The 1920 household of Abe and Mary Ella (Fendricks) Copeland in Hardin County, Tennessee indicates four children: Myrtle, O.D., Robie, and Jo K[ate]. Mary Ella was the sister of my great-grandmother Effie Fendricks.
The Problem and A Story
I have never been able to find the daughter named “O.D. Copeland” in anything other than census records, and nothing after 1920. I have never found a marriage or a death certificate. I’m sure we all have these ancestors that seem to disappear into thin air.
A few weeks ago, I asked my mother about O.D. She told me that Aunt Myrtle (O.D.’s sister) had often spoke of her. I actually knew Myrtle, since she lived to be in her late 90s.
My mother said that Myrtle would often lament about how her sister O.D. “was murdered by a white man” with whom she was in a relationship. As is common with oral history, there were no more details.
That was the first time I ever heard that story. Remember that story; I’ll come back to it shortly.
Minnie and Her Notes
I have a collateral ancestor named Minnie Holt who also lived in Hardin County, Tennessee, in a nearby community. Minnie worked for over 30 years as a teacher. She unfortunately had an accident that left her in a wheelchair for the last several decades of her life.
In spite of that, she did something amazing.
Minnie decided to keep notes about the various “goings-on” in the small community where she lived. She wrote down births, deaths, marriages and other events. Whole families were documented: she carefully named the husband and wife and each of their children.
She did not limit the notes to her own biological family, but wrote about almost anyone she knew. Illnesses, divorces, people’s houses burning down, dogs dying, etc., all were worthy topics to Minnie.
Don’t you love her already?
Minnie’s notes were passed down to her daughter Nella, and Nella passed them down to a niece, who generously shared them with me. When I first saw these notes as a new researcher, I didn’t know most of the people.
However, as I started to recreate the community over the years, I started to recognize more of the names. Her notes are a dream source for any genealogist.
Minnie was a genealogist in her heart, she just didn’t know it at the time. She knew that information was meaningful and that it should be recorded.
Minnie’s notes have proven amazingly accurate. She provided death dates that enabled me to order death certificates. Sometimes, she noted the maiden name of the wives.
She often wrote where people were buried, and if they died in another city–she recorded that too.
She also noted when people were killed. Look at this entry:
Gene Hughes, Lottie Casey’s boy, was killed in Saltillo on Saturday night March 16, 1957 by John White’s boys of Decaturville. Probably by Cecil White.
I decided to check Newspapers.com, and found this:
Cousin Minnie was right.
Now, let’s get back to my original cold case: the whereabouts of O.D. Copeland. While looking for something else entirely, I happened to peruse Minnie’s notes in the same week I had this talk with my mother about O.D.
And I noticed this in Minnie’s notes, which I can tell you, I have read many, many times before:
O.D. (Coplin) Jones was killed in Savannah March 9, 1961 by Ed Easly, a white man
WOW! Was this the O.D. Copeland that I could never find? The spelling of Copeland differed, but I furiously put the new details in a newspaper database and discovered this (dated March 11, 1961):
Yes. It’s her. And true to form, Minnie was amazingly accurate about details, down to the man’s name!
The article is pretty vague about the reason for the fight, so the oral history that the two had a relationship is certainly plausible.
For future research, I’d like to see if the man was ever charged or ever served time for her death. I suspect not.
Now that I knew her date of death, I was able to order (and have received) her death certificate.
I’ve discussed finding murders in the family in a previous post, which are always jolting to discover. When I read this, a big part of me felt sadness for O.D., dying in her thirties the way she did. Her sister Myrtle never forgot her, which means she was loved.
Experiences like this one, which happen over and over again, convince me that the ancestors are pointing the way.
What are the chances that I would get that story from my mother and a day or two later, read Minnie’s notes which I had not read in years?
Thank you, Cousin Minnie, for all your diligent notes. They have been a roadmap like no other.
I am an engineer by day, but my true passion lies in genealogy. I have been a researcher, writer, lecturer and teacher for over twenty years. This blog is where I share family history methods, resources, tips and advice, with an emphasis on slave research, slavery and its aftermath. This lifelong quest has helped me to better know my family’s past. I’ve taken back– reclaimed– some of that lost memory, especially that of my enslaved ancestors. I hope you’ll sign up to receive my posts—if you do, you’ll get a free PDF with some of my favorite tips! And please do share posts that interest you.
I really enjoyed this post. So many of us have similar stories that were passed down through the family. Your post gives us hope that we too can find documentation of what happened and finally tell their stories.
Yes! This is the kind of stuff that makes researching our families not just exciting, but worthy, and fulfilling deep down into our bones. And it pays dividends, since when we write these stories, our families usually get excited themselves, even if they hadn’t expected to.
Thanks for writing Darren!
Wow! Minnie’s notes sound amazing! It reminds me of my husband’s great great grandmother’s scrapbook. My husband’s grandmother had it, and gave it to me 20 years ago. Unlike your Minnie’s notes, this scrapbook was full of newspaper clippings. I didn’t recognize most of the names from the early 1900s, but I started making a list of all the names and notes of any connections to others. Flash forward 20 years later, and I figured out how the great great grandmother connected to most of the local people that were mentioned (there were some celebrities and national news stories that were not connected). I would have loved it if she had made notes along with the clippings!
Wow! That scrapbook sounds like such a gift, and also a great puzzle to solve. People like that were really genealogists, even if they weren’t called that. They had a sense that saving information was important. I like to think we are following in their footsteps! Thanks for sharing Jen.
Thanks for this wonderful story solving for the death of a greataunt. You are persistent andso was this feeble old school teacher. I have a similarrecorderin my family from Maryland and Ohio. I would love to hear you speak in MD about your findings.
Thank you so much for your compliment. This was an exciting find for me, because Cousin Minnie’s notes are the gift that keeps on giving. I hope you can come see me speak this Saturday, at the Maryland Genealogical Society’s Fall Seminar. If you are there, come up and say hi.
Wow, that is amazing! I’m so inspired by your posts as I am only just starting this journey of discovery! Unfortunately, my Grandmother who passed in March 2019 was the last relative of her generation that I could get information from. I started this journey because of her and used to love sharing what information I had found with her.
I had the same experience. My grandmother died about a year after I started my journey, and she loved hearing about it. But now I like to think she is up there, helping me solve these mysteries, sending me clues! You will find this experience so very soul-satisfying, so keep moving forward, and thank you for writing. I’m glad you find the posts helpful.