Sunday, January 18, 2015

A Family History Mystery Revealed

I began dabbling in genealogy in late summer of 2010. Curious about my dad's paternal ancestry, I started cobbling together a family tree based on the few facts I knew.

My dad was adopted by his step-father when he was nine years old, which changed our surname from his biological father's. After the adoption, my dad's biological father had no role in his life. They never spoke. In 1990, my dad's biological father passed away.

I never knew him. I never saw him, either. Although my dad recently confided that my grandfather saw my dad and me when we were shopping at a hardware store. While neither father nor son spoke to each other, I'm oddly grateful that he saw me - his first grandson.

I knew about my dad's circumstances, but I knew little of the family that preceded the adoption. I had names for my paternal great-grandparents. I tackled this information with my amateur genealogy skills and quickly identified a handful of direct ancestors. I trawled through reels of microfilm at a local family history center. I began pestering family, including my dad's half-sister (they share the same biological father), with questions and requests for photos and documents.

I was completely absorbed with researching my paternal ancestry. I felt like I was reclaiming my history; restoring parts of my historic self. I was so enamored and engaged with my paternal research that I was blindsided when a piece of the paper trail surfaced and hinted at a family mystery that would alter my genealogy and paternal identity.

A Mystery Revealed
In May 2012, as I left a movie theater, I discovered that I had two voice messages. Both were from my mother. In her first message, she said she spent all day with my paternal aunt (my dad's half-sister) reviewing newly-found documents that were stashed in a safe belonging to my grandfather's widow. They had discovered some surprising information.

Her second voice message was to clarify the first, "When I said surprising I actually meant shocking."

Among the documents were two birth certificates for my biological paternal grandfather. The first was a delayed birth certificate, which I had already seen. According to my grandfather's widow, this delayed record of birth was created in 1972 when he was securing a job with the regional phone company. They required a copy of his birth certificate. He didn't have one, so he had one created. I never thought to question the facts on the document or ask whether there was already a record created at the time of birth.

The other record proved to be quite the shocker. It documented the birth of a boy born the same day as my grandfather and with the same first and middle names. However, the surname was different. There was a different father listed. It was not my paternal great-grandfather (or who I thought was my paternal great-grandfather). The single commonality between the two birth records was that the child's mother was my great-grandmother.

It appeared that she had an extramarital relationship that resulted in the birth of my grandfather. Who was this man - my apparent new great-grandfather? I had a name - at least the one written on the certificate. I also had a family rumor that my grandfather's widow finally divulged.

Rumored Identity
The father's name was listed as Jimmy Kirk. His age at his last birthday was 37 years old suggesting he was born in about 1894. His birthplace was given as Michigan and his occupation laborer. His address, a key piece of information that could help identify exactly who he was, was left - to my great frustration - blank.

There wasn't a lot of exacting information provided that could shed light on this man's identity. Certainly, there wasn't anything transcribed detailing the nature of his relationship with my great-grandmother.

With all of the key players deceased, I had to rely on family recollections and stories passed down. My grandfather's widow shared a family rumor that would be helpful in directing my research.

According to her, after my grandfather was born, he went to live with his adult sister and her husband for an unknown period of time (she would actually now be his half-sister). Why? Was it because the child was a source of consternation in my great-grandparents' household? It isn't difficult to imagine my great-grandfather upset at the idea of raising a child who wasn't biologically his own and was a physical reminder of his wife's infidelity.

The family rumor says my grandfather was the product of a relationship that my great-grandmother had with a watchman who worked at the water reservoir behind her house. The neighborhood kids knew the man and jokingly called him "Kirk-guard" - combining his name and occupation.

With a place of employment, occupation, and a few biographical details from the birth certificate, I was ready to begin my detective work into my biological great-grandfather's identity.

[To be continued]

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Genealogy Goals for 2015

The beginning of the year has been a whirlwind, and I'm only now finding time to blog.

