Sometimes, wills are, arguably, as valuable to history and genealogy researchers as they were for the immediate survivors of the deceased whose will is probated. Here is an example of bringing to life a gentleman and his wife through the deaths of 4 individuals and their respective wills and/or administrative testimony.
At first glance, Jefferson Thomas Williams (1805-1870) emerges from the pages of federal census and land records as a prosperous farmer in 19th century Fayette County, Tennessee, with a fair amount of land and many slaves, and not a lot more to say about him. In the 1860 slave schedule, he showed ownership of 71 slaves. The 1840 census indicates that he and his wife are the only white people in the household, so at first read, one would assume he had no children, since the couple were about 35 years old at the time. There is no cemetery record or obituary where children might have claimed Jefferson or his wife Nancy as their parents.
Will Number 1:
In my last post featuring Rebecca Williams, I referenced Jefferson Thomas Williams, because I found her as his sister in his will, indirectly, by connecting her with her sons Joseph and Francis Drake, who were named as heirs. Jefferson’s will, along with associated documents and ledgers, yield a bounty of knowledge that start to give us a more rounded and full view of Jefferson Thomas Williams.
Before we delve into his will, we should review the other records more readily available. In searching, one finds that Jefferson Thomas is listed alternately as Jefferson T., J. T., and Jeff, and one should avoid mistaking him for James, John, or Joseph when the initial J. is used, since all are common given names in the area. In my narrative, I will alternate among the various names for him, as suits my fancy, to clarify, for emphasis, or for expediency.
Census records list Jefferson’s birthplace as North Carolina, about 1805, which appears to be true, although the date may be suspect, as later we will see. J. T. and Nancy Daughtry signed their marriage bond in Northampton County, North Carolina, North Carolina December 26, 1828 when they were about 23 and 22 years of age, respectively. By 1840 the couple were in Fayette County, Tennessee where they continued to be listed in the same county in the 1850, and 1860 census records.
My original search for Jefferson T. Williams was in searching for the 1850 whereabouts of the 1860 census Dancyville, Haywood County, TN thirty-year-old resident James L. Williams, married to Elizabeth and father of Silas and “Bud” Leonard Williams. You will recall that Silas Williams is the name of the person in the first blog of my series, and whether or not he is the same Silas as the one in the 1850 Dancyville census is one focus of my research.
Sure enough, in the Fayette County, TN 1850 Federal Census there is a James Williams, age 20, listed in the household of Jefferson T. and Nancy Williams. There also are Rebecca age 11, Thomas age 8, and Jennet age 5. As mentioned earlier, there are no children listed in 1840 in the Williams household. Rebecca would have been an infant, so might not have been listed, as I understand sometimes happened in the era. But where was James in 1840? Was he really a son of J. T. and Nancy? Or a nephew? An orphan? The 1850 census does not specify familial relationships.
It took a lot of charting and examining the names and ages of the children in the household each census year to start to see a pattern. The first clue was Joseph N. Williams, named as heir and executor of J. T.’s 1870 will. In the 1860 census, Joseph is listed with an abbreviated name, “Jos,” which looks a bit like “Jas,” so easily mistaken. Joseph also should have been in the 1840 census, since he was born about 1837, according to his first appearance to us, in the 1860 census at age 23. His absence in 1850 from the family is notable.
There is a pattern of children who are perhaps ranging generally from 9 to 17 years of age being gone from the household, only to return again. The dates of birth of some of the family’s children, particularly Thomas (J. T., Jr.), Rebecca, and Jennet would have resulted in their presence at home for the census. An example is Thomas, who was eight years old in 1850 and 18 years old in 1860 where he is listed as “J. T.,” one presumes Jefferson Thomas Williams, Jr. His years of middle-to high-school attendance would have fit between the census years.
Were the children sent for apprenticeships in another household? Census records in Fayette and Haywood Counties in Tennessee are consistent with that practice. Alternatively, were the children sent to boarding school? We will have an opportunity to revisit the household absence issue when it is addressed in an upcoming document!
Will (referenced– still searching for the complete will) Number 2:
In 1869, the year before he died, J. T.. appeared in Fayette County Court to state that his son James had died, leaving no property and no debt. J. T. was speaking as administrator of his son’s estate. As you recall, we were even wondering if any of the youngsters listed in the census records were biological children of J. T. and Nancy. The affirmation of a son named James, as well as the naming of the 2nd boy Joseph Williams as executor of J. T.’s 1870 will and naming his daughter Rebecca in the will (Will Number 1), increases the likelihood that all of the children in the household are biological children. In all, it appears that Jefferson Thomas and Nancy Williams had 5 children who lived beyond infancy, at least until 1860, and that Joseph and Rebecca lived beyond 1870: James; Joseph N.; Rebecca; Jefferson Thomas, Jr.; and Jennet or Jennett.
