My pa didn’t have no pa! A beginner’s delight.


My interest in my family tree started early for me. When I learned in American History class that there were two Civil War generals with my surname (Johnston), I decided to find out how I was related to them. My first stop on the trail was that evening at dinner. I asked my dad what he knew about our Johnston family history. He admitted he didn’t know a lot. He directed me to his father, Troy Johnston, who just happened to live nearby.

On our next visit to my grandparents house I took advantage of my opportunity. So asked him what he knew about his Johnston family. He took down an old photo I’d seen many times in their hallway. He explained that this was a photo of his family, and that it included his “pa,” James M. Johnston, his “ma,” Nancy Ann Newsom, and his four older brothers; Warren, Jerdie, Carter and Wiley. At the time of the photo, my grandpa was a boy of about 11 years of age.

Only partially satisfied, I asked him who his grandfather was. He didn’t seem to understand the question. I asked again. Who was your father’s father. Once again, he failed to answer. I made one final try; who was your pa’s pa? This time he had an answer for me. He replied, “my pa didn’t have no pa.”

That was how I started my Johnston family research. How could his pa have no pa? Grandpa didn’t really know. He remembers something about a mean step-father that his pa didn’t like, but really had little more to offer. A few months passed when my grandma gave me another clue – a civil war written by William K. Johnston. Grandma said that when my great grandfather James M. Johnston died about 1942, that his son Wiley was his executor. Wiley got an old trunk from the estate which contained, among other things, the original copy of that civil war letter. Wiley had transcribed the letter on his old typewriter using four sheets of onion skin paper and four pieces of carbon paper. Once he was done, he sent one copy each to his four brothers. That was how grandma had come to learn about this letter.

The letter raised as many questions as it seemed to answer. Grandpa was born in Tennessee and he did know that his family was from Tennessee. Why then did the W.K. Johnston ask his wife to write and tell him who all had to go [to war] from Alabama? The letter did contain several important clues which helped me figure out how it might fit in. W.K. wrote he’d be happy if only he could bounce his “little Jim” on his knee. Could this “little Jim” be by great grandfather, James M. Johnston? The next step was to get a copy of his file from the National Archives. When that packet arrived there were more clues; two in particular. William K. Johnston enlisted in “Sawrenceburg, Tennessee.” Both the onion skin letter and the military record both clearly said Sawreneburg. I asked others what this might mean. I couldn’t find any city by that name in Tennessee. You’ve already guessed that in the time period of the civil war the letter “L” and the letter “S” often appeared to be indistinguishable. The town of Lawrenceburg, Tennessee was in Lawrence County, Tennessee.

Once I’d learned which county to search census records helped out. William K. Johnston had three sons in his home in 1860; Samuel B, John H, and James M. So now I knew for sure that my grandpa indeed did have a dad but why didn’t my grandpa ever hear about him?

That civil war file also revealed that Pvt. William K. Johnston, Co. D, 32nd Tennessee Infantry died as a POW in March of 1862. “Little Jim” would have only been 2 years old.

After learning how to read for clues, and discovering how to use them, the rest of my family research really started to fall into place.
What about that question in the letter about the “boys from Alabama” and who all had to go: well the Johnston farm bordered the Alabama/Tennessee state line. The closest community to them was in Alabama, not in Tennessee.

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