Many family trees start with information given by relatives, stories and facts passed down from generation to generation. One such story told again and again focused on my paternal great great grandmother, Nancy Collins. (Nancy belongs to my paternal grandmother's line, not related to Hannah.) The story constantly reiterated about her was that she had five kids and never married. My family said he was a judge, and I knew the man's name: Brown Vines. After finding Hannah on Ancestry.com, I set out my search for my great great grandfather.
I didn't have much trouble finding Nancy Collins in 1880 when she was 16 years old; on page 16 of the census marking District 8 in Washington County, Tennessee, she lived with her father and mother, Calvin and Mary, and her sister. I did a search for Brown Vines and didn't really come up with much, but I figured if they eventually had children together, they probably lived near each other. And my guess paid off: page 18 of the District 8 census shows a Brownlow Vines living on a farm with his father and mother, Andrew and Lucretia, and his five siblings.
At this point, I knew I was on to something. However, the next available census doesn't show up until 1900. One of the most discouraging things facing genealogists researching the late 19th century in the United States is the absence of the 1890 census. The 1890 census, taken in June 1890, was the 11th census taken in the U.S. You can read more about the fate of the 11th census here and here, but to make a long, complicated story short, a fire broke out at the National Archives on January 10, 1921, and subsequent flooding destroyed much of the information. So I have a 20 year gap in their lives, but I still can take the information given in the 1900 census and make some sense of it.
In 1900, Nancy still lived with her parents, and five grandchildren have joined the household: John, Lottie, Henry, Pearl, and Elizabeth. Her family appears on page 14. On page 13, the record shows Brown still living with his parents. Again, they still live very close to each other. In 1910, the story stays pretty much the same: both close neighbors and living with their parents.
Before I go further, I just want to state the obvious: having five children out of wedlock between 1880 and 1900 could not have been well accepted by society. Even today single women face a stigma of having a child without a partner. When I first heard of my great great grandmother and her situation, my young, former evangelical mind went awry. In other words, I judged her. I figured she had to be a woman of loose morals and character. Shame on me. Shame on me for adding to the oppression of women. I hope I never do it again.
Discovering and researching documentation can clear up misconceptions and can sometimes send you on a different path to clear up confusion. First, I have found no documentation supporting the rumor Brown Vines was a judge. All of the census records state "farmer" as his profession. When researching your family history, documentation is essential in making claims. If you can find no proof, you have to chalk it up to hearsay until otherwise noted.
Finding Brown Vines's death certificate answered some questions, raised more, and offered perspective. First, he had gotten married by the time he died. And he died relatively young, even for 1915. And his death certificate reveals alcoholism and cirrhosis of the liver contributed to his death.
So here's the obvious question: why did Nancy Collins and Brown Vines never marry? Maybe there was an economic disparity between the families. Maybe one or more of the families didn't approve. Or maybe Nancy loved a man enough to have five children with him but refused to marry and live under the same roof as an alcoholic. The answer will probably never be found. I think she did have to be brave with her circumstances, and it looks like she made the best of what life dealt her.
When I initially began this idea for a post, I thought I had all the information out there. Then my cousin told me he had Brown Vines's will, and I couldn't wait to get a hold of it. This document is fascinating. Completely fascinating. And it reveals a lot about his character. His will is extensive and goes on for pages. He owned a lot of property in Tennessee and North Carolina and had specific instructions on how to handle each piece. First, he bequeaths money to his ailing father for his care in his father's last years. Second, he gives all five of his children $1,000 in real estate (equal to about $23,000 today.) One of the things I love, love, love about him is he makes sure the property given to his daughters does not fall into the control of their husbands:
I give and bequeath to Henry Collins, John Collins, Lizzie Collins, and Pearl Collins, children of Nancy Collins, each one thousand dollars ($1000.00) in real estate, the same to be selected and purchased for them by my executor the title to which shall be vested in there, respectively, for life and, in fee, at their death to their respective children. The estate given to the said Lizzie and to the said Pearl, respectively, shall be constituted a separate estate to each free from the control of her husband and not subject to his debts or obligations. The purpose being to provide for each of these persons a home so long as each may live that will descend at death, to his or her children as the case may be.
But two sections of his will stand out and give insight on who Brown Vines really was. First, he seems to have had a rift with his nephew, Silas, and wants to make sure Silas gets absolutely nothing:
The Bayless farm, referred to in Item number (7) of Paragraph VI hereof is not to be sold except in this way, to wit; it is to be valued or appraised at $3000.00, and included at that price in one of the five equal parts herein specified. This said farm ...I give and bequeath to my brother L.J. Vines for the term of his natural life; and, at his death, in fee to his heirs as Tenante-in-common, share and share alike. Except that his son, Silas Vines, shall have no interest, share, lot, part, or parcel thereof, and if the other heirs shall undertake or attempt to divide or share with (illegible) Silas, there, this devise to them shall become and be void and shall revert to my estate to be distributed equally amongst the other beneficiaries of this will. The cash part of said share shall be, at the option in of the said L.J. Vines, invested in real estate and the title taken in the same form and manner, so far as the law permits, as I have fixed the title to the Bayless tract. If the said L.J. Vines (illegible) to have (illegible) stipulated, then, my executor shall loan the same upon good and sufficient, security, collect and pay the interest thereon to said L.J. Vines during his life; and, at this death, pay the principal to his heirs, share, and share alike, excepting the said son, Silas Vines, who shall have no interest, share, lot or parcel therein. And the same penalty herein as above set out to those who may undertake to divide with him.
But the best part of the will lies in the section about the secret safe. What I wouldn't give to know what hid inside of it!
There is in my safe at home a secret written agreement between me and W.E. Uptegrove, which is valuable. It is not my desire to give publicity to that secret private agreement; but it is of much importance and represents great value to my estate. I bequeath and direct that my executor stand in my shoes and represent me with reference to that agreement and distribute the proceeds thereof in the same way that the balance of my estate has hereinbefore been bequeathed and devised.
Nancy Collins never married and lived to be 88 years old, dying in 1952. I hope her years were happy. I only have one picture of her taken in her later years. What I wouldn't give to listen to her stories.