What exactly is a marriage bond?

Time and again, whenever a marriage bond is referenced, the question comes up.

What happens if the two people named in the marriage bond don’t get married? Isn’t there some kind of court action or record that happens then?

These were the questions asked again this past Saturday at the North Carolina Genealogical Society’s fall seminar, where The Legal Genealogist was privileged to be the presenter in a series of discussions of the law and genealogy.

Mrr.BondAnd underlying these question is an understandable, but mistaken, notion as to just what a marriage bond was.

It seems, doesn’t it, as though a marriage bond should be evidence of an intention to marry — a reflection of an official “engagement.” A man who had proposed to a woman went to the courthouse with a bondsman, and posted a bond indicating his intention to marry the woman.


Um… not exactly.

I mean, yeah, okay, sure it’s true that you wouldn’t have gone and signed a marriage bond if you didn’t intend to get married, but simply “reflecting an engagement” or “indicating an intention to marry” is about as far from the real purpose of a marriage bond as it’s possible to get.

Remember that, for the longest time, the way folks got married was that marriage banns1 were read from the pulpit or posted at the door of the local church. Usually, banns were read on three consecutive Sundays or posted for three weeks.

For example, in North Carolina, as of 1715, couples had to have “the Banns of Matrimony published Three times by the Clerks at the usual place of celebrating Divine Service.”2 In neighboring Virginia, a 1705 statute required “thrice publication of the banns according as the rubric in the common prayer book prescribes.”3

That notice that two people were going to marry had one purpose and one purpose only: to make sure folks knew there was a wedding in the offing so that they had a chance to come forward and object if there was some legal reason why the marriage couldn’t take place.4 In general, that meant one (or both) of the couple was too young, one (or both) of them was already married, or the law prohibited the marriage because they were too closely related.5

When folks married without banns, however, particularly when they married some distance away from where they were known, there wasn’t the same opportunity in advance to have folks “speak up or forever hold their peace.” The bond then stepped into the breach.

What that bond actually was, then, was a form of guarantee that there wasn’t any legal bar to the marriage. Enforcing the guarantee was a pledge by the groom and a bondsman — usually a relative — to pay a sum of money, usually to the Governor of the State (or colony if earlier, or to the Crown if in Canada6), if and only if it actually turned out that there was some reason the marriage wasn’t legal.

The bond shown here, for example, for the marriage of my fourth great grandparents in Wilkes County, North Carolina, in 1816, was a promise by the groom Boston Shew and his brother Simon to pay the Governor of North Carolina five hundred pounds, but it provided that it was “Void on condition that there be no just cause to Obstruct Boston Shew — Intermarriage with Elizabeth Brewer.”7

The use of marriage bonds was common, particularly in southern and mid-Atlantic states, well into the 19th century,8 when most jurisdictions started relying on what the couple said in a written application for a marriage license.

And the laws about those… well… we’ll get to those some other day…

Note: Information in this post was originally included in a January 2012 blog post, The ties that bond.

  1. “Public announcement especially in church of a proposed marriage; plural of bann, from Middle English bane, ban proclamation, ban.” Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary (http://www.merriam-webster.com : accessed 16 Nov 2014.)
  2. North Carolina Laws of 1715, chapter 8, in William Saunders, compiler, Colonial Records of North Carolina, Vol. 2 (Raleigh, N.C. : P.M. Hale, State Printer, 1886), 212-213; online version, Colonial and State Records of North Carolina, Documenting the American South (http://docsouth.unc.edu/csr/), University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.
  3. Virginia Laws of 1705, chapter XLVIII, in William Waller Hening, compiler, Hening’s Statutes at Law, Being a Collection of all the Laws of Virginia from the first session of the Legislature, in the Year 1619, vol. 3 (Philadelphia: Thomas DeSilver, printer, 1823), 441; digital images, HathiTrust Digital Library (http://www.hathitrust.org/ : accessed 16 Nov 2014).
  4. See generally Susan Scouras, “Early Marriage Laws in Virginia/West Virginia,” West Virginia Archives & History News, vol. 5, no. 4 (June 2004), 1-3.
  5. Maryland by statute required marriages to follow the Church of England Table of Marriages, drawn up in 1560, that said when relatives were too closely related. Chapter 12, Laws of 1694; Maryland State Archives, Acts of the General Assembly Hitherto Unprinted 1694-1698, 1711-1729, vol. 38: 1; Archives of Maryland Online (http://msa.maryland.gov/ : accessed 16 Nov 2014). For that table, see F. M. Lancaster, “Forbidden Marriage Laws of the United Kingdom,” Genetic and Quantitative Aspects of Genealogy (http://www.genetic-genealogy.co.uk : accessed 16 Nov 2014.)
  6. See “Marriage Bonds, 1779-1858 – Upper & Lower Canada,” Library and Archives Canada (http://www.bac-lac.gc.ca/ : accessed 16 Nov 2014).
  7. Wilkes County, North Carolina, Marriage Bond, 1816, Boston Shew to Elizabeth Brewer; North Carolina State Archives, Raleigh.
  8. FamilySearch Research Wiki (https://www.familysearch.org/learn/wiki/), “United States Marriage Records,” rev. 18 July 2014.
Posted in Legal definitions, Statutes | 14 Comments

Losing another cousin

Susan Hodges Payne Cosner Demitry.

