Researching to Tell A Story

I am an advocate for doing an expansive form of family history. Not just researching, documenting and identifying your direct ancestors, but researching and identifying all of the family of your direct ancestors AND researching and understanding the historical patterns that they likely experienced and how they may have reacted to those patterns. It not only makes the genealogy more interesting and meaningful, it sometimes leads to understanding history better and/or an individual in your tree in a way that heals. An example of that for me was my Dad’s Marsh line.

GPaNanadaddy
Sam and Lois Brett Marsh with son Franklin, early 1927

My Grandfather’s Death

For many years I did not know much about my Dad’s family. He was an only child and lost his father five months after he was born. It was a freak accident. My grandfather, Samuel “Sam” Duncan Marsh, worked as an auto mechanic at Solomon Motors in Bonifay and he and two other men were called on to help pull a Lincoln out of the ditch.  It had skidded off Old Spanish Trail Highway at the bridge over the Choctawhatchee River during a rainstorm. After one unsuccessful attempt my grandfather drove the tractor down onto a flat area in the hopes of pulling the car to a better place to haul it back onto the road. The tractor became mired in the mud and after a hard pull the tractor reared up, flipped backwards and pinned my grandfather under it. It took a while for them to remove the tractor but it was obvious he had died instantly. He was crushed. My Dad and his mother left Bonifay not long afterwards, first moving in with his paternal grandparents, Samuel B. and Cornelia “Nealie” Bell Nichols Marsh (see photo at top) and then on to Columbus, Georgia as the nation inched toward World War II.

My Early Efforts to Research the Marsh Family

As I mentioned in a previous post, when my Dad got the family photos from his mother after she died, he tried to go through them and put names on the backs of the photos so I would know who they were. I had already developed an interest in genealogy and in the late 70s I interviewed a number of his cousins, aunts and uncles. Unfortunately, what I knew about what to ask and how to ask it could have been put in a thimble but I still have those pages of fading scribbles. Frankly, I was overwhelmed. A lot of names were thrown at me and sometimes the narrative was anything but helpful in figuring out who we were talking about and I had no clue how to structure the talk so I could make more sense of it. And like many families there were way too many Johns, Williams and Samuels. The stories were sometimes larger than life and frankly not borne out by facts later on. And that led to some wild goose chases until I figured out to just follow the evidence, not the family story. The material was so fragmented, I quickly decided my Mom’s family would be easier.

Over the years I have sat down and intensely tackled my Dad’s Marsh line about four times. Each time has been productive and pushed the family back, out and down. The last time started earlier this year. I had access to new resources and had made contact with a couple of cousins. It was time to really get to know my Dad’s aunts and uncles, at least from the documentation they left behind.

Samuel Benjamin and Nealie Bell Nichols Marsh

My Dad’s grandparents were Samuel Benjamin Marsh and Cornelia “Nealie” Bell Nichols Marsh. Samuel was the son of Andrew Jackson Marsh and Martha Elizabeth Revell (Revel, Revels). He and his wife and oldest daughter moved to Pike Co, Alabama from South Carolina a few years after the Civil War. Given the number of Revell families in the area it appears some of Martha’s relatives may have already settled in southeastern Alabama but I’ve not connected them yet. Samuel Benjamin was their first child born in Alabama. Nealie Bell was the daughter of James E. and Sarah Ann Brunson Nichols. Both of her parents were born in Randolph Co, Georgia and moved with their families to Dale Co, Alabama before the Civil War. James owned and operated a grist mill somewhere on Nichols Mill Rd; a location I am determined to find one day. Samuel and Nealie Bell were married in May 1890 in Enterprise, Coffee Co, Alabama by one of James’ half-brothers.

Samuel and Nealie Bell had ten known children in all, nine boys and one girl. There are gaps in the births and I know there were at least two infants that did not survive the first few years. One died between 1890 and 1900 according to the 1900 census and another died between 1900 and 1910 according to the 1910 census.  But those that reached adulthood were as follows: Claude H., born in 1893 in Coffee Co, AL and died in 1977 in Hillsborough Co, FL; James Andrew, born in 1894 in Coffee Co, AL and died in Hernando Co, FL in 1978; William Lura (or Lure), born 1899 in Coffee Co, AL and died in 1977 in Panama City, Bay Co, FL; Samuel Duncan born in 1902 in Coffee Co, AL and died in 1927 in Bonifay, Holmes Co, FL; Charles W., born in 1906 in Alabama and died in 1996 in Orlando, Orange Co, FL; Albert Olin, born about 1909 in Alabama and died in 1930 in Houston Co, AL; Versie Mae, born in 1910 in Alabama and died in 1984 in Panama City, Bay Co, FL; David Snider, born in 1913 in Alabama and died in 1944 in Orange Co, FL; James Edward, born in 1914 in Alabama and died in 1970 in Orlando, Orange Co, FL and Euell born in 1918 in Alabama and died in 1943 in Asheville, Buncombe Co, NC.

