Sunday, July 15, 2018

Is That You, Willie Mae? - How a DNA Hint Broke a 20 Year Old Brick Wall

Willie Mae Harris (r-back) with her son, Ernest Albert Walker,
daughter-in-law Minnie Lacy Hall and granddaughter Violet.
This has been an incredibly productive research week. My wife has been pulling all-nighters since Wednesday trying to tie together loose ends and small clues on a mystery that has baffled us for the last 20 years. Back on July 10, 2011, I wrote a blog about Willie Mae Harris Walker, trying to put out what information we knew about her in the hopes someone would find it and help us solve a long running mystery.

We had been stuck on Willie Mae Harris and her first husband James Albert Walker for a very long time. Neither one of them showed up in very many records and they only stayed together for a few years. That meant that we only had this family in a marriage record from 1881 and the 1885 Florida census, along with a few real estate transactions to go by for our research. Further census records find the children dispersed into several different families and Willie Mae married to a variety of different husbands. This is where the 1890 US census would have come in handy, because their last child was born in 1889.

Willie Mae was born in 1864 and we had several family stories that we hoped would provide clues in our research. One of those family stories was that her grandfather was named Col. Frank E. Harris and that he had surveyed and named Lake Harris near Leesburg, Florida. We were also told that Frank Harris had come to Florida during the First Seminole War (1817-1818) but had returned to Georgia only to return later and settle in Yalaha, Florida. Another story we were told was that Willie Mae's father died the same year she was born (1864) due to injuries he received in the Civil War during fighting near Atlanta. We knew that Willie Mae and James Albert Walker were married in Sumter County, Florida in 1881 and had lived for a short time in Yalaha and that after they separated, Willie had married at least three more times, eventually ending up in Jacksonville, Florida with her husband Andrew Jackson Phares. She died in 1909 when her nightgown caught fire and burned her severely. We did not know who Willie Mae's parents were, but we did know that she had a sister named Fannie and we believed that she also had a sister named Grace. So, we had scoured the 1870 census for Willie Mae, Fannie and Grace Harris all throughout Lake and Sumter Counties in Florida, in the areas of Leesburg and Yalaha where we knew Willie Mae had lived. We knew that Fannie had lived in Jacksonville and we had found many records of her life there as an adult and hotel proprietor but we had never found any records for Grace.

Several years ago we started submitting DNA tests to the various databases. We started by sending my wife's brother's DNA to Family Tree DNA and ended up matching with the Walker Group but there were no clues to James' identity there. Then we added samples from my wife and her mother to Ancestry's database, getting the results just two months before my wife's mother died. We also uploaded the Ancestry DNA information to GEDMatch and MyHeritage hoping to increase our potential for matches. Then we added samples to 23 & Me and LivingDNA earlier this year. The DNA provided some possible matches but few of them had online trees and we weren't able to find any useful matches for these family lines. My wife did discover a cousin which we never knew about who had been adopted at birth and also found matches to her known half siblings and also an unknown half sibling. All of those discoveries have been great but were still no help in breaking down this brick wall.

After many years of unfruitful research, I finally hired a professional researcher while I was at RootsTech earlier this year. We have been getting regular updates but the researcher has not been finding much new information that would lead us to discover who Willie Mae or James Albert Walker's parents were.

Then, late Wednesday evening, my wife came to me and said she found a possible DNA match! By triangulating all the data she had she knew that the link was on her father's side and that the only matching surname was Harris. My wife sent off an e-mail immediately to see if this person had any information. Through searches of mutual matches and online trees we were able to trace this line back to William E. Harris and Fredonia Aust, both from Georgia but living in Jacksonville, Florida. The 1860 census listed three children for this couple; Frances, Thomas and George. Frances was listed as 6 years old making her birth year around 1854. My wife's great aunt Fannie was born in 1854. Could this possibly be the family? The biggest problem with this family was that no one had ever talked about Willie Mae having brothers. They only mentioned her sister(s).

 So, onto the trail of the family of William E. Harris to see if we could discover anything else. Through our research, we discover a marriage record for William E. Harris and Margaret F. Aust in Glynn County, Georgia in 1852 and the previously mentioned 1860 US census from Jacksonville, Florida with the daughter Frances. There was nothing for William in the 1870 or 1880 census where we would have hoped to find him with a daughter Willie Mae or Wilhelmina. So, what happened to him? We were stuck again....until we found a mention that he had fought in the Civil War as a member of the 3rd Regiment, Company F, Florida Infantry (Cow Boys). So, off we went to look in the Fold3 records. There we found his muster roles from August 1861 to August 1864. These records provided us with some useful information. One piece was that on August 9, 1864, William was admitted to the Ocmulgee Hospital in Macon, Georgia for an injury he had received in battle. That injury was the result of a minnie ball hitting his metatarsal bones of his great toe on his left foot. As a result of that injury, he died a little over two weeks later on August 27, three months before Willie Mae was born. This fit in with the story we had been told of him being injured in battle near Atlanta and eventually dying of his injuries. After this, we knew we would not be able to find him in any subsequent records with his family.

