The Gene Pool: Coincidences

Every now and then I like to sum up a few genealogy-related items I’ve come across in pop culture. I call it The Gene Pool because I’m clever.


Item #1: Oh my god, you’re European!
via the Internet

Samantha logged onto Facebook one day and read a message from a woman in England telling her that she had a doppelganger. She clicked a link to the woman’s Facebook profile and couldn’t believe what she saw. A year and a half later they’re documenting their story. I love this kind of stuff.

Read more here.


Item #2: No Coincidence, No Story
via radio and the Internet

Family researchers often find themselves in situations where they have to decide whether a coincidence is happenstance or a pattern taking shape. So, when I heard the first story about coincidences on an NPR broadcast, I was hooked!

After hearing the hour long broadcast, I couldn’t stop telling everyone I saw about the significance of a man giving his girlfriend a dollar with her name written on it (minute 22 in the podcast below), or the odd story of a man being given a picture of a toddler in a stroller taken 18 years ago and noticing his own grandmother perfectly framed in the background (minute 9:14 in the podcast below). And the other 13 stories gave me goose pimples, too.

Listen to the broadcast here. This one is a bit of a time commitment, come back to it when you’re washing dishes or cleaning house this weekend. I promise you won’t be sorry.



Item # 3: History Detectives
via television

I’m really late to this party,  but I figure if I wasn’t aware of PBS’s History Detectives even after 10 seasons of being on the air, then others might not know about it either. It is exactly the kind of tv program someone who knew me pretty well would tell me about!

It’s similar to Antiques Roadshow, only instead of appraising objects from the past, the detectives research the story behind the objects. In a recent episode, a woman inherited a beautiful electric guitar from her father who had worked in the music business. Her father told her it was the very guitar Bob Dylan played at his infamous Newport Folk Festival performance. So the detective went out to verify the story.

That example is a little less genealogy oriented, than others. They’ve also investigated the story behind two stolen Civil War derringers (I had to look up the word) and the validity of a woman’s claim that she inherited royal jewels. My point is that this show covers the whole gamut of people’s interests — music, art, culture, writing, architecture, sports, military– not to mention my three blogging loves: history, sociology, and genealogy.

Check out their website or watch a segment about a book of African American spirituals:


Like what I did here? Read my first Gene Pool installment!

Do you know about any history, sociology, or genealogy stories  I can use for upcoming Gene Pools? Tell me about it.

Have any interesting coincidences happen to you lately? I’d love to hear it. Or just tell me what you thought of my finds.


Genealogical Fairygodmothers

Before I go on with my story about Thomas and his family, I should tell you about the surprise visitors my parents received back in the summer of 1993.

I was a sophomore in college living across the state. During a routine phone conversation one day in June, my mom told me that some people were staying in the dead-end beside our house. That was strange to hear. Understandably, my parents aren’t accustomed to welcoming strangers at their door. They live 15 minutes outside of town. Anyone wanting to pop in for a surprise visit would have to go way out of their way to see them. So I think my parents probably assumed that the strangers at their door were either trying to convert them to a new religion or a new brand of vacuum cleaner. My parents’ visitors were decidedly not salespeople though, they were a lovely Canadian couple named Doris and Ed Gibbs.

A quick Wilson tree for clarity's sake.
A quick Wilson tree for clarity’s sake.

Turns out Doris’s maiden name was Wilson and she was my grandma’s second cousin. If you read my post Shot By the Enemy, you know that Thomas and Emily had 5 kids. Doris was the granddaughter of their eldest son, George.

George fought in the 111th Volunteer Regiment of New York. He mustered in just after his father was hurt in the Battle of Petersburg. A brave thing to do. Among many other skirmishes, his regiment fought at the Battle of Appomattox, where Gen. Lee finally surrendered to Gen. Grant, closing the book on the war in Virginia. Our George mustered out at the age of 21, way too young to have witnessed so much death and disease. I believe he stayed in New York for a while after his family left for Michigan in 1869.

In 1874, he pops up in South Dakota marrying a woman named Anna Mae Sherwood. From there, they moved to Calgary. The reason for the move isn’t clear, but in a community history book I have for another side of my family it seems many people at the time caught ‘Manitoba fever’. A disease suffered by many opportunists; the symptoms of which were a strong desire for fast money and a need to move to the new railroad towns popping up on the desolate Canadian prairie. Canadians and Americans alike were afflicted. That’s most likely how Doris and her family ended up as the sole Canadian branch of our Wilson line.

