Getting to Know a Community from the Past

Barrows Ferry map 1827-2

1827 Map of Florida showing Barrow’s Ferry (upper middle section on river)

As some of you may know, a good number of my ancestors helped settle the upper banks of the Yellow River in what is now Okaloosa County, Florida. First known as Barrow’s Ferry, believed to be a name taken from one of my ancestors and an early settler to the area, John Barrow. But since John died between 7 July 1824 and November 1826, it could also refer to one of his sons, Reuben N., who owned land close to where the ferry was likely located or to another son, Richmond, who owned land southeast of the ferry and then also northwest of the ferry where his grist mill was located. These are the two sons that stayed in the area, the rest moved on, but any of them could have been the ferry operator in the early years of the settlement. Sometime in the 1870s, the small farming community began being listed on Florida maps as Oak Grove, a very popular name for a small community in Florida. There are a number of them across the State. For the last couple of years I’ve been delving deeply into the history of the area, combining genealogical records with historical records and extant records from the few institutions that once or currently exists. In June, I wrote about some of my research on Yellow River Baptist Church in Oak Grove. This month I want to discuss some of my research on Oak Grove, Okaloosa County, FL. This isn’t my first blog on Oak Grove. As I research I gather more information and documents. You can find links to the other articles in the Resources section below.

Insert from 1880 FL map

1880 FL Rand McNally Map

In the case of Oak Grove, my research has identified people who lived in the general area of Oak Grove in each census and then used that to compile records and family trees on these families and try and document the flow of history in the area. Records researched includes territorial records, agricultural census of 1885, voting records, military service, land records, probate records, cemetery records, church records, school records, newspaper articles, photos, maps and interviews of some of the people who grew up in Oak Grove. In some circles this kind of study is referred to as a One-Place Study. This requires a willingness to gather data, analyze and then sometimes go back to previous records to slowly develop a picture of the people as a community.

I have an advantage over someone trying to research the area with little family connection. I can visualize a good bit of the area in my head, I’ve traveled the roads and visited places enough, including as a child, and I know where many of my ancestors lived and they thankfully mark the boundaries of much of the area know as Oak Grove and some of its surrounding communities. My early Barrows lived on the northern edge, my Harts on the western edge and my Senterfitts on the eastern edge. My Kings and my later Barrows lived on the southern edge but I also have the Peaden family to help with the Southern boundary. That has made it a little less than aggravating to mark off sections of each census that would have been families in Oak Grove and the surrounding communities. It isn’t perfect since I can never know just how the census taker walked or drove the area but over time it has gotten easier.

Census records were the place where I started, though there are unfortunate gaps. I have not been able to locate an 1870 census for the Oak Grove area, and I’ve been looking for decades. I’ve exchanged messages with a number of other researchers who have found the same problem along the northern edges of the other Northwest Florida counties. Sometimes not finding a record when searching can be because the surname was spelled differently than you expect, or they just entered initials; but when everyone you know should be there are missing, the area was likely not recorded at the time, or in transferring the data to the census sheets we see in our research, someone missed a batch of folks! Then, of course, the 1890 census is missing for everyone in Florida.

Oak Grove was once again missed in the 1910 census. Like with the 1870 census, it isn’t for lack of looking in every way I could think of, no one who was in the area in 1900 and 1920 are to be found in the general area. I know Oak Grove and the surrounding small communities can be difficult to find if you don’t know where to look, but it is seriously frustrating. Missing the 1910 census makes researching records of WWI participation challenging and missing the 1870 census means we don’t have a concrete look at the area soon after the Civil War including impacts on black and white families who decided to stay in the area. The 1870 census for Walton County, for instance, gives us an excellent view of the number of female heads of household and the kinds of work they were trying to do to keep body and soul together for themselves and their families. See Resources below for my blog on the 1870 Walton County census.

1949 Flight 1F Tile Farms along what would be Hwy 2

Once I had the censuses abstracted and analyzed, I turned to land and military records and started the process of developing the families that populated the area through time. I use a combination of Family Tree Maker, MS One Note, and Excel to keep track of data and family trees and Scrivener to pull materials together into a narrative as I finish a time period. I am debating on creating an Access database but my Access skills are a bit rusty so for now I’m trying to learn the latest version just in case I decide to do that. Probate, cemetery and church records are spotty either because of destruction of records over time, loss of headstones and not everyone, even 100 years ago, attended and were members of the church. But they do add depth and sometimes relationships. School records do not appear to exist other than in the years that the schools in the area were transferred from Santa Rosa to Okaloosa County. But some of this can be reconstructed using the census years that asked about school attendance. Newspaper articles and obituaries are mostly available for the later half of the 20th century. The northern section of the county didn’t have a wealth of newspapers that are still available. There are some transcriptions of the Laurel Hill newspaper at Baker Block Museum website that have been helpful. Maps can really lack the resolution to look at a small area but I found some wonderful aerial photos taken during the early WWII years and afterwards that helped clarify before and after Highway 2 cut through the community. Finally, I naturally had some photos of my ancestors but over time I’ve been fortunate to acquire digital scans from other descendants that will allow those reading the book to see some of the people covered. Interviews are upcoming, as are some of the land research. COVID-19 put a hitch in those plans for a while.

 

So many of these small communities in Northwest Florida are slowly disappearing. I would love to see more genealogists, who also love history, to tackle some of these communities so we can leave these histories for those who come after us and who will truly know nothing of these small, early communities. That’s a challenge to those of you who have an inclination and a place you would love to visit and get to know.

Until Next Time.

Resources:

 

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