Our next step was to try to find other members of the family. So, we started searching for Thomas Harris and found a few clues to lead us to a full name of Thomas Wilson Harris. We also found an obituary for Thomas from Chattanooga, Tennessee. If you have read my previous blog on Willie Mae Harris you might notice a link to Chattanooga where one of her husbands, a former employer of hers, Samuel Seigler was born and where her last child was also born. So, this link to Chattanooga was an intriguing one. In Thomas' obituary it mentions his sister Fannie Bliss, but no other family members. Finding this name I decided to go back to some records that I had found at the Family History Library in Salt Lake a couple years ago. One of the records was a marriage record for Fannie Bliss and Jacob Keller. We knew this was our Fannie, Willie Mae's sister, because we had pictures of Fannie and Mr. Keller but we had no idea who Mr. Bliss was. I also took a closer look at Fannie's death certificate and noticed that it listed her father as William Harris, born in Georgia. Now we have a link between Thomas, William, and Fannie that leads us to Willie Mae. This convinced us that we had the right family and we began building the tree, tying all of the links together.

Our next discovery was concerning Margaret F. Aust Harris. We found her middle name to be Fredonia and discovered that several records list her as Fredonia Margaret Aust or Harris. We also discovered that she married Charles Cumberland after her husband William died. We were able to find her Findagrave memorial as Fredonia Margaret Cumberland with a burial in 1876 in the Old City Cemetery in Jacksonville. Then we found what we consider the holy grail, a copy of her will on Ancestry. The will mentions Fannie, Thomas and George, but further on in the document it lists her minor children Louisa and Willie M., ages 15 and 11. The children were given to Dr. Theodore Hartridge, the executor of the will, as guardian until they reached adulthood. This was our first solid link showing that Fredonia had a daughter Willie. But we still hadn't found the daughter Grace that the family "knew" existed.

Snippet of Fredonia M. Cumberland's will mentioning Willie M Harris as her daughter.

All through our original research we kept running across Frank E. Harris from Marion County, Florida. He seemed to be a pretty well known man in the area and was very influential due to his position as the editor of the Ocala Star newspaper. We had stories that Willie Mae's grandfather was Colonel Frank E. Harris but these two men could not have been the same people since they were living in different time periods. Over the years, we continued to search for another Frank E. Harris to no avail. Then, with our new discoveries this week, we found a newspaper article about Thomas Harris, Willie Mae's brother. Thomas was listed as Colonel Thomas W. Harris and he was a newspaper man, having worked for and owned several newspapers during his career. One of the papers he was associated with was the Ocala Star, where he worked with his "relative" Frank E. Harris. So, Frank was a relative of the family, somehow. We are still looking into this connection.

Also, I mentioned earlier about a sister, Grace Harris, of whom we had very little information other than she had died before Willie Mae. So, who was this Grace? We think we may have now figured it out. A newspaper article concerning the marriage of Grace Hardin and Charles Pelton which occurred in 1903 at the residence of Mr. E. R. Bliss on 22 Cedar Street in Jacksonville, Florida gave us a great clue. A couple of things are found in this article that tie things together. First of all, Fannie Harris' first husband was William Hardin. Secondly, the wedding took place at the home of E. R. Bliss. Remember, Fannie was listed as Fannie Bliss on her marriage record to Jacob Keller. Now we have a link to a Grace Hardin as the daughter of Fannie, not a sister. Also, the residence of E. R. Bliss is listed and with a little searching through the Jacksonville City Directories for this period we find an Emmor R. Bliss with a wife Fannie at that residence!

William Ewen Harris
Fredonia Margaret Aust
Through all of this research, my wife has found additional living cousins, one of whom has sent pictures of William and Fredonia Harris, Willie Mae's parents, and additional information about the Harris family. My wife has reciprocated by sending copies of pictures and records that we have on Fannie and Willie Mae Harris. We will continue this search to discover more of the Harris and Aust family roots. But just think, this whole journey of discovery began with a DNA match making a small crack in a more than 20 year old brick wall.


Dara said...

Great story. It's good to see all that hard work finally paying off and it gives me hope DNA will someday help crack my own 'brick walls'.

Caroline said...

That's an amazing tale of hard work & research. That you've found other relatives is great. I haven't had any DNA breakthroughs yet, but it has backed up a couple of my branches so I'm happy I'm on the right path with those.
Wishing you continuing luck with your research.