Monday, June 15, 2015

Mystery Monday: Otis

I recently completed an ancestry binder for a co-worker—we’ll call her “Binny.”  She was my youngest client ever, and she wanted to know more about her paternal ancestry.  Binny knew only a few facts, and one of them was that her father’s father was a man named Otis Coleman.  Grandpa Otis soon became my favorite person on Binny’s tree.

Otis Coleman was born on February 9, 1918, according to various public records.  His obituary in the La Salle (Illinois) News Tribune (9-24-2001) corroborates this, saying, “He was born February 9, 1918, in Buchanan [Henry County], Tenn., to Richard and Ristie (Green) Coleman.”

So, I concluded that Otis’ parents—and therefore my client’s great-grandparents—were Richard and Ristie Coleman.  Or were they?

According to the Henry County, Tennessee marriage register that I found online, Richard Coleman and Miss Rista Green were married by a Justice of the Peace on January 3, 1920.  If Otis was really their child, it would have been more typical for them to marry before their child was born in 1918, not two years later—but it’s possible they weren’t.  

Moving ahead ten years, in the 1930 census for Henry County, Tennessee, Richard and Risty are listed with four children including Otis, and Otis is 12 years old.  His relationship to Richard is listed as “son.”  And they have been married for 16 years (since ages 21 and 19), which would be 1914—not correct...  They've extended their marriage back to encompass Otis' birth!

However—things got squidgy when I went back to the 1920 census.  Here are Richard, age 25, and Rista, age 16, married and living in Henry County, Tennessee, just where I expected them.  But—no child named Otis is listed!  No children at all…  So—where was Otis in 1920?

And wait a minute!…  If the 1920 census gives the correct age for Rista, then she was just 14 years old in 1918, the year that Otis was born.  Could Rista really have been his mother at such a young age?  I know it’s medically possible—but is it likely?

I took a closer look at Rista’s age.  According to the 1910 census record, listing her as age 6, she would have been born around 1904.  Her 1920 census with Richard, listing her as age 16, would also put her birth at around 1904.  Unfortunately, no ages are given on the 1920 marriage register. 

In 1930 she is listed as 35—very doubtful... wasn’t very helpful either, giving her birth as 1908—but no grave marker or other proof.  So the best evidence still points to Rista being born around 1904, and being no more than 14 when baby Otis was born in 1918.  

Binny and I want to know…  Who were Otis’ parents, really?  I did some digging online, and made a few phone calls, and although Henry County didn’t have birth certificates that old, I was glad to find out that the State of Tennessee began keeping them in 1916—just in time to have one for Otis’ birth in 1918—at least I hope so.  Compliance wasn’t 100% in those early days, as any genealogist knows.  Nevertheless, Binny and I ordered Otis’ birth certificate a couple of weeks ago—and now, all we can do is wait, and hope for some answers.


  1. My great grandmother was married at age 13 in 1906 and her first was born a year later when she was 14. But I haven't come across any record of the marriage until 1909... Very curious. In the early years they lived in a couple of different rural communities just a few miles apart, but in three different counties. Hopefully a trip to those courthouses will solve the mystery.

  2. Otis does present a puzzle. Good luck getting all the pieces in place.