#52Ancestors – (16) Storms: Ellen Dunson Smitherman vs. Adelaide Dunson Kearns

This week I had a wonderful surprise when I was contacted by a descendant of my 2nd great grandmother Ellen Dunson Smitherman’s sister, Adelaide Dunson Kearns. Adelaide’s descendant, Marva and I have each been researching the family’s history for years, but we did not know about each other. I knew about Marva’s ancestor Adelaide, her great grandmother.  My mother, Margaret (who was Ellen’s great granddaughter), had met her at least a couple of times when a child, but there was no sustained contact. What had really struck me as I did my research was that Adelaide was known to other cousins in our home community of Lassiter Mill, in Randolph County, North Carolina, but no one knew about my mother, even though she had lived nearby in Asheboro for a couple of years. Marva didn’t know about her either.

How did this separation occur? There are many storms in life. Some a result of weather events, such as hurricanes. We’ve seen a lot related to these this past year with Harvey and Maria and their aftermath. However, there are also the storms that blow through our lives leaving psychological scars, or economic damage. Those storms can also result in rifts in families leaving family members alienated, and their descendants unaware of each other’s existence. That seems to be what happened between Ellen and Adelaide.

Nancy Dunson Grave Marker
“Swing Low Sweet Chariot,” Memorial Plaque, Asheboro Old City Cemetery, includes name of Nancy Dunson

In 1890, Nancy Phillips Lassiter Dunson died. There was no will for Nancy or for her husband, Calvin, who had died about ten years earlier.[1] The land on which Nancy lived and had inherited from her parents, Miles Lassiter and Healy Phillips Lassiter, should have been distributed to her children or, if deceased, to their heirs. Those heirs were: Ellen Dunson Smitherman (later Mayo), Adelaide Dunson Kearns, Harris Dunson, William Dunson, heir of Nancy’s daughter Sarah Rebecca Dunson, and Mamie Hill, heir of Nancy’s daughter Martha Ann Dunson Hill. [2] However, Ellen had purchased the share of their brother, Harris, giving her two shares in the land to inherit.[3] In 1892, Adelaide and her husband, Solomon Kearns, seem to have taken exception to that and proceeded to sue Ellen, her husband Anderson Smitherman, and the other siblings, asking the court to divide the land equally among all concerned, presumably negating the purchase by Ellen.[4] As part of that partition, a guardian was appointed for William Dunson (said to be about 16 years of age) and Mamie Hill, said to be a child about eight or nine years old. A family friend, J. W. Birkhead, was appointed.[5]

About this time another family death occurred, that of Nancy’s brother, Colier Phillips Lassiter, also without a will. Colier’s descendants lived on adjoining lands also inherited from their parents, Miles and Healy. Two additional siblings of Nancy and Colier, Abigail and Jane, also had interests in these lands. At least, that’s how the courts viewed things. Rather than simply deciding the distribution of the lands per the request of Adelaide and her husband, Solomon, the courts determined that the entire property needed to be distributed to all heirs involved.

In 1893, the court issued a final decree, dividing the properties where all parties lived as one inheritance. The court awarded the lands where Colier’s heirs lived to them as an entity, calling it the Colier Lassiter Tract. Shares were awarded to Abigail and Jane each. Nancy Dunson’s tract was then divided. Unfortunately for Adelaide and Solomon, not as they hoped. The purchase of Harris Dunson’s share by Ellen was upheld. The courts therefore awarded Ellen two shares, but only one share to Adelaide.[6]

A couple of years later, Ellen and Anderson separated. It could have had something to do with this lawsuit; family in-fighting can be stressful. On the other hand, it may have been related to the fact that Anderson had fathered a child by another woman in 1875, years after he and Ellen had married[7] and already had two children,[8] undoubtedly creating another storm.[9]  Hard to say for sure, however.  Regardless the reason, Ellen would remarry by 1900, to Charlie Mayo.[10] Anderson would remarry as well, to Victoria Bell, in 1901.[11]

Ellen Mayo deed to Will Lassiter
Deed from Ellen Dunson Smitherman Mayo to William Lassiter and Colon Lassiter from the “Division of Lands of Miles Lassiter,” representing her inherited shares of land.

