Giving Up Is Never An Option

One of the first obstacles that any family historian or genealogy researcher encounters is figuring out not only what to look for, but where to look for it. Nowhere is that more true than in the United States, where growth and change seem to be the only constant, and our increasingly mobile population can – and does – move freely within our borders.

Unlike our European and Eastern counterparts with their ancient histories and their territorial boundaries that may not have changed significantly in the past five centuries or so, the United States is a relatively young nation. And, except in the most extraordinary circumstances, its people have never been inhibited in their freedom to move from place to place at will.

The average American has made liberal use of this freedom from the earliest days of our country’s history to the present day, which is one of the most fascinating aspects of genealogical and family history research. We can easily visit the places where our ancestors lived and worked and raised their families. We can experience individual history in a way that is up close and personal.

But such freedom of mobility raises a set of questions that can be not only frustrating, but sometimes impossible for the researcher to answer. Consider this one example:

Family tradition asserts that my paternal grandmother’s family migrated to Florida from Thomas County, Georgia in 1855, and they settled in Columbia County.

Now, that’s pretty specific for family tradition. But, as I’ve discovered, it’s not completely accurate.

They didn’t migrate directly from Thomas County; there was a stop for a couple of years in Baker County, Georgia, where at least three of their children were born, according to the 1850 U.S. Federal Census.

To date, I’ve been unable to find any records of any kind, in any Florida county, until the 1860 U.S. Federal Census, when the family, including all eight children, are shown as living in Suwannee County, Florida.

The property in Columbia County that was assumed to be the original family homestead wasn’t purchased until the late 1880s by my grandmother’s father, not her grandfather.

So, where was the James Chastain family between 1850 and 1860? Why can’t I find any trace of them in either Georgia or Florida during that time period? And where were they living between 1860 and 1887? Surely, there have to be records somewhere. Aren’t there?

Well, there’s a small matter of the Columbia County courthouse burning to the ground. Not once. Not twice. Three times! Plus serious water damage in the 1920s that wiped out another large chunk of the remaining records.

And, if that weren’t enough to make me seriously consider abandoning my research, a house fire totally destroyed the Henry Chastain homestead and all the family records in 1967. I was out of options. There was nowhere else to turn.

Then I thought about the most valuable lesson years of research has taught me: Disappointment and discouragement will be your constant companions, and there may be times you have to set your work aside for a while to gain new perspective, but quitting must never be an option. There must always be another source to explore, another place to look, another question to ask.

The truth of that mantra really resonated with me when I briefly stopped my active research and took time to remember conversations with my grandmother, when she talked about visiting with her grandparents and her multitude of aunts and uncles and cousins at “the old home place.”

Suddenly, effortlessly on my part, I realized where she had been talking about, and I knew from my research that the area where her grandparents had originally settled had been part of four different counties and had changed hands several times. Perhaps the records I was looking for had changed hands as well. Almost miraculously, a whole range of new research possibilities opened up for me.

The work ahead of me will be painstaking and challenging, and no doubt disappointing and discouraging at times. But it gives me hope that there are answers to be found – if not here, then somewhere else; if not now, then some time in the future – as long as giving up is not an option.


Florida/Suwannee County Timeline

1821 – Florida is acquired from Spain and becomes a territory of the United States. Two counties, St. Johns and Escambia, are created on 21 July 1821. The border separating these newly created counties is the Suwannee River, St. Johns County to the east and Escambia County to the west. What we now know as Suwannee County was then part of St. Johns County.

1822 – On 12 August, 1822, two additional counties are created; Duval county was carved out of St. Johns County, and Jackson County out of Escambia county. The Suwannee River formed the boundary between these newly formed counties. At this time, the future Suwannee County was part of Duval County.

1824 – Florida Territory continues to grow in populations, so once again more counties are added. The current Suwannee county becomes part of Alachua County on 29 December 1824.


1832 – Continued population growth cause new counties to be added. On 4 February 1832, the future Suwannee County becomes part of the newly formed Columbia County.


1835 – The Second Seminole Indian War begins in 1835 and lasts until 1842.

1845 – Florida becomes the twenty-seventh state of the United States on 3 March 1845.

1855 – The Florida, Atlantic and Gulf Railroad begins building tracks from Jacksonville to Lake City in 1855 and completes construction in 1859. The Pensacola and Georgia Railroad from Tallahassee to Lake City begins construction in 1855 and is completed in 1861.

1857 – Construction begins on an east-west railroad, known as the Pensacola and Georgia Railroad Line, across North Florida. It is completed in 1861.

1858 – Suwannee County becomes a county in its own right on 21 December 1858. At that time, there are only 200 families living with the county boundaries, with a population of about 2,000 people. Houston becomes the first county seat.

1859 – The first post office in Suwannee County is established in Houston on 22 December 1859.

1860 – The community of Wellborn is founded at a time when cotton is king and one of the largest cotton warehouses in the area is located within its town limits.

1861 – The Civil War breaks out, and Suwannee County furnishes 250 men for service in the Confederate Army. The Confederacy desperately needs supplies from Florida, so construction of a railroad from Dupont, Georgia to the railroad crossing Suwannee County is begun. Its completion comes too late to do much for the war effort, but it will later prove to be what makes Live Oak prosper in the city’s early years.

1866 – The Live Oak post office is established 26 June 1866.

1868 – The county seat of Suwannee County is moved from Houston to Live Oak on 1 August 1868.

1869 – The Florida Legislature changes its laws to allow the citizens of a county to choose their county seat, and the first election is held on 27 March 1869. There are six polling places: Houston, Wellborn, Live Oak, Columbus, Plowdens, and Boston.

1878 – The Live Oak community is incorporated as a town on 24 April 1878. Luraville is settled in 1878, and has a population of 75 by 1886.

1880 – The town of O’Brien is established. It is originally called Obrine. It soon boasts two churches, sawmills, a turpentine still, cotton gins, and five stores. It will later change its name to Obrine Station, before finally settling on O’Brien as its permanent name.

1881 – There are 49 schools in Suwannee County, nearly double the number of 28 in 1879.

1882 – The town of McAlpin is settled.

1886 – New Branford, formerly known as Rowland’s Bluff, is incorporated as a town. The name will later be changed to Branford.

1892 – Live Oak’s oldest existing business, the B. W. Helvenston and Son Insurance Agency, is founded.

1900 – The number of public schools now totals 82, 57 of which are for white students; 25 for black students.

1904 – The Suwannee County Courthouse, which is still in use today, is built.

1907 – There is an attempt to relocate the capital of Florida from Tallahassee to a more central location, and the City of Live Oak is proposed as the new site, but the attempt fails. The state capital still remains in Tallahassee today.

1908 – After building the Live Oak, Perry, and Gulf Railroad (affectionately known locally as “the Loping Gopher”) to serve his sawmill, and later freight and passenger traffic, Thomas Dowling moves his lumber mill to the west side of Suwannee County. The community that evolves from that move will eventually become Dowling Park.

This timeline of Suwannee County history was prepared by Jinnie Hancock, President of the Suwannee Valley Genealogy Society.