Occupations are front and center. We have a steamboat captain, a porter on a steam railway, a boot-black in a barber shop, a nurse, a hairdresser in a beauty parlor, and Southern plantation owners that represent two families joined by marriage in 1915. The first family begins with a Georgia plantation slave family of unknown origins. The other originates with an Irishman from Tipperary who settled around 1700 in Virginia.
Censuses have provided us with a lot of information on these two families. Well-known for their strengths and weaknesses — the stumbling blocks of misspellings and questionable informants, and poor transcriptions — when joined by such resources as city directories and other public documents, censuses are proven powerhouses.
The Bagnell Family
. Robert Herbert Bagnell was born June 22, 1842, somewhere in Georgia, most likely near Savannah. We do not know who his parents were other than his father’s given name was William.
On June 27, 1867, Robert Bagnell’s name appears in the Savannah, Georgia Returns of Qualified Voters and Reconstruction Oath Books. (Note that “In order to vote, men had to swear an oath of allegiance to the United States.”)
Robert Bagnell married Hagar, the daughter of Charles and Marie Simmons, sometime in 1870. We know this on two counts. First of all, Robert opened a Freedmen’s Bank account on June 30, 1870, in his wife’s name. Hagar was 19 on the date of the application and was born in St. Mary’s, Georgia.
The Freedmen’s Bank, officially the Freedmen’s Savings and Trust Company (1865-1874), was created by the United States to “aid the freedmen in their transition from slavery to freedom.”
Secondly, when the 1870 census was taken June 22nd, Hagar Simmons, 19, “B” (Black) was working as a nurse and sharing a residence with two other single people in St. Mary’s, Georgia.
Also in 1870, Robert was listed in the Property Tax Records in Savannah. The same year, Robert Bagnell, 26, a “colored” porter, registered to vote.
We do not know how many children Robert and Hagar had but there are four known to us: Stella, born about 1885; Walter Scott, born about 1886; Clifford, born about 1887; and Willie, born about 1893.
The 1900 census shows Hagar Bagnell, 50, residing at Satilla Mills, Camden County, Georgia, with her father, Charles Simmons, 75. Hagar’s son William, aged 10, was with her.
This clearly indicates that the census informant was someone outside of the family.
According to Georgia Cemetery and Burial Records, Hagar’s father, Charles Simmons, died September 1, 1889, in Savannah. He is buried in Laurel Grove Cemetery South.
This was the only census record in 1900 that shows the immediate members of the Bagnell family.
Ten years later, the 1910 Federal Census shows Robert Bagnell, 50, a porter in a store, and Hagar, 60, working as a laundress. Clifford, 23, is a teacher in a public school; Walter, 21, is working as a barber in a barber shop; and Willie, 17, is a collector (perhaps a teller) in a bank. All of the children are identified as “Mu” for Mulatto.
In 1920 we find Robert, reportedly 79, and Hagar, 70.
Robert Herbert Bagnell died June 20, 1923, at age 81, in Camden County, Georgia.
Cemetery and Burial Records for Savannah include a final statement made out to Hagar for the family cemetery plot in the Laurel Grove Cemetery South.
Hagar was obviously the one in the family who handled the money, first indicated by Robert opening up a bank account for her in June 1870. In anticipation of her and Robert approaching their later years, Hagar had signed an indenture June 30, 1928, for the cemetery lot. The final payment was made June 30, 1923, ten days after Robert’s passing.
Laurel Grove was created due to overcrowding in other cemeteries in Savannah. As a result the city negotiated with the heirs of the Stiles family in 1850 for a section of the Springfield Plantation. In the mid 1750s, Joseph Stiles, an Oglethorpe colonist, originally owned the rice plantation.
The 1930 census shows Hagar Bagnell, 75, widowed, and her daughter Stella, 35. In 1940 Hagar is stated as age 80. Stella Bagnell, now aged 55, and head of the household, was a fitter in a dress shop. These ages from two censuses a decade apart are obviously unreliable.
Hagar Bagnell died sometime between 1940 and 1950 and is buried with her husband and father in the Laurel Grove Cemetery South.
. Walter Scott Bagnell, born about 1886 in Savannah, worked as a barber in 1907. By 1915 Walter had relocated to New York City where he found work as a porter. On February 16, 1915, Walter and Mabel Elizabeth O’Bannon married in Chicago, Illinois.
The 1925 New York census shows Walter, 39, working as a railroad porter, and in 1930, while living in the Bronx, Walter was a porter on a steam railway. Mabel, born in Louisiana, was a hairdresser in a beauty parlor.
