Tuesday, December 3, 2019

More Questions Than Answers - My Grandfather's Social Security Application

Temporary Joy?
Today, I received a copy of the Social Security Application for my maternal grandfather, Daniel Webster Hill. I was so excited when I got the envelope from my mailbox, especially since I'd kind of forgotten I'd ordered this document. Daniel's life, as well as that of his mother and full siblings, has been challenging to document, either because of conflicting or absence of information.
1937 Social Security Application for Daniel Webster Hill
My hope, when I ordered this document was that it would provide conclusive data, so I was quite excited as I carefully tore open the envelope. Instead, its contents have led me to more questions as I try to uncover the true facts of my grandfather's life.

Dissecting the Document

Out of this entire document, only two items bore no concern; my grandfather's gender (male) and race (Negro). Everything else either provided confirmation of my research or conflicted with previous findings, thus inciting further questions that will need to be answered.

Name (Red):Thankfully, this document confirms my grandfather's full name: Daniel Webster HILL.

Address (Purple and Brown): This was the first issue on the document. The address given is not the address of the home in which my grandparents lived while they were together. Family lore has always been that my grandfather left (abandoned) the family when my mother was 4 and her brother was 7. That would have been sometime between September 10, 1938 and March 23, 1939. However, this application is dated February 25, 1937, which precedes that date range by over a year and a half, making my mother not even 3, yet, and her brother, only 5. The only thing I can think is that perhaps he came back after this date, before leaving for good.
BUT.... there's another thing these two items actually corroborate for me! My late uncle, Howell Hill, who I interviewed numerous times about his and my mother's family and ancestry, told me something I haven't forgotten. In describing what he recalls as a domestic abuse situation between Daniel and my grandmother, Mary, my uncle told me how when Daniel Hill first left them, he just moved into a room in the house next door, and they would see him watching them from an upstairs window. He expressed how afraid this made him, because Daniel Hill "was so mean". Well, I used google maps to look up the address on the SS application, and, lo and behold, 1301 W. 42(nd) St. is right next door (though across a small street) to my grandmother's house, 1273 W. 42nd Street.

In this current-day photo from Google Maps, the house on the left (1273) is the house my mother grew up in. The house on the right (1301) is the house Daniel Hill was living in at the time he filled out his Social Security application. Notice the upstairs side windows on this house, which directly face my grandmother's home, making my uncle's story seem quite likely to be true.

Employment (Yellow/Blue): In 1930, according to the Census, my grandfather was working as a Longshoreman at the Pier (usually meaning Lambert's Point). However, at the time of his SSA, he states that he's unemployed. Could this have been part of the issue that played into the problems he and my grandmother were (apparently) having? Also, Item 13 indicates that Daniel was registered as an employee with the W.P.A., something I wasn't aware of and will need to research further.

Age (Orange): Daniel Hill's true birth year has been an issue since I began researching him, many years ago. It seems that he began using this 1885 birth year around the time he married my grandmother. He was much older than she, so perhaps this was his way of smoothing that out. I really don't know. But, Daniel shows as a one-year-old in the household of his parents in 1880 and, in 1900, he is a boarder in the home of his mother and stepfather, enumerated as 20 years old with a birthdate given as March 1879. It's not until after his 1926 marriage to my grandmother that I first see him being referred to as a younger man -- with his age being enumerated in 1930 as 40, with whoever gave the information stating that he'd been 36 at the time of his first marriage. From this point on, any documents I've found on Daniel Hill give him this younger age.

1880 Census showing one-year-old Daniel W. in the household with his parents and sisters, in Tyrrell County NC. Birthplace is given as North Carolina for the entire family.
Place of Birth (White): I have seen Daniel's place of birth given as Virginia on other documents, but I'm confused about that, since I know the family (both his mother and father) were from North Carolina, and he is enumerated with them, at just one year old, in that state. However, I guess it is possible that his mother could have been in Virginia (for some reason) when he was born, though I really doubt it. He lists "Gilmerton, Norfolk Co., VA" as his birthplace on this application. This is, indeed, where his mother, Pinkey, later lived and ran a boarding house with his stepfather, and where, according to the newspaper announcement of her death, she was buried, but she doesn't appear there before 1900. Perhaps she was visiting a family member at the time of his birth, just as she was at the time of her death? This will require further research.

