This story introduces the main family members who came to life in my latest book, NO STONE UNTURNED. If you have not yet read the book and would like to, it is now available in formats for Kindle and other e-readers, upon request. Because it is a mix of fact and fiction, you might want to delay reading this biographical piece until you’ve had an opportunity to read the book.
Barely into the new year of 1994, my family suffered the harrowing shock of sudden death. My husband died from a pulmonary embolus at the young age of 47. Grief overshadowed all else in my life and I withdrew into the darkness of depression. Unremarkably, in late 1994, my younger daughter, Ashley, was assigned the proverbial genealogy project for school; at her request, I agreed to help, not realizing I would become engrossed in the never-ending challenge of continuing the research. Slowly, without even realizing it, I began to function again, began to realize my life still had purpose, albeit solitary. I credit my newfound interest in family history research with helping me cope with the tragic loss of my husband; moreover, some fourteen years later, I also recognize the fact that it set me on a long and winding path to discovering a relative I never knew existed.
One of the first things I learned about genealogy is the utter importance of live interviews. I talked to everyone I could about our lineage; when I could not talk to them in person, I wrote letters.
As I questioned Daddy repeatedly about his branch of the family, one name, not on any of my charts, came up several times – Anna Mae Easley. Strangely enough, I had grown up knowing this lady and never questioned who she was or how she figured into our family. I remember her as a sweet and caring person, whose visits my family awaited with great anticipation. I knew her only as Daddy’s relative from Hattiesburg in southwest Mississippi; but, as I filled in the blanks on the various branches of our family tree, Anna Mae’s name was not there.
I was perplexed by the fact that no one seemed to know exactly who she was. I once again quizzed Daddy and his one surviving sibling, my Aunt Rachael. Although they knew her well and loved her dearly, neither could explain Anna Mae’s connection to our family. Essentially, both knew that their grandparents, Mary Victoria Beavers and Joseph Fairley Miller, had raised Anna Mae but neither knew exactly why or what her relationship to them had been.
Next, I wrote Anna Mae’s two sons, grown men residing in Mississippi with families of their own, but neither could explain why Anna Mae was raised by Joseph and Mary. They were able to offer little solid information; but they mentioned possible relatives and incomplete names that might help identify their maternal grandparents. Both admitted they did not know much about the circumstances of their mother’s childhood but were content with that. I have not attempted to share with their families what I eventually learned.
While re-reading old census records, I realized the 1910 census for Lamar County, Mississippi, listed one young granddaughter living in the household of Peter Miller, brother of my great-grandfather, along with Mary, my great-grandmother, and three of her children; I have not been able to determine where my great-grandfather was when this census was taken or if the census taker simply made a mistake. This four year old was neither the known grandchild of Peter Miller or Joseph and Mary, nor the known child of their offspring. Her name was listed as Anna Hall.
At some point, it clicked for me that Hall was Anna Mae’s maiden name, Easley her married name. I was thrilled with that small kernel of progress; but, just as quickly, I questioned, if Anna Mae were in fact Joseph and Mary’s granddaughter, who were her parents? Then, I became mindful of the fact that the 1920 census for Washington Parish, Louisiana, enumerated TWO granddaughters living in the household of Joseph Fairley Miller – Anna Mae Hall, again, and Beatryce Shelton. At that point, I felt I had taken one step forward and three back. I was faced with more enigmas I needed to unravel…who was Anna Mae Hall; who was Beatryce Shelton and what was her relationship to Anna Mae?
A researcher with far more experience than I suggested I start with a related fact I knew to be true and work toward identifying Anna Mae; so, in late summer of 1998, I ordered a certified copy of Anna Mae’s death certificate from Mississippi Vital Records, and began to review information surrounding the lives of my great-grandparents while I waited for it. Although the exact date of their union remains unknown to their descendants, Joseph and Mary, both born in Covington County, Mississippi, probably married in Mississippi in March 1890 but did not begin their family until 1893, according to the information I had compiled.
Some twenty years later, the family had grown to include six children. There were the usual family stories regarding their ancestry, who was Indian and who was not or who followed the railroad south or who did not, but only minimal proof of their roots.
Some find this type of information mundane, but I take pride in the fact we can trace Joseph’s paternal line some 300 years back from Joseph to Ebenezer Miller, born in the early 1700s. Several of the earliest known generations appeared in records from Edgefield District, South Carolina, before eventually migrating to Mississippi. Various state records indicate Joseph’s ancestors lived in several counties in Mississippi – Smith, Lamar, and Jefferson Davis.
We have researched Mary’s paternal tree seven generations back – from Mary to Hans Dietrick Bieber, born in Hirschland, Alsace Lorraine, Germany in 1651. (Five additional generations have been documented since Mary, making a total of twelve known generations. What an accomplishment!) Tracing these generations, knowing these names, does not change who I am; I am who I am. But it surely adds flavor to the gumbo of my family history.