Ellen and Charlie[12] as well as Anderson and Victoria[13] would end up living in Asheboro, leaving behind Lassiter Mill and the land they had won in court; leaving Adelaide and Solomon behind as well. Ellen eventually sold the land she was awarded to descendants of Colier Lassiter,[14] not to her sister Adelaide and her husband, Solomon. I can’t help but think this was a deliberate snub. After all, Adelaide and Solomon were still living in the area.[15] Adelaide had very likely sued so that she could have an opportunity to make her own offer to her brother Harris for his share, a plan that didn’t work out. My mother, Ellen’s great granddaughter, said no one ever took her to the Lassiter Mill area when she was living in Asheboro, although she visited her great grandmother Ellen’s house often. In addition, once my mother and her grandmother, (Mary) Louise, moved to New Jersey, after Ellen’s death, she never returned to North Carolina at all until I took her in 1982.[16] It’s hard not to conclude that the fight over the land didn’t create at least some bad blood between Ellen and Adelaide.

Fortunately, the story does not end there. Through our respective genealogy research efforts resulting in our public family trees on Ancestry and the ability to send messages to tree owners, Marva and I have the opportunity to bring about healing and the reunification of our respective personal branches grown from our shared family roots.

Sula Kearns Eller 2
Nancy Ursula “Sula” Kearns Eller, daughter of Adelaide and Solomon Kearns, and Marva’s grandmother.

Endnotes

[1] North Carolina, Wills and Probate Records, 1665-1998 [Database on-line]. William Dunston [sic]. Retrieved from: Ancestry.com

[2] North Carolina, Wills and Probate Records, 1665-1998 [Database on-line]. William Dunston [sic]. Retrieved from: Ancestry.com

[3] J. H. and Phoebe A. Dunson to Ellen Smitherman. Randolph County Deed Book 144:216. F(amily) H(istory) L(ibrary) (Microfilm)#0470278.

[4] North Carolina, Wills and Probate Records, 1665-1998 [Database on-line]. William Dunston [sic]. Retrieved from: Ancestry.com

[5] North Carolina, Wills and Probate Records, 1665-1998 [Database on-line]. William Dunston [sic]. Retrieved from: Ancestry.com

[6] Anderson Smitherman, et al. v. Solomon Kearns, et Ux. Final Decree. Randolph County Superior Court Orders and Decrees, Volume 2:308-309, FHL #0475265. See also: Randolph County Deed Book 248: 156. FHL #0470851.

[7] North Carolina, Marriage Records, 1741-2011 [Database on-line]. Anderson Smitherman and Ellen Dunson, 23 Sep 1865, Randolph County. Retrieved from: Ancestry.com

[8] 1870 US Federal Census, Union Township, Randolph County, North Carolina; Anderson Smitherman, head; Mary L., daughter, born about 1867. NARA Roll: M593-1156; Page: 506A; Image: 465; FHL #552655. Retrieved from: Ancestry.com

See also: 1880 US Federal Census, New Hope Township, Randolph County, North Carolina; Ande Smither (sic – says Smitherman on the original), head; Mary L., daughter, born about 1867; and Emory W., son, born about 1873. NARA Roll: 978; Page: 185C; Enumeration District: 223. Retrieved from: Ancestry.com

[9] North Carolina, Death Certificates, 1909-1975 [Database on-line]. Annie Steele; Father: Anderson Smitherman. Retrieved from: Ancestry.com

[10] No record identified to date. See: 1910 US Federal Census; Asheboro, Randolph County, North Carolina; Charles Mayho, head; Ellen, wife. NARA Roll: T624-1128; Page: 22B; Enumeration District: 0076; FHL #1375141. Retrieved from: Ancestry.com

[11] North Carolina, Marriage Collection, 1741-2004 [Database on-line]. Victoria Bell and Anderson Smitherman, 16 Apr 1901, Asheboro, Randolph County. Retrieved from: Ancestry.com

[12] 1910 US Federal Census; Asheboro, Randolph County, North Carolina; Charles Mayho, head; Ellen, wife. NARA Roll: T624-1128; Page: 22B; Enumeration District: 0076; FHL #1375141. Retrieved from: Ancestry.com

[13] Death Notice Anderson Smitherman, 8 Jul 1909. The Randolph Bulletin, p. 5. Retrieved from: Newspapers.com

[14] Estate of Miles Lassiter/Charles and Ellen Mayo to Will Lassiter and Colon Lassiter, Randolph County Deed Book 166:91, FHL #0470286.

[15] 1900 US Federal Census; New Hope Township, Randolph County, North Carolina; Solomon Kearns, head; Adilade Kearns, wife. NARA Roll: 1213; Page: 3B; Enumeration District: 0090; FHL #1241213. Retrieved from: Ancestry.com

[16] Williams, M. (2011). Grandma Ellen. Miles Lassiter (circa 1777-1850) an Early African American Quaker from Lassiter Mill, Randolph County, North Carolina: My Research Journey to Home (Palm Coast, FL and Crofton, KY: Backintyme Publishing, Inc.).

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