From Tombstone to Ancestry: Jacob Spellman (Chris)

One way to find out if you are related to a soldier or sailor is to discover a headstone with a surname that in some way connects to your family – it may match yours or perhaps it is your mother’s maiden name.

Then the question is: how can you find out more about that person?

Headstone of Jacob Spellman in the Oak Grove Cemetery in Elizabeth City, NC

Headstone of Jacob Spellman in the Oak Grove Cemetery in Elizabeth City, NC. Click to see a larger image.

As an example of how to how to go about this process, I’m going to focus on the Oak Grove Cemetery, an old segregated African American cemetery in Elizabeth City, North Carolina. Within that cemetery rest almost five dozen soldiers and sailors who served the United States during the Civil War.  Many of these men received pensions from the federal government and many of the men also formed a Grand Army of the Republic Post (The Fletcher Post) in the years following the Civil War.

In addition to the name of the soldier or sailor, the headstone will often also include information on the unit in which they served.  The headstone of Jacob Spellman, for example, included his service in the 14th United States Colored[1] Heavy Artillery (14th USCHA).  The 14th USCHA was one of the units recruited in North Carolina during the war.[2] The North Carolina State Archives recently acquired microfilm copies of the United States Colored Troops (USCT) Compiled Service Records (CSR) and, with a name (Jacob Spellman) and a unit (14th USCHA), we can check those CSR to see what information can be found on our soldier.  Information in the CSR can include how old he was when he enlisted, his height, eye and hair color, skin color, where he was born, when and where he was enrolled in the unit, as well as the date he enlisted.

Page from the Compiled Service Records for Jacob Spellman

Page from the Compiled Service Records for Jacob Spellman. Click to see a larger image.

Jacob Spellman was 27 years old when he joined Company F, 14th USCHA at Plymouth, North Carolina on February 17, 1865.  Jacob stood five feet six inches tall, had dark eyes and hair, and a dark complexion.  He was born in Pasquotank County, North Carolina and was a farmer before entering into the military.  Although listed as a farmer it is more likely that Jacob Spellman was a farm hand or farm laborer who was enslaved (the status of enslaved or free is something that is not consistently indicated in the CSR).  In our search for information about Jacob Spellman we will find evidence that he was enslaved before he joined the 14th USCHA.

What do we know about Jacob Spellman?  He is buried in the Oak Grove cemetery in Pasquotank County.  He was born about the year 1838 in Pasquotank County.  We know how tall he was and the color of his hair, eyes, and skin.  When did he die?  Did he have a family?  Other records can help us answer these questions.

Death certificate for Jacob Spellman

Death certificate for Jacob Spellman which lists his occupation as “soldier.” Click to see a larger image.

Death Certificates are part of the Vital Records Office and a second copy is kept at the local register of deeds office.  We can check a state wide index to Death Certificates in the Vital Record Office materials at the State Archives.  There is a possible match for a Jacob Spellman who died in Pasquotank County on November 22, 1926.  A review of the microfilm,  and a check of the volume and page number to find his death certificate, indicates a birth year of 1846. That date is a little off of what the CSR indicated, but the farther away from the event (birth) the more likely that figure is wrong.  In addition, the person giving the information (the informant) may not actually know the correct birth year.  Under “occupation of deceased” the occupation listed is “soldier.”  This must be our Jacob Spellman.  He is listed as a widower.  The death certificate also indicates who both his parents were: Jacob Spellman of Camden NC, and Mariah Jordan of Elizabeth City.

Jacob Spellman seems to have lived his life mostly in Elizabeth City, North Carolina.  A check of federal census records can help us locate him in time and place.  He should have a census record for the 1870, 1880, 1890 Veterans census, 1900, 1910 and 1920 census (he died in 1924 and so would not be on the 1930 census).  I have extracted that information below:

1870 Pasquotank Mt Herman

Jacob Spelman — black — b. 1839
Jane Spelman — black — b. 1832
Cornelia Spelman — black — b. 1854
Virginia Spelman — black — b. 1862
Susan Spelman — black — b. 1868

1880 Pasquotank Elizabeth City NC
Jacob Spellman — black — b. 1838 — railroad worker
Jane Spellman — mulatto — b. 1832
Mary V Spellman — black — b. 1861 — daughter
Susan A Spellman — black — b. 1868 — daughter
William Spellman — black — b. 1871 — son
Cornelia Spellman — mulatto — b. 1855 — daughter
Whit Spellman — mulatto — b. 1874 — son

1890 Special soldier census Pasquotank

Jacob Spellman — Pvt F, 14th — USCHA

1900 Pasquotank Elizabeth City NC district 7 Speed St

Jacob Spellman — black — b. June 1840 — married 39 years — watchman
Jane Spellman — black — b. Dec 1836 — wife — mother of 4, 3 still living
William I. Spellman — black — b. Aug 1870 — married 1 year — SON
Eliza Spellman — black — b. Nov 1879 — married 1 year — DAUGHTER IN LAW
Emma Ruffin — black — b. 1833 — widow — SISTER

