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Twigs & Trees with Rhonda: No Substitute for Original Records
by Rhonda R. McClure

September 05, 2002
See Rhonda's Previous Columns

With the Internet and the many digitized indexes and compiled family histories available to us for free and through subscription services, I've noticed a disturbing trend; many researchers limit their research to what is found on the Internet. Even those that I hear are heading out to the library from time to time seem to be doing so only to check books. Fewer and fewer individuals are availing themselves of the resources available through their local Family History Center or making trips to visit the county courthouses and other local archives with original documents.

This was brought home to me on a research trip with a colleague. We spent a week at the Family History Library and had the opportunity to view the microfilmed original records housed in this impressive library.

You should always rely on original records.

The Scenario

While my colleague is known for her rather colorful ancestors, among them moonshiners and others who spent at least part of their life in one institution or another, not all of her ancestors lived their lives in such places. We were convinced that one particular female ancestor was in some sort of institution when we could not find her living with her husband and six month old daughter in the 1880 census, though we had her husband and her six month old daughter.

In searching the index of marriages for her ancestor, she uncovered a questionable entry that looked like her ancestor married two girls with the same surname and then married yet another woman all within the space of approximately 10 years. It seemed very unlikely, and the index that listed these marriages identified two of the three as James A. Hensley while the first of the three was listed simply as James Hensley.

The question asked of us was were they all the same person? Had he really married three women in 11 years? Where could we turn to find additional information to aid us in this quest?

We did look at additional published volumes, including abstracts of obituaries and also cemetery transcripts in an effort to locate the whereabouts of the various women. We knew that James moved on from Alabama to Indian Territory, specifically Muscogee Nation, where he is listed with wife Martha A., whom he has been married to for 11 years. Of his five children living with him at the time, only two of them were from his marriage to Martha A., who is the third marriage which took place in 1888, and in which she was listed as Mattie Smith. This was corroborated not only by the dates of birth and ages of the children, but also by Martha A. herself, when asked how many children she is mother two and how many are living. While she had more than two, she states that only two are living.

A Look at the Marriage Records

After exhausting the published records and looking again at the census records, we turned our attention to the original marriage records, which were thankfully on microfilm at the Family History Library.

Unfortunately the marriages of James Hensley to Nannie Gilbert in 1878, Mollie Gilbert in 1887, and Mattie Smith in 1888 did not supply any ages or other identifying information that made it easy to point a finger at any of the records and automatically exclude them. Neither did it allow us to say with a certainty that all three were the same man, not until we paid attention to the signature lines where James signed for the bond.

These marriage records contained a $200 marriage bond. The bond was designed to ensure that the parties marrying had no reason that the marriage would not take place. The groom, usually, and another individual, were usually bound for a certain sum, in this case, $200, so that if the marriage did not take place, the two men were on the hook and owed the county $200. While signature lines in such volumes are not always original, the more we looked at these marriage records it appeared that we did have original signatures. They at least were not done in the same hand as the other sections of the record.

At first it looked like two of the records were by the same man and the other one was not. That her James Hensley had married Nannie Gilbert in 1878, who we think died 22 Sep 1887, was based on an obituary for a "Mrs. Hensley, wife of James Hensley." We thought that he then waited and married Mattie Smith in December 1888. However, in examining an additional record that was attached to the marriage of James A. Hensley to Mollie Gilbert it looks like he did marry in December 1887, for a total of three marriages.

The extra document was a sworn oath by James A. Hensley that Miss Mollie Gilbert was over the age of 18. This small paper also appears to have an original signature by James. This signature looks a lot like those on the other two marriage records to Mattie Smith and Nannie Gilbert.

Still Have Questions

Of course, if we hadn't been in the library at the time, it is possible you would have heard the screams of frustration all over. While we thought we had the answer, and that Mollie was not James' second wife, we now could not say for sure. We now had more questions than ever.

In looking back at the 1900 census, a case could be made that he had small children (aged 3 to 7) from the first marriage and he may have felt overwhelmed and married a sister to his deceased wife, someone he was very familiar with.

There was also the question of the 1880 census entry that appeared to not list James Hensley's wife. A return to that census page, though, revealed something we had overlooked earlier. In the columns identifying if an individual was single, married, or widowed, we found that one of the daughter's was listed as married. Her name was Panina, and we suspect that though she was listed in the household as Panina Gilbert that she was in fact James Hensley's wife, who as I mentioned earlier was also living in the household and is identified as Didamy Gilbert's son-in-law, with his daughter Lillie, age 6 months, listed as Didamy's granddaughter. At least one question appears to have been answered. James' wife was in the household all along, just not listed with him and as such as overlooked.

In Conclusion

As you can see it required the return to the original records a number of times. Each time we looked at the records again we would notice some little difference or something we had previously overlooked. Had we relied solely on the published records we would still be confused. While we have not been able to answer all the questions yet, such as what happened to Mollie Gilbert if he did indeed marry her just two months after the death of his first wife, we have been able to answer some of the questions we had about this research problem.

See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Rhonda R. McClure is a professional genealogist specializing in celebrity trees and computerized genealogy. She has been involved in online genealogy for fifteen years. She is the author of the award-winning The Complete Idiot's Guide to Online Genealogy, now in its second edition. She is the author of four how-to guides on Family Tree Maker. In late 2001, she wrote The Genealogist's Computer Companion. She is a contributing editor to Biography Magazine with her "Celebrity Roots" column and a contributing writer to The History Channel Magazine. Her latest book is Finding Your Famous and Infamous Ancestors. She may be contacted at

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