Sunday, July 10, 2011

Willie Mae Harris (1864-1909)

Sometimes as you research your family history you discover some very interesting women that you just have to wonder about. I mentioned in a previous post that I would write a history for Willie Mae Harris and document her short but eventful life. So here it is, as far as we can tell or have been told.

According to family stories, Willie Mae Harris was born 17 November 1864. Supposedly this is the same day that her father was injured during a Civil War skirmish in Atlanta (we have not found any documents proving/disproving this account of events although the majority of Atlanta had fallen to the Union only 2 months earlier). Willie Mae grew up in the small town of Yalaha, Florida on the shores of Lake Harris, with her father and two sisters, Grace and Fannie. Family legend states that Lake Harris is supposedly named after her grandfather Colonel Frank E. Harris who surveyed the lake. However, there are other records that state the lake was named for Ebenezer Harris. Family legend also states that Colonel Frank E. Harris was born in Georgia and came to Florida during the 2nd Seminole War and was stationed at Fort Wildwood.

The family is mostly a mystery since we have not been able to find a positive identification in any of the US or Florida census records between 1865 and 1880 or even documentation that her father was Frank E. Harris. Our records of Willie Mae begin on 1 September 1881, in Sumter County, Florida, when she married James Albert Walker (see the previous blog for his story). We have this marriage license so this is a proven event. In the 1885 Florida census Willie Mae, James and their daughter Burta (Bertha) are recorded as living in Sumter County. They had a total of three children, Bertha Gertrude (b. 1884), Ernest Albert (b. 1886), and Maxwell Eugene (b. 1889). Maxwell's birth is one of the mysteries surrounding Willie Mae. He was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Why would Willie Mae travel from central Florida to Chattanooga, Tennessee to give birth? This is where the 1890 census would have been useful because it would have been the first census with all three children listed. But since that record doesn't exist we have to guess what happened for now. We do know that James and Willie were forced to sell 160 acres between 1888 and 1889 due to delinquent taxes. We have been told that James left the family and Willie Mae married Samuel Seigler, then William Henderson, and finally Andrew Jackson (A.J.) Phares (1905) in the subsequent years. Samuel Seigler was born near Chattanooga, Tennessee and eventually ended up in Sumter County, Florida before moving to Jacksonville, Florida. Could there be a connection here as to why Maxwell was born in Chattanooga? We may never know.

This series of marriages is evidenced by several documents. The 1900 census lists Samuel Seigler and Earnest Walker (step-son) living in Higley, Florida. The 1901 Jacksonville, FL City Directory lists Samuel Seigler married to Mrs. Willie M. However, the couple were not living together. Samuel was living at 706 W Monroe Street while Willie was listed as boarding at 836 W Church Street. These homes are just a few blocks apart. Later in 1901 the Great Jacksonville Fire occurred burning 146 city blocks, destroying over 2,000 buildings, killing 7 people and leaving almost 9,000 people homeless. The fire started only a few blocks to the west of the residences listed above and probably also destroyed both homes. The 1904 Jacksonville, FL City Directory lists Willie M Henderson living at 133 Winter Street with her daughter Bertha Walker (dressmaker). So it appears that she had left Seigler and married Henderson by that time (or did she?). The 1905 Jacksonville, FL City Directory lists Willie Seigler working as a seamstress and living with her children Ernest Seigler (plumber) and Maxey Seigler (tinner) living at 420 Winter Street. Why does she keep changing names?

The next marriage, this time to A.J. Phares, is her fourth marriage and appears to be his second marriage. Records indicate that he was a boat captain and that he married Florence Mae Piper in Lake County, Florida in 1893 and then moved to St. Petersburg, Florida by the time of the 1900 US census. There is an interesting coincidence in that the Phares family originally came to Yalaha from Alabama after the Civil War and bought the Harris homestead. There is a book titled "Down in Dixie: The Story of Three Little Crackers" published in 1898 that describes the Phares family's adventures in Florida. The homestead was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1978 but has since been torn down.

Willie Mae and A.J. were married 17 April 1905 in Jacksonville and lived at 108 East Eighth Street. This address is in the historic Springfield neighborhood of Jacksonville. This neighborhood was spared the ravages of the Great Jacksonville Fire of 1901 and remains pretty much intact even today, however this home is no longer standing. While living there Willie Mae was a founding member of the Springfield M.E. Church. This marriage would also be short lived but this time it was due to a tragedy. On the cold morning of 22 December 1909, Willie Mae was stoking the fireplace in the home when her nightgown caught fire severely burning most of her body resulting in her death later that day, just 3 days before Christmas and only a little over a month after her 45th birthday. Her funeral was held two days later, on Christmas Eve, at her home and at the church. Reverend J. Alvin Ewing performed the services with music performed by Mesdames Boote, Patterson and VanNess. She was buried in Evergreen Cemetery in Jacksonville. Her headstone is inscribed Willie Harris wife of Andrew J Phares. Her son Ernest is now buried alongside her.

Less than a year later, A.J. Phares married his third wife, Margaret A. Walston in Jacksonville. One of the last record we have for A.J. in Florida is his WW I service record, where at the age of 53 he served as a Chiefs Machinist Mate and Quartermaster 1st Class on 4 different shore patrol ships between April 1917 and November 1918. We believe he is buried in Rhinebeck Cemetery in Rhinebeck, New York. His headstone lists Mary Boice as his wife at the time of his death.

