This past week I have spent some time doing research on the family of one of my 3rd Great Grandfathers, Jonathan Calvin Cunningham. From a genealogical prespective he is a bit of a conundrum. Based on the information I already have it seems like it should be easy to identify his parents and siblings. However, I have had little luck in that regard. A lot of the information I have about him comes from "The History of Baxter County", written by Mary Ann Messick. It includes a number of interesting stories about Jonathan Cunningham. One of my recent genealogical goals is to carefully read the entire book to make sure I haven't missed anything important regarding family members in Baxter County.
Let's start with the information I have found on various census records. I first found Jonathan Cunningham on the 1860 Census in Barren Creek Township in Marion County, Arkansas. He is shown as 30 years old, living with his 30 year old wife, Sarah P. Cunningham, and their two daughters, three year old Elizabeth Cunningham and seven month old Nancy Cunningham. Both he and his wife were born in Tennessee as well as their daughter Elizabeth. Seven month old Nancy was born in Arkansas. That would indicate they had moved to Arkansas sometime from 1857 to 1859. Jonathan Cunningham's occupation is that of a farmer and he is living on his own farm, valued at $330.00 with an estimated $200.00 of personal property. The census also indicated that he was a person older than 20 year of age who couldn't read or write.
I also found Jonathan Cunningham on the 1870 Census, in Barren Creek Township in Marion County, Arkansas. He is listed as 38 years old, living with his 22 year old wife, Mary Cunningham, and two daughters, ten year old Nancy Cunningham and one year old Mary E. Cunningham. He is still farming and the value of his farm is listed as $110.00. His birthplace is still listed as Tennessee, but his wife Mary's birthplace is listed as Indiana. The two children were both born in Arkansas and Jonathan Cunningham was still unable to read or write. I'm not sure what happened to cause the the value of the farm to fall from $330.00 to $110.00. It may have been in consequence of the Civil War.
Lastly, I found Jonathan Cuningham on the 1880 Census, still living in Barren Creek Township, now in Baxter County, Arkansas. Don't blame Jonathan Cunningham for the change in the spelling of his name as he still can't read or write. Jonathan Cunningham and Barren Creek Township didn't move, but Baxter County was formed from a portion of Marion County in 1873. Jonathan Cuningham is now a fifty year old widower living with his three daughters, nineteen year old Nancy Cuningham , eleven year old Mary E. Cuningham, and seven year old Laura A. Cuningham. Jonathan Cuningham's birthplace was still Tennessee, but his father's birthplace was listed as Ireland. All three children were born in Arkansas, but their mother's birthplace was listed as South Carolina. a conflict with the information from the previous two census records. This particular census didn't list the value of real property so we don't know if the value of the farm had recovered.
Jonathan Cunningham died in 1898 and is buried in the Heiskill Cemetary in Baxter County. His headstone lists his date of birth as 27 February, 1829 and his date of death as 26 September, 1898. There is a headstone for a Mrs. Cunningham with no dates or further description. This is more than likely the headstone of one of Jonathan Cunningham's wives. There is also a headstone for Tabitha Cunningham, Wife of J. C., born 11 June, 1844, died 2 August, 1927. According to the History of Baxter County Jonathan Cunningham also married Minervia Casteel. After her death he was lastly married to Minervia's sister, Tabitha Casteel, whose headstone is noted above. The Mrs Cunningham headstone could belong to Minervia Casteel or to either of his two earlier wives.
I searched marriage records in Baxter and Marion County, Arkansas and was able to find only one of Jonathan Cunningham's four marriages. On September 4, 1874 at the age of 45 he married 22 year old Manevia Castell(Casteel) in Baxter County. That means he was a three time widower when the 1880 Census occurred. Since she outlived him, I would assume he married Tabitha Casteel some time after the 1880 Census. We find Tabitha Cunningham (Casteel) on the 1900 Census in Baxter County living with two of her three children, 15 year old James and ten year old Annie. The census indicated that Tabitha Cunningham had three children, all of whom were living at the time of the census. She lived near Randolph and Laura Sinor (Cunningham).
I obtained some information about the Cunninghams from my mother that she got from her Aunt Ellar (Luellar Matilda Sinor, a grand daughter of Jonathan Cunningham. It is from her that we got the full name of Jonathan Cunningham's second wife, Mary Erskins, who is the mother of Laura Cunningham who married Randolph Sinor. Since Mary Erskins was Luellar Sinor's grandmother I'm hoping there is a high likelihood that information is accurate. Aunt Ellar provided a fairly complete list of Jonathan Cunningham's descendants for several generations. It appears that he had at least eight children as follows: Elizabeth and Nancy from his first wife, Sarah P. Cunningham. Laura and Eva from his second wife, Mary E. Cunningham. Jane from his third wife, Manevia Cunningham. Caroline, James, and Annie from his fourth wife, Tabitha Cunningham. Aunt Ellar used the expression "children that lived" several times. Aunt Ellar didn't include Annie in listing the children of Tabitha Cunningman, an indication that Annie didn't live to adulthood. She also used that expression with Manevia Cunningham's daughter, indicating there was at least one other child who died. It would seem that Jonathan Cunningham had his share of sorrow and tragedy with the deaths of three wives, the deaths of several children, and the misery of the Civil War.
The bottom line is that we have some kind of record documenting each of Jonathan Cunningham's four wives. The first wife, Sarah P. Cunningham is listed on the 1860 Census. The second wife, Mary E. Cunningham (Erskins) is listed on the 1870 census. There is a marriage record for the third wife, Manevia Cunningham (Casteel). The fourth wife, Tabitha Cunningham (Casteel) is listed in probate records and has a cemetery headstone proclaiming her to have been the wife of J. C. Cunningham.
The primary problem I've had investigating this particular genealogical line is locating Jonathan Cunningham in Tennessee. The History of Baxter County has conflicting information as to where Jonathan Cunningham came from in Tennessee. In one place it states he came from Covington, Tennessee (located in Tipton County). In another part of the same book it states he came from Whiteville, Tennessee (located in Hardeman County). I looked through the 1850 census for Tipton County and found no Cunninghams. I'm in the process of doing the same thing for Hardeman County. Indexes are nice but they don't always work right. I have located a number of ancestors looking through the census manually when I couldn't find them in the index. The other problem is finding his earlier marriage records. It appears he married his first wife, Sarah P. Cunningham, in Tennessee as his first child was born there according to the 1860 census. His second marriage to Mary Erskins (our direct ancestor) probably took place in Marion County, Arkansas. with the last two marriages in Baxter County, Arkansas.
I found a number of mentions of Jonathan Cunningham in the History of Baxter County. Some stories were rather colorful. Jonathan Cunningham is purported to have grown up on a plantation in Tennessee. He objected to slavery and moved to Marion County, Arkansas where he cleared his own land, declining the loan of 16 slaves from his mother. He was apparently a serious gardener and was the first person in the county to grow large tomatoes. The smaller cherry tomatoes had previously been the norm. While he primarily worked as a farmer, he was involved in a few other business enterprises to include a steamboat landing and a whiskey distillery. According to the History of Baxter County he also worked some as a steamboat pilot on the White River. I previously wrote about his service in the Union Army during the Civil War. He reportedly had two brothers fighting in the Confederate Army. There is one story of how the distillery was built on stilts to protect it from flooding. Apparently some thieves drilled holes in the floor into the casks of whiskey and drained out some of the inventory. Jonathan Cunningham later confronted one of the thieves and bit off his ear in the fight that followed. That sounds like something out of a John Wayne movie.