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A Family of Black Sheep

So many genealogists look for outstanding ancestors. They point with pride to kings, presidents, Mayflower descendants, and other famous people in their family trees.

Me, not so much. Other than a very distant relationship to Henry David Thorough (via our common Dunbar line), I have found no illustrious ancestors. In fact, mine seem quite the opposite. I have a tree full of black sheep forebears:

  1. Seymour Riddle (1858-1934). My great-grandmother Laura’s brother Seymour served time in Michigan’s Jackson prison for larceny.
  2. Franklin Glover (1858-1936), Edward Glover (1861-1936), and Henry Glover (1865-1905). My great-grandmother Petronellia’s cousin Franklin spent time in the Illinois penitentiary for assault and robbery. Edward paid fines for selling tobacco to minors. Their brother Henry was arrested for assault several times, and he also received two jail sentences for counterfeiting. Henry came to a tragic end when he was shot to death in his home by an unknown assailant. Henry lingered awhile and attempted to pin the crime on two different foes, but both had alibis.
  3. My dad’s cousin Henry displayed a bad streak from an early age. When my toddler-aged dad and uncle visited Henry’s family farm one summer, Henry enticed them into a haystack and then set it on fire. This Henry later served time in the Nebraska penitentiary for a different crime.
  4. Dean Reed (1938-1986). My third cousin became a socialist during the Cold War and defected to East Germany. A singer and actor, he achieved tremendous fame behind the Iron Curtain. The press called him The Red Elvis. His gravestone reads “American Rebel” after the title of a documentary film made about him shortly before he died. He drowned under mysterious circumstances in Berlin.

These colorful characters are just the black sheep ancestors I know about. How many more do I have? As I continue to research my family tree, I keep a sharp lookout for people who stray from the accepted path. After all, these behaviors seem to run in the family.

Cast a Wide Net and Reap the Rewards

Professional genealogists often exhort us to publish our research. Doing so preserves it for posterity in case no one in the immediate family wants it. Making it widely available can also work as “cousin bait” for distant relatives whose families have saved information we may not have.

Over the years, I have tried to do this using various ways including online trees and a blog. This summer I have connected with previously-unknown cousins in three ways.

My Heritage

Although I am not an active user of the My Heritage site, my husband/tech advisor is. He posted my family tree there for me. Another genealogist spotted it and recognized the name of my second great-grandfather, John Davis Riddle. Several members of her husband’s McClish family married Riddles. She has given me a clue for a location to search for the birthplace and family for John Davis Riddle.

FamilyTree DNA

One of my brick wall ancestors is my purported 2nd great-grandmother, Katherine Stillenbaugh. I have long suspected that she was a member of an extended German family, the Stilgenbauer/Stillabower clan, who lived south of Indianapolis. This summer I took time to search the online trees of my close matches at Family Tree DNA. I discovered that I match a proven descendant of this family. Next I hope to figure out where my ancestor fits into this group.

My Blog—Genealogy Jottings

Last week a Dunbar descendant left a message on my blog. Since then, we have corresponded and exchanged information. We learned that we both descend from Benjamin E. Dunbar (1776-1831) and Rhoda Hall (1784-1850). I hope we can continue to collaborate in our research on the Dunbar line.

These strategies of posting online trees on DNA test sites and writing a blog about my ongoing research all preserve my work. They also have proven a means of finding new information about my family. Although they all take time away from the joy I receive in doing research, they all pay me back with new discoveries.

The Next Generation Learns About Genealogy

The Sons of Norway organization encourages its members to become proficient in various Norwegian cultural skills. We can earn beautiful, enameled pins as we progress through various levels of knowledge and understanding on any given aspect of Norwegian life. This week I began working on Level 2 of Norwegian genealogy.

To complete this level, I must add several names to my family tree. I also need to relate a story about one of these people. For the final requirement, the instructional packet offers various activity suggestions I can do to apply what I have learned.

For my activity at this level, I have chosen to help a grandchild begin a genealogy research project. I selected my granddaughter, who will enter 5th grade in the fall, as the researcher.

Earlier this week we got together to introduce her to genealogy. I showed her around my office and explained how I keep my records. We looked at the paper ones and those online. My data includes information on both her parents’ ancestry, so she could look at a complete tree for several generations.

