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A reader seeks details on grandparents who left behind a family tree with many branches.

Dear Professor Gates:

Can you please help me get some clear history on my grandfather and grandmother? My father, George W. Murphy, was born March 25, 1919, in Little Rock, Ark., one of many siblings. My grandmother Ada Wiley Murphy was born about 1890, and my grandfather George W. Murphy was born about 1875 or 1879, likely in Terre Haute, Ind. 

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I noticed on the 1920 census for Lonoke County, Indian Bayou, Ark., that my grandpa George Murphy Sr. was 50, grandma Ada was 30 and my dad, George Murphy Jr., was 11 months old. I have been told Ada’s maiden name was either Nesbitt or Carter. Can you help me work backward in time, please? —Teresa Murphy Thompson

Your grandparents began their family during a time in Arkansas’ history when Jim Crow segregation laws shaped every aspect of life and, in combination with racial violence, fed the Great Migration of African Americans northward in the early decades of the 20th century. “From the 1880s through the 1920s, more than two hundred blacks were lynched in Arkansas. Not infrequently, lynchings were carried out with either the tacit approval of authorities, or, in some cases, the active assistance of law enforcement officials or local elites,” according to Charles Orson Cook in the “Arkansas” chapter of the Encyclopedia of African American History, 1896 to the Present: From the Age of Segregation to the Twenty-first Century.

As for conditions in the region where your family lived, he writes, An attempt to ‘cleanse’ some communities of black residents was also an irregular, but not unknown, practice in the early 20th century. The rice farming community of Lonoke, just east of Little Rock, intimidated many Negroes into leaving town hastily in the late 1890s.” Fortunately, by 1920 your kin were able make their home there.

The Advantages of a Family Tree With Many Branches

The fact that your father had many siblings is a blessing from a genealogical standpoint, in that it gives us a wide pool of records from which to gain leads. You will first want to organize the information you can gather about the family from the 1920 census in order to work backward. In 1920, farmer George W. Murphy Sr.; his wife, Ada; and a number of their children, including your father, George Jr., were residing in Indian Bayou, Lonoke, Ark.

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As you mentioned, directly next door is George Murphy Sr.’s son, Theoplius Murphy; his wife, Janice; and their infant son, Ophulious. Based on the age of Theoplius (19), he could not be the son of Ada, who was only 10 years older than him. This suggests that George had a previous marriage.

The record for the family headed by George Sr. in 1910 reports them in Breckenridge, Jackson, Ark. Residing in the household is Theoplius, who was 9 years old, and two of Ada’s children, Otha Wiley (born about 1907) and Dillard Wiley (born about 1909). Comparing this with the 1920 census record for the family, it appears that Dillard assumed his stepfather’s name, Murphy.

It’s worth noting that Otha Wiley does not appear in the household at all in 1920. She would have been only 13 years old at that time and too young to have married. If she died between 1910 and 1920, a death record for her may reveal more about her mother. If you search the death index for “Otha” who died between 1910 and 1920, there are several returns, but none with the surname Wiley or Murphy. Keep in mind that this index begins in 1914, and she could have died prior to this date. You may want to contact the county clerks in Jackson and Lonoke counties to see if they have earlier death records that may include one for Otha.

When you hit a roadblock, always return to the records you have for more clues that can lead you to more records. If you examine the 1910 record closely, you’ll notice that it says that this is George Murphy’s second marriage, but the first for Ada. It also records that Ada had given birth to two children and that both were living, which means that Dillard and Otha are her only children by that date. The record also tells you that the couple had not yet been married a year, so they were newlyweds.

With this information, we located their marriage record in Jackson County, Ark., on Feb. 25, 1910. According to the record, George was 31 years old and Ada Willey (note the variant spelling) was 22 years of age. The record does not indicate which marriage it was for either party, but it does record Ada as “Miss” Willey instead of “Mrs.,” which may indicate that she had not previously been married. This suggests that Wiley may have been her maiden name, not Nesbitt or Carter. Her children may have borne her surname and not that of their father.

The Wisdom of Working in Both Directions

Records for the children of George and Ada (both together and separately) may reveal more about them that could help you work even further back in time. In this case, it is helpful to work forward to work back. For example, in 1930 the family was residing in Eastman, Pulaski, Ark., and there were seven children, three grandchildren and an adopted daughter (Martha Mathis) all in the household. Dillard was not residing in the household by this date, suggesting that he had moved into his own household. By 1940 the couple were residing in Union, White, Ark., with four children remaining in their household and two grandchildren. You could research further into each of these individuals to see if records for them reveal more about their parents.

