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#12 Ancestors – February: Branching Out – Homesteading in Suwannee County, Florida

Randel Farnell (1844-1928), my great grandfather

There are so many things I could talk about when discussing “branching out.” There’s the obvious branching out with research into collateral relatives and neighbors that has been very successful. I have over 33,000 people now in my on-line family tree, and yes, I’ve done some research on almost all of them. I don’t rely on other people’s research. Then, there’s the “branching out” in communications with others who are DNA matches or researching the same families. That’s always fascinating. I have met so many people that I would never have encountered without this research. However, sometimes, branching out means becoming involved in a project you would never have thought of until someone else began asking questions. Homesteading in Suwannee County is just such a project.

Those of you who have been following this site know that I have published three stories about Homesteading family members in Suwannee County, Florida: Randel Farnell, my great grandfather; Henry McGehee/McGhee, my great uncle’s father in-law, and Alexander Gainer, my 2nd great grandmother’s husband. All these stories have been submitted to the National Park Service for their Black Homesteaders project and were uploaded to their website.[1] However, that wasn’t all.

Involvement with the National Park Service came about because of the volunteer service of genealogist and author, Bernice Bennett. Bernice realized through her own research into her great grandfather’s land that he was a Black Homesteader in the state of Louisiana. Bernice began talking to others and discovered that there were many Black Homesteaders in southern states, including Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Arkansas, and my state, Florida. She began encouraging us to write up our stories and submit them to the National Park Service. In that process, another discovery was made.

Another Florida Homesteading descendant, Falan Goff, who was also researching her family and submitting family stories, discovered an additional 50+ names of Black Homesteaders in Florida, in Gadsden, Levy, and Columbia counties. I began to wonder about Suwannee County. How many Black Homesteaders could I find in Suwannee County?

Thanks to the Bureau of Land Management’s interactive website, it is possible to see the names of every homesteader in every county. [2] There is basic information on the site, the name and patent numbers, the location of the property as well. However, to acquire the complete file, one must request the file from the National Archives, or go to the Archives oneself to find and copy the records. One thing that does not appear anywhere in Homesteading records is the race of the applicant. The only way to determine the race of an applicant is to do good old fashioned genealogical research on the person. For this basic piece of information, census searches are the most accessible and easiest to use.

I decided that one way to quickly organize the information would be to create a family tree database in Ancestry that was devoted to these Homesteader families. So, I created a “Suwannee County FL Homestead Family Trees” tree. Then, I went one by one through the Suwannee County names in the General Land Office Records on-line database. In addition to creating trees for each name I identified, I also created a spreadsheet. I was surprised at how many Black Homesteaders I was able to identify just for Suwannee County. I found an additional 43 names. I’ve done some preliminary research on each of the families, but I’m not ready to write their stories until I am able to acquire the Homestead case files for each of them—a project I hadn’t planned on! Now, I’m also planning to write a book about these families and their stories.

Another project I hadn’t planned on, but am delighted to take part in, is an upcoming book on Black Homesteaders of the South (History Press, 2022), edited by Bernice Bennett, for which thirty-five stories have been contributed. My three stories were just a small part, but the book will present the story to the world, a world (even the professional historian world) that has been completely unaware of the extent to which Black Americans in the Reconstruction era and beyond acquired land and potential generational wealth, despite the forces that did their best to wrest that wealth from their hands.

One final way my story has branched out is through the National Society Descendants of American Farmers (NSDOAF). NSDOAF[3] is a lineage society that honors farming ancestors, but also provides scholarship money to students studying agricultural sciences in colleges and universities. I first became a member in honor of my maternal 4th great grandfather, Miles Lassiter.[4] Now, I have honored my paternal great grandfather, Randel Farnell. I submitted not only a copy of the 1880 census[5] which noted that he was a farmer, but also his final Homestead application testimony (4 October 1884) which was submitted in proof that he was living on and cultivating the land for which he had applied. In answer to questions about how much land was cultivated and for how many seasons he had grown crops, etc., he stated that he had built a “log dwelling (good) shided [sic], smoke house, stable & crib, 35 acres fenced,” beginning on “September 12, 1877, and that he had cultivated the “35 acres” for “7 seasons.”[6]

