Tracing History: Follow the Chancery Brick Road

Thank you for stopping by! In this post, we’ll be tracing history via a marriage record viewable via an online chancery case that will take us to some unexpected places. We’ll learn a lot along the way.

We’ve seen how chancery court records can be a treasure trove of genealogical information. There are times that the information may be more than expected or even more than one wants to see. Still, excavating the facts presented in the records is an important step in tracing family history.

Let’s review the Greensville County, Virginia chancery cause of Claiborne Williams v. Sarah Williams. In April 1892, Claiborne charged that his wife abandoned him in 1882, after seven years of marriage. Sarah retorted that her actions were with good reason.

The record is replete with depositions of witnesses and statements from both Claiborne and Sarah. While the charges levied against both parties aren’t something to celebrate, I have seen much worse allegations in other historical chancery case documents.

While the marriage was unfortunately dissolved, the prize of their 1875 marriage record remains. Many freed persons held to cohabitation for years rather than court recognized unions. In 2011, when I first saw an example of this in my own family’s history, I thought that there had been an error in the record.

I needed a better understanding.

In April 2011, noted anthropologist Faye V. Harrison, Ph.D. (and my 1st cousin twice removed), provided that understanding via this excellent and proper context for these types of relationships and how they are perceived:

There is probably a lot of room for error in these records. However, it was common in the 19th century for legal marriage to follow common-law unions that were socially recognized as marriages within communities.

Sometimes even church marriages took place separate from legalities. We tend to assume that these dimensions are inextricable, but they aren’t necessarily so. It is common in the African Diaspora (in the US, the Caribbean, etc) for the legalization of marriage to occur many years after unions have stabilized with the proliferation of children.

Legal marriage secured the family’s hold on accumulated property and protected offspring’s claims to property (when there was property to claim in the case of small farmers. Tenant farmers and sharecroppers, on the other hand, had very little property to bequethe to their children.

So legal protection in a society where the law did not operate to the advantage of most blacks was less of an issue than spiritual protection, which could be acquired through religious rites.) Some of our ancestors might well have undergone the legalities of marriage long after their families were formed.

We today may look down upon this as a moral issue, but social history indicates that this was quite common for both African and European Americans.”

Comment Courtesy of:
Faye V. Harrison
Joint Professor of Anthropology & African American Studies
University of Florida (April 2011)

Important information to retain! Continued thanks to Dr. Harrison for her most helpful family history insight.

Here is that wonderful 1875 Brunswick County, Virginia marriage record for Claiborne Williams and Sarah Grain. When I saw this document, it immediately caused me to want to learn and share more about the family history of those named:

Better Days: The 17 Nov 1875 Marriage License for Claiborne Williams and Sarah Grain

Let’s follow the records for Claiborne and his family:

1870 U.S. Census Record Showing Claiborne (Clayborn) Williams and Family

30 Jun 1870 enumeration date
Hicksford Township, Greensville County, Virginia

Poplar Mount Post Office

Ranson Williams 49
Harriet Williams 44
Clayborn Williams 17
James Williams 10*
Ann Williams 15
Clara Ferguson 70

1900 U.S. Federal Census-Claiborne Williams

15 Jun 1900 enumeration date

Emporia Town, Greenville County, Virginia

Claiborne Williams 50 divorced carpenter

Marriage record for Claiborne’s brother, James Williams*:

02 Oct 1901 Marriage Record for James Williams and Kizzie Elliss
Kizzie’s Maiden Name…Mason, Per Marriage Record
James Williams and Sarah Williams (brother and mother of Claiborne Williams) in the 1900 U.S. Federal Census
By 1900, according to the census record, James was widowed and living with his mother, Sarah, as boarders (probable relatives)

This record provides a prime opportunity to discuss an important research tip when reviewing census records. There are many times that an extended family member will be referenced as a “boarder.”

Here are a few helpful write-ups about that:

“It may not have occurred to you, but you really need to examine each person listed in a household on a US Federal Census. You just might be overlooking a relative.”—-Common Error on a Census (

Census Tricks: Not Lodgers or Boarders but Relatives—-Reclaiming Kin (

Boarder and Lodger, whats the difference?—-(


Let’s look for Sarah Grain-later Sarah Williams and her family in the records:

Sarah Grain Williams and Grain Family in the 1880 U.S. Federal Census

1880 U.S. Census Record

10 Jun 1880 enumeration date

Hicksford District

Sterling Graine 56
Rebecca Graine 57
Sarah Graine 25
Mary Graine 3
William Graine 2
Lilia Graine 7
Polly Cain 80 “wife’s mother”

Just a note to say what a genealogical gem to have the annotation of Polly Cain being “wife’s mother” on the census record!

Ladies and gentlemen, while writing this post, I just discovered a kismet of a connection. The Sarah Grain Williams of this focus is the same Sarah Williams that I wrote about previously❕I also wrote a bit about Polly Cain and Claiborne there. I had not seen the chancery record involving Claiborne and Sarah (who lived to be 104 years old).

Wow! What an interesting journey in family history research. We have traced the history, “followed the chancery brick road” right back “home” to “Aunt Sarah.” I truly hope that this information proves helpful to those searching for more genealogical breakthroughs.

The Genealogy Situation Room

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