Sunday, November 29, 2020

Alexander Shute and no-good, very bad, horrible lawsuit - and what he did about it


Alexander B. Shute

The other day, I was poking around some Minnesota records, trying to add some details to the lives of my Shute ancestors who lived there in the mid-1800s. I knew my ancestor Alexander B. Shute had served in the Civil War (the only ancestor of mine to serve and survive) and was originally from New York. That was about all I knew of him. I decided to try and find some newspaper articles, as they often record details not found in other record types, and I was hopeful (since I couldn't remember searching for his family before in newspapers) that I'd find something good. 

Boy was I right! One of the first things I found were a few mentions of family members going to court against each other. Alexander's wife Letitia (Sanford) Shute sued her likely first cousin Mahlon Mitchell, over what I don't know. Alexander and his brother-in-law Gilbert Sanford went to court over something else. There were also statements of a judgment against Alexander, for which some of his land was confiscated and sold at auction. That had to have been awful, watching something you'd worked so hard to obtain be taken from you and sold to pay off a debt or judgment. But that's not the lawsuit mentioned in the title of this post. 

That lawsuit was found mentioned first in 1891, where he and his son Adoniram were mentioned as suing the town of Princeton, Minnesota, where he lived. I wondered what could have happened that he'd sue his own town? The case was a civil case, not a criminal one, but nothing further was said about what it was concerning. The jury agreed to disagree, and apparently that was the end of it. Alexander took the case to court again in the next term, and the original sentence (whatever it was) was upheld. Alexander then took his case to the state supreme court. This was in 1894, so he'd been at getting resolution for whatever this issue was for several years. Talk about persistence. 

Then, in July 1894, an article finally revealed what the issue was. Apparently about 1889, the town of Princeton had contracted with some men to clear brush and trees to make a road. The men were apparently careless with the fires they used to clear that brush, and didn't extinguish it properly, according to Alexander. The fire spread, and eventually Alexander's house took fire and was completely destroyed. Alexander apparently felt the town of Princeton, who'd hired the contractors, was responsible for the damage, and sued them but lost. He took it up again, and lost when the town was held not liable for the fire. The state supreme court then took it up and, once again, sided with the town of Princeton in holding them not liable for the damage done by the contractors. I can't imagine surviving something as horrific as a house fire that destroys everything you have, and then for the court to dismiss charges against those ultimately responsible for that fire happening. It must have been maddening to have it fall apart like that. 

What really got me is what happened two months later. A group of 31 men petitioned the county for a road to be constructed in the county that would lead to more than one town. The county granted the petition and put together a committee to examine the route of the proposed road. And guess where that committee was planning to meet? In the new home of Alexander Shute! It boggles my mind that he allowed his home to be used for a committee to plan to do the same thing that had cost him his home in Princeton, and which he spent five years (and probably a good amount of money) on seeking redress for, but never received any. If anyone had reason to give up on the system, withdraw and seek isolation, I would think it'd be him. Yet he apparently stayed involved and engaged in his community. I have a whole new respect for this ancestor of mine, the maturity and likely forgiveness he had to muster and display is inspiring. He didn't give up seeking what he felt was right. And when that was apparently ultimately denied him, he kept on living and being a part of his community. 

Sadly, a couple years after this, he was injured in an accident, and never fully recovered. Alexander Shute died in Princeton, Minnesota, on 16 April 1897. He likely had no idea his life was about to be cut short when he was going through all those court proceedings, and later helping to work out the county road. I'm glad he didn't allow those circumstances to ruin him, embitter him, or cause him to withdraw. That's a lesson I hope I can take to heart when things don't go my way.

Friday, July 3, 2020

Once, twice, three times a Patriot - the service of Ezekiel Sanford in the Revolutionary War

Several years ago, I learned one of my ancestors, Ezekiel Sanford, had served in the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War. I was ecstatic, because his service and my relationship to him enabled me to join the Sons of the American Revolution. I learned that he enlisted three times over the course of the war, and was at one point promoted to corporal, and had possibly served under Benedict Arnold (before his infamous defection). Every month at my SAR meetings, everyone introduced themselves and named the patriot (or one patriot, if they had more than one) that they were descended from and a little about them. I was proud to name Ezekiel and state that he enlisted three times from the state of Connecticut, but that's about all I knew about his service.

