The Trouble With Women (it’s not what it sounds like)

Whenever my partner enters the room while I’m digging into the past, I’m either bent over the laptop taking notes, furiously typing another search into a search engine, or, and most likely, I’m muttering to myself. I’m sure, to him, I have the same constipated look on my face as Russell Crowe’s characters in 80% of his movie.

But concentration is necessary. I am resurrecting lives after all.

Chamberlain affidavit
Christiana Chamberlain’s affidavit. I love how flowery the language is, but the editor in me wants to take a red pen to most of it!

Case in point: reviewing the document at left that was in the pile of papers my family received from my Genealogical Fairy Godmother.

On December 17, 1888, a seventy-year-old woman named Christiana Chamberlain trudged into the office of a county clerk in Wellington, Kansas, and asked him to write an affidavit. She swore an oath to the man that what she was about to say was absolute truth. The lawyer reached for a piece of lined paper and his quill pen and began to write.

Christiana tells the lawyer that she was present at a wedding some 45 years before in a place called Mascedonia, Ontario County, New York. (Click here for larger version and transcript of the affidavit.) Pretty straight forward, huh?

The reason she took the trouble to tell a lawyer this was to help a widow reclaim money from her late husband’s Civil War pension. That widow happens to be my 2nd great-grandmother, Emily Chelesta Patterson. I knew very little about Emily’s life before she married, just maiden name (Patterson), the state in which she was born, and a rough birth year. And I knew even less of Emily’s mother or father, nor any siblings she may have.

That’s the trouble with finding our female relatives’ stories: they’re as integral as the men to the plot lines of our families, but their childhoods are hidden behind their husbands’ last names.

Up until scrutinizing this old letter, my family agreed that Emily’s husband, Thomas Wilson, had been married twice. The snippet below from the 1850 Census lists a woman named Anna living with Thomas and his children. Every census after that lists Emily as the woman of the house and mother to George, Mary, Ambrose, Joanna and Emogene. The names Anna and Emily are different enough and different ages and places of birth were listed for them. We had each looked at this record and assumed Anna had passed away, and Thomas had married Emily to help him care for his 5 children. But Christiana’s statement verifies that Emily was Thomas’s wife when the 1850 census was taken. So Anna was Emily, and I had the happy task of erasing a name off my To Research list.

One simple misunderstood name set the researchers off the track for years.
One simple misheard name set us researchers off track for 10 years. Source: 1850 United States Federal Census, New York, Ontario County, Manchester town, p. 71

But then it occurred to me that the 45 years between the marriage in 1843, and the affidavit written in 1888 was a mighty long time. Christiana lived in Wellington, Kansas, at the time she gave the affidavit; Emily lived in Shiawassee County, Michigan. They must have been very tight for Emily to have asked such a favor from so far away. Seems like Emily could have asked younger family members to attest to the marriage—siblings or cousins who might have attended. The two women would have to be as close as sisters to maintain such a friendship for so long. Sisters? Wait a minute.

So, I started researching Christiana, tracking her and her family back in time from Kansas and sure enough, I eventually found a marriage record that a Christiana Patterson married a man named Chamberlain in Illinois. After living in Kansas a while, the Chamberlains moved to Orange County, California. When Christiana passed away in her home in 1908, her niece Joanna (Emily’s daughter) lived in a house around the corner. Ha ha, success! I still have to do the work to prove that my theory is correct, but I now had strong clues to follow to research my enigmatic great-grandmother.

(You might be thinking: Why didn’t the affidavit mention their relationship? Well, the statement goes on to attest that Christiana had no personal stakes in Emily receiving her husband’s money. Mentioning their relationship could have marred her integrity.)

That’s what I mean by resurrecting people’s lives. I had to go back into the “fantasyland of the past” to get into the circumstances of the people involved in that affidavit in order to piece together that Emily and Christiana were sisters (allegedly, probably).

And to think if I hadn’t gone through my Fairy Godmother’s papers for the 101st time I might not have ever made that important connection. It really is so gratifying to solve another piece of the family history puzzle, like Sudoku only using people to fill in the boxes instead of numbers!

*This post was inspired by the DPWriting Challenge, whose prompt this week was to teach something.

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I am a writer for an e-Learning course vendor near Chicago.

39 thoughts on “The Trouble With Women (it’s not what it sounds like)”

  1. When I started blogging, one of the topics I dipped into – because I love it and because I was looking for inspiration – was family history. One side of my family has been pretty well-researched and we have lots of pictures. I wrote a few posts about what I thought was going on in the pictures but found it hard to fill in the blanks with fiction. I think if I had the time I’d like to do what you’re doing, on the other sides of my family tree. But the posts I’ve read from you this evening (especially this one) tell me I’d have a lot of work ahead of me! Fun, though, for sure. Thanks for sharing all these great research experiences!