Glimpses of Joseph and Mary’s life together can be found in Covington, Pike, Jefferson Davis, and Marion Counties in Mississippi, before they migrated to Bogalusa, Washington Parish, Louisiana.
Mississippi census records further revealed that Joseph earned a living by logging, as a young man, and by farming, throughout his life. Perhaps logging accounted for moving his family numerous times, as Joseph found it necessary to follow the timber.
Aunt Rachael remembered spending time, as a child, with her grandparents in the small town of Barth, Jefferson Davis County, Mississippi. She confirmed that Joseph was a logger and Mary ran a boarding house where she fed and housed other loggers. She also remembered her grandfather reading his Bible in the evenings; as she stood beside him, he would read the scriptures aloud to her. She said he rarely called her by name, but called her “Child” instead.
Only one record of a land patent in Joseph’s name has been located, in Covington County, Mississippi, in 1901, when he was a mere 33 years of age; so it would seem once Joseph began moving his family, he must have lived on and farmed someone else’s property in order to sell the produce he grew – not an easy life! My Dad, Charles Ray Williams, recalled that in later years the family lived on farm property owned by the Breland family, proprietors of a grocery store across from the State Theater on Columbia Street in Bogalusa. Joseph continued to farm and sell fresh produce in the Breland store until he was too old for the manual labor farming required.
These limited but poignant bits of memory paint a picture of a hard-working, devout man and his faithful, steely wife, working together, side by side, to provide for their family.
By the first week of September 1998, I received a copy of Anna Mae’s Certificate of Death, Mississippi State File Number 77-18764. Like a ravenous animal with discarded food, I devoured the abundance of information, fact by fact – her name, date of death, date of birth, place of death, marital status, Social Security Number, occupation, last known address, and finally….the names of her father and mother. There it was; in black and white. Anna Mae’s father was Jeremiah Hall and her mother was Eula Miller. Was this Eula Miller my great-grandparents’ daughter?
All I knew for sure at that point was that Anna Mae’s mother now had a name. It would be some time before I could verify that Eula Miller was my grandmother’s oldest sister and that I actually had a great-aunt I never knew. Nonetheless, this was a starting point. I had stumbled upon another stepping stone toward completing the Miller family tree; however, I still had not identified Beatryce Shelton nor did I know what had happened to Eula Miller.
Census records contain information deemed extremely valuable to family research; but, through the years, some have been lost or destroyed by fire. Unfortunately, the 1890 census for Mississippi falls into the category of the latter. Unable to find my great-grandparents on any census for 1900, I relied only on census information from 1910 and 1920, neither of which included Eula Miller. Her obvious absence was a likely indicator that she was married, living elsewhere, by the time those censuses were enumerated.
Even today, I continue to search for census records detailing the household of Eula and her husband. Eventually, by 1999, I posted an on-line query in an attempt to verify what I then suspected but was unable to substantiate – that Joseph and Mary had a daughter not included in my family records. If the missing child had been a son, the two grandchildren would have carried the Miller surname. Instead, they each carried a different family name, indicative of different marriages. Had Eula Miller married twice? I have been unable to find the official record of any marriage for Eula, but that is not an unusual scenario for that time period.
Several sympathetic researchers, responding to my query, were eager to help with my pursuit and pulled me into various areas dedicated to Miller and Shelton research. I met online, for the first time, distant relatives who were willing to share their family history, as well as the resources they had used to verify their research.
Based on their help, I was able to confirm that Joseph and Mary’s firstborn was not William Joseph Miller, born in 1893, but a daughter named Eula Miller, born between 1890 and 1892. Joseph and Mary had seven children, not six. Did that mean both of these children, identified as Joseph and Mary’s grandchildren, could have been Eula’s? Who was her second husband? What had happened to Eula and why had she not been involved in the lives of Anna Mae and Beatryce? Why had I never heard my grandmother speak of her sister? I must admit I never suspected that the saga of Eula’s existence would take the life-altering turns I later discovered in the dust of my family history.
These questions initiated many conversations with fellow Miller researchers and numerous lengthy visits to the genealogy section of the library. Although the official record of their marriage remains elusive, everything else that I found indicated Eula Miller married Jeremiah Hall in Mississippi around 1905 – 1906. Eula would have been, at most, sixteen years of age and, at least, thirteen years old at the time of her marriage. Her daughter, Anna Mae Hall, was born May 23, 1906.
As yet unconfirmed, but passed down as family lore, Jeremiah committed murder, was arrested, tried, and sentenced to prison in the state of Mississippi. As one can well imagine, this development is one I continue to explore today; I have a strong desire to know the details of his crime and how it affected his family. At some point during this timeframe, Eula apparently desired a fresh start. She sent young Anna Mae to live with her parents while she divorced Jeremiah and set about the task of beginning a new life.
