Unusual records fill gaps in Southern US research

Research in the South

Researching Southern US ancestors can be tricky. Burned court houses, the loss of the 1890 census, and the absence of vital records before the early 1900s means we’ve become quite accustomed to just not knowing a precise date, or even narrow span of years, that any vital event may have occurred. Not a big deal, usually. But when you are trying to fill in the blanks of a person’s life, bring them to life with records, or even separate two John Smiths as different individuals these gaps are monumental and can create brick walls for some of our ancestral lines, often not very far up into the tree!

New Records!

When I first discovered the records of the US Lifesaving Service, (National Archives Record Administration RG 26) I knew I was onto something special. The precursor to the US Coast Guard was established in 1878 and was under the direction of the Treasury Department. Each station was manned with a crew of 6-8 men, including a Keeper. The Keeper was in charge of the crew and responsible for the station assets as well as the training and efficiency of the crew. One of his responsibilities was to keep a daily log. Within the logbook entries, Keepers would make annotations about a Surfman’s absence. Other records include physical characteristics, marital status, date of birth, kinship to other Surfmen and many other details not commonly found in typical vital records.

A hunch…

I had a hunch that these records could really fill in some gaps – so much of a hunch that I’ve reviewed every page of the logbooks for Cape Lookout Lifesaving Station in North Carolina through 1915 and spent a week in Washington DC to image over 1500 records. This is only the first of what will likely be several posts on the topic as I ponder and wonder at the potential for indexing or otherwise making these records more accessible.

But I’d never really tested my theory. So that’s today’s post…proving what I think I already knew. Not a completely scientific study, as I already knew the answer to my research question, but I wanted to see if I could find it without using the records from RG 26. A recent assignment for my ProGen Study Group provided just the opportunity.

*Note that the information below is not the actual assignment, but the result of work done for the assignment. 

Putting it to the test…

To test my theory, I used Surfman Denard Guthrie’s death. And because each research session should begin with a valid research question:

What were the circumstances surrounding the death of US Lifesaving Surfman Denard Guthrie, born about 1858 in North Carolina, husband to Julia (Guthrie) Guthrie?

My first step was to begin my usual search of online repositories based on known information. The table below shows the results of that search with notes about the records as appropriate.

Detail Source and Date Notes
Died after 8 June 1880 1880 Census, Carteret County, NC.[1] If he was alive for this census, he died after he was enumerated. Census records can’t always be trusted for precise ages, birth dates, etc…but generally speaking, if a person is enumerated, there’s a high likelihood they were alive on that date.
Died after 4 July 1890 Branson’s NC Business Directory “for the year of…1890…and until the 4th of July..”[2] Denard Guthrie is listed as a Magistrate for Straits, NC – an area of Harkers Island known for Guthrie families. Unable to verify if this is same Denard due to absence of other biographical details in this listing and absence of 1890 census.
Died 1891

Buried in Morehead City, NC

Find a Grave[3] There is no associated headstone image or biographical information provided. Source of information unknown and it is impossible to know if this is our guy.
Died before 12 Jan 1892 NC Free Masons list of Fraternal Dead dated 12 Jan 1892[4] Again, uncertain if this is the Denard Guthrie known to have served in the US Lifesaving Service. A review of similar records for previous years did not reveal any further entries about Denard.
Died after September 1889

Died before 9 August 1892

Death related to US Lifesaving Service

Youngest son’s date of birth 9 March 1890 is annotated on a list of the children’s names in the probate file.

Letter of Guardianship dated 9 August 1892

Statement of estate due wards[5]

Four of Denard and Julia’s five children were born after 1880 so their names remain unknown at this point. The eldest daughter, Etta is mentioned by name and age in the probate record and is a match for what is listed on the 1880 census, making this a likely match. The addition of a reference to the US Lifesaving Service makes this an almost certain match for our Denard. 


Died before 18 April 1910 1910 Census, Carteret County, NC.[6] Denard’s widow is living in their daughter and son-in-law’s household in the same area as the couple
*A search of Ancestry and FamilySearch 1900 US Census for North Carolina for variations of Julia and Denard Guthrie’s names; variations of Julia’s name with and without “widow,” “wife,” and “mother” yielded no conclusive results for any members of this household. Also searched 1900 for Thomas Duncan, the appointed guardian with nil conclusive results.

