My ancestry project began (more of less) when I was forty-nine years old, and had just gained a sister. It ended (more or less) when I lost my father. Those two events became approximate bookends for a project, and will now serve as bookends in this account of what those six intervening years have taught me.
Along the way I met many, many new relatives who helped the project along. Somewhere along the line, I became the expert to turn to when it comes to family tree matters. Hopefully these observations, and the methods I used, can help others along in finding their own family history. As a note to my own brothers and sisters: your work has been done for you! But to my nieces and nephews, this is only half of it. The rest is for you to do. My advice? When you are older and finally interested in your ancestry, many of those around you now will be gone. Talk to your relatives, and do it sooner, rather than later. Often, over these years, my mother would remind me how her mother would have known this or that, or how her grandmother would have recognized someone in an old photo. She also would tell me how much those folks would have been interested in the facts coming to light, things which even they didn’t know. So now I find myself wishing I could run back the clock and talk with those old geezers and biddies from my childhood. They were just uninteresting old people to me then, and, as I later realized their value to my life, I found that they had been taken from me before I could learn from them.
I unearthed stories, and occasionally saw hints into personalities. Things appeared in my mailbox which amazed and enlightened me. Once in a while, something appeared which stunned and shook me. It’s easy (and fun) to view one’s ancestry as something akin to coin or stamp collecting: Here’s the album, just plug in the coins or stamps as they turn up. And surely this approach was more than useful, as those holes in the album became goals. My project was a photo album which became a family tree, so for those who only seek to populate their family tree, it will be easier. But whether it’s images, or names and facts, or both, sometimes we need a reminder that these were people, good, bad and all shades in between. While those stamps in the collection are just snips of paper, each of them represents something; there’s an image on that stamp and a reason it was put there. Our ancestors, more than just genetic material or names on lists, lived lives full of great happiness, great sadness, and everything which can be found between, and the end result, improbable as it seems, was us.
In 2007 I received a phone call which upended the order of the family I had grown up in, and opened up a project which consumed a lot of my spare time for years to come. Before that phone call, I was the oldest of five children, and after it, I was the second oldest of six. And so, when I was nearly fifty years old, I suddenly had an older sister.
Irene had been put up for adoption at birth, and my parents had never even known that the baby was a girl, only that the Catholic Church would find the child a home. Half a century later, Irene had sought us out, and our family had grown by one. It goes without saying that the 1950’s were different times, and things would probably be handled differently now, but that was then, and adoptions of the sort were common. Indeed, there was another such case on my mother’s side of the family around the same time.
After introducing myself to my “new” sister (an odd situation, you can be sure) and letting her know that I considered this a challenge to my presumed ascendancy to the Family Throne, I sat back in my chair to think about family in general. At that very moment my eyes fell on a dusty plastic bag which had been gathering dust on a high shelf in my home office for several years. Inside that bag were about fifteen rolls of 35mm film negatives which were to have been the start of a family photo album, but, like many launched projects in my life, had been docked, while the next potential project sailed into view.
In 2001, six years before meeting my sister Irene, I bought an old mobile home on Pueblo Indian land north of Santa Fe, New Mexico, and put Milwaukee, Wisconsin behind me. During the month or two before moving I spent many weekend afternoons at my parents house, and the conversation (and then the activity) turned to those boxes down in the basement containing the family photo albums. The idea hit me: how about copying many of those old photos onto film? (Digital photography was not yet the norm.) The idea was not so much to record photos of my immediate family, but those of my grandparents and great-grandparents. Later on, I planned to scan the negatives digitally, the final result being a digital photo album, a future Christmas gift for everyone. Over many hours, I copied the photos, took a few pages of notes to go with them. After having the negatives developed, I stuffed the lot into a plastic bag.
There it all sat for years. When I finally inspected those films I discovered, to my disappointment, that the negatives had been rolled so tightly for so long a time that just cutting and sleeving them was a curly horror. I could have kicked myself for not doing this step before shelving the project. (To this day those negatives are a bit curly, even after years of being pressed in a large book.) The next step was the film scanner, another curled negative adventure. But following many hours of processing and retouching on the computer, I had dozens of digitized family photos. And a new concept for the project had emerged.
I already had a website for my main hobby of photography, so why not develop a sister-site for the family photos? I had all the software and know-how, and thus the last few months of 2007 became a race with the calendar to design a new website, one which I intended to unveil to everyone as a Christmas present. On Thanksgiving I flew back to Wisconsin to meet my new sister, and I hauled along my camera and a tripod for another go at the basement photo collection. The idea of a family tree and photo album was taking over, and I needed a crash course in my own ancestry, as well as images of the ancestors who hadn’t made it into my collection of photos.
This new round of copying involved a digital camera, skipping the film and scanning steps completely. I ended up re-copying many of the photos from the first round, one reason that all of those curled negatives didn’t amount to the catastrophe they might have. In the end, I returned to New Mexico with over a hundred carefully selected high quality digital images, and less than a month to finish putting the website together.
Well, I got it done, and I worked late at night right up until Christmas. On that day the website was published, and there was a front page with Christmassy Garlandy ornament on it, and a page displaying the family tree, my family at the bottom, and great-grandparents at the top. There were individual family tree pages, with actual portraits for each person, and each family tree page linked to a photo album page for that particular family.
The site looks a pretty much the same today, but it’s much, much bigger, and I’ll say it now for all to hear: if I had known then how much more work would go into the project, I probably would have shot myself.
My mother kept her mother’s photo album safe, and her aunt’s photo album, and her grandmother’s photo album. The photo collections in them overlapped, those of a mother and two daughters, and those three albums formed the basis for three entire photo galleries on my website, and the beginnings of two more. I suppose that if not for those albums, I might never have started the entire project.
On my father’s side of the family there were no such resources, because his parent’s photo album or albums had not been seen in decades. Both of his parents had passed away a quarter century before, and while I pestered a few family members about it, it became apparent that my dad’s side of my family photo project was to start out without much in it at all.
The tradition of family photo albums goes back into the nineteenth century but seems to be fading away now in the digital age. At a time when we take more photographs than ever before, we don’t make prints of them any more. Not many, anyway, and most of us do not buy scrapbooks and dutifully arrange our prints in them. Try even finding those little adhesive corners, much less a decent selection of albums. While a lucky child may have the opportunity to sit next to his mother and page through great-grandmother’s album, will that child be able to sit and do the same some day with their own children?
I’ve worked in various camera stores, and been associated with many photo finishing labs, and I’ll repeat here what many of my associates say: we are witnessing entire generations of children who will grow up without a family photo album.
I’m not railing against the digital age, in fact I embrace it fully, and now we have opportunities which our grandparents could only dream of. We can edit and print our own photos at home. There’s no worry, in theory, about protecting the “negatives,” or originals, since we can make duplicates easily and cheaply. Indeed, our entire photo collections can be replicated simply, with copies stored here and there. Yet very few people do so, and every day, hundreds, perhaps thousands of us lose everything we have to a crashed hard drive, a smashed phone or other device, or to the whims of storing everything on some internet site. With all the talk of “the cloud” in recent years, most of our precious memories really are “out there” in thin air.
“Daddy, show us pictures of grandma and grandpa.”
“Sorry, mom’s computer died. I think I have copies somewhere…”
When disaster strikes, flood or fire, one of the first things people save is the family photo album. Not the vacation photos. Not the hobby photos. The family photos are a treasure passed down from generation to generation. Wouldn’t it be nice if we all kept our digital photos in one place, instead of spread out over dozens of electronic devices? Everything can fit into a shirt pocket now, if only we are organized.
On a positive note: several second and third cousins I have met during this project sent me copies of photos which I already had, and it was nice to remember that my ancestors had proudly sent copies of their favorite images far and wide. It was a real pleasure to sometimes identify the folks in them for those cousins, and in that way enhance other photo albums across a far flung group of relations.
Keep your photo memories safe. Make some prints, too, and stick them in an album if you can find one. Each year, make a point of identifying your favorite fifty pictures, collect them in one place, and put descriptions on them. Send copies to others, and while you’re at it, put labels on those too. Someone down the line will be very thankful. Lecture over.
There were two things which kept the project going into another year. First, it got a boost from a relative of my mother: her cousin, Pat Baribeau. Pat had done some research after the death of her mother in 1995, and she had done it the old fashioned way. While I’m both proud and a little guilty at the same time to have never left the comfort of my computer chair in most of my work, Pat had done actual footwork, visiting courthouses and churches and cemeteries and more. In the late 1990’s, my mother had received a document in the mail from Pat detailing my grandfather Williams’s side of the family. It was an actual pedigree, complete with dates facts and stories, and in one particular area it carried the family lineage back hundreds of years into France, not just the French-Canadian stuff Michigan’s Upper Peninsula was famous for. Two of my sisters also got a copy. While this was an amazing piece of work, I must confess that at the time I did not really care much about it, as the genealogy bug had yet to bite me. Sadly, the family copies disappeared in the following years, and when I became interested, a copy could not be found. Soon my mother had called up her cousin, and a digital version of Pat’s work was in my e-mail, followed a week later by a small stack of photos from that branch of the family. Now I had material for another gallery and a half of photos, really filling in my mother’s side of the tree.
I was getting hooked: these were people I had never even heard of. It’s funny how, as a kid, I thought I knew my grandparents, but it turns out that I had not even known their full names, and I had never really thought of the fact that they not only had their own parents, but brothers and sisters too. Suddenly the names and surnames which my parents had dutifully penned onto the annual Christmas cards, or thrown over the table during conversations with my grandparents, suddenly those names were falling into slots on my family tree.
The second reason the project kept rolling had to do with symmetry. My family tree (the graphic one on the website) was noticeably lopsided, leaning toward my mother’s side. It looked a bit like those trees you see along the highway which have been pruned back on one side to leave room for the power lines to pass. Not only did I lack any serious photo material for my dad’s side of the family, I did not even have names for any of my great-great-grandparents there, while on my mom’s side it was not only complete, but I even had photographs for five out of the eight. Worse, even the names for some of my great-grandparents on my dad’s side were suspect, and I only had a photo of two of the four.
My sense of balance was offended, but what to do? A second round of photo copying (actually third if you count the initial 2001 session) ensued at my parents house over the Thanksgiving, 2008 weekend. I was more thorough that time, making sure to comb through all the albums and such, and while my mother’s side was augmented to a point near completion (in my estimation at that time), little more turned up for the other half of the tree.
I would like to explain some of the methods which allowed me to plod ahead over the next two years, filling in the tree to an extent which amazes me every time I look at it. The toolbox really only has a few tools in it, and most involve the internet, which should come as no surprise considering I’ve already said that I did no actual footwork.
