Friday, September 4, 2020

Historical records leave clues for solving the mystery of Millie

By Jane Wilkerson, archival assistant

One of the hardest things to explain to a researcher is that genealogy is something that takes time, and family lore may just be a myth. One tall tale in my own family is that of the mysterious Millie Miller, my third great-grandmother. For 30 years I have tried to separate fact from fiction and discover what had happened to her. So, for this month and in the next installment (or three) instead of talking about research tips in the abstract, I plan to take readers through a series of examples, using Millie as a case study, to show how varied documents can come together to tell a good story that is more than the sum of its parts.

Millie Miller was a survivor,
a businesswoman.
Millie came to my attention in the 1970s, when I was of school age. My oldest cousin had a project of interviewing and recording our family’s oldest members, to make sure their memories did not die with them. What he was told about Millie was “all tragedy:” Her husband died during the Civil War, and her children were split up and placed in relatives’ homes. That mass of unhappiness was about all I knew about Millie until later, when I learned that one of her granddaughters had tried to find out more about Millie and had … suddenly stopped. Confronted with this sudden change of course,  I became fascinated: I wondered what the reason behind my aunt’s hasty retreat could be. 

A partial answer had to wait until I was older, maybe considered “old enough” by my family. Apparently, Millie had gone to Oklahoma and had been a hospitality entrepreneur, of a sort. She ran a brothel and saloon. My aunt, horrified, had stopped her research cold, but my reaction was the opposite: Millie was a survivor, a businesswoman. This was a little like being descended from “Miss Kitty” of TV’s Gunsmoke!

It was 1999 before I had time to even begin to flesh out Millie’s story. The United States Census was where I started. In the 1860 census for Madison County, Arkansas, I found Millie with her husband George Washington Miller and their three children: Nancy, Susan and James. This could be verified from the information my cousin had gathered. 

From this known point, I began looking for a marriage license, in order to discover Millie’s maiden name. Since Millie and George’s oldest child, Nancy, was 5 years old in 1860, I estimated that they probably were married around 1854 or 1855. This date was problematic, though: Madison County records for that era were long destroyed. (This may have had something to do with the county having lost three courthouses to fire between 1863 and 1890.)

My next thought was to check Carroll County, where George had come from, but those records had suffered the same fate. (No fires are known to have destroyed the Carrol County courthouses, so the reason for these records’ disappearance is harder to pin down). Since both counties border Missouri, I spent some time on a north-of-the-border statewide search for a marriage license for the pair. It quickly became apparent, though, that a record of their marriage license no longer existed. 

Since I could not find Millie’s maiden name, my research shifted to her husband. Family lore states that George Washington Miller left one day to sign up to fight in the Civil War and was killed. His son, George Washington Miller Jr., was born in 1863, so it was likely that he left home around this time. But, which way did he go? Arkansas was a Confederate state, but Unionist sentiment was strong in the northern tier of counties, so he might well have chosen either side (or, as some did, both sides, albeit not at the same time). 

Without knowing whether he was Union or Confederate, I had to research both; with a name like George Washington Miller, the search proved to be a large task. The other factor that made it even more difficult is that the area of Arkansas they were living held not only both Union and Confederate sympathizers, but also several irregular militia groups—often styled “bushwackers” or “guerrillas.” George could have been involved in any of the above. 

My best confirmation of his affiliation would be from a pension record, but after checking both sides, there was no evidence that Millie had filed for or received one. Searching for their children proved just as difficult. George had several siblings, mostly brothers, in Carroll County. But, as with many other families then and even now, family names tended to be used concurrently and for generations: If the children were living with them, there was no way to distinguish their parentage. My research hit a brick wall and remained that way for some time to come.

In 2001, I began working at the Arkansas History Commission, today’s Arkansas State Archives. Part of my training was to learn what resources the agency offered for the patrons. The best way to become familiar with resources is to use them; so, my unanswered questions about Grandmother Millie came to mind. I returned to my own family quest, making use of the deep genealogical resources held by the Commission as part of my on the job training. 

The initial yield was still slim, but there were a few welcome discoveries. Tax records for Madison County, revealed George paid real estate tax until 1863. After that, there was no sign of Millie or any other family member paying on the property. I next asked myself the question, “If she didn’t have the money to pay taxes on their land, where else can I look?” 

The question led me to the venerable Kie Oldham Collection at the Archives. This collection consists of materials gathered for use in the book series War of the Rebellion. These documents were not selected for publication, but, luckily, the Arkansas State Archives received them as a donation. In the collection, I found a list of indigent families in Madison County. Millie and her children did not appear on the list. I considered this absence of information as revealing. For the time being, I had exhausted my search; Millie would have to be set aside for now. 

Next month, we will continue with Millie’s story and explore what finally led me to a breakthrough. Had she migrated into present-day Oklahoma? Was she, perhaps the “Miss Kitty” of the Permanent Indian Territory?

You will have to wait and see.