Joseph J. Cohen

The tale of the missing Jewish Family:

Who was Joseph J. Cohen and why is he such an enigma?  All genealogists eventually encounter an ancestor that is a “lost link”, a person whose life story or parents become seemingly impossible to trace.  In my genealogy, Joseph J. Cohen is that ancestor. Joseph indicated in historical records that he was born in Ohio.  He later moved to Georgia in the 1840s, married outside his Jewish faith, fathered several children then divorced his first wife.  A second marriage soon followed and he fathered an additional 7 children with her.  He supported and fought for the Confederacy and died of a fever while in service to the Lost Cause.

Age discrepancies of Joseph J. Cohen:

One reason our Cohen ancestry is so hard to find is because of the discrepancies of age and the major portion of Joseph’s life occurring before the 1850 census.  As the first census to list names of household members, it is almost impossible to know how long he had resided in Georgia prior to 1850 or to trace him through census records.   

The earliest account that I have of Joseph Cohen is when he first shows up twice in the 1850 records.  Apparently, he had separated from his first wife and was in Ware County, Georgia with the Lastinger family on the 1st day of November, his age is listed as 30 making his birth year approximately 1820.  His second appearance is in the Clinch County, Georgia 1850 census record that was taken on the 15th day of November.  Here, Joseph is living in the household of Benjamin and Martha Sirmons and lists him as a 28-year-old teacher, born in the state of Ohio.  This age would put his year of birth as 1822. 

Joseph J. Cohen appears again in the 1864 Census for Reorganizing the Georgia Militia, Abstracted and Compiled by Nancy J. Cornell Clinch County 5th Senatorial District - 586th Militia District, where is shown as being 50-years-old, a teacher, and born in Ohio.  This makes his birth year approximately 1814 so we have his year of birth as 1814, 1820, & 1822, depending on the document.  Though discrepancies in birth years was not uncommon during this time and place where family bibles and memories were the most common records kept, such a wide range, (8 years), is difficult to reconcile. 

 The wives and children of J. J. Cohen:

Joseph J. Cohen always listed his birthplace as Ohio and is buried in an unmarked grave in the Arabia Church in Clinch County, Georgia.  Joseph had two wives, and based on census records his first wife was Zilpha (Zilphie) Williams.  They appear to have married around 1845, separated by 1850 and divorced sometime between 1850 and 1852.  Joseph Cohen then married Mary Simpson, daughter of John Simpson and Mary Russell sometime around 1852.

Zilpha’s parents were John Williams, and his wife Nancy Smith who was the daughter of a Revolutionary War soldier who settled in the area of Ware/Clinch County, Georgia.  Nancy Smith married John Williams and their family began in 1822.  Zilpha was the third of 10 children born to John and Nancy Williams. 

Based on the 1850 & 1860 census records, Zilpha had the following children: William Henry Cohen born in 1846, Nancy born in 1854, James W. born in 1857 and Hester born in 1859.

In the 1850 census taken on the 30th day of October, Joseph’s first born son, William Henry Cohen (WH), appears as a 5 year old child along with his mother Zilpha Williams Cohen.  They were living in the household of  Zilpha’s parents John and Nancy Williams.  William Henry would have just turned 5 in January, so he was born in 1846, which means his parents must have married in 1845 or before.

In the 1860 census taken on June 8th, 1860, Zilpha’s children, William Henry (WH), and his sister Hester are living with their grandparents.  William’s age is listed at 14, he would have already had his birthday. Hester’s age is listed as “0”, which means she was a newborn.  No further record of her is found, so it is possible she died as an infant.  On the 12th day of June 1860, WH and Hester’s mother Zilpha was living in the household of Manning Cowart who was married to Sarah Ritter.  Also listed in the household are two of Zilpha's children.  I assumed they were Cohen's, since they are carrying the Cohen name (later they show up carrying the Vickery name).  The children's names are Nancy Cohen, a six-year-old, putting her year of birth around 1854, and James W. Cohen, 3-years-old, making his year of birth as 1857.  Joseph Cohen and Mary Simpson already show having children at this time, their first child was born about 1853 and their twins were born in 1856.

I have been unable to trace James W. from the 1850 census.  However, Nancy married a Swedish gentleman named Charles Johnson they lived in Waycross and she died before 1920, possibly in Waycross, Georgia and it appears they did not have any children.

Zilpha at some time remarried, as she filed a lawsuit under the name Vickery against her brother Hezekiah Ponder Williams, who was the executor of her father’s estate.  John Williams his wife Nancy, and Zilphie are buried in the Red Bluff Cemetery in Atkinson, Georgia.  The land was donated by John Williams to the church, and many family members are buried there.