This year, in connection with the Fourth of July, I decided to finally learn more about Ezekiel's service, and go beyond the one or two sentences I already knew. I've had the documents for years, I've just never really tried to organize the info in them into a meaningful record of his service. Once I did, my view of his service was forever changed. Here's what I found.

Ezekiel had been married for about 10 years and was about 30 years old when the Revolutionary War began in 1774. The following year, 1775, he was one of thousands of men from Connecticut who enlisted to serve in the 5th Company of the 1st Regiment of Connecticut. The regiment was under the command of Col. David Wooster, and 5th Company was originally under Benedict Arnold. However, Arnold did not serve with 5th Company, as around the time the 5th Company was being organized, Benedict Arnold was issued a colonel's commission and sent to Canada to take Fort Ticonderoga. Instead, 5th Company was captained by Caleb Trowbridge, who was Ezekiel's commanding officer during his first enlistment. A few weeks after the unit was organized, they were sent to Boston to participate in the siege of that city by American troops under the command of George Washington. It amazes me to think that Ezekiel could have seen and heard George Washington while helping drive the British out of Boston. As far as I can tell, he saw no military action besides the siege, and almost his entire unit was discharged on 20 December 1775.

1775 map of the Siege of Boston, courtesy of Wikipedia. 

The following year, 1776, Ezekiel enlisted again on 15 April, and was assigned to Captain David Smith's Company in Colonel Samuel Elmore's Battalion. His company was stationed at Fort Stanwix (rebuilt and renamed Fort Schuyler that year), and as far as I know did not see any battles that year. The Declaration of Independence was signed that summer, and I think he might have heard it read while he was stationed at the Fort. I wonder what he thought when he heard they were no longer fighting for their rights as British citizens, but for freedom and independence as Americans. He must have believed in the cause, as he stuck with it. Towards the end of the year, Ezekiel was promoted to Corporal on 16 December, and was discharged a month later on 13 January 1777.

Fort Stanwix, courtesy of Wikipedia. 

Two months later, Ezekiel enlisted for the third time, this time for a period of three years! He began his service as a corporal on 31 March 1777, and was again assigned to Captain David Smith's Company, now part of Col. John Chandler's regiment. He remained with this unit for the remainder of his time in the army. I still need to find where they were for most of 1777, but I do know they participated in the battle of Germantown on 4 October 1777. This battle turned out to be very important, as it helped convince France to support the U.S. in the Revolution against Britain. It's awesome to think my ancestor played a part, however small, in something so signficant. In the map below, Ezekiel's company was part of the unit commanded by Gen. Nathaniel Greene.

Battle of Germantown, courtesy of Wikipedia. 

Shortly after surviving Germantown, Ezekiel's unit went with Washington's army to Valley Forge, Pennsylvania. I don't know how much time Ezekiel spent there, as he was marked sick in hospital from December to March. I wonder what he was ill with, and what hospital conditions were like there. But he went back to active duty with his unit early in the spring of 1778. He would likely have been trained in the techniques introduced by General Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben. This training helped Washington's army perform as well as it did in the Battle of Monmouth in New Jersey, in which Ezekiel participated as part of the forces commanded by Gen. Charles Lee. This battle was huge for a number of reasons - it solidified Washington's place as the father of this country, it ruined the politcal aspirations of Charles Lee, who had long sought to replace Washington as overall leader of the American forces, and it also saw the remarkable service of Molly Pitcher, who famously carried water to the troops and took up firing an artillery piece after her husband was wounded. It's incredible to think he was there, and saw some of these things happen in person, and lived through it.

From what I read in his service and pension records, that was the last time he saw combat. He remained with his unit through the rest of 1778, and got a few weeks' furlough in August and November that year, and again in February of 1779. He again fell sick in March 1779, and was out for at least part of March and April. He was back on active duty in May, and was discharged for the final time on 7 June 1779 due to health reasons as he had only completed two of the three years he had signed up for in 1777.