The first and most powerful tool has been the website Ancestry.com, where I have posted an extensive family tree. During the years of my project alone, the sheer number of documents that site has amassed is astounding. The census documents alone make it worth joining, and, of course, you will get in contact with others who are researching common ancestors.
Where Ancestry.com and the other genealogical sites might fall short is in the accuracy of family trees posted by other members. I’ve used the site as a huge whiteboard, an organizational tool, and I’ll go on record as having posted a lot of questionable data myself, all in the effort to glean more out of the databases. Just playing with the search engines. For example: one of my great-grandfather’s brothers was names Joe Fragale. I listed him at one point as “Giuseppi Joseph Joe Pepino Fragale,” all in an effort to find any more data on him. What was his actual baptism name? I’m still not sure. Now that I’m done researching him, he’s listed more simply as “Joseph Fragale.”
Another example: I have a great-great-grandmother whose name was Susan Walters, and whose married name was Susan Cessna. In two census documents she’s “Susie“, in two others she’s “Sudie” (her nickname) and in another she’s “Suda,” probably a misspelling by the census taker. I have a photocopy of her newspaper obituary, as well as testimony by phone from one of her granddaughters, that she was Susan Cessna, nicknamed “Sudie,” yet several Ancestry.com family trees list her as Suda Cessna.
My advice: be careful what you find and then blindly copy to your own tree. Most of the bigger trees on the site, my own included, have portions which are simply elaborate houses of cards, and any inaccurate connection means that everything above it is pure fiction. Families are elaborate things which census data can totally obfuscate, especially the old census documents which don’t indicate family relationships. I’ve got a case in my tree where a man with several children from his first marriage married a woman with several children from her first marriage, and then some census pages show children from the new marriage mixed with some of the others. I repeat: Ancestry.com and the others are very powerful tools, but used loosely you can really go astray.
The second tool of great use turned out to be my own website. Researching one’s ancestry has become a huge pastime in this computerized and connected world, and many people start by simply typing an ancestor’s name into a search engine. By having my ancestor’s names organized and listed on pages within my website, the major search engines eventually indexed those names, and I began receiving emails from second and third cousins around the country. It took time, perhaps two or three years, but at one point I realized that I had met more relatives through my own website than through both Ancestry.com and my own family connections, combined. Slowly, the holes started filling in, photos were sent and stories exchanged.
Here’s one tool I came up with which was not internet related: I actually wrote letters to houses, addressed to “Whoever lives at xxxxxx,” and got replies! My ancestors built the places, and the current residents were interested. In both cases, it turned out that the current owners remembered some of my relatives.
At the close of 2009, on the front page of my website, I proudly proclaimed the project to be done. Certain people would not let me forget that, especially in light of the fact that I make that I had made similar proclamations before.
I was happy with it at that time, and I’ll explain why. On my mother’s side, another Thanksgiving weekend foray into the family photos had convinced me that my work there was done, for all intents and purposes. I had deliberately copied twenty or so photos which, while obviously old, and by the fact that they were in my great-grandmother Fragale’s album would seem to have some importance, had people in them who my mother could not identify. These were mystery photos from the Fragale and Leisner clans, and I had one last hope of putting names on them.
That hope was in my mother’s aunt, Irene, who was 99 years old at the time, and while old age had affected her body, her mind was still sharp. The woman still managed her stock portfolio and checkbook. I called up Aunt Irene, and while our conversation was lively (I had not talked to her in a third of a century), the memories of the old days, before 1930 or so, were not easily pulled up. Mentioning the names of her uncles and aunts didn’t do much, and I left it at that.
Then……I retouched, repaired and enhanced nineteen of those mystery photos, and sent them off in an envelope to Aunt Irene, along with a cheat-sheet loaded with my guesses. When the phone rang several days later, Irene shot out: “Get a pencil,” and off we went. Picture #7, she told me, was of a young soldier named Skelly who had died in the war. “Who was Skelly?” I asked. “I don’t know,” she said “we all just had pictures of him.” The man in the hat in picture #11 was a neighbor: “an old lecher who used to hit on me and my sisters.” He was in the family photo, taken at some lakeshore, because he and his wife had a car, and he would drive the Fragales around on Sundays to places they otherwise could not go.
So far, this was going nowhere, but I was laughing so hard I couldn’t see straight. Then Irene, with a little help here and there, proceeded to identify most of the people in those photos, one by one ticking them off the list!
Here’s a lesson: photographs have a special power to trigger memories, so try it! A sadder lesson: Irene’s vision faded away in the three years following my interviews, and as I write this, she has passed away at 103 years of age. So try it while you can…
This breakthrough, combined with research I had done on the Leisners and Fragales on Ancestry.com and with the help of The Delta County Genealogy Society (Escanaba) website, had added much to my mother’s side of the family tree, and had identified and placed most of the folks in the mystery photos. And on my father’s side there had been major advances. The tree was no longer lopsided, and I now knew the names of all of my great-great-grandparents. I was amazed, and dad was amazed too. Photos had poured in from some of my father’s cousins, and suddenly I had the makings of two of the three empty photo galleries on that side of the tree.
I now had photos of seven of my eight great-grandparents, and names and data on all of my great-great-grandparents. I had photos of six of the sixteen, too! It really seemed like a good place to declare victory in the project. And so I did. It turned out that I was only halfway done.
When I was kid it was common for little boys to imagine some fraction of American Indian blood in their ancestry; I remember one of my own cousins claiming that he was one sixteenth Cherokee (or was it one thirty-second?) Since the United States was always held up as a “melting pot,” then why not? I am sure, being the product of thousands of Americans, way up the family tree, that there would almost have to be (statistically at least) some Indian blood in there, and some African blood too, but I have never found any. Going back as far as I can with the U.S. census documents and more, my family is white, through and through. Even my ancestors who hailed from southern Italy looked pretty white, although the northern Europeans of the time might have disagreed.
In all of the letters I’ve gotten from cousins and contacts, it’s not uncommon to hear things like: “Mom used to say there was Indian blood in the family …” It always makes me chuckle. I now live on Indian land, and some of my neighbors and associates are Indians, and I estimate that my social contacts probably make me as much an Indian as my bloodlines do, that is to say, not one bit. So if you tell me there are Indians in your ancestry, or for that matter, that your ancestors came over on the Mayflower, then I give you the old Missouri challenge: show me!
I did find a few Indians in the family tree, during my first explorations beyond a barrier I sometimes think of as The Wall, but they were deleted later. There’s a point, in the past, beyond which I really can’t see further back as clearly, a point where I lose access to the memories of my family members and the census documents are telling me less and less. From there on I must rely on others, those who have for decades pored through courthouse and church documents, and walked through old graveyards, trying to decipher inscriptions on crumbling stones.
The census pages from 1900 onward are rich with data, telling us family relationships, addresses, occupations, ages (thus approximate birth years) and more. Yet go back before 1880, and the pages are often little more than lists of household members. It’s seemed to me that anything before the Civil War might as well be inaccessible, as if behind a wall. I have used this imagined barrier as an excuse to draw a line as to how far back I’ll look in my research, and since the middle of the nineteenth century also corresponds to the birth of photography (at least as much as it pertains to family portraits). It gave me a convenient place to stop. After all, my project was still very much a photo album.
My first forays beyond The Wall were more like a prison break than an exploration. On Ancestry.com, it might go something like this: Let’s see, six other members list George and Martha as the parents of Dick who married Jane, so I’ll just click this here button, and voila!, they’re now my ancestors. Oh looky, there’s a wiggling leaf next to George’s name now. Pressing it leads to seven members who list Samson and Delilah as George’s parents. Wow, seven other researchers say so. Click! Now they are my ancestors. And thus a house of cards is built, generation on top of generation, until you look a bit more closely, and see that Dick cannot be George’s son, because they were born eight years apart. Could the birth dates be wrong? Of course, because you’re looking at a probable work of fiction.
Here’s what I bumbled into: I had a great-grandmother who I thought was named Mary Alice De Cessna, but in 2008, early on in my project, I could find no De Cessnas at all to link to the tree. My main problem turned out to be that my grandmother Spieth loftily referred to that branch of the family as the De Cessnas, a surname not used this side of the Atlantic. Once I had dropped the French article and searched simply for Cessna, I was rewarded with immediate success. I ran into a similar problem with my grandfather Spieth’s side of the family, where it was thought that his mother was named Weiss, but it turned out to be Wise. Getting those two surnames correct suddenly opened up my father’s entire side of the family for research, and it was Ancestry.com which was my main resource. And it was a new-found admiration for the powers of Ancestry.com which also led me over The Wall with reckless abandon.
I discovered lineages (which turned out to be mostly accurate) leading back to Count Jean de Cessna, the Huguenot ancestor who fled France to found the Cessna line in America. I also found links (again, mostly accurate) to other Kentucky pioneers of some note. (My Cessna ancestors came through Kentucky). Please bear with me here… A great-great-grandmother was named Susan Cessna-Walters, and her great-grandfather was named Jediah Ashcraft. Jediah was an early settler of Kentucky, and sometimes it seemed from the accounts that his claim to fame was having been killed by Indians. Jediah’s parents were named Daniel and Elizabeth, and many members of Ancestry.com (and elsewhere, too) list her as Elizabeth Lewis. Perhaps her maiden name was Lewis, but the assumption is that this was the daughter of a man named John Lewis and a woman names Elizabeth Warner. That would be Colonel John Lewis, and Elizabeth Warner would be a daughter to Colonel Augustine Warner. Further expansion of that well documented line leads to Nicholas Martiau of Jamestown, Colonel George Reade and a side line leads to a man named George Washington.
At first, I bought this, hook, line and sinker, and I even constructed pages for the website which illustrated the entire thing. The simple problem: there’s no proof, only wishful assumptions, that Jediah Ashcraft of Kentucky had a mother who was also the daughter of Elizabeth Warner and John Lewis of Virginia.
On a similar lark, I found another woman, way up the Cessna-Walters branches (and way out on a limb, too!) who was supposedly a daughter of the infamous Scottish laird Black Duncan Campbell (Duncan of the Cowl, Duncan of the Seven Castles, etc.) This led me on a merry bit of research into Scottish history, including the construction of a family tree which included the line of Stewarts, and thus even Mary, Queen of Scots! If you pursue this further on Ancestry.com, you can reach Robert the Bruce. But once again, no evidence that the woman in America had any relationship to this line at all. For that matter, I have no proof she even existed, since that branch of the tree was shaky to begin with.
