Sunday, December 28, 2008

My Brick Wall: Susan Elizabeth Smith Bonner Brinlee

(Warning: The following post is rather long. This is my “special” brick wall, so I am attempting to include as much information as possible, and I welcome any and all advice on how to break through this brick wall.)

All genealogy researchers have many brick walls, of course, in the sense that each family line hits a brick wall at some point, whether earlier or later, but the definition of this term, in the way it is generally used, appears to include an element of selection. That is, not every “dead end” ancestor inspires the researcher with the same strong desire to learn more about that person and find his or her family. The number of persons in a family tree who might be considered brick walls varies from researcher to researcher; among that group there is often one person in particular who has a special claim to the title of “brick wall.”

When I first got hooked on genealogy – meaning that I knew this was going to go beyond a few Internet searches based on idle curiosity – I set myself a very modest goal based on my appalling, near total ignorance of my family tree: I just wanted to know who all of my great-grandparents were. Within the space of a year, I had found all eight of them, and for seven out of the eight, I knew who their parents were, as well.

The eighth great-grandparent is my “special” brick wall: Susan Elizabeth Smith Bonner Brinlee. I will set forth what little information I am aware of, and none of this information can be taken as absolutely reliable. Among Brinlee researchers there are different theories and versions of the facts, so I can only cite what little evidence there is.

Name: It is generally believed that her maiden name was Susan Elizabeth Smith and that prior to her marriage to my great-grandfather Hiram Carroll Brinlee Jr. she had married a man named Bonner, who died young. She appears to have gone by the nickname “Lizzie.” I have found death certificates for three of her four known children: Lawrence Carroll Brinlee (my grandfather), Austin Franklin Brinlee, and Cordelia Brinlee Clinton. Austin’s death certificate indicates that her maiden name was Susan E. Smith, Cordelia’s says it was Lizzie Smith, and only my grandfather’s death certificate indicates a serious variation from these two: Elizabeth Baker. However, the informant on my grandfather’s death certificate was my grandmother, Sallie Norman Brinlee, and I believe her recall of Lizzie’s last name was less reliable because Lizzie lived with Austin’s and Odell’s families in later years; Baker may have been my grandmother’s attempt to recall the name Bonner.

The earliest document I know of on which Lizzie’s name and age appear is the Marriage License for her and Hiram Brinlee, and on that document her name is given as Mrs. S. L. Bonner. Another document with her name is her Confederate Widow’s Application for a Pension; there and in appended documents her name is given as Mrs. Susan Elizabeth Brinlee, Susan E. Lizzie Brinlee, and Mrs. S. L. Brinlee, and she herself signs one note “Susan E. Brinlee.”

Age: This is the area with the largest amount of conflicting information, and though most researchers agree on some time around 1868 for her date of birth, that agreement is not universal. The aforementioned marriage license, which was dated 1 Dec 1892, indicates that she was 23 years old at that time. According to a Post-It left on a WorldConnect genealogy for the Brinlees by a second cousin, Lizzie’s Bible lists her date of birth as April 4, 1856. If this is true, her age at her death on 7 September 1958 would have been 102. Perhaps the year was misread or was entered later in her life when she may have forgotten the actual year of her birth, but I believe various pieces of evidence indicate that 1856 is too early for Lizzie’s year of birth.

For one thing, Lizzie’s youngest known child, Cecil Odell Brinlee, was born in 1908. If Lizzie was born in 1856, she would have been 51 or 52 when Odell was born – possible, but not very likely. Unfortunately, Lizzie does not appear with Hiram on the 1900 census, which could have been a good corroborating source to use with the marriage license. Hiram is shown only with his son from his previous marriage, Louis, and a hired hand. Perhaps Lizzie and the children were living elsewhere, but so far I have not been able to find them and I suspect that Hiram simply spoke with the census taker outside the house and for whatever reason did not care to provide information on the rest of the family.

Lizzie first appears on the census in 1910 (dated 4 May 1910), where her age is given as 41, and the 1920 census (dated 30 Jan 1920) is consistent with this, giving her age as 50. By 1930 (21 Apr 1930), however, the advanced age of 73 is claimed for her. Information provided by her on her Confederate Widow’s Pension Application may shed a little bit of light on this. On that document, dated 27 July 1925, she gives her age as 68, and this is consistent with the 73 on the 1930 census. However, there is a note written by Lizzie that is appended to the application (the date is September 10th, and the year as written could be 1929 or 1924) in which she writes: “i have lost my correct age i am somewhere in 60 i am not 75.” So she may have been losing track of her actual age by this time. No disrespect intended (and her note does indicate that she is trying to be honest), but I have seen a few ancestors age on these applications (there was a minimum age requirement).

