Dear Aunt Polly Brittain Holds an Important Clue, but . . .
I almost missed it because she looks so grumpy. Aunt Polly Brittain potentially solved a longstanding mystery on the identity of my great-great-great-great-great-grandparents, but I missed the clue for weeks. Seriously, I completely overlooked the gift Aunt Polly was offering me for several months because of my own prejudices against grumpy ladies.
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There’s probably a lesson to be learned here about not judging a book by its cover or something along those lines. I know I shouldn’t make assumptions about this dear aunt just because she’s wearing a scowl. I obviously didn’t really know her. She lived and died 80 years before I was even born. But I just didn’t like her. I feel terrible about that now, since she did me such a great kindness by turning up a clue I would never have had otherwise. I should not have underestimated dear Aunt Polly.
I spent all that time tossing her back in the box! I was so bothered by her mean look that I wouldn’t even listen to what she had to tell me.
A Box of Old Photos
I think I’ve discussed before that my interest in genealogy started with a box of photos. A man had visited our family reunion. He was a distant cousin through the Sharp line. He was looking for any photos pertaining to the Sharps. My grand aunt had a big box of photos, but she had no way of making digital copies. I offered to scan them onto a CD to distribute to others working on the Joshua B Sharp Family History Project.
The only problem was that we didn’t have a clue who most of the people in the photos were. We assumed they were our relatives, but we didn’t know which were related to the Sharp line or anything else. After scanning all the photos, I needed to find a way to identify the subjects. This involved a lot of time comparing various pictures with a lighted magnifying glass as I tried to match the few people we did recognize throughout various additional photos.
We were also able to figure out some of the people because other cousins working on the Joshua B Sharp Family History Project had photos of the same people, and some were labeled. We could fill in the blanks that way in many cases. I was also able to figure out the identity of some children by matching birthdates in certain pictures.
One of the first photos I worked on was the one featured in the This Family Reunion Looks Sharp! post. I could recognize my own great-grandpa and his parents, and my neighbor across the field had photographs of her grandparents (grandma was a sister to my great-great grandma), presumably taken the same day based on the clothing. I didn’t even know this neighbor was a relative until then. As a result of this one family reunion photo, I know half the people in the 5-mile radius around me are cousins. You can all have a good chuckle about the shallow gene pool. It’s true.
Why did I start with the Sharp family reunion photo? Because it was full of adorable, cheerful-looking children. That’s why. Who wants to look at grumpy Aunt Polly when I have the cute kids? The little girls with their floppy hairbows? And the boys with their bowties? Aunt Polly was tossed in the box, and I never even bothered to see if she was labeled because I had already decided I didn’t like her.
She was glaring at me! Do you think she’s glaring at you? Doesn’t it look like she’s going to jump off of that page and start scolding you? She looks like she would be the ruiner-of-all-fun. I definitely had some preconceived notions about Aunt Polly that blinded me to her true value.
Neal Parentage Mystery
While corresponding with a cousin on the photos, he asked me if I knew anything about the grandparents of my great-grandmother Estella (Sharp) featured in last week’s Sunday School Class Photo – Bloomingport Friends, Randolph County, Indiana. His ancestor was Estella’s brother Ed. This cousin had been researching his family history for many, many years. He has a really great, well-documented tree for Sharp and Related Families on WorldConnect.
Even though this cousin knows way more than I will ever know about the family, he asked if I had any information about the grandparents of my Estella and his Ed. We knew their parents were Josiah and Lydia (Neal) Sharp. We knew Lydia’s parents were Daniel and Lutitia (Perdue) Neal, but Daniel Neal’s parents had been a bit of a brickwall.
There are several vague connections (land transfers, families living next to each other, families arriving in the area at the same time, etc.) between our Daniel Neal and other Neals in the area, but finding any real documentation to prove relationships has been nearly impossible.
I told him I knew nothing of our shared ancestor Daniel Neal’s parents. When I was researching in the local libraries and courthouses, I always kept an eye out for something related to Daniel Neal, but my searches were mostly fruitless.
Hitting Genealogy Gold in an Unlikely Place
Then one day I was ruffling through the box of photos looking for more cute kid pictures when I caught a glimpse of some handwriting on the back of a photo. How I had missed it for months, I will never know. It wasn’t that difficult to read. It was faded but still clearly visible.
