Brooks family traces history through widow’s pension

Editor’s note: This series will run weekly throughout 2016 to highlight Bartlett’s history in honor of its 150th anniversary this year.

Bartlett-Sesq-logoMy first knowledge of my family’s long history in the Bartlett area came from knowing that we lived on a street named after my great-great grandfather, Joseph Brooks. Growing up, I was told that he inherited land from his Aunt Mariah. When I discovered the widow’s pension that Aunt Mariah filed for in 1892, I learned that she was not his biological aunt, but related by marriage because she was the wife of his uncle, Spencer Brooks. No one in my family knew anything about him. From that point on, I started sharing everything I learned about Spencer Brooks with my family. It generated a lot of attention and a great sense of pride to know that we had a Civil War veteran in the family.

For so long the focus had always been on the family’s patriarch, whom we affectionately refer to as “Papa Joe,” because he sectioned off parcels of the land he inherited from Aunt Mariah to each of his children. His token of love for his family allowed generations of us to live together and remain close.

As we celebrate Bartlett’s sesquicentennial, I’ve come to realize that my family came here just a few years before Bartlett was established as a town. Aunt Mariah’s husband, my great-great-great-great uncle, Spencer Brooks, moved his family from a plantation in Marshall County, Miss., sometime between 1861 and 1863. Upon his arrival, Spencer enlisted in the war as a private in the 61st Regiment of the U.S. Colored Troops in August 1863. He served until he was medically discharged in June 1865 because of a spinal disease that left him unfit for duty. By 1877, Spencer and a man named John H. Canada purchased land about 1.5 miles south of Bartlett. When Spencer died in 1883, that land went to his wife, Mariah. Upon Mariah’s death in 1922, the 40 acres were willed to Joseph Brooks.

Over the years, some of the land that is along Sycamore View Road has been sold (an area that today includes Sycamore View Church of Christ, SportsCare and Boomerang Car Wash), but for the most part, the descendants of Joseph “Joe” Brooks still live on that property. I was born and raised there, and so was my mother, my grandfather and my great-grandmother. Joe Brooks Drive is south of Bartlett, off Raleigh LaGrange Road, just east of Sycamore View Road.

The most amazing discovery about my family so far was also learned through Aunt Mariah’s pension file. We didn’t live too far away before we settled in the Bartlett area. I made this discovery in February 2016 while visiting the National Archives in Washington, D.C. One of the depositions written in Aunt Mariah’s defense was from Eugene Brooks, the son of her husband’s former slaveholder. The plantation that Spencer was from, and where they married, was just four miles south of Collierville in Marshall County, Miss. Eugene attested to their marriage taking place despite no proof of a marriage license because they were enslaved at the time. He also confirmed that he had known Spencer his entire life because his father, Aaron Terrell Brooks, was Spencer’s former slaveholder.

Through my research on the slave-holding family, I’ve discovered the names of a few more of my enslaved ancestors. I’m even using what I’ve learned through research to connect with long-lost family members through DNA. I know that the journey ahead won’t be as smooth as in the beginning, but every little discovery makes it worthwhile.

No matter how far back I go with my family research, I know one thing for sure: For the past five generations, my family has lived in the Bartlett area. We shop, bank and work here and have attended Bartlett schools. We also worship in Bartlett churches and are even buried in Bartlett cemeteries. Bartlett has always been, and always will be, our home.

Written by April J. Branch, special to the Express.