I am on my way home from a research trip to the Texas Hill Country to find the land my Gooch ancestors occupied from the late 1840s at least through the 1880s. I know Texas would rather consider itself part of the South than part of the West, but that’s where my folks were before they moved to Arizona, and if a trip through the county roads of central Texas is not On Granny’s Trail, then I don’t know what is. Besides, any state with the amount of cacti and roadside taxidermists I saw surely qualifies as “Western.”
My specific goal for this trip was to locate my ancestors’ original land tracts on a modern map, so I could drive there and take pictures of the surroundings.
This post recounts the steps I took in the research process and the fun surprise ending. I plan to follow up in the future with some helpful advice for planning a research trip but I couldn’t wait to share what I found, because it involved what I call Ninja Genealogy and some delightful serendipity. The post is long, but not nearly as long as the 25 year journey I took to this particular tract of land.
Here is the tract of land I wanted to find:
“…land lying and being in Burnet County…a part of the John Hamilton League (No 1) in what is known as Josiah Brantly’s portion of the Town of Burnet on the west side of Hamilton Creek… containing five acres of land which includes the house built by the United States Army for a hospital…” Another record calls the tract “Old Hospital Place.” It was owned by John and Sarah Gooch in 1858. John is my great-great-great grandpa, and Sarah was his second wife.
Texas GLO. My first stop was the Texas General Land Office. The Texas GLO houses the records from the state land grant system, and although John Gooch was not the original owner of this tract of land in Burnet, the original owner was mentioned in the deed records, which could prove to be helpful in the GLO visit. Plus, two other tracts I had identified for Thomas Gooch and Verlinda Gooch were land grants in nearby Llano County, so the GLO would be the place to go for these files. The Texas GLO, as I posted previously, is outstanding and much of what they have is online, but there are always things to do in person anywhere you go, so off to Austin I headed. The archivist there—Mary—was the most helpful archivist I have ever come across! And that is another reason to visit in person. Archivists and librarians always have a few tricks up their sleeves to help a polite researcher.
GIS mapping system and Google Maps. The Texas GLO has a GIS mapping system that is the coolest thing ever, and it is available online. But it is also available onsite and their screen must have been 40 inches. Sure beats my 15 inch laptop screen for details! Of course I didn’t know how to use it until Archivist Mary showed me. Once you find a grantee or patentee in their online land grant database, make a note of the county and abstract number assigned to the file. Then open up the GIS system and enter this information. Click! The system opens up to identify that tract on a modern plat map. Hover the mouse over the tract and make a note of the latitude and longitude that appears. Use these coordinates in your GPS system (in my case, Google Maps on an iPad) to drive to the destination. This worked perfectly for a few of the other tracts I was researching.
What if the original owner was a different person? Alas, the tract in Burnet was not available under John Gooch’s name because he was not the original owner, so I could not find it on a map. What now? Archivist Mary brought out the giant paper plat maps for Burnet County. I was looking for any other names mentioned in the deed, like original owner John Hamilton or subsequent owner Josiah Brantly in case he had an adjacent property. John Hamilton’s original grant encompassed the entire town and more, so that was not much help. In fact, the town of Burnet was originally named Hamilton. I did identify a waterway mentioned in the tract—Hamilton Creek—that could give me some bearings on a modern map. Josiah Brantley did not have any tracts on the map. Hmmm. I guess it was off to Burnet for some snooping around. On my way out I glanced at some pamphlets. One was for Fort Croghan in Burnet, so I grabbed it just in case.
Scoping out the town. Once in Burnet I made my way to my hotel and began to look around town. Burnet (pronounced Burn-it, not Burn-ette, I soon learned) is a cute little place, population around 7,000. Street names, landmarks, the original town square—there could be a clue somewhere. I did find Hamilton Creek Park, and noticed my hotel was west of it and across the street from Fort Croghan museum. But this town was pretty spread out and I realized I would not be able to just stumble upon this tract of land. Still, it seemed like “Old Hospital Place” was a good clue and there should be a trace of it somewhere.