We will continue our search for Willie Mae Harris, trying to fill in all the gaps that we currently have. There are many questions yet to be answered but we have learned enough to indicate that she had a difficult life, being married 4 times between 1881 and 1905, but still had the faith to be a founding member of her neighborhood church.

Monday, March 14, 2011

James Albert Walker (~1859-??)

Have you ever not been able to find someone? Do you have ancestors who seem to have dropped in from Mars and then disappeared just as quickly? This is the story of James Albert Walker and his family, as far as we can tell. The records we have of him only give us a brief 14 year look at his life (1875-1889). But we continue to search, hoping for the day when the lost clue turns up.

James Albert Walker is my wife's great-great grandfather and the brick wall on her Walker line. James first appears in land records from the Bureau of Land Management Global Land Office Records. In August of 1875 James A Walker purchases 153.68 acres of land in what is now Seminole County, Florida, Township 20S, Range 30E, Section 7 (northeast 1/4).

He next appears in our records during the latter half of 1881 on a marriage record.
Marriage License
The State of Florida
To any person legally authorized to solomnize the Rites of Matrimony; Greetings:
These are to license and permit you to join together in the Holy Estate of Matrimony James A Walker and Willie Harris and make return to this office as the law directs to wit within ten days.
Given under my hand and seal of office at Leesburg, Fla this 31st day of August AD 1881 and of the Independence of the United States of America the one hundred and sixth year.
T.J. Iney Clerk of the Circuit Court of Sumter County Florida
J.W. Lees D.C.
State of Florida
County of Sumter
This is to certify that I have joined together the above named parties in the Holy Bonds of Matrimony in persuance of the above License, this First day of September AD 1881.
Wm L Turner
Minister of the Gospel
Recorded this the 22nd day of February AD 18__.
After they were married and started a family James purchases additional lands. In November of 1888 James A Walker purchases 160 acres of land in Lake County, Florida, Township 18S, Range 24E, Section 12 (west 1/4 of northeast 1/4 and east 1/2 of northwest 1/4). This land patent as well as the one from 1875 list James as being from Orange County.

So where did James come from before he purchased these lands and married Willie Harris? By the way, Willie's story is also very interesting and will be a subject of a future ancestory. His birthplace should be easy to determine since the censuses of this time had a good bit of information in them. We could look in the 1880 census, but where was he at that time? Maybe we could look at the 1890 - oh yeah, that is the legendary missing census that everyone needs to fill in all their lost clues. Then there is always the Florida 1885 census. James is listed in the 1885 census married to Willie and with a 1 year old daughter Burtie (Bertha Gertrude). The family is living in Sumter County, Florida. James is listed as being 26 years old, born in Georgia, and his occupation is a farmer. So, based on this, we could deduce that he was born around 1859 somewhere in Georgia but we have not been able to find any records matching this yet.

What about James' family? We know that he eventually had two sons in addition to the daughter. The boys names were Ernest Albert and Maxwell Eugene Walker. Ernest was born 24 December 1886 near Leesburg, Lake County, Florida and Maxwell was born 3 June 1889 in Chattanooga, Hamilton County, Tennessee. I am not real sure why the boys were born so far apart.

Maybe these records shed a little light on what happened:

On 26 June 1889, there was a court order to sell the mortgaged property of James A Walker and Willie M. Walker. A notice was published in the Eustis Lake Region newspaper and the land was sold at the Tavares courthouse on 5 August 1889 to F. A. Teague for the sum of $200. The land consisted of 120 acres located in Township 18S, Range 24E, Section 12 (west 1/2 of northeast 1/4 and northeast 1/4 of northwest 1/4). This appears to be the land James purchased a year earlier in 1888.

There is another court record that indicates that additional lands were sold by the Tax Collector on 5 December 1889 for unpaid taxes for the year 1888. This land consisted of 40 acres in Lake County, Township 18S, Range 24E, Section 12 (southwest 1/4 of northeast 1/4) and was sold to G. McLean and his heirs.

After this we lose James and can't find any further trace of him. Why did he sell this land? Why was his son born in Tennessee? Where does he go? Was he still living in 1890? Did he die? We just don't know. All we know is the family says he abandoned his family or otherwise separated. So what happens to the family? That is another confusing story.

In 1900 we find Ernest Albert Walker, the older of the two boys living with Samuel Seigler in Lake County, Florida. Samuel appears to have been one of Willies' four husbands over her short 45 year lifespan. Maxwell Eugene Walker is also living in Lake County, Florida at the Allsbrook residence. We don't yet know who the Allsbrook's were or why they were caring for Maxwell. We can't find Willie or her daughter Bertie in 1900. One interesting thing that turns up beginning in the 1900 census is that the boys state that their father was born in Alabama. This contradicts the 1885 Florida census. Which one is correct?

By 1910, Bertie has married Berna Walton Coffman in Woodstock, Shenandoah County, Virgina. They are living with his parents and siblings. Ernest is also married and has two children in 1910. We also know that Willie has died at home. She died on 22 December 1909 from burns suffered from the fireplace setting her nightgown on fire. She was with her 4th husband, Andrew Jackson Phares (another interesting story).

After 1910 all of the children relocate to Jacksonville, Duval County, Florida for a period. But what of their father? Where has he been during this time? That is a mystery we will continue to research. Maybe one of these days it will be solved.