Monday, July 30, 2012

The Importance of Bios

Genealogy is more than just a collection of events and dates. I know many researchers whose only goal is to see how far back in time they can get their lines. They forget that everyone in their file is a real person that had a real life. You should be writing short biographies on everyone in your direct line. I also do bios for all the siblings of my direct line ancestors. It makes your research come alive when you put all of your "facts" in context. This is more important that focusing only on how far back you can get.

Here is a very basic example that I cut and pasted right out of my file. Let me know which one you like better.

Choice 1
James Simmons, Sr., was born 14 August 1764 in, most likely, South Carolina and died 10 January 1843 in Perry County, Mississippi [present day Forrest County]. He married Ellenor Lee about 1787 in South Carolina. Ellenor was born 16 November in, most likely, South Carolina and died 20 May 1801 in Washington County, Mississippi Territory [present day Forrest County].

Choice 2
We don't know where James was born only that two of his known children were born in South Carolina so we do know that he at least spent time in that state before coming to Mississippi. The earliest record of James in the Mississippi Territory is the 1803 Mississippi territorial tax roll where he is enumerated in Washington County; however, family tradition holds that James' wife Ellenor died in Mississippi and her date of death is recorded as 20 May 1801 in their son James' family Bible. The Mississippi Territory was opened to settlement in 1798 so we can assume that James left South Carolina for Mississippi between 1798 and 1801. There were a few settlers in the area before it was officially opened up but they were concentrated in the Natchez area along the Mississippi River and in the Lower Tombigbee northwest of Mobile. James' property was located in present day Forrest County which is between these two locations and not close to either.

Why would a family risk everything to move to this unknown and untamed land? By 1798, when the Alabama-Mississippi area was opened to settlement, much of the Upper South’s farmland had been completely exhausted due to poor farming practices. Settlers were also drawn to the area by unrealistic descriptions and promises making the new territory sound like some sort of Utopia. Settlers were made to believe they were on their way to a “new Garden of Eden.” The Simmons family made the journey and succeeded when many other families failed and turned back.

There was another James Simmons, Sr. in Mississippi during this early time but his family was in the Natchez area prior to Mississippi becoming a territory and is well documented. This James Simmons was much older and died about 1786. This James Simmons married Ursula Cleveland and they also had a son named James but James and Ursula Simmons’ son married Nancy Sullivan and migrated to Landry Parish, Louisiana about 1804. No familial connection was found but of interest is that this James (the elder) migrated from the Pee Dee area of South Carolina so a connection cannot be excluded.

In the 1803 Washington County territorial tax roll there is also an Elijah Simmons listed. It is unknown what his relationship might have been. It is unlikely he was a son but perhaps a brother or even James’ father (Elijah would have been at least 21 on the tax roll which would mean he was born when James was 18 years old or younger and wife Ellenor would have been 13 years old or younger). Elijah does not appear on the later Perry County records or in the 1820 federal census.

James is not found on the 1820 federal census in Perry County though he does appear on the 1820 Perry County tax rolls. It is assumed that James remarried after wife Ellenor died as he was only 36 years old. The 1830 and 1840 censuses also support that he had additional children with this unknown wife (wives).

1830 Federal Census, Perry County
James Simmons
1 free white male age 60 to under 70
2 free white females age 15 to under 20
2 slaves

1840 Federal Census, Perry County
James Simmons Sr.
1 free white male age 15 to under 20
1 free white male age 70 to under 80
2 free white females age 15 to under 20
1 slave

We get a glimpse of James’ financial standing and land ownership through the tax rolls [All county deeds prior to 1877 were lost in a fire]. James owned 320 acres of land and kept 2 slaves for most of his adult life. It is most likely that only a small portion of this land was cleared for farming. Most rural Mississippi farmers only farmed enough to sustain their own family. The remainder of his land would have been left in timber. James would have hunted and obtained building materials from the uncleared land.

It is assumed that younger son James Jr. received his father's land at his death as the tax records show the increase in his acreage. It is unknown why older son Silas didn't get at least part of the property. All wills/probate prior to 1877 are lost. James Simmons, Sr. was 78 years old at his death which was a good age. There are three possible burial locations for James and Ellenor; Old Augusta Cemetery [no longer exists], Old Enon Baptist Church Cemetery [no markers, fieldstones only], and the Garraway Family Cemetery. All three are in close proximity and James and Eleanor have ties to all three.

So which one tells you more about the person's life?

[Everything is sourced and footnoted but I excluded the references for brevity's sake and because it isn't easy to get a blog to footnote properly. If you have any questions about where I got something just ask]

Copyright © 2012 Michele Simmons Lewis


  1. This is a no-brainer, thanks for the great example on writing a biography, especially writing one where not a whole lot is known about the subject. You've included your thoughts about this man, so you've got them all in one place should you want to review them. Makes the one I wrote about one of my 2gg grandfather's pretty boring, as it's much like your first example. I will go back & re-write, plus use your example for future writings.

  2. Thank you so much for your kind comments. I chose James Simmons, Sr. for the very reason you mentioned, I don't have a lot of information on him. He lived in a burned county so there are no county generated records prior to 1877 other than tax records. As a matter of fact, James happens to be my #1 brick wall :)


  3. I'm another huge fan of putting meat of the bones of our ancestors. Thanks for showing us an interesting example.

  4. Thank you for a great example of living history and showing social context. This kind of bio brings it to life.

  5. I just can't look at someone as a collection of dates and nothing else.

  6. I am late in finding your blog but have enjoyed the look back. This is another great look at how to make our ancestors come alive. I am looking forward to using this technique with "my guys". Thanks for the insight.

  7. I am glad you are finding some useful information :)