Joseph’s profession was a teacher, but he never taught Zilpha Williams or Mary Simpson to write, as both of them signed with an “X”.  This is apparent when Zilpha files papers in court regarding her father’s estate and signs with an “X” and Mary Simpson Cohen Brannen signed her Civil War Pension records with an “X”.

John Williams, father of Zilphie was the census taker in 1860, and in the 1860 census, Mary Simpson is married to Joseph Cohen.  In their household is Martha (7, born 1853), Mary (4, born 1856), Sarah (4, born 1856), and Nancy (11 months, born July, 1859).  It is indicated that Joseph Cohen is a school teacher from Ohio and that the value of his personal property is $125.00.  Living in the household with Joseph Cohen's family is Charles Kinard (b. 1835) who married Nancy Simpson (b. 1845), sister to Mary Simpson.  Their next door neighbor is Mary's brother Jeremiah Simpson who later moved to Hillsborough County, Florida. 

Based on 1860 & 1870 census records, Mary Simpson had these children:  Martha, born in 1863, twins, Mary and Sarah, born in 1856, Nancy, born July 1859, Cinthiana, born September 1862, and lastly Joseph J. Cohen, Jr., born 1864 (Joseph Jr. appears in the 1870 census as a six-year-old child, did Joseph J. Cohen get a furlough and visit his wife Mary just prior to his death?)  Joseph J. Cohen Sr, died September 1863.  Mary may have followed the Jewish faith and named her son after a recently deceased relative, (her husband Joseph J. that died in the war).  When Mary Simpson Cohen married Joseph Brannen, she had one additional son, Louis B. Brannen.

After Joseph Cohen died of fever in 1863, his second family Mary Simpson Cohen moved with her brother Jeremiah Simpson and Kinard families by covered wagon to Hillsborough County, Florida.

I suspect that Joseph J. Cohen was from Cincinnati, Ohio, based on his daughter’s name but I was curious about the name Cynthiana.  Her name threw me until I learned of a small town just across the border of Ohio named Cynthiana, Kentucky.  Another mystery, I need to learn what is the connection of Cynthiana, Kentucky to J.J. Cohen, Sr.  Another interesting note on Joseph J. Cohen’s children, there were two daughters named Nancy.  I know they are not the same, because their ages are different in the census records.  Is it possible Joseph’s mother’s name was Nancy?

Joseph J. Cohen and history intertwined:

The name Cohen is of the priest tribe in the Jewish faith.  However, it is also the “John Smith” of American names, extremely hard to trace.  Although, there were not many Jewish families in Ohio at the time of Joseph’s estimated birth of 1814-1822 .  What was his middle name?  My assumption is that it is Jacob, “Joseph Jacob Cohen.”  Today, it is hard to trace many records in Georgia.   Homerville was the county seat, and as Sherman marched his way to the shores of Savannah, he burned the court houses along the way, destroying many records.

How and why did Joseph end up in Clinch, County Georgia?  Did he have a falling out with his family, an issue with slavery, the precursor of War, or an epidemic? 

Slavery was abolished in Ohio by the state's original constitution (1802).   But at the same time, across the Ohio river was the slave-state Kentucky.  Kentucky, took the lead in aggressively barring black immigration. 

During the Civil War, most residents of Cincinnati supported the United States, but a sizable number of people went south to fight for the Confederacy.  Was Joseph one of those people?   Cincinnati served as a major recruiting and organization center for the United States military during the Civil War. (website:,_Ohio)

Joseph J. Cohen’s son William Henry was born January of 1846, so Joseph J. arrived before 1845.  So Joseph’s trip to Georgia was not caused by the 1849 Cholera epidemic in Cincinnati.  It is reported that 8,000 people died in the Cholera epidemic in 1849.  “Unfortunately for people stricken with cholera, the treatment, at least before the American Civil War, was almost as bad as the illness. Doctors routinely prescribed calomel for cholera victims. Calomel contained mercury, and numerous people died from mercury poisoning or suffered other ill effects from this drug.”

The oldest Jewish cemetery west of the Allegheny Mountains has eighty-five graves and was used from 1821 to 1849, when the cholera epidemic filled the cemetery.  Were Joseph J.’s parents/family killed in the epidemic?

The first identifiable Jew who settled in Cincinnati was Joseph Jonas, an English emigrant who arrived in the city via Philadelphia in 1817.  Jonas, a young man, decided to leave his home in Exeter, England, with the avowed intention of settling in Cincinnati. Friends in Philadelphia originally endeavored to dissuade him from going to a place so isolated from all association with his co-religionists. However, Jonas reassured them that he would succeed. For the first two years, he was the only Jew in the Midwestern town.

In 1819, Jonas was joined by three others, Lewis Cohen of London, Barnet Levi of Liverpool, and Jonas Levy of Exeter. On the High Holidays in the autumn of 1819, these four men, together with David Israel Johnson of Brookville, Indiana, (a frontier trading-station) conducted the first Jewish service west of the Appalachians. Similar services were held the next three years. Newcomers continued to arrive, the early settlers being mostly Jews from England.