The physical descriptions on papers like these bewilder me. I'm grateful for the sketch they provide, but what possible use could the term "dark complexion" afforded? Dark compared to what?
George’s Certificate of Duty. The physical descriptions on papers like these bewilder me. I’m grateful for the sketch they provide, but what possible use could the term “dark complexion” afford? Dark compared to what?

Doris Gibbs was a housewife. Ed was a life-long Canadian soldier, a veteran of both WWII and the Korean War.  Together they raised two children in and around Edmonton and Calgary. They had retired and bought a mid-sized RV. Before showing up on my parent’s front porch, they had been dashing around the continent researching Doris’s family tree. This was prior to the internet, of course, when the only way to see original records was to hop in a car and go to them. They traveled from Edmonton to Manchester, New York, where they had looked up our common ancestors.

Ed Gibbs, a kind-hearted man. Unfortunately, I can't find any pictures of Doris. Here's hoping a Gibbs family member will spot this blog and give me a picture.
Ed Gibbs, a kind-hearted man. Unfortunately, I can’t find any pictures of Doris.

Their research in Manchester led them to the area of Michigan where the Wilsons had their farm after they moved from New York state. In Michigan, Doris tracked Thomas’s son, Ambrose; then Ambrose’s son, Fred, through the records. This line of research brought her directly to my hometown not 10 miles down the interstate. She and Ed found Thomas’s grave in town and researched some more at the town Library. They picked up with Fred’s records and followed it through his daughter, finally finding my mother’s name. From there — without the help of smart phones, GPS, or Ancestry — they found my dad’s listing in a phone book and drove right over to meet their brand new relatives.

The Gibbs’ stayed in their RV next to my parents’ house for several days. Doris and my mom spent time going over what they had both collected of the Wilson history. Doris is the one that discovered Thomas had been wounded, and she had ordered his pension files from the National Archives. She gave my mom copies of his papers, and eventually my mom gave me copies of the papers as well.

The documents Doris gave us include Thomas’s enlistment papers, his original application for pension, all of the doctor’s follow-up affidavits, and the application and character witnesses Emily submitted in order to prove her marriage and, ultimately, stake her claim to her husband’s pension after he passed. It’s cool to have these 100+ year-old papers in your hand. It has an energy; like walking around castles in western Ireland, there’s a pulse or a whisper in the air around it reminding you that you’re not breaking any ground living your life. There’s a comfort in that, I think. A relieved pressure of not pioneering unchartered territory.

You may notice on some of the documents in upcoming posts that the cursive writing looks written over and there are notes in the margins. That’s Doris — careful to make sure the soft and worn-down writing of a hundred years ago is clear in her photocopies. And excitedly writing notes  in the margins as she encounters new info about the family.

When discussing Doris and Ed a while back, my parents both lit up. Several times the phrase “good, solid people” was used to describe them,  a high compliment in our household. I know from this that my parents were glad to have known the Gibbs and that the Gibbs were the kind of people of whom you were proud to be related. And even though I never met them, I am very grateful for their visit and their efforts. Their paperwork has yielded so much information about both Thomas and Emily. Looking through these documents is what initially inspired me to find out more about all of the people who came before. For these reasons, I can’t help but think of Doris as my Genealogical Fairy Godmother. Cheering me on when I unravel a mystery. Pushing the right book or article in front of me at the right time. So thank you, Doris. Thank you, Ed. Rest in peace.

Doris and Ed Gibbs
God bless them both. Photo credit: Cheyenne Kepke (


I have made a complete stranger my genealogical cheerleader. Please reassure me that I’m not the only one to do this by telling me about any fairy godpeople in your lives.

Shot By the Enemy

One of many forms detailing Thomas' injury in the war.
One of many forms detailing my forefather’s injury in the war.