Lizzie’s death certificate gives her date of birth (provided by son C. O. Brinlee) as 4 April 1860 and the age cited in her obituary (Plano Star Courier, 31 July 1958) gives her age at death as 98. This is a bit more plausible than 1856, but I still think 1860 is at least a few years too early. I have a copy of a photograph that must have been taken sometime around 1916-1920, based on the appearance of her sons Austin and Odell, and from that photograph I do not think she could have been much over 50.

Place of birth of Lizzie and her parents: All three censuses on which Lizzie is known to appear indicate that she was born in Tennessee; that state also appears on her death certificate and obituary, as well as on the death certificate of her son Lawrence. Knoxville County has been cited as the county in which she was born, but I do not know what the source for this is. The 1910 and 1920 censuses give North Carolina as the state of her parents’ birth; 1930 gives Tennessee. It is still too early to make any assumptions based on this information.

Earlier life, possible avenues of research, and why Lizzie is the brick wall ancestor about whom I most want to know more: The reports of an earlier marriage appear to be true. The 1910 census indicates that she has been married more than once, and the 1930 census indicates that she was 17 at the time of her first marriage. I am not sure whether there are other sources for the name of her first husband, but her name does appear to be “Bonner” on the marriage license, although it looks as though “Brinlee” was entered first and “Bonner” was then written over it, so I cannot be quite sure. For some reason, in my computer folder for her and Hiram I have a separate document with a single cryptic sentence on it: “A Lizzie Smith married a W. T. Banner in McMinn County, Tennessee in 1886 – would this be the “Bonner” that we have been looking for?” If she was married at age 17 and was born in around 1868, 1886 would fit as a year of marriage. (Note to self – must put source of information on all notes!)

Some people believe that Lizzie had children with Mr. Bonner and some do not. According to the 1910 census, she had given birth to 7 children, of whom 4 were still living. Those four were my grandfather and his siblings, but it is not clear if any or all of the remaining three were Hiram’s or Mr. Bonner’s children. The years of birth for my grandfather and his siblings are 1893, 1895, 1904, and 1908. There is definitely a large enough gap for three more children from her marriage to Hiram. I am guessing that she married Mr. Bonner in Tennessee in around 1885-1886, that they came to Oklahoma for the land rush in 1889, and that he died some time shortly after that. Other scenarios are possible, but this would probably be the simplest explanation for a girl from Tennessee ending up a widow in Oklahoma. These time frames would also be sufficient for Lizzie to have had one or more children with Mr. Bonner.

Why am I so intrigued with Lizzie Brinlee? It is not just that she is the only one of my great-grandparents for whom I have been unable to find a family. There are a number of scraps of information on her that make a compelling story. She was the only great-grandparent who was still alive when I was born. My Uncle Bill remembers her cooking for him when he was a young man getting ready to join the Navy. There are stories that she was at least part Native American, though there is nothing in the single photograph I have of her that gives any strong indication of that. One particularly tantalizing piece of information was provided in the above-mentioned Post-It left by my second cousin Kathy, whose grandmother Amy Kent Brinlee had said that Lizzie “was from Tennessee and had lived with a family that had taken her in to help work, where she washed dishes by standing on a bucket. Therefore, she had to have been fairly young.” Was she orphaned, or was her family reduced to sending her out to work because they were extremely poor? I love the challenge of Lizzie – by all accounts she was very modest and said very little about herself. Her maiden name, Smith, makes the challenge of finding her family all the more difficult.

Where to go from here: While I have picked out a few Tennessee Smith families as possible candidates, that is not where I should really start looking. I can ask my Texas relatives for more information, but at this point it does not appear that there is a great deal more to find out there. I believe I should probably start in Oklahoma, where Hiram and Lizzie met and married. Hiram and Lizzie were married at White Bead Hill, Chickasaw Nation, Indian Territory; Lizzie’s residence is also listed as White Bead Hill. By 1900, they were living in Britton Township, Oklahoma County, Oklahoma Territory.

At the top of this post is a picture of Lizzie, Austin, Odell and, seated, Hiram Brinlee. Can anyone tell me anything more about Lizzie?


  1. Boy thse brick walls can sure drive one crazy for wanting to solve. Sometimes I just want to break from the norm of sequence one should use to search. What denomination do you think Lizzie was at birth? Could there be a baptism record? Did you try Knoxville Co? Those early church records are tough tho, I haven't found any yet for Pennsylvania. Thats all i can think of right now she does seem a tough one to find. I will keep thinking on that I like challenge..

  2. Thank you for taking an interest in "my" case! It's easy to get obsessed with brick walls, and this is my #1 brick wall. Based on what most of my ancestors were, I would guess that she was most likely a Baptist, and it not that, then perhaps Presbyterian. I have seen one reference to Knoxville County as her place of birth, but I do not know how reliable it is. If I am not able to find any more clues in Texas or Oklahoma, I might start searching there. And then there's the whole orphan thing - was she really an orphan and if so, when did it happen? I will definitely post anything I find out about her.