For any of you that have followed my blog, either through WordPress or through my Facebook business page, you already know two things about me, I write a lot about northern Okaloosa County history, and I write a lot about Yellow River Baptist Church. There is a reason for both. My Mom was born and raised in the little community of Oak Grove in northern Okaloosa County. And it was there I had extended family to visit with during my childhood summers and around Thanksgiving when my grandparents celebrated their anniversary and we usually had a family reunion. I still have a lot of cousins in the area. I am pretty much within six degrees of separation from anyone whose ancestors were in the upper Yellow River before the Civil War. As an only child that extended family was, and is, very important to me and I frankly idolized my grandparents. The church has become a part of me in a slower way, stemming from my intense interest in history and genealogy. History of the local area and history of the development of religious institutions and their role and impact on communities are both of interest to me. And of course genealogy. In the case of Yellow River Baptist Church, my family’s role in the church from its beginning until today.
I’ve told this story before but indulge me again. My Mom and I attended the annual homecoming a few years back and after lunch I was talking to the church clerk, and I mentioned the old records that I knew had once existed. She said she had some old records with her and brought them out. I was immediately absorbed into looking through the book. This was the records from 1916 on. Sometime during the conversation I volunteered to digitize the records for the church. About a year later, after organizing the digital pages into book form, I was visiting Baker Block Museum and mentioned the book I was putting together for the church. Ann indicated that someone had brought in some really old records of the church, and they had digitized them. I asked for the name of the person who had brought them in but she would only agree to suggest to them that they take the records back to the church. From their digitized copies and what I had done, we put together a small book with a brief outline of the church history and an effort to create a membership list through the years.
To be frank, the copies from Baker Block Museum were poor and not of a quality to reproduce in a book. They had also not made an effort to link the front and back of pages so it was extremely difficult to organize the pages into their approximate original order given the original church clerks occasional efforts to save space by adding in minutes on a page from years before. And the name that was given to each page reflected something on the page or a date and not the order they were in as copied so the digital copies were truly an unorganized pile. Close to a year went by and one Sunday afternoon I got a call from the pastor telling me that a young man had appeared at the church door after services with a bag with the old records in it. He wanted me to get them organized and digitized. I said yes and asked if I needed to come down and pick them up. He said no, they could be at my house in about 15 minutes. Which meant he knew me well enough to start toward my house and call before they got here because I wouldn’t say no.
The scanning was over some time ago and the records packed up in archival boxes and returned to the church clerk. Spending time with the old records not only allowed me a glimpse into a number of my ancestors but it allowed me a glimpse into the role of the church in the community and the struggles that the small farming community experienced through the years, as well as the struggles of the church. It allowed me to dispel some stories that have come down to us and to experience the waxing and waning of the church and the community. Another book began to take root in my head. One that would provide a more complete history from its beginnings to the modern era. One that would hopefully put the little church into historical context. That book will soon be ready to send to the printer’s for a proof copy. The writing is done and I’m just compiling the section of old photos and the section of newspaper clippings concerning the church or one or more members since we don’t have written records later than 1950. I was hoping to have a proof copy by the church homecoming this year but that’s likely not going to happen. As a friend of mine likes to say, “Life is what happens while you are busy planning.” But I do think it will be done by Fall.
The book is divided into sections, each covering two decades, for the written narrative. While it isn’t always easy to cleanly separate history into neat little parcels, I think it has made the overall telling a bit easier to follow since it spans a century and a half. I created membership lists for each of these sections in a table format that will be easy to use for folks wanting to see if a relative is listed and how long they may have been members. Since I’ve researched a lot of these families, maiden names for women are also provided in parentheses when I know it and full names provided, if known, in brackets for entries that are only initials. Following the narrative sections are some photos of members through the years and a section of newspaper clippings involving the church or members. I did this because they help replace written records that don’t exist after 1950 and gives a more complete glimpse into the church’s rich history. I have also made an effort to list out the pastors, the deacons and the church clerks through the nearly two centuries of church history. The lists aren’t complete because there was not always mention of these crucial members.
I am planning to create a second volume of all of the digitized images for the church. I will be discussing with church members the provision of either a book or the digital copies of these records to select local entities should folks want to see the original images. Cost is a factor here, especially for the book form, so I don’t expect this to go quickly. When the church history is live and available for purchase, I will post something to let everyone know how to purchase. Availability of the digital copies of the church records will be announced when and if they are available outside of the efforts to make them available through local universities and museums.
A word on photos. I love old photos and I’ve been blessed that family and community members have willingly shared with me. But there are a lot of members in the past that we don’t have photos for. And some photos had to be left out because the quality was too poor for the paper publishing process. Sometimes when folks share, they shoot a copy with their phones and send them to me, but the photo isn’t straight, it isn’t in focus and the pixel quality is low. I still love to see them, but they aren’t in the book.
I know there is a story floating around that the church was founded by Creek Indians who came to the panhandle looking for a place to disappear. I am sure there were full and half-blood Indians who moved into the Florida panhandle as the situation became worse for the Indians in Georgia and Alabama but there is no evidence to date that this story is remotely accurate concerning the church. Since I am also researching the community of Oak Grove and surrounding small communities for another book, I have researched many of the families that settled along the northern shore of the Yellow River. I’ve found most in south-central Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina. They were on early census in these areas which indicates they were not living on tribal lands as Indians of any tribe but in the larger white culture since the census did not count Natives living on tribal lands except in special counts. None were listed on census as anything other than white. Only one woman in the early church records and early Florida census, and her children, were listed as mulattoes, the designation for native peoples in these early censuses as well as light-skinned blacks whether free or enslaved. And she was not a founding member of the church though she was a member briefly of the early church.
This is a tricky subject. Native peoples did not define people by race and so often “adopted” whites into a tribe because they married a native person or were beneficial to the economic well-being of the tribe and chose to live with the tribe. But in my opinion it isn’t accurate or helpful to go from the extreme of no native peoples were here and contributed to the development of the panhandle to everyone was native or part native. We need to try to collect data from the time and make an attempt to present an accurate picture that may change over time as evidence is uncovered. That’s the nature of genealogy and history. It is also true that a fair amount of intermarriage had been occurring in the southeastern U.S. for a century or more when the Florida panhandle was settled by immigrants from the U.S. So some of these folks could have been part native though by evidence of the census they had chosen to live in the larger white culture as whites. Whether they believed themselves native or white we may never know.
I am really ready to have this project completed so I can move on to my project on the communities of the upper Yellow River area in Florida. Thank you if you’ve shared stories or photos with me on this project. Whether they are in the book or not, I promise I enjoyed the exchange and/or the photos.
Now, for those of you who are descended from early members of the church or you are just interested in early church history in the panhandle or you would like to experience the love and fellowship of a small, rural church celebrating its founding, Yellow River Baptist Church’s homecoming is right around the corner. This is a celebration of the founding of the church in June 1840 by a handful of local folks. Homecoming is always the second Sunday in June. This year that is 12 Jun 2022. Service will start at 10:30 a.m. and will include the Adams Family singers. There is always a good turn-out, a good service and some good food afterwards. If you can, bring one of your favorite dishes to add to the always wonderful lunch. Please mark the date on your calendar and plan to attend. Last year there were a lot of descendants attending and I thoroughly enjoyed talking with each and hearing their stories.
Until Next Time
- Soon to be published, A History of Yellow River Baptist Church: Oak Grove Community, Baker, Okaloosa Co, Florida, 1840-2020, by Sharon D. Marsh