13 July 1954. 15 November 2014.


What can I begin to say about those years?

How do I begin to say goodbye?

How do I begin to describe the twinkling eyes, the bright smile, the contagious laugh, the love of home and family that so marked her years on this earth?

How do I begin to recount the many kindnesses she did for so many people? Just as one example, how she — then a breast cancer survivor — took the second shift and came and stayed with me after my own breast cancer surgery when my sister had to get back to her family and job.

How do I begin to come to terms with the loss of someone who is so much a part of my own history?

Daughter of my mother’s sister. My first cousin. And, as in so many families, among the first and best and closest of childhood friends — and childhood foes.

Just close enough in age to be a frequent playmate — and co-conspirator in all the trouble kids can get into.

Just far enough apart in age to be frequently at each other’s throats: “but Mom, she’s too young to…” on my side; “but Mom, she won’t let me…” on hers.

We played together. We picked blackberries together. We gathered in tomatoes from our grandmother’s garden together. We closed ranks against cousins younger or older, as the winds of change blew.

And we fought together. Oh, how we fought. We fought about who got the last piece of cinnamon toast on a summer morning. Or who got to sit by the window on the car ride. Or whose bouquet of fresh-picked wildflowers (and weeds) was better. Or anything else that happened to present itself at any given moment in time as a source of competition or annoyance.

We grew apart at times in our lives. And we grew together as time went on and all the things that seemed to have divided us when we were younger were revealed as so much less important in the long run than all the things that brought us together.

The joys we shared over the years. The pains we shared. The cares, the concerns, the laughter, the tears.

Our battles with cancer, which I so far have won and which, yesterday, she lost.

Right down to our shared maternal H3g mitochondrial DNA, our family — our love for this big bold brash group of people we call kin — is what we shared most of all.

And that big bold brash group of people is smaller today.

Less bold.

Less brash.

And much diminished.

Rest in peace, dear cousin.

You are so very much loved… and will be so very much missed.

Posted in My family | 54 Comments

Another great idea up in smoke


The Legal Genealogist is now officially burned up.

I mean really.


And … sigh … in one very important sense, even literally.

For one brief moment yesterday afternoon, sitting in the North Carolina State Archives, I thought I had achieved The Breakthrough.

Well, okay, so The Breakthrough on one of my (many) major research issues.

The dense smoke on a white backgroundYou see, I descend from Martha Louisa Baker who married George Washington Cottrell. The marriage was in 1854 in Johnson County, Texas.1 Or maybe 1853 in Parker County.2 Or maybe 1854 in Parker County. 3 Or maybe 1855 in Johnson County.4

No matter, it was sometime around then somewhere around there.

We think.

And we know that Louisa, as she was called, was the daughter of Martin Baker and Elizabeth Buchanan.

Well, at least, we’re pretty darned sure of that.

Even though the one child of the right age and gender in the Baker household in the 1850 census is enumerated as (sigh…) Margaret.5

Okay, so the fact is, I don’t have a single solitary record that puts her right into Martin’s family. No family Bible, no federal or state census, no birth or marriage or death record.

Lots of indirect evidence, and plenty to construct a proof argument.

But oh… it would be so nice to have just one piece of direct evidence.

And yesterday I thought I had it.

I came across a set of records yesterday that absolutely should have been the icing on this cake. They are school census records, and they begin in North Carolina as early as 1841.6

The law under which these census records were required provided that school committees would be elected in each school district around the state, and it specified part of the responsibilities of the members of the school committees:

The school committees shall, in one month after their term of office commences, report in writing to the chairman of the board of superintendents, the number and names of the white children in their districts, of six and under twenty-one years of age; and on failure so to do shall each forfeit and pay five dollars, to be recovered by warrant before any justice of the peace, in the name of the chairman of the county superintendents, to be appropriated to the use of the school district in which such failure shall occur.7

And the school census records I had originally come across for one county listed every head of household by name, and every child — boy or girl — in that household… by name.

