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3 Reasons Why Using a Family Tree Can Help a Kid in School

adam bingaman graveAs a former teacher and amateur genealogist, I welcome this guest post from Suzie Kolber, who has developed an online resource featuring free tools for DIY family history projects. Her article is a must-read for classroom or home-school teachers or others who’d like to introduce children to the fascinating discovery of where they come from.

 

Family trees are fun for anyone who wants to learn about their family heritage. However, kids can benefit from them as well even if they aren’t interested in family history yet. Depending on the child’s age and the purpose of the family tree, it can benefit them in four different ways in school.

  1. It Makes History Come to Life

If they are learning about World War I or the Vietnam War in school, it will be much easier to learn the facts if they can associate it with a real person. A great-grandparent or uncle may have served in one of those wars, which will make the information they learn in school a lot more real.

Find out what era they are studying, and make an effort to find out how your family is connected. The further back you have to go, the more difficult but it is possible to find family members from a century ago. Even if all you have is vague information such as your family originated in Ireland, it will make that country more memorable in world history.

  1. It Teaches Kids How to Research

Research is one task your kids will have throughout their school years. Many times, it will be on subjects they consider boring and irrelevant. Make research more interesting by having them help you find out about your ancestors. Teach them how to use the internet and other resources such as the microfiche film at the public library. Show them how to find information from the country records.

As they use these unique resources, it will make research more interesting. Instead of being a required project, it will be more like solving a mystery. As you add names to your family tree, they will feel a sense of pride in accomplishing a complicated task.

  1. It Teaches Kids How to Organize Information

It can be overwhelming to do a research project and then try to put it all together in a way that makes sense. It may be even more challenging if your child is a visual learner. A family tree is a great way to teach a child how to organize information in a way that makes sense and allows the facts to be relevant.

As your child fills in names and other information on the various people in your ancestry, they will learn how to develop associations. They will also understand how to format information so that it makes sense. Since there are so many different kinds of family trees, they can put as much or as little information as they want. With some, it may simply be a name on a tree. For others, they may include birth and death dates, marriage dates and a lot more.

A family tree project can provide an exciting way to help your child learn in school. It teaches them skills they will use throughout their lives, and it does it in a fun way.

Suzie_Kolber_ObitSuzie Kolber created http://obituarieshelp.org/free_printable_blank_family_tree.html to be the complete online resource for “do it yourself” genealogy projects.  The site offers the largest offering of family tree charts online. The site is a not for profit website dedicated to offering free resources for those that are trying to trace their family history.

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Mystery Mystically Unmasked

My favorite part about research is the unexpected discovery. This comes in many forms and is always exciting, but what happened last week was exceptional.
I lost my mother in September. I am not ready to write about this yet, except in the context of this ironic occurrence. While we are South Carolinians now, Mom spent her first fifty years in New Jersey. Last weekend (just days before the devastation to our home county by Superstorm Sandy) a memorial service was held there in her honor.
Although I did not make the trip, the very day before the service, I was connected to Mom through a distant cousin’s email who found me through Ancestry.com. This lovely woman wrote to ask me about my mother’s family and to see if I could identify the people in an old photo she had.
I certainly could. Front and center stood my six-year-old Mom making her First Communion. I have seen very few childhood photos of her, so this is a great treasure.
Beside her is her younger sister, Margie, my aunt and godmother. The taller girls are their cousins. My grandfather, Luke Pryor, is the dapper gentleman on the right and the tall man is his older brother, John Benjamin Pryor III. Both are grandsons of John Benjamin Pryor, the trainer of the legendary racehorse, Lexington, and his ex-slave wife, Frances Bingaman. The older woman is my great-grandmother, Luke and JB III’s mother.
Long-time readers will know that I have been trying for some time to definitively determine the parentage of Frances Bingaman. That’s where the unexpected discovery comes in. This distant cousin, a genealogist extraordinaire, has copies of the death certificates of Frances and her sister, Cordelia. Both list their parents as Adam and Amelia Bingaman.
This answers two questions. Yes, I am the descendant of the colorful plantation owner, Adam Lewis Bingaman of Natchez, Mississippi, but not his New Orleans placee, Mary Ellen Williams. I had determined that Mary Ellen Williams was too young to be Frances’s mother, but another descendant found “Millie” listed in their family Bible. “Millie” is obviously short for Amelia, mother of Frances, Henrietta, Amelia, and Cordelia—all mixed-race daughters of Adam Bingaman.
Mystery solved in a remarkable way at a most significant moment.
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The Results Are In!