Next, I showed her my current research project, my Riddle line. We looked at the photos of these ancestors and at some of the documents I have collected. I described what I need to find next about this family and told her about the road trip to their homes in Nebraska that I will take later this year.

She finished her lesson by copying her tree onto a decorative paper chart that she can keep. We began it with her own name and filled it in back to her second great-grandparents. She giggled at some of the unusual ethnic names of her ancestors, names like Flottemesch.

Next time I see her, I will have her identify a genealogy research question that she can pursue. Perhaps she can fill in a family group sheet for her own family. I have some, but not all the documentation she would need. After we begin it in my office, she can consult her mother, my daughter-in-law, to complete it.

From this activity, I have learned that this young lady does not appear to have the interest in genealogy that I had at her age. She likely will not carry on my work. Yet after this summer, she will have a greater understanding of her heritage. She will know what I have collected and where to find it.

Best of all, we will have spent time doing something fun together, inspired by the Sons of Norway.

A Local Genealogical Society Faces Big Changes

Since the early 1990’s I have belonged to the Colorado Genealogical Society (CGS). I have seen them through many changes in format and meeting place over the years, and now some changes are afoot again. Genealogical societies must continue to evolve in order to survive.

When I first joined, the group met on Friday evenings at a Methodist church building in south Denver. It was not too far for me to drive, and an evening meeting suited my schedule. Thus I joined this club instead of one closer to home. I soon became involved in the society by serving as Recording Secretary and Vice-President. I learned a great deal about genealogy through the fine speakers the club hosted each month.

Shortly before I joined, the club had formed a sub-group of people who were interested in doing genealogy in a new way, on computers. They called themselves the Computer Interest Group, or CIG. This group met on a different night and offered speakers and classes on genealogy-related technology topics. They also held workshops on various software products. One year, I won a free membership to CIG and began attending those meetings, too.

CGS and CIG have run in parallel since then. Both had monthly meetings and elected full slates of officers. Both ran yearly seminars and put out newsletters. As their meeting place needs changed, together they left the Methodist church for the Glendale Community Center, then a Lutheran church, then the Denver Public Library. The last move required a change in meeting time from Friday evenings to Saturday mornings for CGS followed by Saturday afternoons for CIG. Through it all, the world around us was changing, too.

As computerized genealogy became the norm, there has been ongoing talk of merging the groups. The missions of the two no longer seemed so different. A few years ago, they took a first step by joining forces to run one joint seminar a year instead of holding separate events.

This week I received a message from CGS proposing additional changes. A meeting of the membership to discuss the issue will take place this coming Saturday night.

They have several ideas and are looking for more. Should they combine newsletters and websites? As volunteers get more difficult to recruit, should CIG eliminate its officers in favor of a Leadership Chairman? Should CIG eliminate its dues?

I may submit some written comments, but I will not attend the special meeting. When the clubs moved to Saturday meetings at Denver Public Library, I stopped going. I have other commitments on Saturdays, and I do not relish paying to park downtown for a routine genealogy meeting.

Although I remain a CGS member, I dropped my CIG membership and joined my local Highlands Ranch Genealogical Society instead. CIG has been a great club that filled a need as the electronic age began, but it seems to be struggling now. The members must decide its fate. Perhaps it is time to merge into its mother organization, the Colorado Genealogical Society.


A Trip Ahead

As summer rolls around, I try to hit the road to do some on-site genealogical research. As for all of us, finances can dictate where I will go.

After a long trip to Germany last year, I need to stick closer to home this year. How about—Nebraska!

I know. Even my choir buddy, who hails from the Cornhusker State, wonders why on earth I would even consider it. She is even more incredulous when I tell her I plan to visit sparsely-populated southwestern Nebraska.

I do have my reasons. The first is that my great-grandmother, Laura Riddle (1853-1933), homesteaded there not once, not twice, but three times. I want to see those places.

Laura arrived with sons in tow in McCook, Nebraska in 1885. Her sister Theodocia’s family already lived there. Laura made a cash entry on land northeast of town in Red Willow County.