Now Martha Louisa Baker was born in 1832.8 The family lived in North Carolina during at least some of the years when Louisa would have been over the age of six and under the age of 21. She should be on one of those school census forms, neatly enumerated with her similarly-aged siblings, for more than one year.

I thought I had this licked.

Except for one little detail.

The county where they were living during those critical years when Louisa should be on one of those school census forms, neatly enumerated with her similarly-aged siblings, for more than one year, was Cherokee County, way on the west side of North Carolina.


You guessed it.

“During the Civil War (1860-1865), … the county courthouse… was burned by Union raiders.”9

The records loss for pre-war records? Pretty much total.

Oh, and for anything the Union soldiers didn’t get?

The courthouse burned again in 1895. And again in 1926.10


I love Southern research.

Another great idea up in smoke.


  1. Survivor’s Claim, 23 March 1887, Pension application no. 7890 (Rejected), for service of George W. Cotrell of Texas; Mexican War Pension Files; Records of the Bureau of Pensions and its Predecessors 1805-1935; Department of Veterans Affairs, Record Group 15; National Archives, Washington, D.C.
  2. Ibid., Survivor’s Brief, 17 February 1890.
  3. Declaration of claimant, 21 Jan 1897, widow’s pension application no. 13773 (Rejected), for service of George W. Cottrell of Texas; Mexican War Pension Files; RG-15; NA-Washington, D.C.
  4. See Weldon Hudson, Marriage Records of Johnson County, Tx. (Cleburne : Johnson Co. Historical Soc., 2002).
  5. 1850 U.S. census, Pulaski County, Kentucky, Division 2, population schedule, p. 111 (stamped), dwelling/family 528, Margaret Baker; digital image, Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 5 Aug 2002); citing National Archive microfilm publication M432, roll 217.
  6. See e.g. 1841 School Census, Wilkes County, North Carolina; North Carolina State Archives.
  7. See §38, Chapter 66, Revised Code of North Carolina (1854), 385; digital images, Google Books (http://books.google.com : accessed 14 Nov 2014).
  8. Declaration of claimant, 21 Jan 1897, widow’s pension application no. 13773 (Rejected), for service of George W. Cottrell of Texas; Mexican War Pension Files; RG-15; NA-Washington, D.C.
  9. Cherokee County (1839),” North Carolina History Project (http://www.northcarolinahistory.org/ : accessed 14 Nov 2014).
  10. FamilySearch Research Wiki (https://www.familysearch.org/learn/wiki/), “Cherokee_County,_North_Carolina,” rev. 10 Nov 2014.
Posted in My family | 18 Comments

Probate Monday

Next in the series of webinars to be offered by the Board for Certification of Genealogists is Monday’s webinar — “‘Of Sound Mind and Body’: Using Probate Records in Your Research” — presented by Michael Hait CG.

MH.webinarCreated as part of the BCG Skillbuilding Track at the 2014 National Genealogical Society conference, Michael’s lecture discusses the process associated with the administration of testate and intestate estates and the records created as a result.

He explains that: “Consulting these records is ordinarily an essential part of the reasonably exhaustive research necessary to meet the Genealogical Proof Standard. Example documents illustrate the various and detailed information that probate records can hold about our ancestors, their daily lives, and family relationships.”

The webinar is open to all genealogists who want to improve their skills, and begins at 8 p.m. Eastern (7 p.m. Central, 6 p.m. Mountain, 5 p.m. Pacific).

And, yes, it’s free.

To register and receive your unique link to the webinar, please go to https://attendee.gotowebinar.com/register/5876550263529763585. To read more about BCG and the webinar series, check out SpringBoard, the blog of the Board for Certification of Genealogists.

That’s where announcements of future webinars will be made, and where information will be posted when and if recordings of the BCG webinars become available later.

Hope you can join Michael and BCG on Monday!!

Posted in General | 6 Comments

Documenting the American South

Southern U.S. research can be… um … challenging.

That’s a good word for amazingly annoyingly hair-pulling-out why-did-my-people-live-where-courthouses-burned frustrating.

DASYesterday The Legal Genealogist got another dose of that frustration. I’m chasing one of my families through North Carolina, and they ended up in Rutherford County. That’s western North Carolina, between Charlotte and Asheville, and the area where they lived is now Cleveland County.1

The court minutes on this family are wonderful. Anything that specifically helps distinguish my guy from everyone else is crucial. Why? Because his name was John Jones.

So seeing the exact dates of every single event in his estate probate carefully recorded in the court minutes is terrific.

Only one problem.

The estate files themselves don’t survive.

There was a fire, see, in 19072… and there’s this very large gap in the estate papers in Rutherford County.

My guy’s early 1800s estate papers? Not there.

This sort of thing happens all the time in southern U.S. research. The records are gone, or they were never created in the first place, or some lightfingered Louie (sometimes wearing a Union uniform) made off with them.


