Home Feature Articles Emily, Charles and Joe: The Graham/Jones/Davis Surname Mystery

Emily, Charles and Joe: The Graham/Jones/Davis Surname Mystery

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By: Mary E. Clay

WordleThis is a story about a surname puzzle.  A similar story could be told by many other African Americans trying to find their ancestors.  The search for the surnames the ancestors took after they were freed can be a true test of one’s research abilities.  This task would be made much easier if the ancestors had taken the surnames of their most current owner, but many of them did not.  In fact, the surname may have belonged to a prior slaveholder – the first, the favorite, or the longest – or the slaveholder of a parent or grandparent.[1]  Members of my family were found in censuses taken after they were freed with three different surnames – Graham, Jones and Davis.  This is a recounting of my attempts to find the origin of these names.

Charles Jones was my maternal grandfather.  My mother, Catherine, was one of the younger of his ten children.  Charles died before I was born, but I was told that he had a great sense of humor and had a way with telling a funny story.  One of the stories told about Charles (Papa) was that he had no formal education, but he was blessed with a lot of common sense.  When one of the neighbors had a problem to be solved, they called on “Professor Jones.”  Family stories that I could remember were scarce so I relied heavily on the memory of my cousin, who is about twenty years older.  From those family stories, this is how my family search started:

  • Charles was born on 11 April 1857.
  • His mother’s name was Emily.
  • His father’s name was Garrett.
  • He had a brother named Joe and a sister named Sarah.
  • They were all born as slaves, but Charles was very young when his freedom came.
  • Charles died in a house fire in 1943.
  • The family had always lived in Franklin County, Kentucky.

Fortunately for my genealogical search, 1857 was one of the few years, prior to 1911, when birth records were mandated by law in Kentucky.  A search of the birth records at the Kentucky Department for Libraries and Archives (KDLA) showed that four children were born on 11 April 1857 in Franklin County and one was a black boy named Charles.[2]  The record shows that Charles’s mother was a slave and his owner was a William B. Onan, who lived in the Bald Knob precinct of Franklin County, Kentucky. (See last line in image of Franklin County, Ky. birth register).  We had never heard the Onan name or the Bald Knob area in relation to our family, so this was new information.

Charles, slave of William Onan

Charles, slave of William Onan

With the knowledge of the Onan family name, my search of the online message boards found a post by a woman who was researching the Onan name. Onan Family Bible information When I contacted her by email, she responded and I was referred to a book in the Kentucky Historical Society research library called The O’Nan Family Record.[3]    On page twelve of this book, I struck gold!  A listing from a page of the William Brewer Onan family bible showed the names of his slaves and their dates of birth.  There I found Emily, Charles and Sarah and other potential relatives!  This solidified my link to the former slave owners.


Charles, Emily and Joseph from 1870 to 1930

Like most novice researchers, my search for family started with the Federal censuses. The 1870 census for the Bald Knob region of Franklin County listed a Charles Graham, who was thirteen years old (the right age for Charles), living with the William Onan family.[4]  My thought was that this probably was my Charles, but that his surname had been recorded wrong.  Later, I found this to be a major clue that I had overlooked.Bald Knob Onan

Searches for Emily in the 1870 census as a Davis, Jones or Onan found no matches at all.   With a lot of help from a friend, we found that the Graham surname Charles was listed with in the 1870 census was the key to tracking his mother Emily.  Emily was found in the 1870 census under the name of Emeline [sic] Graham.  She was 36 years old, which would agree with the May 1834 birth date found in the Onan family bible.  She was living in the Forks of Elkhorn District of Franklin County and working for the John Church family as a cook.  Her ten year old son, Joseph Graham, was living with her. [5]  So, Charles, Emily and Joseph were all using the Graham surname in 1870.

The 1870 census was taken on 5 September 1870, and Emily Graham was married to William Davis twenty days later on 25 September 1870 at the home of All Thomson.[6]  Finally, we have the source of the Davis name that Emily used for the rest of her life.Forks of Elkhorn Church

I have been unable to determine when William Davis died, but by the 1880 census, forty-seven-year old Emily Davis was a widow.  Her son, Joseph, who is only listed by his last name, Jones, is now 16 years old.[7]  In the same 1880 census, a Charles Jones (?) twenty-three year old (right age again) was enumerated with the Henry E. Owsley family as a servant/farm laborer in Midway, Kentucky.[8]  This was the first time we had seen Charles with the Jones name, and now we have both Joseph and Charles using the Jones surname.

