At the Library – Finding the Parents of Elizabeth “Besty” Wood Davis

I worked at a county Archives for several years after finishing my Master’s degree. This job was fun for me for many reasons, not least of which was that I could do some genealogy work on my own family during my lunch break. I knew that part of my mother’s family, the Davis family, settled in Williamson County, Tennessee for a time before they moved on to Marshall County.

Most of the research on the Davis family has focused on the male line; I was curious about the female sides of the Davis family, particularly Elizabeth “Betsy” Wood. She married Amos Davis, my 4th great grandfather, on 4 May 1809 in Williamson County Tennessee. Below is the marriage license:

Amos Davis and Betsy Wood marriage license.

As with most early marriage records in Tennessee, the parents of the bride and groom are not recorded on the licenses. All I knew at this point was that her last name was Wood, the license was dated 28 April 1809, they were married on the 4 of May, and that Betsy’s family likely also lived in Williamson County.

Williamson County Library and Archives Search

I began searching within the probate files located at the Library and Archives for testators with the last name “Wood,” hoping that I would get lucky and that either one of her parents would have left a will that named an Elizabeth or Besty Wood or Davis if she was married by that time. Most of the time, my blind searches don’t work out immediately, but in this case, it did! The first, realistic possibility of a family member was Johnson Wood who died in Williamson County in 1845.

Johnson Wood’s will was written on the 13 February 1845, and by May, he had died. I immediately began to read through the will, hoping to find any familiar names. The second bequest listed all of his children in this order: Thompson, Stephen, Johnson (deceased), Elizabeth Davis, Mary Sanford, Sary Wood, Fanny Sanford, and Jincy Fowlkes. Elizabeth Davis! How exciting! Elizabeth or Betsy Wood was the only woman of that name who married in Williamson County, so just on first glance it looked like I found the correct family.

Some of Johnson Wood’s children named in his will.

Johnson Wood’s inventory was very long, almost 7 pages of items that were purchased by his children, relatives, and neighbors. Elizabeth purchased a set of knives and forks, but that was all from her father’s estate.

Elizabeth Davis purchased items from her father’s estate.

Elizabeth Wood’s Family Background

This was all very compelling evidence that Elizabeth Wood Davis was the daughter of Johnson Wood, but I wanted to find more evidence that this was the case. I then stated researching Johnson Wood’s background. I found the record for a marriage between Johnson Wood and Fanny Thompson in Lunenburg County, Virginia that took place on 21 November 1783. This was an appropriate date of marriage for a couple to have a daughter who was born in 1793 (Elizabeth’s birth year). Elizabeth also reported that her birthplace was Virginia, also consistent with a marriage between the parents in Virginia.

Johnson Wood was the son of Stephen Wood and Ann Johnson, the daughter of Joseph Johnson. Joseph Johnson wrote his will in Lunenburg County, Virginia in 1761, in which he named his children: Michael, Isaac, Sarah Womack, Mary Weningham, Ann Wood, Joseph, Susannah Hudson, Elizabeth, Sisley, and Charity. After Joseph Johnson died, his son-in-law, Stephen Wood and his wife Ann, sued the executor. The spelled out the family relationships very well.

With these family connections in mind, it is easy to see how the naming patterns of Johnson and Fanny (Thompson) Wood’s descendants reflect their ancestry.

Stephen and Ann (Johnson) Wood’s children were: John, Sally, David, Patty, Johnson, and George. They named one son after Ann’s maiden name.

Johnson Wood, who married Fanny Thompson, had the following children: Thompson, Stephen, Johnson, Elizabeth, Mary, Sary, Fanny, and Jincy. Johnson and Fanny named a son Thompson after Fanny’s maiden name, a son Stephen after Johnson Wood’s father, a son Johnson after Johnson and his mother’s maiden name, and a daughter Fanny after Fanny Thompson.

Elizabeth Wood who married Amos Davis had the following children: Nathan, Stephen, Mary Elizabeth, John, Sarah Ann, Fanny T., Morgan A., Allen Johnson, and James. Stephen was named after his great grandfather, Stephen Wood, Fanny T. was named after her grandmother Fanny Thompson, and Allen Johnson was named after his grandfather Johnson Wood and great grandmother’s maiden name.

All the evidence shows that Johnson Wood and Fanny Thompson are the parents of Elizabeth Wood Davis.

More Records at the Library and Archives

It was so much fun to spend time with the original records and to see Johnson’s signature at the bottom of the will. Encouraged, I spent more time at the Library and Archives searching for other records pertaining to Johnson Wood and his family in Williamson County. I found deeds, court cases, tax records, and other documents that painted a clearer picture of their lives. Below are a few examples of records I found:

1. 1820 Census

Johnson Wood’s household in 1820.

1 male 45 years or over: Johnson Wood

1 female 45 years or over: Fanny (Thompson) Wood

1 male 26 to 44 years, 1 female 16 to 25 years: possibly Johnson and Fanny’s children or a child and a spouse

1 free black male 26 to 44 years: This is very interesting. I do not know the identify of this man, but he was living with the Johnsons on their farm along with 20 enslaved people.

Enslaved people enumerated on the 1820 Census.

There were 20 enslaved people living on the Johnson’s property and working the farm. From the record, it looks like 3 generations of one family are living there. This is one of the hardest aspects of the Johnson’s life to come to terms with. It is one thing to read about slavery in textbooks and history books, but it is quite another to see it in official records that your own family contributed to the institution.

7 enslaved males under 14, 5 enslaved females under 14

1 enslaved male 14 to 25 years old, 3 enslaved females 14 to 25

1 enslaved male 26 to 44, 1 enslaved female 26 to 44

1 enslaved male 44 and over, 1 enslaved female 44 and over

2. 1830 Census

In the next census, only Johnson and Fanny were still enumerated in the same household. However, 25 enslaved people were now living on the farm. This time, they were split up by more specific age groups.

5 enslaved males under 10, 5 enslaved females under 10

6 enslaved males 10 to 23, 3 enslaved males 10 to 23

2 enslaved males 24 to 35, 1 enslaved female 24 to 35

1 enslaved males 36 to 54, 2 enslaved females 36 to 54

3. 1836 Tax Records

Johnson Wood paid taxes on 250 acres located in Williamson County and on 13 enslaved people.


I hope that another prompt will enable me to write more about Elizabeth (Wood) Davis herself! But for now, I am grateful for this stoke of luck one day while doing some research on my break. And it just goes to show how valuable it is to spend time researching the females in your line. In many cases, I have found the most interesting stories on the female lines. They can be much more difficult than the males sometimes, but the rewards for the efforts are priceless!