A theory

Based on a fairly exhaustive search of available online records (exhaustive in extent and variety, not necessarily energy expenditure, though I did spend over three hours because I was also writing and analyzing the records as I went along) we can theorize that Denard Guthrie died between ~15 September 1889-9 August 1892. Had it not been for the mention of the US Lifesaving Service in the probate files, I probably would have spent some time digging for death certificates for the named children to find one that listed Denard and Julia as parents. Not finding any of the family members in 1900, but finding Julia as a widow with one of the children in 1910 further supports our theory, but doesn’t add much to the answer.

The records I’ve crossed out in the table above are records that I discounted as evidence due to their unreliability for the reasons mentioned in the notes. They could be hints or leads to follow if nothing else was discovered, which is why they remained in my research log during this process.

Once I had a date range, my search also included searching for the Guthrie name in digital newspapers available at DigitalNC, in hopes of finding an obituary. Of the few papers in print at that time that are available on that website, the name did not appear. A review of the LOC website indicates there may be one or two additional papers available, but none online. As my search was limited to what is online, I had to accept that no obituary was available.

Good enough?

Having a twelve-year range, or three-year if we assume that Denard was the biological father for the youngest child mentioned in the probate files, for a date of death isn’t too bad. Three is certainly better than twelve. But even then, if we hope to uncover the details of Denard’s death, perhaps though news accounts or obituaries when we go to Carteret County, North Carolina, to peruse local records, it would be more helpful to have a more precise date. Still, we could call it quits and move on to the next cousin in our collection. We’ve answered the question. He died sometime between 1889-1892 and his death was probably related to his service in the US Lifesaving Service since there was a successful claim against the US Government and a payout from the agency.

But wait…Now there’s more!

Had I never known about RG 26 I would have assumed that it would be near impossible to uncover any details related to that mention in the probate files about the US Lifesaving Service (by the way, I had NO idea that the probate files even existed until I found them during this assignment, so I had no idea that there would be a mention of the service in them.) But, I do know about them and I was thrilled when I saw that little nugget. Here is what my previous research in the records for Cape Lookout Lifesaving Station revealed relevant to Denard’s death:

Detail Source and Date Notes
Information found in RG 26
Disabled 6 May 1891 Loose paper of unknown origin dated 06 May 1891[7] The Keeper routinely made entries regarding the illness and absence of the crew. There is an entry in September 1890 regarding an injury to Denard’s foot while he was on patrol.[8]

No corroborating entry appears in the station logbook for May 1891.

Died 27 July 1891



Died 27 July 1891

Form 1811 Cape Lookout Lifesaving Station dated 22 August 1891[9]

Register of Employees[10]

The Keeper completed Form 1811 whenever there was a change in crew. Denard would have been due to return to service on 01 September 1892 had he not died, thus a change in crew was necessary. See image (1).


Form 1811 Cape Lookout Lifesaving Station, 22 August 1891

A revised theory:

Based on all of the above information, it appears that

Denard Guthrie, born about 1858 in North Carolina and husband to Julia (Guthrie) Guthrie, died on 27 July 1891 possibly from injuries sustained while in service to the US Lifesaving Service at Cape Lookout, North Carolina.

The precise cause of death remains unknown, but a reasonable theory, as evidenced by Keeper Gaskill’s entries in the station log, is this:

On  24 September 1890, while on patrol at night along the beach of Cape Lookout just north of the lifesaving station, Surfman Denard Guthrie stepped on a spike. The spike was “apparently attached to wreckage buried under the sand,” according to Keeper Gaskill’s logbook entry that day. Denard suffered severe pain and convulsions throughout the night, and was treated with morphine and the “rubbing of the lines of his body” by his fellow Surfmen. He was able to go home (his house was only a few miles by horse over the beach dunes) later that morning for treatment and returned to the station a day later. He was not able to resume his duties for about a week, but did continue the season. There were no entries regarding his well-being and he continued to take the routine 2-3 days off each month to visit family.

