Tonight's episode of Who Do You Think You Are? (U.S.) has me especially excited - I love genealogy (of course). I love African American genealogy. I'm a HUGE Pittsburgh Steelers fan! And I think former Pittsburgh Steeler Jerome "The Bus" Bettis is just a really great guy. I actually spent some time researching his family tree a few years ago - one of several Pittsburgh Steelers players whose ancestry I dug into just for the fun of it. But since the show tonight will likely dig much further into his background than I ever did, I thought I would again use a WDYTYA? celebrity as an example of just how many little footprints to someone's family tree you can find online. And, in this case, why online research all by itself is almost always not enough.
In the case of Jerome Bettis, most of the initial footprints to his family tree can be found in online newspapers -- both recent and historic. Of course, since he is a celebrity (and especially around the time of the Steelers 2006 Super Bowl win in Jerome's hometown of Detroit), his family has been discussed in the media. An article titled "The Last Bus Stop" by Fred Girard, which appeared in the 30 January 2006 edition of The Detroit News, provides plenty of great detail on the Bettis family tree -- "a family tree of solid oak that stretches back to a laughing miner who forgot to duck."
There were a lot of ways to get killed gouging iron ore out of Red Mountain just outside Bessemer, Ala. But 49-year-old Sam Sanders -- Jerome Bettis' great-great-grandfather -- might have found a new one June 23, 1916, when he started his shift at the Sloss Mines. "They were riding on a little thing going down into the mines like a little trolley car," his granddaughter, Ernestine Bettis, said. "You're supposed to duck your head. He was laughing so hard at something somebody had said he forgot to duck his head." As the tramcar passed beneath the low-slung adit, Sanders' head was crushed against the timbers.
There is plenty of additional family history information in that single news article, about the hardworking Sanders, Bettis, and Coates families from Detroit, and the paths that brought Jerome Bettis' father to Detroit. There are some footprints to Jerome's maternal side as well, as the article states that Johnnie Bettis married Gladys Bougard, one of 12 children of Abram and Christine Bougard.
Following up on the footprints from that single article leads to additional family history clues. Several marriage index entries are available on FamilySearch for the marriage of Sam Sanders and Luella Mills on 27 October 1900 in Birmingham, Alabama. The death of Sam Sanders is recorded in death indexes online at both Ancestry.com and FamilySearch, both of which appear to corroborate the death date of 23 June 1916 from the news article. Another Ancestry.com index gives a death date of 23 May 1916, but appears to reference the same original source as the 23 June 1916 death from FamilySearch (FHL microfilm 1894130, volume 21, certificate 140). The 1910 census of Jefferson County, Alabama, lists Sam's occupation as "miner" in an "ore mine." Additional census records in Jefferson County also document the family.
Plenty of other footsteps can be found online to the paternal side of Jerome Bettis' paternal family tree in Alabama, but moving on to his Mom's side, another newspaper article provides a stepping off point. "Bettis: Family & Friends Share Spotlight" by Ron Cook in the 3 Feb 2006 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
But it was more than just the Bettis parents. We're talking about an extended family that is a very close-knit group. Sisters Gladys and Gloria Bougard married brothers Johnnie and Jimmy Bettis. Is it any wonder that Sunday dinner was mandatory at Grandma Ernestine Bettis' house?
Abram Bougard, father of Gladys and Gloria and 10 other children, died in Detroit in 1966. A Kentucky Birth Index entry from Ancestry.com, for a delayed birth registered in 1942, corroborates the birth date from his SSDI entry (10 June 1913) and also provides his mother's name (Ruby Terry). If I was researching this for myself or a client, I would immediately go about obtaining a copy of the original birth record -- but for now we can mark it down for further research and continue to follow the online footsteps of the Bougard family in McCracken County, Kentucky.
It is in McCracken County, however, where the footsteps began to get a bit muddled. The Bougard surname is spelled all sorts of interesting ways -- Bogard, Beaugard, Brougard, Boregard, Beauregard, Borngard, etc. All close enough spellings to be expected, but still different enough to make the search interesting. At any rate, the footprints lead through what looks like an interesting story as Abram Bougard's father, Burnett Bougard appears to have either divorced or left Abram's mother, Rubie, sometime after 1910 when he appears with Ruby and their children living in Paducah, McCracken, Kentucky, because Rubie is found still alive (and listed as married) with her children in the 1920 federal census of Paducah, and Burnett Bougard didn't die until 1931, according to his death certificate online at Ancestry.com. The marriage of one of Abram's sisters, Corine, in Pennsylvania (marriage online at FamilySearch), helps to corroborate the marriage of Burnett and Ruby, indicating that in 1939 Burnett is deceased, and that Ruby Terry is still living in Paducah, Kentucky.
The footsteps then take us even further back to the great, great-grandfather of Jerome Bettis - Abe Bougard, born in 1848 to Jerry and Liza Bougard. Learning more about Abe -- his death record from 1925 online at Ancestry.com and his marriage to Amanda "Mandy" Gee (the mother mentioned in several of his children's death records) -- takes us full circle back to newspapers; to an article in the 18 February 1904 Paducah Sun (online from the Library of Congress' Chronicling America historical newspapers) that hints of a strong black man willing in a dangerous time to stand up for what he believed in...
Abe Bogard, colored, who sued the I.C. for $2,000 damages for injuries sustained by being struck by an engine, got a verdict for $375
On the 7th of October, 1902, the appellant, Abe Bogard, brought suit against the Illinois Central R.R. Co. in the McCracken Circuit Court to recover damages alleged to have been suffered by him by reason of certain alleged acts of negligence of appelice in the operation of one of its engines and train of cars in McCracken county.
A summary of the petition is also included with the account, including:
...the defendant, without fault or negligence on the part of the plaintiff, carelessly, recklessly, and wrongfully, and by willful, reckless, and wrongful act, ran its engine and train upon and against plaintiff, and knocked him down, and greatly bruised and injured his legs, thighs, hips, back, spine, arms, chest, neck and head, and made plaintiff sick and sore for many days, and plaintiff's said injuries are permanent, and he will never recover from some of same...
Additional online reports and newspaper notices also indicate that Abe initially lost his case in the McCracken circuit court, but that the decision was later overturned by the Appellate Court and returned to McCracken Circuit Court for a new trial -- the new trial he eventually won. This is yet another footprint that begs for additional research in original records, beginning with the records of the McCracken Circuit Court.
At this point the online footprints of the Bougard family start to fade. Jerry and Abram were living together in Graves County, Kentucky in 1870, but before that there are only clues to be found in records such as the 1860 slave schedules that may help to identify potential slaveowners. That information would then, by necessity, lead to original records (and original records are much more fun anyway!) such as wills, probate inventories, deeds, etc. Records that, for now, are still not available online.