According to the Franklin County Clerk Marriage Book (Colored), Charles Jones was united in marriage to Sallie Thomas, daughter of John and Rosa Thomas, on 12 January 1887 at Germantown in Woodford County.  He was twenty-six years old, a resident of Franklin County; she was seventeen and a resident of Woodford County.  It was the first marriage for both of them.[9]

The 1890 Veteran’s Schedule – Surviving Soldiers, Sailors and Marines and Widows – recorded Emily as the widow of William Davis, who had served in the infantry for the Union side.[10]

In 1900, Charles (thirty-nine) and Sallie (twenty-seven) were living in the Crutcher’s Schoolhouse District of Franklin County with five children, Charles Jr. (Because we had never heard of a Charles, Jr. and no other record of him exists, I believe this to have been the oldest son Richard, who was recorded incorrectly as Charles Jr.), Emma, Rosa, Lizzie and Thomas.  Charles and the oldest son had jobs as farm laborers.  They were living in the same household as Sallie’s parents, John and Rosa Thomas.[11]  In the same year, Emily was living on Church Street in downtown Frankfort as the boarder of a Sandy Martin.  Joe is not listed as living with her.[12]

In 1910, the Jones family was still living in the Crutcher’s Schoolhouse District. Charles’s age was recorded as fifty-four and Sallie’s was forty-seven.  There are seven children living at home: Richard, Lizzie, Thomas, Mary and Martha (twins), Katherine [sic], Stella and one grandson, Robert, who is the son of older daughter Rosa.  Charles and son, Richard, worked on a farm; Sallie was a washerwoman; and younger son, Thomas, ten years old, was listed as a servant for a private family.[13]  Emily was living on Blanton Street in downtown Frankfort with her son, Joseph. The record indicates that Emily was the mother of eleven children with four still living.   We are aware of Charles and Joseph, but who are the other two?[14]

Shown in the picture below are Charles, Sallie and some of the younger children around 1912.  I was told by my mother that this picture was taken on their front porch on a Sunday afternoon.  They had taken their shoes off, but were still wearing their church clothes.  The little boy standing right in front of Charles is their grandson, Robert.

Jones Family

Jones Family

By 1920, Charles (documented as age fifty-six – two years older than he was ten years earlier) and Sallie (documented as forty-six – one year younger than she was in 1910) are living on Versailles Pike in the Forks of Elkhorn District of Franklin County with five children left at home: Thomas, Mary (twin Martha died in 1914),[15] Catherine, Stella and Clarence and one grandson, Robert (who is now listed as their son).  Charles and son, Thomas, are laborers at a distillery.[16]   The 1920 census found Emily Davis and Joseph Jones living on Mero Street in downtown Frankfort.[17]  I was able to trace Emily in Frankfort city directories until 1923. No further entries could be found after that time.

Charles’ wife, Sallie Thomas Jones, died 23 July 1927 at home on Versailles Pike at the age of fifty-two of cerebral sclerosis.  She is buried at Greenhill Cemetery in Frankfort.[18]

The year 1930 found “Charley” (fifty-six years old) living on Church Street in downtown Frankfort with his daughter, Catherine (my mother), as head of the household.[19]  I was told that he had very little eyesight remaining and when a fire started in his apartment building on Washington Street in 1943, he was unable to get out.  “Charlie” died from injuries received in the fire on 17 January 1943.[20]

What about Joseph?

In 1875, Joseph Jones was indentured to Elizabeth and William Brewer.  He was to be taught the business of farming. This indenture was to last until his twenty-first birthday when he was to be given a suit of clothes and $100 (unless he was taught to read and write).[21] Joseph, who always lived with his mother, Emily, was designated as “idiotic” in the 1880 census.  He was listed on the supplemental census that year as being impaired since birth.[22]  January 1934 court records show that Joe was made a ward of the county under the care of a Stella Shaw who was given $75 a year to “provide him with suitable diet, clothing, etc.”[23]  On 17 December of that same year, records show that Joe was committed to the State Institution for the Feeble-Minded[24].  He died at the Institution on 2 November 1938.[25]

I’m told that for every question answered in genealogy, three new questions arise.  Here are some that have arisen as a result of my family genealogy research.

1. Why did Emily, Charles and Joseph take the Graham name in 1870?

-In the 1870 census, Charles was living with the William B. Onan family and in the next residence was an Onan son, Campbell Onan, who was married to the former Kate Graham [26] (the only reference I can find to a Graham who lived close or had any relationship to the Onan family).

2. Why did Charles and Joseph later take the Jones surname?

– Family stories say that the father’s name was Garrett, but no record has ever been found for a Garrett Jones.