Pryor ancestors: my grand-
father, great grandmother,
and aunts

Well, my DNA results came back. They’re confusing. And somewhat unexpected.

When I sent my saliva off, I told my mother what I had done and what we might expect. “We may find out which African tribes we’re from.”

If you’ve read any of my previous posts on this topic, you know my great-great grandmother was born a mulatto slave and married my great-great grandfather who worked on her plantation in Mississippi.

“What if we’re Zulu?” Mom asked.

“Zulu?” Not the response I expected. “We’ll hold our heads up,” I said. “It means we have spirit, that we don’t take it from The Man.” I was getting wound up. “We won’t have our identity defined by some 1960s propaganda movie.”

“Mmm,” was all the response I got.

In this regard, I am disappointed. Not only did we NOT find out where in Africa we originated, there is no mention of Africa at all. In fact, the results are listed in generalities, not specific countries or regions.

So where was I from? Eighty-four percent of my genetic material is from the British Isles. No surprise. Growing up, I identified myself as three-fourths Irish and one-fourth English.

But I am also 12% Eastern European. That would include anywhere from Estonia to the Ukraine to Greece. I have discovered no indication of any such ancestry. France, yes. Belgium, maybe. But those areas were not represented at all. Instead, I may have Romanian blood. Who knew?

The final four percent is listed as Uncertain. Ugh! Very frustrating. My African ancestry must be included in that. According to Ancestry.com, “Uncertain’ usually means that you have traces of a specific genetic population that were too low to pinpoint to an ethnicity.” So, I told my mom, no Zulu—that we know of.

My mercenary daughter said she was not mentioning her African roots anymore. “Two percent of uncertain won’t get me any scholarships.” Pitiful.

This process has created a lot more questions. But, Ancestry.com notes that, as their data grows, they may have more answers. Onward—the journey continues.
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A Genealogical Journey

I’ve written a fair bit on this blog about investigating my ancestors. Now I’m taking an exciting leap. Via Ancestry.Com, I put my name on the waiting list a few months back to have my DNA tested. Last week, to my great excitement, I was informed my number had come up.

Collecting data
According to the site, “unlike the other tests, which only tested the Y-chromosome or Mitochondrial DNA, AncestryDNA uses an autosomal DNA test that surveys a person’s entire genome at over 700,000 locations.” I will be provided with an ethnicity map that pinpoints from where in the world my ancestors came and discover just how diverse my background is.  

They give you only seven days to respond, so I wasted no time putting the $99 on my credit card. The kit arrived last Friday. Saturday morning, I began to spit. And spit. And spit.

The box they sent included a test tube with a little funnel on top. I had to dribble and drool until my saliva came up to the black line. And you can’t count the bubbles!

Then I removed the funnel and sealed the tube with the enclosed cap. Into the special sealed Baggie it went, then into the mailer. Around noon, I deposited the key to unlocking my genetic mysteries into the mailbox.

The wait begins…
Sending off my spittle
 
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Another Roadblock, Another Lead

It’s been eating at me. Am I a descendant of Adam Bingaman and his consort, Mary Ellen Williams? I love to watch Finding Your Roots on PBS and wondered if matching a DNA test with a known descendant was possible. Like I’ve got that kind of money.

There are many people who list my known ancestor, Frances Bingaman Pryor, as one of the couple’s children, but more academic investigations do not. So I decided that if it could be verified chronologically, I would make the leap of faith that we are descended from her.

According to census records from England in 1861 and 1871, Frances was born in Mississippi around 1826. Her sister, Cordelia Bingaman, lived with her in England and died in New Jersey at the age of 63. I found her obituary in the old Red Bank Register of 1891. Therefore, she was born around 1828.

But when was Mary Ellen Williams born?

Looking for evidence of Cordelia’s earlier life, I discovered that both her name and Mary Ellen’s were listed on the New Orleans Register of Free People of Color. This information has been bound in a book published by Le Comité des Archives de la Louisiane. I had to have a copy.

When it arrived in the mail, I boldly ripped open the envelope. The answers to my questions lay inside. I flipped to page 126 and there it was.

Mary Ellen Williams registered as a free person of color in April of 1857 following an act of the legislature allowing her move from Natchez. This I knew from previous investigations where her protector, Adam Bingaman, had appealed to his legislative cronies to act on Mary Ellen’s behalf. At that time she was thirty-eight years old.

That puts her year of birth at 1819. She would have been seven years old when Frances was born. Mary Ellen Williams is NOT my ancestor.

