This entry is part of the 52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks series. This two-week period covers prompts of Challenging and Easy. (To see other posts in this series, view my 52 Ancestors in 2019 index.
With the Johnston Family Reunion in my thoughts recently, I’ve spent the past two weeks researching my most distant ancestor in this family line — Wiley Johnston of Leake County, Mississippi, who is possibly my 4x-great-grandfather.
“Possibly” is a key word, as no direct evidence yet identifies Wiley as our Johnston family patriarch. Family historian Agnes McWeeny Johnston hypothesized Wiley was the father of five sons — Nathaniel, Silas, John, Harrison, and Rufus — who lived in Leake County, Mississippi, and the surrounding counties between 1825 and 1860.¹ Agnes based her hypothesis on census records and tax rolls. She believed these men were father and sons because they seemed to move together among counties in central Mississippi.
Is Agnes’s theory still valid almost 30 years later? With so many more records available today, I decided to revisit her research and look for more clues. It was easy to find records about Wiley; what’s challenging is determining if the records reference the correct Wiley Johnston and working out any clues within the data that can lead me to his origins.
But First — What Does the DNA Say?
Before I dive into land records, I want to address DNA evidence of Agnes’s theory. Using AncestryDNA’s ThruLines tool, it is clear my father shares DNA with descendants of all five hypothesized sons. The chart below shows the number of matches and amount of shared DNA (calculated in centiMorgans, or cM) my father shares with the theorized sons. I did not include data for matches who also descend from John Johnston, my father’s known 2x-great-grandfather.
Unfortunately, this evidence is not enough to prove the five Johnston men were brothers. Because the possible shared ancestor is distant — at least five generations — the matches with the lowest amounts of shared DNA can be explained by a myriad of possible relationships, even ones more distant than Wiley Johnston. The situation is also complicated by descendants of Nathaniel, Harrison, and John intermarrying for several generations. That’s why my father has closer matches with some descendants of Nathaniel and Harrison.
But looking at the DNA isn’t a useless exercise. It shows there is some genetic relationship between descendants of these five men. But we need traditional genealogy research and records to accurately establish these relationships.
Known Facts for Wiley Johnston
Wiley Johnston was born about 1786-87 in North Carolina.² His wife was Harriett C., born in South Carolina about 1796-97.³ I have not found a marriage record for the couple, but their relationship is inferred from the 1850 and 1860 U.S. censuses. Her middle initial is known from the 1880 census that lists her as “H.C. Johnson,” mother of R.L. Johnson (Rufus) in his household.
Because the Johnston surname can easily be misspelled as “Johnson” by recordkeepers, I include both spellings while researching. Wiley can also have several variants — Wyley, Wilay, Wilie, Willie — so I include those, too. These names are quite common, so it is very important to use other identifiers such as Wiley’s age, known counties of residence, and his wife’s name when trying to determine if a record is “our” Wiley Johnston.
I don’t have any information about Wiley before he arrived in Mississippi, but tax rolls and census records show us where he lived much of his adult life. I found the records Agnes referenced in her research and also several other appearances of Wiley on county tax rolls and Mississippi state censuses. Working backward from Leake County where our known Johnston family resided, I’ve constructed a timeline of these records for Wiley. (Continue reading to understand why I believe all these Wileys are the same man.)Wiley-Johnston-Tax-and-Census-Records
Wiley does not appear in any further tax or census records, indicating he probably died after 1860.
How do I know these Wileys were the same man? Madison County was formed on January 29, 1828, from Yazoo County; lands south and east of the Big Black River became Madison. Wiley falling off the Yazoo tax rolls and appearing in Madison’s is evidence he likely lived in the area which became the new county. As for the link between Madison and Leake, these counties neighbor one another. Wiley could have easily moved across county lines and into Leake. The household structures in the 1830 and 1840 U.S. censuses are also simliar. Each individual aged by 10 years (except for the oldest female who increased by two age brackets, which could be an error or explained by the timing of her birthday in relation to the census enumerator’s visit), and two male children in the youngest age brackets were added to the family. I believe these factors are good evidence that the Wiley Johnstons — no matter the spelling — of Yazoo, Madison, and Leake counties were the same man.
Examining Land Records
I decided to examine land records for more information about Wiley Johnston. The tax rolls showed he was both a land and slave owner, so land records are a good source of more clues about his life — especially in the rural, agricultural South where vital records are rare for this period.