3. What of Sarah and the other people listed on the Onan family bible page?

-The 1910 census indicates that Emily was the mother of eleven children with four still living.  We can account for Charles and Joe, but the others remain unknown.

4. When and where did Emily die and where is she buried?

-If Emily lived into the 1920’s, she would have been in her late eighties and she should have had a death certificate.  My search for a death certificate for Emily (Emma, Emeline) with surnames Onan, Graham, Jones and Davis has produced no results.  Emily’s death date and burial site remain a mystery.

As far as I can tell, after freedom, my ancestors were farm or distillery laborers, cooks and laundresses with no education, no ownership of property and no public persona.  They left very few records other than the censuses to document their lives.  The mysteries may continue unsolved.

Mary Clay,  Special Collections and Library Volunteer

About the author:  Mary E. Clay is a lifelong resident of Frankfort whose family has been traced back to the 1830’s in Franklin County. A past member of the board of the Kentucky Genealogical Society and a charter member of the African-American Genealogy Group of Kentucky (AAGGKY), Mary is a current volunteer in the Kentucky Historical Society Library.





[1] Franklin Carter Smith and Emily Anne Croom, A Genealogist’s Guide to Discovering Your African-American Ancestors: how to find and record your unique heritage, 2003, page 108.

[2] Kentucky Birth, Marriage and Death Records 1852-1910, Roll #994034, 1857 Births, page 1, Kentucky Department for Libraries and Archives (KDLA).

[3] Cary W. O’Nan, O’Nan Family Record 1700-1969, 1969, page 12, Kentucky Historical Society Library.

[4] 1870 Federal Census, Bald Knob District, Franklin County, Kentucky,  Roll 462, page 4.

[5] 1870 Federal Census, Forks of Elkhorn District, Franklin County, Kentucky.

[6] Marriage Certificate Book (Colored) Book 1-1866-1877, Roll 7002277, page 68, KDLA.

[7] 1880 Federal Census, Frankfort District, Franklin County, Kentucky, Page 6, line 42.

[8] 1880 Federal Census, Midway District, Woodford County, Kentucky. Heritage Quest, Series T9, Roll 446, page 355b  (Accessed 15 January 2009).

[9]  Woodford County Marriage Book (Colored Book 5 (Jan 1884-Nov 1888)), Roll 994034, Page 268, KDLA.

[10] 1890 Veterans Schedules, Ancestry.com Database, District 1, Franklin Kentucky; Roll 1; page 4 (www.Ancestry.com)  (Accessed 10 November 2010).

[11] 1900 Federal Census, Crutcher’s Schoolhouse, Franklin, Kentucky; Roll: T623_521; Page: 10A.

[12] 1900 Federal Census, Ward 3,District 1, Frankfort, Kentucky, page 57A.

[13] 1910 Federal Census, Crutcher’s School House, Franklin, Kentucky; Roll: T624_476; Page: 2B.

[14] 1910 Federal Census, Ward 2, Frankfort, Kentucky, Roll 476, Page 49.

[15]  Commonwealth of Kentucky Certificate of Death 1927 #18023.

[16] 1920 Federal Census,  Frankfort, Ward 3, Franklin, Kentucky; Roll: 745; Page: 9A.

[17] 1920 Federal Census, Gas House District, Frankfort, Heritage Quest, Series: T625; Roll 570, page 92 (Accessed 15 December 2010).

[18] Commonwealth of Kentucky Certificate of Death 1943  #15372.

[19] 1930 Federal Census, Frankfort District, Ward 3, Frankfort, Kentucky, Heritage Quest.  (Accessed 9 January 2011).

[20] Commonwealth of Kentucky Certificate of Death 1938 #3381.

[21] Indenture to Apprenticeship, Franklin County, 1856, pages 52 and 56, KDLA.

[22] 1880 Supplemental Census for the Defective, Dependent and Delinquent Classes (Adair – Jackson) Franklin County, page 2, Roll M1528-41, KDLA.

[23] Inquest of Feeble Minded Persons Book, 1919-1964, p. 2, KDLA.

[24] Lunacy/Idiot Inquest Books, 1912-1974, p. 39, KDLA.

[25] Commonwealth of Kentucky Certificate of Death, 1938  #894.

[26] 1870 Federal Census, Bald Knob District, Franklin County, Kentucky.

free sample merely need to bear in mind that the that nothing would transform.

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  1. wrote on October 18th, 2017 at 8:17 am


    Wow !!! This is awsome! Do you help others ? Because I have hit a brick wall. And I am only at my great grandfather born between 1861 , 1865 or 1868. Depending on what census your looking at…. And I have no ideal what to look for, it’s as if they drop off the face of the earth prior to 1920 census .

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