With 2015 in full swing, I took time to review my genealogy research goals for 2014. Happily, I made great strides towards many of them. Unsurprisingly, there's a lot more work to do. Some brick walls remained standing and some answers brought new questions. Mindful of limited time and resources, I'm setting my sights on the following areas for 2015:

General Genealogy Goals
  • Continue to collect and scan old family photos from relatives near and far.
  • Grow the pool of family who have DNA tested.
  • Build genealogy technical skills and networks by attending conferences like Roots Tech + FGS and the Global Family Reunion in New York.
  • Begin writing narrative biographies for my direct ancestors.
Brick Walls
Paternal Lineage

I've saved the most pressing goal for last. In December 2014, DNA test results confirmed a rumored non-paternal event on my direct paternal line and provided evidence of a link to a different family surname than what was previously known. 

While serving up quite a shock, I'm eager to learn as much as I can about this family and find additional evidence - both paper trail and genetic - to help further corroborate the link.

Stay tuned for more on this recent development. 2015 is shaping up to be a year for unveiling family history truths. 

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Lost Lucinda: Like Father Like Daughter

I'm broadening my horizons. At least when it comes to my research into the death of Burr Zelah Dornon.

I've turned my research eye to Burr's children. Where did each of them live? Where did they die and what, if anything, did their obituaries say about the passing of their parents? Perhaps they hold clues to the mystery of Burr's death and burial.

Unfortunately, the results haven't turned up many answers yet. However, my broadened research has turned up another question. I've had luck tracing the steps of Burr and Sophronia Dornon's children except one. What happened to their youngest child - a daughter named Lucinda?

She was born in August 1854 in Ohio. Sometime after her father dies, presumably in the early 1860s, Lucinda joins her siblings and mother Sophronia in a move to Kansas.

On March 10, 1870, the 16-year-old Lucinda marries 32 year-old Sylvester Scannel in Wyandott, Kansas. A license and certificate of marriage are both issued on this day.

Sylvester Scannel & Lucinda Dornon 1870 marriage license
By the 1880 U.S. Federal Census, Sylvester and Lucinda are making their home as a farm couple in Rooks County, Kansas. Their happy home, though, is upset by a tragic prairie fire that rages across the county. It destroys hundreds of acres of farmland and engulfs dozens of structures.

Sylvester worked to slow the fire's spread by digging trenches. The inferno quickly surrounded him. He tried to make his escape on horseback, but was overwhelmed by the smoke. Falling from his horse, the fire was so intense that Sylvester's "clothing, except his boots and gloves, was burned entirely off his body." He died from his burns the following day and Lucinda was a widow.

Plainville Gazette - March 16, 1893
Lucinda's whereabouts can be traced for a short while thanks to her husband's Civil War pension. She submits paperwork confirming that she's his widow and is awarded the pension. In August 1895, she completes a new Power of Attorney, relieving her attorney in Plainville, Kansas and appointing a new one in Decatur, Illinois.

Power of Attorney appointing attorney in Illinois

I assumed that I had been unable to trace Lucinda after the death of Sylvester Scannel because she remarried and was buried under a new surname. I figured this second marriage would come to light in my review of the Civil War widow's pension file at the National Archives in Washington, DC. I quickly realized it would be more challenging to track her down. Inside her file, the first document was stamped in red letters, "DROPPED." But it wasn't because she was deceased. At least I don't think so.

Elsewhere in the file, it clarifies that she was dropped from the pension rolls in December 1899 for failure to claim her money for three years. Who doesn't claim their money?! Perhaps someone who has remarried and recognizes that she no longer qualifies for the pension?

A broad records search turned up a Lucinda Scannel listed as a cook in an 1899 Butte, Montana city directory. A search of Plainville, Kansas newspapers suggests this was her. She appears in the paper four times beginning in September 1894 when she returns to Plainville after an "extended visit in Illinois." 

The society pages of the Plainville Gazette boast a potentially juicy piece of information. In June 1899, we find that "Mrs. Scannell, formerly of this county but lately of Montana" married Levi Stanley in Grainfield, Kansas. Aha! So she did live in Montana and she did remarry!

February 1900 is the last appearance of Lucinda that I've been able to locate. Apparently she's now living with Levi in Oklahoma. Did she die there? Is she buried there? I don't know.

The December 1910 obituary of Lucinda's sister Abigail (Dornon) Benedick states that she is survived by one brother and one sister. I know that both Anna (Dornon) Benedick and Andrew Dornon are still alive and I presume they are the two Dornon siblings referenced. If that's true, it would mean that Lucinda Dornon Scannel Stanley dies between February 1900 and December 1910. 

