Have you ever suspected your brick wall ancestor may have changed their name? Understandably, name changes hinder typical research practices that connect us to our ancestors. Research can come to a halt when our subject seems to disappear from the records. For example, women often change their surname after marriage. Immigrants may change their name to blend into American culture. Orphan children may have taken on the surname of a family after adoption. Individuals may choose to conceal their past identity for protection. This seems to have happened to Patrick Alford; between 1879 and 1885, Patrick Alford changed his name to James William Johnson to hide from Texas law.
A Family Secret Revealed
In February 2000, James William Johnson’s great-grandson discovered the 120-year-old family secret during an interview with a grandniece who related the Alford ordeal that led to the name changes of two brothers: George and Patrick. A google-search found the story about an 1879 gunfight in Arlington, Texas. The great-grandson, also named James William Johnson, and his son, James Wesley Johnson, continued their Alford investigation and, 20 years later, compiled the findings in a book titled, A Horse, A Gunfight, And The Law: A Historical Account of Our Alfords in Texas. The Johnson pair discovered their Alford ancestors fought for the Union and learned they could apply for lineage societies. They wanted their findings analyzed and correlated to prove their conclusion. My part was to examine the evidence, cite it, and provide a written explanation showing how it led to the conclusion.
So how did I go about proving a name change with one documented fact? How did I separate truth from untruth? Could DNA help? As I reviewed the client’s research, I used the FAN club method to correlate details found in the records of James William Johnson to connect him to his Alford siblings. When few or no original records exist for an individual, the FAN club method studies the family, associates, and neighbors of an ancestor. By investigating the individuals who surround an ancestor during their lifetime, connections can be made and identities revealed.
I used a technique I learned from Melinda Daffin Henningfield (SLIG Virtual Intermediate Foundations Fall 2019) to organize and study the Alford/Johnson FANS. In chronological order, I listed each document in a separate column across the top row of a spreadsheet; this became a timeline. Below each document, I listed the names it contained, one name per row. This produced the big picture that put each person in a time and place. I then highlighted key names in color to help me track that relationship. A link to my spreadsheet is included at the bottom. Let’s see how following the lives of James William Johnson’s family helped reveal his true Alford identity.
I began with a research objective: Using DNA and documentary evidence, write a family narrative proving James William Johnson was born Patrick Alford. James was born on 20 July 1860 in Palmyra, Macoupin County, Illinois, and died in 1934 in West Line, Sevier, Arkansas. James married first Sarah Jane Duncan on 10 September 1885 in Caruthersville, Pemiscot, Missouri. Then he married Dempsey Tennessee Clark, on 2 March 1899 in De Queen, Sevier, Arkansas. Lastly, he married Rosa Ellen Ayers. He was born Patrick Alford to parents Robert F. Alford and Elsie “Alsa” Evans.
I will discuss the documentary evidence in Part 1 and Part 2 and cover the DNA evidence in Part 3. A link to my report will be included at the end of Part 2.
I first wanted to establish the identities of Patrick Alford and James Johnson. By naming parents, spouses, and children, I can distinguish one individual from another.
Patrick Alford’s Parents and Siblings
The 1870 census is the only record that shows Patrick Alford with his family.1 (This was the first source added to my FAN club spreadsheet.)
To get a solid picture of the Alford family, I compared names from the 1860 and 1880 censuses in a table.2
(And added the information to my spreadsheet list.) Even though variations existed, I saw reasonable consistency in the names and ages. I also noted birth places to correlate and compare with earlier censuses of Patrick’s extended paternal Alford and maternal Evans family lines.3 I did not see the three oldest brothers, Tom (William), George, and Patrick, in 1880, which supports the family story of going into hiding. I standardized the name “Alcy” for Patrick’s mother and will use this version for the remainder of the blog posts since most early records showed her name spelled this way.
Patrick’s Grandparents, Tennessee Roots, and Migration
Families in the mid-1800s usually migrated in extended family groups. Patrick’s paternal grandparents, Charles Alford and Mary Elizabeth Tipton, married in 1813 in Tennessee and had seven children.4 I like to diagram details so I can quickly refer back if I need to while I’m reading the report. The diagram below shows the seven Alford–Tipton children in order of birth. (I did not add these names to my spreadsheet, but used them for reference.)
