Getting Back to Some Hard Genealogy

It took a near-disaster in the form of a hard disk failure to bring me back to doing some basic genealogy. I took me a week to recover and reassemble my files, which had been backed up onto three different systems. The redundancy was a fortunate thing born out of some lethargy in organization. As a fortuitous happenstance, I lost not a single file.

But as I reassembled and reorganized my files (an ongoing project), I came across several items that I had not looked at in awhile. That fired up the research imagination and fueled a new round of seeking some of my MIA ancestors.

 Desperately Seeking Sarah

As my sole remaining Loyal and Constant Reader, you recall that I have spent years trying discover information about my maternal gg-grandmother, Sarah Gilbert Johnson, said by family tradition to be an Indian. Here’s what we know about her:

  • She seems to appear with her husband on the 1870 US Census in Liberty, Clay County, MO [The entries are for “Johnson” (no first name; male, black, farmer) and “——-”, female, black, “keeps house.”]. I think this refers to her because they are the only black Johnson couple in the county without any children and their ages are within an appropriate range.
  • She seemingly appears on no other census records after 1880, by which time she has six children, living with Ezekiel in Kansas City, MO.
  • Zeke” marries one Irena Neal in 1885; suggesting that Sarah has died.

We then undertook the following search efforts:

  • Searched US Censuses 1850 & 1860, for “Sarah Gilbert.” We looked in Clay, Platte, and Jackson Counties, Missouri. We chose these counties for their proximity to the site of her marriage and where she lived in 1880. We didn’t find her in those places in those years.
  • We searched marriage records in Jackson County, Missouri and found that several “Sarah Johnsons” had married after 1880. A possible implication here is that Sarah did not die in the 1880s, but was divorced from Zeke. There is no further evidence that would allow a conclusion on that theory,
  • One clue I found tantalizing from the Kansas state census is a woman named Hannah Gilbert, married to one William Gilbert. This family is African American. Could they be Sarah’s parents? However, they appear for a brief while, then vanish from the records. There’s no reasonable path from them to Sarah.
  • We looked at marriage records for Clay County and Jackson County in Missouri. We found no Gilbert other than Sarah herself, marrying Zeke in 1867.
  • We examined a limited sample of newspapers from the appropriate times and locations; again we found no Gilberts.
  • We examined the pre-1910 Missouri Death Certificates from the Missouri State Archives. This was also unproductive (as it might be if our supposition that she died in the 1880s in correct; Missouri didn’t have mandatory death certificates until 1910).
  • We examined the post-1910 Missouri death records for Jackson County and the counties comprising the greater Kansas City area. There are several “Sarah Johnsons” listed. However, further identifying information is missing. For example, one “Sarah Johnson” had a unknown birthplace and unknown parents.

Part of our thinking about the methods shown above was to locate collateral relatives of Sarah’s who might lead to a clue about her. But the main assumption we made was that Sarah was born and lived in the greater Kansas City area her entire life. This theory would have Zeke perhaps having known her or known of her before he joined the Army and returned to marry her. Or the other possibility is that he met her upon his return from the Army.

Thinking about Zeke and Sarah marrying after his return from the war brought me back to the realization that he was mustered out of the Army in February 1866 in Huntsville, Alabama. He married Sarah in September 1867. What was he doing in that intervening year and a half? Well, for one thing, he was finding his way back to Kansas City.

So suppose Zeke met Sarah somewhere along his way back to Missouri from Alabama?

What route and what mode of travel did he take? How long did it take him to make the homeward journey? Did he perhaps stop in St Louis where he had been inducted? Did he meet Sarah there? A reasonable route on the nearly 700 mile trip would pass through Nashville and St Louis. The answers to these questions may shed light on the origins of Sarah Gilbert.


3 Responses to “Getting Back to Some Hard Genealogy”

  • Craig says:

    Thanks, Kitty. You are correct that in most states a legislative action was required for a divorce before the twentieth century. I do not know what the rules were in Missouri, but you’ve given me another avenue of inquiry!

    I found Missouri newspapers at the State Historical Society of Missouri’s Missouri Digital Newspaper Project, a partnership between SHS and the University of Missouri. Go to: for the SHS site; or go to:
    for the University of Missouri site.

    Missouri newspapers can also be found at the Missouri Secretary of State’s Missouri Digital Heritage site at:

    For newspapers from elsewhere, see Miriam Robbins’ outstanding site,
    Online Historical Newspapers at:

  • Kitty Brown says:

    If I remember right early divorce records took a legislative decree. I do not have my resource material with me as to actual years. But look it up. Just don’t give up. The longer you look, the greater the joy. Happy hunting Kitty

    Also where did you access the newspapers from?

  • Craig, I do The same thing revisiting “lost” souls when I am forced to reorganize. KC and MO are tough places to research; I only found my gm birth when I found her baptism record. I will keep a look out for yours too.

October 2011
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