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.