Patrick’s maternal grandparents, Patrick Henry Evans and Rebeca Parks, married on 10 November 1830 in Tennessee and had seven children.5 Patrick’s mother, Alcy, was the oldest. The diagram below shows the seven Evans–Parks children in order of birth. I noticed the names in each family group were repeated in combination with Robert and Alcy’s children. Patrick’s extended family’s information also lined up with timeline, history, and location. So far, so good. These names did not go in the spreadsheet either but were used to show naming patterns/relationships for DNA later in the report.
But what happened between 1879 and 1885? Patrick Alford is not named on any record after 1879, and James William Johnson’s descendants could not find James in any record before 1885. Six years is sufficient time for an individual to relocate, change their name, and blend in with the migratory patterns of the time. The Arlington train depot in Tarrant County, Texas, began operation in 1877 with a line going north to St. Louis, Missouri. Macoupin County, Illinois (Patrick’s birthplace), is located just across the Mississippi River from St. Louis and Patrick had an Alford uncle who farmed there.6 Down river from Macoupin County is Pemiscot County, Missouri, where James first married in 1885. The marriage license was the earliest record found with James Johnson’s name on it.7 (So, it got added to the FAN club list.) That’s a lot of places in the narrative, so a map provides visual reference. Again, timeline, history, and location line-up. So far, still good.
James William Johnson’s Family
James married three spouses and had eleven children. With his first wife, Sarah Jane Anderson, James had four children, all born in DeQueen, Sevier County, Arkansas:
- Charles Parker (1892-1922)
- Murray California (1895-1955)
- Ida Pearl (1896-1897)
- Elsie Jane (1898-1987)
In 1898, Sara Jane died in childbirth.8 The 1900 census furnished names for James, Charles, and Murray; I added them to the list.9 Ida Pearl died shortly after her 1896 birth, and Sarah died after giving birth to Elsie Jane in 1898; this information went on the list.10 James and Sarah’s names on their Missouri marriage record were consistent with the names carved on Sarah’s gravestone shown on the image below.
Widower James had six-year-old Charles, three-year-old Murray, and a newborn to care for. During family interviews with Johnson’s family descendants, my clients were told that James took Elsie Jane to Arlington to Becky McFadin to nurse her.11
Becky was an Alford. History agreed baby bottles were not common until the early 1900s. In order for James and Sarah’s newborn daughter to survive, another lactating mother or wet nurse would have had to feed the infant. “Janie Alford” was listed in the 1900 McFadin household with Beckie.12 I added this record to the fan list. Train travel was popular at that time and would have made the 220-mile trip to Arlington, Tarrant County, Texas, possible.
Other clues in the 1900 census.
Relationships in the census were listed according to the head of household; Janie, short for Elsie Jane, was recorded as a niece (see Figure 5 – red box 1). Janie’s uncle may have inadvertently used the Alford surname because his wife, Beckie, was an Alford when they married; an easy mistake to make if your brother-in-law changed his identity and lived in another state. More details lined up such as Janie’s father’s birth in Illinois (red box 2); Beckie’s birth year and location in Illinois (red box 3); son, Harry’s age – birth month and year (red box 4); Lee and Beckie’s marriage (red box 5); and number of children born to Becky and living (3|3).
A one-year-old child not named in the 1900 Johnson household supported the theory that Janie Alford in the 1900 McFadin household was almost certainly the missing Johnson child (see Figure 6).