Wiley lived in central Mississippi when lands were being opened to white settlement after the removal of native peoples. Did he obtain any land patents? I searched the Bureau of Land Management’s General Land Office records with all possible permutations of Wiley’s name — and got 21 hits for land grants in Mississippi. The results included patents in the following counties: Covington, Leake, Madison, and Marshall. I decided to focus on the Madison and Leake patents, known locations for our Wiley. Covington County is about 80 miles south of Leake, and Marshall is along the northern border with Tennessee. These two locations seem out of place for our Wiley, but do merit future research.
The first noticeable item from the chart is that a “Wiley Johnson of Covington County” patented land in Madison County on January 10, 1832.⁴ Does that mean our Wiley came from Covington County? I’m skeptical. When graphing the land on a map, the Wiley from Covington’s land and the Wiley from Madison’s land is about 5 miles apart. Also, the 1830 census shows a Wiley in Madison County with a household structure that aligns with that of our Wiley in the 1850 census of Leake County.⁵ Why would our Wiley be “of Covington” if he was already in Madison? I believe these records indicate two Wiley Johnstons — with all the possible spelling variations — owning land in Madison County in the 1830s. This theory means it is even more critical to rely on other identifiers (name of wife, name of witnesses, specific land location) when examining records for these men.
The other interesting clue from the land patents is how the patents obtained on February 27, 1841, for Leake County identify Wiley as “of Madison County” on two patents but “of Leake County” on the other five. Are these Wileys two separate people? I don’t think so. In graphing the land, all are within a half-mile radius of one another. The handwriting on the “of Madison” patents is different from the “of Leake” patents, and they are not in numerical succession. The discrepancy could simply be explained by two different clerks/recorders processing his paperwork. However, this difference could also be another another piece of evidence that our Wiley lived in Madison County before he moved to Leake.
I next searched court records in Madison and Leake counties for land transactions that could provide more clues about Wiley. I found several records, which I’ll detail below:
31 Dec 1835: Sold Land in Madison County
“Wilie Johnston & wife Harriett” sold land to Moses S. Goff for $2400 cash.⁶ The land included all the Madison County land patents in Section 34 of 9N-4E listed in the chart, along with some adjoining parcels in the same section.⁷ (Future research project: find records of Wiley purchasing or inheriting this land.)
14 Oct 1837: Sold Land in Madison County
“Wiley Johnston & his wife of the County of Covington” sold land to Eli Nichols for $200 cash.⁸ The parcel was the one patented on January 10, 1832, in 9N-3E, Section 35.⁹ In my analysis above, I thought this Wiley was a different man from our Wiley. But reading through to the end of the recorded information shows both Wiley and his wife signed the document — and she signed as Harriett!¹⁰ Is it possible there were two Wiley Johnstons in Madison County who were both married to Harrietts? Possible, but extremely unlikely. I think this means our Wiley is the same from Covington County, but I do not know what this means for the Yazoo County tax rolls. These counties are far from one another — could he have had business in both, or were there two Wiley Johnstons milling about central Mississippi? I am perplexed.
The two land sales above — valued at $2600 — also show how Wiley could have purchased so much land at one time in Leake County. He patented over 763 acres on February 27, 1841.¹¹ These land patents fell under the Land Act of 1820, in which the patentee purchased the land from the federal government for $1.25 per acre.¹² Selling his land in Madison County provided the capital needed to buy so much property in Leake County.
20 Oct 1842 – Bought Land in Leake County
“Willie Johnson & wife Harriett” bought the W1/2 NE1/4 and E1/2 NW1/4 of Section 11 in Township 9N-6E from William Johnson for $202 cash.¹³ This land appeared in the land patent chart above, patented by Wilie Johnson. Was there another Wilie who was actually William? Or did this land pass into other hands in the 18 months since it was patented, and I just haven’t found the record yet? The deed was witnessed by Edward Smith and Henry P. Johnson — is this later Johnson a relation? Definitely needs research…
16 Jan 1851 – Bought Land in Leake County
“Wilie Johnson of Leake County” bought 160 acres from W.R. Johnson and wife M.A. Johnson, also of Leake County, for $200 cash — and it was the same land Wiley and Harriett bought on October 20, 1842.¹⁴ How did this land change ownership to W.R. and wife M.A. Johnson? Is the Wilie purchasing in 1851 the same as the seller “Willie and Harriett” in 1842? This deed does not mention a wife, so I cannot be certain this Wilie is our Wiley. I’m going to be candid — I am thoroughly confused by this one!