Forty years after his service in the Revolution, he was again in ill health and poor living conditions. He applied for and received a pension, which helped support him for the last 10 years of his life. His pension file contained many of the details of his service I've described above, and I'm so grateful he lived long enough to apply for and receive this pension. He apparently died in New York in the 1830s, somewhere around the age of 87 (his headstone says 1833, but it's a new stone, and some older records say 1831).

Ezekiel Sanford's headstone, courtesy of Findagrave. 

After learning all this about his service, I am more impressed than ever with the quality of men and women who helped found this country. The fact that he not only served, but he enlisted again and again, and only left the service because his health had deteriorated too much shows he really put his all into helping found and preserve this country. The Savior said "greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends" (John 15:12). I think that applies, at least to some degree, to the men and women of our armed forces who knowingly risk their lives, and in many cases sacrifice them, for their friends, neighbors, and countrymen. We owe it to them to remember those sacrifices and honor them. So thank you Ezekiel, for your service and sacrifice. Your service helped found and establish the greatest nation on earth.

Sunday, June 28, 2020

The half-life of Henry Gibson

I've been thinking lately about my family history research, and how I haven't written in this blog for two months. I hate taking long breaks like that, makes it feel like I'm not keeping up on my research, identifying my family's heritage, and sharing it in a lasting way. I have also been trying to think of ways to pass on what I know about my ancestors to my kids. Learning and knowing about my ancestors is great for me, but a bigger part of the reason I do this is to bring their rediscovered stories to future generations so they don't get lost again. So I decided to try something - I want to commit to posting more regularly, and do a synopsis or brief life story of some of my direct ancestors. Hopefully this will be a good way to see what gaps I have in my own knowledge, and at the same time work as a quick way to give my kids an idea of who their ancestors were in a more digestible, less "listen to dad drone on and on for hours" sort of way.

I chose to start this with my earliest known Gibson ancestor, Henry Gibson. As I went through the documents I've accumulated over the years, I realized a couple things. First, he died relatively young at the age of 56. That might have seemed old to me once, but now that I'm in my early 40s, it doesn't sound that old at all. Second, the smattering of documents I have only covers the second half of his life - I don't have any documents on him at all before the age of 28. Hence the title of this post refers to the half of Henry's life that I do have some knowledge of.

The earliest mention I have of Henry is in the birth record of his oldest known child, a son named William born in Gortnagullion, County Fermanagh, Ireland, in 1844. Interestingly, he was the same age my dad and I both were, 28, when our first children were born. He worked as a farmer, but as far as I've been able to tell he didn't know any land, though maybe he rented or had some other arrangement. Just over a year later, a second child was born. I haven't seen a copy of the baptism record, but the person transcribing it couldn't read the name, so I don't know if it was a son or daughter. The child seems not to have lived long, as Henry and his family immigrated to New Brunswick, Canada in 1846, and the 1851 Canada census only names Henry, his wife Ann, and their son William as being born in Ireland. All their other children were born in Canada. I've often wondered if that second child died in Ireland, and if Henry and Ann had to bid the grave of their child farewell when they left to escape the potato famine.

Henry and Ann had seven more children in Canada - Thomas, John (my ancestor), James, Ann Jane, Sarah, Martha, and George. He worked as a laborer in Canada, making bricks and doing other jobs to support his family. In 1851, his family shared a home with three other families, making 21 people crammed into a single house. I can't imagine accommodations were super spacious, but they survived. They moved around a few times, and eventually lived in a home near Marsh Bridge in Saint John, New Brunswick. Henry likely died there on 4 April 1872. A funeral was held from his home two days later on 6 April. A local paper said he was a native of Pettigo in County Donegal, Ireland, the county northwest of Fermanagh. I haven't been able to confirm that yet, and hope to one day find out exactly where Henry came from.

That's really about all I know of Henry. He had a hard life - losing a child, probably losing other relatives in Ireland in the famine, leaving his homeland, and raising a large family in a new land. I'm grateful he did though, as it gave me and my family a chance to live in a great and free land, whereas they may not have even survived had they stayed in Ireland.