When did she die? Where is she buried? Clearly, she's taken a page from her father Burr's book - like father like daughter. Lucky me!

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Finding Clues in Land Records

When and where did my 4th great-grandfather Burr Zelah Dornon die? The investigation continues. Recently, through the Ancestry.com online community, I was able to connect with a distant Dornon cousin who's also interested in this question.

In October, she was able to visit a Lawrence County, Ohio library and locate a small collection of land records that shed more light on Burr's dealings in his final years.

Do these land records provide subtle clues about Burr's death?


Bookend Records
Readers of this blog are familiar with the ongoing research into Burr's death (see Running From the Rebels and Stone Broke). The historical documents we've located to-date have enabled us to narrow his passing to a six-year window.

Burr and his family are living in Jackson County, Virginia (soon to be West Virginia) on July 7, 1860 when the U.S. Federal Census is enumerated.

B.Z. Dornon Family enumerated in Jackson County, VA 1860

According to his son Andrew, we know that the Dornon family fled Jackson County in 1862 when the Confederates briefly took control of the county. The family fled west to Ohio where they had previously lived.

The marriage of Burr's daughter Anna helps us to bookend his life. Anna Dornon and Albert Benedick (my 3rd great-grandparents) obtain a marriage license in Lawrence County, Ohio on October 20, 1866. 

The marriage record indicates that they demonstrated, "consent of the mothers of the above named parties and that their fathers are dead." Burr Zelah Dornon is alive July 7, 1860, but has passed away by October 20, 1866.

Anna Dornon & Albert Benedick - Ohio Marriage License October 20, 1866

Land Records
My Dornon cousin was able to locate two records where Burr purchases land in Lawrence County, Ohio in July and August 1856.

First, on July 29, 1856, he pays $300 for two tracts of land - one consisting of 40 acres and the other 60 acres. The land is being sold to settle the debts of the recently deceased John McComas.


July 29, 1856 $300 Land Purchase by Burr Z. Dornon

I was able to locate journal entries from the Lawrence County probate court overseeing the settlement of Mr. McComas' estate. On July 29, 1856, the probate judge approved the sale of  some of Mr. McComas' property and "ordered that said petitioner [James White who is the appointed administrator of John McComas' estate] execute and deliver to the purchaser [Burr Z. Dornon] a deed in fee simple for the real estate..."

John McComas probate record, FamilySearch pg. 272

The next month, on August 18, 1856, Nathaniel and Matilda Burcham sell 40 acres to Burr Dornon for $75, "paid by means of John McComas deceased." I'm not exactly sure what this wording regarding payment means.

Burchams sell land to Burr Dornon for $75

These are the only land records found that mention Burr by name. The next set of land records are dated June 3, 1863. On this date, Burr's eldest son Albert pays $120 for land belonging to two of his siblings: Mary Susan and Joseph. Curiously, the land's description matches the land descriptions that Burr purchased in 1856.

Did Burr die and bequeath this land to his children? And why are both of them selling land on the same day to the eldest son? Is Albert the appointed administrator of his father's estate?

Albert Dornon pays $60 to sister Mary Susan for land

Albert Dornon pays $60 to brother Joseph for land

On July 30, 1873, over a year after the death of Burr's wife Sophronia, their son Lorenzo pays $200 for 100 acres of land belonging to Burr's heirs: Abigail, Lucinda, Andrew and Anna. These are the remainder of Burr's children. Again, the land description matches the land bought by Burr in 1856. It seems they are all parting with their inheritance.

Lorenzo Dornon buys land from Burr's Heirs
The critical document that remains missing is a probate record for Burr Dornon. Can we infer that he died before June 1863 when two of his children are selling their stake in land that he purchased in July 1856? I speculate yes.

If a probate record doesn't exist, what other documentation could help answer this question? Perhaps tax records? For each year I find him paying taxes we know he's still alive, and when those payments stop we can assume he passed in that year, right?

The questions persist and the search for answers continues.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Why I'm Attending FGS + RootsTech 2015

I'm excited to be attending the genealogical conference event of 2015.

If you haven't heard (where have you been?!), the Federation of Genealogical Societies (FGS) and RootsTech are joining forces to host a joint conference in Salt Lake City, February 11-14, 2015. This is big, folks. Huge!

