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 (http://cemetery.canadagenweb.org)

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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 Census.gov 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.