For the avid family historian out there, I have a question. Have you ever identified an ancestor, or a set of ancestors, that you wished you could meet, talk to, and get to know? They just resonate with you, the connection is a bit stronger, and you really can’t say why. I have more than a couple but I would like to introduce you to two of mine from northwest Florida that are near the top of my “Go Back in Time and Meet” bucket list. I’m not sure why James Millard and cousin/wife Lydia Olive fall into this category for me. Maybe because they both tended to swim upstream. Not sure I inherited that from them but I can sure enough resonate with the predisposition!

James Millard Gaskin(s), Sr was born to Wright Harril Gaskin(s) and Mary Sweat Gaskin(s) around 1830 in Walton Co, FL. We briefly met Wright in my post on September 12th. Wright and his brother John Harril were born to Rosannah Gaskin(s) (the younger, her mother had the same name) and an unknown man from the South Carolina Harrell family around 1790 and 1792, respectively. We know their middle names from their grandmother Rosannah’s will and we know the possible link to the Harrell family through a DNA test from a direct male ancestor a few years ago.  The DNA test seems to match up well with the middle name for both men. Wright and John left South Carolina in the 1820s with Wright settling in Florida and John settling outside Montgomery, AL after a brief stay in Florida. By 1840 Wright’s family was a part of Oak Grove and all of their children had been born: John born about 1817 in SC, William born 9 Mar 1821 in SC, Lucretia born about 1825 in FL, James Millard born about 1830 in FL, an unknown female born between 1830-1835 in FL, and Seth J. born 14 November 1836 in FL. They had also acquired 3 enslaved persons; 1 man 24-35, 1 young woman 10-23 and one girl less than 10 years old.

North of Florida, outside Montgomery, John and his wife Jane Morphis Gaskin(s) had also completed their family. Their children were: Martha born between 1820-1825, Wright H (spelled Right) born about 1824 in FL, an unknown male born between 1825-1830, Thomas born about 1829 in AL, Lydia Olive born 26 April 1830 in AL, Francis born about 1834 in AL, James W born about 1834 in AL and Rebecca J born about 1840 in AL. Both John and Jane died between 1840 and 1850 and in the 1850 census Lydia Olive is living in her brother Wright’s household with a 10 month old daughter listed as Lydia J. This is one of the many remaining mysteries in this family. We do not know who the father was of Lydia Josephine. After the War, Lydia Olive’s pension application makes it clear that Josephine was not one of James’ children by leaving her off the application when asked the names of the children she had with James. We do know that once Lydia and James were married, he raised Josephine as his own.

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Mary Jane Gaskin(s) Hart about 1900

James Millard and Lydia Olive married in Ramer, Montgomery Co, AL on 11 July 1851 and she moved back to Florida with James. They set up a household in Barrow’s Ferry/Oak Grove, FL. My ancestor, Mary Jane Gaskin(s) was born 20 February 1852 in FL (see photo), James Millard Jr was born 15 July 1856 in FL and Sarah Florence was born 26 May 1859 in FL. I’ve not been able to locate any information on enslaved persons in James’ household but in 1860 Mary, his mother, has one mulatto 7 year old girl in her household (Seth had 4 in his household and Lucretia had 1). James’ father died in 1854 and his mother died in 1874. In her will Mary leaves everything to her daughter Lucretia.

Yellow River Baptist Church membership records show both James and Olive as members. Olive joined by baptism on 4 April 1858 and James joined by baptism on 25 September 1859. James’ sister Lucretia was also a member, joining some time after James (no date visible in records). We are now on the threshold of the War. It is impossible to know what James thought about the impending conflict. Much of the area of the Florida panhandle from Washington County west was heavily Whig in their voting. The Whigs generally stood for protective tariffs, national banking and internal improvements funded by the Federal government. Some other issues they supported were distribution of land revenues to states and relief legislation to mitigate the effects of the financial panic/depression of 1837-1839. The Whig Party was not anti-slavery but the party did attract abolitionists and free black persons much more than the Democratic Party of the time.

