Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Dr. Robert Martin McNair

In discussing my 2nd great grandmother Permelia Ruth McNair Maxwell’s death certificate in my last post, I made the comment that finding out that her father was a doctor (Dr. Robert McNair) was a new piece of information.  I should have checked my research notes and email history more closely.  As my cousin Christy Spooner reminded me, we had a conversation about Dr. McNair back in June.  It was Christy who first brought the information up, having discovered a reference to him being a doctor in someone’s family tree.  My comment at the time was: 
Since the 1850 and 1860 census lists Robert's occupation as Farmer i doubt he was a doctor, unless he was a "country doctor", who tended to people and animals on the side so to speak. But as you know, records tend to be sparse in southwest Georgia, so it's possible.
As usual, the more certain I am of a “fact”, the faster I’m shot down!  The statement on the death certificate by Robert McNair’s granddaughter Julia Maxwell Bower that he was a doctor is a powerful supporting argument for the conclusion that he was indeed a doctor.  Yes, it’s second-hand information; she was after all born 28 years after his death.  But the close association of Julia and her mother throughout her life means that she would likely have heard the stories of her parents and grandparents many times.  We still have no indication of any formal medical training, but it’s certainly worth pursuing that avenue of research, and we can certainly move this particular piece of information into the “likely” category at the very least.  So Christy, as I sit down to enjoy my big plate of humble pie a la mode, I hope you’ll forgive me for forgetting our conversation and for being so quick to discount it earlier.  And I say a hearty, “Good job, Christy!

Since I’ve started I will continue with Dr. McNair and what else we think we know about him. 

According to an unpublished McNair family history, Robert Martin McNair was born 16 March 1807 to Daniel Gilbert McNair (1783-1834) and Ann Martin (1790-??), probably in Richmond County, Georgia.  The family moved to Decatur by 1830 because Daniel McNair shows up on the 1830 census in Decatur County, and there is a male aged 20-29 living in the household.  (Prior to 1850 the US federal census listed only the names of the heads of household.  There are counts of other members of the family, broken down by age group and sex.)  The first record of Robert is a marriage license issued in Decatur County to Robert M. McNair and Nancy Patterson on 22 December 1835.  They were married the next day.

License image is from Decatur County Marriage Book AA, 1824-1841, page 112; Marriage Books, Decatur County Ordinary Court, Georgia Archives;,120048.
The 1840 census doesn’t show names of the members of the household, either, but there is a Robert M. McNair listed for Decatur County, and the members of his household consist of 3 free white males under 5, 1 white male 30-39, 1 white female 20-29, 1 male slave 24-35, and 1 female slave 24-35.  Then, in 1850, he is listed with his wife and children, Robert (42), Nancy (34), Daniel (14), William (12), James (10), Sophronia (8), John (6), Robert (5), Joseph (4) and Martin (1).
Census image courtesy of (access provided with library card)
In 1860, the family is shown living in the Attapulgus area of Decatur County: Robert (53), Nancy (43), John T (20), Saphronia (18), Robert (16), Joseph (13), Thomas (11), Ellen (9), Catherin (7), Sarah (5) and Permelia (2). 
Census image courtesy of (subscription required)
There is a book called 1864 Census for Re-Organizing the Georgia Militia (Nancy J. Cornell; Genealogical Publishing Co., Baltimore, MD, USA; 2000) which was a census of all white men aged 16 to 60 who weren’t then already serving in the armed forces of the CSA.  On page 188, in the 8th Senatorial District, 553rd Militia District, the census lists two McNairs:
MCNAIR, R. M., 56 yrs. 10 mos., Farmer, b. GA
MCNAIR, W. G., 48 yrs. 2 mos., Farmer, b. GA

Using the presumed birth date in March 1807 and adding 56 years and 10 months gives January 1864, which is the “date of record” for that 1864 census.  Robert also had a brother, William Green McNair, born 7 November 1815; so adding the stated age of 48 years and 2 months again we get January 1864.  I love it when the figures all add up!  If you have an subscription the 1864 Census book can be found there, available for searching or browsing, at

Census image courtesy of (subscription required)
The 1870 census does not show marital status.  However, in 1870 Nancy McNair is shown as the head of the household, which includes Nancy (54), Robert P (25), Joseph W (23), Thomas M (21), Mary C (17), Sarah E (15) and Permelia R (13).  The implication is that Robert Martin McNair had died by 1870.  (If you’ll notice, the McNairs are family number 4 on this census sheet.  Family number 1, at the top of the page, is the Maxwells, and line 4 is James A.O. Maxwell, who would later marry Permelia R McNair.  So they were childhood neighbors!)   

Unfortunately, I haven’t yet found a tombstone or obituary for Robert.  I did however find another mention of him, in the book Gleanings from Grady County, Georgia (Wessie Connell, Frank W. Roebuck and Barbara C. Williams, editors; Roddenbery Memorial Library, Cairo, GA, USA; 1987).  On page 187, in an entry entitled “Overstreet/McNair/Maxwell Family” by H. W. Overstreet, Mr. Overstreet records a bit of family history. 
Daniel Gilbert McNair came to the Calvary settlement from Warren County, Georgia, in 1825.  His wife was Annie Martin.  They raised seven children; one was Robert Martin McNair (1805-1869) who was a country doctor in Calvary.  He married Nancy Patterson (1818-1905) and they had twelve children.
(Henry Wilbur Overstreet, 1908-1986, passed on just before the book was released.  He was my first cousin, twice removed.  His mother, Nancy May Maxwell, was Robert's granddaughter, Permelia McNair Maxwell's daughter, elder sister of my great-grandmother Lyda Ellen Maxwell.)  So even though all the census records list Robert McNair as a farmer, here’s another bit of a clue that he was more than that.  So I’ll repeat myself, “Good job, Christy!”  And as a bonus I get a probable year of death for Robert as well, which lends credence to the supposition that Nancy was a widow in 1870.

So for someone I don’t know much about it’s amazing how much can be gleaned in bits and pieces.  If you take a fact here and a document there and a scrap of information from somewhere else, you can begin to build a plausible, even probable, image of an ancestor long-gone and poorly documented.  Are there pictures out there, somewhere, in the hands of other descendants, unknown cousins perhaps?  Are there tattered diaries or other documents in some library or museum, lying unrecognized and unacknowledged, just waiting for the right person to come along?  I may, perhaps, one day make the journey and the search in pursuit of such evidence, but until then … I can dream, can’t I?

That’s about it for now. 

Later y’all,

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