According to the scrap of paper found in the records in DC he was determined to be disabled in May 1891 and, as evidenced above, died in July. Cursory research indicates that Denard may have died of delayed reaction to Tetanus, which was being actively studied in the 1890s but a vaccine would not be available until after 1900.The initial pain and convulsions may have been caused by a bacteria or fungus found on the spike or transmitted into the wound after injury. Distance of the wound from the central nervous system could delay the onset of Tetanus symptoms by weeks or months and a body may be quite functional in the meantime.

Of course, this is only a theory….

Do you have Surfmen in your family history?

The records of the US Lifesaving Service are not digitized. If you have reason to think your Surfman may have served between 1878-1915 along the North Carolina Coast, contact me to see if any of the records I imaged from NARA DC include your ancestor. Additionally, the logbooks for each station are held at regional NARA Archives. So for North Carolina, the logbooks are in Atlanta, Georgia.

As I continue my research, I’ll work toward developing a guide to the records as well as an index or other resource to aid in finding out more about your Surfmen. In the meantime, check back here to learn more about my Surfmen…the Surfmen of Cape Lookout, North Carolina.


[1]1880 U.S. census, Carteret County, North Carolina, population schedule, Straits Township, enumeration district 28, p. 15 (penned), dwelling 129, family 130, Denard Guthrie; image Ancestry (www.ancestry.com : accessed 09 July 2018); citing NARA microfilm publication T9, roll 956.

[2] Branson, L., Branson’s North Carolina Business Directory (1890); text online, DigitalNC, “North Carolina City Directories,” (library.digitalnc.org/cdm/ref/collection/dirnc/id/710 : accessed 10 July 2018), p. 132.

[3]. Find A Grave, database and images (www.findagrave.com : accessed 10 July 2018), memorial page for Denard Guthrie (1858–1891), Find A Grave Memorial no. 83094369, citing Bayview Cemetery, Morehead City, Carteret County, North Carolina, USA ; Maintained by Ralph (contributor 46818403) .

[4]. Freemasons, Grand Lodge of North Carolina, “Proceedings of the Grand Lodge of Ancient, Free, and Accepted Masons of North Carolina (1892),” text online, DigitalNC , “North Carolina Memory“ (library.digitalnc.org/cdm/search/searchterm/North%20Carolina%20Memory/mode/exact : accessed 09 July 2018), p. 195.

[5].  North Carolina, “Wills and Estate Papers (Carteret County), 1663-1978,” database online, Ancestry (https://search.ancestry.com/search/db.aspx?dbid=9061 : accessed 09 July 2018), entry for Denard Guthrie, 1894; images 1414-1427.

[6]. 1910 U.S. census, Carteret County, North Carolina, population schedule, Morehead Township, enumeration district 2, p. 5A (penned), dwelling 80, family 81, David Guthrie; image Ancestry.com (www.ancestry.com : accessed 09 July 2018); citing NARA microfilm publication T624, roll 1095.

[7]. US Lifesaving Service, loose paper, dated 06 May 1891 but filed in Articles of Engagement for 1890, Cape Lookout, 6th District; Articles of Engagement of Surfmen, 1875-1914; Record Group 26: Records of the United States Coast Guard; National Archives, Washington, D.C. This loose paper is apparently misfiled and appears to be torn from a form routinely found in this record collection.

[8]. US Lifesaving Service, “Logbooks, 1888-1941,” Cape Lookout Lifesaving Station, Norfolk District, 24 September 1890; Record Group 26: Records of the United States Coast Guard; National Archives, Atlanta, Georgia.

[9].  US Lifesaving Service, “Reporting Change in Crew (Form 1811),” 1 September 1890, Cape Lookout, 6th District; Articles of Engagement of Surfmen, 1875-1914; Record Group 26: Records of the United States Coast Guard; National Archives, Washington, D.C. The Form 1811 has pre-formatted printing on both sides with designated spaces for dating the submission and information, and for subsequent endorsements. The forms are currently housed in such a way that the outside (front) of the form faces the user and contains the date the Superintendent endorsed it. In this case, the Keeper submitted the information on 22 August 1891, but it was endorsed on 01 September 1891, thus the record date.

[10]. US Lifesaving Service, “Registers of Employees, 1866-1914: Vol 5 of 15,” Cape Lookout Station, 6th District, p. 271; Record Group 26: Records of the United States Coast Guard; National Archives, Washington, D.C.

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