Santa Rosa County was very industrial for a Southern county. It was the most prosperous county in Florida in 1860 with a variety of industrial/manufacturing facilities and was critical to the northwest Florida economy. Slavery certainly existed in Santa Rosa County in 1860. An analysis of census records show about 25% of the population in 1860 were enslaved persons but that was far below the 44% of the population for the entire state. Escambia County’s enslaved to total population percentage was 34%. While lower than Escambia County’s percentage of enslaved persons, Santa Rosa’s was slightly higher than the percentage in Washington Co (22%), higher than the percentage in Walton Co (15%), and much higher than the percentage in Holmes Co (8%). So while we can’t see into James’ heart to know his feelings about slavery as an economic and social institution we can assume he was somewhat influenced by the communities around him that were not deeply embedded in the institution and the politics of the area that while not anti-slavery was not as passionate on the subject as the Democratic Party was in the South. Now we can track his personal actions as the War developed around him.

James grew up in the community, reached adulthood, started his family and made his choice about the War with the influence of the Barrow’s Ferry/Oak Grove community. As we’ve already begun to see in previous posts, this community had a number of characteristics that made it slightly different from other Southern, rural communities; though maybe not so much from other Florida panhandle communities west of what was then Washington Co, FL. Not the least of those influences was the Scot-Irish immigrants to the area, a tenacious and independent bunch. But it also had Native American and Free Black Persons in the community, which was different (as far as we know) than other areas of the South outside the more metropolitan areas. Another influence would have been Yellow River Baptist Church. We’ve already seen that a good percentage of members and their sons served with the 1st Florida Union Cavalry during the War.  Early Baptist churches commonly had black persons attend and many offered membership like Yellow River did. (see Suggested Reading List for a link to the remaining records of the Bethlehem Baptist Association.  This association helped establish a number of the churches in this area of the country, including Elim Baptist in Escambia Co, AL; 1st Baptist in Milton, 1st Baptist in Pensacola and Yellow River Baptist in Oak Grove).  It has been assumed in reviewing any remaining records that these were the enslaved members of the households of the white members but we now know that at least one, and maybe two, of Yellow River’s black members were free persons. And a review of the membership rolls for the church show that the last black member mentioned in the business records was in 1868, three years after the war ended. Unfortunately, there isn’t a revised and updated membership list done right after the war so we can’t know how big the exodus of black members was immediately after the war and how long it took to be completed. But we do know that the community had black residents well into the 20th century before the last exodus in Oak Grove occurred.

What we do know is James did not join a military regiment when the War started in 1861. He was 31 with a young family, the youngest 2 years old. His younger brother Seth, 6 years his junior, also did not enlist during the first year of the War. Seth would have been prime age to hold the vision of adventure and excitement that War carried for many men in their 20s in 1861. So, even if we can not know how they felt about slavery (Seth did hold enslaved persons in 1860), or any of the other issues the Southern fire-eaters were extolling as reasons to leave the Union, we can reasonably assume they did not feel particularly excited to support the cause by going off to War when the call first went out for volunteers or felt family commitments needed to take precedence. That changed for both in 1862 with the draft.

James either enlisted (as stated on one of his muster roll cards) or was drafted in April 1862 into the 5th Florida Infantry, Co I. It is unclear from the records if he actually reported (one card says he had not by the end of April) but I now think he did but presented enough evidence, or knew the right surgeon, to get himself discharged on 9 June 1862. A system quickly developed after the draft was initiated to allow those unwilling to serve to get surgeons to give them disability discharges, so that is certainly a possibility here, but he could also have had health problems. Regardless, he was out of the 5th Florida Infantry by 10 June 1862. That didn’t solve the problem long-term. As the War progressed, men who had been discharged or resigned as officers, found themselves sought and their families harassed to get them back into the service. So, the question becomes did James leave home at some point in 1862 or 1863 and take to the woods to avoid the militia or Army troops “recruiting”?

