Grandma Lizzie

Today would have been my Grandma Lizzie Cottongim’s 124th birthday. I remember visiting her house on North 16th in Richmond, Indiana for family gatherings when I was a boy.  There was always great food and the deep connections close family share. I had a vague sense she was from the hills of eastern Kentucky, but I didn’t really know what that meant. 

Grandpa Joe had died when I was 2, so I have no memories of him.  But I knew my great aunts and uncles, the offspring of Joe and Lizzie and other families from the hills of Clay County, Kentucky.  

My own grandmother, Arbutus, was Joe and Lizzie’s oldest daughter. When I’d ask her what it was like to grow up in the hills, she never really wanted to talk about it. There was pain and maybe just a little embarrassment in her face when she would shrug it off and change the subject.  

I realize now life must have been really hard. Growing up in a small 2 room plank house in Pinner Holler just outside of Manchester, most days were full of hard work and empty of almost all the conveniences that are a basic part of life today. It was a beautiful land, but it didn’t easily produce food for a growing family. 

Grandpa Joe worked at a nearby coal mine to supplement what he could grow on his 100 acres in the holler. The boys did too as they grew. 

Grandma Lizzie never threw leftovers away–they were recycled into bread pudding or something tasty for later. She was an extremely good seamstress. She could see a dress in a shop and recreate it at home. She never wasted fabric as evidenced by the many quilts she made. She and the other ladies often had quilting bees where they would gather and quilt around a large frame. She developed many skills and found a way to make things work. 

Joe and Lizzie never missed church, and they always dressed up for it. When a neighbor was in need they did their best to help. 

Life was hard, but it was good too. 

My grandma Arbutus remembers her dad taking her to the swimming hole in the summertime. Like her mother, she grew food in the backyard and canned it for the winter. My grandma’s white grape jelly and her stewed rhubarb dessert were two of my favorite foods growing up. 

I understand now why the family was glad when they could get out. I understand why building a new life in Richmond was a huge leap forward. When I recently read Hillbilly Elegy by J.D.Vance I realized the culture my family escaped from and the negative patterns in it that they stood against were powerful and not always good. 

Grandma Lizzie must have had an amazing strength of character and sense of purpose to help bring her family through tough times with grace. I didn’t get to know her well, but when I look at her descendants, my cousins, I’m thankful for who she was and how she lived. 

Posted in Clay County Kentucky, Cottongim family, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Fraud and the Election of 1856

Five years ago I wrote a blog post about my 3rd great uncle, Cornelius Harris (see Insanity and the Election of 1856). At the time I knew he was involved in some irregularities related to the election of 1856, but I didn’t know exactly what they were. Since then, I’ve found out what happened. As Americans go to the polls today–160 years later–in one of the craziest elections in memory, it’s good to remember that election controversy has a long history in our country.

Race and sexuality were high in voters’ minds in 1856. The newly formed Republican party claimed that it was “both the right and the imperative duty of Congress to prohibit in the Territories those twin relics of barbarism–Polygamy and Slavery.”

img_5790In Indiana, the race between Democrats and Republicans was close. It was so close, in fact, that certain Republicans thought they could shift the election by moving some young voters from one county to another to get their candidate elected to Indiana House of Representatives. A scheme was put in place to move Republican voters–mostly young men who needed a little extra cash–from the highly Republican Wayne County to the battleground Rush County.

Several months after the election, Cornelius testified before the Indiana House of Representatives about his involvement in the plan. “Mr. Applegate gave me my ticket; I suppose it was a Republican ticket; my vote was not challenged…I remained in Rushville only an hour or two.  We hired a wagon, and I returned with Mr. Kinsey and the same crowd with whom I came there.”

Mr. Kinsey was Cornelius’s uncle, Phillip Wagoner Kinsey, the youngest brother of his mother Mary. Phillip was only about 10 years older than Cornelius (Phillip was 33 at the time of the election, Cornelius was 23).

img_5794Phillip testifies that Mr. Hudelson, a Republican who had encouraged him to go to Rush County to vote, said that the Democrats were importing votes into Rush, and they wanted to counteract the matter by the importation of voters.