Sunday, April 12, 2020

The craziest adoption case I've ever worked on

A few months ago, I heard the sad news that Samuel Smith, the father of my uncle Rick, had passed away. His family knew he was adopted, but they had no information on his biological family. My aunt contacted me about looking into his family history and seeing if there was anything I could do about identifying his biological parents and family. Since that's basically what I do for a living, I readily agreed.

First, we had some DNA tests purchased. My aunt was fortunate enough to get a DNA sample from Sam, so she sent it off to FamilyTreeDNA for processing, and also got tests for uncle Rick and his sister. Then my aunt emailed me copies of the documents they had for Sam, and I got started with those. The story I started uncovering turned out to be the wildest adoption story I have ever worked on.

There were two documents for Sam, and four for his adoptive mother, Helen Murphy. For Sam, we had his birth certificate from Cedars of Lebanon Hospital in Los Angeles, complete with baby footprints. It gave Sam's full name, the day and time of his birth, and was signed by two members of the hospital staff. On the back of the birth certificate in the upper right corner, two names were handwritten - Geo. F. Smith and Mary V. Kelley. The other document was a baptism record for Sam's baptism at the church of Our Mother of Good Counsel a little less than a year after his birth. The baptism record specifically said Sam was the son of George F. Smith and Mary V. Kelley, the same names on the back of the birth record. At first I thought, OK, if I can find this couple, I can start to track down his biological family. Simple right?

As I searched California records, and then branched out to other parts of the U.S., I could find no trace of a couple with those names. No censuses, no marriage records, no death records, nothing that put a George Smith and Mary Kelley together around 1930. In other cases I've worked on, when the person gave specific names for their parents and no record of those parents appears to exist, there's a reason for that - sometimes those parents don't exist. I started considering the possibility that these were false names, and that Sam's actual parents had no connection to those names.

Looking at the records for Sam's adoptive mother, Helen Murphy, brought additional questions. I had a copy of the adoption record for when Helen adopted Sam (which wasn't done until Sam was a married adult), her driver's license, Social Security card, and her birth record. The first three records were consistent in giving her name as Helen Victoria Murphy, and her birthdate as 8 July 1893. The last one was weird - her name was listed as Nellie Murphy, daughter of John A. Murphy and Maggie Lafond, and said she was born in Holyoke, Massachusetts.

As I started researching Helen/Nellie Murphy, things got more complicated. I found her in the 1930 census living alone in California. Her name was listed as Helen V. Murphy, born in Massachusetts. So far, so good. The 1940 census showed her again as Helen Murphy, but she had two lodgers living with her - an elderly widower named Arthur Cahill, and an 8-year-old boy named Samuel Smith! Sam wasn't a son, or an adopted son, but a lodger. Helen was the source of the information for the household, so she's the one who gave him that relationship, as far as I can tell. How did he end up living with her as a lodger? What caused her to legally adopt him 20 years later? I had no idea. And who was Arthur Cahill?

Arthur's obituary showed he died 8 years later, in March 1948. It said he came to California about 1930, and had formerly worked for the Boston Globe, giving him a connection to Massachusetts (which was very interesting, given Helen's birth in that state). Arthur had four survivors listed - a sister Nanette Baker, nephews Arthur and Edwin Baker, and a daughter - Helen V. Murphy. WHAT?? His memorial on Find A Grave even linked him to Helen as her father. What was going on here?

I started to wonder if the birth record for Nellie Murphy was for someone else, and Helen just somehow had a copy of it. I researched Arthur Cahill's life in Massachusetts, and found he married a woman Helen Sangster about 1893 in Massachusetts, where they lived until Helen died in 1919. Interestingly, they had no children together. So how could he be her father? I found another copy of the birth record for Nellie Murphy, which confirmed the name Nellie Murphy, her birthdate, and her parents, John Murphy and Margaret Lafond. Then came a piece of evidence that helped tie these names together - Sam Smith's birth certificate from the state of California. It listed his parents as George Joseph Smith and Mary Vronika Cahill.