So every single thing we can find to help out is a plus. And oh boy do we with southern U.S. ancestry have one big thing that helps out.

It bills itself as “a digital publishing initiative sponsored by the University Library at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.”3 And it’s called Documenting the American South or DocSouth for short.

According to the website,

Documenting the American South (DocSouth)… provides access to digitized primary materials that offer Southern perspectives on American history and culture. It supplies teachers, students, and researchers at every educational level with a wide array of titles they can use for reference, studying, teaching, and research.

The texts, images, and other materials come primarily from the premier Southern collections in the libraries at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. These original Southern materials can be found in several library locations, including the Southern Historical Collection, one of the largest collections of Southern manuscripts in the country; the North Carolina Collection, the most complete printed documentation of a single state anywhere; the Rare Book Collection, which holds an extensive Southern pamphlet collection; and Davis Library, which offers rich holdings of printed materials on the Southeast.4

The 16 major collections of DocSouth offer an astounding array of resources to researchers. You can find a complete description here on the DocSouth Collections page. Among my personal favorites:

• “The Church in the Southern Black Community” traces the way Southern African Americans adopted and transformed Protestant Christianity into the central institution of community life.

• “The Colonial and State Records of North Carolina” includes documents and materials from throughout the country and from several European repositories covering the earliest days of North Carolina’s settlement by Europeans through the ratification of the United States Constitution.

• “First-Person Narratives of the American South” offers many Southerners’ perspectives on their lives by presenting letters, memoirs, autobiographies and other writings by slaves, laborers, women, aristocrats, soldiers, and officers.

• “North American Slave Narratives” documents the individual and collective story of African Americans’ struggle for freedom and human rights in the eighteenth, nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

• “Oral Histories of the American South” is a collection of over 500 oral history interviews with a southern focus on a variety of topics, including civil rights, politics, and women’s issues. Interviews can be read in text transcript form, listened to with a media player, or both simultaneously.

• “The Southern Homefront, 1861-1865” presents materials related to Southern life during the Civil War and the challenge of creating a nation state while waging war. This collection includes government documents, personal diaries, religious pamphlets, and many other materials.

There’s so much in each of these collections worth a long leisurely review.

Check it out.

Documenting the American South.

You won’t be sorry that you did!


  1. Cleveland County was formed from Rutherford and Lincoln Counties in 1841. See “North Carolina County Formation,” State Library of North Carolina (http://statelibrary.ncdcr.gov/ : accessed 12 Nov 2014).
  2. See “Status of Courthouse Records in North Carolina,” North Carolina USGenWeb (http://www.ncgenweb.us/ : accessed 12 Nov 2014).
  3. About Documenting the American South,” Documenting the American South (http://docsouth.unc.edu/ : accessed 12 Nov 2014).
  4. Ibid.
Posted in Resources | 16 Comments

Honoring those who served

After all that time, suddenly, it was silent.

After war had raged for more than four years, on the battlefields of Europe the quiet must have been eerie.

There at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918, the survivors must have breathed a sigh of relief.

It was over.

11.11.1918The War to End All Wars, it was called.1

And it wasn’t, of course, not at all.

Still, the toll of its carnage was staggering: more than nine million dead, more than 21 million wounded.2 So many lost that people hoped it would be the last.

So many gone that it gave rise to what today, here in the United States, is called Veterans Day.

First proclaimed in November 1919 by President Wilson,3 Armistice Day became a national holiday by statute in 1938.4 In 1954, the name of the holiday was claimed to Veterans Day.5

It joined the list of three-day-weekend holidays in 19686 but was returned to its original date of November 11th by statute passed in 1975, effective in 1978.7

And so, today, November 11th — Veterans Day — we pause to thank every man and woman who has ever served this nation, wearing the uniform of its military services. So many of them from my own family.8

Among them, my brothers and sister:

Evan H. Geissler, U.S. Air Force
Diana M. Geissler McKenzie, U.S. Air Force
Frederick M. Geissler, U.S. Army
Warren H. Geissler, U.S. Air Force
William K. Geissler, U.S. Marine Corps

Among my mother’s generation:

Billy R. Cottrell, U.S. Navy
Monte B. Cottrell, U.S. Navy
David F. Cottrell, U.S. Navy and U.S. Army
Jerry L. Cottrell, U.S. Air Force
Michael V. Cottrell, U.S. Air Force
Philip Cottrell, U.S. Marine Corps, 1920-1943

Among what we call the outlaws:

J.C. Barrett, U.S. Army and U.S. Air Force
Miller (Ray) Childress, U.S. Navy
John C. Epps, U.S. Army
Thomas T. Williams, Jr., U.S. Air Force (Reserve)

