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genealogical tourism — Savannah

So here I am in Savannah, on a rare occasion when I’ve accompanied my wife to an academic conference but we have not brought any children. Aside from blessed sleep, I’ve been able to be a genealogical tourist when on my own. As it turns out my wife has distant roots in Savannah, her ancestor with the amazing name of John Francis William Courvoisie Armstrong having been born here in 1808 (named after a fellow Savannah resident with whom there must have been some close connection). JFWC Armstrong’s father James Armstrong was an early Baptist who spent some years in Savannah before settling in Wilkes County, Georgia, where several generations of his descendants lived. Julie’s great-grandmother was Selene Armstrong, hence ‘Armstrong’ is one of our children’s ‘seize quartiers’.

What I knew of James Armstrong, who lived at Savannah from about 1800 to 1820, had come from a typescript by distant cousin Emelyn (Arstrong) Fenenga. But yesterday an afternoon at the library of the Georgia Historical Society

— got me some interesting additional information on James Armstrong and his two wives, Mary (or Jane), who died at Savannah in 1806, and Elizabeth, whom he married in 1807, and who was mother of JFWC Armstrong. The records of the First Baptist Church at Savannah had been abstracted into a typescript in the 1940s; among the minutes was a detailed entry in 1810 for ‘Brother James’ Armstrong’s conversion and entry into that church —

— and his subsequent growing prominence there, until his removal to ‘Fishing Creek’ in Wilkes County some ten years later, and his ordination as a Baptist minister. James seems to have been an interesting man. He worked as a bank clerk at Savannah — which is none too promising for character — but one quotation from a recent history of Wilkes county gave me more on him:

James Armstrong . . . joined the Baptist Church and, moving into the interior, settled in Wilkes [county] . . . on a branch of Fishing Creek several miles north of Washington at “Walnut Hill.” He . . . was an active minister and member of the Mission Board for some twenty years and, when he died in 1835, he was treasurer of the Georgia Baptist Convention. It is also said that the Rev. Armstrong made the finest whiskey and brandy in the county and on more than one occasion the toast was raised, ‘may we all be animated by the spirits of Reverend James Armstrong!’ (Robert M. Willingham, Jr., We Have This Heritage: The History of Wilkes County, Georgia, Beginnings to 1860 [Wilkes Pub. Co., 2002], p. 67).

What I also learned from the Baptist church minutes was that before joining the Baptist church James had previously been a deacon in the Independent Presbyterian Church of Savannah

My next stop (though their records were not at the Historical Society) will be to see whether the Presbyterian church’s member records (which date from 1800) shed more light on James Armstrong’s early career, and especially his 1807 marriage to Elizabeth, who is identified in the family genealogy as Elizabeth Giles Butler, presumably a Giles formerly married to a Butler. City records show both Butlers and Gileses at Savannah in earlier years, but without enough specificity to trace her; though I spotted one newspaper notice of the divorce proceedings between a Benjamin Butler and his wife Elizabeth in 1797. The Historical Society held recently published compilations of newspaper clippings and the city’s death records from this era, including records for an infant and the first wife of James Armstrong, named either Mary (abstracted city death record) or Jane (family genealogy—why the discrepancy?). She died shortly after her infant son in October of 1806, and was buried in the Colonial cemetery —

— though there is no extant stone for her. Interestingly James Armstrong’s house, where she died, was on Broughton street, probably no more than a block or two from where we are staying this weekend at the Marshall House, also on Broughton. This remote personal past has added a fine dimension to our visit in what is known as a city of ghosts.


Here is my wife’s line of Savannah & Wilkes County Armstrongs —

James Armstrong (1776-1835) = (2) Elizabeth Giles Butler (1775-1859)
John Francis William Courvoisie Armstrong (1808-1884) = Frances Amanda Simpson (1812-1887)
James Wingfield Armstrong (1852-1913) = Carolyn Ayer (1852-1939)
Selene Ayer Armstrong (1883-1932) = Dudley Harmon (1886-1976)

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