“The land is the only thing in the world worth working for, worth fighting for, worth dying for, because it’s the only thing that lasts.”
These words spoken by Gerald O’Hara in Margaret Mitchell’s novel Gone with the Wind reflect sentiments familiar to many Americans. Because land was such an important commodity and so often tied to families, its ownership, management, and transfer was generally well documented. And that means land and probate records can provide a unique window into a family’s past.
Margaret Mitchell was born on November 8, 1900, to Eugene Muse Mitchell and May Belle Stephens in Atlanta, Georgia. A true Southerner, she remained there her entire life. Her grandparents and great-grandparents experienced firsthand the charm and grace of the antebellum South, and their accounts undoubtedly influenced her crowning work, Gone with the Wind. Tara, being situated in Georgia, was modeled in part after land where her own Georgian ancestors lived. However, they were not her only ancestors that managed large areas of land. Margaret’s great-great grandfather was named Gospero Sweet. A search on Ancestry revealed that Gospero Sweet settled land in Gadsden County, Florida. The Florida, Homestead and Cash Entry Patents, Pre-1908, index on Ancestry revealed several documents showing the land he settled. The original certificates are available at the Bureau of Land Management, General Land Office website.
Using a plat map, you can find out exactly where these plots of land are—and even what they look like today.
To see what Gospero may have done with his 319.77 acres, we can turn to the 1850 United States federal census in which we see that he was a farmer. Based on this document, we can assume that he turned to agriculture when he received the land 20 years earlier.
Gospero passed away before the beginning of the Civil War, however his son William Charles Sweet remained in Gadsden County and fought for the Confederacy.
Clark Gable is known for his role as Rhett Butler in the 1939 film adaptation of Gone with the Wind. His great-grandfather was John George Gable. John George Gable’s will names a hotel in Meadville, Pennsylvania, on Water Street known as the Gable House.
The will reads, “Second, subject to the life estate afore said, I give and bequeath to my son William H. Gable, the one-half of my interest in and to the furniture, and other personal property, belonging to, and contained in the property situate, on the east side of Water Street in the City of Meadville, PA and known as the Gable House.” The half-interest in the hotel was being passed down to Clark’s grand-uncle. Who knows how American cinema might have been different if young Clark had started out life as a bellhop?
The Gable House is listed in the town directory which gives us an address of 985-7 Water.
Vivien Leigh, of course, is Scarlett O’Hara from the 1939 film. Born Vivian Mary Hartley, she was the daughter of Ernest Richard Hartley and Mary Teresa Robinson. Ernest was the son of Joseph Nicholson Hartley and Elizabeth Houlgate.
Joseph Nicholson Hartley was born in Yorkshire, England, and died there, too. A search of the England & Wales, National Probate Calendar (Index of Wills and Administrations), 1858-1966 reveals his final residence as 14 Belgrave-square, Bridlington, Yorkshire, England.
This address is traceable even today. According to one biographer, Vivien corresponded with her future husband, Leigh Holman, from this residence for a period of six weeks before they married.
We also learn how much money Joseph had at his time of death, about £2,100. This is above average when comparing the others on the same page of the index, which offers some insight as to how he may have lived in comparison to his peers.
Margaret didn’t end up inheriting the 300 acres in Florida, Clark didn’t get the hotel, and Leigh’s first marriage didn’t last, but the places in our past are home to our memories and inspiration for our art. They can be as much a part of us as the people we come from, something worth fighting for, something that lasts.
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Evan Christensen has been working at Ancestry for two years. He is an avid family history researcher and is working towards accreditation from ICAPGen. You can follow him on Instagram @evangchr.