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.”