My third great grandfather, Thomas Wilson, was about 46 years old when he enlisted in the 24th Regiment of the New York Cavalry. The document above is a form the doctor had to fill out in order for Thomas to receive government money. In my possession, I have a dozen more of his claims for an Invalid Pension spanning from 1864 to 1875. Each one has a mannequin-like diagram of a man (think Da Vinci’s Vetruvian Man) with an arrow pointing to the upper right leg indicating the source of Thomas’s complaint year after year. It seems the government required him to get a physical regularly to keep his soldier’s pension.

This document says that he was wounded on July 9th, 1864. He was shot in the right thigh “splintering the bone.” On top of that it describes an exit wound just left of the pubis. Youch! The wound was “received in the trenches before Petersburg from a shot by the enemy.” I will leave you to read the rest of the gory details in the document, if you so choose. The initialism GSW, by the way, stands for “gun shot wound.” That tripped me up.

Thomas received $4 a month because he suffered from “too much lameness to allow work of more than half a day.” I’ll say. Good thing he had his wife, Emily Patterson Wilson, and his sons and daughters to help him with the farm work. His oldest son, George, also fought in the war. Mary Jane, his oldest daughter, and Ambrose, his second son, were in their late teens and unmarried at the time. His youngest children, Joanna and Emogene, were still in school.* Ambrose, by the way, is the father of Fred Wilson in the fictional story I’m writing about my family.


From the Library of Congress archives
“In the trenches before Petersburg, Virginia, 1865” from the Library of Congress archives

The Battle of Petersburg, Virginia, or the Petersburg Campaign, was an especially gruesome one and significant to the outcome of the war. Petersburg was the seventh largest city in the Confederacy at the time and a center of transportation. A third of the soldiers involved perished during the 292 days it rumbled the country. Thomas probably fought in the initial battle. I say probably because the government website lists June 15-18, 1864 as the dates of the first battle. Thomas’s record states that he received his wound 21 days later. Considering those dates, the word before in “received in the trenches before Petersburg” probably refers to geography and not time. In other words, my man suffered his wounds in the trenches that are located in the ground before one enters the city, not before the Battle of Petersburg itself.

I found a genealogy website that lists an article where Thomas is reported to have been slightly wounded on June 29th. So, that seems to suggest that Thomas was in the trenches as the initial battle raged. Given the details I’ve read of the campaign, he is lucky to have survived it.

Whether he fought in Petersburg or not, Thomas’s story is fascinating to me. If I had known when I was in school that I had a direct ancestor who had participated in the Civil War (now I know of several),  I surely would have invested in the topics I was being taught. How could I not? In my family tree alone, I have probable ties to most of the major wars, Jesse James, Eli Whitney, the Quakers, and Susannah Martin, one of the first women accused in the Salem Witch trials.  And those are just the ancestors I know about now! But now I’m getting ahead of myself; those are subjects for future posts.

I’ve often thought it would be wise to teach a little genealogy in junior high school so students could discover how their family was impacted by the historical events they learn about in class. It would help students recognize that history isn’t just about memorizing random dates and places. It would also help teachers maintain their students’ interest . . . or maybe not everyone would be as geeky about it as I am.

Not long after he was mustered out (which is olde timey military-talk for ‘released from duty’), Thomas moved his family to eastern Michigan. He lived about halfway between the towns of Flushing and New Lothrop until his death in 1883. Thankfully, despite his wounds, he lived to the ripe age of 65.*

This isn’t the last you’ll hear of Thomas Wilson. I have more documentation to share. I actually edited out three more documents that directly relate to what I’ve told you so far about him. Plus I have war documents that helped me find his wife’s family, not to mention the story of how these documents landed in my hands in the first place! I just don’t want to smother you with everything I know.

I will, however, smother you with what these forms neglected to mention: Thomas’ parent’s names. In genealogical terms, that means Thomas is one of my brick walls. A brick wall in a family tree is a person whose paper trail ends abruptly. It’s frustrating to have his childhood be a dead end for me considering how much paperwork I have on his life as an adult. Other documents suggest he may have been born in 1817 in Morristown, New Jersey.* Other Wilsons and Willsons can be found living near Manchester, New York, where Thomas and his family lived before the war, but Wilson is such a common surname. I couldn’t find data on common surnames from back then, but lists it as the eighth most common last name in the country in 1990. Therefore, I don’t think I can safely assume that all of the Wilson/Willsons in the area are Thomas’s relatives. I have looked for other Wilson/Willsons in the area that were also born in New Jersey about the time Thomas was. I came up with one person: a man named Stephen Willson. Stephen was only in the area for one census and I have no idea where he moved after that. If anyone has suggestions of where I can look, please share!

