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What Was Their Status?

Many ancestors followed a typical life pattern of marrying and having a family. During harsher times, often one spouse died and the other then remarried. I can document most of my family lines along this predictable path.

An exception occurs with my great-grandmother, Laura Riddle, and her elder sister Tamson. Tracking them, particularly through the 1870’s and 80’s, has raised some unresolved questions about the status of their relationships.

 

Laura Riddle (1853-1933)

Laura had three sons with George Edmonds. Did she ever marry him? No record of a union has been found.

We have circumstantial evidence for a marriage. The 1877 birth record for the second son, Lewis, records his birth as legitimate. For all three sons, the mother’s name is recorded as Laura Edmonds. Laura was listed as the wife in the George Edmonds household on the 1880 U.S. census.

By 1884, however, George had gone on to marry a 16-year-old girl who lived across the state line, and Laura had resumed using her Riddle surname. Always after that, she described herself as single, not divorced.

Many women in these circumstances would have kept the same surname as the children. To save face, they often said they were widows. Not Laura. Why? Were George and Laura married or not?

Many years later, Laura lived in Nebraska and had a daughter with an unidentified man. We do not know her relationship to him, either. Was he a long-time acquaintance or a cowboy passing through the area? No records pertaining to this relationship have been found.

 

Tamson Riddle (1845-1922)

Tamson had an out-of-wedlock son named Aden in 1867. Her parents raised the boy as their own. Aden and Tamson appear in her parents’ household on the 1870 census, both with the Riddle surname. The identity of Aden’s father remains a mystery.

Tamson next appears to have had a relationship with a man named either Frank or John Blakesley or Blacksley. She had at least two children with him, Frank and Cora, during the 1870’s. Young Frank’s records give his father’s name as Frank Blakesley. Cora’s records say his name was John Blacksley.

No marriage record for Tamson and Blacksley has been found. He has not been located on any census or death record. Who was he, and what became of him?

Tamson finally married a man named John Williams in 1878, at the age of 32, and they had three children. The family did not enjoy a stable home for long. John Williams passed away in 1885.

By 1900, Tamson lived as a boarder in the home of Oliver Wilcox. She still lived there when the 1910 census was taken. Later that year, she married Wilcox. By 1920, they were living separately.

Tamson appears to have had relationships with 3 or 4 men or more. She married at least two of them, but what was her relationship to the others?

 

These sisters, Laura and Tamson, were the exceptions to the usual relationship patterns of the day. Five of their six siblings all followed the usual course with easy-to-find marriage records. The sixth sibling, Seymour, never married and had no family.

What led Laura and Tamson to stray from the common path? Their parents set a good example and had a long marriage. Their siblings did likewise.

Everyone who would have remembered these people and had knowledge of their circumstances is now gone. No one in my own household ever mentioned these matters. The secrets and explanations lie buried with Laura and Tamson.

Laura Riddle’s New Mystery

Our recent research trip to Nebraska revealed an unexpected mystery to solve. Although I thought I had a pretty good timeline for my great-grandmother Laura Riddle’s life, a review of the documents we retrieved exposed an unexplained gap.

I had assumed that Laura farmed on her land near McCook from the time she paid for a cash entry in 1885 until she filed on a homestead in Hayes County in 1892. I was very surprised to learn that she sold the land near McCook to her brother-in-law John Evert the same year she bought it. He, in turn, resold it in 1887.

If she had no farm, where was Laura living during the years from 1885-1892? Did she remain in the McCook area? Her oldest son, Francis, lived with a nearby farmer in 1886 and 1887 while he went to school, but where were Laura and the other two boys? And what happened to them after 1887 when John Evert resold her farm and Francis no longer appears in the school records?

Perhaps she stayed with her sister and brother-in-law, at least until the Everts sold out and moved north to Hyannis, Nebraska in Grant County during the late 1880’s. Did she go with them?

If only we could consult the 1890 U.S. census. Alas, it is long gone. For Grant County, Nebraska, we have a couple of substitutes, but Laura’s does not appear on them. She is not listed on the county directory for 1890 although both her brother Seymour Riddle and her brother-in-law John Evert are on the list. The other existing record for 1890, that of Civil War veterans, does not include women.

I believe I need to take another research trip, this time to examine the records in the Hyannis area. Perhaps newspaper or land records there hold some clues for Laura’s whereabouts before she claimed a homestead.

 

No Biological Dad Found

My paternal grandmother, Grace Riddle (1896-1976) has an unidentified father. This man continues to refuse to make himself known despite my best efforts.

Grandma herself claimed ignorance of the man’s identity. Her contemporaries in the family told me they had no ideas as to who he might have been. Apparently, her mom, Laura Riddle (1853-1933), took this information to her grave.

Last week my husband/tech advisor and I made a trip to southwest Nebraska to investigate this mystery. I really did not expect to uncover any new information. Yet the Genealogical Proof Standard requires us to make exhaustive searches. Until I looked at local records, I could not claim to have been thorough.

From 1885 to 1933, Laura Riddle lived in four Nebraska counties along the Colorado and Kansas borders. My grandmother was born at Palisade (Hitchcock County) during the time her mother resided on a homestead just north of town in Hayes County. I do not know whether Grandma was born on the homestead or in town.

Before we left for our trip, I made a checklist of all the types of records and repositories available in the counties where Laura lived after she migrated from Michigan in 1885. Then we visited courthouses, libraries, a genealogical society, and an historical museum to look for sources. My husband/techadvisor worked out a timeline for us because many of the repositories in these rural areas keep limited hours.

