The Challenge of Holmes County Family History Research

Introduction

I, like a number of other native Floridians, have ancestors who helped settle Holmes County, Florida. It is a difficult county to research in. As I mentioned in my post of 8 January 2018, the early moving county boundary lines for the area that would become Holmes County in 1848 makes it a challenge to research ancestors who were possibly there before the county’s formation. You have to search around what is now Holmes County in records from Jackson, Washington, Walton and Escambia in Florida and possibly in the Wiregrass counties of Alabama and Georgia for marriages. In addition, there is the two courthouse fires, in 1870 and 1902 (and those that occurred in the earlier counties), that destroyed most of the early records of the county. And then for me there is a continuous thread of what some of my relatives call “peculiar” and others prefer “special” that seems to appear in my Holmes County families. Not that I don’t have “special” folks on both sides of my tree but they do seem to congregate on my Dad’s side. I sometimes just refer to them as “colorful” because they did tend to be unconventional, secretive and some were prone to alternative facts before the term became popular.

Street Scene, Bonifay, Florida, 1908

Street Scene, Bonifay, Florida, ca 1908

Know What’s Available Outside the Courthouse

A good first stop on your journey to find your relatives in Holmes County is at the Wiki for Holmes County at the FamilySearch.org site. It is a good summary of geography, records and important information on the county. After you have exhausted interviewing family members and going through any documents and photographs (look on the back and for the photographer name and location) that might have clues in them, turn to the census. If you believe they should be there and they don’t show on indexes, go to either FamilySearch or Ancestry and pull up the entire county set of pages and go page by page. Indexes are a guide to places to look and can miss people or create a last name that isn’t correct because the handwriting is a challenge. This actually applies to all records. Indexes are a first step, not a final step. They may not be complete for a variety of reasons so go to the original records, always, even if you find your ancestor in the index. And remember, not everything is online. Your local Family History Centers can order additional materials on microfilm (search the card catalog at FamilySearch.org) and there is always a visit to the county courthouse or ordering originals from the state in the case of birth, death, marriage, and divorce records.

Holmes County Courthouse, Bonifay, 1912

Holmes County Courthouse, Bonifay, 1912

Using FamilySearch Un-indexed Records

FamilySearch has some probate records from Holmes County online, though not indexed, which means they don’t come up in responses to searches. Go to the Holmes County Wiki page and scroll down to “Online Probate Records” and click on the link for “Florida Probate Records, 1784-1990”. You will get a page of information on what is in the records online. Click on the link “Browse through 662,980 images” (as of 2/2018). This will get you to the list of counties. Click on “Holmes”. This will get you to a page listing four sets of records for Holmes County: 1) Guardian records, 1914-1934 vol 1; 2) Letters of administration 1913-1933; 3) Orders 1915-1934 Vol A; and 4) Wills 1902-1920. Click on whichever of these seems the best place to start. Knowing your ancestors approximate death date will help.

I usually click on the small icon on the left hand side of the page with multiple little boxes on it. This will bring up multiple pages in rows. Look for the first page that has handwriting on it and double click. This should be the first page of the index (usually starts with names starting with “A”) in the county bound volume but if not just move back and forth in the images until you find it. A couple of warnings to make this browse easier: 1) There is often multiple bound volumes in each of these sets and each will have its own listing at the front of the book for the probate records in that volume. So, don’t give up after you wade through the first index and don’t find your ancestor. Go back to the multiple pages and look for what appears to be the end of one volume and the beginning of the next. 2) The pages listed in the volume index will not correspond to the image numbers at the upper left on the page. Each image is 2 pages so you will need to do a little math to get in the rough neighborhood of the record you are seeking, then go page by page looking at the page numbers in the upper left corner of the left hand page and the upper right corner of the right hand page. I would suggest downloading the image of the index and then all pages with related records for your ancestor. Go a couple of pages before and after the pages on your ancestor just to be sure you have them all. Mistakes in creating the volume index even occurred back then.

After you download, transcribe them.  They are much easier to read and absorb if you aren’t focused on reading the handwriting while trying to find clues.  One suggestion while going through the volume index.  Go through the entire index and jot down any names and pages that may have been neighbors or family of your ancestor and check these pages as well.  You never know when an ancestor may be named in a legal document.  They could have been witnesses, appraisers of personal property for a neighbor or an inheritor from a family member you did not know was related.  This is one of many good reasons for looking at multiple pages of censuses and noting the surnames on both sides of your ancestor and researching your ancestor’s entire family not just “up your line”.

If you read the above two paragraphs and you are positive your eyes are spinning in your head, I’m sorry. The best thing to do is just get to the set of images you might be interested in and do your best to follow my directions, pay attention and get familiar with what is there and your best way to move around in them.

William Henry Brett, Sr.

William Henry Brett, Sr.

