On the highest point in Noblesville’s Crownland Cemetery stands a monument to men from Hamilton County who served in the Civil War. Among the names and ranks of commissioned officers and enlisted men are 11 African Americans. The white veterans who commissioned the structure in 1868 made the rare choice to recognize these men’s names alongside their own. In fact, it is one of the few Civil War monuments that includes Black soldiers in the United States.
But there is often room for improvement when it comes to what we know and how we talk about history, especially the history of disenfranchised people. For example, an eighth-grade history book popular in 2015 referred to Africans who were forced to come to the U.S. as “workers” instead of “slaves.”
Lezli Davis is quick with a disclaimer when asked about her own historical research. ”I am not a genealogist or a historian. I’m a family history researcher.” While she has no degrees or certificates to hang on her wall, Davis has been digging into her family’s history since 2008, when one nagging question about her surname, Glover, and a limited-time-offer discount led her to sign up for Ancestry.com. “I took the bait,” says Davis.
Since then, she has amassed a family tree of more than 12,000 people, branches that keep growing and spreading as she makes discoveries about who married whom or fathered or mothered whom. If anyone in her mostly African American family has questions about a long-lost relative, they come to Davis, who grew up in Noblesville and now lives in Asheville, North Carolina.
She tries to do something with the knowledge she acquires. Most recently, she has been collaborating with Hamilton County Historian David Heighway to raise awareness about Black Hamilton County residents who fought in the Civil War.
“Between David and I, we identified 46. It’s a very fluid list. Information and names keep surfacing,” she says. That’s 35 more men than appear on the 1868 monument.
This Juneteenth, June 19, 2022, will mark the first year all 46 men will be recognized for their Civil War roles and the emancipation of enslaved African-Americans.
While Davis has spent years researching her family and uncovering new information, she says people interested in history shouldn’t feel daunted by the task.
“You start with what you know. You start with yourself and then you build from your maternal and paternal side and then you go as far as you can to build the pedigree of your kin.” Resources like Ancestry.com, FamilySearch.org and Newspapers.com make the sky the limit. When she was getting started, she also interviewed her elders to understand and document what they know, to find out who said what.
Her family has also passed down a number of papers and items that tell rich stories. One of the most treasured relics is the free paper of Davis’ third great grandfather, Jackson Smith, signed in November 1849 by a clerk in Halifax, North Carolina. As a free man, Smith set off for Indiana in the 1850s. (The family gifted this document to the Indiana History Society.) Another family photo shows the raising of the Grant and Wilson pole in Noblesville in 1872 by people of color to celebrate the first time Black males were allowed to vote. Smith was likely there to witness the event. (See photo at end of story.)
But not all of the family’s stories have been clear. One of Davis’ great aunts had stacks of photo books filled with faces but no names on the backs of the pictures. It’s taken Davis years to identify who these people are, but now when someone opens one of these books, there are names and connections attached to many of them.
“If you only have names without the context of what was happening, you’ve missed it,” she says. Growing up in Noblesville, Davis wasn’t too interested in the past. “The only thing I got out of history was a grade.” Now, she can tell stories about her second great grandfather, Alfred Scott, who was a member of the 28th United States Colored Troop, Company C, during the Civil War. Scott was the second husband of Fannie Middleton Lucas, whose first husband, John Lucas, also served in the Civil War.
When a researcher like Davis hits a “brick wall,” it means there is a missing piece that prevents further discoveries. Because of the enslavement of her ancestors in Kentucky and the conditions in which she was born, Fannie Middleton’s past creates such a barrier.
Previously enslaved Blacks weren’t counted in the U.S. Census until 1870. To overcome this challenge, Davis says researchers might get lucky and find a will that includes an African-American’s name, or emancipation papers sometimes available at repositories such as the Library of Congress or local historical societies can shed light on the trail of someone held in bondage through their enslaver’s official records.
“Growing up, I was embarrassed by my history because slavery was a part of it and not much else was mentioned about Black people other than that. No one in our family talked about slavery or being discriminated against,” Davis says. “Then I started reading newspapers available at online portals such as Newspapers.com and began to learn so much. Additionally, I began to really pay attention to the oral and written history about Roberts Settlement.”
She sharpened her skill. She learned what to look for in census records, like who were neighbors with whom and who lived in the same house, and then compared one record to another record 10 years later. She learned a lot about the origins of her Glover surname through DNA testing her father and aunt.
Davis also credits Coy Robbins. Robbins was a Noblesville High School graduate who, in his retirement years, became a family history researcher. He interviewed and compiled the history of many Black families living in Hamilton County. He later shared all the research that he had amassed with these families.
“His work has been instrumental in building my family tree,” says Davis, who continues to study and uncover new things. “It’s expansive and it never ends. It’s a hobby but it feels like something I have to do.”
Fertilize your family tree with context! See and read what was happening in Hamilton County when your ancestors lived here by ordering the official Bicentennial photographic history book. For more on Hamilton County soldiers and the Juneteenth proclamation in Galveston, Texas, check out Hamilton County Historian David Heighway’s piece for the Hamilton East Public Library blog.