Saturday, April 4, 2009

The Scoundrel Uncle Who Wasn't

My "Uncle Uncle" story goes back to my great-uncle, Allen Reddish, formerly of Warsaw, NY, then Lincoln, NE, and finished his life in Seattle, WA.  Allen and his brother both fought in the Civil War from NY state, and both made their way to Lancaster county, Nebraska in the very late 1860's.

The family lore goes that Allen forged a $500 check belonging to his brother Adelbert, of Lancaster county, NE.  Adelbert was so angry, he told Allen to get out of town, and he did.  That was it, short and sweet, and all the family knew.  No one knew where Allen went or what had happened to him.  But let's just say the respect for the guy was at an all time low, generation after generation, in Lancaster county anyway.

For some reason, I not only wondered about Allen, but felt sorry for him.  What happened to the man who had a big farm, then a long-running successful blacksmith shop, his comings and goings documented in the newspaper?  How could such an upstanding citizen go so wrong?  

I was able to track Allen's final days in Seattle, Washington.  I found that around 1913/14, Allen and his wife had moved to Seattle.  On a WA Veterans Home application they listed themselves as living in the state since 1911, they fudged, they were in Lincoln, NE in 1912.  They were trying to get into the Veteran's Home, and one of the requirements was to be a resident of the state a certain number of years.  I read through their application, they were pretty desperate to get into the Veterans Home in Retsil, WA immediately.  Old age, poor health, living in one room with $100 worth of property was all they had left.    And in great haste, the home accepted them.  The thing is, they didn't go.  I am uncertain as to what was happened at this time.  It's possible that Allen was too sick to move.  It would have required a ferry ride across Puget Sound, or a very long road trip.  He died two years after that application, in Seattle, but was buried clear out in Retsil, at the Veterans' Home cemetery.   I was told at the archives that it's unusual that he was buried there, since you have to be a resident of the home.  The records show that he definitely did not live in the home.  His wife did, a few years after his death. Another letter of urgency that she move in, and this time she did.  They are buried together.

Once I knew where he was buried, my husband, son and I took a day trip out to Retsil.  The cemetery was larger than I had expected, and covered with the old white Civil War stones.  It was also closed.  But we climbed the fence, after all, we had traveled by ferry, then a distance in the car to find this place!  We fanned out, and finally found Allen's tombstone.  While the majority of stones were the old white rounded CW stones, his appeared to be fairly modern, a pinkish colored granite.  I've not yet solved the mystery as to why his stone was so different from the others.  But seeing it there, and learning how hard his life was in the end, it made me more determined to learn the truth about the scandalous forgery.

I learned that after leaving Nebraska, things didn't go so well for Allen.  He seemed to have very little for a man who at one time had so much.  My belief is that he was drained, financially, by his son who was in constant trouble with the law while they were still living in Nebraska. This son had been in jail in neighboring Colorado for conning women out of money.  He'd either sell them stolen goods, or create some sort of bogus business where they had to pay him a fee in order to work in his office.  And he was accused of forgery in Nebraska, along with womanizing.  The Lincoln newspapers were filled with stories of Allen, fleeing from debt, abandoning his own business,  asking his father for financial help, the father refusing, but one wonders if in the end he did help his son William.

Allen Reddish, and his wife Emily Lighthall, had at least three children.  One daughter died young, around 16 years of age.  His son Edgar had seven children, was a very good business man who owned a coal company, and apparently from news articles, was quite respected in Lincoln. He died in 1908 at the age of 41, leaving his widow to raise seven young children, Allen's grandchildren.  I imagine Allen, along with the maternal grandfather, gave financial assistance to his son's widow and grandchildren.  

This left one son, the troubled William B.  After jail in Colorado, then legal problems in Nebraska, William B. hightailed it for Washington state, leaving behind an ex-wife whom he had clearly cheated on, and an infant daughter.  With Allen and Emily growing older, no doubt they headed to Seattle to live with their last surviving child.  By this time, Edgar's widow and grandchildren were either still in Lincoln or had removed to Denver, Colorado.  One of Allen's grandchildren, Edgar's son, Chauncey Reddish, appears in a number of newspaper articles, and of course, the one that caught my eye is where he was in court in 1923 for forging the check in the amount of $600 of his uncle Adelbert Reddish.  By this time, Allen is no longer living. Chauncey had been visiting from Denver, where his widowed mother had moved with all her children.  By now, Chauncey had a wife and an 18 month old child, and the court was lenient in his sentencing.  Chauncey went on to fight in WWI, is on the WWI Honor Roll of Lancaster County, NE, and is buried at Los Angeles National Cemetery.  Most, if not all, of Allen's grandchildren (son Edgar's children), ended up and are buried in California.