Cincinnati, Ohio is approximately 700 miles from Clinch County, Georgia and was a long distance in that day.  Did Joseph travel by boat, train, horse or stage coach, or a combination of all modes of travel?  Along the way where did he stop and why did he choose Clinch County as his destination?  Was our Joseph Cohen the pre-cursor for other Jewish families to the region or was he simply making contact with the Jewish families that had settled in Savannah in 1791?  Why did he marry outside of his faith?

Joseph J. Cohen, in Clinch, County Georgia.

Joseph Cohen became an integral part of Homerville, Georgia and Clinch County, by serving as a land surveyor (1857-1858), and Justice of the Peace for two years (1857-1859), and finally enlisted in the 22nd Georgia Artillery.  Interesting to note for future reference another surveyor that served was a gentleman named I.T. McLendon (important later in his son’s W.H. Cohen’s life).

In 1850, teachers may have lived with sponsors or members of the school board.  Joseph was with the Sirmons family, so where in Magnolia did Joseph teach, and what did he teach?  Interesting side note Joseph’s great grand- daughter marries a Sermons in Florida.

According to a book called History of Clinch County, written by Folks Huxford, there is a sketch of Joseph J. Cohen and it reads:

Cohen, Joseph J., was born in Ohio about 1815, and came to Clinch County about 1850.  He was a school teacher by profession.  He married Zilpha, a daughter of John Williams, Sr., and his wife, Nancy, but after a divorce married Mary Simpson and by her had a son William Cohen.  Mr Cohen was elected a justice of the peace of the 970th district in 1857 and served two years.  He was commissioned surveyor of Clinch County, January 12th, 1857, and served one year.  In the Civil War he enlisted in the 22nd Georgia Artillery.  While in the army he contracted a sickness which terminated in his death in 1863.  His remains were brought home and buried at Arabia Church.  The grave is not marked and its exact location in the cemetery is not known.”


The sketch is incorrect in that it states that Mary Simpson is the mother of William Cohen. 

According to the book Georgia's Landmarks, Memorials and Legends, Magnolia: A Lost Town

"By act of the General Assembly in 1852 the town of Magnolia was made the county-seat of Clinch.  Previous to this time the little cluster of homes at this point was called Polk.   In 1860 another act of the Legislature authorized the removal of the county officers to "Station Number 11" in the Atlantic and Gulf Railroad where Homerville, the present county-seat of Clinch, was incorporated in 1869.  The town of Magnolia, no longer exists upon the map, though a militia district still retains the name. There is an old church still standing in the neighborhood. 

It is naught else-save a few gaunt and spectral chimneys, to tell where cheerful fires once warmed the hearthstones of this silent town of Southern Georgia."


According to the book History of Clinch County, “The town of Magnolia was never more than a small village.  It was laid out on land which was drained on either side by small ponds and branches.  It was situated as near the center of the county as practicable.  There was a main street running through the town, east and west, and public buildings were situated on the north side of the main street.  The main street to-day is a large lane running through and which divides fields.  The fields are not cultivated with the exception of an acre or two by negro tenants.  Connecting with the main street on the west was a stage road which ran from Troupville through the northern part of the county to Waresboro.  The stage coaches in that day carried the mails and were as much a necessity then as the mail and passenger trains are to-day.

Among the first settlers at Magnolia were John L. Morgan, who moved there in 1853; also David O’Quin, Reubin Y. Stanford and Robert F. White.  The last three owned and operated stores there for a few years.  The following citizens served as justices of the peace for the district in which Magnolia was located, during the several years following the creation of the new county; these citizens lived in or near Magnolia:  Elliot Chancy, Jesse Smith, Aaron D. Dyals, Henry E. Peacock, Elias Williams, Levi W. Carter, Abraham Strickland and Joseph J. Cohen.”

There were some Cohen families that settled nearby in the city of Savannah and also in Macon, Georgia.  These Cohen families did not come from Ohio as we see that Joseph stated.  These families came directly from Prussia and some settled in Jacksonville.  The family history and rumor has been that we are related to the Cohen Brothers who owned a store in Jacksonville. 

In the 1800's, most of the history involving our Williams and Cohen families was in the small town of Magnolia and later Homerville, Georgia.  By the 1900’s our Cohen ancestor had moved to Florida, along with some of his neighbors.  William Henry Cohen, son of Joseph J. Cohen indicated in his Civil War Pension records that he had resided in the State of Florida since March of 1868 (just after Civil War).

The Kinard, and Simpson families and the children of Mary Simpson Cohen and Joseph J. Cohen settled the area of Thonotosassa, Florida. 



William Henry Cohen


Smith and Williams Family of Georgia


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