- Communities of Kinship: Antebellum Families and the Settlement of the Cotton Frontier
A book buyer catching sight of Carolyn Billingsley's title, Communities of Kinship: Antebellum Families and the Settlement of the Cotton Frontier, might expect a regional or community study that closely examines relationships among those settling in a single Southern locale. Yet this book takes a quite different shape as it follows one extended family's dispersion in the Old Southwest. This focus arises in large part from Billingsley's motive: she intends to prove the overarching importance of kinship for white Southerners and the utility of genealogical methodology for historical research.
While Billingsley is very knowledgeable about the large body of work on white Southern families, she faults scholars for not making greater use of genealogical methods. In response, she sets out to show what a genealogical reconstitution of one family of middling Southern planters can reveal. For her subject, she chooses one of her own set of paternal ancestors: the descendants of Thomas Keesee, born [End Page 185] in Virginia in 1778. According to the Billingsley, the Keesees left "no manuscript collections, diaries, plantation records or elaborate biographies" (31). Yet the prosperity of the family allows her to follow the kinship group as its members move to new areas in South Carolina, Tennessee, Alabama, Arkansas, and Texas.
One of the author's main goals is to demonstrate the importance of family ties in migration. Here her main point is that kinship was broader and deeper than historians usually acknowledge. Her method works best as she illustrates a tight web of marriage connections in the 1820s that bound the offspring of Thomas Keesee to their neighbors in Alabama. Through the General Land Office records, including probate documents and land and tax records, Billingsley clearly shows that the Keesees and their relations among the Calverts, Hills, and Clardys posted security bonds for one another and lived in close proximity. Yet her choice to study a group that left no letters or other personal papers results in her having few documents to reveal the meaning of such ties. The lack of such personal testimony leads Billingsley into suppositions about motivation. For example, she argues the importance of different economic push-and-pull factors, yet the reader can glean no idea of which one was stronger for various Keesee men and women. Billingsley also asserts that the migration "to the cotton frontier . . . was led or at least participated in by the family patriarchs" (111). Yet here Billingsley is gliding over an important point: with no personal documents, we do not know whether a patriarch such as Thomas Keesee inspired the migration or merely followed his adult offspring. The experiences of the Lide family, chronicled by Fletcher Green in The Lides Go South . . . and West: The Record of a Planter Migration in 1835 (1952), suggested that sometimes the younger men instigated family moves that involved their fathers and siblings. Thus, Billingsley shows the complexity of migration in extended family groupings but does not illuminate the decisions involved.
Throughout, Billingsley asks us to make "educated guesses about the motivations and feelings based on the actions of antebellum southerners whose lives were permeated and framed by kinship." Yet these guesses seem to take us little beyond what we already know about families, and some are quite speculative. For example, in her discussion of naming practices, she can fix with certainty only a relatively few kin namesakes. She argues, and likely is correct, that naming practices often honored kin outside the nuclear family. Yet her failure to attempt to calculate the frequency of this practice does not add weight to her assertions. Fragmentary sources are also a problem in the genealogical materials she plumbs. She begins in Alabama because "Keesee's residence in Tennessee during parts of the first two decades of the 1800s is difficult to flesh out due to paucity of records" (47). A few pages later the reader learns that "Tuscaloosa Country records are not complete...