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Tracing Your Roots: Who Were My Grandparents?


Census records reveal clues to an African-American lineage stretching back in time to the years before slavery ended.


Dear Professor Gates:

My mother, Maggie Nell Lyons, is an only child. Her mother, Magnolia Battle, died when my mother was 5 years old. Magnolia Battle married Nelson Lyons, my grandfather. They lived, we think, in Gordon, Ga., and around Macon, Ga. We do not know anything else about my mother’s family. We are African American and Georgia natives. Where should we start to find out more about Magnolia Battle and Nelson Lyons? —Mark Merritt


A great way to begin tracing your family backward in time is through census records. While these records are not always completely accurate, they contain a wide variety of information about where your ancestors were living, their age (at least approximately), their occupation, their place of birth and who they were associated with, such as family members and neighbors. In this way, we were able to fill in many details of your maternal family tree, such as the name of your maternal grandfather’s mother, the industry your grandfather worked in and names of your maternal grandmother’s kin.

A Peek Into the Lives Your Grandparents Lived 

We located your mother, Maggie Nell Lyons, in the household of her parents, Nelson and Magnolia Lyons, at 125 Elm St. in Gordon, Wilkinson, Ga., in 1940 when Maggie was only 2 years old. From this record, you can gather that all members of the household were born in Georgia and that the family had been living in the same location in 1935. Magnolia’s birth was recorded as happening about 1910. Also in the household was Nelson’s mother, Lula Lyons, who was born about 1870 in Georgia.

The record tells you that Nelson was working as a laborer at the Kaolin Company, as were many of his neighbors. Kaolin, one of Georgia’s largest natural resources, is a clay mineral with industrial applications such as paper coating, according to the New Georgia Encyclopedia. (It is also known as “white dirt,” and at the center of a tradition of “eating dirt” for therapeutic reasons practiced in the American South and elsewhere in the world.) It was mined close to where they were living.

The record also tells you they were in Militia District 331, also known as the Ramah District, named for the Ramah Primitive Baptist Church on what is now Highway 57.


Ten years earlier, Nelson and Magnolia were living in the same location at 170 Elm St. in Gordon, Wilkinson, Ga. This census records that Nelson was occupied as a fireman at the Koalin Mine. Based on the ages of the couple, Magnolia was born about 1908 and Nelson was born about 1906, both in Georgia. The census states that Magnolia was 18 years old and Nelson 20 years old at the time of their marriage. Comparing this record and the census in 1940 allows you to deduce that Magnolia was born between 1908 and 1910 in Georgia and that the couple were married about 1926.

Prior to their marriage, Nelson Lyons was residing in Gordon, Wilkinson, Ga., in the household of his widowed mother, Lula Lyons (recorded as Lion), in 1920. This record provides Nelson’s sibling’s names, so if you are having difficulty locating more information about him, you could try tracing his siblings as well. One strategy would be to search the census enumeration pages before and after your ancestors appear.


We were having trouble locating Magnolia in 1920, so we searched an earlier enumeration and located a Magnolia Battle who was the right age (4 years old) residing in Sun Hill, Washington County, Ga., in 1910. A county map of Georgia shows that Washington County borders Wilkinson County, so it seems likely that this is the right family.

Meet Your Grandmother’s Kin 

The 1910 census records Magnolia Battle’s father as Vine Battle, born about 1878 in Georgia, and mother, Sallie, born about 1877 in Georgia. This appears to have been the second marriage for both of her parents, married for three years starting about 1907. Sallie had given birth to four children, but only one was still living. The dates of their marriage and Magnolia’s age bring up some questions as to whether or not she was the daughter of both Vine and Sallie, since she may have been born prior to their marriage and possibly a daughter to only one of them from a previous marriage. Of course, she may have simply been born to both of them before their marriage.


We were able to locate Vine and Sallie Battle residing at Tennille, Washington, Ga., in 1920, but Magnolia was not recorded in their household. Residing with them was their 1-year-old grandson, Harvey Battle, and Willis D. Johnson, recorded as Vine’s uncle. Directly next to them and in the same building was Roella Pinkton, a 23-year-old widow who was the head of household with her sister, Hattie Battle (born about 1903), and grandmother Julia Battle (born about 1845), all in Georgia. It seems likely that these are relations of Vine Battle, possibly daughters from a previous marriage based on their age, and his mother (who, being born before the end of the Civil War, may have endured slavery). We noted that this family was recorded in Enumeration District 152, page 4A, on Jan. 3, 1920.

