My great-grandfather John Smith was born in Georgia and migrated to Jacksonville, Florida sometime around 1900. His roots in Georgia continue to be one of my greatest brick walls. (Update, 2018: DNA uncovered his roots!)

I had a huge breakthrough on John’s wife’s family yesterday. This is an excellent case study in evaluating evidence.

Georgia Harris

John Smith married Georgia Harris on sometime before 1920. Because Georgia died at the young age of 45, for many years I knew almost nothing about her. I had some success earlier with Georgia’s roots that was a big part of this new discovery.

Georgia had two sets of children. She had one set with first husband Isaac Garner in Madison County, Florida. She had a second set of children with presumably her second husband John Smith in Duval County, Florida.

No one in my family knew about that first marriage. Oddly, the 1930 federal census and the 1935 Florida state census are the only censuses in which John and Georgia appear together as a family. Clearly, they were having children together before then.

Finding Matilda

Matilda had two daughters: Georgia and Ruth. Matilda migrated to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania with her daughter Ruth by 1920, as I detailed in an earlier post. 

In the 1910 Florida census, her surname was Davis. Matilda’s surname in the 1920 census in Philly is Garvin. I assumed Matilda died in Pennsylvania. My assumption is an important point to remember.

By 1930, Matilda’s daughter Ruth was dead and her son-in-law Nish Torrence remarried. This is the census tracking for Matilda Davis/Garvin:

Matilda Davis/Garvin, 1900-1920

In the 1940 census, I searched for other family members back in Jacksonville, Florida. In the household with Georgia’s son Cornelius Garner, I was surprised to find another woman named Matilda:

1940 Cornelius Garner

This woman Matilda Vickerson was 73 years old. Cornelius’ relationship to Matilda is Roomer. Who was this Matilda? My grandmother wrote in her family bible that Georgia’s mother was named Matilda VickersThis could be the same woman. I kept that idea in mind.

A City Directory Clue

In the 1930-1931 city directory Matilda Vickers lived in the house with her daughter Georgia. In the 1930 census Matilda Vickers lived with a woman named Katie Middleton:

City Directory 1930 Matilda Vickers

Before 1930, I found no evidence of Matilda Vickers living in Jacksonville. The tracker below is a recap of the evidence on Matilda Vickers visually:

Matilda Vickers, 1930s-1940

Too Many Matildas

Matilda Vickers died in Jacksonville in 1944. John Smith was the informant on her death certificate. The relationship between John and Matilda wasn’t provided.

I had one central question: I knew that Matilda Davis, mother of Georgia Harris, lived in 1920 with her daughter Ruth in Pennsylvania as Matilda Garvin. I could not explain the Garvin surname. Perhaps this was a census error? Furthermore, who was Matilda Vickers/Vickerson, who appeared in Jacksonville by the 1930s?

Were they all the same woman?

The ages of these various Matildas matched pretty consistently. That would also answer why John was the informant on Matilda’s death certificate (she was his mother-in-law). It would answer why I couldn’t find Matilda Vickers before 1930 in Jacksonville (she lived in Philadelphia with her other daughter Ruth).

But I couldn’t explain all the various surnames. Incredibly, with a little creative thinking, vital records finally explained it.

The Marriages

Matilda Davis married Frank Gowen in Jacksonville in 1916.  However, that name was a transcription error. His surname was actually Garvin. He died in Jacksonville on 12 May 1918, leaving his widow Matilda Garvin. That’s why Matilda appears in Philadelphia in the 1920 with that name.

While in Philadelphia, Matilda Garvin married Peter Vickers in 1920. Then he died in June 1925. Matilda Vickers then moved back to Jacksonville before 1930.

Additionally, Matilda had two marriages in different cities with men who died shortly afterward. What I now know is that:

Matilda Davis= Matilda Garvin=Matilda Vickers/Vickerson!

Keep in mind, I could only think this through by throwing out my assumption that Matilda Garvin died in Philadelphia.  Assumptions are fine, but always remember that you made them. Be ready to re-examine them in the light of new evidence.

This is one of the most gratifying and exciting genealogical finds I have had. Possibly the best part of this is I added a new ancestor to my tree. I got to meet my 4th great-grandmother, Lavinia “Viney” Nealy, Matilda’s mother as shown on her death certificate.


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