Recently, I sent a friend who lives in nearby Rochester, New York, to the Genealogical Society near Manchester to look up Thomas and Emily’s marriage announcements. I was hoping there’d be something there listing his parents or his family. But no dice. (Thanks again, Kristy!)

*documentation of these facts available, just ask.


The Gene Pool: Paul Fronczak and San Miguel

I find my time writing and my time researching are currently at odds with each other. My solution is to sum up a few genealogy-related items I’ve come across in the media. I’m calling it The Gene Pool because I’m clever.


Item #1:

The mystery continues in the Paul Fronczak case. Have you heard this story?

Here's where the story starts. This is stuff you can't make up!
Here’s where the story starts. This is stuff you can’t make up!

Fifty years ago, a baby named Paul Fronczak was stolen from a Chicago hospital by a woman dressed as a nurse. Months later, a baby is found in a field in New Jersey and is believed to be Paul. The elated parents took the baby in believing him to be theirs. This was back in 1964.

Recently, the man raised as Paul Fronczak took a DNA test that revealed he was not actually the kidnapped baby. So he decides to find out who he is and what happened to the real Paul Fronczak.

Click on the newspaper article above or google the thorough (if somewhat smarmily produced) ABC news story if you haven’t heard it. It’s worth it; there are so many unexpected twists and turns. And thanks to advances in DNA mapping, we no longer have to rely on the shapes of baby’s ears to identify them.


Item #2, no spoilers:

The author of The Road to Wellville and The Women tackles yet another place and time. Two families living on a remote island off the coast of Santa Barbara, California, from the 1880s to the 1940s weather wars, the Depression, and a whole lotta sheep.

San Miguel by T. C. Boyle
San Miguel by T. C. Boyle

T. C. Boyle has long been a favorite author of mine. The way he weaves a fictional story around the hard data of actual events is masterful. The three segments of the book feel a little more like character sketches than a story with an arc. But the care with which Boyle writes about them makes up for the seeming lack of connection between the two families. This book made me realize that the fiction I’ve been writing about my family is heavily influenced by his work.

Boyle creates a solid tone and setting in the wind-swept, barren terrain of San Miguel island. He also manages to gently insert his theme of environmentalism into the story. The eventual mistreatment of the island leads directly to the outcome of their stories. The author also plays around with the idea of technology changing people’s lives. Nowadays, the internet is just another tool we use everyday. We don’t think much about the time it took to creep into our lives, how extraordinary it seemed at first, and the changes we made to fit it into society. Boyle’s introduction of the radio and the airplane into the Lester’s secluded life made me look at those everyday items as new and wondrous.

I got so caught up in the story of the living, breathing people upon which this book is based that I had to go into my Ancestry account and see what I could find on the two families. Here’s a couple items with no spoilers:


This phone directory from 1905 shows Capt. Waters's declaration as the President of a bunch of sheep.
This phone directory from 1905 shows Capt. Waters’s declaration as the President of a bunch of sheep.
The Lesters 1940 census
And this 1940 census record shows that the mild annoyance of manning the weather station kept the Lesters afloat on the island.

I’m withholding my opinions about this book so as not to spoil it for any of you interested in reading it. If you do read it, and want to discuss it with me, please comment on this post! Comment on it anyway, let me know you’re out there, instead of just being a statistic on this site.

Flushing, a conflicted love note

With a title like that, this post could go a few different places, but that capital F is the proper-noun kind of capital, not the obligatory beginning-of-sentence kind.

Flushing happens to be a very pretty town cozied into the banks of the Flint River just downstream from Flint city. It is also the town in which I was born and raised. It supported a fantastic childhood and many good friendships. Before you ask, no, our high school mascot wasn’t a toilet, as rival schools often suggest. Yes, whenever I mention it without the Michigan qualifier, people assume I grew up outside of NYC and wonder why I don’t talk like Fran Drescher’s The Nanny.