In the same enumeration district as Vine and Sallie Battle (No. 152) on page 14B was recorded the household of Curvy Truett and his wife, Magnolia, on Jan. 10, 1920. Magnolia Truett was born about 1903, according to the census, but this is likely your Magnolia Battle, whose age has been altered by a few years on the census. In addition to the Truetts’ proximity to Vine and Sallie Battle is the fact that Curvy and Magnolia Truett have a 1-year-old son named Harvey.


It is not uncommon for people to be recorded twice on the same census, and since the Battle household was recorded on the 3rd of January and the Truett household was recorded on the 10th of January, Harvey was likely recorded in his grandparents’ household and his parents’ household simply because he was in each of their households on the day the census taker came to the door. This suggests that Magnolia Battle was married prior to her marriage to Nelson Lyons. This detail may help you track down their marriage record, since she would have been married under the Truett name.

We were unable to locate Curvy or Harvey Truett in the 1930 U.S. census; nor were we able to locate death records for them. But because we could not find them in later records, it could be that they both died prior to 1926, when Magnolia married Nelson Lyons. This makes it probable that these are all records for the same person, since there is not a record for Magnolia Battle, Magnolia Truett and Magnolia Lyons occurring simultaneous to one another, meaning that they could all be the same person.


There is a death record for Vine Battle on Aug. 21, 1933, at Gordon, Wilkinson, Ga. The record states that he was born in Washington County, Ga., about 1878, and his parents were Frank and Jutie Battle, both of Washington County, Ga., and that he was buried at Rose Hill cemetery in Gordon, Wilkinson County, Ga. This further suggests that Vine Battle was the father of Magnolia (Battle) Lyons, since he died in the same location where she was living in 1930.

Vine Battle was residing in the household of his brother, Laurence Battle, in 1900 at Buncombe, Washington County, Ga. Their mother, Judy Battle, a widow born about 1845 at Georgia, was also in the household. This is likely the Julia Battle recorded in the household next to Vine in 1920 and the Jutie Battle listed in the 1933 death record for Vine.


This census provides you with the names and ages of seven siblings of Vine Battle whom you could also research for more information. A record of Frank and Julia Battle at Hancock, Ga., in 1880 does not yet record Vine in the household, suggesting that he was born around 1880. You know this is the right family because Vine’s brother, Laurence Battle, is included. This gives you a location to search for a birth record for Vine.

We were also able to locate marriage records for Vine Battle to Sallie Pool on Nov. 11, 1907, at Washington, Ga., and to Daisy Peterson on Dec. 28, 1902, also at Washington, Ga. Because Magnolia Battle’s birth varies throughout records for her, you will likely want to investigate both women to see if you can determine which could be her mother.


Because you know the Battle family originates in Washington County, Ga., you could see what other sources are available for that county that may be helpful. FamilySearch has a great wiki page for records in Washington County that provides information on vital and other records as well as where you can find them. You can do a similar search for Wilkinson County to see what records are available there. These resources often contain information that can provide a bit of historic context as well, which can be helpful in tracking down records. You could even search for records specific to African Americans in Wilkinson County to get some ideas on where else you could search for information on your ancestors, as well as refer to this page listing Wilkinson County slave owners in 1860.

We wish you luck as you continue to trace your mother’s family line.

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.


Send your questions about tracing your own roots to

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,, 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.

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Yes...They Are Real!

I love the work of HLG. It actually inspired me to become the family tree archivist. It’s challenging, frustrating, but rewarding.

By the time I was born, both my maternal and paternal grandparents were dead. So all I had were stories. But when researching my grandfather a couple weeks ago, I found his draft registration card online. It noted that he was “light toned” w/a severe stutter, and worked/lived in a work camp for Woodward Iron in Alabama. While it may not seem like a big deal to anyone else, I kinda felt...I dunno...closer. Imagining what it would be like to talk to him, what he looked like, his mannerisms. Personality and physical traits that were once a mystery to me, were answered by a simple WWII card.

I showed it to my 16 year old son. While he obviously knew Blacks were called “negro”, it wasn’t personal to him, it was it was a historical abstract. His reaction to seeing it surprised me tbh, he couldn’t stop staring at it. For my son, that one card personalized the racist struggle our ancestors endured.