Right in plain sight, I had missed it over and over, “Aunt Polly Brittian, sister of Grandfather Neal and Aunt Ellan Thornburg.” So now my grumpy, old lady had a name, but not just a name! She also offered a couple of super important clues. She provided two different siblings for “Grandfather Neal.”
Our Daniel Neal had died in his mid-40’s. Our Lydia was only a small child when he passed. Her memories of him would have been few. Her daughter, my Estella, would have never known her grandfather, but here we have proof that Estella seemed to know his two sisters. Having the names of two sisters opens a whole new world when searching for genealogical records.
Within a few hours of emailing my cousin about this surprising find, he had pieced together trees for both aunts. “Aunt Ellan” turned out to be Eleanor (Neal) who married Nathan Thornburg and lived only a couple of miles from my house. Dear Aunt Polly was actually Mary L. (Neal) Reynolds Brittain who lived just over the Wayne County line in the Williamsburg area. Did you know Polly was often the nickname used for Mary? I’m not really sure how Polly came from Mary, but I’ve seen it over and over again in old records.
Dear Aunt Mary Neal-Reynolds-Brittain
Over time we were able to find out quite a bit about Dear Aunt Polly. Quite honestly, I feel pretty bad about my initial perceptions of poor Aunt Polly. I was perhaps a little harsh in my assessment of her grumpiness. She certainly didn’t have the easiest of lives.
Aunt Polly Neal was born about 1810 in North Carolina. She married Firman Reynolds (sometimes found as Runnels) in Wayne County, Indiana in 1836. She had at least three children with Firman. Their infant daughters Julia and Charity died in 1840 and 1841 and are buried at Concord Baptist Cemetery in Wayne County (near the Randolph County line). A son William F. Reynolds lived to adulthood. Firman apparently passed some time between 1841 and her marriage to Joseph Brittain in Randolph County, Indiana in 1943.
Joseph and Polly buried two infants Montreville and Ruth in 1847 and 1849, also at Concord Baptist Cemetery. I searched extensively on the name Montreville because it’s unusual. Sometimes an uncommon name will be a family name that offers nice clues on other family connections. I don’t think that is the case here. I found that Montreville was actually the name of a character in a popular novel from that time period. It would be like all the women who named their children after Days of Our Lives Characters or all the teens today who were named for characters in the Twilight Series.
My son hates his name. I probably should have named him Montreville instead.
Unfortunately, poor Aunt Polly was widowed once again in 1850. In a span of 15 years, she lost a brother, two husbands, four infants, and the man we believe to be her father. Maybe she wasn’t grumpy. Maybe she was just really sad.
You can find everything we know about Aunt Polly on that Sharp and Related Families tree created by my cousin.
Probable Parents of Daniel, Mary “Polly”, and Eleanor Neal
In a strange turn of events, Aunt Polly’s clues eventually led us to the expected parents of these Neal siblings. After many months, maybe even years, passed, I eventually started corresponding with a totally different cousin from a totally different family. This cousin was from my grandma’s line which is from Tennessee. My grandma’s line does not have roots in Randolph County, Indiana.
We were researching the Lankfords from Sweetwater, Tennessee. He doesn’t live near Randolph County, but he mentioned he has ancestors who lived in Randolph County. His Thornburg line was from our area. Lo and behold, he is a descendant of Nathan and Eleanor (Neal) Thornburg, and he had found the probate record for the estate of a William Neal who passed in 1846, in Randolph County, Indiana. Nathan Thornburg was named the executor of the estate. A son-in-law would have been a likely choice of executor considering Daniel Neal had passed in 1845.
The entire estate is left to William Neal’s wife Lydia. This presents another strong link considering Daniel and Eleanor both named daughters Lydia. Willaim and Lydia Neal are likely the William Neal and Lydia Cook married in 1799 in Guilford, North Carolina. The whole group of Neals and Cooks seem to have come from North Carolina to Wayne County, Indiana together.
Dear Overlooked Aunt Polly
Although I was initially rude about poor, pitiful Aunt Polly, she’s turned out to provide some of the most helpful clues I’ve ever been blessed to come across in my genealogy research. I shouldn’t have been so hasty to judge!
We’ve all done it. Try as we might, we all judge based on some sort of superficial first impression at times. Have you ever been so very wrong about someone on your first encounter with them?
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