Death notice from Norfolk, VA Journal and Guide, announcing the death of Pinkie (Hill) Howell

Parents' Names (Green/Pink) - Daniel confirms his parent's names. but with exceptions. His father was known as "Henry" Hill, but his full name was actually Charles Henry Hill. (I think it's quite possible that Daniel may not have known that.) His mother, Pinkie's, maiden name has been another source of confusion. She'd been enslaved on Somerset Plantation, in Creswell, NC, which was owned by the COLLINS family. Her father was Mack TREDWELL, but sometime prior to Emancipation, her mother married a man named Peter KING. Pinkie has been recorded as using each of those surnames on different documents, so it's hard to know which (if either) was actually her "legal" maiden name. It does seem clear, though, that she considered Peter King to be her father figure and that seems to be what Daniel understood, also, according to this document.

Social Security Applications are typically very useful documents for genealogists; however, as this one shows, sometimes that usefulness can provide a mixture of evidence-types for the researcher: direct and indirect, consistent or conflicting, and, sometimes, negative or even absent. A careful researcher will study all of the information on a document, analyzing each item and following up with further research to work towards solving conflicts and/or filling in blanks. This SSA for my grandfather, Daniel W. Hill certainly is leaving me with more work to do, but I am up to and looking forward to the challenge!

Thanks for reading,

 United States Social Security Application, Form SS-5, Treasury Department, Internal Revenue Service: Daniel Webster Hill, February 25, 1937.

United States Federal Census, Year: 1880; Census Place: Scuppernong, Tyrrell, North Carolina; Roll: 983; Family History Film: 1254983; Page: 269D; Enumeration District: 134; Image: 0453.

New Journal and Guide (1916-2003); June 1, 1929; ProQuest Historical Newspapers: Norfolk Journal and Guide, p. 4

Link to Google Maps:

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  1. Very well done Renate! Love the way you dissected this document

  2. I really like the way you looked up those houses. I can imagine him standing over watching them. People often went (still do) go by their middle names. I know this in real life and from my research so probably he'd always heard his father called by his middle name. If he appeared as a 1 year old in the 1900 census, I would believe that one. He was too young to change his birthdate at that point :D

    1. Kristin, I’m just seeing that my previous reply to your comment isn’t here! Not sure what happened, but I did reply that I agree with your assertion about Daniel’s birth year and that’s the one I’ve always gone with. I said a few other things, too, but I don’t recall what they were, now.
      Thanks for being such a faithful reader and commenter. :)


  3. I was in a genealogy session ages ago at one of the NGS Conferences, and the topic was the mistaken belief that government documentation doesn't lie - something that your post here sheds some light on (no pun intended)! It's interesting to note how our ancestors would re-invent themselves, for reasons we'll never know. Some inaccuracies could be because the person simply didn't know - which could be the case of Daniel stating he was born in Virginia when other records point to him being born in NC. But then again, he might have been - people traveled a lot more back then than we think they did. Have fun trying to figure out the mysteries that this document has now added to your list (grin)!

    1. Cathy, it’ll be “fun” indeed!

      Thanks for reading and commenting!


  4. I have ordered the WPA records for my grandfather and it helped me understand him better. It showed he did not work daily, and that he worked lots of different jobs/jobsites. I urge you order them.

  5. Hi, Lisa. I will! I haven’t gotten around to it yet, but I actually attended a wonderful presentation about how rich those records can be, so I most certainly have that on my to-do list!
    Thanks for commenting, and sorry I’m just seeing it.