1910 Pasquotank Elizabeth City NC ward 6

Jacob Spellman — black — b. 1840 — married 45 years
Jane Spellman — mulatto — b. 1840 — married 45 years 4 kids, 3 living
Mary V Jones(?) — black — b. 1870 — widow – daughter 1 kid, none living

1920 Pasquotank Elizabeth City NC ward 3

Jacob Spellman — black — b. 1840
Jane Spellman — mulatto — b. 1841 — wife

The census records have a large amount of information to offer.  We can see that Jacob has a wife named Jane.  He has four children: Cornelia; Mary Virginia; Susan A.; and William I.  Although Whit is listed as a son it is likely that he is a grandson (as the 1900 and 1910 censuses indicate that Jane had only four children).

Both the 1900 and 1910 census indicates that Jacob and Jane were married and indicates the number of years they have been married.  The 1900 record suggests they were married in 1861 and the 1910 record suggests they were married in 1865.  We need to check marriage records to see if we can find a marriage date.  But we need to know more about Jane Spellman first.

Jane is alive in 1920 and listed on the census record.  But when Jacob dies in 1926 he is listed as a widower.  Jane Spellman dies between those two dates – 1920 and 1926.  When we go back to the death certificate index we discover that there is a Jane Rebecca Spellman who dies in Pasquotank County in May 1926 – before Jacob died.  Her husband is listed as Jacob Spellman and she died May 22, 1926.  Her death certificate indicates she was born in Bertie County and gives her parents’ names (Hesicia/ Hezekiah Tompson/ Thompson and Sylvia Tompson/ Thompson).  Her maiden name is Thompson.  Marriage records can often be found in the county where the bride was born.  We check Bertie County marriage records for Jacob Spellman and Jane Thompson and we find a Cohabitation record for the couple.  Slave marriages were not recognized by law.  But immediately after the end of the Civil War, North Carolina passed a Cohabitation registration act – allowing former slaves to register their marriages for legal recognition by the state.  Jacob and Jane registered their marriage in 1866 and indicated they had been together for five years, just as they indicated in the 1900 census.

Bertie County Cohabitation record for Jacob Spellman and Jane Thompson

Bertie County Cohabitation record for Jacob Spellman and Jane Thompson. Click to see a larger image.

Jane and Jacob Spellman’s son William I. Spellman also has a death certificate.  He died on March 11, 1958 in Pasquotank County.  His death certificate confirms his parents as Jane Thompson and Jacob Spellman. His wife is listed as Eliza Spellman.

We also located William I. Spellman in the 1920 census, as follows:

1920 Pasquotank Elizabeth City #14 Bunnells Avenue
William I. Spellman — black — b. 1870 — married
Eliza Spellman — black — b. 1880 — wife
Russell Spellman — black — b. 1902 — son — d.1981
Edna Spellman — black — b. 1903 — daughter — d.1991
Jacob Spellman — black — b. 1906 — son
Susie Spellman — black — b. 1912 — daughter
Harn Spellman — black — b. 1914 — son
Theone Spellman — black — b. 1917 — daughter

Following the record trail and looking for information on Jacob Spellman we have been able to identify Jacob and his wife Jane and their four children.  We have found the family of one of those children (William Irving Spellman).  The third generation actually brings us to individuals who might be living or at least points us towards a third generation who could indeed be living in Elizabeth City today.  In fact, the third generation of Jacob’s family was living at the same time as my grandparents. His fourth and fifth generations are likely to be the same as my mom’s and my generation.  I could have gone to school with his descendants or my mom, a retired teacher, could have taught them in school.

If you were a Spellman and discovered this soldier’s headstone and wondered if he was related you may have now gathered enough information to help you determine if he was related.  You can check with your family to find out about ancestor’s they remember – or maybe, if you are lucky, there is someone who is a family historian and has researched the family already (and is, no doubt, willing to share!).  Matching the information you gather from the living family to the information we gathered about the soldier can help you determine if Jacob Spellman is one of your Spellman ancestors or not.  With a little luck, and a lot of persistence, you can do the same basic research on any headstone of any soldier you find.  Start in the cemetery, ask your living family members, and then schedule a day to start your research at the State Archives.


[1] “Colored” is the terminology used during the Civil War era.  African-American is the modern usage usually preferred today but when we use historical titles such as “United States Colored troops” the preferred usage of the era is retained.

[2] North Carolina men also formed the 35th, 36th, and 37th United States Colored Troops (USCT), as well as a company of the 38th USCT, a company if the Light Artillery (company L) and many individual men joined either the navy or other USCT regiments (the 1st and 5th for example) when the opportunity presented itself.

2 Responses to From Tombstone to Ancestry: Jacob Spellman (Chris)

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