James married a second time to Dempsey Tennessee Clark in 1899.13 They had six children before Dempsey died in a 1914 wagon accident:14
- Lois Dempsey (1900-)
- Timothy Toy (1902-)
- Robert Henry (1904-)
- Allie May (1906-)
- Geraldine Verna (1909-)
- Pompie Franklin (1912-)
In 1910, all the children above, except for Pompie, lived with James and Dempsey; Elsie Jane, listed as “Janie Johnson” (see figure 7 – red box 1), Charley, and Murray also lived in the household. Names were added to the fan list. I noticed the likeness in name and age between Janie Johnson in 1910 and Janie Alford in the 1900 McFadin household. I also noticed that James and “Dennies” marriage details (red box 2) and the mother’s birthplace for Charley, Murray, and Janie in 1910 lined up with Sarah Jane’s 1898 death and known birthplace (red box 3). The local newspaper reported Dempsey’s death which supported her absence in the 1920 Johnson household. By 1920, Pompie was also listed as the youngest Johnson family member.15 And yes, Pompie was also added to the FAN list.
James married a third time to Rosa Ayres in 1923 and they had one child, James Harris (1924).16 Rosa and Harris lived in the Johnson Arkansas household in 1930 and four years later James died on 24 May 1934.17 Rosa got a line on the FAN list along with their son, James Harris. Rosa, who gave the death certificate details, said James William’s father was Robert Johnson. Did James take his secret to the grave? Part two will reveal more details about the Johnsons and Alfords.
- 1870 U.S. census, Macoupin County, Illinois, population schedule, Township 10 Range 7, p. 36 (penned), dwelling 267, family 286, Robert Alford household; digital image, Ancestry (https://www.ancestry.com : accessed 30 June 2022); National Archives microfilm publication, M593, roll 250.
- 1860 U.S. census, Macoupin County, Illinois, population schedule, Town 11 Range 8, p. 156 (penned), dwelling 1144, family 1094, Robert Alford household; digital image, Ancestry (https://www.ancestry.com: accessed 12 July 2022); National Archives microfilm publication, M653, roll 206. 1880 U.S. census, Tarrant County, Texas, population schedule, (unstated city), enumeration district (ED) 92, p. B (stamped), p. 10 (penned), dwelling 93, family 97, Robert Alford household; digital image, Ancestry (https://www.ancestry.com : accessed 12 July 2022); National Archives microfilm publication, T9, roll 1328.
- FamilySearch (https://www.familysearch.org/tree/person/details/LZG5-V38 : accessed 30 June 2022), database, profile for Robert F. Alford, LGZ5-V38. Sourced data.
- FamilySearch (https://www.familysearch.org/tree/person/details/LZG5-VQY : accessed 30 June 2022), database, profile for Charles Alford, LZG5-VQY. Also, James William Johnson and James Wesley Johnson, Khristopher James Johnson, editor, A Horse, A Gunfight, And The Law: A Historical Account of Our Alfords in Texas, Kindle edition (St. Petersburg, Florida: Ipoesy Publishing [email@example.com], 2019), 19-20. Sourced data Patrick’s father, Robert was the youngest male.
- FamilySearch (https://www.familysearch.org/tree/person/sources/KDWX-3LG : accessed 30 June 2022), database, profile for Patrick Henry Evans, KDWX-3LG. Sourced data. Also, Emma Middleton Wells, The History of Roane County Tennessee 1801-1870 (Chattanooga: The Lookout Publishing Company, 1927), 176; digital image, FamilySearch (https://www.familysearch.org : accessed 30 July 2022), call no. 236517.
- “Missouri–Kansas–Texas Railroad,” Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trinity_River_(Texas) : accessed 10 August 2022).
- Pemiscot County, Missouri, p. 78, entry for James Johnson-Sarah J. Anderson; Missouri State Archives, Jefferson City; “Missouri, U.S., Marriage Records, 1805-2002,” digital image, Ancestry (https://www.ancestry.com : accessed 4 July 2022), image 45.
- Find A Grave (https://www.findagrave.com : accessed 4 July 2022), memorial 56995174, “Sarah Jane ‘Janie’ Anderson Johnson,” and Sarah J. gravestone (West Line Cemetery, Sevier County, Arkansas), digital image; both on 12 August 2010 by James W. Johnson.
- 1900 U.S. census, Sevier County, Arkansas, population schedule, Buckhorn Township, enumeration district (ED) 151, p. A (stamped), p. 15 (penned), dwelling 279, family 280, James W. Johnson household; digital image, Ancestry (https://www.ancestry.com : accessed 13 July 2022); National Archives microfilm publication, M623, roll 76.