In talking about this story with my daughter, she was curious about how this property had provided generational wealth. “Do we still own the land?” she asked. “No,” I told her. It was sold after my great grandfather’s widow, Priscilla (his second wife, not my great grandmother), died in the 1960s. “Why?” she asked. She went on to say it was folly, that we had sold away our wealth potential. I explained to her that it had done its job. None of the grandchildren lived in Live Oak, in Suwannee County any longer. No one wanted to go back to Live Oak, so the grandchildren, including my father, decided to sell the land and take their share of the profits. That way they could decide what investments, if any, they preferred. What had my father done with his share, she asked. Well, I answered, by that time our house was paid for, but I still had college bills. I said I didn’t know for sure, but felt it was likely that he had used the money towards my tuition. I explained that when I graduated, I had no student debt, adding how sad I was that I had not been able to do the same for her. I explained that the money from the sale of the property acquired through the Homestead Act of 1862, had provided generational wealth and opportunity by contributing to my education and probably similarly for the other family members. This was no small feat considering my father’s mother died when he was 10, and his father was largely absent, so he was raised by his 20-year-old sister who worked full time in service to a wealthy family. Nevertheless, he had a tradition of a landowning, educated family behind him that inspired him to be ambitious. Ultimately, my father worked for over 40 years in the U. S. Customs Service, rising to be the second in command of the Import Division in New York City, before the jurisdiction was reorganized making Newark, New Jersey the main office for the Port of New York, and he was a homeowner.  I told her that I, and she by extension, had indeed benefitted from the generational wealth generated by (branched out, if you will) the Homestead property acquired by our ancestor, Randel Farnell, for which we can be justifiably proud.[7]

References

[1]Homestead National Historic Park, “Black Homesteaders,” U. S. National Park Service. Retrieved from: https://www.nps.gov/home/black-homesteading-in-america.htm

[2] Bureau of Land Management, General Land Office Records, U. S. Department of the Interior. Retrieved from: https://glorecords.blm.gov/details/tractbook/default.aspx?volumeID=582&imageID=0089&sid=ygza4ay0.nuu#tractBookDetailsTabIndex=2

[3] National Society Descendants of American Farmer, “Membership.” See: https://www.nsdoaf.com/membership

[4] Williams, Margo Lee, 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/Crofton, KY: Backintyme Publishing, Inc., 2013). See: https://margoleewilliamsbooks.com/miles-lassiter/

[5] U. S. Federal Census 1880; Population Schedule, Precinct 1, Suwannee, Florida; Randel Farnell, head; Occupation: “Farmer.” NARA Roll: 132; Page: 282C; Enumeration District: 145. Retrieved from: https://www.ancestry.com/discoveryui-content/view/38857191:6742?ssrc=pt&tid=66453873&pid=36156388330

[6] Bureau of Land Management, Randel Farnell Homestead Application #5637: “Homestead Proof-Testimony of Claimant (4 October 1884),” U. S. General Land Office Records, NARA Accession FL0750__489. Copy in the possession of the author.

[7] Homestead National Historic Park, “Cultivating Connections: Black Homesteading in America,” U. S. National Park Service. Retrieved from: https://www.nps.gov/articles/000/cultivating-connections-black-homesteading-in-america.htm





4 thoughts on “#12 Ancestors – February: Branching Out – Homesteading in Suwannee County, Florida

  1. This information about Black Homesteaders and generational wealth is so important to share. The more digging we do, the more we find motivational stories of our people that have heretofore never seen the light of day. Thank you for sharing your stories.

    1. Thanks! And you too!

  2. You’ve done a magnificent job of documenting this early history in FL. I am so happy to read about your family!

    1. Thanks Barb! How are you?

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