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Put together bits and pieces for a bigger picture

Tribune correspondent
Published:   |   Updated: March 21, 2013 at 06:06 PM

It should be simple to prove that two people married. Finding a marriage license should provide the maiden name of the bride and open the door for research on another surname.

But few things are so straightforward in genealogical research. It doesn't take a novice long to realize that many ancestors didn't bother going to the courthouse before they set up housekeeping. No, living together without benefit of clergy was not a 20th century invention.

Another rude discovery is that sparks from fireplaces and coal heaters often started fires that quickly swept away old wood-frame courthouses - and all their records.

Things aren't as simple as they should be, so we family historians enjoy adventures in genealogical quests, cobbling together family trees based on well-researched indirect evidence.

A piece of direct evidence, such as the marriage license, will quickly establish both the maiden name of the bride and the date of the union. But sometimes we get a richer appreciation of our families if we have to dig deep into records.

A good example of this is my experience with one set of third great-grandparents, whom I eventually identified as Gilbert O'Neal and Elizabeth Hickman.

Living relatives were able to identify my great-grandfather James O'Neal from personal acquaintance with him. My mother's older siblings identified his father as Joseph O'Neal, and some vaguely recall that his father "might have been Gilbert."

Although James and his wife died and are buried in Floyd County, Ga., family stories allowed me to piece together that James was born and raised just across the county line in Cherokee County, Ala.

Then came the dreaded news: The Cherokee County Courthouse burned in 1882. Nothing survived. I was demoralized.

But combining census research, learning about area history and migration routes, and exploring beyond Cherokee County proved to be a winning combination.

I was able to identify an O'Neal family in Marengo County, Ala., whose names closely mimicked my line of O'Neals. Tracking the Marengo O'Neals back to their roots in Johnston County, N.C., proved the wisdom of the circuitous exploration.

There I discovered a successful land-owning family headed by a different James O'Neal and his wife, Elizabeth Richardson. James and Elizabeth died in the 1850s within a few years of each other. Their children then spent several years in court squabbling over the estate.

In the lawsuit affidavits, I found proof that James and Elizabeth were the parents of Gilbert and the grandparents of his children, James, Joseph and Benjamin O'Neal of Alabama.

In the meantime, I joined forces with other cousins. We canvassed the Cherokee County community where the O'Neals had lived. We knocked on doors, wrote letters and made telephone calls (this was pre-Internet days) to total strangers.

One elderly lady recalled that her father had spoken often of Gilbert and his wife, Elizabeth. She thought that Elizabeth O'Neal had been a Hickman before she married Gilbert and thought Elizabeth had married a Lewis after Gilbert died.

We added that tidbit to information from the 1850 census, where we had discovered children James, Joseph and Benjamin O'Neal in the household of John and Elizabeth Lewis.

With Gilbert O'Neal's identity firmly established, we had to prove or disprove that Elizabeth had been a Hickman.

Small items pieced together can prove a solid case. In the 1842 newspapers for the area, I found a legal ad in which a William Hickman was appointed to be the administrator of Gilbert O'Neal's estate. Previously we knew only that Gilbert died between the 1840 census, when he was head of a household, and the 1850 census, where his widow had married John Lewis.

When a man died and his wife did not become the estate administrator, generally someone close to her took those duties. Identifying the administrator as William Hickman led us to theorize that he was her brother or another close relative.

In researching the geographical and social history of the county, I had discovered a set of records for the Southern Claims Commission. This agency processed applications for property owners to be reimbursed for damages during the Civil War. The files contained an application by William Hickman.

In an affidavit, William mentioned two nephews, Joseph and James O'Neal, who had fought in the Confederate Army. Additional research proved that Gilbert and Elizabeth's sons Joseph and James had fought with the 19th Alabama Infantry.

Census information helped build a case that William was the son of Josiah Hickman.

Putting together all these indirect pieces I made a good argument that Elizabeth, who was the wife of Gilbert O'Neal (son of James O'Neal of Johnston County, N.C.) was the sister of William Hickman, who was the son of Josiah. Therefore Elizabeth was the daughter of Josiah Hickman.

Since no marriage record exists, I'll probably never know exactly when the couple wed. But based on approximate dates of birth for their children, I can place it at about 1836.

As genealogists we are taught to be open to the emergence of information that might change our earlier conclusions. Such may happen with the O'Neal-Hickman identification, but for the time, I am confident I built a solid case of identity through indirect information.


Sharon Tate Moody is a board-certified genealogist. Send your genealogy questions and event announcements to her in care of Getaway, The Tampa Tribune, 200 S. Parker St., Tampa FL 33606 or stmoody0720@mac.com. She regrets that she is unable to assist wit

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