Flushing's Summer Fair is held downtown next to the river every summer. photo credit: lonniec61 on
Flushing’s Summer Fair is held downtown next to the river every year. Photo credit: lonniec61 on
Case in point: On his application to enter the U.S., my grandfather wrote that he only intended to stay in Flint for a month. I think that was a lie. Most of his family was in Flint by then, sailing across Lake St. Clair one at a time.
Another case in point: On his application to enter the U.S., my grandfather wrote that he only intended to stay in Flint for a month. I think that was a fib. Most of his family was in Flint by then, having sailed across Lake St. Clair from Ontario one at a time.

When researching my family history, I geek out when I come across a record that hints at the algorithm of past decisions that led to Flushing becoming my hometown. At minimum, there were 1,024 decisions made leading to the actual event of my birth. And that’s just going back 7 generations (to about the early 1600s). Eight generations back would be 2,048 people (!) barring any kissing cousins in the tree. So let’s just say that’s the number of mothers and fathers directly involved in my, and each of our births in each of our towns in each of our countries. Even though we both know our ancestors didn’t just magically appear in the miasma of the 17th century.

Tangent aside, that means one thousand and twenty-four amazing stories had to unravel for you to be where you are sitting in your chair kindly reading this blog post. When you factor in all of their brothers and sisters, their cousins, their step-mothers, their pastors, their business partners, and the fact that there were significantly less people in the world the further back we go in time, that number really highlights how interconnected we must be.

When I actually lived in Flushing, I wanted nothing more than to leave. I was restless for getting out on my own; I didn’t feel I belonged there. We lived 15 minutes outside of town and it just seemed too quiet, like nothing interesting had ever happened there. For most adults with families the tranquility is a draw, but for a teenager (and me, still) it’s annoying to not be in the middle of things. So even though I don’t see myself ever moving back for many of the same reasons I left when I was 18, I find myself thinking about Flushing a lot. The more I research my family tree, the more I realize that Flushing and Flint are at its core. I have list upon list of records I’d like to look up there, graves I’d like to photograph, farmsteads I’d like to visit. I had no idea growing up that my history was scattered all around that little house in a field outside of town.

I thought that show was from the 90s, but judging from that outfit it must have aired in the 60s.
I thought this was a 90s tv show, but judging from that outfit and hairdo it must have aired in the 60s.

From what I’ve read, my Flushing owes a lot to The Nanny’s hometown. Back when NYC was just swampy farmland, Dutch settlers founded a town on an island that juts out into the ocean, and named it after a city that also juts out into the ocean: Vlissingen, Netherlands. When the Dutch government pulled out of the New World later, the English changed the spelling and pronunciation to something a little easier for them to say: Flushing. Later still, determined shippers dug the Erie Canal to connect the Atlantic Ocean to Lake Erie, bypassing Niagara Falls. The canal was finished in 1825. Many New York farmers living along the canal used it to move west to plots of Michigan farmland and points further west.

In addition to their belongings, the settlers also brought with them the place names they knew, just as the Dutch did before them. They named their new towns Rochester, Utica, Holl(e)y, Brighton, Troy, Gaines, Clarks(t)on; and their counties Genesee, Wayne, Livingston—all names of towns and counties on or near the Erie Canal and in eastern Michigan. As I’m sure you’ve guessed by now, they named a spot in the gentle dip of Genesee “valley” after the town of Flushing in New York.

So, that’s how a wounded Civil War veteran named Thomas Wilson, and his wife, Emily, ended up living near Flushing in 1870. They had packed up their things in Manchester, NY, got on a boat in the canal with their five children and moved to eastern Michigan to a large farm on the very outskirts of Flushing. Thomas Wilson, my 3rd great grandfather who passed away 95 years before I was born, was buried in Flushing City Cemetery. Those are some deep local roots. I’m planning on posting about Thomas soon. Of course I am. This is a blog about my origins and Thomas is 1/1,024 of my story.

Like Batman, Superman, the Joker, and the Hulk, we all have our origin stories. And each of our stories take place in Gothams and Kryptons – places that define who we are. They can be both our strength and our weakness, our pride and our shame. But there’s no denying that they are the source of our identity. In that way, we’re all superheroes . . . well, the heroes, at least, of our own stories.

Maybe I should start walking around wearing a cape and a tree emblem on my chest. Or not.

