Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Poor Guilty Creatures

During my first visit to the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, my research focused on my 4th great-grandfather Burr Zelah Dornon. This will come as no surprise to readers of this blog who are already familiar with my obsession with the question of when and where he died and was buried (see Narrowing Burr's Window of Death).

Family History Library - Salt Lake City

In the 1860 U.S. Federal Census, Burr is enumerated with his family in Jackson County, Virginia (soon to be West Virginia). After reviewing the library's catalog, I discovered that Jackson County's microfilmed Chancery Court records covered this time period. Perhaps one of the Dornons made an appearance? In my effort to conduct a reasonably exhaustive search, I had to review the records.

Row after row of microfilm-filled cabinets comprise a portion of the library's second floor. I quickly found the Jackson County Chancery Court records, and made myself at home in the dark at a reader - elbow to elbow with a horde of other genealogists.

Microfilm Reel Storage

Slowly, I began manually spinning through the film. I was pleasantly surprised to find there was a name index. My search crawled as I reached the D's. I held my breath as my eyes glanced through the names: Duffield, Deweese, Dornon. Dornon! I wanted to jump out of my chair and do a silent jig!

This wasn't just any Dornon. It was Dornon, B Z! Burr.Zelah.Dornon - my 4th great-grandfather! What information awaited me in the records? The answers to all of my questions, of course!

I quickly took note of the page number for his record: 138. I spun the hand crank forward, cruising through the handwritten documents. Page 20, page 50, page 190. Too far! I spun into reverse.

Page 86...Page 169. Wait! My hand didn't even make a full rotation between those two records. The microfilmed pages jumped from 86 to 169. There was no page 138! The records with all of my answers (or so I hoped) were missing from the microfilm. I had a terrible sinking feeling. 

Have you ever wondered what heartbreak and despair looks like to a genealogist? Behold:

Jackson County Chancery Court Records - Page 138 Missing
I moved through the rest of the microfilm reel to make sure the pages weren't included elsewhere, but the loss was real.

My time in Salt Lake and at the library was too limited to indulge my heartache for long. I decided to learn more about Jackson County during the 1860s. 

Jackson County During the War
The library had a county history by Dean Moore that was available online (for in-library use only) titled, "Washington's Woods : A History of Ravenswood and Jackson County, West Virginia." It included a section on the county during the Civil War, and made for a compelling read.

I learned that most men in the county made their living as farmers, and that it was among Virginia's top producing regions of tobacco. Although President Lincoln was terribly unpopular in the county (he didn't receive a single vote during the 1860 election), the majority of the citizens wanted to remain with the Union.

Curiously, between a vote on secession in May 1861 and an October 1861 vote to create a separate state in western Virginia, the male voting population decreased by 3/4. Where did all of the men go? According to Moore, they were either recruited into military service, taken prisoner of war (by either side), or killed. Where was Burr during this time? Was he still alive? What was his fate?

Poor Guilty Creatures
You may recall that Burr's son Andrew wrote a letter that told of the family's escape from Jackson County in September 1862 as Confederate forces took control of the previously Union-controlled territory. During this surprise invasion, the Dornon family fled westward to Ohio (the family bible was lost in the Ohio River as a result of the family's haste to escape the Rebels). 

I've speculated that Burr was alive during this flight, but there's no documentation to confirm or contradict this theory. Moore's sobering statistics on the significant decrease in the male population forces me to reconsider my assumptions.

Moore cites the diary of Henrietta Fitzhugh Barr who was a southern sympathizer living in Jackson County. Barr's diary, which was also recently shared with me by the Jackson County Historical Society, illustrates the panicked departure that many families, like the Dornons, made from Jackson County. 

Barr's commentary still sears through the pages - more than 150 years later - and bites of the tension that must have been endemic across the country.
"The union men, women, and children are escaping in hot haste over the river." September 3, 1862
"...a great many of our Union neighbors have skedaddled. Poor guilty creatures; they are afraid of their own shadows." September 16, 1862

Those poor guilty creatures include my Dornons, but was Burr still alive?

Moore's insights into the dramatic decrease in the male population over the span of a few short months, and Barr's callous diary mocking the fleeing Union families makes me even more curious about Burr's circumstances.

What would the Chancery Court records have brought to light? I know, I know - let it go! [sigh]

Clearly, I'm nowhere closer to an answer about when and where he died and was buried, but the dramatic tension has jumped up to deafcon five! I don't know about you, but I'm more intrigued than ever. There's a story here that feels bigger than my initial questions, and the search has to go on!

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