Was My Great-Grandfather Part of Civil War History?

Henry Louis Gates Jr. and NEHGS Researcher Meaghan Siekman
Sherman’s March to the Sea, by Alexander Hay Ritchie, circa 1868; Joseph Wiggins Sr.  

Dear Professor Gates:

I have hit a wall while researching my paternal grandfather’s parents. My great-grandparents Joseph and Queen Wiggins were from Milledgeville, Ga., in Baldwin County. They are mentioned in the [Daughters of the American Revolution] chronicles of Anna Maria Green Cook, titled History of Baldwin County, Georgia [pdf]. My great-grandparents were listed under “Faithful Negroes” in Cook’s book.


I found it interesting that the author stated that my great-grandmother was a favorite of her mistress. We discovered that Queen’s maiden name was Sanford from “Georgia Marriages, 1808-1967” records, which state that she married Joseph H. Wiggins on Dec. 28, 1873, in Sumter, Ga., even though they lived in Milledgeville. Family stories state that my great-grandmother was a full-blooded Cherokee, but we don’t have an Indian roll number to verify if she was Native American, and Cook’s book states that she was mixed. Joseph and Queen had 14 children, and my grandfather James was child No. 8.

I was happy to find my great-grandfather in the Freedman’s Bank Records, too, dated 1871. According to family oral history, he was a water boy for Gen. Sherman when he came through Milledgeville. We also found out that he had a will when he died, he owned farmland, was mentioned in the Union Recorder newspaper over a church issue and had married again after the death of Queen. Unfortunately, we can’t find him before 1871, and we can’t find Queen before their marriage in 1873. Any help tracing them before 1871 would be greatly appreciated. —Kate Wiggins

Where and When Were Joseph and Queen Born?

To move backward in time, it is sometimes helpful to move forward first. Often, searching for records of a person’s children can help reveal more information about the parent’s origins. In this case you have both Joseph H. Wiggins and Queen Sanford’s full names from their marriage certificate. With this information, you can search for birth, marriage or death records for their children that may include information on Joseph and Queen.


On Family Search, you can search just for records of children born to known parents. To do this, leave all the rest of the search fields blank and just fill in the section that reads, “Search with a relationship” by clicking on “Parents” and typing in the parents’ names. This will limit the results to records that include both Joseph Wiggins and Queen Sanford as parents.

The results for this search present death records for three of their children: Carolyn Holiday and Collie Roselina Brown, both in Chicago, and Fannie Bryant, in Howard, Mich. Three of the records indicate that Joseph and Queen were born in Georgia, but the death record for Collie Roselina Brown is much more detailed. It states that Joseph H. Wiggins was born in Milledgeville, Ga., and that Queen Sanford was born in Americus, Ga. Americus is in Sumter County. This explains why Joseph and Queen were married in Sumter. It also provides a specific location in which to search for records of Queen Sanford.


Since you are trying to work back from 1871, you could try to locate both Joseph H. Wiggins and Queen Sanford in the 1870 U.S. federal census, which you can search through Ancestry.com. This is the first U.S. census after the abolition of slavery in which formerly enslaved individuals are listed by their full names. We know that Joseph and Queen were married in 1873, so they were likely single in 1870, and Queen would probably be listed under her maiden name, Sanford. If you have documents that help you determine their birth dates, you could search for individuals with their surnames in both Baldwin and Sumter counties and provide their approximate birth dates to help limit the results. This may help if you are unable to locate them using their full names.

When we first searched for Queen Sanford, we did not locate a record, but if you search for the surname Sanford in Sumter County, it returns a record for a Seaborn Sanford, a 21-year-old black male, living in Americus, Sumter County, Ga., in 1870. Since we learned earlier that Queen Sanford was born in Americus, it seems likely that she could have been related to this man. You could search for more records in Sumter County for Seaborn Sanford; they might reveal more about your Queen Sanford.


You could also search for Joseph Wiggins in Baldwin County, Ga., in the 1870 census and provide his approximate birth date. He may be listed in the household of his parents or other relatives, or in a household where he was employed. You may also want to search for records of him in Sumter County, since that is where he married Queen three years later.

It sometimes helps to explore records that look like a close match, either to rule them out as a possibility or to determine that they might be connected to your family. Keep in mind that names were often recorded in census records incorrectly. It is also helpful to search the households surrounding a likely match to the individual you are searching for, since another relative might have been living nearby.


Can Slavery Documents Help Trace Them?

Based on the language of the entry in Anna Maria Green Cook’s book, which indicates that Queen was raised in the household of her mistress, it is likely that she was enslaved prior to the abolishment of slavery, and perhaps Joseph was, too. One resource available for locating slaves in Georgia is the Slave Bills of Sale project. Compiled and published by the African-American Family History Association, it is available digitally through the Family History Library. You could search the indexes of each volume for the surnames Sanford and Wiggins.


It is important to note both slaves’ names and the owners’ names while looking through the records. Former slaves often took the surnames of their former owners, so an owner or buyer with the surname Sanford or Wiggins in the county where an ancestor was born, or in a neighboring county, could be the ancestor’s former owner.

Was Queen Cherokee?

Your family stories tell you that Queen was Cherokee, and Anna Maria Green Cook’s account seems to confirm that she was at least part American Indian. One collection that might assist in confirming this story is the Guion Miller Roll. This is a list of Eastern Cherokees who applied for compensation as part of a judgment of the U.S. Court of Claims in 1906 in favor of the Eastern Cherokee.


Each application usually includes the names of several generations of a family. Claimants had to be members of the Eastern Cherokee at the time of the treaties in 1835, 1836 and 1845. Descendants of members of the Eastern Cherokee could also be claimants as long as they were not affiliated with any other tribe.

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.

Share This Story

Get our newsletter