Three cheers for the local library. Burnet’s Herman Lee Library is situated in the “Historic District,” the four streets surrounding the county courthouse. In it I found the Genealogy and Local History Room. It was packed with all kinds of books, file cabinets, and registers (indexes in binders). Huzzah! Prior to my visit I had looked at their online resources, which included an index to the “vertical file” and the “surname file.” Sadly, the surname file had no Gooches. And the historic landmarks register had no mention of Old Hospital Place or an army hospital.
Always check the vertical file. The vertical file is something you will find in many local libraries. It contains subject folders with clippings and other loose items. Often the subjects relate to the early history of an area and are things you will not find published anywhere besides the local newspaper. I had copied relevant topics from their online index and was prepared to retrieve the folders as soon as I arrived. I first perused the books and registers and gleaned some local history, and made a note of the 3 volumes of Burnet County History on the shelf. In the vertical file I pulled folders with maps and historical landmarks, and found a generous section of Llano County folders which I would need later. I photographed the maps and many articles on early history. I learned a lot about early Burnet, but found no folder or mention of Old Hospital Place or an army hospital. Rats.
Always check the county history…again. Many years ago I had looked at the Burnet County History in another library. This day, armed with details from the deed record I again searched the county history. Still no mention of Old Hospital Place. But…my eye caught an entry in the Table of Contents for a history of Fort Croghan. Well of course! Fort Croghan. Good old Fort Croghan that I had never heard of until I picked up the pamphlet at the Texas GLO. Good old Fort Croghan museum that was right across from my hotel. Good old Fort Croghan that was AN ARMY BASE. I excitedly turned the pages of the county history until I found the section about Fort Croghan and saw a glorious map! It overlaid a sketch of the original army buildings on a (semi) modern map, and there was item “Q” in tract A—the hospital! I hoped that was same army hospital mentioned in John Gooch’s deed. Then I read the caption on the map which reassured me. “Tract A: Land described in deed from Peter Kerr to Thomas Osborn dated October 15, 1855 for 5 acres…which recites it includes, ‘the house occupied by the U.S. Army for a hospital.’” The “5 acres” and mention of a house that was used for a U.S. Army hospital in the deed record confirmed it in my mind. Deed records often use similar language from transaction to transaction in describing a piece of land. Huzzah!!
How did this land end up in John Gooch’s hands? As I said previously, the John Hamilton League or tract encompassed much of Burnet. He was the original owner. The county history details the transactions that followed (extracted from Burnet deed records): Peter Kerr purchased the land from John Hamilton in 1851 for $2,250 and leased it to the U.S. Army. When Fort Croghan was abandoned in December 1853 Peter Kerr gave Josiah Brantly title bonds for $6,000, which allowed him to sell parts of 617 acres. He divided off three tracts and sold the one with the hospital on it to Thomas Osborn on December 5 1855. By August 1858 John and Sarah Gooch had mortgaged the property, so I need to look for a deed showing the transfer of land between Thomas Osborn and Thomas Gooch between 1855 and 1858. By February 1859 John and Sarah had sold the land to Samuel Renick.
Where is the land today? Looking at the map which overlaid the original fort buildings on a “modern map” I could see much had changed since the modern map was drawn. None of the businesses still exist today. However, the Catholic Church remains. I could see the hospital building was just west of where the Catholic Church is now. I drove down the street past the Catholic Church and into the clearing where a new business park stands in place of the old army hospital. I took a few pictures and then looked out to see the view my ancestors might have seen. The view of the valley was lovely, and so was the view of my hotel room…right across the street!! Ah, serendipity.
Sometimes genealogy is easy. Sometimes you find your ancestor in the online index to land grants and can find his property on a fancy GIS map that leads you to the very spot he staked his claim. But sometimes, you must drive to a little town in another state and dig through newspaper clippings in a file cabinet. Sometimes you have to pour through 150 year-old deed records and decipher old handwriting that gives you clues like the name of a creek, an unusual description, and the number of acres. And always, you need to learn the history of a place, look at old maps, add up the clues, and get a little lucky. But when you do, you will find yourself standing on the spot your great-great-great grandpa stood, watching the sun set the same way he did. And then…you will be very happy.
One thought on “Ninja Genealogy and Serendipity among the Cacti and Taxidermists”
Fabulous story! Makes me want to get right out on the road and hunt more ancestors. You didn’t, by any chance, find where Martha Gooch Owen is buried? She died in 1857 in Texas, and I’ve thought she was with one of her brothers.