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Only a Few Bones

By Daniel Hubbard | December 29, 2009

“…they burned the house to the ground! With the people inside! It was terrible!”

When he was a teenager, John Phillip Colletta’s Grandma Ring told the him the tale of the death of her own grandfather. It was a gruesome tale of a small but deadly slave uprising, murder and arson. It also wasn’t strictly true. Like many a family story, the original grain of truth had accrued a good amount of misinformation, but the grain was still there. In 1873, long after the end of slavery, there was a mysterious fire in rural Mississippi and the remains of four people and a few bones from a fifth were found among the ruins. It was clear to people at the time that a brutal set of murders had been committed but by whom? There were theories and even arrests but nothing concrete came of them.

Coletta tells the story of how an extended family of German immigrants gradually left Buffalo, New York for the Deep South, how one brother, George, rose to prominence as a merchant and cotton grower in Vicksburg and the Yazoo-Mississippi Delta and how one night the other brother, Joseph, met a brutal end. George continued his rise under a cloud of suspicion surrounding what came to be known as “the Rolling Fork tragedy,” the fiery end of the brothers’ country store and the deaths of Joseph and everyone else inside.  Coletta also tells the tale of his own research, both directly, as he recounts hearing the original tale from his grandmother and finding the site of the fire, and indirectly through copious endnotes that explain how he knows that the details in the book are not mere embellishment. If he writes of a muddy road, there will be an endnote explaining that the following day’s newspaper reported torrential rains in the morning.

Because of the attention to detail, the book is both fascinating and informative on two levels. It reads almost like a novel and yet just below the surface, where the reader can still get at them, are the baptismal records and insurance papers. Beyond the details of the narrative, there are the details of how these things are known—the research methodology, the interpretation of the evidence. Knowing how those details were researched adds a tremendous amount to the book. You can see how census, land and court records were used to fill in details; how newspaper reports both central and tangential fit into the story. Published works filled in information about local custom and history. Most of all you get a view into how to think things through and how immersing yourself in detail can not just help you put flesh on the bones but actually be what allows you to reach a conclusion. Where was the nearest school? How was it possible to get from point A to point B at that time and under those weather conditions and how long would it take? What would a certain type of business mean for a person’s routines? What were the dictates of faith and custom under a given set of circumstances? What do a certain set of associations with other people tell you if you also study those other people?

Even though Grandma Ring’s story of what happened that night turned out not to be completely true, investigating that mystery, the fire and the deaths, makes for a fascinating book. Anyone interested in family history should read it. Anyone interested in family history that likes to learn from example or who feels the need for some inspiration must read it.

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Topics: Genealogy, Methods, Reviews | No Comments »

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