DeSoto County genealogists fill gaps in family trees

HERNANDO – Trying to navigate a tangled family tree to reach relatives who participated in the Revolutionary War, Allen Latimer of Horn Lake was stumped. Then he got a lift from Charles Garrison, a comrade in the Sons of Confederate Veterans who also is a member of the Genealogy Society of DeSoto County.
“He didn’t just help; he connected all the dots,” said an amazed Latimer, who was able to branch out to the ranks of the Sons of the American Revolution.
“I found out that one of my ancestors, a Warren from Upstate New York, was taken prisoner by the British and hauled up to Canada, then his house was burned by the Tories and the Indians,” Latimer said.
That’s the kind of assist that the 150-member society can render, though most victories are much less dramatic at the group’s library in the old metal building behind the U.S. Department of Agriculture facility at 3260 U.S. 51 South in Hernando. But even slow progress is priceless when tracking family roots.
“You have to have a love for it,” said society member Gloria Sowell. “It takes time.”
Sowell and Gene Dunaway, both 78 and pals since Hernando High days back in the 1940s, hold forth at the society’s library on Wednesdays.
On Monday, Garrison and Lucien Parks keep hours; on Tuesday, Ann Stiles and Olivia Long hold vigil.
It’s fun, they say, but somewhat bittersweet as they note fewer footsteps through the door and much indifference among today’s youth.
“Since the Internet became so popular, we don’t get as many visitors,” Dunaway said.
“Still,” said Sowell, “there are people who like to come here, just to look through the old records.”
And hands-on records they have, says Long, a grandmother of two teen boys. She is from history-rich Natchez and lives outside Hernando.
The library sports shelf after shelf of material from DeSoto and surrounding counties including Marshall, Tunica and Tate. There are various census, church, voter, school, court records and deeds, with some going back almost two centuries.
There are more than 200 family books donated by genealogists and amateur sleuths, plus marriage records from the 19th century to the early 1900s from counties across the state, and records from the DeSoto County Courthouse.
One old docket book lists cases from the 1838 session of Circuit Court – in a DeSoto County not five years away from its start on lands ceded by the Chickasaws.
“We call it the ‘attic,”‘ Long says of those stacks.
“A lot of the old docket books were rescued after they were transcribed (to computer-based files) and were no longer needed,” Sowell said. “But people do like to look at them. If a relative signed an entry, descendants can actually see what his or her signature looked like. It’s a way to connect with the past.”
Records for Tate County go back to before it became a county in 1875: “We have records before 1870 for people who lived in the southern region of DeSoto that became part of Tate,” Sowell said.
She said her own research showed that her father’s kin came into DeSoto by 1840 from West Tennessee, where other family remained.
“During the Civil War from up in McNairy County, they sent a 13-year-old boy down here to his uncle’s place,” basically to hide out, said Sowell, a charter member of the society. “They heard they were taking boys to be drummer boys and water boys in the army, and they didn’t want him in the war and far away.”
Dunaway traces her DeSoto roots five generations back to Kentucky-born Charles Chamberlin, who was in the county in the 1840s.
The library building has its own past: It pre-exists the farm agency facility to its west and the DeSoto family services building to its east.
“It used to be called the ‘Fair Building’ and there was a big open area to the northeast that was a ball field,” Sowell said. Inside, the library has vintage desks and tables available from surplus. The Board of Supervisors “has been good to us,” she said.
“We’re glad to help them because of all the help they give,” said Latimer, a supervisor who serves as president of the five-member panel.
“Our relatives are those who went before us and we stand on their shoulders,” Latimer said. “The society is one of the things that helps maintain a sense of community and pride in our county.
“It’s just amazing what these people are doing.”
And there’s more they’d like to do, Sowell said.
“We could keep our library open five days a week with more help,” she said. “We need more young people – people with young eyes who can see better than our old eyes.”
The Genealogy Society of DeSoto County operates its library in Hernando from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Mondays, Tuesday and Wednesday. “Searching for your roots? Come search with us” is their slogan.
The society publishes a quarterly “DeSoto Descendants” and offers microfilm readers, CDs on computer and a photocopier at the library. The group can provide a photograph of most any grave in the county for a modest fee.
They also have books for sale, including “Black Marriages 1866-1900,” “Pension Applications – Roster of Confederate Veterans” and “DeSoto County History and Families.”
“The Diary of Mattie Morgan Tipton” tells of dealing with Yankees and the romantic antics of a teenage Southern girl of the 1860s.
The society holds a monthly meeting every second Saturday at 10 a.m., usually at the library.
“We try to get a speaker, and this year it’s mostly been about the Civil War” due to the ongoing sesquicentennial of the 1861-65 conflict, said member Gene Dunaway.

Henry Bailey/The Commerical Appeal