Saturday, December 15, 2007

What Happened to My Family?

Copyright by Brenda Joyce Jerome, CG
May not be copied without written consent

I have always preached that there is usually a grain of truth in family stories. No matter how flowery or unreal the stories may seem, there is part of them that is factual. Recently I learned this is not always true, but I don’t know why. How do family stories begin?

My father was a wonderful story teller and he could remember things that happened in his youth that everyone else had long forgotten. He was born in January 1913, the same month and year his grandfather, Reddick Smith, died. Reddick’s widow, Mary Ann, spent the remaining 20 years of her life living with first one child and then another, including her daughter, who was my dad’s mother. According to my father, Mary Ann talked a lot about her youth as a member of a family of means in Davidson County, Tennessee. He told me how Mary Ann’s brother, Henry, and sister, Elizabeth, left Tennessee and moved to Galveston, Texas just in time to drown in the great hurricane of 1900. Reddick Smith, according to the story, attempted to have Mary Ann declared heir to the family fortune after the deaths of Henry and Elizabeth.

I quickly learned this was not a "family of means" as Hugh, father of Henry, Elizabeth and Mary Ann, was listed as a hired hand on the Davidson County census records. Ok, so the truth was stretched a bit. That happens, but it's strange that the story, as told by my dad, never varied. He swore that what he told me came straight from his grandmother, Mary Ann.

Because their last name was Wolstenholme and there are so many ways to spell the name, I didn’t make a great deal of progress on the family. Besides, two-thirds of the family perished in 1900 so my direct line was the only one that had survived and I knew all of my cousins. Right? The time I expended on this family was spent trying to determine the parentage of Hugh, father of Henry, Elizabeth and Mary Ann Wolstenholme.

A couple of weeks ago I was scanning all of the wonderful indices on the Tennessee Dept. for Libraries and Archives website and noticed a Henry F. Wolstenholme listed on the 1920 death index. Surely this could not be Henry, the brother to my Mary Ann as he had drowned 20 years earlier. But, it wouldn't hurt to do more checking so I checked census records and found Henry, his wife, son and four daughters. Elizabeth was also listed. Copies of the death certificates for Henry and Elizabeth confirmed these were, indeed, my long lost great uncle and great aunt.

My dad had explained to me that Elizabeth was betrothed to a fellow who was killed during the Civil War and Elizabeth never married. At least part of that story was validated as she was listed as single on the census records through 1930, just two years before she died. I have a picture of Elizabeth so I know she really existed. With the help of a wonderful lady down in Cordova, Tennessee, I have learned much, much more about this family. She went out of her way to help me find this family from the time I lost them after the 1900 Davidson County census to about the middle of the 20th century. By 1910, they were back in Tennessee - not in Davidson County, but in West Tennessee and they moved around among Lake, Dyer and Gibson counties.

My dilemma is this: Did my great-grandmother, grandmother or my dad make up these stories about Henry and Elizabeth drowning in the 1900 hurricane? Or could they have gone to Galveston, but returned to Tennessee? If that is true, why did they go to West Tennessee and instead of returning to Davidson County, which is in Middle Tennessee? Was there no contact with their sister, Mary Ann (my ancestor), after she moved to southern Illinois with her husband and small children shortly after 1870? I’ve talked to my older cousins and they could not offer an opinion and didn't even know of the Galveston Hurricane story. What should I believe? Were these just stories to entertain a child or was there some truth to them? Have you had instances like this in your family? How did you resolve them?


GAH1965 said...

I too have stories like these in my family. While the sordid details never end up being true, or at least not as exciting as the tale makes them seem - there's usually a basic root to the story that is indeed true. Perhaps your relatives did indeed move to Galveston, but did not die in the hurricane. As we've learned with Katrina recently, their losses could have been so severe that it was then necessary for them to leave area and that's how they ended up back in TN - Perhaps with a more distant friend or relative, but someone who had the ability to take them in. A lot of "maybe" and "perhaps" here, but it does mean that the root of the story - they went to Galveston and something terrible happened to them - remains in place as the embellishments grew up around it.

Brenda said...

I suspect you are right. This may remain as one those puzzles that is thought of often, but never resolved.

Nancy said...

I have found the Wolstenholm family mixed in with my McGinnises in Nashville. I have pictures of Elizabeth Wolstenholm (Aunt Bet)and she is buried in Spring Hill cemetery in the McGinnis plot. I'll be glad to share what I have. I believe that one of her sisters married a Jackson who was related to Jane Jackson McGinnis.

Brenda Joyce Jerome, CG said...

Unreal! Please email me at I would love to share and exchange information with you. I, too, have a picture of Elizabeth Wolstenholme. We need to discuss this!

Nancy said...

I will work on making my scanner work tomorrow and get you a copy of her photo. Look at the 1900 census of Davidson county, Tn where she was living with her sister Mary Jackson and Mary's son Porter. We have been chasing our elusive Jackson family for years.

Brenda Joyce Jerome, CG said...

Nancy, I'm confused. If Mary Jackson was a Wolstenholme, why is my great-grandmother also named Mary Wolstenholme? I wonder if Elizabeth Wolstenholme in the 1900 Davidson County census was a sister to H.F. Wolstenholme, listed one household before the Jackson household. Note that both Elizabeth and H.F. Wolstenholme list their father's birthplace as England, while Mary Jackson lists Tennessee. Please email me as I have a couple of questions. Your email does not show up when you leave a comment here on this blog. Thanks.