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Proof of Existence

How many of us take for granted our birth certificate?

Think about this. How many people do you know who can say that they do not have a birth certificate? Nowadays, that is often the critical document to prove that you even exist. Try getting a driver’s license or a passport without a birth certificate. In most jurisdictions, you can’t.

The original train station in Chipley is long gone; this is the current Amtrak station. Source:

The original train station in Chipley is long gone; this is the current Amtrak station. Source:

Back in Emmett’s day, the lack of a birth certificate to ‘prove’ who you were wasn’t so critical. For instance, when Emmett got his first job with the railroad as a teenager, it was right there in Chipley, at the train station. EVERYONE knew who he was: He was the son of Dr. Frank Wilson, well respected town doctor. EVERYONE knew his family. Emmett didn’t have to whip out an i.d. card or driver’s license to prove he was Emmett Wilson.

Very few people owned automobiles, so there were no driver’s licenses to use as identification. If you were in the military, or, if you were a police officer, you’d have an official identification card or badge to provide for identification.

But what identification would the average person carry about between 1882-1900 to prove who they were? Your college diploma? Club membership cards? It seems like there was a lot of opportunity for abuse, here, unless you had some kind of official identification. A passport? Not likely. Indeed, in the latter part of the 19th century, and up until World War I, passports weren’t required, and crossing a country’s border was a rather straightforward process, so few people actually had passports.

My point is, Emmett didn’t have to give ‘proof of existence’ as much as is required today. Nowadays, you have to provide at least two forms of credible identification, with photos attached.

What I’m getting at is that I’ve been on the hunt for Emmett Wilson’s birth certificate. I haven’t exhausted all sources yet, but the odds are slim that it exists on record.

Belize2Emmett was born in British Honduras (today, Belize) in 1882. At that point, Belize was a wilderness. Emmett’s birth ‘village’ barely qualifies for that distinction. There were no paved roads, few stores, and it was, literally, in the middle of nowhere.

Emmett’s family was trying to establish a new home, a sugar plantation (along with other former Confederates and their families) in a jungle, where there was no urban area, no infrastructure, and no official repository of vital records. Not yet, anyway.

I contacted the archives office in Belize yesterday; they were very nice and conducted a search for a copy of Emmett’s birth certificate, but they found nothing. In fact, what they have prior to 1885 is very sketchy. I was told that the act for the registration of vital information in Belize was not passed until 1885, so there are few vital records on file prior to that year.

Perhaps Dr. Wilson registered a birth certificate for Emmett with the state of Florida after they re-emigrated in 1884. It seems logical, but it wasn’t a priority. The Wilsons were trying to build their lives all over again, for the third time in a decade. If having a birth certificate in hand was neither important, critical, nor absolutely required in the 1880s, I don’t think Emmett’s father followed through on this.

I do think Emmett’s family recorded the birth information in the Wilson family Bible.

And now, the next question: Where is the Wilson family Bible?


Categories: Family Florida History Recommended Sources Research Status

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