Saturday, November 21, 2020

The Kentucky Orphans Scattered to the Wind

Joseph and Priscilla (Barker) Lumpkins, my fourth great-grandparents, both died in about 1848 in Morgan County, Kentucky, leaving their eleven children - all under the age of 20 - orphaned. 

The causes of their untimely deaths remain a mystery. It doesn't help that Morgan County was a burned county -  no official county records such as probate or court order books survive to shed light on how the Lumpkins' estate was settled including the fate of their children. 

However, the 1850 US Federal census offers clues, revealing how the court decided to scatter the Lumpkins children across the county with the kids enumerated in the households of neighboring families. 

An Early Morgan County, Kentucky Settler

The Lumpkins' two eldest sons, John and William (my third great-grandfather) - who were about 19 and 16 at the time their parents died, eventually indicated in the 1880 US Federal census that Joseph and Priscilla were both born in Virginia. According to the 1840 census, Joseph Lumpkins was born between 1801 and 1810 and would have been between 38 and 47 years old when he died.

When did Joseph arrive in Kentucky? While it's hard to pinpoint an exact date, we can certainly narrow the time frame.

Morgan County was founded in December 1822, and the earliest surviving tax records date to 1823. In that first year of recorded taxes, the surname Lumpkins was enumerated without a first name. Was this Joseph? 

1823 Morgan County, Kentucky tax list enumerating a Lumpkins

No Lumpkins were enumerated in the 1824 tax list, but we know Joseph was in the area. That was the year he married Priscilla Barker on October 21st. 

October 21, 1824 Morgan County, Kentucky marriage between 
Joseph Lumpkins and Priscilla Barker

Beginning in 1825, Joseph Lumpkins was named on the county's tax lists. In fact, he was the only Lumpkins enumerated in each ensuing tax year until 1836 when a William Lumpkins appeared for the first time (some researchers speculate this was Joseph's brother arriving from Virginia). Thus, it appears that Joseph was likely the Lumpkins who appeared on the 1823 tax list - suggesting this was his first recorded appearance in Morgan County - making him one of the earliest settlers after the county's establishment.

A Family Divided

When minor-aged children were orphaned it was common for the court to place them with local families and task them with providing for their wellbeing and education. And sure enough, across the county, families were enumerated in the 1850 census with the minor-aged Lumpkins children. 

  • Dwelling # 28 - home to William and Sarah Pearce - included 2-year-old Francis M. Lumpkins.
  • Dwelling # 396 - home to William and Prudence Lykins - included sisters Manerva and Caroline Lumpkins (aged 19 and 10 respectively). 
  • Dwelling # 400 - home to James and Catherine Davis - included Jane and Perlina Lumpkins (aged 13 and 4 respectively).
  • Dwelling # 948 - home to Jacob and Elizabeth Henry - included 15-year-old Joseph Lumpkins 
  • Dwelling # 951 - home to Lewis Henry - included 6-year-old Wiley Lumpkins.
  • Dwelling # 962 - home to William and Eliza Henry - included brothers George and Thomas Lumpkins (aged 13 and 7 respectively).

Lost Sons

Notably missing from the 1850 enumerations in Morgan County were the two eldest Lumpkins sons: John and William. Where did they go?

Brothers John (left) and William Lumpkins (right)

I may have located John. There is a John Lumpkins - the right age, 21 years old, and born in Kentucky - enumerated as a farmer living with the Greathouse family in Mason County, Kentucky - about 80 miles north of Morgan County. Could this be the elder Lumpkins son? 

What About My Guy?

William, my third great-grandfather, was in Morgan County in 1853 when he married Phoebe Howerton and still there in 1854 when he was first enumerated on the county's tax list. Where was he in 1850?

Perhaps he was enumerated under the surname of his foster family. A search of Ancestry's transcriptions turned up 529 men with the forename William living in Morgan County in 1850. Narrowing it down to men born in 1832 - William's birth year - slims the list to just 11 men.

Of the 11 households, two are worth considering further if we're open to the possibility that the enumerator made a mistake.

First is the household of Lewis Henry who was cited above as the home to Wiley Lumpkins (aged 6). Immediately preceding Wiley's name - whose Lumpkins surname is spelled out - is William followed by quotation marks indicating that his surname was Henry. Was this a mistake and were the two brothers placed in the same house together?


Second is the household of James and Anna Haney. They have six minors in the household all surnamed Haney. The last individual enumerated in the home is an 18-year-old William Stacy. Stacy just so happens to be the surname of the next family enumerated. Was this a mistake and Lumpkins was incorrectly given the surname of the neighboring family?

Alas, they're just theories and it's awfully difficult to prove a clerical mistake 170 years after the fact. 

In the meantime, let's celebrate the victories at hand: the census played an important role in helping fill the gap left by Morgan County's lost records and locating the scattered family.

Now if I could just figure out what William Lumpkins was up to in 1850...


  1. I think there was a cholera epidemic in 1848 that affected many states. My husband's ancestors died in the same time frame in northern Missouri.

    1. It looks like there was a severe cholera outbreak in Kentucky in 1849. Thanks for bringing this to my attention. I had no idea, and it may very well have been the culprit for Joseph and Priscilla's untimely deaths.

  2. How sad that they were scattered that way, but hard to keep eleven together unless the oldest two could have cared for them. But are you saying that the court had the power to require families to take in these orphans against their will? That seems rather un-American! Today we can't even get people to wear masks!

    1. It's not entirely clear to me how the court decided which families would foster the orphaned children. In reviewing Morgan County's surviving court order books (and I've seen this in other counties outside of Kentucky), a notation would say identify a community member and simply note that he was now responsible for the care/education of the orphan. Perhaps the county provided some remuneration, but if they did it wasn't noted in the records I saw. Certainly the circumstances of the court-ordered placements would heavily influence how those families viewed and treated the orphaned (not well, I would imagine, if the placement was against their will).

  3. Fascinating. I wonder if someone once studied all this and helped to develop the (still-flawed) foster care system we have today.

    1. Oh, I wonder if it did inform the foster care system. Sounds like a good idea for a college student's thesis.

  4. I've been studying the census for Cross Creek Twp. in Jefferson Co. Ohio (and adjoining areas) in 1850 and so many families have a kid or two with a different last name. Some of the kids seem related, a lot don't. I was wondering what happened to orphan so many kids. Maybe cholera? I'm now reading through a 1910 county history. I haven't found much yet, but did discover the two census enumerators were prominent members of the community.

    1. This week I'm back to my Kirk family research in Licking County, Ohio. I'm trawling through journal books for the Court of Common Pleas. There are many entries for children being placed with guardians after the death of their father (even if the mother is alive minors still go through this guardianship process). That may be why we're seeing families that include children with different surnames.