Saturday, July 28, 2012

Diggin’ Up Family Dirt

I'm at the Tennessee State Library and Archives in Nashville about to "dig".

     Let’s face it.  A good amount of our family histories aren’t “peachy keen”.  History involves humans, and humans aren’t perfect.  Consequently, many – no, everyone – will encounter some family dirt when they embark on a journey to unearth their family’s past.  Some family dirt can be quite earth-shaking that it may cause an array of emotions – laughter, anger, sadness, etc.  Since the family dirt is in the past, hopefully it’s something that can be viewed with some humor in the present, and we can grow from the mistakes that our ancestors made.  However, if the family dirt involves the pain and suffering of other human beings that had residual effects, disregard my use of the word “humor”. Humor will be inappropriate, in my opinion.  Rather, we learn about the mistakes, acknowledge them, grow from the knowledge, and move forward with our lives with a better perspective. 

     Although the title of this blog post suggests premeditation to research specifically for “family dirt”, the research excursion that I am relaying in this blog post was one with a totally different intent.  I stumbled on the family dirt.  While I was living in Memphis, Tennessee, I decided to take a day off work (or I called out sick…can’t remember which) to conduct some research at the northern Panola County, Mississippi courthouse in Sardis, 50 miles south of Memphis. My great-great-grandfather Edward Danner’s Civil War pension file revealed that he, my great-great-grandmother Louisa Danner, her mother Clarissa Bobo, and others were enslaved by Dr. William J. Bobo near Como, Mississippi.  He had brought them to Panola County from Union County, South Carolina in 1858.  Learning that Dr. Bobo had died suddenly in 1863, after he was thrown off his horse, I wanted to see if there was a will and estate record for him at the courthouse.  Wills and estate records are some of the most valuable resources in tracing enslaved ancestors.  They often contain the names of the enslaved frequently listed in wills and estate inventories by names, values, and often by ages, too.  If you’re a fortunate researcher, slaves are sometimes inventoried in family groups. 

     To my dismay, Dr. Bobo’s estate record did not contain much information and no information was found on his slaves.  Why?  Because the legal matters of his estate were not handled until December 1865.  At that time, African Americans had been emancipated and were no longer chattel (property).  Dr. Bobo had died without leaving a will, likely because he died a sudden death; therefore, he died intestate.  However, my day was not totally in vain.  To my surprise, I saw the Danner name listed in the index of court cases.  The Chancery Clerk office worker pulled the file for me, and thus the “family dirt” was revealed. A quick tangent before the juicy dirt: it never ceases to amaze me at what researchers find in courthouses, local, state and federal Archives, and other repositories. Sadly, I’ve observed that some people in academia often scoff at genealogists, not considering their work to be “scholarly”, when many genealogists have vast experience and knowledge of many primary sources that can accurately document and tell a more comprehensive story about an aspect of American history. I digress….

     Anyway…..I learned that there was a family fight that ultimately involved the Panola County authorities.  This fight was over land left behind by my great-great-grandmother, Louisa Bobo Danner, famously known as Grandma Lue.  On October 3, 1898, my strong-willed, widowed, 56-year-old ancestress, a former house slave, purchased 100 acres of land in Panola County for $1,050.  I have yet to determine if Grandma Lue was the first African-American female landowner in Panola County.  However, after her death in 1921, all hell broke loose, in a manner of speaking. Siblings started fighting over the family land.  Another quick tangent/humor moment: I never shared this with my family members, so this post will probably be a surprise to her descendants who may read this.

The land deed of my great-great-grandmother, Louisa Bobo Danner, purchasing 100 acres of land in Panola County, Mississippi in 1898

     Based on my interpretation, the documents in the court case revealed that Grandma Lue’s oldest child, Uncle James “Jim” Danner, did not pay off sustaining debts from her estate when he sold a portion of her land without the knowledge and consent of his siblings.  Uncle Alfred Danner filed the complaint in 1924, with the backing of his four sisters, Mary (my great-grandmother), Mattie, Laura, and Francis, their two youngest brothers, Phillip and Edward Jr., and the widow and children of their deceased brother, Alexander Danner. In other words, as the court case was titled: “Alfred Danner et al, complainants, versus James Danner et al, defendants.”  Annie Danner, the widow of their deceased brother Mack Danner, was the only other defendant who was on Uncle Jim’s side.  Although all of the details of this family quarrel are still not quite clear to me, there were 12 family members against 2 family members. 

One of the documents in the court file – an affidavit to publish land sale notices in the Southern Reporter, the Sardis, Mississippi newspaper, February 1924. The newspaper clipping was a commissioner’s sale notice for the sale of my great-great-grandmother’s land that highlighted the family dispute: Alfred Danner, et al, Complainants, versus James Danner et al, Defendants

     After finding this court case, I questioned Uncle Alfred Danner’s son, the late Cousin Robert Danner, who was a walking history book. He died in 2008 at the age of 103. He remembered the family quarrel, as he was 18 years old when the battle occurred.  Although the legal dispute did not seem to create too much of a permanent division within the family, he shared how he had crossed paths in Memphis with Uncle Jim’s only child, Sarah Danner Paschall, and she angrily expressed to him that she wanted nothing to do with him and the rest of the family.  So, he went on his way.  Perhaps, her father’s conniving actions caused her great embarrassment that led her to distance herself from the family.  That is rather unfortunate.  Nevertheless, although Annie Danner sided with Uncle Jim for some unknown reason, her children maintained a relationship with many of their first cousins and did not let the land dispute break the family unit. The Danner Family has had several family reunions over the years.  I attended one in 2007 in Omaha, Nebraska. 

Disclaimer: If the descendants of Sarah Danner Paschall – some of whom probably still reside in Memphis, Tennessee – read this blog post, you are more than welcome to contact me and connect as cousins. It will be foolish of me to hold the actions of Uncle Jim Danner in 1924 over the heads of his living descendants.


  1. Good article Mel! I have been researching Harris descendants from Macon County, AL and am aware that there are at least four set of Harris's residing in this area. Recently, I was able to get a copy of the family history for one of these sets (no relation to me) and was surprised to find that dispute over 1,000 acres led to one of the relatives stabbing the other over 15 times. The relative was convicted of murder and served 15 years in Alabama State Prison.

    1. Wow Doll!! That is truly some DIRT right there. Over 15 times!

  2. Melvin,

    Another excellent post to your excellent blog!
    We can learn so much from you.

    1. ...and we can learn a lot from you, too!

  3. Another great post! Can't wait to read your next installment.

  4. Melvin,

    Enjoyed reading your blog post. I'm still laughing. I too am learning new facts about my family that I never knew before. I've had a few surprises along the way. I love researching land deeds. The information in those deeds have changed a few perceptions I didn't know I had about my ancestors.

    Regards, Terri Fraser

    1. Thanks. I think the surprises make genealogy addictive. :)

  5. Hey Melvin,Your great great grandmother was my great daddy sister.Barron "Bam"


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