Veronica was Helen Murphy's middle name. Cahill was the surname of the man she passed off as her father in California, who actually had no children of his own. Nellie apparently used the name Helen Veronica Murphy in public records in California, and passed Arthur Cahill off as her father, which could explain the Cahill name on Sam's birth certificate. I don't know what all it took to use a false name in the 1930s, but having researched two other individuals (for work, not my family) who changed their identities and went by assumed names for much of their lives, I don't think it took much. So how did Helen/Nellie/Mary connect to Sam?

That's where the DNA tests helped. Sam's results came back, followed soon by his son Rick's results. Between the two, I found multiple relatives with French-Canadian ancestry, and several descended from a couple named Severance and Philomene LaFonde. As I researched this family, I was shocked to discover Nellie Murphy's mother, Margaret Lafond, was the daughter of Severance and Philomene. I soon found other DNA matches who were related to Margaret's father, John Murphy. The more I looked at the names and amounts of shared DNA, one thing became abundantly clear - Nellie Murphy was Sam's biological mother. For reasons I can't fathom or guess, she apparently used assumed names when Sam was born and baptized, and when she reported his birth to the state of California. Then then the census was taken in 1940, she referred to him as a lodger rather than her biological son. What I do know is that she never married that I've been able to find record of, and that she had Sam baptized in a Catholic church (which makes sense given her Irish and French-Canadian background), so it may have been something to do with the social stigma of having a child while single. Regardless, she kept her son and raised him. According to my aunt, she never told him he was her biological son, just that he had some French ancestry, and that his father was a Catholic priest.

That leads me to the next part of the problem - who was Sam's biological father? This is where the idea of "fishing in all ponds" really paid off. Sam's DNA was tested at FamilyTreeDNA, where I found the first connections to the LaFonde family. Rick tested at Ancestry, where I found more LaFonde and the Murphy connections. When I transferred Sam's results to MyHeritage, I found something I didn't expect - a paternal match who shared more than 600 cM of DNA with Sam!! This meant he was likely a first cousin or first cousin once removed to Sam, or some other close relationship!

Fortunately, this match had an unusual name, and several of his children and other relatives had tested, and had some great information in their family trees. Eventually I found that this cluster of matches descended from Wilhelm Teufal and Bertha Gorske, German immigrants who settled in Wisconsin in the late 1800s. Among their descendants, four men fit the statistical probabilities of being Sam's biological father - their son William Tifal (his name was changed later on, probably to assimilate easier), William's son Charles Tifal, William's brother Gustav Tifal, and Gustav's son Chester Tifal. At the time of Sam's birth, William and Gustav were in their 50s and married (while Helen was in her late 30s). They are still both possible birth fathers, but their age difference and marital status (they stayed married all their lives) makes them a bit less likely. Charles and Chester were single and in their 20s, and both lived in the Los Angeles area at the time. Statistically, though, Chester was a long shot, while Charles was a lot more likely. Therefore based on age, circumstance, and statistical analysis, Charles Tifal is the most likely candidate for Sam's birth father.

Charles was not a Catholic priest though. While originally from Wisconsin, his family moved to California when he was very young. He married a woman named Ann Killoren in 1932 (not long after Sam's birth), and they stayed together until Charles' death in 1972. He served in the Army for four years during World War II and worked as a superintendent of a warehouse in the LA area. The Teufals were Lutheran I think (I had some problems with the records I downloaded on them and lost a few, trying to recover them but I think I saw them in Wisconsin Lutheran records). So the idea that Sam's father was a Catholic priest seems to have been a fabrication.

It's weird to think that, if Helen had used the surname of her son's father, my uncle Rick would be Rick Tifal or Rick Teufal, rather than Smith. Someday I hope to see a picture of Charles, just to see what he looked like. He played an interesting role in part of my family's history, even if he never knew he did. His son Sam had German, French-Canadian, and Irish ancestry, and we can now say who those ancestors were and where they came from, at least for a few generations. Maybe over the summer I'll see if I can take any of these lines further back. I'd love to found out where the Teufals came from in Germany (or if it even WAS Germany for that matter). I did find a picture of the ship Charles Tifal's grandparents sailed on to get to America though, the S.S. Mosel, shown below.

But that's a mystery for another day.