Grover Cleveland Ryman Jr.’s name is misspelled and listed as “ward” alongside his adoptive parents, Bird and Sue Williams, on the 1900 U.S. census.
1900 United States census   

Dear Professor Gates:

My maternal grandfather is Grover Cleveland Ryman Jr.  He was adopted sometime after age 7. His birth mother was white, and his father was Indian. We have been told by my mother that my grandfather’s parents were married in Virginia, when this was illegal. My great-grandfather Grover Cleveland Ryman Sr. was run off, and my grandfather Grover Cleveland Ryman Jr. was taken from his mother, Mary (Unknown), and put up for adoption.

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I found a record of my grandfather Grover Cleveland Ryman Jr. in a 1900 census with his adoptive parents. In the 1900 census, he is listed as a “ward.” His name on the census was misspelled but can be found on Ancestry.com with his name listed as Grover C. Rimses. He was 7 years old. His adoptive parents were Bird and Sue Williams. We have no idea how my grandfather arrived in Alabama from Virginia.

My goal is to find out my grandfather’s birth parents’ names, and any other family information for Grover Sr. and his wife, Mary. I do not know how to seek out his adoption papers to see if his parents’ information is on there. I also don’t know how to find records, if there are any, of his parents’ marriage, or his birth. I have done a DNA test on my mother, and found out that she is 26 percent Irish, so maybe her grandmother Mary is Irish. My mother is 88 now, and I’d love to solve this mystery for her. —Anna Stewart

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One of the most important rules to keep in mind when working on a difficult genealogical problem is to start with the known and work to the unknown.

What We Know About Your Grandfather

In your case, the first record that you have for your grandfather Grover Cleveland Ryman is the 1900 U.S. census. When we look closer at the census record, a few important details can be extracted. First, Grover C. Rimses is enumerated as black, which, according to the 1900 census instructions (pdf) was to be used for “black (negro or of negro descent).” Even though you have DNA evidence that his mother may have been Irish, this information still jibes with the census definition of black, and perhaps the census taker’s perceptions of his racial identity.

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Second, the census record identifies his place of birth as Alabama. Because census data may have been procured by someone other than a member of the household, this information could be incorrect. When searching for a birth record, however, you should look in Alabama and Virginia for a birth record. And finally, the relationship between Grover and Bird and Sue Williams is identified as “ward” and not “adopted son.” As a result, Grover may not have been officially adopted by the Williams family by the enumeration of the 1900 census.

Where to Begin in Identifying His Birth Parents  

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Therefore, to locate evidence of Grover’s birth parents, you should first examine birth records in Virginia and Alabama. However, because Alabama did not begin to formally record birth records until 1908, a birth record for Grover Cleveland Ryman may not exist. Ancestry.com (subscription required) has a database of Virginia birth records, 1864-2014, but we were unable to find a possible record for Grover Cleveland Ryman (using many variant spellings). Akin to Alabama vital records, statewide registration in Virginia did not begin until 1912, which may explain why we cannot find a record for Grover.

You may be able to locate an adoption record, and to do so you should begin with the records in Alabama and Virginia. Adoption records can be one of the more difficult records to order, since privacy laws are often written to protect the adopted child, as well as the birth parents. As a direct descendant of the adoptee, however, you may be able to order the record.

The Alabama Department of Public Health holds records of adoption in Alabama, including the original birth record, because birth records were corrected after adoption to include the adoptive parents’ information. Additionally, early adoptions in Virginia (prior to 1949) may be located at the local court level. To locate an adoption in Virginia, you would first need to identify where the adoption may have occurred and then contact the proper court on the county level. It is also very possible, however, that Grover Cleveland Ryman was never formally adopted. If so, you will need to look for evidence of his birth parents using what was told through oral tradition.

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We think it is important to note here that the birth father you call Grover Cleveland Ryman almost certainly had another name, since his father would likely have been born about 1875 (or earlier), when future President Grover Cleveland was wrapping up his service as the sheriff of Erie County, N.Y. The name “Grover Cleveland” would not be well-known across the United States until much later—maybe in 1883, when he was elected governor of New York, or in 1893, when he began his first term as president of the United States. It’s a timeline that works well for the naming of Grover Cleveland Ryman, who was born in 1892, but not for this father. As a result, we recommend looking for parents using names in addition to “Grover Cleveland.”

