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Name Discrepancy Unlocks Ancestral Doors
African-American Genealogical Research in Motion
by Melvin J. Collier

Minnie Davis Reed John Hector Davis Lucy Milam Davis
1908 - 1971 1870 - 1935 1846 - 1927
Maternal Grandmother Great-Grandfather Great-Great-Grandmother

     Since I was 19 years old, when I first walked into the Mississippi Department of Archives and History (MDAH), I've always felt that my ancestors had this peculiar "hold" on me. I have always sensed that they wanted their names to be called.  An African proverb states, "As long as you are remembered, you never die."  My ancestors wanted to live again by having their names spoken and the stories of their lives uncovered in order to make me a stronger person, as well as their descendants, giving me a sense of who I am and the knowledge of whose blood flows through my veins.  Nearly two decades later, that "hold" is still very strong today, and it won't let go.  Frankly, I don't want it to go.  While I was home in Mississippi for the holidays, that "hold" coerced me to get out of bed and head down to the MDAH. I had not planned to visit the Archives before I went back to Atlanta. However, my ancestors had other plans. They had something in store for me.

     I started researching my maternal grandmother's family back in 1993 while I was in college.  At the time, I was blessed to have a number of elderly family members alive who happily clarified and corroborated information I was unearthing in a plethora of records.  With relative ease, I was able to trace back to my maternal grandmother's paternal and maternal grandparents -- my great-great-grandparents. I was even able to go back to my great-great-great-grandparents, one named Margaret "Peggy" Milam.  Grandma Peggy was found in the 1870 and 1880 censuses living near Senatobia, Mississippi (present-day Tate County), my Mom's hometown.  In 1870, her age was reported as 35, and ten years later in 1880, her age was reported as 54.  Age discrepancies were common since many enslaved African Americans did not know their own birthdates due to the unjustly laws of the land. I knew Grandma Peggy had to have been older than 35 in 1870, since my great-great-grandmother "Mama Lucy," her oldest daughter, was around 24 in 1870.  Nevertheless, I had placed Grandma Peggy's time of birth sometime between 1826 - 1830. She was born somewhere in Tennessee and ended up in northern Mississippi by 1846.  Although she was not remembered by my elderly relatives, they knew that "Mama Lucy" had "come off the old Milam place" in Tate County. Further research revealed that the "old Milam place" was the farm of Joseph Randolph Milam, who had settled in northern Mississippi from Madison County, Alabama around 1835.  By 1860, Joseph amassed many acres of land and 30 enslaved African Americans.  "Mama Lucy", her father Grandpa Wade, her mother Grandma Peggy, and her younger siblings were among that number.

     One of many records that had been instrumental in tracing back another generation was death certificates.  Death certificates provide the father's name, the mother's maiden name, birthplaces, and other great information.  I had decided that I wanted to know more about Grandma Peggy's origins. Where in Tennessee did she come from?  Under what circumstances during slavery was she brought down to northern Mississippi?  Was she separated from her own parents and siblings?  Who were they?  The questions were mounting, and I wanted answers.  I'd deduced that if I'm able to figure out what her maiden name was considered to be, then it may open up doors.  Luckily, I located three of her children's death certificates.  All of them reported something differently. It left me bewildered. 

Death Certificate No. 1
Her son, Hugh Lewers, who died in
Memphis, Tennessee in 1938

Name of Father: George Lewers
Maiden Name of Mother:

Death Certificate No. 2
Her son, Will Milam, who died in
Tate County, Mississippi in 1950

Name of Father: Wade Milam
Maiden Name of Mother:

Death Certificate No. 3
Her daughter, Lucy Milam Davis (my great-great-grandmother), who died in
Tate County, Mississippi in 1927

NName of Father: Wade Milam
Maiden Name of Mother:

     One death record reported that Grandma Peggy's maiden name was WARREN.  The second one reported that her maiden name was BRISCOE.  The third one did not report her maiden name.  Apparently, my great-grandfather's brother, Uncle Tom Davis, did not know Grandma Peggy's maiden name.  Interestingly, a fourth death certificate was found, and it was of Grandma Peggy's son, Hence Milam, who died in Memphis, Tennessee in 1937.  The father's name was reported as Wade Milam, and the mother's maiden name was reported as "Peggie ------".  Like Uncle Tom Davis, Hence Milam's son, Roy Milam, did not know Grandma Peggy's maiden name.

     Why did one think that Grandma Peggy's maiden name was Warren, and why did someone else think that her maiden name was Briscoe?  I strongly felt that there had to be a reason why those two surnames were recalled by Margaret Quick (Uncle Hugh Lewers' daughter) and Ruthine Milam (Uncle Will Milam's wife).  How on earth would I be able to piece together this difficult puzzle? 

