Joseph W. Curtis (1794-1865)

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Joseph W. Curtis
Sex: Male
Birth: November 17, 1794
in Mansfield, Nottinghamshire, England
Baptism: July 21, 1795 in Selston, Nottinghamshire, England
Death: October 14, 1865
in Columbiana, Shelby County, Alabama
Burial: Columbiana Cemetery,
Columbiana, Shelby County, Alabama
Father: John Curtis
Mother: unknown
Spouse/Partner: probably Mary Kenon
Marriage: May 15, 1824
in Hancock County, Georgia
2nd Spouse: probably Harriett ?
2nd Marriage: c. 1830
in Alabama?

         Joseph W. Curtis is supposed to be the son of one John Curtis. He appears to have been a restless person, making his appearance in two countries, three states and at least five Alabama counties. He also may have been an opportunist, hopping ship to America, marrying an older, well-off widow and then bailing on her with their son and one of her slaves to marry a younger woman in another state (after winning a court settlement). It's not an overly flattering picture, but it is the impression I have received through my research.

         Joseph, or J. W. as he is often recorded, was born in Mansfield, Nottingham, England, on November 17, 1794. The Joseph Curtis, son of John Curtis, baptized in the nearby town of Selston on July 21, 1795, is probably our J. W. Curtis. After this point, though, we enter a nearly thirty year gap.

         We do not have any record of J. W. again until 1824, when he married the widow Mary Carew (maiden name is Kenon) in Hancock Co., GA. A newspaper listing describes Joseph W. Curtis as being of Shrewsbury, MA. I have not been able to locate any info on Joseph in Shrewsbury, though. I also cannot definitively say that this is even the same Joseph W. Curtis later found in Alabama, but circumstantial evidence points in that direction.

         The evidence in question involves slave listings from three censuses, differing states of birth recorded in censuses for J. W.'s son Joseph and even an old oral tradition. Of course, one has to ignore other oral traditions, so its use as evidence is very weak. I would classify it more as food for thought.

         The last records of J. W. Curtis in Hancock Co., GA, are in 1829. In 1830, Mary (as Mary Curtis) is head of household in the census in Hancock Co. With her are her son Richard Carew from her first marriage and two slaves whose ages and genders indicate they are the same slaves with her in the 1820 census (as Mary Carew then). One slave from that 1820 census has disappeared. There are certainly many possibilities as to why, but J. W.'s 1830 census appearance in Shelby Co., AL, offers an interesting possibility. J. W. appears with his (and apparently Mary's) son Joseph Riley Curtis, a younger woman (his second wife?) and a slave. This slave just so happens to match up perfectly with Mary's missing slave. While it is certainly not proof, it is definitely worth considering as a potential link.

         The next question concerns the state of Joseph Riley Curtis's birth. I believe it is recorded as AL in the 1850 Shelby Co., AL, census, but as GA in the 1860 Dallas Co., AL, census. Also, in the 1880 Bibb Co., AL, census, Kate Simmons, Joseph R.'s older daughter, lists her father's bithplace as AL, while her younger sister Annie Curtis claims in the same census for neighboring Shelby Co., AL, that their father's birthplace was GA. I don't believe either census record of Joseph lists his mother as being born in NC (as Mary Curtis' birthplace is listed in the 1850 Hancock Co., GA census). This brings to mind another valid point: that Mary Curtis was about 49 when Joseph R. Curtis was born, right at the end of her child-bearing years. This information is pretty much a wash then. It is just too contradictory to make any real determination.

         The final thin sliver of a connection between Joseph and Mary is the old family tradition that Joseph survived the incident known as the Black Hole of Calcutta. In fact, a relative in Calcutta in World War II is said to have made the claim that he saw "our ancestor's" name on the Black Hole monument. However, it does not take much research effort to determine that this is not possible, at least for J. W. Curtis. The Black Hole incident occurred in 1756 as part of the Seven Years' War (French and Indian War in the American colonies). J. W. Curtis was not born until 1794, twenty-eight years later. Further research has demonstrated that no one named Curtis was involved in the incidents in Calcutta in 1756. J. W.'s mother is not known, so that approach is a dead end. Where did this story come from then? The original accounts of the Black Hole claimed that a woman, Mary Carey, survived. When Joseph married Mary she was still Mary Carew, quite a similar name to the fabled survivor. Though thin, this may have somehow evolved through time to the point where it became "fact" that Mary, and then later Joseph, survived the Black Hole. A stretch? Yes, but it offers a possibility, both as an explanantion of oral tradition and as a true connection between Joseph and Mary.