The Great Depression’s Impact on the Marsh Family

Samuel and Nealie Bell made the move to Florida sometime between 1930 and 1935. The 1920 and 1930 censuses tell me that Samuel rented the land he farmed in Alabama. That likely means he was a tenant farmer. The boll weevil hit Alabama around 1910 and had infested the entire state by 1916. It devastated cotton fields. Being a tenant farmer was a tenuous endeavor at best so it isn’t surprising that many gave up and moved. The Marsh family seems to have held out for a while but maybe the death of Samuel Duncan in 1927 and Albert Olin in 1930 made moving seem to be a good re-start. At a larger perspective the Depression was in full swing by this point. Hunger was everywhere in the nation and particularly bad in areas of the South. Moving if you weren’t tied to the land, and sometimes even if you were, was an option exercised by many families as they tried to cope and survive. It was a glimmer of hope where there was little.

Nearly the entire family moved to Florida during this time period except for Versie Mae and her husband Oren Stewart who did not move south until a bit later in the 1930s. Though Florida’s land boom and subsequent crash had already occurred, starting over somewhere else with milder weather and migrant farm work, lumber or turpentine work,  or work as a driver for an orange grower seemed a good choice. Samuel B. did have a brother already in south-central Florida, which might have made the move a bit less traumatic. But three of the children just crossed the border into the Florida panhandle: my grandfather Sam, William and Versie Mae. And in time my great-grandparents moved to the panhandle.

But there is another important point to this blog and the importance of doing whole family research and not just “up your line”. If you look at the death dates you will notice that four of the boys died young. My grandfather Sam who was 25 when he died, Albert Olin who was around 21 when he died (accidentally shot by a discharging rifle while fishing.  Shot him in the leg but by the time they got him to a doctor, he lost his leg, then his life.), David Snider who was 31 when he died and Euell who survived two years in the Army and then died in what I believe was a trucking accident when he was 25. David’s death is a mystery but had to be devastating to his parents. He was married with two small children, both of whom died within a short time of each other then a year or so later both David and his wife died within a few days of each other. I’m still trying to find someone or some newspaper account to put the story together.

Genealogy (and History) as Healer

I remember when I was young that my Dad would say that he knew he would die young. He was fatalistic at times and that led to poor decision-making. He struggled against this tendency but was never completely successful. My mother and I both thought it was because of his Dad’s accident. He grieved for a man who he had not known. But once I really researched the family I could see how he may have thought the Marsh men were likely as not to die young. Now I don’t believe in curses but I do believe that children can be impacted by the family culture that surrounds them and that can be impacted by unresolved grief and stress.  When I started doing genealogy I found the little information I had on both sides of my Dad’s lines was spotty and doctored, both unintentionally and intentionally. But I did decide that getting to know them, one step at a time, regardless of what I found, would help me to understand my Dad and myself. I was right.

The destruction of South Carolina during the Civil War likely led to Andrew Jackson and Martha Elizabeth Revell Marsh leaving South Carolina for southeastern Alabama a few years after the war was over. For some of their sons, the move to Florida was likely facilitated by the economic conditions that led to, and exacerbated, the Great Depression. The Marsh family boys were farmers and then worked as truckers or mechanics as they made the transition to salaried jobs. World War II saw two of Samuel and Nealie Bell’s sons serve and survive the war for one of them to die soon after in an accident. This was a hard period in American history for families to stay connected and together.

Samuel and Nealie Bell moved from the Orlando area to Panama City in 1943. Again, maybe encouraged by the deaths of two more sons and a desire to be near their only daughter in their old age. By this time they had buried 5 of their 12 children and another would die within a few months.  Samuel died four years later and Nealie Bell died six days after I was born in 1951. But I have a better understanding of how they tried to keep their family together during this period in American history and a few glimpses into the trauma they experienced in the early part of the 20th century and how that may have impacted my father.

Until next time

Resources

  • Remembering the Great Depression in the Rural South by Kenneth J. Bindas
  • The Great Depression: America 1929-1941 by Robert S. McElvaine
  • The Great Crash 1929 by John Kenneth Galbraith
  • Let Us Now Praise Famous Men: The American Classic, in Words and Photographs, of Three Tenant Farmers in the Deep South by Walker Evans and James Agee

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2 thoughts on “The Great Depression: The Experiences of Samuel and Nealie Bell Nichols Marsh

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