Some have speculated that forty-year-old James R. Williams, living nearly adjacent to James L. Williams in 1860 might be James L.’s older brother. While possible, it seems unlikely that J. T. and Nancy would have named two living sons James. Additionally, J. T. would have had to be 15 years old when he fathered James R., if we believe J. T.’s birth date. There could have been a prior marriage, along with the very early onset fatherhood, and that is a theory that could be further tested.
The 1860 census listed James R. as a wagon maker and James L. a shingle maker, not dissimilar occupations. James R. and his wife Mary Albright were from North Carolina, as were James L., J. T., and Nancy, suggesting that cousin kinship is a possibility, particularly with the similar woodworking trade, which seemed a common occupation for Williams who inhabited Fayette and Haywood Counties in the mid-1800s. It is possible that James L. apprenticed with James R., particularly if they were related, although not necessarily so. As a sad note, both men evidently died prior to the 1870 census, leaving their wives and children.
Another remarkable comment that J. T. made to the Fayette County Court in his role as administrator for his deceased son James is that James was guardian of the heirs of Samuel C. Williams, deceased. Well. Who was Samuel C. Williams?
Will Number 3:
Searching for Samuel C. Williams led us to Shelby County, Tennessee where we found a treasure trove of a will and associated administrative papers, about 90 or so! J. T. Williams was appointed executor of the will of his brother Samuel C. Williams. In addition to the actual will and probate documents, attached are papers reflecting the work of J. T. in administering the affairs of his brother Samuel, his widow Rebecca, and his children Thomas J. and Ann R. Williams, both of whom were underage. There are ledgers of expenses and reimbursements for the everyday, probably mundane, but to us, quite remarkable. There is a payment to an obstetrician for taking care of Mollie. After a pause, it dawns on one that Mollie is a slave who has given birth.
There are payments up through 1852 to William F. Dupree at the Macon Institute in Macon, Tennessee for tuition, board, and “washing.” The payments are made for Thomas, and, evidently, “Miss Rebecca A. Williams,” who must be Thomas’ sister Ann R. … she must be Rebecca Ann. The name is confusing, because their mother is the widowed Rebecca Williams, but surely “Miss” Williams would be the unmarried daughter. These payments, and there are several, along with other payments for school-related materials and books, are confirmation that the family did send children to a boarding school. If J. T. was seeing to the sending of his niece and nephew to school, it is very likely that he also sent his children to the same school.
I must make a comment here about the geography of the area. Macon, Tennessee is in the southwestern quarter of Fayette County. While Macon is no longer an incorporated city, it was a town in the mid- 1800’s. It probably was in or just to the east of District 9, which is the same district where J. T. and Nancy owned their plantation and reared their children. Unfortunately, the map of boundaries and land plats for the original District 9 no longer exists, and the method of land description and designation also changed, making it difficult for us to determine the exact location of the Williams farm.
Driving the roads in 2018, the far southwestern corner of Fayette County appears to be very boggy in the wintertime. Slightly to the east and north there are rolling, low hills with fence rows filled with hardwoods. Much of the area currently is described as bedroom communities for Memphis.
Shelby, Fayette, and Haywood Counties are in the far southwest corner of Tennessee and considered part of the Mississippi Delta. Memphis is the county seat of Shelby County, with Fayette directly east, and Haywood County north of Fayette. Dancyville is a community, formerly a town, in very southern Haywood County on the Fayette County border. By car, it’s about a 30 minute drive from District 9 of Fayette County to the county seat Somerville, and about 40 minutes to Dancyville. In the 1860’s it would have been a day’s trip from District 9 to Dancyville, depending upon river road conditions and the level of intervening creeks and rivers.
Three rivers run through Fayette and Haywood Counties and pass between the southern Tennessee border and Brownsville, the county seat of Haywood County. The rivers, from north to south, are the Hatchie, the Loosahatchie, and the Wolf. J. T. and Nancy’s plantation was probably North of the Wolf River, possibly south of the Loosahatchie. His will states that he left funds to the Collierville Methodist Episcopal Church, which suggests a more southern location for his farm, if he actually attended the church regularly. We are seeking information to confirm his church affiliations, which might give more insight regarding his property location.
