Sanora Babb’s Ancestry Isn’t Just Dust in the Wind

Sanora Babb is perhaps one of the most famous Babb’s of the 20th Century, but her ancestry has always been as difficult to read as a road sign in a dust storm. She is, of course, the author of a book on the Dust Bowl that got shelved after the blockbuster release of Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. Her book, Whose Names Unknown, wasn’t published for several decades later.

Along with her book, the subject of her ancestry is one of relative obscurity. She was born in 1907 on Indian land in the Oklahoma Territory. Record keeping was scarce and her family moved around a good bit between Oklahoma, Kansas, Indiana & Ohio. Her father was a gambler and led quite the unsteady life. We know that the family originates from Ohio, but no record that shows exactly where.

I got a request this week from Member, Frank Babb. He is a cousin of Sanora and has had trouble tracking his connection to our tree as well. I didn’t expect the wonderous road I would travel while trying to find this connection and wanted to share it with you along with the reasons why it has been obscured for so long.

As I mentioned Sanora’s father Walter was a gambler and led quite the unsteady life. We knew his father’s name to be Alonzo, which immediately helped locate him in the 1860 Census. But no others appeared which deepened the mystery. The record showed Alonzo with Parents James (b. 1830) & Matilda, Brother D.W. and sister Mary.

James seemed to appear nowhere else before or after. So, I tried a new approach and searched for more records that Alonzo was in. This didn’t at first prove fruitful and I switched to Matilda and found a record of a Kansas State Census from 1875. This record showed the head of Household as John, who was younger than Matilda, rather than the older James listed in the 1860 Census. Alonzo was misspelled as Alonza. I did obtain some new info from this record though. I found D. W. listed as W. David along with two younger brothers George W. & Charles M. Mary was not present. A search of the 166 James Babbs in our tree reveals no good matches.

Several other Census records were eventually located, but contain only initials and the family wasn’t very good about giving proper ages. Luckily they stayed in one place for a long time (Union Township in Jefferson County, KS). They also have some unusual names that help make it easier to identify the weak spots. Several of the records show either John or J.L. I finally find one that says John L. and start to modify my theory.

I form a working hypothesis that James & John L. are actually the same person and conduct a new search through the tree. John is the most common given name in the Babb tree and I start with 260 Johns (more than the D.C. Madam) and whittle away at them. I also surmise that John’s real birth date is closer to 1824 than the 1830 previously reported and broaden my net to accommodate this variable. Matching is really a process of elimination. You can eliminate most by things you know about them (Having Children in different geographies at the same key times than you are looking for, the names of their children or spouse, Born or died too soon or too late, can’t be in two places at the same time, etc). After you eliminate all the people it can’t be, you have a good place to start researching who it might be.

This time I find one suitable match of a John L. Babb who’s father Thomas died in Wilmington, Clinton Co., Ohio in 1835 and is buried there. Not much was known about the John in the tree, which is exactly the kind of person you are looking for in these situations. He has a common name, got disconnected from his family at a young age and is typically hard to match due to the common name. So, you often can’t tell one John from another without additional family members present. I had already made one connection for this John in the 1840 Census due to proximity to his diseased father and no other Babb’s being present in the area. John himself wasn’t listed in Wilmington because he was already out on his own in a different part of Ohio. I update my theory that this is the John I’m looking for and start to zero my focus to Wilmington, OH.

I finally get my breakthrough moment when I come across his headstone, which is packed with Information. It is shared with his wife Matilda and they are buried in Jefferson County, KS along with virtually the entire family unit that has been popping up on the records I’ve found thus far. Along with the Headstone some additional info was posted such on The find confirms exact birth and death dates for everyone in the family, provides the names of two additional children not listed in the Census, his wife’s full name and the date of their marriage late in 1850.

Now that I have Matilda’s last name, I do some quick research on her and easily find her parents in a well-documented lineage. She was born of David Faulker & Rebecca (Wall) Walker. I’ve now established the family unit, but not yet proven the connection back to my John in Wilmington. They were not married by the summer of 1850 when the Census was conducted, so they won’t be together.

But something I’ve always found to be true is that a father isn’t going to let his little girl move away until someone puts a ring on her finger. This was especially true way back then. So, I look and find the Walker family in 1850. Sure enough they are all together in Wilmington. Finally, I locate John’s census record and find him just 4 sheets away from the Walkers in this same tiny town. Moreover, he is listed as John L. Babb! Bingo!

So, without further ado, when we blow the dust off of Sanora Babb’s Tree we find the number is: 1-2-2-2-2-2-8-1-1-2.

Or in plain speak her tree is: Sanora, Walter, Alonzo, John L., Thomas, Sampson, Peter, Thomas, Thomas, Phillip Babb.

Genealogy is like jumping rope. You have to stop and watch the rhythm before you jump in. I was never good at jumping rope, but intellectually, I understand it which is what is important. Following a hunch in Genealogy doesn’t always pay off, but inventiveness and persistence is important. Fortunately it paid off this time. As you know from the situation with Phillip and the Isles of Shoals, you can’t always find a paper trail.

I found this one really challenging. It took all the skills, hunches and theories I could come up with to finally find the right answer. It was fun and exciting to research this line and find the answer!


Repost: Originally posted on Aug 12, 13

2 responses to “Sanora Babb’s Ancestry Isn’t Just Dust in the Wind”

  1. Sonora Babb is my 4 th cousin and so glad you wrote about it! When you started talking about the Wall Family and the Babbs in Wilmington, Ohio, I got excited. I have both names in my genealogy. But had not connected to the Walker key! You are super, Dan! Thank you.

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