By 1892, her sister had moved on to the Hyannis, NE area. Laura did not accompany her but instead moved west to a new 160-acre homestead in Hayes County near Palisade. She lived there for more than ten years, and my grandmother was born there.

By 1904, when Laura was over 50 years old, larger homesteads became available even further west. At the urging of a friend, she moved on to Dundy County and applied for a 320-acre homestead near Haigler. She stayed there until she retired from farming in 1926.

I have copies of the homestead application files for all three of Laura’s properties. When I visit the land, I will find out what they look like today.

My second reason for visiting Nebraska is to visit the courthouses and libraries. They have records I cannot get online.

Although I have Laura’s life fairly well-documented, one big mystery remains. Who was my great-grandfather? My grandmother claimed not to know his name. Perhaps some county record can reveal his identity. I will not have done an exhaustive search for this information until I look at all the county records.

As I begin planning for my trip, I am creating a list of all the repositories I want to visit. I will consult the Family Search wiki for research suggestions for each county. I also have a research guide for southwestern Nebraska that was published by the Nebraska State Historical Society. Once I review these, I will prepare a trip schedule and make some travel reservations.

McCook, here I come!

Most People Owned Land

American research for the time period before 1850 presents challenges to genealogists. As we work backwards in our family trees, beginning with ourselves, we come to rely on the abundant information provided in the U.S. census records. From 1850 on, we can use these records to gather wonderful information about our family members because census takers recorded the names of everyone in a household. Depending on the year, they also included additional facts like age/place of birth, occupation, or immigration status. All that ends when we reach the watershed year 1850.

As we continue to work backwards, we next hit the 1840 census. For that year, and every decade prior to that, it tells us only the names of the heads of household. Everyone else is represented by a simple tick mark in a sex and age range. Information on these unnamed people is buried here. What can we do to learn more about these folks?

A prominent genealogist once told me to remember that most people owned some land in early America. She advised me to use land records to glean information about these hidden ancestors. They likely bought and sold land at some point in their lives. Even if the women did not do so themselves, they would have had to release their dower rights when their husbands sold land.

Land records can also fill in the gaps between the census records that were compiled only once a decade. They can give us a hint as to when a family arrived in an area or left another one. They sometimes specify family relationships.

In my own family, Daniel Sherman (abt. 1800 – aft. 1863) offers an example. As an itinerant blacksmith, he moved around a lot, but even he occasionally owned plots of land. My last record of him is an 1863 Madison County, Kentucky land sale.

An ancestor I have had trouble tracking is my third great-grandfather’s eldest son, Daniel H. Dunbar. Daniel’s parents recorded their children’s births in Barnstable County, Massachusetts in the early 1800’s. Daniel was born in 1809, but I had not found any subsequent record that mentioned him. When he was young, his existence was hidden in the tick marks of the early census records.

After 1830, the Dunbar family left Massachusetts and moved to then-Portage County, Ohio. Daniel H. Dunbar would have reached manhood by then, and I do not know whether he accompanied his family. This week as I searched the Portage County grantor index of deeds from 1795-1840, I came across some land conveyances for the Dunbar family. To my delight, Daniel H. Dunbar’s name appears a couple of times.

The father, Benjamin E. Dunbar (1774-1831) had died soon after the move. His widow Rhoda nee’ Hall (abt. 1784-1850) conveyed city lots in Stow, Ohio to her sons, including Daniel H., in 1833. Daniel, in turn, sold his share of this land in 1836. I know now that he lived at least that long. If I get copies of his deeds, perhaps they will tell me where he resided.

What happened to Daniel after 1836? I still do not know, but these property transactions provide a couple of facts about him to add to my family history. He, like so many other early Americans, owned land.

A Hunt for Michigan Death Records

How do you document the death of an ancestor? We usually search for five different records:

  1. Death certificate
  2. Obituary
  3. Cemetery Record
  4. Funeral Home Record
  5. Funeral Card

In an effort to be thorough with this, I have sought to find these five records for the couple I am researching this year, John Davis Riddle and his wife Olive Hall Dunbar. I have not had complete success with this.