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Since you know that Theoplius was a son from George’s first marriage, you could see if any records for him include information on his mother. Theoplius married Jennie Mathis on Nov. 23, 1918, at Woodruff County, Ark. Both were 17 years of age at the time of their marriage, but the record does not include their parents’ names. Jennie has the same surname as the adopted daughter, Martha Mathis, in George Murphy’s household in 1930, suggesting that the family had a close relationship with the Mathis family. It may be worth investigating the Mathis family further since their family may reveal more about your own.

We also located a death record for Theoplius on June 8, 1923, at Pulaski, Ark. This is just an index, but it gives you the volume and certificate number, so you can examine the original record, which may include his parents’ names. You could continue to search for marriage and death records of George and Ada’s other children to see if any of those records include Ada’s maiden name.

A Final Push Back in Time

Since you know that Theoplius was 9 years old in 1910 and was born in Arkansas per the census records, you could look for George Sr. in Arkansas in 1900 to see if you can identify his previous wife. The records we have located for him to date place him in Jackson, Lonoke, Pulaski and White counties in Arkansas, so you’ll want to first focus on these locations. It is always a good idea to get acquainted with the area where your ancestors were living to understand any migration patterns or identify neighboring counties that may also have records for your ancestors. A county map of Arkansas demonstrates that the counties where George Murphy resided all border one another.

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We limited the search results to George Murphy born between 1875 and 1879 in Indiana, living in Arkansas, and had one return in Big Rock, Pulaski, Ark., but it was for a white man with parents born in Ireland, and that contradicts what we have found so far in your grandfather’s records.

Changing the search results to George Murphy born between 1875 and 1879 living in Arkansas, without a birthplace, returned two possibilities. The first for a man born 1878 in Arkansas, married to a woman named Lizzie in El Dorado, Union County, Ark. This couple had a son named Mckinley Murphy, which does not appear to match what we know about your George Murphy, although it is possible this son died prior to 1910.

The other result was for a man married to a woman named Mattie residing in White River, Woodruff, Ark., without any children. From the county map we already examined, it seems more likely that this second George Murphy residing in Woodruff, Ark., could be your grandfather since Woodruff County borders Jackson County where we know George married Ada 10 years later. However, the record says he was born in Tennessee, not Indiana.

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The 1900 census record records that George Murphy and Mattie were married about 1897. We searched for a marriage record for this couple in both Arkansas and Tennessee without positive results. If you still want to investigate whether this is a record for your grandfather, you could see if Theoplius Murphy’s death record includes his mother’s name. You could also search for a death record for a Mattie Murphy between 1901 and 1910 by contacting the county clerks for Woodruff and Jackson counties.

Our focus shifted to looking for Ada Wiley in the 1900 U.S. census, with the assumption that she was using the name Wiley before her marriage to George Murphy Sr. in 1910. We know that she was born around 1889 based on census records and that she was born in Tennessee. We limited the search results to individuals born between 1885 and 1895 in Tennessee and had two results that could be your grandmother.

The first return was an Ada Wiley born about 1888 residing at Haywood, Tenn., in the household of her parents, Brown and Alice Wiley. The other possibility is an Ada Wyly born about 1891 residing in Benton, Tenn., in the household of her aunt and uncle, George and Elizabeth Wyly. Both of these counties are in the western part of the state of Tennessee and are close enough to Arkansas to be a good fit for your Ada Wiley. You may have luck investigating the other members of each of these households to determine if they have any connection to your Murphy family.

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We also checked to see if either Ada was still living in either of these households in 1910 when we know your grandparents were already married and living together in Arkansas. We figured if one or both of the Adas were still in Tennessee, she would be eliminated. It turned out that in 1910, Ada Wiley was not living in the household of Brown and Alice Wiley in Haywood, Tenn.

We could not locate the household of George and Elizabeth Wyly in 1910, but it appears that their son Joe was residing in Haywood County, Tenn., by the enumeration of the census that year. Neither of these records shows any sign of Ada, which means that either one is still a possible match for your grandmother. Try tracing each of these families further to see if you can link one of them to your Ada Wiley.

Your next best option for learning more about both George Murphy and Ada Wiley would be to find as many records as you can for all their known children. Records for them may reveal more clues about the origins of their parent to help you work further back on your family tree. Good luck!


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 chairman of The Root. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

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

This answer was provided in consultation with Meaghan E.H. Siekman, Ph.D., a senior 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 1 billion 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 about researching African-American roots.