HOWEVER, Cordelia Bingaman is also named in the register. To my surprise, she was listed in 1857 as the three-year-old daughter of Amelia Bingaman. This was not my great-great aunt, Cordelia. But it says that her mother, Amelia, was born in Natchez in 1827. Could she have been another sister to Frances and Cordelia? Did she name her daughter after her own sister?

On Ancestry.com, a descendant of Amelia Bingaman lists her mother as the child of Adam L. Bingaman and a woman named Millie. Could Millie also be the mother of Frances?

Stay tuned as I delve into this possible link.

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"The Feast of All Saints"

While Ann Rice can be credited for starting our modern fascination with vampires* (The Vampire Chronicles), her second novel, The Feast of All Saints, is a study in the 1840’s New Orleans world of the gens de couleur libres, or free people of color. As I have noted in earlier posts, the system of plaçage played a huge role in the lives of these people, a life I believe my ancestors knew well.

Rice’s website describes her book as “a painfully historically rich and accurate novel that delicately and clearly draws patterns of irony and injustice together through complex family relationships and social structures.” In 2001, it was made into a mini-series with an all-star cast which Rice claims is the most faithful adaptation of her work. See the trailer below:


Watching this movie added another layer to my understanding of the privileges and deprivations imposed on those then called “colored.” Amazingly, the mini-series has been divided into twenty-one segments and posted on YouTube, but for a less chopped-up version, we rented from Netflix. Either way, it’s a fascinating scrutiny of this long-ago way of life.

*These days we are inundated with vampires. Hollywood has even turned Abraham Lincoln into a “vampire slayer”! (Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter) Is there no end?

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Who’s Your Daddy?

In 1869, the Supreme Court of Louisiana published its recent findings, including Case No. 1639, St. Felix Casanave, Administrator, v. Adam L. Bingaman. To understand the premise of this case, please read the post below or click here. Otherwise, suffice it to say that Adam Bingaman and his consort, Mary Ellen Williams, may well be my ancestors.

I don’t know if these two guys hated each other or were just greedy; either is possible. Casanave was unofficially Bingaman’s son-in-law. I found a letter from 1860 written by Mary Ellen Williams to inform her friend, as she says, “of the marriage of my daughter, Marie Sophie Charlotte Bingaman to St. Felix Cazanave” in the St. Louis Cathedral on April 30th of that year. Yet, Charlotte’s obituary lists her by her maiden name and as Casanave’s consort. Casanave was mulatto like her, so I’m confused.

Either way, on July 12, 1867, following the drowning of his brother-in-law, James, Casanave put through the paperwork to be named administrator of the boy’s considerable estate (again, see the previous post).

On the 9th of July, three days before, Bingaman had filed a claim that he was the boy’s natural father and sole heir. Court records state that ol’ Adam had formally recognized his mixed-race children in July of 1865. To do that, one needed to make a formal statement before a notary public and two witnesses. The lower courts recognized this as legal and named Bingaman as the heir.

This seems to have incensed Casanave, who took the case to this higher court. Quoting the court’s decision, “The grounds upon which the plaintiff chiefly relies are: First, that the defendant was not the father of J. A. Williams; second, defendant could not legally acknowledge him” because Louisiana laws forbid a white man from “legitimating his colored children.” Casanave claimed that Bingaman’s profession of fatherhood came after years of public denials and it was “evidently made in the exclusive interest of himself, and was therefore inadmissible without additional proofs…”

This is where it gets sticky. Further research took me to the New Orleans’s newspaper, The Times-Picayune, which printed the obituary of Casanave’s wife/consort, Charlotte, under the name Bingaman, taken from the man he claimed was NOT the father of her brother. Also, I was stunned to discover Charlotte was already dead before her brother’s tragic accident, and Casanave had remarried two days after James died, merely two months after Charlotte’s death. I smell greed.

Whatever the case, the court didn’t give much weight to any denials of paternity Bingaman might have uttered. They probably made a few such denials themselves. To the point that it was illegal to do so, they claimed the law only forbid such recognitions when the children were deemed “adulterous and incestuous bastards.” Harsh. Since no incest had occurred and Bingaman was not married at the time of their conception (his wife was deceased), the judges saw no impediment to his declaration of fatherhood.

They did make clear that “illegitimate children who have not been legally acknowledged, are allowed to prove their paternal descent provided they be free and white; provided also, that free illegitimate children of color may also be allowed to prove their descent from a father of color only…”

We can’t have a darker version of the master knocking on the plantation door, crying, “Papa!” now, can we? But since this was a white guy claiming his child of color, and no wife existed to be disgraced, it was okay.

