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.

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.