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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.

Mahala and the Dunbar Family

My great-grandmother, Laura Riddle (1853-1933), had a cousin on her mother’s side named Mahala Dunbar (1850-1939). The two women were about the same age, although Laura grew up in Michigan while Mahala lived in Ohio. I am not exactly sure how Mahala fit into the family.

She first appeared as a nine-year-old girl on the US census in 1860. She resided in Stow, Ohio, the hometown of the Dunbars from the early 1830’s. Mahala lived as the only child in a home where the head of household was a 45-year-old woman who worked as a weaver. indexes the woman’s name as Robin that year, although it could be Rebecca.

Our family had no Robin that I know of, but we did have a Rebecca Dunbar (Laura Riddle’s aunt) who was the same age as the woman on this record. The final member of this Dunbar household, listed last, was an older man named Benjamin Dunbar who worked as a common laborer. Our Rebecca Dunbar did have an older brother named Benjamin. On this record Robin/Rebecca was born in Maine, and Benjamin was born in Massachusetts.

Ten years later, in 1870, this little family was still intact although this time Benjamin was listed as the head of household. Next came Rebecka, who kept house. This time, both were listed as born in Massachusetts. Nineteen-year-old Mahala lived with them. The family lived next door to another Dunbar sister, Rhoda Burnham.

These census records raise several questions:

  1. What was the family relationship of Benjamin and Rebecca Dunbar? The question was not asked by census takers in those years. Were these two our siblings, Benjamin and Rebecca? Or did Benjamin have a wife named Rebecca? If so, his sister Rebecca has not been found elsewhere on the census records for those years. Nor has a marriage record for Benjamin to anyone named Rebecca been found. He had married Lucy Jaquays in 1846.
  2. If Benjamin and Rebecca were siblings, which one was Mahala’s parent? Was she the legitimate daughter of Benjamin and Lucy or the illegitimate child of Rebecca? Again, the records for these years do not tell us her relationship to the head of household.

Recently, I ordered Mahala’s obituary from the Akron-Summit County Public Library in Ohio to see if it contained the answer. No help there. It did not list her parent’s names, only that she was born Mahala Dunbar. It did offer some details about her life.

Mahala was active in her community. She joined her local Church of Christ congregation when she was fifteen and participated there for the rest of her life. She was a charter member of the Darrow Street Grange in Stow. When she passed away in 1939, she was the last surviving charter member of the Women’s Missionary Society in Stow.

Mahala had married a widowed Civil War veteran named Alson Wetmore. She did well in this. The Wetmores were a prominent family in Stow, and their ancestors were founding fathers of the town. William Wetmore had been guardian for Benjamin, Rebecca, Rhoda, and their siblings when their father died in 1832.

Alson Wetmore was lucky to survive the Civil War. After being confined for a time in the notorious Andersonville Prison, he had barely escaped with his life on the trip home. He was a passenger on the ill-fated steamer Sultana when the boiler exploded on the Mississippi River near Memphis at 3:00 a.m. on April 26, 1865. Fortunately, he lived to eventually marry Mahala.

Despite her own murky beginnings, Mahala led an admirable life and married well. Did she and her cousin Laura Riddle ever meet? I do not know whether Laura corresponded with her mother’s Ohio family. Her life would have been enriched in knowing her cousin Mahala if she did.



Brick Wall Ancestors—We All Have ‘Em

What is a Brick Wall Ancestor? At some point, all of us confront these ancestors who defy our attempts to learn about their origins. We do not know when and where they were born or who their parents were. For women, we may not know their maiden names. We get stuck, really stuck. What can we do?

This week my local Highlands Ranch Genealogical Society ( hosted a program on this topic. Our presenter was Ted Bainbridge, a genealogical researcher, teacher, consultant, speaker, and writer from Longmont, CO. He offered a plan of attack when facing the dreaded brick wall:

  1. Make a list of what you already know, re-read your sources, sort the information into a timeline, and make of map of the ancestor’s known locations during his/her time period.
  2. Identify which facts, events, and sources are missing from the list.
  3. Brainstorm on where you might find the missing information and use the internet to find out what records are now available.
  4. Search the new records for the person of interest, his family, and his other associates.
  5. Ask other genealogists for advice.
  6. Remember that some brick walls are permanent. Stop working on them.

I have my share of Brick Wall ancestors. I would love to know more about these people:

  1. Unidentified great-grandfather who fathered my grandmother, Grace Riddle (1896-1976). She was born on a homestead near Palisade, Nebraska.
  2. John Davis Riddle, born in 1821 somewhere in Pennsylvania, died in 1896 in Mendon, Michigan.
  3. Daniel Sherman, born about 1800 someplace in New York, lived his adult life in various Kentucky counties, died after 1862.
  4. Katherine Stanabaugh/Stillenbaugh, a German or Dutch immigrant, who had a daughter with Thomas Sherman in 1865 and died near Indianapolis, Indiana.

