Alice Roberta Whatley has long been a void in my otherwise rather robust family tree. Over the years, I’ve looked for her, but it seemed every attempted left me empty-handed and widened those gaps in time before I tried again. I became more “half-hearted” with each unsuccessful attempt. I’d take a look at Ancestry birth or death or marriage records, stare at census lists thinking to myself, this is pointless….
What I knew about Alice was summed up in two pieces of data. One was a fragile old scrap of paper, so old and thin as to be virtually transparent, but which dates back to the very day I was infected by the genealogy contagion – the trip around south Georgia and Alabama with my grandmother and “Cousin James”.
He had taken us to his sister Genevieve’s home. Sadly, she was not there, but she had left some little bits of papers that have evolved into absolute treasures as the years have passed. On one, she left little stories about my grandfather, Alice’s husband, John James McKemie. Genevieve wrote down the stories she remembered as told to her by her father. John James, according to this note, had left home at the age of 17 to work in Phenix Mills and eventually married Alice Whatley “from Girard”. They moved on to Columbus. Alice died when Robert and Mabel were children.
From this I had a name and a couple of place names, but not much else. My second bit of information came from the 1910 census in which Alice is listed with John, Robert and Mabel.
And these two items of data sustained me for years. What I considered the void of information in Ancestry and FamilySearch online databases discouraged me. When I did pick up the gauntlet thrown down my Alice, I had it my mind that I needed to search out more and more exotic databases, sure that somehow that was the answer.
Recently, a work assignment took me to Salt Lake City, Utah, for three weeks. Now, I thought, will be the time and place to break through that brick wall preventing me from understanding who Alice really was. My physical proximity to the largest genealogical library lit a fire, one filling me with hope and determination and none of the half-hearted silliness of the past. I resolved to return to basic research principles, to, at a minimum, document where I looked and what I did and didn’t find.
I evaluated what I did know – particularly these two place names.
Girard, the little place mentioned in Genevieve’s scrap of paper, was a small township in southeast Alabama, right beside Phenix City, both in Russell County, Alabama. It was incorporated in 1883, but in 1923, it was absorbed by Phenix City. And right across the Chattahoochee River was Columbus, Georgia.
Folks in Girard, Phenix City and Columbus made frequent use of the bridges over the Chattahoochee, it seems, moving freely and often between the two states.
I discovered there was a cemetery in Phenix City called Girard Cemetery, but Find-a-Grave has yet to photograph or list all its inhabitants. Alice died before either state started recording death certificates.
I moved into newspaper research, after having once again struck out in FamilySearch and Ancestry searches. The census gave me a vague idea of how old Alice might be and therefore when she might have been born, but I still wasn’t able to match her to anyone and she wasn’t turning up in any of the old death and burial records for Girard, Phenix City, Russell County or Muscogee County.
Once I hit the newspapers, though…oh my, what a wonderful moment when the hits started popping up. First I found an article describing Officer McKemie making it to his mother’s bedside before she passed on. From this, I knew I was in the right region, at least. Gratified, more articles surfaced and suffering through the misspellings, the McKinnies and McKemmies etc, I learned in one night more than I had in the preceding decade.
I found clippings describing John James as a police officer for the town of Columbus, everything from his misadventures with a Flivver and a cow to the passing of his and Alice’s third, and previously unknown to me, child.
Eventually, I learned of his mother-in-law’s passing in 1903, including details of her brother, all of which gave me not only Alice’s parents, but even a maiden name for Alice’s mother! Amazing!
And eventually, I found Alice’s own mortuary notice, listing survivors John, Robert and Mabel. There it was in print, the truth of my grandfather losing his mother when he was 10 and Mabel 6 and what that would come to mean down the years when later generations went searching for him.
The notice included Alice’s age as 40, which hopefully will eventually help. She was buried “in Girard”. I’m thinking that could mean either the cemetery named Girard or the old town, as it was still a town when she passed. More time and investigation will yield those truths. I’m more certain of that now.
From this little adventure, I was reminded of an important aspect of genealogy, especially relevant in today’s ever changing technological landscape. Rather than looking far and wide for unusual sources I regrouped and started from the beginning, utilizing the basic tenants of research and this shift yielded results. Death – children/marriage – birth
Much more still needs to be found, of course. Paramount on my to do list for Alice is a trip to the region when I’m back in Georgia for more than 3 or four days.
So as of now, Alice’s branch in the family tree is no longer bare. Follow her Wikitree link for more specifics. And please, if you know more about Alice, her parents, or anything else connected to this couple, let me know!