It appears that Allen's son William was a successful man in Seattle, and Allen's grandson, Chauncey, both seem to have turned their lives around.  But I've never found any evidence that Allen forged his brother's signature on a check, this being the reason HE was "kicked out" of the state of Nebraska.  I believe I have cleared his name, but to make absolutely certain, the next time I'm in Lincoln I will attempt to scan through court documents regarding Allen Reddish.

Family lore is a wonderful thing, and brings us many colorful stories that have been handed down generation to generation.  Just use those stories as a starting point.  Don't assume them as fact.  Eventually, as I did, you'll learn that there is nearly always some element of truth in these stories, but details got confused or lost with the retelling over time.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Going WAY Outside the Box

I was researching my great-great grandfather GRIMM, who was born in 1806 in Arnshain, Hesse-Darmstadt.  I knew the village because one of my cousins had his Darmstadt-issued passport. Never give up on looking for family members you might not know exists!  Anyway, since I knew the village, and had many questions, I decided to make a weekend trip over to the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah.  That's a future blog in itself.  I had yet to find where he died, his ship coming into the United States, but at least knew where he lived before, and was likely born.

After returning home from Salt Lake, with GRIMMS in Arnshain dating back to 1699 (yes, I lived at the library and was there from when their opening in the morning to their closing at night), I wanted to learn more about his village and hopefully more about him.

So I did what most people do, I Googled Arnshain.  I got maps, weather, hotels, tourist information - tourist?  In this little hamlet?  I even came across myself, with my posts about Ludwig GRIMM.  Then I saw a hit for a little restaurant, and clicked on it.  There was actually an email link for someone who worked there.  But, did they know English?  I didn't know German!  So I did the next logical thing, went to Babelfish and wrote my short note telling about my ancestors from that village and how I'd like to learn all about it.  Babelfish translated, I copied and pasted it into the email link, and sent it off.

The next day I got a response.  The young man at the restaurant did speak Engligh, not the greatest, but completely understandable.  He did let me know that my German was terrible, and that the next time I write to him, it should be in English.   I got a chuckle out of that, who knew the computer translator was so bad?

And who would have ever known that the one and only random person I chose would be so thrilled to email back and forth with an American?  He sent me photos of Arnshain, and some beautiful aerial shots.  It really is tiny, why tourists would go there, I'm not sure.  He decided that he would go and talk to the oldest person in town about my ancestors, and get advice from him.  Of course, this oldest person was not old enough to remember my Grimms, after all, they left in 1849.  But he did instruct my new email pen pal where to go next.

This dear young man trudged across town to the church, and searched the old records, all without me asking.  I just wanted to learn about the town and see if anyone by the name of Grimm still lived there.  Eventually, he let me know, from the records, exactly when my Ludwig left, with whom, and from what port in Germany.  That alone was very helpful, and that information was not found in the church records that I had looked at in Salt Lake City.

In between genealogy and photographs of Arnshain, I learned about the young man and his sister, who lived together.  They'd traveled two summers before to America, and appeared, by their photos, to have seen it from coast-to-coast.  They especially liked Florida and California - who could blame them for being partial to the states with warm sunshine and beautiful beaches.   The letters went back and forth over a couple of months.

His final letter contained the aerial photos, and the last was of particular interest.  It pointed out the location where my Grimms had lived.  How amazing is that?

I realize this is not the usual method of research.  Some "critics" said it was a ridiculous idea and I would be wasting my time, that most people are not interested in genealogy.  I admit, on occasion I'm not known for being the most patient in waiting for records to arrive, etc.  So I do random things like write to people in really poor German.  I felt I had nothing to lose.  What would be the worst?  They'd write and tell me to leave them alone, or not respond?  I can take apologize for bothering them.  I can take rejection.  The Internet is so anonymous, I really wouldn't take it personally.

I lucked out on this one, believe me I know.  I've lucked out on every one since this first attempt.  I still believe if you keep trying you are bound to connect with someone who is interested.  It might not be with your first letter, as it was for me with my new German friend. 
I've tried in other countries, and it's taken more than one letter to random people who had the same surname or lived in the same small village as my ancestors.  You may have to write dozens of letters, but eventually someone will write back.  They may just give you advice, they may go further and help you at their end, or they may tell you to halt all communication.  