- Find A Grave (https://www.findagrave.com : accessed 4 July 2022), memorial 75281082, “Ida Pearl Johnson,” and Ida P. gravestone (West Line Cemetery, Sevier County, Arkansas), digital image; both on 21 August 2011 by James W. Johnson. Also, Find A Grave (https://www.findagrave.com : accessed 20 August 2022), memorial 75283842, “Elsie Jane ‘Janie’ Johnson Swain,” 21 August 2011 by James W. Johnson; no gravestone image. Inscription: “Jane Johns Swain / Nov. 10, 1898 / Mar. 31, 1987”
- Johnson and Johnson, “Putting It All Together,” 2022. In separate interviews between 1999-2004 James William Johnson’s grandniece and six grandchildren stated that after Sarah Jane died giving birth, newborn Elsie Jane Johnson was transported to Tarrant County and wet nursed by Beckie McFadin.
- 1900 U.S. census, Tarrant County, Texas, population schedule, Precinct 2 Voting Precinct 6 [Arlington Town], enumeration district (ED) 110, p. B (stamped), p. 11 (penned), dwelling 200/202, family 207/205, Lee McFadin household; digital image, FamilySearch (https://www.familysearch.org : accessed 15 July 2022); National Archives microfilm publication, T623, roll 1671.
- Sevier County, Arkansas, “Marriage Record,” Book 8, 1889-1900, p. 163, entry for J.W. Johnson-Miss Dempsey Clark; Arkansas History Commission, Little Rock; “Arkansas, County Marriages, 1837-1957,” digital image, FamilySearch (https://www.familysearch.org : accessed 4 July 2022), image 148.
- “A Fatal Accident Befell a Lady of Chapel Hill…” The Nashville (Arkansas) News, 27 June 1914, page 1, column 2; digital images, Newspapers (https://www.newspapers.com : accessed 22 August 2022).
- 1920 U.S. census, Sevier County, Arkansas, population schedule, Buckhorn Township (DeQueen), enumeration district (ED) 170, p. B (stamped), p. 12 (penned), dwelling 208, family 194, James W. Johnson household; digital image, Ancestry (https://www.ancestry.com : accessed 13 July 2022); National Archives microfilm publication, T625, roll 82.
- Sevier County, Arkansas, p. 492, entry for J.W. Johnson-Rosa Ayres; Various Oklahoma County marriage collections; “Oklahoma, U.S., County Marriage Records, 1890-1995,” digital image, Ancestry (https://www.ancestry.com : accessed 4 July 2022), image 247. Also, 1930 U.S. census, Sevier County, Arkansas, population schedule, Buckhorn Township, enumeration district (ED) 67-6, p. A (stamped), p. 1 (penned), dwelling 7, family 7, James W. Johnson household; digital image, Ancestry (https://www.ancestry.com : accessed 13 July 2022); National Archives microfilm publication, M626, roll 95.
- Sevier County, Arkansas, death no. 1238 (1934), James William Johnson; Department of Vital Records, Little Rock; “Arkansas, Death Certificates, 1914-1969,” Ancestry (https://www.ancestry.com : accessed 14 July 2022), image 840.
Enjoyed the article regarding James William Johnson’s name change. Could you share the source of the Sarah Elizabeth (Alford) Murray obituary? Thank you… j
James, glad you enjoyed the article. Sarah’s obituary came from the Arlington Public Library. Here is the citation: “Mrs. Sarah E. Murray Buried Wednesday” The (Texas) Arlington Journal, 28 December 1928, transcribed by Mr. W.E. Keller; The Arlington Public Library (https://www.arlingtonlibrary.org/genealogy-local-history : accessed 15 July 2022), > Resources Available From Home, under heading “Local Newspaper Transcriptions,” see “Arlington Journal” > 1928 PDF. Arranged by date then by title.
Here is a link to the source above, scroll down to the last two pages of the document (Friday December 28): https://arlingtonlibrary.org/sites/default/files/Documents/Newspapers/journal1928.pdf