16 Mar 1861 – Bought Land in Leake County?
William Johnson bought 80 acres of land from Robert Brooks and his wife Elizabeth for $100 cash.¹⁵ Although the beginning of the deed lists the grantee as “William Johnson,” further into the document, the grantee is identified with “Willie” in parentheses.¹⁶ Is this document telling us Willie’s first name is really William? Is there both a Wiley and a Willie Johns(t)on in Leake County? The 1850 census for Wiley’s household contains a Wilie, aged 14. He would be 25 years of age by 1861 — was this purchase him instead of his father? Are they not further differentiated as “senior” or “junior” because the elder Wiley has died? Or because they were pronounced differently: WY-LEE versus WILL-EE? Or because the 25 year-old Wilie was actually named William?
20 Feb 1875 – Son Sold Land in Leake County
“Rufus L Johnson & wife Martha” sold 120 acres to W.N. Johnson for $450 cash.¹⁷ The deed refers to the property as the “lands of Wiley Johnson,”¹⁸ and Rufus is specified in the 1880 census as Harriett C. Johnston’s son.¹⁹ The land sold included a part bought by “William (Willie) Johnson” on March 16, 1861 — giving more support to the possibility Wiley may have also been known as William. It also shows us our Wiley was still alive in 1861, helping identify a date range for his death. Rufus probably inherited this land from his father, which means I need to look for probate records or a will for Wiley. Also, who was the purchaser W.N. Johnson? Was he also family?
The land records I found are helpful — but in a very challenging way. I am even more uncertain now about multiple men with similar names in Madison and Leake counties during this period. The addition of William as a possible name for Wiley is also challenging. I saw many records for William Johns(t)on in all counties I researched — Yazoo, Madison, and Leake. There are probably hundreds of land transactions for men by this name, and I’m not sure how to sort them yet — or even if it’s the best way forward with the amount of uncertainty.
Probate Records: A Better Way Forward
Our Wiley Johnston owned quite a bit of land and property, including slaves, so the better way forward is looking for probate records. I did not approach these records first because the Leake County probate records available online at FamilySearch are not indexed. The microfilmed volumes do not even have an index at the beginning of the filmed books, so researching these records will require a page-by-page read of hundreds of images. The handwriting on these documents is often difficult to read and are just “walls of text” — very little indenting or spacing between entries in the probate court minutes.
To reduce the number of pages I need to research, it’s important to estimate Wiley’s death date as accurately as possible. He did not appear in the 1870 census. The Mississippi state census for 1866 lists “H.C. Johnson” as a head of household containing a female in the correct age range to be Harriett.²⁰ Therefore, Wiley likely died before this census in 1866. His last known record is his appearance in the 1860 census, which was enumerated on September 3, 1860.²¹ I believe the tightest date range I can estimate for Wiley’s death is between this date and 1866 — roughly a 5-year span to read hundreds of pages of probate minutes. (Any cousins want to help read through probate court minutes — let’s crowd-source this effort!)
Future Research Questions
I began this investigation skeptical of a Covington County connection for Wiley, but now I think it may be a very important piece of the puzzle. I have not yet examined Covington County records, but I will soon.
Also, who are the three Mosely females that appear in the 1860 census with Wiley’s family? Could they be children of a deceased daughter? Guardianship records may exist for these girls, but they could be in any jurisdiction, or even outside Mississippi.
A final important caveat is that I researched Wiley Johnston because Agnes McWeeny Johnston believed he was our common ancestor. I found direct evidence of Rufus as Wiley and Harriett’s son, but no proof for any of the other hypothesized sons, including my own ancestor John Johnston. Am I pursuing the completely wrong ancestor? Probate records could help answer this very important question.
¹Agnes McWeeny Johnston. The Johnston Family Tree (Green Valley, Arizona: Mrs. Roy Johnston [378 Calle de Las Flores, Green Valley, AZ, 85614], 1992).
²Two censuses agree for Wiley’s estimated birth date and place:
1850 U.S. census, Leake County, Mississippi, population schedule, Beat No. 4, p. 26 (stamped), dwelling 340, family 383, Wilie Johnson; image, Ancestry.com (https://www.ancestry.com/interactive/8054/4200047_00056 : accessed 25 Jul 2019); citing NARA microfilm publication M432, roll 376.
1860 U.S. census, Leake County, Mississippi, population schedule, Carthage Post Office, p. 114 (penned), dwelling 743, family 743, Wiley Johnson; image, Ancestry.com (https://www.ancestry.com/interactive/7667/4233369_00118 : accessed 25 Jul 2019); citing NARA microfilm publication M653, roll 586.
³Three censuses agree for Harriett’s estimated birth date and place:
1850 U.S. census, Leake County, Mississippi, population schedule, Beat No. 4, p. 26 (stamped), dwelling 340, family 383, Harriet Johnson; image, Ancestry.com (https://www.ancestry.com/interactive/8054/4200047_00056 : accessed 25 Jul 2019); citing NARA microfilm publication M432, roll 376.