You might not learn all you wanted or hoped to.  But even if you learned just a little something, you've connected with someone and made the world a little smaller, and you a little richer for having the experience.  You gave something new a try.  You went outside the box.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

The Loss of Newspapers for Future Genealogists

We hear about the demise of newspapers almost daily now.  And all the news reports examine the great loss of true investigative reporting.  The loss of in depth stories from the nation and world.  I will miss newspapers, especially Sunday morning with my coffee and that big stack of pages to read through.  Having to get up and wash some of the blurred ink from my fingertips when finished.  I know that less trees will be cut down, but there will be nothing like it when they are gone.

As a genealogist, I feel another great loss, and that goes out to future genealogists looking for us.  

I guess, if I consider the scope of my research, newspapers have played a smaller part.  But oh, what a rush when discoveries were made, or validated, by those old news blurbs.  I found where my great-great grandfather was buried,  the family didn't know what had happened to him since he didn't migrate on with his son, my great grandfather.  But the obituary in the newspaper not only gave me insight as to how he lived his life all those years, but added new names in the list of survivors.  Relatives I hadn't previously known about.

I can say, my happiest newspaper discovery came only a few months ago, while accessing  Several years back, an aunt gave me a small photo album of another great grandfather.  It was clear that this little album was very old, c. early 1900's, and he and my great grandmother were on a trip.  The photographed a capitol.  I compared, from Internet photos, all the capitol buildings in the country and it boiled down to just a couple that looked just like the one in the photo album.  I presumed they were in Denver, as that was the shorter distance for a vacation from Nebraska.  In another photo, there was a horse-drawn trolley car. I broke out the magnifying glass, as I could see something was written on the side of the car - Denver Tramway Co.   Okay, mystery solved as to where they were vacationing.  But who were these other people in the photos?  Not my immediate ancestors, this much I knew.  

I suspected that the older couple with my great grandparents were my great grandfather's brother and his wife.  They too had migrated from New York and lived within a couple of miles of my great grandfather.  I also knew that at some point they left Nebraska for Washington state, but only knew it was after 1910, from the census.  I've never seen a photo of them, so could only suspect.  At a brick wall with the album, I put it away in a safe place, and I moved on to more pressing research of multiple lines.

This brings me back to, which I can access free from home with my library card, but it's an inexpensive value if you pay to join.  I began searching the surname in the state of Nebraska.  I find many, many things of interest, all providing me great insights as to their day-to-day lives and travels.  I had heard that my great grandfather frequently traveled back to western New York, and this was validated in little one line blurbs in his local paper.  I learned of, and read about, lawsuits he was involved in - juicy stuff!  But the thrill of another mystery solved came with the article of his brother's 50th wedding anniversary, and a lovely photo of him with his wife.  There they were.  The couple accompanying my great grandparents on their trip to Denver.   Not only did this article identify the mystery travel companions, but it gave the other siblings who were, or had, celebrated similar anniversaries, where, and how this couple had traveled to each of them.

200 years from now, what kind of personal record will be found on us?  Oh, there will be things here and there found on the Internet.  But there's something about that black on the dingy white newsprint that seems more credible.  After all, anyone can place anything about anyone on the Internet.  These real-life events in old newspapers, we know, were placed by our ancestors themselves, or by those closest to them.  Or, reported by the local reporter gathering the daily happenings in our ancestors' neighborhoods after a conversation with them.  

Did I say that newspapers play a smaller part in my research?  As I go through my genealogy database, I see I have sourced countless newspapers across the country.  These papers brought my ancestors beyond the names and dates I had previously collected.  They told me how they farmed, who came to visit, who went back home again, what contests they entered, who was feuding, and who they mourned.  I read about the loss of children, the loss of parents, the birth of children and grandchildren.  Of birthday parties, anniversary parties, and hospitalizations.  I felt a greater connection, these were people who produced me, and now I know them better.

200 years from now, will our descendants know us better?  Will they feel our joy through the years, and the pain and suffering?  Will they feel the personal and local qualities lent by the local paper?  Will they know about our neighbors and the part they played in our everyday lives?  Will they trust in what they are reading?  They might, because sadly, the newspapers could all be gone by then, and the Internet may be all their generation knows.  

I know the papers of today are not what they were in late 1800's and early 1900's.  There is more news coming from everywhere at the touch of a keypad.  And maybe that's the attraction of genealogy research for me.  It takes me back to simpler times, where the human interest story was important, when people weren't too busy to read what their neighbors were doing. Now we are just too busy.  And that leads to the demise of the newspaper, not enough time to read it, not enough sales in ads or subscriptions.  Maybe 200 years from now our descendants won't care what we did, maybe just the name and date will suffice.