A Strong Lead Uncovered

Because we were more certain of the name of Grover Cleveland Ryman’s mother, we started with the name “Mary Ryman.” If something happened to Mary Ryman, that could explain why she had to give up Grover. Maybe she become ill or destitute, for example, in which case she might show up in a census record living in an institution or hospital. And interestingly, when we searched in the census, we were able to find a Mary Ryman, a white woman living at the Alabama Bryce Insane Hospital, in the federal censuses for 1900, 1910 and 1920.

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According to the records, she was born in Tennessee, as were both of her parents. She was born about 1862, so if she was the mother of Grover Cleveland Ryman, she would have been about 30 years old at his birth, a very reasonable age for a mother. The 1900 and 1910 census records, however, included conflicting details about her children. The 1900 census indicated that she had nine children, of whom seven were still living; and the 1910 census showed one child born and one still living.

Since the census enumerator likely got his information from a register and not Mary herself, it is very possible that information regarding her children was incorrect. Nonetheless, if Mary Ryman had more than one child, this could be helpful to your research. You should examine death registers in Alabama to locate other possible children of Mary Ryman.

Bryce Insane Hospital’s Sad Place in History

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If, indeed, Grover Cleveland Ryman’s mother ended up in the Alabama Bryce Insane Hospital, she likely had a difficult life there. According to a 2013 article by Ellie Campbell that was posted by the University of Alabama Libraries, Bryce was a grim place by the time she was institutionalized. Campbell notes:

By 1875, Dr. Bryce noted that the hospital had become more of a warehouse for the mentally ill and less of a rehabilitative center. The late nineteenth century also brought the rise of the new “science” of eugenics, a body of thought that supports improving the human race through encouraging the reproduction of people with desirable traits and discouraging the reproduction of people with undesirable traits. In practice, these beliefs resulted in forced sterilizations, support for racial segregation and the segregation of the mentally ill, forced abortions or forced pregnancies, forced euthanasia, and genocide.

Bryce Insane Hospital played a role in the broader Alabama eugenics movement. Writes Campbell: “In the early twentieth century, James Searcy, the superintendent of Bryce, and his chief assistant William Partlow, were regional leaders in the eugenicist movement. Partlow sterilized all patients released from the hospital for fifteen years, and lobbied the legislature to pass a compulsory sterilization law.”

Much of the focus of eugenic sterilizations during this era was on purging socially and medically undesirable traits within the white race, but according to Our Bodies, Our Crimes: The Policing of Women’s Reproduction in America, by Jeanne Flavin, having “illegitimate or biracial children” was grounds enough for eugenic sterilization at some institutions. While Mary Ryman was probably past her reproductive years when this controversial policy was at its height in the 1920s and 1930s, she was still a patient at Bryce when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on the constitutionality of involuntary sterilization in the notorious case of 1927, Buck v. Bell, in which Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. wrote: “It is better for all the world if, instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind. The principle that sustains compulsory vaccination is broad enough to cover cutting the Fallopian tubes. … Three generations of imbeciles are enough.” (You can read more about this decision and the American eugenics movement in Adam Cohen’s Imbeciles: The Supreme Court, American Eugenics, and the Sterilization of Carrie Buck.)

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This was the environment in which Mary Ryman both lived and died. We were able to find a death record for her: She died at the Bryce Hospital on March 15, 1940, at the age of 77. The record is a transcription of the original, but more information would be included on the original death record—specifically, a copy of the original—such as the informant, the burial location and the name of her spouse. Because she is listed as a widow, it is possible that the Bryce Hospital had a record of her husband or children, and they may be included in the record.

Finally, because we found evidence that Mary Ryman was a resident at Alabama Bryce Insane Hospital, you should also look at institutional papers that are available. The records are held at the Alabama Department of Archives and History. When you examine the collections, look for admission records or institutional files for the years Mary Ryman was a resident. There may be evidence that she had other children or that she had visitors while she was institutionalized. This could be enough evidence to show that she was the mother of Grover Cleveland Ryman.

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, 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 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 about researching African-American roots.