The testimony doesn’t reveal motives. We don’t know why Cornelius and Phillip went to Rush County to shift the vote for Republicans. Perhaps they were compelled by their beliefs and idealogies; perhaps they were paid. Or maybe they were just under the influence of more powerful and persuasive men.

img_5792Whatever their reason, they tried to change the results of an election and they got caught doing it. Both were called before the Indiana House of Representatives and testified in hearings about the election. A year later, Cornelius ended up in the Indiana Hospital for the Insane. One of the reasons for his institutionalization, according to his father, was his having been called to testify before the legislature about his dubious voting activities.

In the end, Leonidas Sexton, the Republican candidate from Rush County, was elected to the Indiana House of Representatives. On a national scale, the party “benefited from its control of most northern state legislatures” and gained strength toward the ultimate election of Abraham Lincoln four years later. The rest, as they say, is history.


Sources for this post include “Majority and Minority Report of the Committee on Elections on the Election Frauds in Rush Co. including the Evidence in the Case; Made by the order of the General Assembly of Indiana, at the session of 1857” and America in 1857: A Nation on the Brink by Kenneth M. Stampp.

Posted in Harris family | Tagged , , , , | 3 Comments

Returning Home

Lewis K. Harris

Lewis K. Harris, my great-great grandfather and Captain of Company F/B, 69th Indiana Infantry

One hundred and fifty years ago this month, my great-great grandfather returned home from the Civil War. After four years of fighting and being away from family, he must have been hugely relieved to get home. The following is a newspaper report of their arrival back in Indiana.

RETURNING HOME — The Silver Moon arrived here on Saturday morning early having on board the 69th Indiana regiment, about 300 strong, en route for Indianapolis, to be mustered out of the service. Lieutenant Colonel Perry was in command, and the men looked hearty and robust. They were direct from Mobile, and went forward by the regular mail train for Indianapolis. Their conduct, while in the city awaiting the hour for the train to leave, was in the highest degree creditable and illustrated the fact that Indiana soldiers are as gentlemanly among their friends as they are terrible to their foes.

Captain Conway, of the Silver Moon, boasted of their good conduct on the boat, assuring us that there had not been a single man among them in the least degree intoxicated, disorderly or disobliging to the officers of the boat on the entire trip from New Orleans.

Their appearance, as they marched up Main street, was the subject of warm eulogy.

A number of them had brought with them from the South mocking birds and other pets, and we noticed one bronzed veteran with a large chicken cock perched coozely upon his knapsack, which looked as if he had been through the heavy campaigns with the regiment.

— — —

This report can be found in the Evansville Daily Journal, July 17, 1865

Posted in Harris family | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Early Days in Centerville

The home of Lewis Jones, my 4th great granduncle, who made the first mail delivery from Centerville to Indianapolis in 1822.  The house was built in 1840 and is on the National Register of Historic Places.

The home of Lewis Jones, my 4th great granduncle, who made the first mail delivery from Centerville to Indianapolis in 1822. The house was built in 1840 and is on the National Register of Historic Places.

200 years ago yesterday, Centerville, Indiana was born.  The town was laid out on October 20, 1814, making it the oldest surviving town in Wayne County.  Centerville has a storied history.  Most interestingly, Centerville was at the center of a sometimes violent battle over the county courthouse in the 1870s.  Centerville was also the childhood home of Indiana’s famous Civil War governor, Oliver P. Morton.  Steve Martin has written an article tracing these and other stories of Centerville in today’s Palladium-Item.

Governor Oliver P. Morton of Indiana, who served during the Civil War and was a great supporter of Lincoln and the war.  Morton was born and raised in Centerville.

Governor Oliver P. Morton of Indiana, who served during the Civil War and was a great supporter of Lincoln and the war. President Lincoln said, “Had it not been for Governor Morton sending money and men to the front when most needed, the war probably would have been lost by the North.” Morton was born in Salisbury and lived in Centerville as a young man.

Two sets of my great grandmother’s great grandparents came to Centerville in its earliest days.  In 1817, Daniel Crowe and his wife Elizabeth (Cranford) Crowe left North Carolina in a cart pulled by a horse.  When Daniel arrived in Wayne County, Indiana, he had only $2.50 in money, which he used to buy shoes.  Daniel later traded his horse and harness for a tract of land near Centerville.