This was all good winter fun at the computer, but several history lessons later, I had to admit these were merely flights of fancy. Late one night I put down my beer, sighed, and deleted the entire branch leading into Scotland. Then I deleted Elizabeth Lewis, daughter of Elizabeth Warner, replacing her with, simply, Elizabeth, wife of Daniel Ashcraft of Kentucky. Hundreds of people above them in my supposed ancestry were lopped off, and thus I retreated nearer to The Wall. While just about anything is possible, I don’t count George Washington or the Stuart Monarchs as my ancestors, and I still haven’t found any Indians in my family tree.
At one point I realized that while the ancestors up my family tree were gone, there were people around who still remembered them, and often were happy to tell about it. (I’m talking about those ones four or five generations back or so, not those beyond my imaginary Wall). In my case, most were Old Ladies, a term I capitalize here out of respect for the huge part they have played in the project. Certainly there are Old Gentlemen involved, but my experience is that the Old Ladies are the real protectors of the family treasures. They are the ones who usually keep the photo albums. And of the not so old helpers I’ve had, a majority are women. All you have to do is read the “Thanks to…” parts of my website to see this for yourself. Several times I’ve contacted men through the internet for help, only to find that they were doing the computer work for their wives, who were the ones really running the show. And that’s not to imply that the ladies aren’t computer literate, since some of my best Old Lady sources discovered me on their own, through the internet.
My first big side project came on my mother’s side of the tree, centering around her grandfather, Mike Fragale. He immigrated from Italy around the beginning of the twentieth century. I had lots of photo material of his family in the U.S., and my great-aunt Irene, his oldest daughter, was alive and well. Between Irene, her daughter Pat and my mother, I had much insight into that family in Escanaba, Michigan, but one thing had always puzzled me: What on earth led a young man from southern Italy to settle in Upper Michigan? The Old Ladies were about to show me. I knew that Mike’s brothers and sisters had settled in eastern Pennsylvania and eventually wound up in mushroom farming. I had photos of three of his brothers (with names on them, thank you!) and a photo of his mother and a little girl, Mike’s niece, taken back in Italy. His original wooden trunk, the one he traveled across the ocean with, had yielded a copy of his birth certificate, and gave the names of both of his parents. That’s about all that I had.
At this point I grew frustrated, and gathered a few phone numbers off of internet lists, almost anyone I could find who was both old and named Fragale. On my second or third call, I reached a man named Eugene Fragale, and he remembered my great-grandparents! He was a son of Mike’s brother Angelo. I was so surprised that I didn’t get too far in the interview before letting him know that I would like to talk further a few days down the road. Within a few hours, however, I had placed him in the tree, and I was brimming with questions. When I called back (the next day) Eugene had gone cold. He had talked to a few family members, and was advised that I might be a scammer, and better not to tell me any more. The guy was sincere and apologetic in his insistence, and while I got him to answer two very simple questions, I promised that I would not call again, and wished him well. With so many other lines of research going on, I left it at that. The project had taught me a patience I never had in my youth, and now I had learned that cold-calling phone numbers was tricky at best.
One day I got an email from Melania, who turned out to be the granddaughter of Mike’s older sister. Melania had come across my Fragale web page, since it listed the name of her grandfather, Serafino Lio (Leo, in America), and she had just finished a research project on him. It turned out that Serafino was a lynchpin in the story, having helped several of the Fragales get on their feet in the new world. Melania gave me the addresses and phone numbers of two more Old Ladies: Dolly, a daughter to Mike’s closest brother, Angelo, and Helen, a daughter of Mike’s younger sister, Josephine. Since neither of them had computers, we became old-fashioned pen pals, especially Dolly. Photos were exchanged, and each of those cousins (actually the first cousins of my grandmother) remembered my great-grandfather Mike, and his family. They had some of the same pictures I already had, but what was wonderful was other photos which Melania and Dolly sent to me, making my Fragale web page come to life. Little by little the entire Fragale story grew. Dolly even drove to the cemetery to write down many dates on tombstones! Moreover, Dolly filled me in on another Fragale cousin, John, who also settled in Upper Michigan, and Dolly’s father Angelo had worked there a few years, too.
If you haven’t put two and two together, Dolly was the older sister to Eugene Fragale. She asked me whether I was the guy who had spooked him a year or two back. We both got a good laugh out of it.
Melania sent me a copy of her account of Serafino Leo’s life, which I proudly published on my website, and it inspired me to write a similar account about my great-grandfather, which I called “The Fragale Family in Escanaba.” None of this would have been possible without those Old Ladies: Melania Ruggieri-Eapen, Helen (Dolly) Fragale-Citino, Helen Citino (yes, same name, but cousins) and of course, my great-aunt, Irene Fragale-Stratten. At that time, they had over 360 years of life experience between them. Emphasis: these four women averaged over ninety years old.
Next came an email from Lillian, one of Walter Cessna’s granddaughters, adding a few name and date corrections. A few more emails, along with a few phone calls, and I had twelve more Cessna photos, and a lot more information. This lit a fire under me to resume my Cessna research, left idle many months back, which led to an Old Gentleman who had posted some Cessna stuff years back on another genealogical site. It turned out that he was actually helping his wife, another Old Lady named Peggy, who was a great-granddaughter of Walter Coombs Cessna. Peggy sent me another dozen photos by conventional mail, having no computer in the house, and my Cessna photo gallery had gone from one of the most impoverished on my site to one of the richest, and in only a few weeks. I also learned some stories about the Cessnas, so finally I revisited previous work and cemented together the lineage leading back to Count Jean de Cessna, in France.
There’s another thing that stopped my research in its tracks, another Wall, and it was the Atlantic Ocean, so maybe this should be called “The Moat.” For many of my ancestors, the first document available is a ship’s manifest on the Ellis Island web site, and thus a port of departure and dates of departure and arrival might be most of what I know. Certainly this is true for all the Gieses, Poraths and Leisners making up one corner of my site. A ship’s manifest could give up a few more tidbits, though, like: who paid for the ticket, and who the passenger was meeting with on the American side. You can glean which parts of the Old World they came from, but the names of their parents and grandparents, indeed much of the story, will probably never be known. Face it, these were not famous folks, just farmers who put almost everything they had into a passage to America. I would be happy to climb The Wall, or swim The Moat, and run roughshod over what I found there, but it‘s probably not going to happen.
I’ve done my work while seated in my office near Santa Fe, and if I’m too lazy to travel to Michigan, Ohio, Arkansas or Kentucky for my data, just take a guess what the chances of a trip to Germany are! I’d just get there and want to drink the beer, anyway, or I would find out that the records had been stored on an upper floor in Dresden, with my luck. I hereby thumb my nose at the Gods of German Genealogy, and I dare them to send me another contact like the woman I’m about to introduce…
My great-grandfather Mike Fragale’s birth certificate names his parents, Concetta Mascaro and Gabriele Fragale, who never left Italy. Dolly Citino, Mike’s niece, came up with a transcription of Concetta and Gabriele’s wedding certificate, which names their parents, names I had never expected to know. And there it sat, until I got an email from Marti Mascaro. Marti was digging into her Italian past in a way that put me to shame, and a way which, when I tried it, nearly crossed my eyes permanently. She was plodding through microfilms of Italian marriage banns and birth records, available by order at any Mormon family research center. Marti’s Mascaro relatives were from the same area as my Fragale relatives, the little locales of Serrastretta and Accaria. The documents are copies, in Italian, of handwritten books, page by page.
I tried it. I learned just enough Italian genealogical lingo to interpret those pages. I realized just how daunting a task it could be, and I gave up, pouring admiration onto Marti. She had actually done about half of what I needed anyway, without knowing it! One of the families she had laboriously pieced together turned out, by chance, to be that of Mike Fragale’s mother. As I reasoned with Marti: I know that those families were all intertwined for generations, but how many families could there be in that small rural area with a father named Michele Mascaro, a mother named Caterina Citino and a daughter named Maria Concetta Mascaro, who was born in 1850? All of that matched my data, and out of it I got the names of Concetta’s four siblings, and the names of all four of her grandparents. That made three generations, complete, and all of them on the other side of that Atlantic Ocean Moat. They are my great-grandfather’s great-grandparents, on his mother’s side. Oh, for the other side, though.
While Marti is researching the Mascaros and Fragales of the Serrastretta area, I have asked her for the favor of keeping an eye open for a man named Gabriele Fragale, Mike’s father. That’s the lineage I’d be more interested in, since the Fragales in Pennsylvania who I could not identify (and one important Fragale in Michigan) were possibly Mike’s cousins, presumed descendants of Gabriele’s brother, or brothers. Also, somewhere in there is my great-grandfather’s middle name, and possibly the names of a sibling or two who never crossed the ocean to America.
The Spieths were from Ohio and the Spieths were German. I did not know much more about the Spieths when I started the project in 2007, and for quite a while, it stayed that way. You see, there were so many other nooks and crannies to explore in my lineage, that between my landscape photography projects during most of the year, and the other branches of the family tree during the coldest months, I just kept the Spieths on the back burner and let them simmer. Occasionally something came my way, but for the first years, I just left those Spieths alone.
Eventually the tree got filled in, both genealogically and photographically. My father’s cousins on his father’s side sent a barrage of photos, and after that I had Spieth grandparents who existed in more than just my memories, filling in, in a fashion, for grandma and grandpa Spieth’s missing photo albums. There were also many photos from my great-grandfather Spieth’s life and family. Little mysteries were solved, like why my uncle was named Cecil Willis Spieth. (His grandfathers were named Cecil Edward Rudick and Willis Arthur Spieth. They could have picked Arthur Edward Spieth, but no. I don’t blame him for going by the name Bill, or my father for his preference for his middle name, Ron, over his given first name, Walter. It seems that the third son, Phil, was the one who had gotten a name that he could live with.)
Michael Ronald Spieth (yours truly) had a father named Walter Ronald (Ron), who had a father named William Henry (Hank), who had a father named Willis Arthur (Arthur), who had a father named William. Then things ran up against The Wall, and stayed there. William George Spieth, my great-great-grandfather, was born and died in northeastern Ohio. He died before my dad was born, and I’ve never been in contact with any living person who had met him. Furthermore, to this day I have no photo of him, or of his wife, or of his daughter Pearl, Willis Arthur’s sister. His family photo album is still nonexistent on my website, so he’s merged into a series of Spieth pages, along with the Wise family branch, which his son married into. As of this writing, it’s the last big photographic hole on the website, and my big hope is that some descendant of Pearl Viola Spieth-Osterhout will come forward with a miracle.
Somewhere around 2010, I took a deep breath and tackled the “Spieths in Ohio” puzzle, and it revealed itself to be a really tangled mess. I tried to connect different families through the census from decade to decade, and it was apparent that there was a veritable Spieth-load of us. As I did with the Rudicks in Arkansas, charts were drawn with arrows snaking from one census incident to another, and while I did identify a few groupings, my head just swam. Importantly, while I was getting a better understanding of the overall picture, the origin of William George Spieth remained a mystery.