Looking more closely at the recipient of the tuition money for Macon Institute for the Williams children’s education, Mr. Dupree is listed in the 1850 census as 22 years of age, living with an older family member and identified as a teacher. It is sad to find that Mr. Dupree passed away in 1852 and is buried in a local cemetery in Macon. There is no evidence that he married… although we are crippled by the fact that the marriage records from about 1829 until 1858 were destroyed by a fire in the Fayette County Court House, so he certainly could have married.
A sneak peak at our next will #4 shows that the guardianship for Samuel C. Williams’ son Thomas was probated again in North Carolina after 1852 with respect to guardianship, suggesting that Thomas, his sister, and his mother moved to North Carolina. One wonders if the death of their school master, especially so soon after the death of the children’s father in 1849, had any impact upon the decision to move. The picture for the fate of Thomas, his sister, and their mother remains unclear, as does the exact role of Thomas and Rebecca Ann’s uncle James Williams as their guardian, and when he might have been appointed guardian prior to J. T.’s 1869 testimony about the death James as guardian. Hopefully, uncovering more records will help us fill in the gaps of missing data.
Another feature of the Samuel C. Williams will is a statement identifying the father of Samuel and J. T. as Thomas Williams of Northampton County, North Carolina. Thomas had passed away, and some sale of property, evidently slave sale, had led to distribution of funds which were reallocated, taking ito consideration the death of Samuel, based upon terms of the will.
The naming of their father! And another will!
Will Number 4:
The next will to examine is that of Thomas Williams, whose will was probated in 1815 in Northampton County, North Carolina. Thomas appears to have written his will and rewritten it a couple of times over enough span of time that daughters married, yielding new surnames. Clearly, Thomas owned property and slaves and was thoughtful in how he dispersed his estate and belongings. His wife was Jennet, sometimes spelled Jinnet. His son Samuel Curle Williams, discussed in Will #3, was finally identified by his full name. Thomas mentioned his children Jefferson Thomas and Rebecca, referencing Rebecca with surnames that suggest that Rebecca’s later marriage to Edwin Drake was her third marriage, which supports the established timeline that we have for her. The will also gives a list of Thomas’ children and some grandchildren.
Another finding from Thomas’ will is the name of a guardian for Samuel Curle Williams It is heartbreaking to think that Samuel’s father died when Samuel was still young, and Samuel died before his two children were of age, probably dying before he turned 40.
Note that in this American era prior to the late 1880’s, if a child’s father died, the child was considered an orphan, even if his/her mother was living. The child may very well have continued to live in the mother’s household, but a designated guardian would make determinations and seek needed funds from the estate. The guardian may be a different appointee from the executor and/or administrator of the will and its terms of settlement.
Knowing this information about guardians, if Jefferson Thomas Williams was born in 1805, he was ten years old when his father Thomas died in 1815. Was he appointed a guardian too? If not, why not? So far, documents to address the questions have not been located. An alternative is that Jefferson was born earlier than 1805. Again, so far, we do not know.
At the time of his father’s death, Jefferson Thomas Williams, evidently, was the eldest living son of Thomas Williams. He and his bothers Anthony R. and Samuel Curle Williams had sisters Rebecca (born in 1797), Lucy, Charity, Mary “Polly,” Julietta T., Caroline M., Euclina S. T., and Miriam, eleven children, all evidently born in Northampton County, North Carolina. Of all the sisters, we know that J. T. was close to Rebecca, for sure.
After his father’s death, J. T. married Nancy Daughtry, and just over a year later his first son James was born. After the birth of James, the family moved to Fayette County, TN by 1840. J. T owned a lot of property. He sold a 788 acre parcel fairly early on, yet still had a functioning plantation. More land record research should yield more details regarding his arrival in the county and the nature and extent of his land holdings.
Jefferson Thomas Williams the person:
Clearly, the information from the cited documents has given us a lot of information that add to Jefferson Thomas and Nancy Williams’ family tree. In addition, we have a much more clear picture of Jefferson Thomas, a primary actor in each of the documents.
J. T. was an educated man who was proficient in business, documentation, keeping accounts, and dealing with family business concerns. Above that, he was willing and able to be responsible for family affairs when he was called upon to do so and seemed to take great care to be sure that the needs of others were addressed.
He valued education, even for girls. He appears to have made sure that his children and his niece and nephew obtained their education.
He was spiritually oriented, leaving some of his wealth to the Collierville Methodist Episcopal Church. In the decade before he died, J. T. had experienced the Civil War, the death of his son, and the death of his wife, who died prior to 1870.