         So, by 1830, Joseph W. Curtis was living in Shelby Co., AL, but he did not stay for long. According to his daughter Adelaide's obituary, she was born in Montgomery, AL, the next year. Then Joseph and his wife (believed to be named Harriett) had a son William in about 1834. In 1839, the Montgomery Advertiser included an ad for a packet boat, Arkansas, operated by shipmaster J. W. Curtis. A Joel Winfield Curtis (d. 1840) of Cahaba was active during this time, but most likely, this is our J. W. Curtis. While oral tradition obviously erroneously claimed him to be an admiral in the British Navy, the origins of that tale could very well derive from his time as master of this ship. He was certainly living in the vicinityat that time. He might even have come to America as a sailor on a Navy or freight vessel.

         It is not clear what may have happened by 1840, but the census that year finds him and him alone in Lowndes Co., AL. Sometime later during this decade, he and his children relocated upriver to Wetumpka. I know nothing more of his wife. He apparently remained there through at least 1857, but by 1850, the family had splintered.

         In 1850, we find Joseph Riley and Adelaide living in separate households in Shelby Co., AL, while J. W. and William are still living in Wetumpka in Autauga Co. Joseph R. was an overseer for the Margarett Mardis family. This was a busy decade for J. W.'s children. Joseph R. sold Autauga property about 1852 and then moved to Selma. Here he would serve as town marshal from 1854 to 1858. He returned to Shelby Co. in 1856 to wed Louisa Mardis, daughter of his former employer Margarett Mardis. Unfortunately, she died the next year and he married an Irish immigrant and orphan, Anna Eleanor Cunningham in 1858. They had their first child in 1859. Adelaide married future Shelby County probate judge Napoleon Bonaparte Mardis during this decade, though a date has not been located. N. B. would serve as a state representative from 1857-1858. William married Martha L. Sample in 1859 in Autauga Co. The outlook was promising, but the Curtis family, along with the nation as a whole, was in for a rude awakening in the 1860s.

         The 1860 census actually records J. W. Curtis twice, once in Dallas Co., AL, with his son Joseph R. and once in Shelby Co. with his daughter Adelaide and her husband N. B. Mardis. William has not been looked into in this census. Curiously, the Dallas Co. census taker recorded J. W.'s birthplace as not just England but Mansfield, England. At any rate, it would be the last census that J. W., his son and one of his granddaughters would be a part of.

         Problems in Selma had forced Joseph R. to relocate to Cahaba. It was here that another daughter, my ancestor, was born in 1861. But this year also ushered in the long-brewing Civil War. The next year, Joseph R. joined the local infantry company, the "Cahaba Rifles", leaving a pregnant wife with two or three daughters in tow (the second daughter, Alabama died young, but it is not known when). Only two and a half months later, he was dead. His wife gave birth to a son Joe, but he did not long survive his father. In fact, he is only known via oral tradition. J. W. seems to have lost contact with his daughter-in-law and grandchildren at this point.

         N. B. Mardis served as Adjutant Quartermaster for the 25th Alabama Infantry before resigning on June 12, 1863 (the apparent origin of Joseph R. being a captain in oral tradition). He would later serve as a delegate from Shelby Co., to the 1865 Alabama State Constitutional Convention and go on to serve many years as a local lawyer and county probate judge (1862-1869). He served on the State Board of Education from 1874 to 1876 and also served as a trustee of the University of Alabama during this same time.

         N. B.'s term as probate judge would outlast his father-in-law as J. W. Curtis passed away on October 14, 1865. With his passing, a restless life came to a close. His grave, discovered by my mother and I in 2000, can still be found in the Columbiana City Cemetery, near his daughter Adelaide (unmarked) and her husband N. B. Mardis. J. W.'s daughter-in-law Anna Cunningham Curtis Mahan is buried further down Highway 25 in Brierfield. The burial places of Joseph R., William and his wife Martha are unknown.


Name Birth Death
Children of Joseph W. Curtis and Mary Kenon

Joseph Riley Curtis ?? ??, 1826
Hancock? County, Georgia
May 31, 1862
near Seven Pines, Richmond County, Virginia
Children of Joseph W. Curtis and Harriett ?

Adelaide Harriett Curtis ?? ??, 1831
Montgomery, Montgomery County, Alabama
December 22, 1895
Columbiana, Shelby County, Alabama

William Curtis c. 1834
Montgomery, Montgomery County, Alabama
aft. 1858


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