This is a case where the solution came from the other side of The Wall. It became a lot like the Cessna branch, where there was a body of research out there, including two actual books. In that case, the Ancestry.com members had mostly worked it out correctly, and that represents one of those places where I can take the family tree back for ten generations or more with confidence.
The Spieth ancestor of note here was named Christian Andreas Spieth, regarded my some as the father of the Spieths in Ohio. It turns out to be not completely true, as his brother Johann Friedrich Spieth also had descendants who came to Ohio. It’s still fair to say, however, that Christian Andreas Spieth is the father of the largest population of Spieths in America. My great-grandfather Spieth’s great-grandfather Spieth was named Johann Adam Spieth, and he was Christian Andreas Spieth’s son, the first Spieth in my line to live in America.
By my count, five of Christian Andreas Spieth’s children immigrated to America, in two waves, about a year or so apart, in the middle 1830’s. Three of them were brothers, and between those brothers there were eventually twenty-some children. The males were, of course, Spieths for the rest of their lives, so an Ohio population of Spieths was founded. This is documented in several lineages posted on the internet, and after discovering this, I searched and searched for my great-great-grandfather William George, but without success. I did find one William, a false alarm which I temporarily adopted to my tree. That William eventually turned out to be my great-great-grandfather’s first cousin. I did not know it, but I was very close to the truth.
The puzzle had been attacked from both sides of The Wall now, and linking the two sides would result in twelve generations of Spieths, thirteen generations, counting myself. So why was this so difficult? The answer proved to be multi-sided, yet the final truth very simple. Jumping to the solution, Christian Andreas Spieth’s son, Johann Adam Spieth, came to America with his wife and three children, but they had one additional child after immigration. That boy was named John David Spieth (notice the American name), and he doesn’t appear on most of the pedigrees you get when searching for “Ancestors of Christian Andreas Spieth” on the internet. To further complicate matters, John David Spieth died at only 36 years of age, he only appears in one U.S. Census, to my knowledge, and to top it off, Ancestry.com had transcribed his name as “John Speech.” Yet John David Spieth died with five children, the oldest of whom was named William Spieth, born in 1858.
I found John David Spieth’s 1870 census document about the same time that I found John Troeger, fourth cousin twice removed. John is my hero for this part of my story. John Troeger’s website states: “I collect dead relatives and sometimes a live cousin!” and I could see right away that we had much in common. He had been doing the genealogy thing for a lot longer than me, and his website was plainly a labor of love. It obviously had caught me, a live cousin, in its web.
I had been idly searching on the computer one afternoon, not expecting much, and plugging in the usual variations: William Spieth, William George Spieth, William G. Spieth, George William Spieth and even, in desperation, German takes on it like Wilhelm Georg Spieth. Clicking on a link to John Troeger’s site, I was greeted by what seemed just another iteration of the “Descendants of Christian Andreas Spieth” pedigree. But, since I had been led there by searching for William Spieth, I dutifully examined that familiar data, and was rewarded with a surprise. There, under Johann Adam Spieth were his children, including John David, the American born one, and below John David were listed his five children, the oldest being William George Spieth.
Being a Doubting Thomas by nature, I emailed Mr. Troeger, and I was deliberately vague, mentioning my great-great-grandfather William Spieth, but not John David, and begging assistance. John almost immediately shot back with the links I was becoming more sure of, and I replied, politely, that I was thankful, but how could I really know that the puzzle was solved?
What followed is what separates the internet explorer (myself) from one who has actually done the work on the ground: John Troeger, in addition to collecting dead relatives, collected the documents to back up his data. He lives in Georgia now, but grew up in northern Ohio. He sent several documents to me, among them a copy of William George Spieth’s death certificate. While it lists his parents as unknown (bad news), it gives his exact date of birth (good). Another document contained excerpts sent from the Zion’s Evangelical Lutheran Church, of Valley City, Ohio. Among them: a record of a marriage between a Johan David Spieth and a Christina Catherina Schect, and then a listing of the birth to them of a boy named Georg Wilhelm Spieth, the birth date exactly matching the one on my great-great-grandfather’s death certificate. And that was more than good enough for me.
Some families pass along vague and grandiose tales of the past, like claiming that forebears arrived on the Mayflower, or that there was some unknown connection to Old-World Royalty. There was little of that in my family I know of, so I can only be amazed by the actual history I have unearthed, without much risk of dispelling any family myths. Certainly the discovery that my ancestors included both saints and sinners should not have been a surprise, and the sometimes hard facts have only added color to what would have otherwise been an ordinary and colorless account.
But there was one mystery from my childhood to be explained: my mother had cloudy information of a claim in her family, a claim that an ancestor had been cheated out of one of the most valuable properties in all of Canada, and that family members had fought for years to right this injustice. I was told that, in theory, I actually owned a piece of the Basilica of Notre-Dame in the heart of downtown Montreal. It turned out that it was the land that the Basilica had been built upon which was in question, and the story told to my mother was of a poor soldier who had fought bravely for his country, and in place of monetary payment had been given land instead, land which was later unjustly appropriated by the Catholic Church.
My family vacationed in Canada while I was in grade school, and viewing that huge church I Imagined that my share of it was about one brick. It was only a hazy mystery to me, and I shelved it in the back of my mind for years. It later turned out that this was somewhat of a hazy mystery in hundreds of families across North America - maybe thousands. To some it was the struggle of David and Goliath re-enacted, to others a conspiracy of powerful world institutions over common folk. But to most it was just a set of unsubstantiated rumors, tied into a hope for a little financial gain.
My mother’s grandmother, Leah Laviolette-Williams, aware of the huge numbers of descendants involved in the legal battles, said that she hoped to get enough money out of it to buy a television. At one point, family members actually tried to get the famous attorney F. Lee Bailey involved. (He declined.) My mother recalled a time her own mother sat on the edge of the bed and told her that the dream was over. On one level it was only an old improbability, and no one seemed to know many of the details. Like the lottery, you played the game with a nod and a wink. Unlike the lottery, it turned out that there was no winning ticket at all.
I had avoided researching the French-Canadian branch of my family for years, partially out of deference to Pat Baribeau, my mother’s cousin, who had tackled the lineages years before. I had other fish to fry, and Pat had done a great job. Another obstacle was that my Ancestry.com account denied me access to Canadian resources, only available with a “world” account. I confess at this point to being a stingy bastard. Eventually, though, the deed had to be done. Once able to access census documents and digitalized collections which fleshed out the branch, I found that Pat’s research was nearly spot-on, but I was able to add other dates, events and family members, particularly siblings, to her account. The Laviolette line, for instance, was extended back several generations.
Next, I dug into the ancestral line of Leah Laviolette’s mother, Anastasia Tessier, an early settler from Canada to Escanaba, Michigan. The Tessier line can be traced back seven more generations, although positively connecting Anastasia’s father, Joseph, to the next two generations has been a challenge. Above the two Josephs, the Canadian genealogy is fairly well documented, thanks to the records of the Catholic Church.
Near the top of that line stands one of the most remarkable ancestors in all of my research, Urbain Tessier-dit-Lavigne.
A lot has been written about him, but here I give you only what applies to the three centuries of land claim battles which have followed his death. Urbain was born about 1625 in France, and he arrived in Montreal (then simply an outpost called Ville-Marie) somewhere between 1642 and 1647. In 1648 he was awarded a land grant by the governor, and promptly built a house and family there. He was a pit-sawyer and carpenter by profession, but a farmer and Indian fighter by necessity. His heroic exploits in defense of his family and community eventually earned Urbain a further award of land from the government, in addition to more land purchased on his own.
In places on the frontier like Ville-Marie, a rapid increase in population was among the goals of both King and Governor, and one story (unsubstantiated) involves an additional award of land, simply for the patriotic act of fathering a large family. In this regard, Urbain Tessier excelled. In 1648, he married Marie Archambault, then less than thirteen years old. Eventually there were seventeen children born. most lived into adulthood, and many sons carried on the family name.
I confess here that I have not researched the exact totals of acres of land which Urbain Tessier accumulated, and I do not know of the exact purchase or grant involving the particular tract which eventually became of such great dispute. As a part of my story, I don’t think these details matter very much, and we’re talking about a few dozens of acres, not whole townships or such. The property in dispute, in modern downtown Montreal, might be thirty acres or so.
Some property was spun off to his sons as they married, and some land was also deeded to the Church, the Seminary of Saint-Sulpice. Urbain Tessier-dit-Lavigne died in 1690, and there was no controversy at that time over the disbursal of his estate. Who could possibly have imagined the eventual value of this land? He would be astounded at what occupies this land today: The historic Place d’Armes public square, the headquarters for the largest bank in Canada, the Place-des-Congres convention center (built over the Ville-Marie Expressway), the Place d’Armes Metro Station, and of course the gothic-revival Basilica of Notre-Dame, one of the largest and most beautiful churches in North America.
Fast forward to 1838, nearly a century and a half later. The Quebec Legislature adopted a bill confirming the title of the land in question to the Sepulcian Order. What had happened? Heirs of Urbain Tessier-dit-Lavigne had made a lot of noise in those intervening decades, more so as the land in question became increasingly valuable. The claim, sometimes later referred to as the “Tessier-Lavigne Land Claim,” revolved around the idea that the original deed transferring the land to the Church was not outright, but in trust. The hitch? The actual document has not been located to this day. One descendant I know of claimed that (according to her family lore) the paperwork was lost at sea, on the way to Paris for some sort of verification. That only adds to the undocumented and sometimes crazy family stories which I will come to soon. For now, I note that unless that piece of paper improbably turns up, sensible people will have to conclude that the case was legally settled in 1838.
Nonetheless, about ninety years later, it was again dragged into the courts, and by this time there were hundreds of thousands of descendants. Attempts were made to draw as many of them into the case as possible. The following is an excerpt from a December 8, 1930 article in the Montreal Star. I’ve taken the liberty of editing it a bit, since Richard (on an internet discussion board) called it a “word for word” copy, yet it had quite few typos and punctuation errors, and for all I know the original was in French.
Although inquiries are pouring in from all sides from persons claiming an interest In the billion dollar action by which heirs of Col. Urbain Tessier-Lavigne ask to be declared owners of a block of land situated in and around Place d'Armes square, there are no actual developments in the case, according to the lawyers engaged In the proceedings. From widely-separated parts of the United States and Canada, inquiries have been forwarded to lawyers here recently and in one instance a well-known politician from Vermont visited Montreal to learn at first hand the exact status of the case, and the possibility of establishing a claim as one of the heirs.
