Thursday, December 11, 2014

#52Ancestors (49) Brick Wall Alert! Asa Spencer of Vermont

Asa SPENCER is a the father of Wright SPENCER of my last post. He is also my most distant SPENCER to date, and by definition, my brick wall.

He's probably more of a brick wall that I created, due to lack of time, travel budget, and familiarity with possible New England records in which to search.

The basics:

  • Asa SPENCER
  • born about 1783 in Rhode Island
  • married Sarah CALKINS about 1807 in Vermont
  • died 4 Mar 1859 in New York

Once I located his son Wright and analyzed the families and records regarding the Town of Sheldon and Varysburg, Wyoming, New York, I found Asa SPENCER - pretty much in the graveyard. He is buried with his wife Sarah CALKINS in Varysburg Cemetery:


He died in 1859. On the 1850 census he was listed as being born in Rhode Island. His children were pretty consistent in naming Rhode Island as their father's birthplace on later censuses, but sometimes they said Vermont. Still a good clue!

Asa appeared on the 1830 and 1840 censuses in Town of Sheldon. Tracing him backwards and knowing that my ancestor Wright was born in Shaftsbury, Bennington, Vermont, I found Asa there in 1810 and 1820.

After that, it gets foggy. Asa and Sarah's first known child was born in 1808. So their marriage was likely around 1805-1807. And Sarah's family came from up the road in Arlington, Bennington, Vermont. There are several SPENCER's in both Arlington and Shaftsbury, but from my (mostly) online wandering, I cannot locate an appropriate family.

In 1800, Asa would have only been about 17 or 18, not married and very unlikely a head of household.

Some of the other resources I have checked are Arnold's Vital Records of Rhode Island, 1636-1850 and writing to the Bennington Museum. Nuttin'.

I do have this though:


I can console myself knowing what my ancestor born in 1783 looks like even if I don't know his family!

Any ideas on searching in 1800ish Vermont? Or migration patterns from Rhode Island to Vermont? Or are you my SPENCER cousin? Let me know!


© 2014 Sally Knudsen

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

#52Ancestors (48) Wright Spencer - My Ancestral Star!

This #52Ancestors post is all about Wright SPENCER, my great-great-great-grandfather on my maternal side. He is the ancestor that started me on this crazy all-consuming pastime called genealogy.

Wright! Wright! My genealogical light!

Too hokey? Probably.

Wright SPENCER is the first ancestor I discovered that my family didn't know. My grandfather remembered hearing about his own grandfather, Asa SPENCER. But Wright was an intriguing new mystery SPENCER. We had a little leather pouch handed down with some old receipts and slips of paper. One had dates, which turned out be be Wright's life dates, presumably for his gravestone.

leather farm wallet

So...how do I begin researching and finding out who was Wright SPENCER? The likely place to begin was Michigan, since that's where my mother, grandfather and great-grandfather were all born. I learned how to order and use microfilms. Waiting for that spool to arrive just to find a census record was excruciating! But I succeeding in finding Wright with all the correct family names we knew. That's it - I was hooked!

Wright was born in Shaftsbury, Bennington, Vermont on 22 Jan 1811. He was the second child born to Asa SPENCER and Sarah CALKINS. About 1822, the SPENCER family moved west to Town of Sheldon in what was first Genesee County, New York (and later became Wyoming County). They owned farmland just west of the village of Varysburg. Eventually, Wright, his older brother Waterman and their father Asa all owned adjacent farms.

Wright married a local woman, Sarah 'Sally' JOSLIN in 1841. Land records show they purchased acreage in Ingham County, Michigan early in their marriage, but they never moved onto it. They had eight children, all in Sheldon, of which seven reached adulthood. Byron, the son who died, is buried in Varysburg Cemetery with his grandparents.

Wright and Sally and their children (Elizabeth, Benjamin, Asa, Edward, Cordelia, Washington and Addie) permanently moved to Locke Township, Ingham County, Michigan about 1868. How he traveled, I am not certain, but I know he used this trunk:


Wright Spencer's steamer trunk, c 1860, in my living room :)

They prospered in Locke, owning up to 100 acres of mostly farmland. When Wright became too old, Asa managed the farm. Their other children married and moved to various parts of Michigan. Sally died in 1895 and Wright followed in 1899. His death certificate states his cause of death was "softening of the brain" which was likely dementia or other effects of old age. He was a pioneer farmer who lived in three states and made it to 88 years of age.