This postcard seems misleading. I don't remember hills that tall in my hometown. Maybe they're treetops?
This postcard seems misleading. I don’t remember hills that tall in my hometown. Well, maybe near Bueche’s, I guess. (Update: a fellow Flushingite suggested it’s the view along the river pre-Valley Golf Course. I think she’s right.)


For all you heroes out there: what were some of the best parts of growing up in your hometown?

Delano, Herbert Walker, and Hussein; or, The Stories Middle Names Tell

Don't be fooled by her humble expression. This woman is a troublemaker.
Don’t be fooled by her humble expression. This woman is a troublemaker.

Meet my 2nd great grandmother, Olivia. Or at least I think this is her. And I think that’s the name she went by. The truth is I’m not completely sure who she is or what she called herself. I do know that, despite her innocent look at the camera, she was a troublemaker. Confused? Let me explain.

One of my generous on-line relatives sent me this sweet picture of Olivia with a written note saying “This is a postcard picture addressed to Mr.  & Mrs.  N.  D.  James.  Someone wrote ‘Grandma’ on it. The question is who?” Mr. & Mrs. N. D. James are my great grandparents, which means at the very least I know that this woman is a relative. And despite the title of this entry, I know she was never President of the United States.

Back in the days of bonnets and awkward hand poses
Back in the days of bonnets and awkward hand poses

Later, I was given the picture above with a note on the back that said it was Hazel’s grandmother on the James side. Even with the hat obscuring her face, I’m certain the two pictures are of the same woman. Hazel is a daughter of Mr. and Mrs. N. D. James, so, if the writer of the note is correct, then this is definitely Grandma Olivia.

Scioto County, Ohio, marriage records
Scioto County, Ohio, marriage records: “I certify that I have joined in marriage Isaiah James and Olivina James May 7th 1848.”

Grandma Olivia was sneaky about her name. As you can see from the marriage certificate above, she is listed as Olivina. This record states Olivina married a man named Isaiah.  But I know that isn’t true, since I have further documentation that an Olivina and Josiah James married on this very date in this very county. I have chalked this version of Olivia’s name up to carelessness of the recorder.

The 1899 Council Bluffs, Iowa, phone directory
The 1899 Council Bluffs, Iowa, phone directory: what do you think a City Scavenger does for a living?
The 1917 CB Phone directory
The 1917 Council Bluffs Phone directory

Researching her further revealed 6 more versions of her name: Olivielle, Lavina, Levinia, Olive, Olivinia, and, most ridiculously, Oliver. In the 1925 Iowa census records which list mother’s and father’s names of each person, I found even Olivia’s children weren’t sure what to call her. They either told the census taker that their mother’s name was Olivia or Levina.

These phone directories to the left show Olivia’s whimsy. The fact that she could list her name in the city directory and still be recognized leads me to believe that Olivia Levina were her first and middle names and that she was known by both of them.  Or perhaps she didn’t speak very clearly. I know from numerous census records that she couldn’t read or write; maybe not having to spell it herself made her more comfortable with having an ambiguous identity. Or maybe she was just sneaky.

You can imagine finding her records after her husband passed was difficult. I never knew how her name would be spelled or which name she would give. I would never have been sure I had the right woman if I hadn’t found the phone directories linking those two names to the same person.

I’ve since learned that in Olivia’s time, going by one’s middle name was very common. At a time when parents often chose the names of their relatives for their children, middle names were used to distinguish people in the household. (No made-up names like Hashtag or Krimson Tyde for them!) I’ve talked about Eliza Ruffe. Eliza happens to be named after her mother. I found her listed as Jane or Janey on several censuses throughout her life. I’m sure this was to help the family distinguish her from her mother Eliza and her sister, Elizabeth.

Sometimes the middle name stuck around after adulthood, and sometimes the middle name was adopted after the person had grown up. I have a great aunt who was listed as Mary C. Romine for twenty years of documentation. Then, she just dropped off the records after she moved out of her parent’s house. I couldn’t find anything on her, but I noticed this woman named Delia Kindred was about the same age as her and lived down the street from Mary’s parents. I discovered a Delia Romine married a John Kindred in that small Missouri town. Later, I found Mary’s birth certificate. The “C.” stood for Cordelia.