This year I am trying to break through the wall presented by John Davis Riddle. Earlier this year, I came across a lead that did not pan out, at least not yet. Now, I hope to try Mr. Bainbridge’s approach to see if I can make any progress.

With four Brick Wall Ancestors, I feel like I am in a box. I hope these walls are not permanent.

William Burnham and the War of 1812

Pension records from the War of 1812 have been one of the most requested records at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). During the 200th anniversary of the war in 2012, they began a project to digitize these files and make them available for free to researchers. Many, many genealogists donated to this cause.

After a multi-year effort, Fold 3 (, the online service for historical military records, now houses the digitized index and pension files that resulted from the successful project. Anyone can look at them at no cost.

I never had much interest in this project for my own research because I do not have many War of 1812 veterans in my direct line. The only one I know of is my 3rd great-grandfather, Benjamin E. Dunbar. He served in the Massachusetts militia for a couple of days when British ships threatened the coastline. He did not qualify for a pension.

This week I discovered a collateral relative who did receive a pension. Benjamin Dunbar’s daughter, Rhoda Ann, married a much older man named William Burnham who had served in the War of 1812. I learned of his service when I found a note of it on his Find A Grave memorial.

Curious, I decided to search for a pension file for him. I found it on Fold 3. From this, I was able to collect a great deal of information about him:

  • William Burnham was born at Hartford, Connecticut.
  • He enlisted at Canandaigua, New York on May 11, 1812 for a 5-year term of service. He was 5’5″ with light hair and blue eyes. At the time of his enlistment, he was a clothier.
  • He served in the heavy artillery units of Capt. Rufus McIntire and Capt. James McKeon. He saw action at the Battles of Queenston Heights, Fort George, and Fort Oswego.
  • Pvt. William Burnham received an Honorable Discharge at Fort Washington on May 11, 1817. He was 23 years old.
  • He married Rhoda Dunbar at Akron, Ohio on Sept. 19, 1846.
  • On June 30, 1871, he applied for a pension under the Act of February 14, 1871. At this time, he resided at Stow, Summit County, Ohio.
  • He was awarded an $8 per month pension. The pension ended on Sept. 4, 1879 due to failure to claim.

I can understand now why the genealogical community worked so hard to provide access to these pension files. They provide rich detail about the lives of ancestors who served in the War of 1812. I had no idea the military at that time collected all this information—birthplace, occupation, physical description.

I will add all this pension file information to the life story of my 2nd great-aunt Rhoda and her husband William Burnham. Now that I know how valuable these records are, you can bet I will be checking the index every time I look at an ancestor who is the right age to have served in this war.

The Dunbars Come to Life

My great-grandmother, Laura Riddle, grew up on a farm in Mendon, St. Joseph County, Michigan. Her parents, John Riddle and Olive Dunbar, moved there in the late 1840’s, and Laura was born in 1853.

I do not know why the Riddles migrated from Ohio to Michigan. I have never found any members of the Riddle/Dunbar circle who beckoned Olive and John Riddle to that place at that time. Their motive for relocation and their reason for choosing Michigan as their destination remain a mystery. They appear to have been true pioneers.

This week I learned that even though the Riddles did not seem to follow anyone else when they moved to Michigan, others in Olive’s family later followed them. Her older sister Susan H. Dunbar Cutting’s family went to live in the same township during the Civil War. I had not suspected this because Susan Cutting later returned to Ohio and was buried there. I had no reason to believe she ever lived anywhere else.

This information came to light when I received obituaries for Susan and her daughter-in-law Amanda from the Akron, Ohio public library. After reviewing the obituaries, I went to Find A Grave ( seeking more information on the Cutting family. It was sketchy.

I decided to help fill it in by submitting an Edit suggestion for Susan’s memorial to connect her to her parents, Rhoda Hall and Benjamin E. Dunbar. The memorial manager responded immediately, not only by posting the connections, but also by adding a tremendous amount of biographical information for Susan and her family. Thus, I learned that they had spent time in Michigan. Both of Susan’s daughters, Mary and Clara, had died young in St. Joseph County, Michigan. Mary Edna Cutting Ulum had wed and died in childbirth during the family’s Michigan stint. Unmarried Clara Cutting died about the same time.

My great-grandmother Laura had had first cousins on her mother’s side of the family living nearby only to lose them to untimely deaths.

Susan’s Find A Grave memorial had information about Susan’s son, DeWitt Clinton Cutting, too. He had served in the 128th Ohio Infantry during the Civil War.

These people seem more real to me now that I know a bit more about their lives. The Riddles, instead of being isolated in Michigan, had close connections with at least some of their relatives on the Dunbar side. They did not simply move north and lose all contact with family.

Olive had numerous other siblings in addition to Susan Cutting. Perhaps I can use some of the same strategies to find out more about some of them, too.