William Henry Brett, Sr. according to another researcher

When I first discovered this little gold mine, my first thought was my ancestor William Henry BRETT. William Henry is the son of Martin W. BRETT. My sources for this relationship are mostly circumstantial because birth records, newspaper accounts of births and probate records for the time period that Martin lived doesn’t exist. However, William Henry is in Martin’s household in 1850 and 1860. He follows his older brother to war in 1862 even though he was underage. He had an illegitimate son in 1869, named William Henry Brett, Jr who is living with his grandparents in 1870 and 1880 and listed as a grandson in 1880 and he references William Henry, Sr as his father on a document in William Henry Sr’s Confederate pension record. William Henry, Jr was also Clerk of the Court in Holmes County for a number of years.

I also know that this was William H. Brett, Sr’s son from my grandmother who was wonderfully honest and humorous in sharing what she knew about her family when I interviewed her in the 70s. William Henry, Sr married my 2nd great-grandmother, Sarah Ann, just before or after the birth of William Henry, Jr, though according to my grandmother, Sarah Ann was not his mother. They had at least four children according to the 1880 census and the 1885 Florida census, one being my great-grandfather Jessie Lee BRETT. Sarah Ann died between 1885 and 1892 based on the 1885 census and William Henry’s 1892-1893 homestead application in which he references his wife recently passing away. He marries Lora Elvira BUTTRAM and has seven more children. This marriage is well documented by my interview with my grandmother, descendants of this couple, census, probate records and Confederate widow’s pension.

View of Bonifay, unknown year

View of Bonifay, unknown year

A number of years back I had a wonderful email correspondence with a woman descended from one of the children of William Henry, Sr and Lora BUTTRAM BRETT who indicated that William Henry, Sr’s probate was a bit messy but at the time she had no easy way to send me copies and I was a long way from Holmes County. But my time with the online records at FamilySearch paid off. I’ve downloaded a number of records so far, have began the process of transcribing them and hope to find a few more before my search is done. It was indeed messy and somewhat contentious, but I now have more circumstantial evidence on the children from William Henry, Sr and Sarah Ann.

My biggest brick wall in this family is Sarah Ann’s maiden name, which continues to elude me. They had two sons: Martin Moses (or Moses Martin) and Jessie Lee. Jessie Lee’s informant (one of his sons) on his death certificate did not know either of Jessie Lee’s parents. I hope to get my hands on Martin Moses’ death certificate this year. He was older, maybe I will be lucky. Martin Moses was likely named for his two grandfathers: Martin BRETT and Moses ??. I’m pursuing this avenue as well. There is at least one Moses in Holmes County during the right time period (where William Henry Sr was born) and another in an adjoining Georgia county (his wife was born in GA based on census info); both with a Sarah in the household in 1860. I am going to research these two men in the hopes I will find the right family and if not, keep looking.

In summary, Holmes County is one of those counties where you will 1) Be challenged in your research skills, 2) Have to get comfortable with working with more than indexes and other folks’ family trees (that can be inaccurate, incomplete, undocumented or replete with alternative facts but a source of clues). But it is always worth it to knock a hole in the brick wall even if it means you get to add to your “colorful” family list.

One of My Colorful Holmes County Ancestors

I will end with one of my many colorful stories of Holmes County ancestors; without names, to protect the sensitive. My grandmother had indicated in her interview with me that one of our ancestors was a “bit of a bounder”. When I asked what that meant, she just laughed and said I would figure it out. I visited the cemetery where both he and his wife were buried early in my research and had his death date as 15 May 1935 and hers as 16 September 1935. So, you might imagine my surprise when I found her as head of household in 1920 and listing herself as “widowed”. After thinking I had somehow written his death date down incorrectly, I searched for him in the census and found him in 1920 across town with another woman listed as wife, unknown children listed as his children and one of his known sons by his “other” wife, and my ancestor, in his household. There is no divorce records for these two and so far no documentation of the second family other than census.

I then remembered my grandmother telling me how her uncle (the son in the 1920 father’s household) and her mother just couldn’t get along because her mother, the oldest child, never forgave her brother, one of the younger children, for forgiving their father. There really was a bright light bulb that went off over my head because that reminded me of hearing my Dad telling a story about a set of his great-grandparents who lived in the same house for years and didn’t speak to each other because she had discovered his extra-curricular activities. The whole thing was topped off by finding their obituaries in the Holmes County Advertiser in which they were listed as each other’s spouse and noting they died a few months apart, 15 years after she killed him off in the census. I guess at some point she decided he could live elsewhere so it would be easier to not talk to him or maybe he just figured it was time to simplify. Boy that had to be a tense household to grow up in; which might explain a lot about my great-grandmother on my Dad’s side.  I don’t think I EVER saw her smile.  For any of my readers who think extra-curricular activities were uncommon back in the day, be prepared for a surprise sooner or later if you are intent on finding the facts wherever they lead.  Like early births and no father anywhere in record or household; these are the facts of human life.

Until Next Time

Resources

2 thoughts on “The Challenge of Holmes County Family History Research

  1. Pingback: Women in Family and Northwest Florida History | Northwest Florida History & Genealogy

  2. My great grandfather and brothers lived in Holmes County in the 1800s . His name was Broxson and I think the Gordon’s lived there, too

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