When I lived in Michigan, I had the chance to meet with a cousin of my grandfather who I discovered was a keeper of photographs. I shared all my excitement over the ancestors I found, and she helped fill in stories and added some family photos. Then finally she had the big winner: a photograph of Wright. 

I shed tears. Like a baby. 

I never expected to see a photo of him. As we discussed Wright and Sally, I think she was measuring my enthusiasm. When our day was over, she hauled a large box from her car and said that I could have it if I liked. It was a 2' x 3' wooden framed charcoal sketch of the same photo made over 100 years ago. It hangs over my genealogy workspace to this day. Thank you, Charlene!

Wright Spencer with grandson, c 1896


Wright was my first real genealogy discovery and I am so happy he watches over me still.


© 2014 Sally Knudsen

Friday, December 5, 2014

#52Ancestors (47) Asa Spencer - A Census Baby!

This #52Ancestors entry is a maternal great-great-grandfather, Asa Wyman SPENCER.

Asa was named for his paternal grandfather Asa SPENCER and his maternal grandmother Betsey WYMAN. He also has a genealogically interesting fact: he was born on 1 Jun 1850 - census day! Fortunately for my recordkeeping, the census in his town was taken on 16 July and Asa was listed as age one. Good enough for me!

Asa was born in the Town of Sheldon, Wyoming County, New York, which is about 40 miles east of Buffalo. His parents were Wright SPENCER and Sarah 'Sally' JOSLYN or JOSLIN. He was the third of eight children.

The SPENCER's lived in Sheldon until about 1868 when they moved west to Ingham County, Michigan. Many families from Wyoming County settled near each other in Ingham County. Asa was working as a farm hand in 1870 at a neighboring farm. By 1880, he was in charge of most of the daily farming of the family farm, to the point where his aging father deeded most of his 90 acres to Asa.

Asa married May Genevieve COUNTRYMAN in 1883. Asa and May were 14 years apart in age, perhaps a lot by today's standards, but not so odd then when a thriving bachelor farmer needed to take a wife. They had six children, five of whom reached adulthood: Beulah (died in infancy), Roy, Edward, Bessie, Burr, and Florence.

Asa, May and son Roy, c 1887

In addition to farming, Asa served his community as the Locke Township clerk in the early 1880's. He appeared to be a well-respected local man, so it came as a great shock to his family and his community when, in 1911, he had surgery for a ruptured appendix and died of complications shortly after. He was only 60 years old.

SeekingMichigan.org: link to original

Asa is buried with May in the large SPENCER family plot in Rowley Cemetery in Locke Township.



© 2014 Sally Knudsen

Thursday, December 4, 2014

#52Ancestors (46) Edward J. Spencer of Michigan

After a real-life absence (kids, holidays, kids, etc), I am back on the #52Ancestors blogging beat! And just in time - I have reached my SPENCER family, which were my first real searches and my most hopeful break-down-a-brick-wall family.

In October, I introduced my grandfather Dallas Frederick SPENCER. Today it is his father's turn for an introduction.

My great-grandfather was Edward J. SPENCER. Like his son Dallas, he was also born on the SPENCER family farm in Locke Township, Ingham County, Michigan. Ed, as he was commonly known, was born on 10 Jun 1888 to Asa SPENCER and May Genevieve COUNTRYMAN.

Ed and his siblings, and later his own family, lived a typical farm life in Michigan. The SPENCER family ran the farm until just after Ed's father died suddenly in 1911. His mother May, Ed, his wife and children and some siblings moved in to Lansing so the family could find better work in the booming automotive industry in Lansing. Not only were Detroit, Flint and Lansing filled with southerners coming north for work, they were also the destination for rural families like mine.

Ed married a local Locke girl who was his down-the-road neighbor, Lulu Gertrude FREDERICK. They married in 1913 and had two sons right away, and two more children after the move to Lansing.

Gertrude and Ed wedding photo, 1913

And then the unthinkable happened: Gertrude died of pneumonia in 1925. At least by now, Ed and his children were already under the multigenerational roof of his mother for I'm sure both financial and emotional support.

1930 US Federal census: Lansing, Ward 5, Ingham, Michigan

Ed continued working in automotive industries. The SPENCER family was always pretty close, until my branch moved away to Illinois. Ed would visit occasionally and we would go to Michigan, especially for my summer birthday. 

My great-grandfather passed away at age 88 on 9 May 1976. He is buried with Gertrude and many of his SPENCER relations in Rowley Cemetery in Locke Township.


