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Dennis, Wilson, Williams, and Gavin Family Tree

Harry Hyatt's Informants in Maryland, 1936

A research project by catherine yronwode

This web page is a supplement to my research into the folk-lore field work conducted among African-Americans by Harry M. Hyatt in the late 1930s and in 1970, and published by him from 1935 - 1976 in seven books: Folk-Lore from Adams County Illinois (1935), Folk-Lore from Adams County Illinois (1965), and Hoodoo - Conjure - Witchcraft - Rootwork (5 volumes, 1970 - 1978)

For a description of his work, see my introduction to Hyatt's five-volume collection of oral histories.

For more on my own work to bring forward and honour the names and lives of the 1,600 people Harry Hyatt interviewed, see Harry Hyatt's Informants: The Men and Women of Hoodoo, 1936 - 1940.

In 1936, at the outset of his 35 years of collecting hoodoo spells from African American informants, Harry Hyatt interviewed extensively among family members who lived in Maryland, west of Pocomoke City, and who were related to Julia Unknown, Alma Egan Hyatt's household manager in New York City. (Alma was an independent businesswoman before she met and married Harry Hyatt; Julia ran the household while Alma worked.) Julia acted as Harry Hyatt's first "contact woman" and her relative (probably her nephew) Jerry WIlliams, was Hyatt's second contact man. Julia's sister, Carrie Gavin, was the wife of Hyatt's fourth contact man. (For the role of the contact man, see Harry Hyatt's Informants: The Men and Women of Hoodoo, 1936 - 1940).

Hyatt's comments in the introduction and body of Hoodoo-Conjuration-Witchcraft-Rootwork established that there were both birth and marital connections and relationships shared by members of this extended family of professional and home-practitioner conjure doctors, but the details were not stated, nor is it clear that Hyatt himself was completely aware of which ones were siblings and which had "married in."

Members of the Dennis, Wilson, Williams, and Gavin family were very important as spiritual and medical healers in their local community. In addition, they were extremely friendly in their outreach to, and cooperation with, Harry Hyatt, and they supported his mission. They not only gave him lengthy interviews about hoodoo in their homes, they drove him around the countryside to meet elders, and recounted stories, remedies, and cures passed down to them from their own ancestors and other community practitioners, including members of the Tull and Henderson families, some of whom had been born in slavery as long as 100 years before Hyatt appeared on the scene. The generosity of the Dennis, Wilson, Williams, and Gavin family, and their interest in preserving their own family history via audio recordings, allowed Hyatt to document the rootwork practices of a single large community and also gave him the confidence and basic knowledge of hoodoo to venture out beyond that community, embarking on a series of field trips through 13 southern states that continued over the next four years.

I too feel a deep and abiding debt to the Dennis, Wilson, Williams, and Gavin family, and especially to Mary Williams, widow of Elijah Williams, who kept the memories of so many in the family fresh and present. She opened her home to Hyatt and allowed him to set up his recording equipment and conduct interviews there, while her son, Jerry Williams, acted as the contact man in Princess Anne, MD. Carrie Gavin also allowed Hyatt to set up a recording studio in her home, while her husband acted as the contact man in Wilmington, NC. To signify my respect for this family, i have spent many hours using the resources of to bring forth some of their remarkable histor, listing their birth-dates, siblings, and children, as well as their stated occupations and other Federal Census data. All of this information is to be found in my page on Harry Hyatt's Informants: The Men and Women of Hoodoo, 1936 - 1940. The present page is simply an outline of their family tree, as a key to understanding the further details.

The following material will be of use to those who read Harry Hyatt's books, and also, i hope, to members of the extended Dennis, Wilson, Williams, and Gavin family.

If you are a member of this family and have further information or photographs that you would like to share with me or with the public, i would be most happy if you would contact me; i will give full credit for any additional data. You may find me on Facebook under my name: -- just send me a friend request and we can get together.

    Littleton Dennis Esq. (1728 - May 6, 1774)
    John Upshur Dennis (April 10, 1793 - December 23, 1851) -- owned 160 slaves
    Chief Justice Samuel Dennis 
    It is unknown if Samuel Dennis is an ancestor, but he was the owner of 
    George Jackson Dennis, Purnell Dennis, and their two sisters. Because 
    some family members were listed on Federal Census records as "Mulatto", 
    while others were listed as "Negro," and no birth certificates were filed,
    i will leave it to DNA tests to tell the full story of the family's link 
    to the slave-owning Dennis family. However,it seems likely that the surname 
    Dennis may, in this family, signify more than a mere "slave-owner name." 
    Slave-Owner Dennis --- Slave Woman Dennis
        -------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------                          Liza Unknown --- James Unknown (grandparents of Mary Unknown Wilson)
        |                     |                                       |                                 |                                  ?|?         ?|?
George Jackson Dennis  Purnell Dennis --- Delia Unknown Dennis  Female Dennis 1 --- Male Wilson  Female Dennis 2 --- Male Williams  F. Unknown --- M. Unknown  F. Unknown --- M. Unknown
                                       |                                         |                                |                             |                          |
                                   Moses Dennis      Leah Unknown Wilson --- Joshua Wilson                 Elijah Williams --- Mary Unknown Williams                  Julia Unknown 
                                   Willie Dennis                          |                                                 |                                         Carrie Unknown Gavin --- Male Gavin 
                                   Calvin Dennis                     Martha Wilson                                   Jerry Williams                                                                   
                                   Louisa Dennis                     Caleb Wilson                                                                      (Julia was "related to" Mary Unknown Williams and
                                   Beulah Dennis                     Rose Wilson                                                                       to her son Jerry Williams; the exact relationship   
                                   Pauline Dennis                    Walter Wilson                                                                     was unspecified by Harry Hyatt; Carrie Unknown Gavin 
                                   Fred Dennis                       Grace Wilson                                                                      and Julia Unknown were sisters; i believe Carrie and 
                                                                     Henry Wilson --- Hallie Unknown Wilson                                            Julia were either the sisters of Mary Unknown Williams 
                                                                     Arthur Wilson                                                                     or the sisters of Mary's husband Elijah Williams.)
                                                                     Louise Wilson 
 Hyatt interviewed at least eight members of this family, and possibly more. Their informant numbers are as follows:
 #1: Julia [-], New York City, NY, Alma Hyatt's household manager; contact woman.
 #13: Jerry williams, Ocean City, MD, a relative of Julia [-]; contact man.
 #102: Purnell Dennis, St. James, near Pocomoke City, MD, brother of George Jackson Dennis.
 #103: Delia Dennis, St. James, near Pocomoke City, MD, wife of Purnell Dennis, sister-in-law of George Jackson Dennis.
 #130: Joshua Wilson,Princess Anne, MD; nephew of George Jackson Dennis, Purnell Dennis, and their sister who married Mr Williams; son of their other sister.
 #139: Mary Williams, Princess Anne, MD; widow of Elijah Williams, mother of Jerry Williams, niece by marriage of Purnell, George Jackson, and two Dennis sisters; interviews were conducted in the Williams home. 
 #???: Carrie Gavin, Wilmington, NC, sister of Julia [-]; her informant number falls between 183 and 197; interviews were conducted in the Gavin home. 
 #???: Mr. [-] Gavin, Wilmington, NC, husband of Carrie Gavin, contact man; his informant number falls between 183 and 197; interviews were conducted in the Gavin home. 


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