We searched several types of records during our stay:

  • County and town histories,
  • Guardianships,
  • Land records,
  • Historic newspapers,
  • Paternity cases, and
  • School census records.

Neither of us found any mention of a father for Grace Riddle. Now, as the genealogist at the Southwest Nebraska Historical Society in McCook (Red Willow County) counseled, my best bet for identifying my great-grandfather will be a DNA match.

We did not come home empty-handed, though. Other information about Laura Riddle’s life turned up:

  • Her eldest son, Francis Edmonds (1876-1944), attended school near McCook in 1886 and 1887. During that time, he resided with a neighboring farmer, John F. Black, and probably worked on that farm.
  • Laura and her younger sons retired from their Dundy County homestead in 1923, earlier than I had thought. Her son Joseph (1880-1956) traded his portion of the ranch acreage for a house in Palisade. With the help of a town plat, we identified the address, visited the property, and took photographs.
  • Laura sold her share of the Dundy County ranch, also in 1923, to the same man who traded for Joseph’s share. She offered the man a mortgage, but he defaulted. She was forced to foreclose in 1928. The next year, she received her share of the ranch back via a Sheriff’s Deed. Ultimately, she resold her land in 1932.
  • Joseph outlived his mother and brother Lewis (1877-1935) by a number of years. By 1949, he needed a Guardian. The court appointed long-time family friend C. C. Cole to care for Joseph, and I picked up a copy of the guardianship file at the Hitchcock County Courthouse.

As we drove through these counties, we took time to visit the sites of Laura’s three homesteads in Red Willow, Hayes, and Dundy Counties. The Red Willow site lies just east of the airport. The Hayes land is on the high ground north of Palisade, currently inaccessible but viewable from a distance. In Dundy County, we drove for what seemed like miles along loose dirt roads (thanks, Google Maps!) until we reached the site. Upon our arrival, we learned of a much better road back to Haigler, NE, and returned to our lodgings by that route.

After completing this trip, I cannot think of any other records that might reveal my great-grandfather’s identity. I believe I have done a reasonably exhaustive search. Now I must turn to DNA testing in hopes of uncovering this information. With all the records I have about Laura, I have a good list of many of her associates. If a DNA match turns up, perhaps I will recognize a surname. If not, perhaps my great-grandfather was a passing cowboy rather than someone she knew well.

 

 

 

Give Tax Lists a Try

For some states and time periods, tax lists can provide good genealogical evidence. People who owned land or livestock had to pay annual taxes on these sources of wealth. Counties kept records of these payments, and these lists can work as a yearly census of residents.

For my own family and my search for the roots of John Davis Riddle, I am looking at tax lists for clues. I know this ancestor was born in Pennsylvania in 1821, and he married Olive Dunbar in Summit County, Ohio in 1843. I have no information on his family or his whereabouts before 1843. Perhaps tax lists can help me.

Family Search (familysearch.org) has some Ohio tax lists online. I plan to search those records beginning with 1849 (when the Riddles left Ohio) and then work backwards to see if I can locate any likely Riddle families in Summit and the surrounding counties. I will also search for Davis families because my ancestor oddly signed the marriage register as a Davis instead of a Riddle when he married.

If I can locate my ancestor on one of these lists, I can then follow up with a search of other county records kept during the same time period. If he owned real property, his transactions will be in land records. If he had only valuable personal property, at least his name should appear on a list. In either case, I can look at marriages and probates for those same years for more information about him.

If he had little of anything, I will not find his name. I will be out of luck with tax lists as a clue for this genealogical problem.

Dead Ends, Genealogically Speaking

Earlier this summer I reported hearing from a new research contact. The person suggested a location to search for information about my 2nd great-grandfather, John Davis Riddle (1821-1896).

I know nothing of this ancestor’s origins, other than a purported Pennsylvania birthplace. He ultimately settled and died in Mendon, Michigan.

Three of his children and grandchildren married into the nearby McClish family. The McClish researcher suggested that I search for my ancestor in Washington County, Pennsylvania because the McClishes had once lived there. I took a look recently.

Using the U.S. census and cross-referencing with family trees posted on Family Search and Ancestry, I investigated several Riddle families who lived in western Pennsylvania and eastern Ohio in the 1820’s, 1830’s, and 1840’s. I found no likely candidates for my John Davis Riddle.

I did eliminate a couple of Riddle families who resided in Washington County, Pennsylvania during that time:

  • Samuel Riddle (1759-1825) who married Martha Johnson. This man moved his family from Pennsylvania to Mahoning County, OH around 1803, long before my ancestor was born. Although his children were born in Pennsylvania, they grew up and were married in Ohio. No one seemed to remain behind to father my John Davis Riddle in Pennsylvania in 1821.
  • Samuel Riddle (1794-1879) who married Jane Turner. This family remained in Pennsylvania. Their son, John Aiken Riddle, was born in 1846. It seems unlikely they would have an older son also named John.

I also eliminated a Riddle family living in Ohio during the 1840’s when my John Davis Riddle resided there:

  • Thomas Riddle (1781-1823) who married Minerva Merrick. This family lived in 1840 and 1850 in Geauga County, OH. They began their pioneer journey from Massachusetts through Pennsylvania until they reached Ohio. Geauga County is a bit northeast from Summit County where John Davis Riddle was married in 1843. Thomas’ son John Adams Riddle was born in Massachusetts in 1814 and lived until 1884. Again, it seems unlikely they would later have another son named John.

One family bears more investigation. Samuel Riddle (1795-1857) who married Margaret Scott comes from a large Riddle family in Washington County, Pennsylvania.

I have not completed my research into these Washington County families. If my John did come from this place, he will not be so easy to find.

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.

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!

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 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.