Why am I going? Three key reasons:
  1. Professional Development: As a newbie to the field of genealogy, I'm keen on growing my nascent genealogy skills. This first of its kind joint event will play host to a slew of skills-building sessions facilitated by the field's rock star experts. Don't take my word for it. See for yourself! Check out the schedule of sessions for FGS and RootsTech.

  2. Networking: I'm eager to connect with attendees who share my passion for family history. Likely to be among the largest-attended genealogy conferences, I look forward to the opportunity to meet and learn from folks from across the country...heck, the world! Who knows, perhaps I'll meet a few distant cousins with similar research interests who want to tear down brick walls.

  3. Genealogy's Capital City: Salt.Lake.City. Need I say more? The conference is hosted in family history's capital city. I'm on a pilgrimage to the land of all things genealogy, and hope to log an hour or two (I joke, more like a day or two) in the Family History Library.
Those are my reasons, and I think they might be compelling for a few of you, too. If they are, register for the conference online. I hope to meet you there!

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Sadness in Those Homes

On this Veterans Day, I recall and honor the service that many of my ancestors gave to their country.

It's also a time to remember those service member's families who sacrificed when their loved ones were overseas.

I recently came across a poignant note from my own family. A cousin - who I met through Ancestry.com, shared with me a June 1918 letter to the editor that my 3rd great-grandmother Amanda Miller (Johnston) Hawks wrote to the "Journal-Advance" about the impact of World War I on the home front. An excerpt from her letter succinctly illustrates the war's toll.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Tweet & Tell: Oral History Surfaces

Did you know Family Sleuther is on Twitter? Social media has been a tremendous asset in my genealogy research. Twitter is particularly helpful because it can serve as an educational clearinghouse providing loads of information and resources focused on family history. Sometimes, though, you really hit the jackpot.

Trawling through a slew of Tweets the other night, I landed on one posted by Ancestry.com that caught my eye. They had just updated their Oklahoma records to include oral histories about early Indian and Pioneer life in the state.


Having just wrapped up a family history road trip through Oklahoma, I thought it was worth plugging my Oklahoma family surnames into the database to see what would pop up. To my great surprise, a June 1937 oral history interview with my great-grandfather James Thomas Upton surfaced.

I know very little about him outside of what census records tell me in black and white. When asked to describe his father, my grandfather shrugged and succinctly surmised that James was just "some old man."

According to this oral history, James says he was born in Aurora, Arkansas. I knew he was born in Arkansas, but the city is new information. Furthermore, he sheds new light on the path his parents took to Oklahoma. James says his family came "by covered wagon to Webbers Falls, Indian Territory in 1877" and "that his parents farmed there one year." He continues by tracing the family's move to Kansas and back to Indian Territory.

James says that, "In 1880, they moved with horse teams and covered wagons back to the Indian Territory and settled in the Creek Nation some four miles north of Muskogee."

Aside from family movements, I learned more about James' life in Indian Territory. The interviewer surmised that, "Mr. Upton knows a great deal of old pioneer days pertaining to...the life and customs of the whites and Indians of the Five Civilized Tribes."

According to the interviewer, James Upton was an "agent" who was tasked with overseeing assimilation of members of the Osage and Blackfoot tribes into western society. While James shares a nuanced description of their cultural dress and burial practices, the interview paints a picture of a man not entirely sensitive to tribal culture. He describes one tribe as "savage, lazy and shiftless." It's quite clear James expects them to cease their nomadic lifestyle and settle into lives aligned with early pioneer settlers.

The oral history covers seven pages. Early in the text, the interviewer notes that James' experiences and recollections are similar to others already presented in the historical compilation. As a result, James' every detail would not be recalled for the reader. That's my loss, and I'm left particularly curious about the interviewer's final comments.

James "is a real pioneer and has suffered many adversities but is a true, loyal Oklahoman." What adversities does he allude to? I know James' first wife passed away, but is there something more? After highlighting that some of his children received an education, the interviewer concludes, "Mr. Upton himself is uneducated having only attended a three-month subscription school which cost his parents $1.50 for the three months."

This is genealogy gold. These are the details that make the fabric of a life, and put flesh on the bones. For better or worse, I have a clearer understanding of who my great-grandfather was and about his place in history. All of this, I owe to a Tweet.