And those who went before:

Clay R. Cottrell, U.S. Army, World War I
Jesse Fore, fifer, Captain Michael Gaffney’s Company, South Carolina Militia, War of 1812
Elijah Gentry, Private, 1st Regiment, Mississippi Territorial Volunteers, War of 1812
Elijah Gentry Sr., Sergeant, South Carolina Militia, Revolutionary War, and Private, 1st Regiment, Mississippi Territorial Volunteers, War of 1812
David Baker, Corporal, 3d Virginia Regiment, Continental Line, Revolutionary War
William Noel Battles, Private, 10th Virginia Regiment, Continental Line, Revolutionary War
John Pettypool, 1771, Militia, Granville County, NC
William Pettypool, 1701-02, Militia, Charles City County (Va.) Dragoons
Nicholas Gentry, cir 1680, Militia, Mattapony (Va.) Garrison


Image: Chicago Tribune, 11 November 1918, p.1; digital images, Newspapers.com (http://www.newspapers.com/ : accessed 10 Nov 2014).

  1. See Wikipedia (http://www.wikipedia.com), “The war to end war,” rev. 18 Aug 2014.
  2. World War I,” History.com (http://www.history.com : accessed 10 Nov 2014).
  3. Armistice Day,” WWPL Blog, posted 11 Nov 2011, Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library & Museum (http://wwplblog.wordpress.com : accessed 10 Nov 2014).
  4. “AN ACT Making the 11th day of November in each year a legal holiday,” 52 Stat. 351 (13 May 1938).
  5. “An Act To honor veterans on the 11th day of November of each year, a day dedicated to
    world peace,” 68 Stat. 168 (1 Jun 1954).
  6. “An Act To provide for uniform annual observances of certain legal public holidays on Mondays, and for other purposes,” 82 Stat. 250 ( 27 Jun 1968).
  7. “An Act To redesignate November 11 of each year as Veterans Day and to make such day a legal public holiday,” 89 Stat. 479 (18 Sep 1975).
  8. The list would be longer if I included those who wore a particular shade of grey… and, with apologies, I don’t have room in one blog post to even begin to list the cousins, nieces and nephews!
Posted in General, Statutes | 2 Comments

At the Library of Virginia

There is so much that The Legal Genealogist could say about this wonderful weekend in Virginia.

I could start with a great big “Thank You!” to the Genealogical Research Institute of Virginia (GRIVA) for serving as my hosts for this past Saturday’s fall seminar.

I could thank everyone who came out — and especially the many students of Clover Hill High School in Midlothian — to hear about genealogy and the law.

I could say how much I appreciated the questions and the comments folks had during and after my talks.

I could say how much fun it was to be where so many of my ancestors lived.

I could add how delightful it was to spend yesterday at Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond with my cousin and fellow genealogist Paula taking pictures of so many interesting tombstones, and paying our respects to our aunt and uncle who are buried there.

Or I could go back to hunting for ancestors here at the Library of Virginia.

And you know what’s going to win out, right?

You betcha.

I just found my third great grandfather in the tax records of Grayson County and I need to find out how long he stayed there before he and a whole bunch of others headed off for Alabama.


Personal property tax records fill in the gaps between the census records. If an ancestor, like mine, is in North Carolina in 1830 and in Virginia in 1840, it’s the tax records that can tell you when he moved. And where he moved. And who his new neighbors were.

And because the tax was on personal property, and on people (poll taxes or tithes), and not solely on land, it lets me track families who weren’t wealthy enough to own land, who may have been tenant farmers.

These records, like so many others, are not online, not the kind of thing you can find while sitting in your jammies and bunny slippers at 3 a.m.

So check back with me in, oh, eight or 10 hours… after the Library of Virginia closes for the day…

I’m hot on the trail…

Posted in Methodology, My family, Resources | 4 Comments

Y me???

With a second great grandfather like George Washington Cottrell, DNA testing was an obvious choice for The Legal Genealogist.

George — my favorite ancestor — is my rogue. My rascal. My family scoundrel.1

3d render of dna structure, abstract  backgroundAnd he’s undoubtedly my nemesis. He said in a Mexican War pension application that he was born in Madison County, Kentucky, in 1821.2 But there are really good records for that time period in Madison County — deeds, wills, tax records — and George’s family (if it was there at all) didn’t even leave footprints in Madison County.

And once I saw his criminal record history — starting with an indictment for bigamy3 and ending with an indictment for murder4 — one thing that occurred to me is that his name — my family name — might have been something he thought to change.