We will never know, though a cousin of mine from this family, who knew the generation of James’ children told me the story of him being pretty badly scrapped up trying to get to Barrancas. It is hard to know if that was a straight journey or one that took many months while hiding out. He did make it to Barrancas in January 1864 and joined on 20 January 1864. His brother Seth, who had served in the 3rd Florida Battalion Cavalry, Co D from 4 October 1862 until he deserted on 12 August 1863, joined him 5 days later. James was appointed Sergeant in April 1864 and appears to have served in administrative capacities for the entirety of the War. There is no evidence that he participated in any of the engagements of the 1st Florida Union Cavalry. He was a Master Sergeant at the time of his death from erysipelas (a Strep A bacterial inflammatory skin infection) on 14 May 1865. He is buried at Ft. Barrancas National Cemetery in the first headstone in the older section.

Olive was home with four small children when she received word that James had died. She filed for a pension a year later in April 1866. On that and what she could grow she raised her family. An interesting event occurred in July 1866 (maybe right after her first pension payment). According to church business records, Lydia Olive and her sister-in-law/cousin Lucretia went dancing and was reported to the church for this unchristian-like conduct. Lucretia apologized and asked for forgiveness, indicating she would not go dancing again. Olive stated that she had enjoyed dancing and wouldn’t say whether she would do it again or not. That got her excluded from church membership. Years later, nearly all of her children attended the church as adults, as did some of her grandchildren, but it appears she did not return (the membership records are pretty spotty and hard to read by the last part of the 19th century). She never re-married and appears to have kept body and soul together reasonably well for 60 years after James died. I often wonder if the community economic mainstay, bootlegging, helped with keeping it all together. Somehow it just seems to fit how I envision her.

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Lydia O. Gaskins  BORN April 26, 1830  DIED June 27, 1921 Gone But Not Forgotten

Lydia Olive died on 27 Jun 1921 and is buried in Stewart Cemetery (founded in 1840 on property belonging to Dugal Stewart, sold to I. H. and Rozilla Harrison in the 1880s and to Yellow River Baptist Church in 1901), along the left hand edge, under the trees. The headstone is hand lettered and almost unreadable at this point, something I want to resolve this year with something on the ground to at least clearly mark her grave. My maternal grandmother’s mother was a bit of a serious woman; stories of her leave me thinking she was a bit stern and judgmental with a critical and unsmiling edge to her personality. I often wonder what she thought of her maternal grandmother’s behavior. Slightly flaunting of convention, independent and willing to speak her mind. I’m thinking maybe it was something Grandma King (see photo below) would have preferred to be different, especially since they lived in the same community just down the road from each other. I am told that when Olive died one of her son-in-laws tore up and burned the large picture she had of James in his Union uniform because her son-in-law disapproved of James’ service and had been embarrassed by Lydia Olive receiving a Union pension. Our emotional tantrums can impact many generations after us, something to keep in mind.

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Mary Malissa Hart King

I do not know what my 3rd great grandfather looked like, though he was described in his military records as 6 foot tall, light complexion, gray eyes and dark hair. I don’t know what my 3rd great grandmother liked like though I know her mitochondrial DNA was T2b (European and Near Eastern) because I share that with her. I would like to meet both of them because I do give credit to folks who choose to swim upstream, don’t follow the crowd blindly and live and die with the consequences.

Suggested Reading:

  • America’s First Great Depression: Economic Crisis and Political Disorder after the Panic of 1837 by Alasdair Roberts
  • The Many Panics of 1837: People, Politics and the Creation of a Transatlantic Financial Crisis by Jessica M. Lepler
  • Baptists in America: A History by Thomas S. Kidd and Barry Hankins
  • Minutes of the Bethlehem Baptist Association: 1849-1900
  • Slavery in Florida: Territorial Days to Emancipation by Larry Eugene Rivers
  • Desertion During the Civil War by Ella Lonn and William Blair
Books For Sale:
THE 1ST FLORIDA CAVALRY UNION VOLUNTEERS IN THE CIVIL WAR
YELLOW RIVER BAPTIST CHURCH MEMBERSHIP RECORDS: 1840-1950
BARROW-KING FAMILY HISTORY

3 thoughts on “Northwest Florida Early Pioneers: James Millard and Lydia Olive Gaskin(s)

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