One trusted Miller researcher introduced me to several Shelton family researchers who were able to add fuel to this fire. Both had transcribed items from the family Bible of Andrew Prim Shelton and Mary Callie Robinson. One entry therein recorded the marriage of their son, Archie Daniel Shelton, to Eula Miller Hall on April 18, 1910, in Forrest County, Mississippi. I now had another stepping stone in this rocky path leading to Eula. Arch was born in Mississippi on October 6, 1886, making him some four to six years older than Eula. He, too, had been married once before; but his matrimonial unions did not stop with Eula. We have found five known marriages for him before his death on September 1, 1953, at the age of 67.
I guess it was a logical assumption on my part that Beatryce Shelton was the first-born child of Arch and Eula, but I soon realized there is no room for assumption in genealogy. In a subsequent email from a Shelton family contact, I first heard about Gladys Shelton, the older sister of Beatryce, the middle daughter of Eula. I was stunned to learn of her existence and was immediately faced with even more perplexing questions – Who raised Gladys? Did she know her sisters? About that time, I began to wonder if there ever would be resolution for the never-ending issues surrounding the life of my great-aunt Eula.
Then, almost as if she knew I was feeling a bit conflicted by the various pieces of information now available to me, one of my Shelton family contacts dropped yet another bombshell in my lap. To my total surprise, Beatryce was alive and living in Corinth, Alcorn County, Mississippi. My connection was kind enough to contact her on my behalf, and Beatryce, then 88 years old, agreed to tell me what she could. The story she shared with me was not one I wanted to hear, but it certainly explained why Eula had not been part of her daughters’ lives, why her children were raised by relatives, and, last but not least, why my grandmother never spoke of her older sister. By the time Beatryce and I communicated, Eula had been dead for over 86 years.
Beatryce began by explaining that her sister Gladys had passed away in 1989, thereby making her my only resource for first-hand information. She further told me that she would be happy to share with me what she knew from others, older than she, who passed the information down to her and Gladys.
It seems that in her quest for a new and better life, Eula inevitably met and became intimate with Arch Shelton. They married, as mentioned earlier, on April 18, 1910; less than six months later, Eula gave birth to her second daughter, Gladys. Then, almost exactly two years later, Beatryce was born.
Family members related to the sisters that when Beatryce was about three months old, Eula was changing her diaper when she suffered a seizure of unknown origin. As she collapsed, Eula fell into the fire and died. Tragically, she was only 21 – 23 years old at the time of her death. Beatryce and Gladys were so young neither had any memory of their mother. Anna Mae, having lived most of her short life with her grandparents, remembered little more.
Beatryce offered no explanation as to why Arch Shelton, who remarried in less than two years, did not raise his daughters. She disclosed that she and Gladys were in agreement Arch Shelton was not a nice person; I believe “mean” was the word she used. She further indicated he may have been implicated in the death of their younger half-sister, born to one of Archie’s later marriages; but, without proof, they were unable to pursue the matter.
One can only surmise that Joseph and Mary were eager to provide a more stable home life for all three of Eula’s daughters. By the time of her mother’s death, Anna Mae had been living with Joseph and Mary for at least three years. Beatryce lived with them following Eula’s death, as well as with Cora Miller Shelton and her husband, Oscar Shelton, Eula’s sister and Archie’s brother, another Miller/Shelton marriage. Other relatives cared for Gladys, although I do not yet know their identities.
This tragic story influenced the lives of so many people in such diverse ways. Joseph and Mary suffered the loss of their firstborn child. I have always heard there is no loss like that of a child; and yet they opened their hearts and their home to their grand-daughters. By the year of Eula’s untimely death, Joseph and Mary had six children and Mary was pregnant with their seventh, Buford Taylor Miller, born December 13, 1913. What a sacrifice they made.
The three sisters, although they knew the love of their grandparents and other relatives, lost the protective, unconditional love of their mother, and, evidently, never knew the love of their fathers. While they most certainly knew each other, the girls were denied forever the opportunity to grow up together, bonding as only sisters can, through the routine experiences of childhood that most of us take for granted. Many times, people born into such abject circumstances suffer the consequences, the effects, throughout their lives. But Anna Mae seemingly used her birthright to her advantage.
Unquestionably, Anna Mae, as an adult, felt an urgency to provide for her family the safe haven and enduring love abundant within most family units, that sweet refuge she lost upon the failed marriage of her parents and the ensuing death of her mother.
Last but not least, this sad saga intrigued me from the moment I realized I could not easily place Anna Mae on any branch of our family tree. Innocently enough, I set out to solve the mystery of where Anna Mae fit into our family, but found myself mired in the murky details surrounding her mother’s life. Although all three daughters are now deceased, when I recall the sketchy details of this story, I immediately think of Anna Mae’s legacy. Not the birthright Eula left for Anna Mae, but rather the legacy Anna Mae left for her descendants. Steadfast appreciation of and deep commitment to family punctuated her life, gave it clarity and meaning.
I chose to write the details of this story, told as much from family legend as from fact, so future genealogists can continue to track the footprints of Eula and Anna Mae across the sands of time. What we have here is just a starting point, deeply anchored in the love of family.