Nope. The one crime George didn’t commit was the genealogical crime of changing his name. My family member with the Cottrell surname who directly descends from George shares the same YDNA with tons of other Cottrell-surnamed men. YDNA, remember, is the type of DNA that is passed from father to son to son with few changes over the generations.5

And while we have that annoying break in our paper trail, some of the other Cottrell-surnamed men have excellent paper trails back to one Richard Cottrell who died in Virginia in 1715.6 And given those paper trails, the most recent common ancestor for many of these men is this earliest Richard or one of his sons, Richard or Thomas.

In other words, very early 18th century.


So why am I annoyed with my Cottrells today?

Because of another set of YDNA results that just came in.

A perfect 67-for-67 match with my Cottrell and several other Cottrell-surnamed men.

Except he’s not a Cottrell. Well, not by surname, at any rate.

And he’s a close autosomal cousin in an entirely different line. My grandmother’s Battles line, instead of my grandfather’s Cottrell line.

This other line begins its paper trail with a Revolutionary War soldier who went by the name William Battles or Noel Battles or William Noel Battles or Noel Battlesby or… He was born most likely in Albemarle County, Virginia, around 1757.7

He named a son Archibald in his will and one of Archibald’s descendants with a perfect paper trail down to today has YDNA tested and is a 36-for-37 match with another Battles man who descends from an ancestor of mine on my grandmother’s side.

And they both — both of these Battles men, whose most recent common ancestor to each other is William Noel Battles, born in 1757, and whose families split up and went to different parts of the country by the mid-1800s — match the Cottrells.

All of the Cottrells.

Including the folks with the perfect paper trail back to the early 18th century.

Now there’s no break in the overall Cottrell paper trail starting with Richard (looking, of course, at the other Cottrell men’s records). There’s no data on William Noel Battles before his own birth, but a lot of speculation that he was illegitimate and possibly of mixed blood — part Indian, perhaps, part mulatto more likely.

In other words, we likely have a Cottrell man fathering an illegitimate Battles child somewhere between 1735 (if William Noel’s father) and 1757 (if William Noel himself).

And their descendants — my grandmother (from the Battles side) and my grandfather (from the Cottrell side) meeting and marrying in the early 20th century.

Could my ancestry get any more complicated?


  1. See generally Judy G. Russell, “Darn it all, George!,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 18 May 2012, and “Oh George… you stinker!,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 9 Jun 2012 (http://www.legalgenealogist.com/blog : accessed 8 Nov 2014).
  2. Survivor’s Brief, 17 February 1890, pension application no. 7890 (Rejected), for service of George W. Cotrell of Texas; Mexican War Pension Files; Records of the Bureau of Pensions and its Predecessors 1805-1935; Department of Veterans Affairs, Record Group 15; National Archives, Washington, D.C.
  3. Colorado County, Texas, Criminal Court Minutes Book A&B, p. 217, Republic of Texas v. G.W. Cottrell, Criminal Cause File No. 251 (1843); District Court, Columbus.
  4. Wharton County, Texas, District Court Minute Book A: 9, State of Texas v. G.W. Cottrell, Criminal Cause No. 9 (13 October 1848); FHL microfilm 1012537.
  5. ISOGG Wiki (http://www.isogg.org/wiki), “Y chromosome DNA tests,” rev. 5 Mar 2014.
  6. See generally Richard J. Cottrell, “Richard and Mary (Anderson) Cottrell of New Kent Co., VA” (http://www.richardcottrell.org/ : accessed 8 Nov 2014).
  7. Noel Battles, no. S.12960 (Pvt., Capt. Shelton’s Company, 10th Va. Reg.); Revolutionary War Pensions and Bounty-Land Warrant Application Files, microfilm publication M804, 2670 rolls (Washington, D.C. : National Archives and Records Service, 1974); digital images, Fold3 (http://www.Fold3.com : accessed 22 Mar 2014).
Posted in DNA | 11 Comments

Research for another day

There is, I suspect, in every family, that one thing you just don’t want to research.

The one family story where, in reality, you just don’t want to know what the truth really is.

And so it is in my family, as well.

And it will, I am certain, influence my choices of where to spend my research time over the next few days in Virginia.

BillyR.age10Today, you see, would have been my Uncle Billy’s 95th birthday.

And there is one thing in his life history where, well, I just really don’t want to know what the truth really is.