For a time, Daniel worked for a local mill owner, David Commons.  Commons was an important man in the community, serving as a significant stockholder of the local bank, a county commissioner for three terms and a state senator for two terms.  Daniel and his wife Elizabeth were farmers, members of the local Christian church and the parents of thirteen children.

My great grandmother’s other great grandparents, John Boggs and his wife Sally (Jones) Boggs, were also early settlers of Centerville.  Nothing is known of John Boggs’ birth or parents, but he was in Centerville at least by the 1820s.  John served as a constable of the town prior to his death in 1843 at the age of 36.

Sally (Jones) Boggs moved to the area of Centerville with her parents, Levi M. Jones and Mary (Thomas) Jones.  Levi and Mary left Virginia in March of 1815 and journeyed down the Ohio River on a flatboat to Cincinnati.  From there, they drove through the countryside to Wayne County, Indiana.  They settled in the small town of Salisbury, and then a year later bought 160 acres (a quarter section) in Center Township.  Two years after that they sold that property and bought lots in the town of Centerville, where they built a hotel.  In 1819, Levi became the first person to build a brick home in the town.

Article about Levi M. Jones and the mail contract.  (Click to enlarge)

Article about Levi M. Jones and the mail contract. (Click to enlarge)

In 1822, Levi received the first contract to carry mail from Centerville to Indianapolis.  His son (my great grandmother’s great granduncle) Lewis was the carrier, and he would make the sixty-five mile trip without stopping.  Levi was not only a man of much business enterprise, but of generosity and confidence in his fellow man.  He died in Centerville, an honored and respected man, on October 5, 1823.

Decades later, my great grandmother, Esther (Crowe) Semler, was born in Lynn, Indiana and married and settled in Richmond, where I was eventually born.  Although our family moved (following the path of the much-disputed county courthouse) from Centerville to Richmond, we still have much to celebrate on this 200th birthday of Centerville.

— — —

To read more about the county courthouse dispute, see the recent book by Carolyn LeFever, Wayne County Indiana: The Battles for the Courthouse.

To see more about the Centerville Bicentennial Celebration, see the Promote Centerville website.

To learn more about Oliver P. Morton, begin with his wikipedia entry.

Posted in Boggs family, Crowe family, Jones family | Tagged , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Kissing Cousins

My parents, Mark and Judy Harris, on their wedding day.

My parents, Mark and Judy Harris, on their wedding day.

When my parents were moving toward marriage in the late 1960s, my grandfather became concerned that they might be related.  It was a reasonable concern.  Both my parents’ families had lived in the same small town of Richmond, Indiana for over a hundred and thirty years.  And, most suspiciously in my grandfather’s eyes, my father’s great grandparents and my mother’s great grandparents were buried no further than 50 feet from each other in little Ridge Cemetery on the east side of Richmond.

I can happily report that after over 25 years of genealogical research I have found not even one common ancestor in my mother’s and father’s family trees.  The odds that two people from a small town in Indiana–and both with family trees full of Quakers–aren’t related are small indeed.  But somehow my parents dodged the bullet.

Julia and me on our wedding day.

Julia and me on our wedding day. June 22, 1996. Richmond, Indiana.

When my wife Julia and I were moving toward marriage in the mid 1990s, I don’t remember thinking much about the two of us being related.  Julia’s paternal grandparents came over from Greece in the 1920s, taking fifty percent of her ancestors out of the running to be related to mine.  Julia had grown up in California and her mother’s family lived in Colorado.  They had no connections with the small Hoosier town where my parents and their families had been for so long–at least as far as I knew.

Over the years, as I found free time to pursue my family history hobby, I learned more and more about my own family and Julia’s.  I was shocked to find out that Julia’s mom’s family had actually spent some time in Richmond in the mid 1800s.  Buried in the past of Julia’s mom’s family were Quaker ancestors–people who were close neighbors and friends of the many Quakers who filled my parents’ family trees.

Levi Coffin (1798-1877), famous Underground Railroad conductor and Julia's distant cousin.

Levi Coffin (1798-1877), famous Underground Railroad conductor and Julia’s distant cousin.

