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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





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#12 Ancestors in 12 months -January, Foundations: Alex Gainer and Our Family’s Economic Foundations

Few things are more foundational than the ownership of property which can become the basis of generational wealth. There is another benefit to ancestral land ownership. Even when land does not pass into all members of the next generation, there is the tradition and normalization of land ownership within the family, which still provides a basis for a family culture and tradition of generational wealth.

My earliest knowledge that my ancestors owned property (other than the home where I grew up) came from my Aunt Lutie, my father’s older sister, Lute Williams Mann. She had been born in the mid-1890s and knew many of the paternal ancestors about whom I write. I was about seven when she first wrote down our family history for me, complete with biblical begats. As part of that story, she talked about the property the family owned in Live Oak, Suwannee County, Florida, where she was born, and spent the first six years of her life, before moving with her family to the New York/New Jersey area.

Lute Odette Williams, circa 1918, “Aunt Lutie”

As Aunt Lutie explained it to me, her grandfather, my great grandfather, Joshua W. Williams, owned a significant amount of property in Live Oak. She drew some simple pencil maps of the property in relationship to other local landmarks. Once I grew up and began my genealogical studies, I learned it was not Joshua who owned the property, it was his wife’s family, his in-laws, one of whom was Alex Gainer, his father-in-law.

Alex Gainer was married to my 2nd great grandmother, Frances. However, he was not biologically related to me. He was not my great grandmother Ellin’s father. Still, he held a position of respect and importance in our family. According to Aunt Lutie, he was born in South Carolina. I have not been able to identify his home community, however, I did note that there was a couple of appropriate age to be his parents in Beaufort, Simon and Cecelia Gainer.[i] Aunt Lutie said Alex had served in some capacity in the Civil War (most likely as a servant in the Confederate army) where he lost a leg, and he had gone to Florida at the end of the war. According to his entry in the Voter Registration of 1867 for Live Oak, he had been in Suwannee County for four months previously. Alex worked as a farmer, barber, and store owner. And he owned land. Quite a bit of land.


In September 1868, the Pensacola and Georgia Railroad sold land in Live Oak, to Alex and his stepson in-law, George Manker.[2] It was just a year earlier that the same railway company had gifted (but also received five dollars from the grantees) George and several other freedmen Lot 6, Block 41, in the town of Live Oak, for the purpose of building a school for the freedmen, where George would be a teacher.[3] Though a “gift,” there were strings. If the land ceased to be used for the purposes stated therein (i.e., a school), the land would revert to the railroad company.[4]

George Manker listed as teacher for Live Oak in Freedmen Education records

In 1870, Alexander and my great-great grandmother, Frances, were listed in the census with their son, Edward.[5] However, Alex and Frances were not formally married until 1874, when they were married by Robert Allen, minister at the Baptist Church, now called the African Baptist Church.[6] Also in the 1870s, Frances would purchase property. In 1871, Frances bought property from her son in-law, George Manker. [7] In 1874, she bought neighboring property from a Sheriff’s sale. [8] However, Alex would not purchase property again until he completed his Homestead claim in 1877.[9]

Marriage Certificate of Alex and Frances Gainer, 4 June 1874

On 11 May 1872, Alex filed his application #5609, for a Homestead claim for 39.89 acres.[10] On the same date, he swore an affidavit stating that he had filed the claim but “by reason of distance” could not personally appear at the land office in Tallahassee.[11] On 14 June 1872, there is a Receiver’s receipt for seven dollars paid to the Receiver’s office in Tallahassee.[12]

Alexander Gainer Homestead Affidavit 11 May 1872

On 1 June 1877, Alex’s witnesses, Caleb Simpkins and Robert Allen (the Baptist minister who married him), gave their testimony on behalf of his claim. [13] They testified that since 14 June 1872, Alex had

… occupied and cultivated and improved the NE ¼ of the SE ¼ of Section 26 Township 2, South of Range 13 East as a homestead from the date above continuously from the date above to the present time, and that this affidavit is made to enable him to complete his title to the said homestead…

Witness Testimony of Caleb Simpkins and Robert Allen, 1 June 1877

It goes on to say that they were unable to go the General Land Office to give testimony “on account of distance and want of means to pay the expenses.” Thus, they gave testimony before the Justice of the Peace, “M. M. Blackburn,” in Suwannee County. They signed by making their mark. An additional sentence was added after their marks saying, “and he has built a house thereon, & cultivated about 10 acres, and made other valuable improvements.”[14]


Alexander Gainer’s Final Affidavit, 14 June 1877

On 14 June 1877, Alex made his final affidavit in support of his claim. He stated that he had settled and cultivated his claimed land since 14 June 1872, that he hadn’t “alienated” the land, that he was the sole owner, and actual settler. He swore that he bore allegiance to the United States (I haven’t seen that in other family Homestead files) “and that I have not heretofore perfected or abandoned an entry und this act.”[15] After paying an additional and final two dollars to the Receiver in the Gainesville office,[16] he received his Final Certificate #1236.[17] Notations in the file indicate however, that final approval was not until 11 May 1878 and the Patent was not recorded until 24 June 1878, in Land Record Book Volume 3, page 26.[18]

Alexander Gainer’s Final Homestead Certificate

Alex did not record the deed with the Suwannee County registrar right away. In June 1886, the Homestead claim was filed in Book J, page 288. However, in the very next entry, “Alexandre Gainer” sold to Justice of the Peace, M. M. Blackburn, the same property, for $500.[19] Alex appeared for the last time in the deed records in January 1887, when he and Frances sold property to her daughter Carry (“Corra”) Manker, widow of George Manker.[20]


My Great Grandmother, Ellin Wilson Wilkinson Williams (1854-1924)

Alex is assumed to have died sometime between 1887 and 1896, when his “widow,” Frances, sold property to James Moore and C. J. Manker, her grandson.[21] Frances is believed to have died between 1896 and 1900. She does not appear in the 1900 census. In 1901 and 1911, daughters, Carry Manker and Ellen Williams (my great grandmother) sold the property bought in 1868 by George Manker and Alex to Jesse Manker, Carry’s grandson,[22] and Mamie Edwards. [23] With that, the last of the wealth in property acquired by Alex and Frances was passed to a new generation along with the recognition of the importance of land ownership as a family value. Thus, despite the fact that none of this land was passed down to any of Ellin’s children or grandchildren, her descendants would become property owners in the communities to which they moved, creating wealth for new generations.

Eastside Memorial Cemetery, Live Oak, Suwannee County, Florida, The old Black City Cemetery is beyond the tree-line

Alex and Frances were most likely buried in the inaccessible Old City Cemetery section of Eastside Memorial Cemetery in Live Oak, where most family members were buried.


References

[1] 1870 U. S. Federal Census, Beaufort, Beaufort, South Carolina; Simon Gainer, head; NARA Roll: M593-1485; Page: 40B. Retrieved from: https://www.ancestry.com/imageviewer/collections/7163/images/4275948_00084?pId=9880735

[2] Pensacola and Georgia Railroad Company to Alexander Gainer and George Manker, Suwannee County, Florida, Deed Book B, page 131. Copy in possession of the author.

[3] “United States, Freedmen’s Bureau, Records of the Superintendent of Education and of the Division of Education, 1865-1872,” database with images, FamilySearch, George Menker, Mar 1868; citing Residence, Live Oak, Suwannee, Florida, United States, NARA microfilm publications M1869. Records of the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, 1861 – 1880, RG 105. (Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, 1969-1978); roll 13; FHL microfilm 2,425,920 Retrieved from: https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:Q2QP-FPL6 See also:  “United States, Freedmen’s Bureau, Records of the Superintendent of Education and of the Division of Education, 1865-1872,” database with images, FamilySearch, George Menker, May 1868; citing Residence, Live Oak, Suwannee, Florida, United States, NARA microfilm publications M1869. Records of the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, 1861 – 1880, RG 105. (Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, 1969-1978); roll 13; FHL microfilm 2,425,920. https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:Q2QP-FPB5

[4] Pensacola and George Railroad to Nathaniel Goodman, Samuel Sonesme, Lewis Fields, Alexander Oxham, and George Manker, Suwannee County Deed Book B, pages 134-135. Copy in the possession of the author.