In come cases the lawyers have been advised of rumors on the street that a settlement had been reached, and figures of from $20,000 to $200,000 have been mentioned as going to each established heir. The rumors, it is stated, are entirely erroneous, and no fresh developments have taken place, although the search is still going forward for a missing document which it is believed would establish the title of the heirs of the long-dead general to the property on which is now located Notre Dame Church and a large number of business and financial houses In the immediate vicinity.
"It is a pure gamble and nothing else," said A. M. Tanner, K.C., who is representing a group of the heirs when asked this morning as to rumors which have been current for some time. "I have advised my clients that their claim to the property rests entirely on a deed which so far has not been found. We have examined 60,000 deeds in the archives at Montreal, but as yet have found no trace of the document which is absolutely essential in proving title to the estate. As a matter of fact, I fear that some of these people are being exploited by individuals who make it their business to trace genealogies.”
A meeting of interested heirs may be called shortly in order that a report may be made and a clear-cut statement sent out as to the exact situation, Mr. Tanner said. The action, he conceived to be necessary owing to the large number of inquiries from persons who apparently have been deceived by false information as to the value of their claims.
I’ve been told that the legal concept of a class-action lawsuit, American style, was not possible within the Canadian legal system, and therefore the “Corporation Tessier-dit-Lavigne” was formed. For the meager sum of one dollar, any person who could show lineage back to Urbain Tessier would become a stockholder, and would thus share in the expected profits should the case be won. More shares meant a bigger share of the winnings. It is suspected that the “genealogists” employed by the Corporation had a somewhat loose interpretation of proper lineage, so being a shareholder should not be assumed to be proof of being an actual descendant of Urbain Tessier.
The entire case seems to have been little more than an exploitation of the hopes of many. According to Jan Nearing, posting on an internet forum:
The attorneys who perpetuated this scam were able to enjoy a handsome profit throughout the Depression. They brought suit against the Sulpician priests, the Banc-du-Montreal and the Archdiocese.
Well, it obviously was all about getting money out of these organizations, since you couldn't very well tear down the buildings and divide the property amongst the more than 250,000 known descendents who bought into this fiasco.
Long and short is, the wills were deemed properly executed. An attorney who reviewed it for my family laughed at the very premise that there was enough clout, especially when most of the descendents had never set foot in Quebec, to sue the Catholic Church and the largest bank in Canada. No one ever saw any money. There was some activity on this case, though, through the 1970's. The hard-nosed descendents who either were too stubborn to admit defeat or swore that there really was something to this took the case to: a) The World Court, b) The Vatican (twice), c) Her Majesty the Queen (like she's really going to have anything to say...and if she did...could she really make the British Parliament reverse these series of actions for a bunch of French-Canadian descendents 300 years after the fact?…)
From what I understand from a cousin, in case you ever make it up there, stop in at the Rectory. The priests are well versed on the whole story and will give you a "token" (commemorative) coin in reparation if you tell them you're a descendent.
And that’s the story, as I understand it. There are many out there who would loudly disagree. Most were sold some variant of a dream, a personal family fairy-tale about the whole affair, and some just wont let go of that. Dangle dollar signs in front of people’s eyes and they can be led to believe almost anything.
I am convinced that it would all make a good documentary, but not the actual history laid out above, but the individual family tales told over the decades, from one side of North America to the other. Along with the story as told within my own family, I’ll cite two additional examples, both from the same internet forum. One woman insisted that relatives, crossing the continent with the all-important document in hand, had actually been accosted, and the Catholic priests (boo, hiss) stole it from them! Another fellow (I withhold his name to protect him and his kin from the Illuminati or other threatening entities) said that it was his own parents who re-opened the case in the 1970’s, but had to give it all up:
I thought it was do (sic) to finances. Then my oldest brother told me in the late 1980's that it was because our family was being watched and followed by persons unknown to us. He was the first to notice this as he had just come home from the Vietnam War. He was a very decorated veteran and dealt with these kinds of things in his line of work in the military. I guess we attracted the wrong kind of attention. My brother said my parents dropped the case out of fear for their family’s safety. They must have really hit a nerve or posed some kind of real threat. Most likely by having the kind of credible documentation necessary to prove their claim.
Unfortunately, I do not have access to any of their documentation or records on the land claim. My oldest brother has them and he isn't going to give me a copy of them because he knows that I want to re-open the case and he doesn't want me to put his family at risk. I know this is true as he was able to obtain a permit to carry a concealed firearm and was carrying a .45 automatic with him then. Primarily because he knew that I wanted to pursue this case to whatever end it took me. But I have little intimate knowledge and details of the case and no documents to speak of…
Back on our side of reality, the whole affair certainly stirred up a mix of emotions in my own family. My mother told me that as a child she had been confused that the Catholic Church had treated a man so badly. But remember that she had been told as a child that the ancestor in question was a poor soldier who had fought bravely for his country, and the Church had taken his land from him.
My great-grandmother Leah was such a devout Catholic that when she realized she was participating in a lawsuit against her own Church, she traveled to Montreal to personally relinquish her share in the Tessier land-claim. And as for me, the land in question is thirty acres in extent, and I am but one of a million descendants. So if I don’t own a brick of the Basilica, I instead might own a square foot of land in downtown Montreal. If I could actually claim my square foot of land, I would fantasize that it was behind the lectern of the Basilica of Notre-Dame, and from there I could let loose upon the Church for injustices, even crimes, over the years. But I see no evidence that the Catholic Church did any wrong to Urbain Tessier-dit-Lavigne, and I do not really expect to get one thin dime out of the case.
In the summer of 2012 I once again proudly proclaimed the project to be done, and I could almost hear my dad laughing from 1500 miles away. I really meant it that time, sort of…
I knew that work of this kind is never complete, and I hoped for and expected more revelations to introduce themselves: a few more stories. I had always hoped beyond hope for those last important photos. But no matter what else is revealed by the coming years, the basic structure of the website is complete. The families are defined and each has its photo gallery: my parents, grandparents and great-grandparents. Seven little photo albums, with portraits of everyone, linked together by one family tree. But wait, there’s more! I also have collected lots of information on my eight pairs of great-grandparents and their families, along with photos of many of them. Some of those galleries are larger than those of their own children, and only one of them, that of William George Spieth, is empty. I also have lineages stretching back ten or more generations in places. Not bad, and after six years of this I’m getting tired. There was thing left to do, though…
When I first read into Pat Baribeau’s account of the Williams family and their forbears, something which struck me was the little details which accompanied the names: the occupations, the accomplishments and often the defeats. Along the way I have been able to add little details like Pat’s to the other branches of my tree.
My great-grandfather Roger Williams ran a bakery, and he once swam across the bay at Escanaba. My great-grandfather Cecil Rudick operated a streetcar in Detroit. My great-great-grandmother Susan Young ran a boarding house. My grandmother Dorothy Spieth had her sewing talents showcased in the street displays of a major Detroit department store. My grandfather Brendan Williams was a twentieth century French fur trapper. There’s so much more, and while some of it made it onto the website, but some never quite fit in.
My old friend and roommate Mark Angelos, a professor of history, suggested more than once that my websites needed writing and stories, and I’m forever grateful for that suggestion. In my project, the photo album it started has became but one leg of a tripod, and the names and dates and trees became another. Written accounts are the third and stabilizing leg which tie it all together as a family history.
First I wrote “Who was John Andrew Rudick?”: an attempt to nail down a particular rascal who deserted his family in Arkansas. That essay and research led me through a momentous civil war battle and the death of John‘s father. Then I wrote “The Fragale Family in Escanaba,” the story of a humble Italian teenage immigrant who worked his entire life on the ore docks of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. There was much more…
Most of the stories never get handed down to us, and most of the ones I’ve collected lean toward the tragic. The good times just don't make the news. In fact, it was one of those sad tales which led me to write this. Here, near the end of my account, I add some of those facts and tales which somehow didn’t fit into the site on their own.
I’ll put the grimmest things first, and the saddest last. Anyone who’s done much looking at tombstones or cemetery records has eventually noticed a name or two which are not a part of the known family tree, and closer inspection often shows the sad truth, with birth and death dates nearly coinciding. The rates of infant mortality could be astounding a century or more ago, and you will see this borne out in your research. Even more tragic is the discovery of a mother's death coinciding with the birth of a final child. I've found several of those, and suspected a few more.
My great-grandmother Cessna had four brothers, but in the Kentucky cemetery where her parents are buried are two small graves of siblings who lived only two and three years, and an obituary for Mary’s mother says that there were two more who didn’t make it, totaling four out of nine.
The first two children of my great-great-grandparents George and Susan Williams, born in 1889 and 1890, both died in 1891, probably of cholera. There are two other families I’ve found which were destroyed by epidemic: one by cholera, the other by yellow fever. My grandfather Hank Spieth had a brother, Phillip, who died very young. And so on. If you examine my family tree pages, you will find several others listed simply as “infant,” or “unknown.”
Another tragic family was that of Pierre Docque-dit-Laviolette, seven generations back, on my mother's side. Pierre had five children with his first wife, who then died at the age of thirty-one. His second wife died a month after the birth of their tenth child. He had one more child by a third wife. What might seem like a large family was definitely not: there were twins, at least one of which died at birth, followed by triplets, two of which died within hours of birth, and the third which may have lived a year. The following two years brought two more births and deaths. Out of sixteen eventual children, only four are absolutely known to have reached adulthood, although that number is hopefully higher.
Next on the list: children who lost their parents. My great-great-grandfather John Andrew Rudick got on his horse one day and left his wife and eight children behind. At least those kids had a mother, because when it was the mother who was gone, the children were usually sent off to other families, or much worse. John Rudick was probably half-orphaned himself, losing his father during the Civil War. Two of John’s brothers were then raised by other families, at least one of them on his mother’s side, while John became a “bound boy” with a local farmer, whose wife was another relative of his mother. A fourth child, just an infant, was the only one to stay with his mother.
There were really no “stay at home” dads back then. One of the Cessna brothers, Joseph, was left with three young daughters when his wife died of tuberculosis, but those girls were then raised by their grandparents on their mother’s side. When Louis Fragale’s first wife died, their two children were raised by two other families.
Then there were the children of Peter Young, who was brutally killed in 1882, in a collision between his horse carriage and a train. He had ridden into Kaukauna, Wisconsin to sell a cow, and “as usual with him on such occasions, freely disbursed a few dollars of the money.” He was probably drunk, and Peter never made it home alive. His widow, Catherine, was left with seven children ages 16 down to 2, and she soon married a widower who had nine children of his own. In 1892, no longer residing with her second husband, Catherine was living with four remaining children, two from each family, in filth, without proper food or clothing. She was committed by county authorities to an asylum, where she died a month later, of dropsy, now called edema. The two oldest girls, Catherine’s daughters, were also placed in an asylum. Of the other two children, the girl was adopted, and the boy was probably sent to a public school for dependant children.