With a little digging and the help of, I eventually found our common ancestor.  James Wright and his wife Mary were Quakers from Chester County, Pennsylvania who lived in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries.  They left Pennsylvania in the early 1700s, like many other Quakers, and moved to Virginia.  From there, their descendants would eventually follow the common Quaker migration path to the Carolinas and then to the slave-free states of the Northwest Territory–primarily Indiana.  Along the way, Quaker sons and daughters married their neighbors and distant cousins leaving a web of relationships and wonderfully copious records keeping track of it all.

In this particular branch of our family trees, my wife and I come from strongly anti-slavery roots.  James Wright’s great granddaughter married into the Coffin family, making my wife a distant cousin of Levi Coffin, a famous conductor on the Underground Railroad who reputedly helped 2,000 to 3,000 slaves to freedom in the years before the Civil War.

Allen Jay 1831-1910

Allen Jay (1831-1910), who as an eleven-year-old boy helped a runaway slave to freedom. A distant cousin of mine.

James Wright’s fourth-great grandson married into the Jay family, making me a distant cousin of Allen Jay, whose family helped many runaway slaves find their freedom.  When he was eleven years old, Allen himself played a key role in helping a slave to freedom, driving the man from one stop to the next on the Underground Railroad.

It is a little strange to think of my wife as also my cousin (and just to be clear, we’re 9th cousins, only slightly more closely related than Barack Obama and Dick Cheney).  But I am very proud that our shared heritage is full of men and women who took on slavery as a moral evil and committed their lives and their livelihoods to making a difference by helping slaves find freedom–one person at a time.  This common branch in our family trees provides a wonderful legacy for our two sons.

— — —

To learn more about Levi Coffin see his wikipedia page.  See also a recent article about his home, a national historical site.

For more information about Allen Jay and other relatives of mine involved in the Underground Railroad, see my previous blog post Underground.

My grandfather’s suspicions about my parents’ potentially intertwined ancestry may have fueled his interest in genealogy.  It was his interest that ultimately fueled mine.  To read more about our relationship, see my previous blog post My Grandfather, Genealogy and Me.

Posted in Jay family, Underground Railroad, Wayne County Indiana | Tagged , , , , , | 3 Comments


Chicago in 1930 (photo from, click for more details).

Chicago in 1930 (photo from, click image for more details).

You don’t have to do genealogy very long before you run into one of the genealogist’s greatest bugaboos–an inconsistency.

Records from the distant past are notorious for being wrong.  People made mistakes as they recorded a name or a date or a location, and in that split-second lapse they create a huge problem for future historians.  Their momentary mistake hides forever the true fact and propagates a false one.

I’m not sure which is worse:  to find only one record substantiating a fact (in which case we have to trust the fact-recorder) or to find multiple records that don’t line up (in which case we have to figure out which fact-recorder to trust).

My most recent struggle with inconsistent records of the past involves my great-grandfather’s cousins, Marie and Percy Shaw, who lived in Chicago in the early 1900s.

Marie and Percy were brother and sister.  They lived together with their parents all the way up until their mother’s death (their father had died earlier).  Then, just a few months after their mother’s death in 1929, they both died.

Marie, who was 47, died of a brain tumor at Swedish Covenant Hospital in Chicago on October 22, 1930 according to her death certificate.  Percy, who was 45, died of a carcinoma of the sinuses at the Cook County Institution’s Infirmary in Bremen Township (just south of Chicago) on October 21, 1930 according to his death certificate.

Their joint funeral was held in Chicago on the afternoon of October 24, 1930 according to the Chicago Daily Tribune.

The oddity of their dying a day apart of apparently unrelated diseases seemed striking to me.  I did a little more digging and found the cemetery records for their burial in a family plot in Cincinnati, Ohio on October 27, 1930 at 10:30am.  What I found there confused me further.

percyThe cemetery records indicate that both Percy and Marie died of an auto accident on October 22, 1930.  Their death by auto accident would explain why they died one day apart.  However, it still leaves many questions:

  • Why do their death certificates list other causes of death and not mention the car accident?
  • Why does Percy’s death certificate and the newspaper say he died on October 21?
  • Why did Percy die at an institution for the poor and mentally ill while Marie died miles away (and closer to their home) in a private hospital?
  • Who arranged for their funeral and the final disposition of their earthly goods (their parents had died as had their mother’s parents, in whose family plot they were buried)?

marieAuto accidents were a common occurrence in Chicago in 1930.  It was also the period of speakeasies, mobsters and a very dark nightlife in Chicago.