[5] 1870 U. S. Federal Census, Subdivision 9, Suwannee County, Florida; Alex Gainer, Head. NARA Roll: M593-133; Page: 693B; Image: 522; Family History Library Film: 545632. Retrieved from: https://www.ancestry.com/imageviewer/collections/7163/images/4263359_00522?pId=3484546

[6] Florida Marriages, 1830-1993, [Database with images], FamilySearch, Alex Gainer and Francis Gainer, 1874; FHL microfilm 1,940,234. Retrieved from: https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:23HY-63R

[7] George Manker to Frances Gainer, Suwannee County, Florida Deed Book C, page 16. Copy in the possession of the author.

[8] Nathan H. Walker, by Sheriff, to Frances Gainer, Suwannee County, Florida Deed Book D, page 77. Copy in possession of the author.

[9] Alexander Gainer, Homestead Final Certificate 1236, 14 June 1877, Bureau of Land Management, General Land Office Records; Washington D.C., USA. Copy in the possession of the author.

[10] Alexander Gainer, Homestead Application 5609, 11 May 1872, Bureau of Land Management, General Land Office Records; Washington D.C., USA. Copy in the possession of the author.

[11] Alexander Gainer, Homestead Application Affidavit, 11 May 1872, Homestead Application 5609, Bureau of Land Management, General Land Office Records; Washington D.C., USA. Copy in the possession of the author.

[12] Linc Wilson, Receiver, Receiver’s Receipt 5609, Alexander Gainer, Homestead Application 5609, 14 June 1872. Bureau of Land Management, General Land Office Records; Washington D.C., USA. Copy in the possession of the author.

[13] Caleb Simpkins and Robert Allen, Witness affidavit, 1 June 1877.  Alexander Gainer, Homestead Application 5609, Bureau of Land Management, General Land Office Records; Washington D.C., USA. Copy in the possession of the author.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Alexander Gainer, Homestead Final Affidavit, 14 June 1877, Homestead Applicati on 5609, Bureau of Land Management, General Land Office Records; Washington D.C., USA. Copy in the possession of the author.

[16] John Varnum, Receiver, Final Receiver’s Receipt, 14 June 1877, Homestead Application 5609, Bureau of Land Management, General Land Office Records; Washington D.C., USA. Copy in the possession of the author.

[17] Alexander Gainer, Homestead Final Certificate 1236, Homestead Application 5609, Bureau of Land Management, General Land Office Records; Washington D.C., USA. Copy in the possession of the author.

[18] Land Office Card, Gainesville, Florida, Alexander Gainer, Homestead Application 5609, Bureau of Land Management, General Land Office Records; Washington D.C., USA. Copy in the possession of the author.

[19], Alexander Gainer to M. M. Blackburn, Suwannee County, Florida, Deed Book J, pages 288-289. Copy in the possession of the author.

[20] Alex Gainer and Frances Gainer to Corra Manker, Suwannee County, Florida, Deed Book K, page 136. Copy in the possession of the author.

[21] Frances Gainer to James Moore and CJ Manker, Suwannee County, Florida, Deed Book S, page 436. Copy in the possession of the author.

[22] Ellen Williams and Carry Manker to Jesse Manker, Suwannee County, Florida, 10 April 1901. Copy in the possession of the author.

[23] Ellen Williams and Carry Manker to Mamie Edwards, Suwannee County, Florida, 27 March 1911. Copy in the possession of the author.