I was recently reminded that I did most of my 2017 posts on Escambia, Santa Rosa and Okaloosa County. So, to start 2018 out, I will move east to Holmes County and start by exploring its earliest days and settlers. It might be good to start with the ever changing county list that the land area that would become Holmes County had to take from 1821 until 1848. This is important because if you are looking for relatives, or trying to understand the history of the area in its earliest days, you need to know everywhere you should look to find possible records. To make this somewhat simple, but not completely accurate, let’s take the town of Bonifay (or where it would be) and track it through time.
A Journey Through the Early Counties
In 1821, the area that would be known as Bonifay would have been in Escambia County. In 1822-1823, it would have been in Jackson County. In 1824, it would have been on the border between Jackson and Walton. In 1825-1826, it was completely in Jackson. In 1827-1832, it would have been in Washington County. In 1833-1846, it was back in Jackson but very close to the Washington border. In 1847, the area that would be named Holmes County was set out between Walton on the west, Washington on the south and Jackson on the east not because the population warranted it but because legislators wanted to keep a balance between eastern and panhandle representation in the State legislature. Areas outside Bonifay but in what would become Holmes County, especially on the east side of the county saw slightly different changes in county designation through the first 27 years of the territory and newly established state. So, if you are researching early settlers in what would become Holmes County, start with surrounding counties if they appear to have arrived before 1848.
Highlights of the 1840 Jackson County Census
Jackson County in 1840 was not heavily populated. The 1840 census for the county shows 1,099 white males, 903 white females, 1334 enslaved males, 1302 enslaved females and 45 free persons of color (these latter could be free blacks or Indians or half-bloods/mulattoes, which could be a mix of any of these three racial groups). One Revolutionary pensioner was listed: Richard LEVINS. If you scan the census you find some of the same names that will figure heavily in the history of Holmes County: PITTMAN, REGISTER, GAY, PEACOCK, WILLIAMS, BRITT (BRETT), CHAPMAN, POWELL, FRENCH, and DIXON (DISON). For the election of 1845, you would need to look through Jackson County election precincts for any possible ancestor or related person. There were nine precincts in Jackson County in 1845, one obviously in what would become Holmes County: Campbellton. Find these records here.
Exploring the 1850 Holmes County Census
By 1850, Holmes County existed, so the first census that had names for every member of the household (excluding the enslaved) was also the first we can research for Holmes County ancestors. I have not spent as much time with this census as I have the 1850 Santa Rosa County census but it seems obvious that the designation of the county and the establishment of a bit more government presence had a positive effect on the influx of new settlers. I know the period around the formation of the county and the 1850 census is when several of my ancestors in Holmes County moved there: my ancestor Randolph “Randal” FULFORD and his mother moved from Lowndes Co, Georgia, either before or after she married James FOREHAND. They were living almost next door to one set of Clyde BARROW’s ancestors, who had moved there from Georgia. Another of my ancestors, Martin W. BRETT, had moved his family to Holmes Co from Randolph Co, GA sometime around the formation of the county. Martin was listed as a schoolteacher, one of two in the county at the time though there is no evidence of an established school yet. In total, there were 187 households with 32 of them holding enslaved persons (17%). That was a very low percentage of slave-holding households, even for the Florida panhandle, and may account for some men from Holmes County joining the Union in Pensacola during 1864 and 1865 (see my book on the 1st Florida Union Cavalry)
If you believe your ancestor should be in Holmes Co in 1850 or 1860, and they do not come up in the census, use the catalog at either Ancestry or FamilySearch to pull up the entire county census and go page by page. One of the things I’ve found over the years is I am so much more familiar with the names in the counties where my ancestors lived than the indexer might have been. I find it amusing sometimes at how the bad handwriting on the census is translated into a really bad (and sometimes funny) index listing. Indexers, like the rest of us, are only human.
