Was My Great-Grandfather Part of Civil War History?

Tracing Your Roots: Written and oral accounts leave tantalizing clues about great-grandparents who may have been born slaves.

Sherman’s March to the Sea, by Alexander Hay Ritchie, circa 1868; Joseph Wiggins Sr.  
Sherman’s March to the Sea, by Alexander Hay Ritchie, circa 1868; Joseph Wiggins Sr.   LIBRARY OF CONGRESS; COURTESY OF KATE WIGGINS

The Guion Miller Roll records are helpful because they include applications that demonstrate an individual’s eligibility based on descent and often include both English and Native names. The collection also contains any rejected applications, which would include individuals who left the Cherokee Nation before 1835 or who failed to prove a relationship to a member of the Eastern Cherokee. Because of this, you may be able to locate a record for one of your ancestors even if they were no longer members of the Eastern Cherokee or their claim had been denied. Likely, the best method for you to find a potential ancestor would be to search for the Sanford surname in the records.

The index for the records is available on Access Genealogy. A quick search of the surname Sanford indicates that four individuals (none named Queen) applied under that name, and two of them were from Georgia. Because the applications were submitted in 1906, you should also search for the surname Wiggins in case Queen or any of her children applied under that name. Copies of the applications, report and roll are available on microfilm through the Family History Library, so you can view the original documents.

Also, you might want to consider an autosomal DNA test to see if it there is any evidence of Native American ancestry in your DNA. The companies AncestryDNA, 23andMe and FamilyTreeDNA all offer autosomal testing, which gives you a broad overview of all the different genetic components of your ancestry.

What About the Legend Involving Gen. Sherman?

Your family legends also tell you that Joseph was a water boy for Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman when he marched through Milledgeville, Ga., in 1864. One way to determine the likelihood that this story is true would be to locate documents related to Sherman’s March through Georgia and compare it with what you know about Joseph Wiggins.

There may not be a way to prove this story if Joseph’s work as a water boy was not noted in papers related to the campaign or in an eyewitness account of Sherman’s time in Milledgeville. If Joseph was a slave at the time, his owner may also have made mention of Joseph’s actions. If you are able to identify Joseph’s former owner, you could see if a local library or museum holds the papers of his or her estate. If you are able to identify exactly where Joseph was living at the time and compare it with records from Sherman’s March, you may at least be able to determine the probability that the story is true.

Newspaper articles contemporary to the time, such as in Harpers Weekly, may provide information on the military’s actions and may also include information about local residents. An article in the Journal of Southern History, “Sherman at Milledgeville in 1864” by James C. Bonner, available through Jstor.org, may also provide a starting point for locating documents on Sherman’s time in Milledgeville.

Finally, Anna Maria Green Cook’s diary (pdf) from 1925 provides an account of Sherman in Milledgeville. The University of Georgia Libraries hold the diary, along with her family’s papers. Because she mentioned Joseph Wiggins and Queen Sanford in her history of Baldwin County, she may have mentioned them in these records, too.

Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and founding director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University. He is also editor-in-chief of The Root. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

Send your questions about tracing your own roots to TracingYourRoots@theroot.com.

This answer was provided in consultation with Meaghan Siekman, a researcher from the New England Historic Genealogical Society. Founded in 1845, NEHGS is the country’s leading nonprofit resource for family history research. Its website, AmericanAncestors.org, contains more than 300 million searchable records for research in New England, New York and beyond. With the leading experts in the field, NEHGS staff can provide assistance and guidance for questions in most research areas. They can also be hired to conduct research on your family. Learn more today.