Edward's page in my database

© 2014 Sally Knudsen

Thursday, November 13, 2014

#52Ancestors (45) SMITH: Everybody's Got One

Everyone has a SMITH in their tree, right?

Some SMITH's you have lots of information on and others, well, not so much. My #52Ancestor falls into the 'not so much' category.

Joannah SMITH is a maternal great-great-great-grandmother. Her given name is spelled various ways: Joanna, Johanna, Johannah.

I know more about her from the end of her life going backward, so we will start at the end.

Joannah died 12 July 1885 in Locke Township, Ingham County, Michigan at about age 60. She is buried in Rowley Cemetery next to her husband Elias C. MAXSON.



Joannah was the mother of seven daughters: Susannah, Hannah, Mary Jane, Laura, Emeline, Alice and Minerva.

The MAXSON's were enumerated on the following censuses:
  • 1880: Locke Township, Ingham, Michigan
  • 1870: Locke Township, Ingham, Michigan
  • 1860: Locke Township, Ingham, Michigan
  • 1850: Marion Township, Livingston, Michigan

Their second daughter Hannah was born in Marion Township in 1849, and their oldest daughter Susannah was born in 1845 in New York. Like many other families in Ingham County, Michigan, the MAXSON's migrated westward from New York. Elias MAXSON was born in Wyoming County, New York, so it is pretty likely that they were married there as well.

There were a few SMITH families in the same part of Wyoming County as the MAXSON's. But with their marriage before 1850, there was no opportunity for Joannah to be listed individually on a census. And attempting to guess which family she may be from is just speculation.

Some day, though, there will be that elusive record that points me to Joannah's family.

For now, I'm glad I only have one SMITH line of descent.


© 2014 Sally Knudsen


Monday, November 3, 2014

The Most Amazing Slave Story You've Never Heard

Since I have been researching and blogging about my own family, I find myself a little more in tune to history: local, regional, international. Sometimes you learn about someone or something and the story never leaves you. This is my small attempt at spreading the amazing true life story of "Free Frank."

And it happened completely by chance.

what is left of New Philadelphia

My first encounter with Free Frank was through a 2008 PBS Time Team America television program. It was mostly an archaeological show with a little history for background. The archaeological dig was taking place in rural western Illinois, and I thought, hmm, some day I'd like to check that out.

Friday was that day.

We traveled to the Mississippi River town of Quincy for our son's cross country meet (long trip, long story, good ending!). Along the desolate stretch of Interstate 72, west of Springfield, was this sign:


We had a little daylight left and there was no way I was not stopping. Only a few miles off the interstate were the signs directing us to New Philadelphia, a town that no longer is, but that has an amazing history.

Frank was born in 1777 in South Carolina to an African-born slave. His master, George McWhorter, moved to the new frontier of Kentucky. Frank "married" Lucy, a slave from a nearby farm. Frank was industrious, and in addition to his forced labor, hired himself out (with part of his pay going to George) to other farms. In the wilds of Kentucky during the War of 1812, he was also able to learn to produce saltpeter, the main ingredient in gunpowder.

In 1817, he used his saved money to purchase Lucy's freedom. And then he purchased his own. And then he purchased the freedom of three of his slave-born children. And their spouses. And his grandchildren. All told, he earned and spent about $14,000 to secure freedom for his family (about $250,000 in today's money!).

Frank also started investing in farmland of his own, buying small parcels in Pike County, Illinois. By 1830, he was dangerously traveling back and forth between slave Kentucky and free Illinois, preparing the land for settlement.

Not only did Frank purchase land, he was well-versed in many aspects of property ownership. He and Lucy successfully defended themselves in a civil suit, and he was able to purchase the Illinois land, when every effort to dissuade black property ownership was employed by authorities.

New Philadelphia was officially platted in 1836 - the first town platted by a free black man in the United States

By 1839, Frank owned 800 acres in Hadley Township, all settled by his family and other free blacks. It was likely a stop on the Underground Railroad. By the 1880's, the town faded away as railroads and other improvements were made elsewhere.

Frank, Lucy, and family
1850 US census: Township Five, Pike County, Illinois

Frank died in 1854. I truly wanted to visit the family cemetery, but it is on private property and accessible only by a hike through the brush.

Today, New Philadelphia is merely a rolling farm field of memories. But the perseverance of Free Frank should live forever. It was truly an honor to stand where he stood.




Illinois River, about 10 miles away

rolling farmland near New Philadelphia

Here are some links about Free Frank and New Philadelphia:





History: don't let it pass you by.

© 2014 Sally Knudsen