Nothing sums up the significant career of Walter Scott Bagnell more than two newspaper articles written about him at the time of his passing by James H. Hogans of The New York Age:
October 21, 1933: “Walter Bagnall Dies” — After an illness which kept him a patient all summer but which friends and fellow-workers thought he had overcome, Walter S. Bagnall, one of the most affable and esteemed porters of the New Haven Railroad group, died at his home, 80 St. Nicholas place, on October 11. Death was due to tuberculosis. He was 47 years old. Surviving are his widow, a 17-year old daughter, his mother, and two sisters and brothers.
November 11, 1933: Born in Savannah, Ga., of poor but sturdy parents, Walter Scott Bagnall attended elementary and grammar school in that city, but began at an early age to earn his own living. Beginning as boot-black in a barber shop, considered at the time to be the best in Savannah he soon won the confidence of his employer, who set out to teach him the trade. Being an apt pupil, it was not long before he found himself stationed in a regular chair. Shortly after that he was made foreman of the establishment. … an agent of the Pullman Company came to Savannah to hire porters for the summer season. Bagnall heard of it, applied for an employment blank and was given one to fill in. When references were requested, he replied that he had none other than the persons who knew him and knew where he had worked. It happened that one of his former customers was Superintendent of the Pullman district in Savannah … he was hired and given transportation to New York immediately, and to this day the Pullman Company has no written references on its files of Walter Bagnall.
The O’Bannon Family
. The O’Bannon family of Farquier County, Virginia, traces its roots to Bryant O’Bannon (Brien Obanion), born about 1683 in Tipperary, Ireland. His name is often found with family history files as Brien Boru, but that name connects with legend.
About 1705, in Westmoreland County, Virginia, Bryant O’Bannon married Zena Sarah Isham, said to have been born about 1680 in Tipperary. It is unknown how either of them came to America.
The 1753 early Virginia census shows Bryant Obanion resident in Prince William County. His will, proved February 25, 1762, shows him to have been a large landowner. He had several plantations upon which his sons lived. His oldest son, John, received approximately 212 acres, as did his son William. Son Samuel received approximately 300 acres in King George County.
Bryant O’Bannon’s estate also included a number of slaves. His bequests included one to his wife and one each to two of his grandsons, both named Bryan O’Bannon. His wife’s slave, Indy, if living at his death, was to be kept from outdoor labor. The remaining slaves, an unknown number, were to appraised and sold, with the proceeds distributed among his sons and grandsons.
. John O’Bannon, born about 1710 in Westmoreland County, died after November 18, 1763, in what is now Marshall, Farquier County, Virginia. He is buried there in the O’Bannon Cemetery.
About 1728, John married Sarah Barbee, the daughter of Thomas Barbee Sr. and Margaret Williams of Stafford County. Sarah died about 1806 and is mentioned in her father’s will of November 8, 1748, proved March 10, 1752, in Stafford County.
An account about John’s son George O’Bannon (1757-1776) provides some family background:
[George] had spent almost all of his nineteen years at his father’s home on the north slope of the Pignut Mountain … Two years before his father had died, leaving him a modest inheritance from the estate granted his grandfather, old Briant O’Bannon who had come to Virginia forty years before.
George remembered his grandfather mostly for his stories of Ireland, especially those about Brian Boru, the great King of Munster from whom the O’Bannons were supposed to be descended.
The foregoing source also informs that John O’Bannon’s will names wife Sarah; son William to whom he bequeaths the plantation land on the east side of Pignutt Ridge left by his grandfather Bryant Obanon; clothes to his son James; to son Samuel a tract of land and one negro girl named Hannah; son Andrew legacies from his grandfather etc.
. Samuel O’Bannon, next in line, was born after 1732 in Prince William (now Farquier) County, Virginia, and died about 1822 in Berkeley County, West Virginia (then in Virginia).
Little is found of him other than he married Sarah/Sally ___ about 1771 in Virginia. Samuel served as a Lieutenant in the Revolutionary War.
. Willis Obannon/O’Bannon, John’s son, was born about 1781 in Farquier, Virginia, and died in October 1869.
Willis married January 4, 1827, in Farquier County, Mary E. Mott. Nothing more is found of her.
Federal records show Willis appointed May 21, 1856, as U.S. Postmaster in Dover, Russel County, Alabama, at Smith’s Station. The 1860 census shows Willis, 78, as postmaster. Mary O’Bannon was 58.
The 1866 Alabama State Census shows Willis residing in Mobile, Alabama. The 1870 U.S. Federal Mortality Schedule shows the death of Willis O’Bannon, age 85, in Muscogee County, Georgia. He is buried in Linwood Cemetery in Columbus, Muscogee County.
