We all have those lines that seem to withstand all of our greatest efforts to uncover. My maternal g-grandfather Walter Springer’s line is the one for me. I know the names of his parents: Lou and George Springer. But I have only ever found Lou Springer, widowed, on the 1900 census.
That is an *awful* census to be the only clue one has. In 1880 and 1910, Lou disappeared into the ether. Born in Alabama, she and George could still be there in 1880–who knows. I never found George Springer on any census record. This was a case ripe for analysis.
A Small Clue Yields Fruit
The one lead my grandmother provided in interviews was the memory of her father’s half-sister Mary Neal. She remembered her coming to visit, that she looked “mixed” and had long, fine hair.
Mary Neal was the informant on her half-brother Walter’s death certificate in 1944,. Her address was in Lawrenceburg, Lawrence County, Tennessee. For 15 years, I have been unable to find her with any certainty. I did find a death certificate for a woman named Mary Neal (with Springer parents), but I couldn’t be sure it was her.
With the 1940 census release, I finally found a Mary Neal. She lived in Lawrence County, Tennessee, with husband Felix. A search for a marriage between a “Mary Springer” and Felix Neal came up short. Felix married a “Mary Lyles” in 1934:
I’ve posted before on the need to be mindful of women’s multiple marriages. So I searched for a Mary Springer who married a Lyles. No such marriage was found.
An Inaccurate Original Source
After spending long hours analyzing the evidence I had gathered, I came to a reasonable conclusion: Even though the record above says Mary Lyles, it is was mistaken. Her correct name was Mary Lowery.
This illustrates that even original sources are prone to error. People wrote down what they heard. In a county with several “Lyles” families, it is reasonable that the clerk may have thought that was Mary’s name. Especially when we account for regional accents.
How did I figure this out? I found a marriage record between Mary Springer and Thomas Lowry in Hardin County, a few counties over:
Mary and husband Thomas were enumerated in the next three census records, in Hardin and Wayne Counties:
The couple lived in Lawrence County when Thomas died:
In 1930, the newly widowed Mary “Lowry” lives near several African-American Springers:
It is at this point that Mary Lowery met and married Felix Neal. Turns out the Mary Neal death certificate I found long ago was in fact the correct Mary Neal. In that document, Mary’s daughter Pauline stated that her parents were Frazier and Lou Springer:
At all times, but especially when researching people who lived in different places over time, we have to be careful that we are proving a person’s identity and not just matching names. This Mary can be tied together through the records above in several ways. Her 1920 census in Wayne County reveals one daughter Pauline. Pauline is the informant on her mother’s death certificate above.
That death certificate identifies her as the same Mary who married Felix Neal. Mary first married in Hardin County. This was hardly surprising since it is the same county where her half-brother (my ancestor) married and lived. Mary Lowery’s 1910 Hardin County household reveals a Springer sister-in-law. Many of the people from this community in Lawrence County people were also buried at West Point Cemetery.
All of this hasn’t led me yet to Lou Springer’s pre-1900 origins. But this movement forward in the research feels like a leap. It’s also another lesson in the power of learning to analyze and make sense out of all the records we uncover. The records can be loaded with half-truths, secrets, mistakes and out and out falsehoods;)
I am hoping DNA will supply just the nudge I need in the right direction.
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.