Monday, January 17, 2011


© Kathy Duncan, 2011

In The Seven Daughters of Eve, Bryan Sykes explains that mitochondrial DNA passes unaltered from mother to daughter and has been doing so for generations. Remarkably, there are only seven different strains of mitochondrial DNA in the world. The world’s family of women is very small.

My own mitochondrial DNA can only be traced for a few generations beginning with my maternal grandmother, Bertha (Brown) Chapman, who was preceded by her mother, Henrietta Elizabeth “Bessie” (Kelley) Brown, who was preceded by her mother, Elizabeth “Eliza” Ann Rebecca (Thompson) Kelley, who was preceded by her mother, who was probably named Arcenia or Sarina (Williams) Thompson. Arcenia Williams is just one of my many brick walls.

While our mitochondrial DNA passes unaltered, we inherit traits from all our ancestors. Some of those traits are more persistent than others.

In 1987 I attended my grandfather W.S. “Bill” Chapman’s funeral. Afterward, we all gathered at the home of my Aunt and Uncle in Avery, TX. There were so many people that we spilled out into the front yard. I was standing with some of my first cousins when a woman approached us and waited patiently for a break in our conversation. I assumed that she was waiting to speak to one of my cousins. They had grown up in Avery while I was always an out-of-town visitor. They knew every one; I knew hardly any one.

As we turned to the woman, she addressed her comment to me. That alone was a surprise. What she said next was even more surprising: “I don’t know who you are, but I know that you are one of Bertha Brown’s grand daughters.” Caught totally off guard, I laughed and admitted that I was. My thoughts were racing. If my grandmother had not died, she would have been 88 years old. Instead she died in 1973 at the age of 73. Brown was her maiden name, so this woman had known my grandmother in her youth, before her marriage to my grandfather. However, she was obviously much younger than my grandmother would have been.

“You have her hands.” The woman continued. “I would know Bertha Brown’s hands any where. I always thought she had the most beautiful hands.”

I had never realized before that I have my grandmother’s hands. I had always gotten compliments on them because of my long fingers. Fingers my mother always hoped would belong to a piano player. Instead, they picked up a needle and thread and refused to practice the piano.

My daughter, who was not born until 1990, has incredibly long, thin fingers that are proportionally even longer than mine. My grandmother’s family would seem to be the source. Mitochondrial DNA in action?

In sifting through some of my files I came across a photocopy of a photograph of my great-great-great grandmother Nancy Missouri (Owens) Kelley, the mother-in-law of Eliza (Thompson) Kelley. It was taken some time before her death in 1912 at the age of 92. In it she is quite elderly, but her hands are prominently displayed. Hands with extremely long, thin fingers. My hands. My daughter’s hands. My grandmother’s hands.

We inherit traits from all our ancestors. We just rarely know which ones.

This is one of my favorite pictures of my grandmother: Bertha (Brown) Chapman.

Saturday, January 15, 2011


© Kathy Duncan, 2011

RULES ARE MADE TO BE BROKEN. One of the newer, cardinal “rules” of genealogy is to research one surname and one surname only until everything about that family can be discovered. The key is to avoid being distracted by other families even when they are found in the same geographical area. When researchers visit a library or courthouse, they are supposed to stick to a predetermined surname or list of individuals within a surname and ignore other family members when they pop up because those individuals can always be researched at a later time. That means if you are researching your paternal grandmother’s family, you don’t allow yourself to be distracted by your maternal grandfather’s family - even if you have traveled 300 miles to conduct your research. Instead, you return at a later date to focus on gandpa’s family. Whatever! I’ve always been too short of time and money to count on a second visit any where to do more research at a later date. Plus, I like to pursue whatever is interesting at the time. If I’d followed this “rule,” I would have spent the past 20 years futilely researching Granderson D. Nevill, and I would know nothing about any of my other family lines or my husband’s family.

Conducting successful research is often like a conversation. One topic often sparks another one and leads the participants into unexpected, but equally delightful subjects. There is spontaneity because conversations and memories do not follow rigid rules. I always tried, with varying degrees of success, to ask my grandparents questions that would spark a memory revealing new information. They must have often felt like I was grilling them under an harsh, bright interrogation light.

Once I asked my paternal grandmother Duncan if her Davis grandmother or aunt and uncle ever returned from West Texas to visit any family left behind in East Texas. My grandmother’s grandparents, Mary Lavinia (Yarberry) and Eli Van Buren Davis, left Bowie County, Texas in the early 1900s before my grandmother was born. They had settled near Hedley in Donley County. Her mother’s sister, Mary (Davis) Hardy and brother, “Bud” Davis had also removed to West Texas. Of their small family, only my great-grandmother Louise (Davis) Dendy was left behind.

My strategy worked on one occasion, and my grandmother immediately launched into a memory of her Aunt Mary and Uncle Bill Hardy stopping for a short visit on their way to “old” Jud Meadows’ place in Bowie County, Texas. My reaction time is sometimes a little slow, but in no time at all I jumped right in and interrupted her. You see, Judson Meadows was a younger brother of my great-great grandmother Martha Frances (Meadows) Chapman, who in turn was my maternal grandfather’s grandmother. I recalled in that moment that Judson Meadows had settled somewhere in Bowie County. The Meadows and Chapman families had mostly lived around Mt. Pleasant in Titus Co., TX. The upshot was that the Chapman and Meadows families on my mother’s side were in no way related to the Davises and Dendys on my father’s side. Yet here they were, interacting with each other.

“Why on earth were they going to visit Jud Meadows,” I blurted out? My grandmother’s story, where ever it was headed, was squashed right there, and she was off on a new tangent. It seems her Uncle Bill Hardy’s sister Anna had married “old man” Jud Meadows. According to my grandmother, Anna’s step-daughters were so mean to her that when she died, they refused to bury her by their father. Instead, she was buried by herself in a far corner of New Hope Cemetery in Bowie County.

I convinced my mother that we really, really needed to visit New Hope Cemetery . Within a few days we had gotten the directions off of the internet and were on our way. However, as is often the case, the cemetery was not easy to find. We were twisting around one dirt road after another and were on the verge of giving up when we met a pick up truck. The driver was dressed in a crisp, white dress shirt worn under a starched pair of overalls. He sported a neatly trimmed white beard and a straw hat. He was the very definition of dapper. “I bet he’ll turn out to be a Meadows,” my mother mused hopefully. I said no way. A man that dapper had to be a Nevill of some sort. He was surely a descendant of old Granderson D. Nevill Sr., a man who had at least three or four wives and had been divorced from two or three of them by 1880, a man who must have been able to attract the ladies.

Mother hailed the truck, and the driver stopped beside us. He readily give us clear directions to cemetery. Then he asked mother who we had buried there. That gave her an opportunity to ask if he was related to the Meadows family. Turns out, no, he was a Davis. That prompted me to ask if he was related to any of my Davises. Again, no. His mother, however, was a Pool. Excited, I asked if he was related to a woman named Minnie Pool. Oh yes, indeed. His grandparents were Oliver and Minnie Pool. Minnie Lee (Nevill) Pool was a grand daughter of Granderson D. Nevill Sr. and a sister to my great-grandmother Susie Gertrude (Nevill) Duncan! HA!

Mr. Davis had just left his mother’s where there was a family reunion in full swing. He gave us directions to her house and invited us to drop right in. The road to New Hope Cemetery took us right by her place. Her yard was packed with cars. It was tempting to stop, but crashing a reunion seemed awkward. I’ve wished many times, though, that we had stopped. Since then, Mr. Davis and his mother have died and an opportunity to learn more about the Nevill family has been lost. Still, I have fond memories of the day I met Minne Pool's grandson in the middle of the road.

In the photograph, Minnie Lee (Nevill) Pool is seated with baby Bess Lee (Pool) Davis on her lap. Husband Oliver Green Pool sits on the right and her father-in-law John J. Pool sits on the left.

Sunday, January 9, 2011


© Kathy Duncan, 2011

SERENDIPITY. Serendipity is based solely on amazing coincidence. It is the book that falls from the library shelf face down and lands on the page that contains the information one has sought for years. Serendipity is not to be confused with intuition or gut instinct. Those are grounded in conclusions drawn from research and insight. While intuition arrives in a eureka moment that seems magical, it is not serendipity. Recently, I saw a book online about paranormal genealogy research, and serenity moments were included as if the ancestors stood at our elbows, knocking books off of shelves for us. Perhaps. Who am I to argue? I just know that some of my best “discoveries” have come through serendipity instead of methodical searching.

Take Duncan Hyder Selph and his wife Lavinia Burton, my husband Peter’s great-grandparents. Back in the pre-internet, pre-census indexes after 1860, days, this couple was beyond elusive. I could not successfully link them to their parents or locate a marriage record for them. I had no idea where in Tennessee to look for either one of them. I had met my future father-in-law, Hardy J. Selph, exactly once. He regaled me with a story of being descended from a Revolutionary War officer who was supposedly buried near Nashville. Somehow I confused the officer with the photograph of Duncan H. and Lavinia Selph that he was showing me. I knew the picture was from the Civil War era and that the man in it could not possibly be a Revolutionary War officer. I knew nothing about the Selph family, so I was not able to keep up with what I was being told. Since Peter and I were only dating at the time, it did not occur to me to do anything more than listen politely.