I would love to know more about these cousins and what their lives were like in 1920s Chicago.  And, of course, I’d love to know how exactly they died a day apart in 1930.

If anyone has any suggestions on where I might look or who I might ask to find out more information about this piece of my family history, I’m open to ideas.  You can email me at kevhar72 @ or leave a comment on this post.


— — —

To read my previous post about Percy and Marie Shaw, with a few more details about their lives, see A startling coincidence or something else.

To read about the Cook County Institution where Percy died see Oak Forest Hospital of Cook County and Cook County almshouses.

To read about Swedish Covenant Hospital where Marie died see Swedish Covenant Hospital.

Posted in Shaw family | Tagged , , , , , | 3 Comments

5 Tips to Boost a Genealogy Blog

By:  Sarah Brooks

OK. You’ve got a genealogy blog. Either you’ve been at it for a while or just started blogging, but either way you enjoy what you’re doing. You love personal stories, family history, research, documentation, learning of communities and how they evolve, or a combination of these things. You spend some time thinking about your blog, writing, and editing your blog daily or weekly.

If you are like many of the other bloggers in this field, though, the only thing you might need help with is gaining followers. This is something that many genealogy bloggers struggle with, but it is possible to get engaged, returning readers that want to hear what you’ve got to say. Consider these steps to increase traffic to your blog.

Create Strong Content

The best way to draw people in to your blog is to create strong content. While you can do anything and everything under the sun to get your blog on as many screens as possible, your readers won’t read—or at least stay engaged—unless the content is strong. When you talk about a specific topic, get quotes from professionals on the subject or other authoritative voices involved with the topic to add to your blog. Perhaps you can get some information on a specific community from a local historian or a quote from the family member you are talking about in your post.

You might also be able to pull in some court documents, immigration papers, or other relevant sources to quote from. Primary source material, as well as great secondary sources, makes for excellent content builders. Finally, fine tune your strong content by making sure your grammar and spelling are correct.

Make Your Blog More Multimedia-Based

In addition to making sure your writing is filled with strong content, compliment that content with good videos, pictures, charts, images of key documents and anything else that can make the blog more multimedia—in short, studies have shown that multimedia makes for stronger, more interesting blogs. And remember, genealogy—and the history associated with it—is a very multi-faceted, multi-layered study that crosses communities, continents, and cultures—take advantage of that with your blog and various media. As a way to connect back to your content, try linking to other relevant sites as well—people want to know where to look next to keep the conversation going.

Get a Strong Focus to Your Blog

It’s easy to take the topic of genealogy and just run with it; after all, there really are so many interesting and worthwhile avenues to pursue. But to have a successful blog, you should ask yourself what it is that you have to say with your blog, what it is that you have to say that will add to the genealogy conversation. In other words, what will your topics be and where will your focus lie?

If your blog doesn’t have a focal point within the genealogy spectrum, consider taking one. Are you more interested in personal family history, how to conduct family or community research, documentation methods, or another specific area? If you can, take a definite, more “limited” focus with your blog. You might be able to branch out after you’ve been blogging for a minute, but start with a focus and get readers from there.

Use Social Media to Your Benefit

After you’ve written your blog, post a link to or an enticing quote from your blog on your Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, or any other relevant social media site where you might have friends, family, and other contacts. Comment on other genealogy blogs to interact with their authors—they can come to your blog in return. Finally, you might also consider starting an email newsletter that people can sign up for or simply creating a link to the article in your email signature. In other words, reach people in the places they are with your blog. In time, then, with strong content, you can get them to come to you.

Join Genealogy Groups

There are several excellent genealogy groups on Facebook, LinkedIn,, or other sites that you can really benefit from. You might also find some great groups that meet in person in your community or larger metro area that you can join. Not only will you have a platform to share your blog with these groups, you can also get expert opinions, different viewpoints, or even valuable proofreaders that can help you with your blog.

Author Bio:

This is a guest post by Sarah Brooks from She is a Houston based freelance writer and blogger. Questions and comments can be sent to brooks.sarah23 @

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment