Blog, genealogy

Ridden Out of Town on a Rail

Day 140

The Search for my Great-Grandfather

Photo by MagCindy (Me) @

Family stories can be unbelievable, but even in the hardest to fathom tales, there is generally an element of truth. Such was the case of my great-grandfather.

My grandmother never talked about him and honestly, I was too young at the time to care. We always knew his name, but the details were shady. As children, we overheard shushed stories about him being ridden out of town on a rail.

Now, if you do not know what that means, there are a few things to clarify. The earliest implications of this practice were tied to the horrible practice of being tarred and feathered which could be painful and disfiguring. This was never mentioned in the case of my great-grandfather.

In Colonial times, this practice was used to run someone out of town. This was generally the outcome of some sort of mob justice whereby the offender was placed on a narrow fence rail and paraded around to humiliate the person and eventually taken outside of town and threatened to never return. In some cases, the person was beaten, but again I never heard anything like that in reference to my great-grandfather.

In small country communities, this term was in use well into more current times as a description for sending an undesirable out of town with some threat of what might happen if they ever returned. This is most likely the scenario with my great-grandfather.

Getting to Know Family Through Research

My great-grandmother was apparently still married when she passed away although her husband had been gone for a number of years. With no one in the family talking about it, we must depend on research to try and determine what may have happened.

By looking through census records, I know my great-grandfather was married (and hopefully divorced) with children before he married my great-grandmother. My ancestors were all very religious. Marrying a man who had been married before was certainly frowned upon. I’m sure he was unwelcome from the start.

They were married in 1892, together in 1900 and he was gone by 1910. So, somewhere in that last ten-year span, he left. My great-grandmother died in 1913 and my great-grandfather died in 1918. There is no known death certificate for her, but on his death certificate, he is listed as married.

It is interesting to note that three of my great-uncles drank a good bit. My great-grandfather died of Bright’s disease (kidney disease) for which alcoholism could have been a contributing factor and could have contributed to the family displeasure with him.

The Search for Dead Relatives

Oh, I have written a lot about my genealogical search for my family. It is a passion I think I inherited from my sister who passed away in 2010. At the time of her death, no one had seen my great-grandfather’s death certificate.

The piece of information we had all been looking for was when he died and where he had been buried. Both were listed there. We were one step closer!

Of course, in 1918, people were buried in family plots on land that has changed hands many times. Many old cemeteries are overgrown and often landowners may not even be aware of their existence.

Unfortunately, such is the case for us. The name of the ‘graveyard’ has changed over the years as other family members were born and died. There are now a few cemeteries that could be the one referenced on his death certificate.

After much research, I have narrowed it down to one cemetery and have desperately been trying to find the exact location of the cemetery so I can go and pay my respects.

Searches Always Take a Turn

Unfortunately, the land has changed hands many times since 1918 and I believe it is now owned by the state of North Carolina. It is in the deep part of a heavily forested area and thus far I have only found one photograph of a headstone from that specific cemetery.

For over a year I have contacted every government office possible to get access to the property. After being passed through five different offices, I finally reached someone who is trying to help me. It has been so frustrating to feel so close and yet not be able to actually go there and hopefully find the lost piece of my family puzzle.

In the summer, the land was too green, too many trees — just overall too difficult to access. They would try in the fall after the leaves fell. Fast forward several months and North Carolina is hit by constant torrential rains which makes travel difficult. Then the holidays, then a death in our family and now January rolls around.

Exciting News

One day I received an email. The cemetery had been found. The email contained photos of every gravestone. My great-grandfather’s headstone was not there. I was deflated.

A nice thing about genealogists is that they are kind and helpful. I had been working with two gentlemen who had been working for years documenting cemeteries in North Carolina. I let them know about my disappointment.

The next morning, one of them emailed me back and said he felt strongly they had discovered one of the cemeteries, but not THE cemetery I had been looking for. Through some notes and the help of Google maps and GIS and GPS coordinates, we plotted where we thought the other cemetery might be.

Armed with maps and GPS locations, I returned the email thanking them profusely but telling them about my dilemma. They have agreed to try to find it again based on the new information.

Brick Walls

These stumbling blocks in genealogical research are known as brick walls. I have several in my family and many will never be broken through simply because the records never existed or were destroyed.

I will never know the true story behind my great-grandfather’s disappearance, but I am hoping someday I will at least know where he was laid to rest and let him know he was not forgotten. I will always wonder if he was missed or if they felt they were better off without him.

Those are the things I will never know. But I will not stop looking. With the help of a number of kind-hearted people, I might just find him.

“I mean, they say you die twice. One time when you stop breathing and a second time, a bit later on, when somebody says your name for the last time.”


15 thoughts on “Ridden Out of Town on a Rail”

  1. Oh, my – I wish I had the knowledge of my closest ancestors in that way. I know about my great-great grandmother coming from Germany with her five sons in 1848, a bit of the sons’ story “The Wagner Bros. Clothing Store” along with other snippets here and there. My aunt wrote a lovely set of memoir pieces years ago that reflected on her growing up days on the farm in Northern California. She and her older sister were much older than my mom, and we didn’t remain close over the years. I think my sister may still be in touch with her. Sad to contemplate.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Lisa, I think most people get intrigued by their ancestry a little too late. My sisters talked about it all the time and I wish I had listened instead of tuning her out. We would have been unstoppable if we had only worked together. Your background sounds so interesting as well. We all have those lost moments and lost opportunities to learn more.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. I know you probably have tried these two methods I am about to share but it’s worth a try. Have you tried the *illion grave sites? There are million and billion. Then, have you researched newspapers and websites in or about the county for a glimmer of news about him. You might also try the county where he died. Marge:)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, Marge, I have tried everything except going to the county. I’ve been holding out until the state finishes their exploration. I’ve always wanted to go to Salt Lake City to the Family Search Library. Definitely on my bucket list. I had a Newspapers subscription for years, but most of the newspapers where my ancestors lived were not large enough to be included in the archives. I did find one article, but there was also another local man with the same exact name, so I’m not sure if the article is about my relative or not. Thanks for the suggestions.


  3. I enjoyed reading this so much – fascinating! I totally appreciate your research efforts, I did a huge project on my husbands great grand parents in the early 1900’s – the were wealthy ranchers and bar owners who died suspiciously and had a very rushed suspicious inquiry that seems to be covering up murder but for all the hundreds of hours researching there are just some answers that can’t be found. The Bansky quote is one that I will not now easily forget – it is so fitting and I’m so glad you included that. Wonderful post – thank you for sharing this journey.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I love the Bansky quote. It keeps me going when it would be much easier to give up! It is amazing the mysteries we discover when we dig into our past. Your history sounds rich and intriguing. Must have been some research project!


  5. Fascinating. I mostly have brick walls now. I had a period of many walls coming down, when the internet did, in fact, stay on and not pass by as a phase. Those were good times.
    I once spent hours in the cold of spring, pregnant and traipsing through the overgrown Red Hill cemetery in Pennington Gap Virginia, and did not find who is said to be there — but the records of the cemetery agreed with family oral tradition — who is there, but cannot be located at this time. Other than being covered in brambles, it really was a good time. It felt honorable.

    Liked by 1 person

Comments are closed.