Billy Rex Cottrell was the second-born child and first-born son of my grandparents, Clay Rex and Opal (Robertson) Cottrell, born 8 November 1919 in Hollister, Tillman County, Oklahoma.1

Their first child, my aunt Ruth, was a tiny slip of a girl — tiny when she was born in August 19172 and tiny still when she passed from this life at the end of February 1918.3

Billy, by contrast, was one big loud boy, nine pounds or more at birth,4 who quickly became the ringleader of an ever-growing tribe of younger siblings: he wasn’t yet two when he became a big brother for the first time5 and he was pushing 23 when the last of his siblings was born.6

Because of his career in the United States Navy, so much of my uncle’s life is an open book. We know that he joined the United States Navy in April 1940 and was in the first ever class of aviation radiomen. His first assignment was with the USS Chicago, a heavy cruiser stationed at Pearl Harbor.7

From the Chicago he went on to serve on the aircraft carrier the USS Hornet in Divebombing Squadron 8. His plane went down in the Battle of Midway;8 he and the pilot were rescued then after hours in what he forever after described as an “itty bitty rubber raft” — and enough sun exposure that he suffered for years from skin cancer.

During the Battle of Santa Cruz Islands in October 1942, the pilot Billy flew with was sick and couldn’t fly, so he was on board when the ship came under Japanese attack. He and others not flying took .30-caliber guns from aircraft that could not fly, mounted them on the rails of the ship and did their best to defend the Hornet from attacking aircraft. The efforts were in vain; all hands abandoned ship on the afternoon of 26 October 1942 and the Hornet went down in the early morning hours of 27 October.

Bill survived that sinking as well, and went on to a long and distinguished career in the Navy before retiring in 1970 with the rank of Chief Warrent Office (CWO-4).

All in all, his obituary reported,

He served his country in the United States Navy from before World War II through the Cold War. A veteran of the battle of Midway, the Solomon Islands campaign, the battle of Santa Cruz, and the blockade of Cuba, he served aboard numerous vessels, including the USS Chicago, USS Hornet, USS Coral Sea, USS Midway, and the USS Forrestal, and flew as crewman in several types of aircraft, including the SBC-4, SBD-3, and P2V. During the battle of Midway, he served as an Aviation Radioman in Bombing Squadron 8 (VB-8) aboard the USS Hornet (where his plane was forced to ditch in the ocean). In his 30-year career with the Navy, he also served with Patrol Squadron 18, Patrol Squadron 26, Fleet Aircraft Service Squadron 3, and at Naval Air Stations throughout the world. During the course of his service, he was awarded the Navy Good Conduct Medal (5 awards), the American Defense Medal (with 1 star), American Campaign Medal, the Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal (with 3 stars), the World War II Victory Medal, and the National Defense Service Medal.9

See what I mean?

An open book.

Except for one minor little matter.

The minor little matter of just how he managed to acquire the Farm.

I have to capitalize that word because of all those 110 Virginia acres came to mean to my family. In 1949 or 1950, Texas-born-and-bred Bill Cottrell became the owner of a farm in Fluvanna County, Virginia, and promptly installed his parents and youngest siblings on it — as caretakers, he said, but the reality was that he was taking care of them.

The Depression had been painfully hard for my grandparents, and the war years not much better. Work was hard to come by and work that would support all those kids even harder. So the Farm was a refuge, a place where the rent would never be due, where with effort and care there would always be enough to eat.

A place where magic began with a bonfire out under the trees. Where my aunts and uncles played guitars and fiddles and sang. Where all the stories were told. Where the family came together not just in the few years after Bill came to own the Farm but for all of his very long lifetime as generations of the family came to know it and know each other there.

A place with its own place in our family lore.

Because, the story goes, Billy won it in a poker game.

Although part of the family story is that he fell in love with Virginia and that it was love at first sight when he walked the hills and meadows of that land, it’s beyond question that it was as far from his experience as it was possible to be.

He was, after all, a career Navy man, a Texan stuck in an east coast assignment. He’d never owned land before. The farm house was old and drafty. The place didn’t even have electricity — he got a bunch of his Navy buddies to help him wire the entire place one weekend by supplying the beer. It lacked running water (think wells and outhouses) and central heat (think pot-bellied stoves).

What in the world was he thinking?

Unless… unless… unless it’s really true that he won it in a poker game. In which case, hey, who cares what he was thinking? You don’t argue with fate when a place like that lands in your lap. You just smile and think… well… it was all in the cards.

Now I know beyond any doubt, as a good genealogist, that there is a deed out there somewhere saying how the land came into Billy’s hands. It will recite the former owner, the consideration paid, and list Billy as the new owner.

Somewhere in an archive or the county courthouse (and likely both) is some evidence that might prove or disprove the whole won-in-a-poker-game story.

But you know what?

I think I’ll spend my research time looking at, oh, folks from the 18th or 19th century instead of a land transaction in the 20th century.

Because, in reality, I just don’t want to know what the truth really is.

Just for a little longer, I’m sticking with the poker game story.

Happy birthday, Uncle Bill.

Miss you.


