Hello, and welcome to the latest edition of Branches, Twigs, and Roots!


It's hard to believe this is the ninth edition already! How time flies!


Genealogy Tip of the Month

Vital records
may not be available
in the usual places
when dealing with
what was then 'frontier country'




Your Brick Walls

This month’s brick wall deals with a family in Tennessee in the early 1800s. Here's what our contributor wrote:




"My 3rd great grandmother, Bethany Pharris, was born 9/25/1813 in Tennessee, and died 11/27/1902 in Texas. She married George Oldham Sewell.

I cannot find anything on her family. I have tried several spellings of her name and can come up with nothing. Thank you for any suggestions."



This brick wall illustrates the limitations of on-line databases. Not that the databases themselves are to blame, but some of us (myself included) have a tendency to think that everything available about a particular person is already online.

The reality, of course, is very different. I read recently that only about 5% of the available records are available online.

On the other hand, there is the opposite problem in some areas: sometimes, not much is available to be put online!

Turning to the case at hand, there do appear to be many different spelling variations on this last name; I saw Pharris, Farris, Ferris, Fairiss, and many different versions of each of these, including a single ‘r’ with a double ‘s’, and all combinations of single and double ‘s’ and ‘r’ letters!

In this instance, I note that the death registration of one of Bethany’s children, Cornelius, listed his mother’s name as Bethany Farris. I wondered if perhaps Bethany’s own death record would provide similar details as to the identity of her parents, but no such luck; it simply lists her husband’s name and that of a married daughter. No parents are mentioned.

All of the available records consistently list ‘Tennessee’ as the place of birth for Bethany and also for her parents, but provide no additional information, such as a county of residence. Bethany and George Sewell’s marriage occurred in McMinn County, Tenn, in 1836 (according to an online tree; I have not been able to document this), but that does not mean that either of them necessarily was born there. However, it does provide a place to start with, in looking for additional records which are not online.

Welcome to Tennessee!
Wikimedia Commons
'Welcome to Tennessee'



It is difficult to pinpoint Bethany’s exact family, as the US census records prior to 1850 did not show the names of family members; they listed only the heads of families, and the number of people of specified age ranges and genders within the household. Bethany was born in 1813, and was married 1836, so there is no record of her in the census documents with her birth family.

The first time we see her enumerated by name (as we would expect) is in the 1850 census, by which time she and her husband, George O. Sewell, were already living in Texas. Children Cornelius, Absolum (both born in Tennessee, in 1843 and 1845, respectively), Melissa (born in Georgia in 1847), and George (born in Texas in 1849) are living with them.

I looked for George Sewell and family in the 1840 census, but could not locate them. There was a George Sewell, the right age and from Tennessee but single, in California during this time period. Perhaps the marriage date is a little early? If indeed George and Bethany were married in 1836, then the family should be on the 1840 census, and likely living not too far from either set of parents.

One thing that strikes me from the 1850 census entry is the names of the children. Cornelius and Absolum stand out, as being less ‘commonplace’ names than Melissa and George. As George Junior appears to have been named after his father, perhaps these were the names of at least one of the grandfathers. (I see that George Sewell’s father was named James.) It might be worth checking for Cornelius or Absolum Pharris. If a Pharris man by either first name can be found in the census documents prior to 1850, this may be a strong indicator of a relationship between the families.

Another thing that stands out is that George and Bethany were married in 1836, but their oldest child, according to the census, was born in 1842. Were there other children born before 1842, who did not survive? This might provide a more precise location for the family, and census records could then be searched for family members among the neighbours.

The census documents for 1830 list several heads of household with the surname Pharris, or slight variations thereto, in various counties in Tennessee. However, I was not able to find a Pharris household with a female in the right age range for Bethany. She would have been about 17 at that time. Almost all of the households have a woman in her 20s, and a couple of young children (ages 0-5 or 5-9).

Of course, she could have been working in someone else’s home, in which case she would not be identifiable as a non-family member. These other families could, of course, be Bethany’s older siblings, already married and starting their families.

The census documents consistently state that Bethany’s parents both were born in Tennessee. Although there were white settlers in the area from about 1775, Tennessee did not become a state until 1796, when it reached the required “magic number” of 60,000 settlers. Most of the original settlers came from either North Carolina or Virginia. It might be possible to find relatives in either of those states, although proving a relationship without the ‘missing link’ of the names of Bethany’s parents in Tennessee might be difficult.

First Presbyterian Church, Knoxville, Tennessee, circa 1906
Public Domain. Wikimedia Commons
First Presbyterian Church, Knoxville, TN, circa 1906



Bethany’s birth record is quite elusive. A number of possibilities come to mind here:

  • There was a disputed area in the north of the state until 1856, when a further survey settled the question. Records for those living in the disputed area can be found in both Tennessee and Kentucky. If this Pharris family lived in that area, then, perhaps their records could be found in Kentucky. It wouldn't hurt, either, to check the other surrounding states to see if her records are there.


