Poppa & Sade: William Jesse Keel & Sarah Annis Peal

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Sarah & Bill Keel, 1942, on their 50th wedding anniversary

My dad grew up living with his mother’s parents in rural Martin County, North Carolina. He called them Poppa and Sade.

Poppa was William Jesse “Bill” Keel, born 22 August 1872 in Bear Grass, Martin County, to James L. Keel and Elizabeth (Betsy) Bowen, the second of their ten children. Bill was raised and worked on his father’s farm with his brothers and had a fifth grade education.  He was a strong man who loved to hunt and fish as well as farm, and had a big laugh.

Sade was Sarah Annis Peal, born 7 September 1874 in Cross Roads Township, a small community next to Bear Grass. She was the second of seven daughters born to William Ashley Peal and Jane Elizabeth Stalls and was named for her paternal grandmother, Annis Gurganus.  Sarah was a farmer’s daughter who was well educated for the time, going to high school for three years. She was a tiny woman with fine bones and a sweet smile.

Sarah Peal and Bill Keel married on 6 January 1892 in Cross Roads, probably at her home; she was 19 and he was 21. Their families knew each other; both of their fathers were general farmers in the county and both attended the Bear Grass Primitive Baptist Church, which Sarah and Bill attended for many years after their marriage.

They had eleven children but only four survived infancy: Mary Magdalene (Maglene), Susie Lanier, Edgar Durand, and Rachel Aldine. The first ten babies were born between 1895 (James Willie) and 1912 (Sarah Naomi). Daughter Rachel, born in 1921, was a “bonus” baby and only seven years older than my father, who was her nephew. The babies who didn’t survive were buried in a private family plot behind the “old home place” farm. Their graves now are covered by leaves and their names mostly forgotten. But Sarah recorded them in the family Bible so we have them:

Keel-Family-Record-From-Bib

When their daughter Susie Lanier Keel (my grandmother) married in July 1927, what she remembered most about her wedding was that her parents didn’t attend. Since she was probably pregnant at the time, it is possible that they disapproved of either the marriage or her husband. The newly-wed Myers were living on the Keel farm seven months later when their first child (my father) was born. Both generations lived together in the same house for the next twenty five years, first with Bill Keel as head of household and later, Bill Myers as head with his in-laws in the home. Poppa Keel farmed and did road construction work until they moved to Williamston in 1925.

SCAN0022My dad remembered that his grandmother did almost all the cooking for the combined household while his mother worked as a seamstress to bring in extra money. Poppa Bill Keel took Daddy fishing and also hunted to provide more food for the family; their farm cousins kept them well supplied with produce but protein was expensive. Bill Keel was the man in charge of barbeque whenever a hog was butchered; those were always social occasions with many family and friends to share the food and the occasion. They were poor and lived simply.

Sarah Keel died at home in Williamston on 28 June 1948. She was 73 years old. Her beloved husband Bill Keel died almost exactly four years later on 26 June 1952. He was seventy nine years old and had been in ill health for five years. They are buried together in Williamston’s Woodlawn Cemetery next to their daughter Susie Keel Myers.

52 Ancestors – #19 Grandmother Susie Keel Myers

Everyone in town called her “Miss Susie.” I called her Grandmama.

KEEL Susie - c1940 - NC
Susie Keel Myers, c1940 – Norfolk, VA

Susie Lanier Keel was born 31 August 1906 in the rural community of Everetts in Martin County, North Carolina. She was named for her aunt Susie (Sudie) Peal Lanier and her middle name became a family tradition, passed down to daughter, granddaughter, and great-granddaughter.  Susie was the seventh child born to farmer William Jesse Keel and his wife, Sarah Annis Peal. Of their eleven children, only four survived infancy, and she and her older sister Mary Magdalene (Maglene) Keel were particularly close.