Susan Young, an older daughter of Peter and Catherine, was twelve years old when her father died, and twenty-two when her mother died. She had married George Williams three years earlier, in 1889, and as noted above, their first two children were probably victims of cholera. In 1902, she filed for divorce, the court document stating that her husband was "...calling her vile and indecent names and charging her with want of chastity and using other abusive language toward her," and that he "...has been and still is a habitual drunkard; that he has expended all his spare money for strong drink and has come home drunk and intoxicated nearly every week... (and) she has been obliged to work at home without sufficient food... (He also) contracted a venereal disease..." which he claimed to have gotten from her! Two weeks later they signed an agreement to discontinue the divorce action, and she remained with him until his death in 1911. Their youngest son, Roger Williams, was my great-grandfather.
There were cases in my correspondence where suspicions were raised about the parentage of a family member, often the oldest son. One such story involved Rob Staller (not his actual name) who, to one email writer, didn’t look quite like his siblings. One family rumor was that Rob was really an Indian! “Ellen,” Rob Staller’s daughter, related another twist to the story. Whether or nor Rob was really a proper Staller, he had been a navy man from 1922 to 1936, at which time he went AWOL, turning up in Galveston, Texas, and changing his name to Rob Stiller. Rob had a very good friend named (ahem) Frank Dallas, who seems to have been another fugitive. Supposedly, Frank had fled his family and job as a lab assistant at Walter Reed Military Hospital in Washington, D.C., altered his name to Dallas Frank, and also wound up in Galveston. Both Frank and Rob had secret post office boxes.
Sometime in the 1940’s, Frank married Ellen’s grandmother, on her mother’s side. The problem seems to be that Rob’s own mother had also married a man named Frank Dallas as her second husband! Poor Ellen was a bit concerned: It seemed that the same man might have been married to both of her grandmothers, and wrote “There is some sort of family secret that my sib's and I sense but we get no answers to our questions that are posed to elder family members. My guess is this whole Frank Dallas thing.” I replied, more or less, “Wow!” and I never heard from her again. Well, Ellen, there seems to be more to this, and I hope you ferret it out. While I can’t match the cloak and dagger aspects of your story, and it might form the bones of a good novel, it’s really not as scandalous as you think. I’ve found worse things.
That story, along with the following one, are places where I was uncomfortable using real names, since the sources had dried up, and I had no permission. There’s nothing more frustrating than meeting an enthusiastic distant cousin, exchanging data, getting in on a juicy storyline and then being totally cut off. So here, with fictionalized names and more, is a tale which Charles Dickens himself might have adapted into a story line.
I’ll call our protagonist Booker (although I’m tempted to use Oliver Twist, or Pip) and Laura will be his granddaughter. Laura, a third cousin to me, found my website in August, 2010, and spotted her grandfather there. She was overwhelmed to find the connection between him and his great-grandparents. Her mother also viewed the site, and the tales had started flowing between them. Laura sent me a photo of Booker, and I waited to hear from her mom. What I got instead in the next e-mail was a true tale of woe and intrigue, and then I never heard from Laura again!
Booker’s family, like many in the late 1920’s, and into the great depression, were poor as church mice, barely surviving. The story was told that at dinner the plate was passed to Booker’s father first, since he needed the strength to go out and work, then to the children, and finally, if anything remained, to Booker’s mother. Unknown to the father, there was another child on the way, which the family could hardly afford, and Booker’s mother bled to death after an attempt at a home abortion, performed by her and her sister.
Booker was only a toddler at the time, and he was handed off to be raised by his mother’s family. The children of that family, his uncles and aunts, were all ten or more years older than Booker, and he grew up treated like a red headed stepchild; he never received gifts for Christmas or his birthday, yet had to watch the others get those things. It seems the only present he did receive each year came through his actual father, from the large garden and estate where he and others in the family worked. Laura remembers that her grandfather “had such a strong emphasis on family and giving and celebrations, and as an adult, I realize that is why.”
In a turnaround, when Booker’s grandfather, who he referred to as “Pop,” lived at the farmhouse many years later, it was Booker and his wife who lived there with him as helpers. Pop’s children wanted to put the old man into a home, but Booker, who Pop, years before, had given the nickname “Bobo,” stood in their way. The old man’s children had their eyes on his house, which, the story goes, Pop had left in his will to Booker’s daughter (Laura’s mother). One day, while Booker was gone, they made off with their father, and put him away, location unknown. The will was rewritten, with the farmhouse divided up between them.
After that, the old man would sometimes call Booker, saying "Bobo, come get me. Where are you? Why did you put me here?" but he wasn't able to say exactly where he was. Laura said the only time she ever saw a tear in her grandfather’s eye was when he told that story, and the story of his childhood. “The sadness in my grandfather had nothing to do with wills or inheritance, it was that Pop died in that retirement home before my grandfather could ever find him.” Laura wrote, “He couldn't bear the thought that Pop thought he put him in there when he swore that he never would.”
This was both the saddest and the most preposterous story that had ever entered my mailbox, and since “Laura” never responded to further emails, I sometimes wished that the whole thing was a cruel hoax, yet her letter to me seemed authentic and spontaneous. I was forced to conclude that I had accidentally been drawn into a matter too personal, that too much had been blurted out to someone who was actually a complete stranger.
When I was a kid, she was “Grandma Williams,” but I later learned that Margaret Williams had been born in Escanaba, Michigan in 1916, christened Margaret Regina Fragale. Her mother was born in America, a few years after the family arrived from Germany. Margaret’s father was a dockworker who had come to America from southern Italy as a teenager.
Margaret married Brendan Roger Williams, high school football star and athlete, a local Escanaba boy. By the time that Brendan entered the US Army (January 2, 1944 in Marquette, Michigan), they had two children: my mother, Harriet Marie Williams, and her younger brother, Michael Brendan Williams.
I’ve got a musty old hardcover book in my hands, titled “His Service Record,” maintained by my grandmother. It’s not any sort of government or army publication, but a commercially available book organized so that the friends or loved ones of military personnel could fill in as many blanks as they desired. Grandma Williams’ entries begin in March of 1944, a little over two months after grandpa joined the army. The record gives us a look into that fateful time, including many details we never might have known. Here’s my synopsis:
On January 2nd, 1944, Brendan Roger Williams, then twenty-seven years old, left his wife, his two children and his job at the Bird’s Eye Veneer Company in Escanaba, and enlisted in the US Army, in Marquette, Michigan. His training as a soldier over the next six months took him through several transfers. First it was Fort Sheridan, Illinois, then onward to Camp Wolters, Texas. On June 2nd, half a year after enlistment, he was given eleven days to visit his family, then he was off to Fort Meade, Maryland in late June, and Camp Kilmer in early July. Camp Kilmer was a staging area for troops destined for the European Theater of the war.
On July 18th, 1944 Brendan sailed for Europe, arriving in Glasgow, Scotland, on July 31st, and proceeding immediately onward to England. On August 3rd, he traveled to France on the Swedish ship Bergensfjord, along with about 3500 other soldiers. He spent the next four days in replacement depots, and on August 8th, he was sent to the front.
He fought in the Second Armored Division, known far and wide as “Hell on Wheels,” which eventually could have taken Berlin if not held back on orders. Brendan’s first engagements were at Barenton, France, where they held the sector for five days against the German Seventh Army. Then a sweep across France began, then across the Rhine for two days. They swung north into Belgium fighting a bitter battle at Albert Canal. That was about September 10th. They crossed the German border on September 18th, and then withdrew for several days. Returning to Germany, Brendan fought for several days on the Siegfried Line, until he was wounded on October 6th, 1944.
According to the book, Brendan was hospitalized at various locations over the next eleven months. He left England on January 5, 1945, arriving in the United States on January 15. His US recovery began for a few days at Halloran General Hospital in New York, but by January 19 he was at Schick Hospital in Clinton, Iowa. May 4 found him at the Percy Jones Convalescent Center in Battle Creek, Michigan. He was finally discharged on September 8, 1945.
Here’s a mystery: My grandfather Williams was shot during the war - we all knew this - and when I was a little boy I was in awe every time he showed me those round scars, one on each side of his forearm, where a bullet had passed clean through. So why was he hospitalized for nearly a year? Were there injuries or complications which my mother and her brother were never told of?
Private Brendan Williams was awarded the Purple Heart, Good Conduct Ribbon, European African Middle Eastern Theater Ribbon, three Bronze Campaign Stars and the Combat Infantry Badge.
And you might now be wondering: why have I titled this little chapter after my grandmother? Because she’s also a hero to me, having chronicled her husband’s military service, and preserved the records for us to see. Here’s a letter grandpa wrote to her while he was recovering, in its entirety:
March 20, 1945
My, I got lots of mail again this morning, and 1 package. There are 5 letters from you that had gone overseas- (one was from August 4th and the others from mid-December. Then there were 3 Christmas cards from my aunt plus a couple old Pay Rays and last but not least a letter from you from March 18th and also one from Coosey Coo. Oh yes, the package too. It was the one Susie had sent & had a lighter and some candy in it. Tell her thanks.
Yesterday I got a letter from Wick. He seems to be getting along fine. However, I suppose I should write and tell my folks this myself, but I’ll let you do it, he’s pretty peeved because my folks haven’t been writing to him hardly at all. So you better tell them to start writing. I can realize how he feels so kindly do that.
Well [Partner?] so now the truth comes (in your letter of the 18th). So you were mad at me for buying that old Model A. Well it was a damn good car & I’ve been kicking my ass ever since I sold it. Not that it was much to look at but it used to get me around. In the years to come maybe I can get another one to hang around in and we can have a real nice car besides. We did have some fun with that old car at that & even then you looked real regal when you would drive it. Sitting way up like the queen you are. I also remember how bad Harriet felt when we got rid of it.
You did right by telling who ever called that you didn’t know anything about what traps I have and not selling any of them. By the way, I didn’t really mean what I said about you had better send me the book an I’d probably read it instead of taking care of you. I was just kidding about that because you come first, last and always. But you can read the book anyway - it will help occupy my mind until you get here.
Last nite I went to a U.S.O. show they had at the Red Cross. It was quite good & I passed about an hour off. Tonite they have a movie at the [Post?] Theater “Molly and Me” I think is the name of it. It’s a comedy, and while it probably won’t be too good I think I’ll go anyway.
