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I'm looking for the parents/family of my third-great-grandfather William Carroll Gardner (1828-1870). I know he was born in Tennessee, but the only records I can find for him are from Montevallo, Alabama, where he moved around 1850-1857.

My biggest problem so far has been that the census records don't record children's or spouses' names prior to 1850. On top of that, I can't determine exactly which "William C Gardner" or variant thereof is him in the 1850 census, because there are several men with that name aged 21-22 in 1850 in Tennessee and I don't know the names of any of his siblings, if he had any.

The only lead in Tennessee that I have is that he attended Bethel College before moving to Montevallo and establishing the Alabama Male and Female Institute. The Cumberland Historical Foundation in Tennessee has some early records of students at Bethel College, but William doesn't appear in the one available online.

As far as documents go, I've found William's marriage record from 1857 where he married Corrina M. Carleton, his census records from 1860 and 1870, his enlistment record for joining the Confederate Army as a chaplain on October 15, 1861, and a picture of his gravestone at FindAGrave.com. I found the connection to Bethel College by finding a mention of him in a 1939 newspaper as "one of the two founders of Alabama college" and reaching out to the University of Montevallo's historian, who sent me a scanned copy of a local historian's book about Montevallo that mentioned William and the Alabama Male and Female Institute, as well as his attending Bethel College.

Is there any hope of finding his parents? I've been searching on and off for months and haven't been able to progress in my search.

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    I don't have local expertise in Tennessee records, so I won't post this as an answer, but if he served in the Civil war, have you looked for his veteran's file? There's a decent chance it might give his birthplace, which might help in the census search. From that you could check probate records in the birth county and surrounding counties. Also, I can't help but suggest DNA as a good way to identify descendants of other siblings. It's not a sure thing at 4C or 3C1R, but it couldn't hurt. – cleaverkin Jun 16 at 18:36
  • I have some pictures of a record from the national archives (I believe I got it from a trial of fold3), but it doesn't give a birthplace. It seems to be a transcription of an original record into archive form, because each page has a line for "Copyist" at the bottom with a different signature on each page. He seems to have been with various units, so each page could be a transcription of a different original document. Should the originals be available from the National Archives if I go to one of their facilities when they reopen? – qt533 Jun 16 at 23:41
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I'm not sure this is an answer, but it's too long for a comment, and it may be helpful in suggesting some ideas for research.

Bethel College is now Bethel University, and has moved from its founding location in McLemoresville, Carroll County, Tennessee, to McKenzie, Tennessee, which is at the point where Carroll, Henry, and Weakley Counties meet. According to its website, Bethel is associated with the Cumberland Presbyterian Church.

There is a William C. Gardner of the correct age, 22, living in Carroll County, Tennessee, in the 1850 census. He is enumerated with a family that looks like Anderson Siles but Ancestry has transcribed as Anderson Liles. He is listed at the end of the family unit, after what is presumably the last child of Anderson and Dorinda Siles/Liles. He could be a younger brother of Dorinda, a son of Dorinda and a previous husband, or an unrelated lodger. His occupation is not given, but there is a tick mark in the "Attended school within the year" column.

Your Bethel College link gives the catalog for 1851, but maybe that is one year too late; possibly William finished in 1850.

If the William at Bethel and the 1850 census William are yours, there's still the question of where he grew up, which may be Carroll County and may be elsewhere in Tennessee.

Avenues to explore:

  • The Bethel College / University link. Perhaps there is a historian at Bethel U that can help you, or maybe the Bethel U library has some old documents in which your ancestor is listed.
  • The Presbyterian link. William attended a Presbyterian college, and in the 1870 census his occupation is Pres Minister. Churches keep records. Check records of Presbyterian churches in Carroll County, Tennessee. Since he ended up Presbyterian, there's a strong possibility that he grew up Presbyterian, so perhaps his baptism is recorded somewhere.
  • The move from Tennessee to Alabama. Was this in order to take a position at a church?
  • The Siles/Liles family. Are they related, or were they just hosting William? Are William and Dorinda related?
  • William's middle name is Carroll, and he went to school/lived in Carroll County. Is this just a coincidence, or is he named after the county, or is the county named after his family? Or is he just a foundling who was given the middle name of the county on whose courthouse steps he was found?
  • Court records. FamilySearch has probate records and other court records for Carroll County, Tennessee. They may not be digitally searchable, but often these books have a handwritten index at the front that is either roughly alphabetical (i.e. all G on the same page, but not in order) or chronological. Look for someone who might be William's father, and try to find William listed as an heir somewhere.
  • Do you know of any siblings that William might have had? When searching for other Gardners, e.g. in court and church records, try "William" as well as any names he may have given his children, since names tend to get passed down in families.
  • Are there any Gardner families nearby in the 1840 census with a male child in the 10-15 age range? Can you research them to find out what happened to those families and if they have a relative named William?
  • Older copies of the Tennessee Genealogical Society's Ansearchin' News are online. You can search the the FamilySearch catalog to determine which issues you want to look at (e.g. there's a 1966 issue that has cemetery records for a Presbyterian church in Carroll County, Tennessee), and then go to the TNGS site for the actual issue. FamilySearch won't let you view the whole issue because of copyright, but TNGS is the copyright holder, so the TNGS site is the place to read the issues.

Some of these ideas may be dead-ends or may lead you down a path of researching a family only to find it's not yours, but even that is information you didn't have before, so it's not completely wasted effort. Just remember to keep track of what you've researched so you don't retrace your steps.

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  • Bear in mind that Bethel College is pretty near the county line between Carroll and Weakley Counties. While there are some Gardner families in the 1850 Carroll County census, there are a lot more in Weakley County, so if it were me, I'd start looking for probate records there. I agree that William was most likely rooming in that household while attending college, so his family may be further off. – cleaverkin Jun 17 at 4:19
  • @cleaverkin At the time in question, Bethel College was in McLemoresville, not in McKenzie, so it wasn't as close to the Weakley County line as it is now. But you're right, if he was rooming in that household instead of with his family (assuming he's not related to Dorinda), then it stands to reason his family is farther away. – shoover Jun 17 at 4:45

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