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Susie and Maglene Keel, c1909 – Martin County, NC 

SCAN0013 (2)She wanted to be a teacher when she grew up and history was her favorite subject in school, she told my father.  According to the 1940 census, Susie completed four years of high school, two years more than her husband, William Marvin Myers. They met in Robersonville, NC, at the movies and something sparked between the social farmer’s daughter and the quiet man from Hertford. They were married at the Baptist preacher’s home in Williamston on 23 July 1926.  Grandmama told me that what she remembered most about her wedding was that her parents didn’t come. I believe that was because she was pregnant; her first child (my dad) was born seven months later.

Bill and SusieSusie spent her life in Martin County, raising sons William and James and daughter Jeanette, and burying a fourth child (Joseph) who died at seven months. When first married, she and her little family lived with her parents, Bill and Sarah (Sade) Keel. By the 1940 census, though, the head of the household was her husband, not her father. Both parents continued to live with her until their deaths in 1948 and 1952.  This was not unusual for the generation or the community.

But money was tight.  Bill Myers worked for the local tobacco company and Bill Keel hunted and fished, providing food. Susie also worked most of her life, sitting in the window of the local dry cleaners doing sewing alterations. She also brought work home, doing piecework for a local dressmaker.  Once when I was feeling guilty about hiring someone to alter my own clothes, I realized that she made a living because people hired her, and that she would probably approve of my helping someone else survive.

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Susie Myers at Alpha Cleaners, Williamston – c1980

Grandmama not only raised her own children, she also raised two of her grandchildren after her daughter remarried in 1960. She and my grandfather opened their home to a new generation, as they had opened it to an older one years before. I was jealous of them because they spent so much time with her and I only saw her about once a year; trips from New Jersey to North Carolina didn’t come easy.

Susie Keel Myers loved her God, her family, and her friends. She cooked wonderful Southern meals and drank gallons of sweet tea on the porch, visiting with friends and family. She grew up in the Primative Baptist Church but spent her adult years as a member of the Williamston Presbyterian Church. She loved to sing, especially hymns, and was a good and supportive friend, respected and loved by her family and community.

MYERS Susie, William, Tom, Bill and Rob - 1985 - Emerald Bay
William Myers, Tom Myers, Bill Myers, Susie Myers, Rob Myers – Emerald Bay, TX – 1985

Grandmama died on 10 December 1987 at age eighty one and is buried in Woodlawn Cemetery in Williamston next to her husband and sons and close to her parents. My life is richer for having had her in it.

52 Ancestors – #17 Peel Cemetery in Bear Grass

Some of my ancestors are buried in small private family cemeteries out in the country; others found their final rest in crowded historic New York cemeteries. Some have elaborate headstones to mark their passing; others are in unmarked graves, while still others have stones that are no longer legible, worn down by time.  Many others are lost or rather, have not yet been found.

In August 1979, I drove around Martin County, North Carolina, with my grandmother, Susie Lanier (Keel) Myers, and her sister Mary Magdalene “Maglene” (Keel) Taylor. Our quest: the family cemetery behind the old family homestead farm, which I now know is the Peel Family Cemetery in Bear Grass. Their mother was Sarah Annis Peal and this was where “her people” were buried.

KEEL Susie and Maglene - August 1979 - Williamston NC
Susie Keel Myers & Maglene Keel Taylor, August 1979, Williamston, NC

Aunt Maglene was deaf as a post and sat in the back seat of the big green Pontiac as we drove. Her sister, my grandmother, kept up a loud conversation with her in her thick Southern accent about points along the way. “No, Sister, that’s not where he was born, it was over yonder behind the school on the road next to the farm.”  Since I had no idea where we were or where we were going, it was hard to follow the conversation. And they argued about almost everything so I wasn’t sure what to believe anyway.

Grandmama turned down a dirt road next a farm house and headed back to a wooded area. “Should we be going this way? It looks like someone’s home,” I said. “Oh, it’s alright. We’re family,” she replied.  We pulled up and parked next to the woods and walked inside a quiet sheltered area with a few old tombstones poking through piles of leaves under the shade of tall trees. It didn’t look like a cemetery at all.