  • Another thing to keep in mind is that, although some counties attempted to record births, marriages and deaths, there was no state law requiring this, and fully complied with, until the early 1900s.

    Some counties began keeping birth records from about 1880, and death records from about 1874, but the records are incomplete. Marriage records, however, do exist from the late 1700s in some counties. Ancestry.com’s wiki has the following to say with respect to where these records might be found:

Most early marriage records for the state have been microfilmed and are available at the Tennessee State Library and Archives. Marriage records are arranged by county (see Tennessee County Resources). Some county records are on microfilm and available through interlibrary loan from TSLA. Most are available at the FHL.

An additional source for marriage records are Byron Sistler and Associates’ compilations. Their six volumes are divided by geographical section (two each for east, middle, and west) and arranged alphabetically for grooms in one volume and brides in the other. Each entry lists names of couple, date of license and ceremony (when available), and county of record. Edythe Rucker Whitley compiled and published separate marriage records for numerous counties, for example:

Whitley, Edythe Rucker, comp. Marriages of Blount County, Tennessee, 1795–1859. Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1982.

———. Marriages of Claiborne County, Tennessee, 1838–1850, and Campbell County, Tennessee, 1838–1853. Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1983.


It might be worthwhile consulting one of these volumes, as at the very least, a marriage record is likely to record witnesses to the marriage, who often were family members. It may also list the names of the parents of the bride and groom – the genealogical ‘pot of gold’ in this instance!

The other place to try for birth, marriages and death records, of course, would be the local church. Once a likely county is found with which to begin the search (for myself, I would start with McMinn), I would attempt to find out what churches were in the area at the time, find out who has the records now, and then look for christening records, or other indications of church-related activities, for the period from 1813 through her marriage in 1836.

The three most prevalent churches at the time in this area were Baptist, Presbyterian, and Methodist, although a number of others also existed in Tennessee in this time period. Presbyterian churches were especially good at keeping vital records; other denominations may not have recorded anything more than church membership.



Another avenue to pursue: look at the middle names of the children. Bethany’s husband was George Oldham Sewell; the records clearly establish that his mother’s maiden name was Oldham. It is possible that this same pattern was followed for Bethany and George’s son, George W. Sewell. If that should prove to be correct, then this would yield the maiden name of Bethany’s mother.

One last possible type of record to look into would be wills. Wills are likely to name all surviving children, and as such, would be great sources for establishing a parent-child relationship between Bethany and her parents. Again, though, it might be difficult to find by browsing, especially since there are something like 96 counties in Tennessee, and wills often are stored at the county court house in the US!

I hope I have provided a few suggestions that you haven’t already tried, and/or provided some otherwise useful information! All the best in this search!






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Mother's Day
Wikimedia Commons
Mother's Day

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See my review, at FamilyHistoryAlive.com, or go directly to their site from the link (the photo) below.




New Content on www.familyhistoryalive.com

Two content pages have been added to the www.familyhistoryalive.com website since the last e-zine was issued. They are:

UK Criminal Records and your Family Tree, and

Criminal Records in England.

These records will tell you about criminal trials, the verdict, what became of your hapless ancestor (and we all have at least one ancestor, or a relative on a collateral line, who has a criminal record; if you don't as yet, give it time - you'll find one soon enough!), and prison records from the time he or she was imprisoned.

These records will give you far more information about your ancestor, in terms of physical characteristics, behaviour while incarcerated, and so on, than you will ever be able to garner about a law-abiding citizen, as once in 'the system', there was an obligation to keep track of them.

I have a couple more in this series 'in the works', and will be uploading them, once my work for my paying job is complete!

By the way, if any of you has any suggestions as to what topics you would like to see covered next on the website, please send me a message at sue@familyhistoryalive.com.



Last month, I told you that my website provider is implementing a long-awaited upgrade to the software used to create webpages.

We have all been waiting, with baited breath, since December for this upgrade. As usually happens with these things, some unexpected glitches, or bugs, have been found, and the system has not yet been rolled out to everyone. Still waiting!


News, Stories, Contests, etc.

Chuckle of the day:

Click here for a story about horse thieves, politicians, and 'spin doctors'. Some may have seen this before, as I have, but it bears repeating - it's just as funny the second time around!



...And here's Martha Stewart finding out about her illustrious ancestors!





To access this month's webinars, click here



Don't forget - if you have expertise in a particular area related to family history, or would just like to share your experiences, we'd love to hear from you!



Many of the pages on the website have 'invitations' at the bottom, which allow you to upload your contributions with respect to a particular topic, create your own webpage, and add up to 4 photographs (if applicable). Contributions can be anonymous, if you're shy. So - have your say!





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