Years later I was in the Dallas Public Library, working on something that I have long since forgotten when I knocked a book off of the shelf. It was time for me to pack up and head home any way because the library was closing, but I turned the book over and looked at the page on which it landed. My eye caught on a couple of names: Hardy Someone Or Other and Mrs. Selph. I glanced at the book title - something to do with Williamson County, Tennessee - returned it to the shelf and headed home. When I told Peter about it, he could not believe that I had not photocopied those pages before I left. He pointed out the some one named “Hardy” mentioned on the same pages as someone named “Mrs. Selph” was bound to be his relative. He had a valid point. Methodical, backward moving research had not gotten me any where. I might as well look in a book that fell off the shelf.

I wrote down everything I remembered about the book and within the week I was back at the library to photograph those pages. Mrs. Selph turned out to be Lavinia (Burton) Selph, wife of Duncan H. Selph, and Hardy Someone Or Other turned out to be her grandfather Hardy Murfree, the Revolutionary War officer buried in Tennessee. Things started falling into place quickly after that. Lavinia (Burton) Selph, who was nicknamed “Lilly,” was the daughter of Francis Nash Williams Burton and Lavinia Bembury Murfree, a prominent, early family of Murfreesboro, Tennessee. Lavinia (Murfree) Burton was also nicknamed Lilly. Her legacy continued among innumerable little Lavinias, Lillys, Lillians, and Lilly Anns in the family.

LEAVE NO STONE UNTURNED. Or as I think of it, look under every rock. Based on my successes with serendipity, I nose around in everything that presents itself now. My favorite place to look for odd information is in books about antiques, old houses, quilts, and samplers. I finally hit pay dirt in The Quilts of Tennessee: Images of Domestic Life Prior to 1930 by Bets Ramsey and Merikay Waldvogel.

Featured in this book is the Soule College Quilt, a crazy quilt made by classmates at Soule College in Murfreesboro, Tennessee c. 1891, as a gift to J.H. Holt, an itinerant Cumberland Presbyterian preacher in Rutherford County. F.N.W. Burton was one of the original 1825 trustees of Soule College. Smack in the center of the quilt is a block with three large white, embroidered lilies, and what is even more unusual, the block is signed by “Lizzie Burton.” I feel sure that the block was meant as a tribute to Lavinia “Lilly“ (Murfree) Burton who died in Kentucky in 1881, but who was returned to Murfreesboro to be interred next to her husband F. N. W. Burton in the Old City Cemetery. Lizzie Burton was most likely Lavinia (Burton) Selph’s daughter Betty Vick Selph who had married Erwin Burton by 1886 in Murfreesboro.

BE GUIDED BY YOUR GUT. When I have a strong, overwhelming feeling about something, I try to follow it. It does not really matter if it is serendipity or intuition; if the feeling is strong enough, I go with it. No questions asked. Several years ago I was driving through Eastland, Texas on my way to New Mexico when I felt an overwhelming to stop, stretch my legs, and get a cup of coffee. I recalled that there was an antique mall on the square, and noted that it should just about be opening time. I figured I was making good enough time to stop for a bit. A little reward for getting up early and getting on the road. Plus, I remembered seeing a guest book for an old dam that I had seen the year before. Apparently, in the early days of automobile travel, dams were a tourist destination and people signed a guest ledger, recording their visit. If the ledger was still there, I intended to buy it. Unfortunately, it was gone, but in another booth was an old store ledger that someone had turned into a scrapbook, gluing all manner of things on top of the old store entries. I remember thinking what a shame. I still do. One of the pages had a picture of a large while lily glued on it. And a poem about a lily. I thought of the Lillys in Peter’s family and started turning the pages more slowly and looking more carefully at them. Just a hodge-podge of whatever had interested its creator covered page after page. Then I came to a page where the name Lilly was written over and over. Obviously, the little girl who did this was named Lilly, and she had practiced writing her name. Then at the very back were some old store entries that were never glued over. One of them….the one that made my heart almost stop…was a record of bricks bought and delivered for Mr. Murfree’s chimney. SOLD! I’ve yet to figure out exactly who this little Lilly was or which Mr. Murfree built a new chimney, but I will eventually figure it out.