Chalk another one up to the Good Ol’ Boy System.

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Consort–A Profitable Career Choice

Wow! These relationship issues in nineteenth-century New Orleans are confounding.

Yesterday, while combing the internet for clues about Adam L. Bingaman and Mary Ellen Williams, I happened across a Louisiana Supreme Court case pitting Bingaman against his daughter’s “husband,” St. Felix Casanave, a free black man of New Orleans.

It seems Mary Ellen died in 1861 and left her three minor children her considerable holdings. Her son, James Adam Williams or Bingaman (take your pick, he was known by both), perished when the steamer, Fashion, sank in December of 1866. He had no heirs nor will and was worth $25,197. Look at that again–$25,197. That translates to around $664,000 in today’s money!

Stop and think here. He was only one of Mary Ellen’s three heirs. She was either a freed slave or a free woman of color from Natchez who became Adam L. Bingaman’s consort. I don’t know if all her children were given equal portions of her fortune, but chances are, in today’s terms, she was a millionaire! Holy cow! Sorry for all the exclamation points, but I am blown away by this.

When I first learned of her existence, I pictured her and her children living in a small cabin on the edge of Bingaman’s plantation. This couldn’t be further from the truth. It also lends credence to her having been a placée. Those relationships between a free woman of color and her white “protector” as he was called were based on a legal contract. Certainly one must have been in place for her to accumulate such treasure.

Think about this. While socially considered beneath a legal white wife, the placée could keep her money and holdings. Once married, all a wife’s wealth became the property of her husband. She personally owned nothing. Oh, the irony. (I resisted another !)

Anyway, Casanave and Bingaman were arguing over who got James’s property. The dispute must have been heated since it went all the way to the state supreme court.

Stay tuned to my next posting for the lowdown on this complex legal battle.

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The Diary: A Window into the Life

Lexington: trained by my great-great
grandfather, J.B. Pryor
In an online newsletter from The Reading Room, I found a good explanation of why I write historical fiction.
It asks, “Are you inquisitive, investigative and interested in almost everything? Are you looking for facts as answers?” YES
“If so chances are that you are an avid non-fiction reader.” ABSOLUTELY. IN BOOKSTORES, I ALWAYS MAKE A BEELINE TO THE NONFICTION SECTIONS.
“Do you want to know how it would feel to be in someone else’s skin? Do you want to imagine what they would smell, hear, feel, see or say?” SURE DO.
“If so you are probably more of a fiction reader.” I DO ENJOY A GOOD STORY. 
“And what about readers who like the mix of both questions and answers? If you fall into this last category you will really enjoy…historical fiction…a very demanding genre [that] requires extensive research and great imagination.”
YESSS! THAT’S ME!
This research can include genealogy, a great source of ideas. I have written a good bit about how I stumbled onto the premise of my story, Aroon, but through family tree investigations, I have found a story that could write itself. (See sidebar, Pryor Knowledge) It seems I come from far more fascinating stock than I ever imagined. 
One of my favorite ancestors is my maternal great-great grandfather, John Benjamin Pryor. A prominent horse trainer, he was best known for his work with “Lexington,” the premier racehorse of the 1850s and the leading thoroughbred sire since pre-Revolutionary days. Pryor worked for Colonel Adam L. Bingaman of Natchez, Mississippi, and married Frances Bingaman, who may or may not have been the colonel’s daughter by his black mistress, Mary Ellen Williams. The plot thickens.
Which brings me back to why I love writing historical fiction. I am very curious about people’s lives in the past—their hopes, their dreams, what made them laugh, what made them cry. But usually, we know little more than their dates of birth and death. Fiction can fill in the gaps.
UNLESS—someone writes a diary or journal. Yesterday in the mail, I received a copy of William Johnson’s Natchez: The Ante-Bellum Diary of a Free Negro. It is the “lengthiest and most detailed personal narrative authored by an African American during the ante-bellum era in the United States” according to the introduction. And my ancestor, John B. Pryor, is mentioned seven times. Mary Ellen Williams, possibly my ancestor, is noted three times. And if Adam Bingaman is Frances’s father, another ancestor is mentioned seventy-seven times!
This book covers fifteen years of the day-to-day lives of free African-Americans in the pre-Civil War South. Through William Johnson’s eyes, I’m hoping to peek in on my forebears, symbolically tap them on their shoulders and ask, “Who are you?”