This month’s question:
It should be noted that on the 1930 and 1940 census there were no instructions for individuals of mixed race. Citizens were either one race or another. In 1910 and 1920, people of mixed race were identified as mulattoes. This may explain why they were listed as Negro in 1930 and 1940 but as mulatto in the 1920 census. The 1910 could be a different family, but I don’t believe so, given the names of the family. It is worth noting that Will’s age in 1910 is not consistent with any other census, so it is possible that someone who was not part of the household gave the information or that a mistake was made.
The information on the marriage record is interesting for several reasons. All the census records that we have for the family are in Tuscaloosa County, Alabama. But if this is the right marriage record, then they were married in Greene County. It could be a marriage record for a different Will and Nancy. I would agree this is not too likely, but it is a possibility. I could not find a marriage record for a Will and Nancy in Tuscaloosa County.
In the 1910 census, it states that they have been married 7 years, suggesting they were married in 1903—another piece of evidence supporting that this is the same couple.
It is curious that they are indexed as white if they are of mixed race, but indexing errors do happen. I suggest that you call or write to the probate court in Greene County and get a copy of the actual record to better understand what is there. You may also find more information on Nancy’s parents.
From the Ancestry.com wiki on Alabama Vital Records:
To enter into a marriage contract a man had to be at least seventeen years of age and a woman had to be at least fourteen years of age. If the man was under twenty-one or the woman under eighteen and as yet unmarried, the consent of the parent or guardian of the minor was required before a license could be issued. The marriage of these licensed parties could then be solemnized by a territorial, state, or county judge, an ordained minister, or a justice of the peace. The officiant was then required to file a marriage certificate with the probate judge of the county in which the marriage took place.
The census records are pretty consistent about Nancy being born about 1886–1887, which would have made her about 16 or 17 when she was married. The 1930 census tells us that she was 16 at the time of her first marriage. So there should be a signature of a parent or guardian with the marriage license. There may not be; she may have lied about her age, or the clerk may not have cared. But I believe this is one original record that would be worth the money to obtain. Also, the record will likely list the name of a bondsman, who may have been a relative of either Nancy or Will . Researching this person may lead you to more clues.
You can find the address of the courthouse on the Greene County wiki page.
I would also suggest that you find the death dates and copies of the death certificates for Willie Lee and her brothers and sisters. Death certificates often list the parents’ names, and this would help validate the marriage certificate we believe to be correct. Also, any marriage records for Willie Lee and her brother and sisters would likely have the parents’ names, which would provide additional evidence.
Nancy may have indeed been of Native American ancestry —or she may not. Many families have this story passed down, and often it is not true. But you research this the same way you do any other family. Learn everything you can about your grandmother’s generation. Don’t stop with your direct ancestor; research brothers and sisters as well. The clues to the previous generations may be stored in the records they’ve left behind.
You might also consider doing an AncestryDNA test. Or having your oldest living relative do one. Or both of you! This might reveal if there is Native American ancestry in your tree.
And don’t be discouraged! Some families are easy to trace, but most are not. They take persistence and digging. Use indexes as guides to original documents such as marriage licenses and death certificates. Sometimes we are lucky and the originals have been digitized and put online. But more often than not, they are not online. At least not yet. In that case, use the information from the index to go to the source. The answers are out there.
About Anne Gillespie Mitchell
Anne Gillespie Mitchell is a Senior Product Manager at Ancestry.com. She is an active blogger on Ancestry.com and writes the Ancestry Anne column. She has been chasing her ancestors through Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina for many years. Anne holds a certificate from Boston University's Online Genealogical Research Program. You can also find her on Twitter, Facebook and Finding Forgotten Stories.