1860 U.S. census, Leake County, Mississippi, population schedule, Carthage Post Office, p. 114 (penned), dwelling 743, family 743, Harriet Johnson; image, Ancestry.com (https://www.ancestry.com/interactive/7667/4233369_00118 : accessed 25 Jul 2019); citing NARA microfilm publication M653, roll 586.
1880 U.S census, Leake County, Mississippi, population schedule (1st enumeration), enumeration district (ED) 49, p. 70 (penned), dwelling 557, family 587, H. C. Johnson in the R. L. Johnson household; image, Ancestry.com (https://www.ancestry.com/interactive/6742/4241782-00773 : accessed 25 Jul 2019); citing NARA microfilm publication T9, roll 653.
⁴Bureau of Land Management, “Land Patent Search,” database with images, General Land Office Records (https://glorecords.blm.gov/details/patent/default.aspx?accession=MS0180__.255&docClass=STA&sid=3lsnvexa.whd : accessed 25 Jul 2019), Wiley Johnson, Madison County, Mississippi, patent no. 4930.
⁵1830 U.S. census, Madison County, Mississippi, p. 105 (penned), line 5, Wiley Johnson; image, Ancestry.com (https://www.ancestry.com/interactive/8058/4410666_00195 : accessed 25 Jul 2019); citing NARA microfilm publication M19, roll 71.
⁶Madison County, Mississippi, Deed Records Vol. C, p. 549-550; consulted as “Deed records, v. B-C 1832-1836,” images, FamilySearch (https://www.familysearch.org/search/film/008201461 : accessed 25 Jul 2019), images 630-631.
⁸Madison County, Mississippi, Deed Records Vol. E, p. 202; consulted as “Deed records, v. E 1837-1838,” images, FamilySearch (https://www.familysearch.org/search/film/008201463 : accessed 25 Jul 2019), image 118.
¹¹See chart “Wiley Johnston Land Patents in Madison and Leake Counties, Mississippi.”
¹²Ryan L. Fletcher, University of Mississippi, Center for the Study of Southern Culture, Mississippi Encyclopedia (http://mississippiencyclopedia.org/entries/land-sales-public-1800-1840s : accessed 25 Jul 2019), “Public Land Sales, 1800–1840s.”
¹³Leake County, Mississippi, Deed Records Vol. F, p. 265-266; consulted as “Deed records v. D-F 1839-1843,” images, FamilySearch (https://www.familysearch.org/search/film/008316859 : accessed 25 Jul 2019), image 593-594.
¹⁴Leake County, Mississippi, Deed Records Vol. I, p. 353-354; consulted as “Deed records v. G-I 1843-1851,” images, FamilySearch (https://www.familysearch.org/search/film/008316860 : accessed 25 Jul 2019), image 553.
¹⁵Leake County, Mississippi, Deed Records Vol. O, p. 333-334; consulted as “Deed records v. M-O 1856-1862,” images, FamilySearch ( https://www.familysearch.org/search/film/008316862 : accessed 25 Jul 2019), image 697-698.
¹⁷Leake County, Mississippi, Deed Records Vol. Y, p. 262-263; consulted as “Deed records v. Y-Z 1875-1876,” images, FamilySearch (https://www.familysearch.org/search/film/008318382 : accessed 25 Jul 2019), image 138.
¹⁹1880 U.S census, Leake County, Mississippi, population schedule (1st enumeration), enumeration district (ED) 49, p. 70 (penned), dwelling 557, family 587, H. C. Johnson in the R. L. Johnson household; image, Ancestry.com (https://www.ancestry.com/interactive/6742/4241782-00773 : accessed 25 Jul 2019); citing NARA microfilm publication T9, roll 653.
²⁰1866 Mississippi state census, “Enumeration of Inhabitants,” Leake County, p. 6, H. C. Johnson; image “Mississippi, State and Territorial Census Collection, 1792-1866,” Ancestry.com (https://www.ancestry.com/interactive/1125/v229_2-0426 : accessed 25 Jul 2019); citing Mississippi State and Territorial Censuses, 1792-1866, nicrofilm V229, 3 rolls, Heritage Quest.
²¹1860 U.S. census, Leake County, Mississippi, population schedule, Carthage Post Office, p. 114 (penned), dwelling 743, family 743, Wiley Johnson; image, Ancestry.com (https://www.ancestry.com/interactive/7667/4233369_00118 : accessed 25 Jul 2019); citing NARA microfilm publication M653, roll 586.