I HAVE BEEN tracing my family history on ancestry.com for a good little while now. I’ve made incredible headway because people in my immediate family on my mother’s side had children late, my family’s mostly from an area with excellent records and the bulk of my extended family is related to me through very few people.
Throughout my search, there had been one enigma: My maternal great-grandfather William Edward Terry.
William Edward Terry. At one point, that was all I knew. No one alive knew where he was from. We just knew he was Grandma Elliott’s father, lived on a farm in Western Branch (now Chesapeake), moved to Phoebus (now Hampton), remarried after his wife’s death (to a woman we only knew as Ms. Lee) and died when my mother was young.
I kept hitting dead ends, because the site only spoon feeds you stuff you already know or gives you incredible stuff once you plug in the tiniest bit of extra information.
It was frustrating to me that I couldn’t even find his death certificate when it was obvious that he had died in the 1950s or 1960s in a state that keeps excellent records. Over Thanksgiving weekend, my mother’s was able to narrow down the range of when he most likely died. She recalled his body being placed in the front parlor when he died, because people still did that thing in that era. Once I had that much, the floodgates on the site opened.
He died in January 1963. His second wife’s name was Leola, Lee for short. His father’s name also was William. He was born in rural Mecklenburg County, Virginia, not Halifax, as stated in exactly one federal document.
Suddenly, Census data appeared. He had siblings. His parents were born in 1858 and 1862. William the Older was born in 1858 so I’m assuming his parents were the older of William the Younger’s grandparents. Their names were Asa and Nancy.
Although I have found ancestors born before the 1840s, what I know about those two great-great-great-grandparents is that they definitely were slaves.
The earliest ancestor I’ve verified, Charles Trotter, was listed in antebellum Census data as free. With the others, it wasn’t clear because they were in “urban” areas in the South, married free people, were listed in Census data before the Civil War or all of those things. I find it hard to believe that Asa and Nancy, as well as William the Older, spent their entire lives free in rural Southside Virginia, especially since they apparently didn’t live in a town and the only record of Asa and Nancy so far is William the Older’s 1880 marriage license.
I could do nothing but think of how they lived on a plantation during that time and had a child on that plantation and were near my current age when the Civil War ended. Over the course of 10 years, between 1900 and 1910, their grandson traveled about 100 miles to what is now Hampton Roads, lived on a farm of his own, married and began to have children. Over time, he would be able to set the state for being able to set his daughter up for a home with a formal front parlor in which he would have a viewing before his funeral.
Of everyone I’ve discovered so far, excluding family members with military careers, William Edward Terry had the most fascinating life that was hidden for so long. The grandson, and most likely the son, of slaves was born in the 1880s, moved far from home in the Jim Crow South and led to my existence through whatever prompted his voyage to Hampton Roads.
We might not ever know how and why, but at least a portion of his story is known.