     I decided to look for any slave-owners in Tate and Panola County with the Warren and Briscoe surnames. None were found.  Since the "old Milam place" was just eight miles from the Marshall County line, I researched the censuses for that county and discovered that there were white Warrens and white Briscoes there.  Even more interesting, the white Briscoes that lived there were Notley Warren Briscoe and his brother, James Warren Briscoe.  The Briscoe brothers had settled in Marshall County around 1840 from Maury County, Tennessee.  This was indeed an eye-opener, as Grandma Peggy was born in Tennessee circa 1826 - 1830.  Perhaps, they brought Grandma Peggy down to Mississippi with them?  Also, other research findings revealed that Joseph R. Milam conducted a lot of business in Marshall County, where his parents and brothers resided.  Perhaps, he went to Marshall County to acquire Black labor for his Tate County farm?   Did he purchase Grandma Peggy from one of the Briscoe brothers?  That possibility seemed very real, considering the Warren and Briscoe name confusion.  Again, I asked the question -- How on earth would I be able to piece together this difficult puzzle?

     The aforementioned research discoveries were all uncovered prior to 2003.  Now, seven years had passed, and I hadn't attempted to find the missing pieces of the family history puzzle.  I had placed it on the back-burner, and my ancestors were not happy.  On the morning of Thursday, December 30, 2010, at my parents' home in Canton, I awoke to the sound of my nephew Jordan talking on the telephone with his buddy, Josiah.  As I comfortably laid in the bed thinking about my plans for the day, I got this sudden urge to visit the MDAH to conduct some research.  Grandma Peggy's mystery popped in my mind.  She was nudging at me, so I decided to answer her call.  I suddenly got dressed and made the 25-minute drive down Interstate 55 to Jackson.  My goal was to research the microfilmed deed records (bills of sale, deeds of gift, deeds of trust, etc.) for Marshall County. 

     Many people who research their histories know exactly what I mean when I say that an ancestor was "nudging at me."  We can't explain the feeling in specific details.  Just take our word for it.  Well, Grandma Peggy's nudge yielded an amazing find in the Marshall County deed records.  On August 14, 1839, Edward Warren, Jr. deeded six slaves to his second cousin, James Warren Briscoe.  It was apparent from the deed that Edward had accumulated a lot of debt, and his property (slaves) were his means of settling some of his debt.  Edward had recently settled in Marshall County from the Tennessee hills of Williamson County, bringing his slaves with him.  The deed state the following:

. . . the party of the first part (Edward Warren) do hereby bargain sell and confirm to the party of the second part (James W. Briscoe) all the following described property to wit: six negroes viz; Adam aged about 55 years, Sarah aged about 40 years, Jane aged about 14 years, MARGARET aged about 10 years, Calidonia aged about 8 years, Random aged about 23 years and one half of the growing crop of cotton in cultivation by the party of the first party, also three heads of horses, 6 head of cattle, fifty head of sheep, 46 hogs, also all one bureau with all the household and kitchen furniture to have and to hold all the before mentioned property . . .

     I was not able to locate the slave purchase transaction between Joseph R. Milam and James W. Briscoe, but Grandma Peggy (Margaret) was enslaved on Joseph Milam's farm by 1846, the year she gave birth to my great-great-grandmother "Mama Lucy," who was fathered by another Milam slave, Wade.  That document would be crucial to this research.  However, what also caught my eye about this finding was the naming pattern.  The six slaves named in the deed most likely represents a family, and Edward Warren's probate record (he died three years later in 1842) verified that Adam and Sarah were indeed husband and wife.  Jane, Margaret, Calidonia, and Random were most probably their children.  Remarkably, Grandma Peggy left behind clues by naming one of her daughters "Sarah" (Sarah Milam Mabry), and the unique name "Caledonia" was given to at least two of her granddaughters.  As I sat and gazed at the Warren-Briscoe deed, reality sunk in -- I HAD FINALLY SOLVED THE MYSTERY!  Grandma Peggy was pleased.

My Research Articles
Tips to Uncover Your Family's Story 
Name Discrepancy Unlocks Ancestral Doors

Playing the Name Game
Boom! The Brick Wall Came Crumbling Down!

Gain in-depth insight about African-American Genealogy from
Mississippi to Africa, A Journey of Discovery

Click book image to learn more about this fascinating story of discovery and for the book trailer!

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Copyright Melvin J. Collier.  All Rights Reserved