PEEL Stanley - Tombstone - NC Beargrass-1902

Grandmama and Maglene got very quiet as they walked, obviously looking for something that they were not finding, and asking each other where “the stones” were. “What stones?” I asked, since I saw some standing, all for people whose names were new even if the stones were old. “Our brothers and sisters.”  These old ladies in their late 70’s were looking for the graves of their seven dead siblings who died in infancy, who they knew were buried in this place, but who couldn’t be found. They were shaken.

But clearly the graves hadn’t disappeared overnight. “When were you here last?” I asked them, which started a competitive conversation about cemetery visiting, only to reveal that the last time either of them had been to this family cemetery was over fifty years before when their grandmother Jane Elizabeth (Stalls) Peal was buried there in 1921. I remember wondering who they thought was going to care for the graves if they didn’t do it; clearly no one else had thought of it, either. This was a private family cemetery, not a publicly maintained one. If family didn’t care for it, it wouldn’t – and obviously didn’t – happen.

PEAL Mariney J - Tombstone - 1922 - NC BeargrassWe cleaned up what we could and I photographed some of the grave stones we found. I wish now I’d taken all of them, but I was young in terms of genealogy research and it simply never occurred to me. I’ve never returned but wish I could, though I’m not sure I could find it again without my guides in the big green Pontiac. I would bring rakes and tools to clean up the space and clean the stones, and photograph them to share on FindaGrave, which only has two memorials listed as of today. There were no images of the cemetery or of either grave until I uploaded these.

I must add that this Peel Family Cemetery in Bear Grass shouldn’t be confused with the Peele Family Cemetery or the Peel-Griffin Family Cemeter, both in Farmlife, Martin County. There are plenty of Peal/Peel/Peele’s to go around and they are all related if you go back far enough. But my Peel Cemetery is still a mystery.  I want to find the graves of those great-aunts and uncles who died as babies. I know they are there; they just need to be found. I wonder who else is buried with them, lost to time.

#52Ancestors – #11 Lucky Meeting with Louise Dail

Forty years ago I took a break from courthouse research in rural Perquimans County, North Carolina, to buy a soft drink at a store across the street. The nice lady behind the counter saw my notebook and asked if I was doing genealogy research. I wasn’t used to anyone knowing what I was doing research-wise and was surprised at the question, but was shocked speechless when she then asked, “Which Goodwin are you descended from?”

It seems everyone in the county is related to the Goodwins, one or more of them. I had been getting hopelessly confused by just how many Goodwins I was finding, all with the same sets of first names (William, Job, John, Caleb, Henderson, George). They appeared in Perquimans and neighboring Chowan Counties in the late 1600’s and have been farming in the same areas for two hundred and fifty years.

Our chance meeting led to a remarkable find. Louise told me I had to go to Raleigh to look at estates administration records (now digitized and available at FamilySearch) for Perquimans County. In one of the Goodwin files there was an heirs list dating to the early 1800’s. It didn’t sound very plausible to me, but what did I know?  Louise didn’t remember exactly where, just that it existed.

Before this meeting, I had really only looked at records for known ancestors instead of  everyone with the same surname. Louise taught me the valuable lesson of doing more than that. Following her advice, I looked through estates records for everyone named Goodwin and found a goldmine in the files for John Goodwin, not someone I even knew I was related to. He was actually my g-g-g-g-g-grandfather, which this document confirmed. Without Louise’s information, I might have just skipped the file.

GOODWIN John - Children - from Probate Records 1855

For there was exactly what she had told me about: a list of heirs of John Goodwin who died in 1815. A piece of property was in litigation at the the time of his death that prevented the estate from being closed. For the next forty years, various combinations of heirs had petitioned the court for their share of the estate. But in 1855, they finally did it together and submitted an heirs list to the court clarifying who was entitled to shares of the states. Voila!