  1. Obituary, “Billy Rex Cottrell,” Tributes.com (http://www.tributes.com : accessed 8 Nov 2013).
  2. Interview with Opal Robertson Cottrell (Kents Store, VA), by Bobette Richardson, 1980s; copy of notes privately held by JG Russell. Opal Cottrell was the grandmother of Bobette Richardson and JG Russell.
  3. Ibid. See also receipt, Baby Cottrell Funeral, 22 February 1918, Dutton Funeral Home, Iowa Park, Texas; digital copy in possession of author.
  4. Ibid., interview, Opal Robertson Cottrell, 1980s.
  5. My aunt Cladyne was born 30 July 1921. Email, 5 Sep 2002, Cladyne Barrett to JG Russell.
  6. My youngest aunt was born 21 September 1942.
  7. Muster Roll of the Crew, USS Chicago Aviation Unit (VCS-4), 31 Dec 1940; Fold3.com (http://www.fold3.com : accessed 8 Nov 2013), citing U.S. World War II Navy Muster Rolls, 1938-1949, Record Group 24: Records of the Bureau of Naval Personnel, 1798 – 2007, National Archives, Washington, D.C.
  8. See Jason Kelly, “Battle of Midway: Navy Aviator Remembers Midway,” Navy Live, posted 5 Jun 2013 (http://navylive.dodlive.mil : accessed 8 Nov 2013).
  9. Obituary, “Billy Rex Cottrell,” Tributes.com (http://www.tributes.com : accessed 8 Nov 2013).
Posted in My family | 8 Comments

In the pages of the lawbooks

Every so often, The Legal Genealogist comes across someone who looks at the sheer volume of statutory law that may have some genealogical value and is aghast.

Names“There can’t really,” the person may whimper, “be anything in there of any possible use to me.”


Yeah, there really is.

Or at least there might be.

And oh… you don’t want to miss it if there is.

Just as a test, I opened up volume 10 of Hening’s Virginia Statutes at Large.1 Virginia, of course, because I’m speaking there this Saturday — tomorrow! November 8th! — at the Genealogical Research Institute of Virginia Fall Conference at Clover Hill High School in Midlothian.2

I just wanted to see who was included, specifically by name, starting at some random point in the book. I began at page 192, which happened to fall in the laws of October 1779, and read forward only 27 pages to the end of the October term of the legislature.

And here’s what I found:

John Alexander and his infant son were mentioned as having the rights to certain lots of land, and the town of Alexandria was allowed to annex the lots.3

John Anderson and Mead Anderson were given the rights to work a lead mine in unappropriated land without paying tax on the estimated value of the lead.4

William Campbell and Walter Crockett were singled out by name as having been involved in defeating a conspiracy in Washington County and given a legal pass — an indemnification and exoneration — for whatever they did in putting down the conspiracy.5

• An act for establishing several new ferries included one from the land of Edward West in Stafford County to Simon Miller in Culpeper and one from the land of Gavin Lawson of Stafford to Fielding Lewis in Spotsylvania. Also referenced were Richard Gallaway, James Bowie the younger, Francis Conway, Abraham Shepherd of Berkeley County, and Thomas Swearingen of Maryland.6

• An act for the relief of Christopher Godwin, explaining that Godwin had leased land in Nansemond County to a Loyalist, John Hamilton, and because of the lease might lose money because of Hamilton’s forfeiture of his rights to the patriot government. The title to the land was re-vested in Godwin.7

• Landowners in Caroline and King and Queen Counties were identified by name in drawing the line between the existing Parish of Drysdale and a new Parish of Saint Asaph. They included John Page, Christopher Smith, Anthony Seale, Frederick Phillips, Edmund Pendleton the elder, and Edmund Jones. And the commissioners of the glebe of the new parish were Pendleton, William Lyne, Anthony Thornton, junior, Thomas Coleman, Mungo Roy and James Upshaw.8

• An act for the manumission of certain Slaves confirmed the freedom of John Hope also known as Barber Caesar, slave of Susanna Riddle of York; William Beck, slave of Thomas Walker the younger of Albemarle, and Pegg, slave of Lewis Dunn of Sussex.9

That’s what’s waiting in the statutes.

In fewer than 30 pages of one statute book.


  1. William Waller Hening, The Statutes at Large; Being a Collection of All the Laws of Virginia, from the first session of the Legislature in the year 1619, vol. 10 (Richmond : 1822).
  2. Walk-ins welcome. Just sayin’ …
  3. Hening, The Statutes at Large, 10: 192-193.
  4. Ibid., 10: 193-194.
  5. Ibid., 10: 195.
  6. Ibid., 10: 196-197.
  7. Ibid., 10: 207.
  8. Ibid., 10: 209-210.
  9. Ibid., 10: 211.
Posted in Resources, Statutes | 4 Comments