Well Sweetheart I guess I’ll say Bye Bye for now. With all my love to you and the children,
Just a slice of everyday life, made special because grandma saved it for us. A couple of the decorations from grandpa’s uniform, a few letters from a lonely soldier, a few dozen dates and places recorded. This chapter is as much about Margaret Williams as it is about her husband, and on page forty-seven of the service record, hidden beyond several blank pages, I found this:
March 12, 1974
I found this book while rummaging through old forgotten things. I tried to keep this record thirty years ago at the age of twenty-seven. Now I am fifty-seven! The most unusual part of this service record is I believe, the many blank pages. Yet it speaks loud and clear telling a complete story in so few words.
Page 7 - All true. [personal history] Page 8 - Visitor from Outside - Me. Page 9 [training, travel, battle and convalescent information] Bravery, courage, a fast story which could have well left me a War Widow with two small children, never even knowing Mary & Brendan Jr. Page 41 - Brendan R. Williams was my own choice, but I know there were many others: the small guys carrying the M1 Rifle. Not the great Generals: Eisenhower, MacArthur, Patton (any of the rest.) They paraded and gave their commands in the Atlantic and Pacific, and that’s all - they never did one bit of fighting! Pompous bas___ds all.
Did we believe in this World War? Yes we did. Hitler was a mad man. He brought destruction on so many countries at such cost it was right to try and stop him. This was a horrible war not just on one or two countries - on almost all parts of the Globe.
Have I ever believed in the Vietnam War? The answer is No. I would have sent Michael and Brendan to Canada, Sweden, any place to escape it. Do I believe in Amnesty? Yes I do. Do I believe a man should be executed as Private Slovik was? An army deserter? No! This poor man obviously couldn’t help what he did.
I hope to God we never have another Major War because it would have to come from super powers - namely Russia or China. They could blow us off the face of the Earth, or we could do like wise, and it could well be the end of our world. If it were to come I would want just one thing. No flags flying, no bands playing, only all of us, our entire families - Harriet, Michael, Mary, Brendan, all the Grand children in one room - together. Perhaps we could recite the Rosary.
Margaret R. Williams
It is a side of my grandmother I never knew. As for the reference to Page 41, that page is titled “War Heroes: Place names pictures and items concerning persons who became famous through deeds of heroism,” and while there's room for thirty-five entries on that page, Grandma Williams only listed one war hero: Brendan R. Williams.
Most of the last big photographic holes in my website were filled in during May and June of 2012. After that push, I a few little jolts - some reasons to begin this site-encompassing essay, and to aim my research toward an end: I needed badly to push the “print” button. It was an old fashioned conceit: I just needed to see it on paper. Everything I had found was displayed digitally to the world, but it would all be quite gone only a year or two after I was gone. So the last year was spent reducing the data to print.
As I wrote at the beginning, we are witnessing the death of the traditional photo album, and now I realize that the traditional letter (in an envelope) is following that same path to extinction. I could rant again about organization and backing up of data, but the fact is that most modern correspondence is fated to being lost forever to those of us who it could one day be important to. Most people never really organized their photos or letters when I was young, so I can’t really have any hope now.
Do you have a small box of letters from the past, from cousins, grandparents, friends or lovers? On paper, handwritten in cursive writing? The folks born and living in the past century will often say yes. People born after 2000 will not. Reading cursive writing will soon become a specialized skill, but the real issue is that there will be no actual “writing” involved at all, only typing, and rarely will anyone press the “print” button. Future generations are unlikely to receive packages of old yellowed missives to study, as I have had the enjoyment of doing.
The weak side of my family genealogy had always been my father’s side, and while huge gaps were filled in with dozens of photographs, in 2011, the gallery of dad’s parents still seemed a bit empty to me. The gallery of his mother’s mother, the Rudick gallery, was almost nonexistent, and that of the Cessnas (next level up) wasn’t much better. Lillian and Peggy, Old Ladies to the rescue, brought that Cessna gallery to life. Simultaneously, these seeming coincidences being more common than you would think, a third cousin emerged to rescue the rest.
Kevin Bourdon is the youngest son of my grandmother Spieth’s sister Vera. Dorothy and Vera Rudick, along with their brother Walter, were the children of Cecil Rudick and Mary Cessna, and until recently, I didn’t have a decent photo of three of the five, much less enough material to make a photo gallery. Frankly, I hadn’t had much hope for that corner of the tree, because all I knew was that Vera had sons, not daughters, and I’ve already made known my opinion of who keeps the family photos. I was happily wrong in this case, and Kevin has provided dozens of valuable images. Thanks to him, the Rudicks in Detroit have an album on my website, and my father’s family album was also strengthened. I thought that Kevin would have something to contribute to the Cessna bunch too, but his mother Vera Mae’s Cessna pictures have turned out to be a collection of mysteries, to be solved at some other time. (I am doomed to never really finish this!)
I want to tell here about Walter Cessna Rudick, my grandmother’s older brother. Thanks to Kevin, I not only had my first good photo of him, I had many, and he had become another familiar face to me. Walter had died young, of complications from the thyroid disease which ran in his family. Vera had suffered from it, and Mary Rudick, her mother, was doubtless the source. Walter’s variety killed him, though, and I had been told that he had died on the operating table.
I received another package of photos from Kevin one day, ones which would more or less complete the Rudick gallery, and after I had thumbed through them, I found a small stack of documents which Kevin had included, things from his mother’s possessions, things which my great-grandmother Rudick had saved.
First was a 1925 letter from Walter, then thirteen, to his mother and grandfather, who were away in Kentucky. In its entirety:
Dear Mama and Grandpa:
Will write to you this morning a few lines, as I have nothing to do. If it is Saturday I don’t carry out the ashes any more. Mr. Byrne won’t give me more than 50 cents so I quit him. Papa told me not to work for that.
It is still awful cold up here. Uncle Joe said it was warm enough down there to go in your shirt sleeves. How is Vera Mae? I hope she is all right. How is Grandpa? Mrs. Holmburg sends her very best regards. When are you coming back? Dorothy is all right. We are all lonesome for you and Vera Mae to come back. Bring Grandpa too. I want to see him. I am awful sorry Grandma died. Well I will close for this time. Write soon, from your loving,
Next was a wedding invitation sent to the Rudicks from his fiancé’s parents, the event to occur August 4th, 1934. Accompanying this was another letter to the parents, obviously sent only days before the event:
Thought I would drop you a line to let you know that we arrived safely and had a nice trip on the way down. I would have written sooner but I have been so busy that it just skipped my mind.
I went golfing this morning with Mabel. Had an awfully nice time. The air and climate are sure great down here.
You want to be sure and have uncle Joe come down with you for we have arranged for a place for him. Also there will be a lot of children here, so if you want to bring Vera Mae, it’s all right. I want Papa to come also. You and Papa have had the front room reserved for you at Mabel’s home. You both will enjoy the trip and have a lot of fun too. Howard and Grace will pick you up and bring you back all O.K.
Well I had better sign off now and mail this letter and one to Grandpa.
Will see you Saturday,
Love, Walter. Kiss Vera Mae for me.
P.S. I think Dorothy is married. I may be wrong, but I don’t think so. Walter
It’s amazing the things you can learn from a short letter. First, the letter was written near Lima, Ohio, and sent to Detroit, about a 140 mile drive away. Was the air so bad in Detroit that Lima constituted a different “climate?” And what family dramas would explain Walter having to ask his own father to attend his wedding, or to drop that little bombshell at the end: Folks, um, your daughter has eloped…
Following that was an original typed page from Walter’s church, detailing his short life and his untimely death. He had been hospitalized for several days, undergone an operation and seemed to be pulling through, when things took a wrong turn and he died during an emergency blood transfusion. That was Easter morning, one day short of his thirty-first birthday.
This was all very matter of fact, and I glumly realized that not only did I now have photos of Walter, but through these documents I now knew his complete name, those of his wife and her parents, and the exact dates of his birth, marriage and death. In short, I knew everything I would ever need to know about him for my project. But the last Walter's nephew Kevin included in the package was likely the saddest document I’ve ever held in my hand.
It was a Hallmark card, sixty-nine years old: a birthday card for a birthday Walter never saw. The front showed a pheasant in flight, with a hunting dog looking on, and was captioned “A Birthday Message for a Fine Son.” Some things never change, like that caption and the eight line Hallmark poem inside. What was painful to read was the note penciled below:
Why was my boy taken from me?
Today is 26 of April, your birthday
Oh how I love you.
Saved inside the card was a genuine poem, written by Walter Cessna Rudick to his mother Mary Alice Rudick, on May 13, 1928, back when he was sixteen years old:
Times will come and times will go
And the wind will blow its blast
And the wandering one will welcome again
His home and his mother at last
My discomfort in transcribing very personal correspondences of my grandparents and great-grandparents, and even a great-great-grandfather, was soon replaced by fascination. Only a few years ago, I had not even known that most of these people existed, and now I had been drawn into their everyday lives.
Letters……….From Cecil Edward Rudick, to his future wife, Mary Alice Cessna.
There are dozens of letters and notes, written between July of 1910 and April of 1911. Most are in pencil, but occasionally in ink. The brown, sometimes fragile, parchment proved to be a challenge in transcription, but Cecil’s stylized handwriting at last became familiar to me. The locale is Gore, Oklahoma, a town with a little over 300 people, twenty-five miles outside of the booming city of Muskogee. It’s sweet and carefree at first:
Miss Alice c/o Ollie
Kind Alice :- Say, would you and Sam go down to Mr. Tom Johnson’s with Ollie and I? There isn’t anything doing tonight, and Mrs. Johnson asked us to come. Said she would show us a nice time.
Lovingly Yours, Cecil.
Miss Alice Cessna
Kind Friend :- Would like very much to call for the Show tonight, i. e. if you would like to go. They are going to show in a Moving Picture Design the destruction of Pompeii by volcanic eruption of the Vesuvius.
Waiting your reply, Cecil
Cecil’s wry humor:
Dear Alice :- would you be pleased to have such a specimen of humanity as myself call this afternoon?
Most Lovingly, Cecil
Toward November, things take a more serious turn, as this excerpt shows:
Dear, I wish something that [ ] my mind would not. I some times wonder if you are only trifling with my affections. Then I know you are not, or I believe it at least.
I will be at your home tomorrow night or in the P.M. if I decide to leave. I would rather leave here in a casket as to go live, for I feel like I was leaving the truest lover I ever had. One of our charming writers says the greatest blessing a girl can receive is the ingenious devotions of a young man’s heart. Dearest, you have mine with out a doubt.
Christmas, 1910, found Cecil crushed and confused to hear that Mary Alice was seen in town wearing another guy’s ring. It’s hard to interpret the letters, since none of Miss Cessna’s letters in reply have survived. The crisis of the ring was soon replaced by one of getting the parent’s consent to marry. Apparently, popping the question had been a formality on the way to the real test. By early January, we read:
It is indeed a sad thing to think about the happening of yesterday Eve. Dear I know you love me and I know I love you more than any one on earth and I think it would be a sin for them to refuse. If they had any grounds for refusing it would be different. It is mature for them to not want you to marry, you being the only girl. I’m sure you are the jewel of their house, but you are the idol of my heart.