Both John and Olive died in Mendon, Michigan. He passed away in 1896 and she in 1902. So far, I have collected these records:

John Davis Riddle

  1. Although Michigan began keeping state death records in 1867, compliance was low until 1897. The state does not have a record of John Davis Riddle’s death. St. Joseph County, however, kept their own records, and his death is listed on the county register. The record provides age; date, place, and cause of death; state of birth; occupation; and parents’ names. John Davis Riddle’s parents were Unknown.
  2. I have not located an obituary for John Davis Riddle. Years ago, the Mendon library told me that back issues of the local newspaper had burned. Surrounding community newspapers reported his death because he died at his own hand, but these accounts did not include biographical or funeral information.
  3. The Mendon library told me the Mendon Cemetery records also had burned. I do have a photograph of his cemetery marker.
  4. Without a death certificate or an obituary, I do not know the name of the funeral home that conducted his funeral.
  5. Because he died by suicide, I do not know what type of funeral or memorial service he had. Relatives back in Michigan do not have a funeral card.

Olive Hall Dunbar Riddle

  1. I have Olive Riddle’s death certificate from the State of Michigan.
  2. Again, I have no obituary because back issues of the local newspaper were destroyed in a fire.
  3. Cemetery records were also destroyed in a fire. As with John, I have a photograph of her cemetery marker.
  4. The death certificate provides the name of the funeral home, [?] & Shoemaker. I am attempting to locate their successor in interest and their records.
  5. I have not located anyone who has saved a funeral card for Olive.

It appears I have done all I can to document these deaths unless I can track down the funeral home that made their final arrangements. I was disappointed that neither death record listed the names of parents. Luckily, family papers provided me with the names of Olive’s mother and father, Rhoda Hall and Benjamin E. Dunbar. No one has any information on John’s family, and this makes him one of our brick wall ancestors.

Living in the Great American Desert

One hundred forty years ago, the one-armed explorer and geologist John Wesley Powell drew a long line in the dirt. This survey line, along the 100th meridian, runs north-south through the Dakotas, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas. It marked the then-separation point between the arid west and the more humid east.

Powell, who lost his arm during the Civil War battle of Shiloh, explored much of the American West. He observed the climate and was wary of allowing settlement in the dry area west of the demarcation line he had identified. The United States government ignored his recommendations. They encouraged the settlement of the West, and today I, and many others, live on the Great Plains.

Here, nothing much will grow without supplemental water because we receive little rain and snow. Our fields must be irrigated with large sprinkler systems. Our lawns, too, have automated watering. We constantly worry about and squabble over water supplies.

A constant influx of people every year means that the same amount of water must be shared by more and more people. They come here to enjoy our abundant sunshine and to escape what one local politician describes as the lawless cities on the west coast.

My water portion inevitably must be reduced. Just yesterday a few of my neighbors and I walked about my neighborhood with a landscaper who specializes in low-water-use designs. We must do something to rid ourselves of acres of thirsty Kentucky blue grass before our local water department cuts off our supply of water for outdoor use.

Yet even with this bleak outlook, I will stay on because I have deep roots here. My people first came to this land in the 1880’s shortly after Powell published his findings. Both my dad’s grandmothers took advantage of the Homestead Act to attempt farming in the west. When faced with scant water supplies and harsh weather, neither had much success:

  1. Laura Riddle (1853-1933) arrived in McCook, Nebraska in 1885 with three sons in tow. They took a 160-acre homestead near her sister’s family in Red Willow County. Later, Laura moved west to another homestead in Hayes County. When 320-acre tracts became available early in the 20th century, she moved west yet again to Dundy County. Life for her was hard, very hard, and she even had to hand over her only daughter to a sister to raise.
  2. Anna Petronellia Sherman Reed (1865-1961) homesteaded alone in Wyoming after World War I. She settled northwest of Cheyenne where she detested the wind and treeless landscape. Life for her, too, was difficult on the homestead. One year, her only crop was a bucket of potatoes. She sold her place as soon as she was able to prove it up and moved back to Missouri.

These women came west because they could not make a living elsewhere. Their families stayed on and remain here today. Despite our challenges with water, we hope our leaders can find solutions to the water supply problem. It helps if we each do our part to conserve.

