I really love old photos like the one above of William Early Thomas and wife Nancy Caroline Hogg. William is the son of Jonathan Thomas who is in turn the son of Ezekiel Thomas from Anson County NC. Jonathan moved to now Blanche, Cherokee County Alabama around 1838 where in 2001 I had the opportunity to meet his granddaughter Ms Abbie Gail Sharp Goss. Serving as my guide, Abbie shared family lore and allowed me to copy the above photo. Since this visit, and just as with her ancestors, Abbie Gail has now passed and her words and spirit are left to us in memory only. Little did I know back then of how the photo and the naming of Abbie’s great grandfather would lead to some pretty deep questioning of her complex family history.
The above photo captures William Early Thomas with his most prized treasure, a worn and well-loved family bible. Maybe the bible once belonged to his father or grandfather and maybe it made the trip all the way from North Carolina to Alabama. It may have held the written memory of his grandmother, the first wife of Ezekiel Thomas whose name is unknown. There’s a hint of Ezekiel Thomas’ first marriage revealed in his last will and testament probated in 1839 Anson County. In the writing, Ezekiel’s oldest son Jonathan is separated from the other children as follows: “…divided Equally Between Milly, Ozbourn, Lewis, Edmond Thomas also I leave my son Jonathan Thomas one dollar.” As Jonathan was older in age and had likely already received all that was due him, the customary bequeath of a dollar was not hurtful but was instead fair and correct.
Photographs tell us the story of time and place. You not only see the wrinkles of background, clothing and landscape, you also get to glean information from facial features as another form or roadmap of our earthly existence. We can see in the photo that William Early Thomas had lived a long and likely hard life. Knowing he served in the Civil War, you can imagine this old man once in the prime of his youth taking up the arms of war. William appears worn, but equally proud. But even more so than the stories portrayed in photography, the name William Early Thomas in itself just may tell its own story.
The given name William is used very little in the Thomas family of Anson County. Our traditions follow more closely to Old Testament biblical naming patterns. And, the middle name “Early” offers a unique set of naming possibilities leading back to a family of that name in northeast North Carolina. So how was it that Jonathan decided to name his son William Early Thomas? Back in North Carolina, around 1800 Ezekiel Thomas was deeded part of his father Benjamin Thomas Senior’s land situated a short distance from and on the north side of Richardson Creek. Ezekiel’s son Jonathan also acquired land in the same area before moving to Alabama. And just to the east of the Thomas lands in Anson County, on the waters of Bare Branch, there once lived William Morris. William’s story is quite twisted and I have reservations whether today it’s remembered the way it should be. Anyhow, it’s important to know that William had a son named William Airley Morris who was a well beloved Baptist minister. It’s this person for whom I believe William Early Thomas was named.
From a bio in the History of Rocky River Baptist Church:
Bro. [William A.] Morris served as pastor from 1842-1844, the year of his death. He was spoken of in the tenderest terms in a Memorial paper offered by the church on the occasion of his death. He lived on a farm midway between the church and the present town of Polkton. His grave is in sight of the present Lane’s Creek bridge on the (highway now in use). He was a man of fair intelligence and held some good pastorates. His family is extinct so far as known. Though there are grand-children, none bear the name of Morris.
And, in 1838, the highly revered Baptist preacher Rev. John Culpepper mentioned William A Morris in a letter to Rev. James Yarborough of Marengo County Alabama:
They are really like Pharoah’s [sic] lean kine, and come “thin and blasted with the East wind.” — All the old preachers you know in the country and most of the young intelligent young ones, are on the Missionary or effort side, and your brother, William A. Morris, is amongst them. He and myself have a Temperance meeting yesterday at Brown Creek Meeting House; we had ninety members before, and seven joined yesterday, and I hope the cause of God and good morals are gaining though iniquity abounds, and the love of some is waxing cold.
Relevant to any possible Thomas-Morris connection, Benjamin Thomas Jr (being Ezekiel’s brother and son of Benjamin Thomas Sr) sold on 11 Oct 1818 to William Morris 130 acres situated on Bare Creek. The land adjoined that of Drury Austin. This was surely William Airley Morris as his father William Morris had already died at the time of the deed. And the tract of land was originally granted to William Gurley and split between Drury Austin and Benjamin Thomas by way of the said William Gurley’s 1815 estate. And, it is traditionally believed by some that the elder William Morris married Pherabee, a daughter or William Gurley. And furthermore, that William Morris may be the son of John and Rebecca Early Morris from earlier in Bertie County NC. As a matter of fact, living very close to William Morris were also members of the Bush and Curlee families who had close ties to the Early Family back in Bertie County. So, it’s somehow through this line and this pile of people where the impetus for the naming of William Early Thomas in Cherokee County Alabama must be found.
In follow-up posts I’ll attempt to look at the lineages collectively and from a differing viewpoint …at times throwing all he balls in the air at once in order to get a glimpse of all possibilities. In truth, many times fact is mixed upon myth and a truth we believe is so. We have to look at it all. As Donald Rumsfeld once said:
There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don’t know we don’t know.
I ask you to take a seat and get your mind ready as it’s going to be a hard read. There is so very much already out there that’s just not clearly founded and I’d like to devote a little time illuminating my concerns. So, let’s look further back in time. Let’s look back to northeast North Carolina where the ancestors of some of these players in Anson County were interacting in an earlier day and time. Other family names will be brought into the discussion such as Graham, Leggett, Bond, and Sanders. And just as with the life of Willaim Airley Morris and his likely namesake William Early Thomas, religion has always been at the center of our collective family story.