On January 18:
I had a real nice time in Muskogee. I wonder what that was you had to tell me. I’ll bet you didn’t give them that note Sun. Eve. Dear, I was so sorry for you Sun. Eve. If I had known that they would never give their consent I would never come back to Gore.
On February 9:
It is with pleasure that I endeavor to address you tonight. Haven’t any thing else to be doing, as my work is over for the day. I had much rather see you than to be trying to scribble to you, for scribble is all I can do. Saw you this Eve and you would not as much as speak to me, or even look at me. Don’t you feel a little bit bad or ashamed to treat the one that loves you more than any one else could in such a way as that? Can’t help but study about how near I came losing my little girl. What does the School Madam have to say about you not quitting me?…
Say, tell your Mama to take a good look at your photo, for I’m going to take it away Sat. night. She can look at you all the time and I can’t. She can just either give me the picture or the girl, just which ever she prefers. I’d prefer the latter.
There were letters where Cecil tried to explain away a ride in a buggy with a woman named Mrs. Hibbs, and another time when he walked a woman named Beulah home in the rain. Small town gossip apparently spread quickly in Gore, Oklahoma. Then on March 30 we read:
You don’t know how bad I feel this AM to see the tears steal down your cheeks. I have kept company with several girls and I guess they loved me, or some of them. Their claims proved it, but I didn’t love them. I told them I did, which I acknowledge I ought not to have done. But Dearest, I tell you that I love you from the depth of my heart. I would not be untrue to you for the world.
The final letter, dated April 6, 1911, begins with “Farewell” written across the top, and I present it here in its entirety:
Kind Friend: - Just thought I would write you a few lines this Eve. Saw you up in town a few moments ago and Dear, you seem so different from what you always do. Didn’t seem like your self at all and imagine what could be wrong.
Would be so glad to see you tonight. I would tell you a few things. Dear, I can’t understand you; sometimes you seem one way and again [two?]. This couldn’t be possible. I don’t reckon that you are only trifling with my feelings. I’m going to stay here until next Monday Morn, and if there isn’t something done I will take my departure from Gore, never to see the place again.
If you are still in the notion of marrying, I will tell the old folks that I have treated them with all respect due them and they have treated me very nice, and if they will continue to do so I will do them the same way. But if they object without any cause what ever, I will treat things in such a way that they will get fully rewarded.
I’m afraid, Dear, you don’t exactly understand what you say. It is indeed a hard problem to solve. I came very near asking your papa last night. I would not care half so bad to ask them, but any time I say any thing about it you approach me with a shake of the head and a laugh, as though you are opposed to me saying one word to them. Darling, I hate to write you in this way, but I don’t reckon the truth will hurt anyone. If you would stay with me when I ask them, it would be quite a consolation to me. But Dear, if I was to start to ask them, you would hide your face and disappear.
I will possibly be over tomorrow night. What did Edith have her mouth stuck out at me about this Eve? Wouldn’t even speak to me. If she don’t like me I’m sure there isn’t any love lost.
Now Dear, if any statement I have made in this letter is wrong, they stand for your correction, and I beg your pardon for making them. Well, I’ll say no more.
The letter appears to be signed “I Love you Cecil Rudick RSVP,“ but that line is across the fold of the page, and parts of the paper have disintegrated.
It appears that Cecil worked up the nerve the following week, and the fears of the young lovers proved unfounded. I’ve read an entry in a sort of diary Mary Alice kept, really no more than a list of dates and places, and her entry for April 11 had them visiting a graveyard that day, and that night at home. She has added the word “wonderful’ to the entry. There is no other added comment like that in the preceding months. The entry stands out. While we do not know a wedding date, Cecil and Mary Alice’s first child was born just over a year later, in Gore, Oklahoma. They named him Walter Cessna Rudick, after his grandfather.
Letters……….A few letters from Walter Coombs Cessna to his Daughter Mary Alice, and her Husband Cecil.
In 1912, the young couple were living about 100 miles from Gore, in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, where Cecil had a job. The old man gives medical advice across two letters, as Mary Alice seems to be stricken with Rheumatism. One treatment involves a trip to nearby Claremore, Oklahoma, where the “radium water” is recommended for many ailments.
Sometime before 1915, the entire Cessna family returned to Kentucky, Mary Alice, Cecil and Walter Rudick with them. Cecil and Mary Alice’s second child, my grandmother Dorothy Bonita Rudick, was born in Kentucky in 1915. A third child, named Cecil Rudick, lived only three days. A letter from Walter Cessna to Cecil:
Coon Hollow, Ky. 1-24-1918
Dear Cecil. Your card received last night. Was sure surprised to learn of the baby’s death, but the little fellow is better off. You and Mary Allice don’t grieve, but prepare to meet him in heaven where there is no trouble sickness and death.
I hope this will find Mary Allice getting along all right; have her to take care of herself and not take cold. We will look for Walter and Dorothy to come with their Grandma when she comes. Larue and I are well.
Love to all, Father
In 1925, grandma Susan Cessna died. Three years later, Walter Cessna took a trip to California. His son Sam eventually settled in California, but whether Sam lived there in ‘28 is unknown. Walter might have been there on business. After all, he was a horse trader by profession, and he had brought some horses with him.
Pomona, Cal. Feby. 10, 1928
My dear children. We all arrived safe this morning at 6 o’clock. We stood the trip fine, also our horses. We have our horses at the fairground, and it sure is a nice place. All the hilles near by are like the wheat fields in Ky. the first of May, though north of us the snow capt hilles, from us 18 to 40 miles 4 to 5 thousand feet high, are the most beautiful sight I ever saw.
So later on will write more when I wrested up. Now, write me as soon as you get this. Send by air mail so I will no how all is. I will send you a telegram this evening, also this letter by air mail.
Love to one and all, Father
Letters……….From children Walter and Dorothy Rudick to their grandparents, Walter and Sudie Cessna.
Actually, the oldest few notes from young Walter say simply “Papa Come Home” or some variant of it. Cecil seems to be working up in Louisville, while his family is living with the grandparents in Coon Hollow.
The other letters are cute, and deal mostly with childish things. Walter is intent to have a pony, for instance, mentioned in more than one letter, and he mentions a dog down in central Kentucky in two different letters.
Detroit Mich. Mar 26, 1922
Dear grand and grand ma, how are you all today? April the 26th is my birthday. So inted of buying me a pony, you can send the money that a nice pony would cost. I have a bank book and a bank that they gave with with it. I have my money in America State bank. So I think if I get the money I will buy me a viline and take lessons, or I might take piano lessons. With some of the money I will buy a wagon and a cowboy suit. So I will do something with the rest of the money. Write soon.
From your grandson, Walter Rudick, 1283 Beniteau Ave. Detroit Michigan. XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX
When Dorothy was nine years old, she was hospitalized with Rheumatic Fever. A letter sent from Children’s Hospital, Detroit, Michigan:
Detroit, Mich. Dec. 30, 1924 [document damaged, with pieces of paper missing]
Dear grandma [and grand] pa How are you? [Hope] you are well. I got a lot of dolls. Uncle Howerd is [over] to see me to. I wish you were hear so you could come to see me tonit. Make Walter mad because he cannot come to see me to. Little Vera Mey want’s to come but cannot.
I have 21 Dolls. How is Grand pa. Hope he is well. If I am well. When uncle Howerd comes back, mama and all of us will come back with him. I have a little boy at each side of me and a little girl in back when I first came he[re], but now there are a boy there. I wish I was home. Well I gest I will have to close with lov from your grand Dawter Dorothy. XXXXXXXXX OOOOOOOOO XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX
Letters……….From my father, Walter Ronald Spieth to his mother.
I’ve snuck up on you (Mike here) at the end. A month ago my father, Walter Ronald Spieth, known to most simply as Ron Spieth, passed away from the earth, or returned to it, depending on your beliefs.
There are no revelations here: dad’s letters, like those of his mother, uncle and grandfather, are simple reminders of family. My grandmother, Dorothy Rudick Spieth, saved the little bits of her son’s lives which the youngsters would never have saved on their own. My mom did the same thing, and when the children were deemed to have completely flown the nest, albums appeared, loaded with school report cards, class photos - all the stuff which moms are proud of in their children. So Dorothy Rudick divided her “archives” and made albums for her three sons, and that’s what I have come into possession of. It’s not much, to speak of. What my branch got was a complete set of was school Report Cards, a small and precious bunch of photographs, and my dad’s portion of the letters to his mom, written while she was quarantined for a year and a half in a Detroit sanitarium, with tuberculosis. It was right at the end of World War Two, and at one point Dorothy’s three sons gathered below their mother’s window and sang The Star Spangled Banner to her.
Dad was about nine years old. There are sixteen letters, and here is a typical one:
How are you? I hope you are fine. I had a swell time Thanksgiving day. Mr. and Mrs. [Robitele?] were here. We ate our supper and dad wrot you a letter and went to play pinochle. Then I wrot you this letter. I have finishest my tie rack. I do not know what my next thing will be, and we will not go to school till Monday.
I love you very much and here are some kisses XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX
I miss you very much
Ronnie Walter Spieth
And I miss you very much, dad. I miss calling you any Sunday afternoon to pester you about some old family tale, and then going back into my work to change some minor phrase, or add or remove some obscure reference. I miss your encouragement, and your patience as we recovered our family history. And dad, after all that, we got it mostly right.
I don’t remember writing many letters to my mom and dad, except for the occasional juvenile plea to be allowed some gift or permission, in exchange for promises of good behavior. Unlike my father and mother, my great-uncle Walter or my grandmother Dorothy, I was never separated in any serious way from either of my parents. Until now.
Letters are among the most valuable and personal clues we have toward understanding the past, and “Six Years” is in part a letter of advice - my personal instruction manual - to anyone who wishes to set off on a journey similar to mine. It’s also a letter of warning: this stuff can be highly addictive.
Millions of new genealogy related documents appear on the internet each month, maybe each week. The odds of finding out about someone in your family tree are always increasing. Get started: type a name, and hit the enter key. I’ve been fortunate to live in such an era, and future searchers might be even luckier. I was also lucky to be able to penetrate the past along so many paths, though it was neither fast nor easy. My obstacles and successes will be different from yours, but along the way some of the pieces of the puzzle will fall into place, and along the way you will learn about yourself.
I hope that you encounter as many other fine folks along the way as I did - new and distant cousins, the companions of new and distant cousins and ancestry fanatics whose work happily intersects yours. The world is actually getting smaller, as a big family is coming together.
November 11, 2013