As is the case with mine, middle names also came from the maiden names of the women in the family. They can be important keys to unlock the harder-to-find maiden names.

Knowing a relative’s middle name is important. I’ve used them to narrow down searches for ancestors with common names (as in the difference between John Smith and John Mortimer Basterton Smith). I’ve used them as hints at the family names further back in my family tree (I would bet that Basterton is a family name). I’ve even used them to pick back up on a relative’s paper trail after they seemed to have fallen off the face of the planet (I’d totally search for Morty Smith, if this were my relative).

But it’s also important to not assume a middle name or initial used once in a record is correct. Take a look at my great-grandfather Noah James in the phone directory pictures above and you’ll see why.

Some items I came across while researching that may come in handy in the future:
I needed to know what a city scavenger was. Look up Scaleraker.
More awkward poses captured in photography. (CAUTION: Don’t click if you don’t want to see pictures of dead people.)
Turns out former Presidents middle names explained a lot about where their people came from. Look at the family trees here, here, and here.

Chasing Rabbits

Genealogists work in an economy of questions and answers. It seems like for every answer I find, 5 more questions pop up to take its place. The obituary of Mary Benn that I posted in my previous entry is a good example. Before I sit down to research, I try to focus on finding the answer to just one question I have about a family member or a document. This technique has worked well for me because I’m distractible. The question I was trying to answer when I found Mary’s tribute was, How did my relative, Eliza Kelley, meet and marry Hank Ruffe?

A little back history is required here, I think. According to census records taken in Council Bluffs, IA, our Miss Eliza lived in the same house with her parents until she was about 50. I lose her after the 1905 Iowa special census and pick her up again on her wedding day in Portland, Oregon, in 1912. For a while after I found it, I wasn’t sure their marriage record was the right Miss Eliza. I mean there she is taking care of her elderly parents and then suddenly she pops up as a wife in Oregon? It seemed unlikely. But, her brother’s obituary confirmed that she was indeed Mrs. Henry Ruffe of Oregon. Finding her brother’s obituary supplied an answer, but it also generated more questions for me. The following is what I call a list of rabbits:
1. Where was Eliza in the 1910 census? (US Censuses are taken every ten years starting consistently in 1790.)
2. Did she disappear from the census because she was traveling to Oregon?
3. What made 2 people well into their golden years (we’re talking 1912 remember) decide to retire their single lives?
4. How exactly does someone move from Iowa to Oregon in 1910?
5. How did she meet this man from Oregon after seemingly leading a sheltered life?

Let’s just chase #5 down the rabbit hole.

Obviously Mary Benn’s obituary alone doesn’t answer my question. It’s definitely interesting, though. She ran a cigar factory, she grew alfalfa, she hunted bears, she collected rocks for posterity. So, when the obituary mentions her father’s eccentricities, I had to look him up. How could Mary’s father possibly top his daughter’s ‘colorful’ life?

Turns out Mary Benn’s father founded Aberdeen, Washington. He sailed through the Panama Canal, and up to Olympia, WA. He then set off south, found a spot where 2 rivers meet, and decided it was going to be a town.  And since Samuel Benn was a founding father, his life and family are very well documented.

Samuel Benn, builder of cities
Samuel Benn, builder of cities

I have never owned land or a house in my lifetime. The idea of traveling somewhere, sticking a flag in the ground, and declaring it to be Oregon’s next BIG THING is just amazing to me. If I were to go to some remote part of the country and declare it  for myself, I would immediately be deemed as eccentric. Thankfully, when Mr. Benn was doing it, it was a highly respectable prospect.

This article mentions that Mary Benn’s mother was born and raised in Polk County, Iowa. That’s a couple counties over from where our Miss Eliza was raised. As Mary Benn’s right hand (so the obituary paints him), it would follow that Hank may have been introduced to Eliza as a freshly-arrived acquaintance of Mary Benn’s Iowan family. So, BAM! Question answered.

Well, a little bit. I’ve had to come to terms with the fact that I’m never going to be able to wrap up my family tree in a neat little package. It’s messy work that never ends; it’s a kid eternally stuck in the “Why” phase.

