“It Will Be Twenty Years…” Looking for Nancy Williams

Click to enlarge

“Information wanted of my children. I was sold from them in 1860. At that time we belonged to a man named Jacob Certain. I was sold by him to a man by the name of Buren Wardell, then living in Memphis, Tenn. The oldest child’s name was Millie, in her ninth year; the second was Mary, nearly seven years old. It will be twenty years in October since I saw them, and I would be more than glad to hear from them. Their youngest sister, Martha, is now living at Cape Girardeau, Mo. Any information will be gratefully received by their mother, Nancy Williams, Abbeville, Mo.”


After reading this advertisement asking for information about the daughters she had not seen in 20 years, I decided to see if I could find her and her daughters. Here is what I found using census records, newspaper items, death certificates and marriage records.


Nancy Williams was born into slavery in Florida about 1835 to Millie Palmer, an enslaved woman. Nancy was sixteen when her oldest daughter Millie was born. I imagine she was named after her grandmother. Two years later Mary was born. Youngest daughter Martha was born when Nancy was 21. There was a fourth child born, but there is no record except for the census records that say Nancy Williams gave birth to four children So I don’t know if that child was male or female and born during or after slavery.

I wanted to find the man who sold Nancy Williams away from her daughters. I first found a Jacob Certain in DeKalb county, Tennessee. There was no record that he was a slave holder. His father, Asa, held five people in slavery in 1860. None were the right age or sex to be Nancy Williams or her daughters. Both men died in 1861, leaving no will or probate record.

I found another Jacob Certain in Huntsville, Alabama. His occupation was listed as “slave dealer” on the 1860 census. He turned out to be a brother of Asa Certain back in Tennessee. (For more information about the domestic slave trade, click this link.) I believe him to be the one who sold Nancy and Martha away from her daughters. As he was a slave dealer, there is no way of knowing if he sold the daughters to someone else or who they would have been, or where they lived.

I found Buren Wardell, the man that Nancy Williams named as the one who bought her, in Memphis. He was a lawyer, later a real estate agent. In 1860 he had three enslaved people listed in the Slave Census, two 40 year old women and a 60 year old man. Unfortunately the census was taken in August and Nancy was taken from her daughters in October.

Mapping Nancy Williams Life. Click to enlarge.

After Slavery I found Nancy Williams and family In the 1868 Missouri State Census. She lived in Cape Girardeau with her husband Jesse Williams and her daughter Martha Williams. They owned two horses and one cow.

In 1870, Nancy was listed as 35, keeping house and like the others in her household, was unable to read or write. Her husband Jesse, 36, worked as a teamster. Martha was 14 and attended school.


Jesse Williams, her husband, died sometime between 1880 and 1900. In the 1900 census, Nancy Williams lived with two lodgers, neither of whom seem to be related to her. She was able to read but not to write, had given birth to four children, two were still alive, her parents were both born in Florida, as she was. She rented her home, as a widow and no occupation is listed.

In 1910, 74 year old Nancy Williams lived with her granddaughter, 18 year old Vassey Barber. Both were widows. Nancy did laundry at home. Vassey was literate and was a cook at a hotel, possibly at one associated with her aunt Martha’s husband Manuel Scott, a well know hotel proprietor and restaurant owner. Nancy had birthed four children and only one was then living. Vassey had no children. Vassey was born in Arkansas and her mother was born in Mississippi. Both were listed as “mulatto”.

Vassey Berry Barber

Vassey was the daughter of Armilda Hite and her husband Isom Berry. Unfortuantely, Armilda (who was listed as ‘Millie” on several of her children’s death certificates, died about 1893 in Randolph county, Arkansas, before death certificates were kept. However, Vassey was listed as Nancy’s granddaughter in the 1910 census. In 1930, Nancy’s granddaughter, Martha was living with another of Armilda’s daughter, Norma Berry Byrd. Martha was described as “Aunt”.

Martha Williams Scott

Martha, Nancy’s daughter, married Emanuel Alexander Scott in 1874. She was 18 and he was 22. In 1876 Missouri State Census, Martha and Emanuel lived next door to her parents. Martha’s husband was eventually a noted restaurateur in Cape Girardeau. They had two children. One son, Philip A., survived to adulthood.

Item from the 1892 Cape Girardeau Democrat
Item from the 1897 Cape Girardeau Democrat
Obituary of Martha Williams husband. Click to enlarge.
The obituary describes Manuel Scott as being comparable to Tony Faust of St. Louis.

I believe I found Nancy Williams and her daughter Martha and her daughter Millie. I was unable to find Mary. I hope she was in touch with her mother before her death.

14 thoughts on ““It Will Be Twenty Years…” Looking for Nancy Williams

  1. Kristin this an absolutely amazing search and a wonderful history. I do pray someone is their family lineage finds and keeps this. Wow

    1. Thank you so much for your comment. I have quite a bit of information on the daughters I found and some on Nancy Williams son so I think I will have to write a part 2.

  2. Wow, Kristen, this is great! I have hopes of finding out where two of my paternal 3rd great aunts were after learning about them in a newpaper advertisement. Kudos!

  3. This was quite a Journey you took us all on. Unbelievable what they had to go through. To have the were with all to know to post a ad in the papers. I’m sure that was a story in itself. I hope their descendants can find this and say, so that is what happened to us and she tried with all her might to keep us together. This was so beautiful ! I’m so glad you did this . I hope I can Pay it Forward one day just like this!

    1. I’m afraid this wasn’t rare during slavery in the USA. After the Civil War there were many of these items of people looking for their family members, having no idea where they were.

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