Glorecords and Early Settlers in Holmes County
Another good source of early settler information is the Bureau of Land Management’s Glorecords. This is land records where someone bought or received land from the Federal government directly. It will not include purchases and sales between individuals, except when someone who received bounty land sold the right to the land to someone else. Sales of land between individuals would be at the county level if they survived the numerous fires. These glorecords can be easy to search because you don’t necessarily need to know what county your ancestor was in at a particular time. I would suggest starting with “Any State” and “Any County” and the most common spelling of the name. You would do this because if your ancestor served in any of the Seminole or Creek Wars (whether he lived in Florida at the time or not) for example, and received a land bounty, the land may well have been anywhere where they were giving away land at the time. If I do that with my ancestor Martin W. Brett, who I know served in the Creek War from a Georgia militia unit, two pieces of property appears that was bounty for his service, one in Holmes Co, FL and the other in Missouri (see images above). You can also look at everyone in a single county by searching on the state and county and leaving off the name. Be sure in both instances that “search patentees” and “search warrantees” are checked under where the name would go. That way you can see all the records.
In doing a quick review of all of the records that would have been transacted in what would become, and is, Holmes County, I see the following early names: William STAPLETON (1827-1828), Richard C. ALLEN (1833), Duncan C. ANDERSON (1838), John C. CHAPMAN (1843), John SIKES (1843), Alexander TURNER (1843), Daniel WILLIAMS (1843), Joseph TURNER (1844), Jehu W. KEITH (1844), David GIRTMAN (1846), William BELSHER (1848), Clark BROXSON (1854), Barnabas DISON (1854) and Martin W. BRETT (1854). If early land deeds are missing from a county, as in so many panhandle counties, this source can help to determine early settlement. Be sure and order any record that would be a part of the transaction listed online. Indexes are never as good as the original document. The records can be pricey, so be sure it is your ancestor. The homestead records and the land grants for military service will have much more potentially useful genealogical information than the straight purchases.
Read Those History Books
I see genealogy as a microcosm of history. History paints the big picture, the grand movements of time. Genealogy paints the little picture, the family, and if done well and with an effort to connect all of the family together gives us a glimpse into the community in which our ancestors lived, worked and died. So, we not only need to research our direct lines, but look at available records of the other members of the community and how they may have connected to our ancestors. They could be related, they could be neighbors, they could be business partners, and they could be antagonists. And finally, we need to read books on the area in which our ancestors lived. Not just the county where they lived, but the surrounding ones. Not just the state where they lived, but the contiguous ones and the ones they migrated from. Not just those that make us feel good, but those that may make us see their world differently than we have imagined.
Visit local museums, local libraries and look for older books on Abebooks or as used books on Amazon. Encourage your local library to purchase new books you are interested in. Read them carefully. Look for those moments in which your ancestor would have experienced an event or participated in an event and note that (including citations!). Look for ideas that might break down one of your brick walls or that needs more research to determine the extent of impact on your ancestor’s life. If, or when, you get around to writing your family history, these bits of history will make your ancestor’s life become more real to your reader. You never know when a clue will be buried in a history book.
The Mixed-Race Families in Holmes County, Florida
One interesting note of history about Holmes County is the documented presence of a small group of mixed-race families around the Ponce de Leon area. Believed to be primarily white and Native American, with some black, they remained separate from both the white and black populations of Holmes County well into the 20th century. Sometimes referred to as Dominickers (not appreciated by the folks being referenced), these people and their lives need more documentation and clarity in terms of their roles in the early history of Holmes County. If you have a bit of Native American ancestry in your DNA and some of your ancestors were in Holmes County, this might be an avenue to pursue. Since I have several ancestors in Holmes Co, some of which have physical features that might put them in this category and I have that bit of Native American DNA, I plan to do more serious research in this area as I move forward on better documentation of my Holmes County families.
Until Next Time
- Heart and History of Holmes County with Glimpses of the Panhandle by Anna Paget Wells
- Holmesteading: The History of Holmes County, Florida by E. W. Carswell
- A Type of People: The Native American Heritage of Holmes County, Florida by S. Pony Hill and Hodalee S. Sewell
- History of Walton County by John L. McKinnon
- Native American History of Holmes County, Florida; Access Genealogy
- The History of Jackson County Florida, Volume One: The Early Years, Incidents from Before the Civil War by Dale Cox
- Creating an Old South: Middle Florida’s Plantation Frontier Before the Civil War by Edward E. Baptist