The death of a brother; a cigar rolling ranch hand; a Native American artifact collection; the father of Aberdeen, WA. Answers to the questions we ask our family trees can take us on a journey to unexpected places. I never know where I’m going to end up.

All of this is to say that the questions and the messiness are worth it for the journey. In fact, they’re probably more valuable than the hard copy of my family tree. To put it a different way: the paper work is the body, the journey is the soul.

It’s important to mention also that Mary’s obituary may have solved another mystery. Its explanation of Michigan lumbermen in Oregon might explain some relative’s migrations on my mom’s side of the family, but the details of that clue aren’t important here.

This story continues. I’m awaiting the arrival of Eliza Kelley Ruffe’s obituary from the University of Oregon library. We’ll see where that rabbit leads us together. I can’t wait!


The subject of this post is also related to the song “Come As You Are.” Google Aberdeen, Washington, and look around a little; you’ll see how pretty quickly.



If you were to be the founder of a town, like Samuel Benn, where would it be in the world? Why there? How would you run it?

Mapping People

Growing up, my Pop rarely told stories about his childhood, but when he did I was riveted. I think his stories caught my attention because his childhood was so different from mine. You see, he was taken from his parents and raised by various foster families. He and his siblings grew up in three separate houses around town.

I couldn’t conceive of a childhood like my Pop’s: without siblings and parents. I marvel at the strength and independence necessary for him to reach adulthood. Because of his childhood, he never knew the basic facts of his family most people take for granted: the names of his grandparents, where they came from, and what kind of people they were. About ten years ago, I started asking him about his tumultuous (my word, not his) past. It wasn’t until his illness a while back (He’s fine.) that he told me the first clue I needed to find his relatives: his mother’s name.

So I set myself the task of finding out about her and her family. Suddenly, towns I’d never thought twice about before became important places: Council Bluffs, Iowa; Hensall, Ontario; Portsmouth, Ohio. These were the communities my family was a part of for generations. These towns were springboards for where my family is today.

“When a man’s stories are remembered, then he is immortal.” ~ Daniel Wallace, Big Fish

In my research, I’ve discovered mysterious and intriguing characters on both sides of my family. So, recently, I found myself telling a friend about a spinster great-grandaunt who left her small Iowa town in the 1910s to marry a cigar manufacturer in Oregon. A half hour later, my mouth was dry from talking and my friend was volunteering to help me research.

That made me think it was time to get these stories ‘on paper.’ This blog will be my funnel for the people I encounter in my research and a recommitment to my love of writing. Hopefully, this internet thing isn’t just a craze and my words will be available to future family members who share my curiosity. I will also include some of the history involved, as well. For instance, I found myself researching exactly what a 1910 cigar manufacturer did for a living. But, more on that later.

This is how I see this blog working:

Does anyone else think it's weird that her ranch manager is mentioned more than her father, and her husband wasn't mentioned at all?
Does anyone else think it’s weird that her ranch manager is mentioned more than her father, and her husband wasn’t mentioned at all?

Nothing will be posted about living relatives, except an occasional reference to my parents. Some of the posts will be my thoughts on actual documentation: census records, random certificates, photographs, and articles. Other posts will be fictional stories with names changed, if necessary. The stories will be edited for dramatic effect, but they will all fall somewhere on the ‘truthy-ness’ spectrum between the plain facts of a Civil War pension document and the outlandish tales of the book/movie Big Fish by Daniel Wallace. They will be cobbled together as my imagination interprets the information I have at the time. As I gather more information, the stories may change, but that’s the beauty of history.

My ancestors were mostly Midwestern farmers— not the most exciting bunch on paper, but their stories and relations often surprise me. If I find such interesting people in my humble family, I’m sure everyone else’s families are just as interesting. So I hope my stories and research will inspire others to look into their own pasts and share the stories they find.

Among other things, I’m working on telling what I know of the man who lost his government job because of Roosevelt’s New Deal and the significant ripple effects of that case of unemployment across my family tree. And the story of my sweet grandfather’s dahlias. And, of course, that great- grandaunt who found her cigar-smoking love, Hank Ruffe. The article at right is a hint at what’s to come. It is the obituary of Hank’s employer and sister-in-law, who seems to merit her own post based on her big-game hunting skills alone.

And with that, I’m off to write, Lord help me.