  2. I hadn’t thought about it until now, but it must be challenging trying to figure out where the women came from. If you don’t have a maiden name…

  3. Oh how I wish I had the patience to unravel my family’s history. One of my mother’s grandfather’s had two sons with the same name because one came from his legal wife, another from his “mistress.” Good luck in your search.

  4. WOW! They were Sisters! I didn’t see that one coming. Just an excellent story & post! But still, the title does leave you open for a few snide “about women” remarks!…LOL.
    I’m a new fan and following!
    Hugs & Blessings,
    Author, Catherine Lyon 🙂

  5. What a fascinating journey you are on. I’m so glad you are sharing it with us.

    BTW Are you taking the Writing 101 course that starts on Monday? I hope so!

  6. Ooh I love genealogy and all the mysteries, stories, questions that come about. So I enjoyed your story and laughed, as I too am bent over my laptop, scribbling notes like a crazy scientist.

    1. Lately I’ve been getting a lot of “File not Found” letters to the inquiries I’ve sent out to prove Christiana and Emily are sisters. When I finally do track down the repository that houses the documents I need I hope to update everyone. Thanks for letting me know I’m not the only mad scientist!

  7. What a great story. A member of my family traced our family back to the 1600’s but the parts which were missing involved where they couldn’t trace women past their married names, what luck to find a document like this! I for one, wouldn’t have the patience for a project like this so I am relieved my family has been dealt with!

    1. It does take some patience, but the payoff is gratifying! It’s amazing that your family tree researcher could go back that far! Thanks for reading and for your comment, Claire!

  8. The title got me in! But you could also call it Mysterious Women. Lol!

    I have an ancestor who left France and changed his name so I can never find out his original name. I like to think I am a little bit French, though. Makes me a bit of a mysterious woman!😃

    1. Thanks, Amberley. Have you gotten a chance to listen to that NPR podcast I posted? Not trying to be pushy; just looking for someone to talk to about it!

  9. Love it! I feel the same way when I unlock some hidden part of my family. There are a couple women in my recent history that were given away to other members of the family to live. I would love to find out why as there were both older and younger siblings who were raised by the original family. I can make assumptions but that’s not always the right thing to do. I could ask around but it may be some dark secret nobody wants to talk about. I love genealogy!
    I also get that stare on my face and my partner will ask me if I need a break. I don’t ever want one but I will pull myself away.
    The title is great as it will pull people in who may not otherwise be a follower.
    Great post! Now I need to think who to ask about Verla Jane and Arbutus.

    1. Verla Jane and Arbutus — those are great names! I say make the assumptions. They are a starting point and they can be verified. I find my assumptions are usually pretty close to the reality. For instance, my assumption that Christiana and Emily were sisters directly lead me to some great documentation. But more on that in a future post.

      1. Verla Jane was born in Nov, Grandma Thora died in March, Grandpa Jens gave her to his brother. He remarried that year. Think maybe he blamed her for Thora’s death. He had a son a short time later but never spent any time with Verla Jane and never brought her back home even though he had a new wife and 3 older sibs. Oh well, a story to be written.

  10. ‘You should write a novel on this – “Unleashing the past”..hahaha. Good work on finding a clue to your enigmatic great-grandmother. Hope you find more about her. Great post over all 🙂

  11. I am really impressed with the sheer dogmatic determination you possess to unearth these histories!! If I can’t find a certain saucepan immediately, I will change the whole dinner menu! As for the title, perhaps something to do with mystery? Although you sent my mind down the wrong track with your alternatives!! The first thing I came up with was Uncovering Women!!

  12. I wish we had the means to do such amazingly thorough research such as this back in my country. My forefathers were from Afghanistan, then moved to India and eventually to Pakistan. I only know a few more details. Your post was remarkable in all its exceptional detective work and also the realization that so many memories, moments and people have got lost over time because nobody bothered to keep track or record. Sigh. I guess I will never really know much about the roots of my family tree except hearsay. Nevertheless, awesome post!

    1. My friend whose family is Korean said the same thing. It’s a shame when we don’t think to write things down. That’s very much why I started blogging. But I find the stories passed down through the generations are also very rich. And even though they may not be absolutely true, they speak to the kind of people your family was. Thanks for your comment!

  13. I like the title. What a wonderful discovery. You are resurrecting lives. I have a cousin who is my fairy godfather — he sends along pictures of relatives who died long before I was born. And I have another one, a long distant cousin, who has helped me with the Canadian side of my family. I would not have been able to trace my father’s side without his help. Love this stuff. Thanks for a fascinating post.

    1. Just call me Frankenstein. Love helpful family members – I’ve gotten so much info about my family from distant relatives. Thanks for commenting, Meg.

  14. That’s some great detective work! You have some top notch research skills. It must be incredible to bring these family members back to life. Well done.

      1. I think writing the title is often the hardest part. If you come up with a title capable of inspiring readers to click on the post (as this one did for me), then I think you can call it a good one.

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