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Marion Woodfork Simmons’ earliest family history lessons came from tales passed on by her grandparents.
As an adult she scanned microfilm documents, old newspaper articles and, later, Web sites like ancestry .com.
She examined handwritten notes in the margins of family Bibles and chatted with distant cousins, all in an effort to sort out her family’s story.
But finding any pre-Civil War information about her Caroline and Spotsylvania county ancestors was nearly impossible.
There were no birth certificates. No marriage licenses. No land deeds.
That’s because Simmons’ ancestors were slaves.
The U.S. census, the official roster of the country’s residents, didn’t even bother to count them by name until five years after the war had ended.
“Before 1870, only whites and free blacks would be counted. So 1870 is a brick wall for blacks,” said Simmons, 48, who was reared in Washington but now lives in Maryland.
She got her big break at the Central Rappahannock Heritage Center in Fredericksburg, a volunteer-run depository for thousands of this region’s historical documents.
Among those documents was a double register from 1866, listing black couples living together in Caroline County as husband and wife—they hadn’t been permitted to marry during slavery—and black children of couples no longer together.
At the top of the very last page of the register, compiled by the Freedmen’s Bureau at the end of the war, were the names Sancho and Lucinda Shakespeare, Simmons’ great-great-great-grandparents.
The names of eight of their children appear there as well, including Louisa Shakespeare, Simmons’ great-great-grandmother.
On a separate page was listed 8-year-old John Lewis, Louisa’s nephew.
Perhaps the most disturbing piece of information in the register was the name of her ancestors’ last owner.
It was also the most valuable.
“The key to get beyond 1870 if your family was enslaved, you have to know who the last slave owner was,” Simmons said. “Slaves were like money. And what do people do with money? They fight over it.
“And where do they fight over it? In court.”
CENTER HOLDS TREASURES
Court records abound at the Central Rappahannock Heritage Center, housed in the renovated gym of the old Maury School.
Started 12 years ago by a small group of researchers, the center now boasts more than 46,000 documents, photos and library books, some dating to the 1700s: marriage records, property assessments, slave receipts, letters, postcards, wills, maps, church records, board minutes, Confederate war bonds, school yearbooks, personal scrapbooks, voter registration lists, aerial photographs and family portraits.
Volunteers have been creating a searchable electronic database so researchers and genealogists can wade through the documents much faster.
Culled from residents’ attics and courthouse storerooms, the originals are carefully preserved in archival boxes and folders.
Every now and then, while paging through donated files, volunteers uncover a buried treasure, like the 1859 marriage certificate marking the union of Caroline resident Georgiana “Charlotte” Wickham and William Henry Fitzhugh “Rooney” Lee, Robert E. Lee’s son.
“It’s fascinating to actually hold the documents in your hand,” said volunteer coordinator Barb Davidson. “Rooney Lee wrote that. That’s his handwriting.”
FINDING ‘DOOR OPENERS’
Visitors are often intrigued to discover that the same ancestors who appear stuffy and formal in old photos were arrested for crimes or operated a “house of entertainment.”
Many, like Simmons, are amateur genealogists who have just hit a brick wall.
“We really do try hard to help people find what they’re looking for,” said volunteer Diane Ballman, who helped Simmons. “Sometimes, it becomes our mission.”
Ballman remembers how frustrated Simmons was when the trail to one of her ancestors—John Henry Lewis, her great-great-grandmother Louisa’s young nephew—went cold. Then Ballman stumbled upon a court record from the early 1900s that set Simmons on the right track again.
The nephew, by then in his 50s, had sued his stepfather’s estate in a property dispute. Simmons used information in the court file, including the names of the man’s half siblings, to track down an entirely new branch of the family.
“I called her at work and said, ‘Um, I think I have something you might want,’” Ballman recalled. “She went nuts.”
But the most valuable find was that hand-lettered double register from 1866 that allowed Simmons to go back five generations by noting the name of the woman who last owned her family.
“I call them ‘door openers,’” Simmons said of such documents. “It’s like walking in a maze and then you hit a brick wall. And then someone gives you information and you can keep walking.”
HOT ON THE TRAIL
Simmons took that woman’s name—Mary Wigglesworth—and went looking for court documents.
Sure enough, she found the names of her ancestors listed among the holdings of Mary’s husband, Elijah Wigglesworth of Spotsylvania, in an 1842 inventory accompanying his will.
At first, she thought it would be painful to see her family members listed alongside hogs, chickens, parcels of land and other items doled out like heirlooms to the deceased man’s wife and children.
“But I think you just look so long and hard that when you find them, you’re so happy you don’t care,” she said.
She used what she found to trace her lineage down through Louisa Shakespeare, who married into the Woolfolk family.
She has since met distant cousins in Caroline who still bear that name or one of its variations, including Woodfolk and Woodfork, her maiden name.
She has even visited the graves of some of her ancestors at St. John’s Baptist Church cemetery in Caroline.
“The center has been a big help. The biggest key was they had those registers from the Freedmen’s Bureau,” Simmons said. “Without those, I wouldn’t have been able to do any of this.”
Edie Gross: 540/374-5428
The Central Rappahannock Heritage Center stores thousands of this region’s historical documents and photographs in its quarters at the old Maury School, 900 Barton St. Volunteers at the nonprofit organization help researchers, genealogists and anyone else who’s simply curious track down key information from the past. The center is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays and 9 a.m. to noon on the first Saturday of each month. To volunteer at the center, become a member or get help with research, call 540/373-3704 or visit the center’s Web site at www.crhcarchives.org.
Marion Simmons of Maryland was able to trace her Caroline and Spotsylvania ancestors through slavery with help from the center.
To see her research, visit her Web site at woodforkgenealogy.com.