His will illuminates a few more surprises. The will probated in 1870 is fairly detailed, listing the recipients of money, support, and property. The will was contested by his daughter Rebecca Polk and her husband James K. Polk. The will was not settled for 18 years, partly because appointed executors would die and replacements had to be appointed. The first executor,Joseph N Williams, second son of J. T., died in 1872.
We know that the first son James had died prior to 1869. The person we believe is the widow of J. T.’s son James Williams remarried by 1867 in Fayette County, TN to John Hicks, an older man who was a miller. in 1870 the Williams children were living in the household with their mother and stepfather. By 1870 the oldest son Silas was 19 years old and would have been capable of helping assume care for his younger siblings, if needed. We do not know if the minor children were appointed a guardian upon the death of their father, which likely was in the thick of the Civil War, so may have just been overlooked. Since James’ family is not mentioned in J. T.’s will, we can only assume that for some reason, J. T. did not feel they were in need of his support.
We also do not know the status of J. T.’s remaining children J. T., Jr. and Jennett in 1870. They are not mentioned in the will, suggesting that they both may have died by that point.
Much of the will’s focus is upon “colored” individuals, designated “col’d” or “col’rd,” some of whom apparently are young or minors, with a request that funds be used to see to the youngsters’ sustenance over period of time, with J. T.’s son Joseph N. Williams being the trustee of oversight. Conversely, J. T.’s daughter Rebecca is given “two hundred dollars, a feather bed and two milch cows.” One suspects that Rebecca or her husband felt slighted, specially since her brother was given fairly broad financial authority, although as the oldest surviving son, his role would not be unusual in that era.* (See the updated information below)
While from our perspective in the 21st century, there is, of course, no justification for slavery, and viewing evidence of its existence is rightfully cringe-worthy, one is struck in reading Jefferson’s will that he is particular and generous in the disbursement of his wealth to several individuals likely to have been or descended from his slaves. In 1870, as the dust started to settle from the Civil War, what were Jefferson’s thoughts and feelings as he approached the end of his life? Certainly, compassion is evident. Was there guilt, as well? Did he seek to make amends, to right his wrongs as he approached the end of his life? Or did he merely feel responsibility for those he had cared for during his lifetime? It is a window into an era that is hard to understand from this perspective. It is wonderful that there are names of African Americans mentioned in the will, and those names point the way to further research that could give clues for current Americans seeking slave ancestors and cousins, particularly since these four Tennessee and North Carolina documents we have examined have Slave names scattered throughout as individuals, couples or families are designated to particular heirs with evident particular care, by name, to each heir in the next generation. generation to the next, in North Carolina and Tennessee.
In a final thought, J. T. and Nancy Williams appear to have had very few heirs. If James L. Williams of Haywood County in 1860 is the same James, son of J. T. and Nancy, there are some heirs who survived. None of the other children appear to have had surviving children.
A good friend said, “By uncovering this, you are doing someone a favor.” I sigh. I do not know if Jefferson and Nancy are ancestors. Perhaps DNA eventually can prove whether this line is a valid one for our family ancestry.
Still, these are ancestors worthy the note. Even if they died with no heirs. They certainly were important to their community; to those whose lives they touched; to their parents, siblings, nieces and nephews; and we hope to those who were were their emancipated slaves.
Jefferson Thomas Williams and his wife Nancy Daughtry are highlighted as people with loving souls, compassionate and faithful, looking out for the interest of others, in a harsh era.
…and we have all learned that mining probate records can be gold in putting together elements of a human story.
*Note: I am editing this biography to update that two children attributed to Jefferson Thomas Williams and Nancy Daughtry Williams are, instead, J. T.’s niece and nephew. Research of yet another will, that of J. T.’s brother Samuel Curle Williams (1810-1849) probated in Shelby County, Tennessee identifies the children as his heirs, with their surviving mother Rebecca, maiden name unknown. The children are named as Thomas Jefferson Williams and Rebecca Williams. J. T. was named as an administrator of the will, and J. T.’s son James was named guardian of the minor children. Both of Samuel and Rebecca’s children were sent to a boarding school and appear to have been counted in the 1850 census in their uncle Jefferson Thomas Williams’ and wife Nancy’s household. It still is possible that there was a son of Jefferson Thomas Williams and Nancy named Jefferson Thomas or J. S. Williams, based upon the 1860 census, who was born about 1842, because Thomas J. is not J. T. or J. S, which the census seems to indicate, but seems more likely that the three children of Jefferson Thomas Williams and Nancy were James, Jennet, and Joseph, although Joseph is never expressly identified as his son, although he was named the executor and administrator of his will.
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