. Willis Sr.’s son Willis was born about 1812. While we know he had children, the matter of his wife, and their mother, is a bit of a puzzle.
The 1860 census for Mobile, Alabama, shows Willis O’Bannon, an engineer, as the only member of his household.
By 1870 we know that Willis had two children born in Mobile, Alabama: daughter Hettie O’Bannon, born about 1869, and son Willis (aka William Augustus) O’Bannon born January 2, 1870.
The 1880 census for Mobile shows Willis O’Bannon, 67, “W” (White). Children Hetty, 10, and William, 9, are both identified as “Mu” (Mulatto).
We know from other reports that the mother of these children is Hetty White. Identified as “B” (Black) on the 1880 census, her name is listed next under those of Willis and the children. It appears she may have lived in a separate part of the same dwelling. Hetty White is identified as a servant, housekeeper.
Willis O’Bannon died May 2, 1884, in Mobile, and was buried in the Magnolia Cemetery there, as is his daughter Hettie (O’Bannon) Nicholas.
Willis O’Bannon was not just a steamboat captain but was a very well known one. His obituary appeared in Mobile’s The Daily Register:
May 5, 1884: Captain O’Bannon, the oldest and most popular river man died suddenly at Selma, while in command of the steamer Mary. The body was sent to Charlestown, Jefferson County, Virginia, where he was born and where his mother is buried. He died in his 72nd year. He came to Mobile in 1840 and ran on the Alabama River until 1858, at which time he became owner and commander of the steamer Virginia. He afterward owned and commanded the steamer Virginia, Jefferson Davis, and Mary Swan. At the time of his death, he was part owner of the Mary.
The 1880 census leaves it unclear as to the role Hetty White played in her children’s lives. We find her as a servant, housekeeper, in the O’Bannon household. However, that is not the end of the story, as we learn from an account published in The Southern Reporter, Vol. 8: (emphasis added)
“The record in this case succinctly stated on a preponderence of the evidence discloses the fact that prior to May 4, 1884, Hettie White, appellant, who was the paramour of Willis O’Bannon, kept in her own name a running account with Tonsmiere & Craft, the predecessors of Craft & Co., for groceries and family supplies, the items of which were entered as purchased in a pass-book kept in her possession. That about the 4th of May, 1884, Willis O’Bannon died, and that James K. Glennon became administrator of his estate. … [plead that] the items had been purchased for O’Bannon’s children …”–White v. Craft et al., Supreme Court of Alabama
There is no longer any mystery as to Hetty White’s status: she was Willis O’Bannon’s “paramour.”
. William O’Bannon, a young teen when his father died, married five years later, August 8, 1889, in Mobile, to Rosa Watkins. They had one child, Mabel Elizabeth O’Bannon, before they divorced October 16, 1895.
William followed in his father’s footsteps. The 1889 and 1890 Mobile city directories give William’s occupation as “striker, steamboat carrier.” A striker is an apprentice. The 1900 census shows William O’Bannon promoted to the position of steamboat engineer.
William married again, October 27, 1895, in Mobile, to Flora Perez, with whom he had two children: Willis, 4, born in January 1896, and Earle, an infant, born in August 1899.
Also living with William and Flora (found in the 1900 census as “Florida”) was Hettie White, 75, born in January 1825. She is identified as “mother”.
Here we pause for a bit of census madness: The transcription shows William’s occupation as “Horologist Ingeniero”, which is Spanish for a clock maker or clock engineer. This is (1) a far cry from steamboat engineer, and (2) curious as to why the person making the census transcription would be making the identification in Spanish, not English.
William O’Bannon is buried in Magnolia Cemetery in Mobile, listed as Willie O’Bannon.
The Bagnell-O’Bannon Family
Walter Scott Bagnell and Mabel Elizabeth O’Bannon were married February 18, 1915, in Chicago, Cook County, Illinois. By 1935, Walter and Mabel were no longer living together; Mabel married again in September 1939, in Leesburg, Loudon County, Virginia, to Louis Scott Henry.
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. The Freedmen’s Bureau “supervised all relief and educational activities relating to refugees and freedmen, including issuing rations, clothing and medicine.” The Freedmen’s Bureau Online.
. Numerous photographs of Laurel Grove South Cemetery in “Gettysburg at Savannah,” Gettysburg Daily, May 10, 2011.
. Interment.net: Alphabetical listing of graves in the Laurel Grove South Cemetery. Check the “B” listings for Bagnell. Hagar Bagnell, for instance, is listed as Hagar Bagwell and her husband Robert’s name is not listed at all.
. re George O’Bannon: Thomas Triplett Russell and John Kenneth Gott, Fauquier County in the Revolution (Heritage Books, 2008): 113, 114.