meant his headstone had been there this whole time–all we had to do was look up.
The short answer to the question in the headline is yes. But first a bit of background:
Coppinville is the section of Enterprise, Alabama where my paternal ancestors and relatives have lived for more than a century. In fact, if you take a drive down Coppinville Road, you’ll notice it intersects with Nance Circle and further down is Gilley Street. Gilley is my great-grandmother’s maiden name.
Anyway, Coppinville is named for Levi Jenkins Coppin, (1848-1924) a former bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church. But why this guy? Well, according to this history, the Coppinville area was among the first areas in Coffee County where black people settled. Many of them belonged to the AME church, and Coppin was bishop of the church during the time Coppinville was being developed. He married Fannie Jackson, a writer, educator and missionary after whom the historically black Coppin State University is named.
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
Christmastime is here and that means carols are blaring from speakers left and right. You can’t walk five feet without having a holly, jolly Christmas or hearing a jingle bell. My family has its own collection of holiday standards that have become staples, and no matter how many times we hear them, we never tire of the melodies or the memories. Here’s a sampling of the songs we enjoy during Christmas and why:
Daddy: Upbeat. Really puts me in the Christmas spirit. Can’t help having a merry Christmas when it’s playing.
Mom: Reminds me of romance, when you’ve just met someone and you’re looking forward to a time strengthen your relationship.
Sister: I like this song for its musicianship. I LOATHE ANY COVERS. DONNY HATHAWAY ONLY.
Me: This song lets me know Christmas is officially here. It’s a well-composed song with warm lyrics sung by a warm voice. “Presents and cards are here/My world is filled with cheer and you.” That’s exactly what Christmas is.
2. “White Christmas,” The Drifters
Daddy: Makes me think about (my brother) Tye. This was probably his all-time favorite, sang it all the time.
Mom: Just nostalgia. Being born in the South, there was never a white
Christmas, but the song was part of the songs that I always heard at Christmastime.
Sister: This song is my all time favorite Christmas song. I like the different voices. It makes me think of Daddy.
Daddy: Never paid much attention to it until recent years. Nothing like Gene Autry’s version.
Mom: Brings joy, fun and a sense of being carefree.
Sister: This song also makes me think of Daddy. #HEYRUDOLPH
Me: Now THIS is how you make a song your own.
Daddy: Takes me back to Union Springs when I was in high school and (my sister) Sue was in college. All of her friends would be home for Christmas and they’d get together. This was one of the songs they always played. Always got a hoot out of the line, “Oh, by the way, it’s snowing,” ’cause we never saw snow.
Mom: Nostalgia. I love it because I heard it often during my childhood.
Sister: I don’t really connect with this song. This song for me is when I make a plate.
Me: I love the simplicity of this song. It’s so cute! It makes me want to slip into a powder blue shift dress, press my hair, style it into a bouffant and do the Horse, the Slop, the Mashed Potatoes , the Swim and any other 1960s-related dance. Oh, and I love when she says “It’s soo-o good to tawk to you again…”
Daddy: Makes me think about the less fortunate and how we used joke about those who only got a lump of coal for Christmas.
Mom: This one was not the ordinary Christmas song and it still reminds me that there are those whose circumstances are not like the idyllic scenes we hear about in songs and see on TV, but who have the same desires as everyone else. We should not forget those who are not as fortunate as we are.
Sister: The blackest Christmas song.
Me: This is actually a quite poignant song– if you can sit still long enough to listen to the words.
Daddy: Doesn’t do much for me.
Mom: Reminds me of the joyful expectancy and excitement of looking forward to getting gifts from a fat man with a beard.
Sister: This song gets me super hype for Christmas. The buildup at the beginning gives me everything I need in life.
Me: I mean, it’s the Jackson 5 and young Michael is announcing the arrival of Santa Claus. You can’t help but get excited.
Daddy: Makes me laugh thinking about all the white Santas I grew up seeing, not knowing the real deal.
Mom: During my childhood the image of white Santa Claus was always displayed and in my mind that’s who he was. This reminds me of how important it is to provide varied, realistic images for your children and to let them know that the source of gifts at Christmas can come from many people.
Sister: The second-blackest Christmas song.
Me: The first time I heard this song, I thought it was a commercial. But then it kept going. I liked it because it had kids in it, and it was only later that I understood the deeper meaning.
8. “What Do the Lonely Do At Christmas,” The Emotions
Daddy: Makes me feel for anybody who doesn’t have somebody to share Christmas with.
Mom: It’s a sad, sad, song! Makes me think that the holiday is not really fun for everybody.
Sister: Depressing, but pretty song. It reminds me of MAJIC after dark (102.3).
Me: I have never heard a sadder jingling of bells than the sounds in this song. The Emotions– what an aptly named group to sing this song. Nevertheless, I go full-on girl group when this song comes on. Like, singing lead and backup at the same time.
Daddy: My favorite Christmas song of all time!
Mom: Reminds me of the importance of sharing special times with that special person in your life.
Sister: This song reminds me of Mommy. It’s just ok to me.
Me: I always hear Daddy singing the first verse and Mommy coming in with the chorus. That’s the ONLY way I hear this song.
Daddy: Brings to mind the guy who is just happy to be with his sweetie on Christmas. A lot cheerier than Charles Brown’s rendition, which always made me think of a guy who had one drink too many and wants to confess his love to his sweetie.
Mom: It has never been on of my favorites. Just a song that plays at Christmas.
Sister: THIS IS MY JAM!!!!!!!! YOU KNOW I REALLY LOVE THAT ORGAN!!! I ALSO LOVE HIS VOICE!!!!!
Me: Ayyyye! “Santa came down the chimney, half past three y’all…” That’s my favorite line!
Daddy: Reminds me of people I have known who would spare no expense buying Christmas gifts, never thinking about how they would be able to pay for them.
Mom: Nostalgia. My parents loved it, DJs played it on the radio, it was everywhere and it just became that song that when I hear it, I know Christmas is here and good times, good food and goodness is abound for at least two weeks.
Sister: I don’t know this song…..
Me: This is my Christmas jam for real! It makes me want to hand dance with Daddy *clears throat*