Powell was right that the Great American Desert presents an inhospitable land. Not many have had success with farming here. Ranching and mining presented greater opportunities. Today, climatologists are observing that the dividing line Powell identified may be shifting eastward from the 100th meridian due to climate change. Additional settled areas will face the need to adapt to a dry climate as we have. Powell’s observations about the West were correct.

A Significant Memorial Day

Memorial Day weekend lies ahead, and I have everything ready at last. Although Congress set aside this day to honor our war dead, many of us now decorate the graves of all our loved ones on Memorial Day. This year I will lay flowers marking the day on my father’s grave for the first time.

My father did not fall in battle, but he did serve his country. Last autumn he passed away at the age of ninety.

When he was buried on a chilly day in November, the cold weather prevented the immediate engraving of his cemetery marker. The silent tombstone stood over him all winter. Recently, I learned that the stonecutter finally completed the task earlier this spring when the weather warmed up. He also affixed to the stone a bronze medallion commemorating Dad’s Navy service.

At my father’s graveside, I had received his veteran’s flag from the hands of the sailors who folded it. Over the winter, the flag, too, waited as I considered the best way to preserve it.

Just yesterday, the cherry flag case I finally ordered arrived at my door. I carefully inserted the flag. To the front I applied an enameled Navy insignia and an engraved plaque. It reads:

    Earl E. Reed

    Proud Veteran of WWII

    8/18/1927 – 10/25/2017

Just in time for Memorial Day, I can display the encased flag on a shelf in my home. This weekend I will visit my father and view his completed cemetery marker. As a good genealogist, I will take a photograph to post on his Find A Grave memorial.

All is ready for this solemn holiday of remembrance.

A Promising DNA Match

You always hope that DNA testing will help you make a breakthrough on one of your blocked ancestral lines. After all, that is one of the reasons for taking the test. This week, I got lucky.

My dad and I took the tests with a couple of companies a few years ago because we have some unidentified ancestors in recent generations. Traditional research has gotten me nowhere in identifying these ancestors:

  1. The parents of my great-great grandfather John Davis Riddle (1821-1896)
  2. The mother of my great-grandmother Anna Petronellia Sherman (1865-1961), reported in family papers to be a German immigrant to Indiana named Katherine Stillenbaugh/Stanabaugh.
  3. The father of my grandmother Grace Riddle (1896-1976).

Over many months I have periodically reviewed our DNA matches searching for a clue on one of these lines. Most of our matches were quite distant, 4th cousins or so. For those whose names I recognized, the Most Recent Common Ancestor was someone I already had in my family tree, and the matching information did not provide any help other than to confirm that we are genetically related. For those matches whose names I did not recognize, identifying common ancestors proved very difficult, and often I have not yet been able to discern the relationship.

Then there were the close matches—2nd cousins to my dad. Both were adoptees searching for their birth parents. One lives in Montana and the other in Nebraska. We had forebears in both states, but I am sorry to say I was unable to determine how we are related to these two people. I could offer them no help.

Despite the lack of real progress from DNA testing, I keep trying to learn more about the process. Yesterday, I listened in on a Legacy webinar by Blaine Bettinger, author of The Family Tree Guide to DNA Testing and Genetic Genealogy. He reminded listeners that the testing companies have the option to post family trees. He advised looking over those posted by your close matches. I had some time and decided to do that again.

Some of my matches had no trees posted. Others were not available for public viewing.

Then I came to one for a man identified as a 2nd-4th cousin to my dad. His tree lists a great-grandmother named Lula Stilabower.

I have long suspected that my ancestor Katherine Stillenbaugh/Stanabaugh was actually a Stillabower/Stilgenbauer. This large German immigrant family (including Lula) lived in the same area south of Indianapolis where my great-grandmother Anna was born to the mysterious Katherine. Now I have a DNA match to someone from that family.

Of course this is not conclusive proof that my DNA match and I are related through this line. To do that, I need to find another person who descends from the Stillabower/Stilgenbauer line and who matches both of us. Even with DNA proof, I still will not know how my Katherine fits into the Stilgenbauer family.

But this clue is a pretty good start. As more and more people test their DNA I might just get that third person who will enable me to triangulate this result. I would love to verify my descent from the Stilgenbauers and learn more about that teensy bit of German heritage (1/16) that I have.