Finding Fern, Researching Outside The Box

My grandfather Kenneth Chaffee, always carried in his wallet a photograph of a boy and girl. He would show it to me and tell me this was his brother Olney Sisley and his sister Pearl Chaffee. Olney was his mother’s son (learn more about her in my post Puppy’s at the Bottom) and Pearl was his father’s daughter so they were not related to each other but both were half-siblings of my grandfather. Kenneth’s parents divorced just before he was born so he never met Pearl. Olney died at the age of 17 in 1912 when my grandfather was about 8 years old. My grandfather always wished he could find Pearl but he died in Las Vegas (where we lived) in 1979 without ever having found her.

My mother has the genealogy bug (that’s who I inherited it from). So she, Kenneth’s daughter, began researching her father’s family. There was little information at the beginning and this was before Ancestry.com and the internet was in its infancy. Kenneth’s father Ambrose Chaffee was living in South Dakota in 1906 according to records found in court proceedings. After that he disappears. What to do next? In 1999, my mother did a purely random, out-of-the blue, search in a North Dakota database on USGenWeb.org for any Chaffee. She found an index for a land record.

Armed with this new information, she quickly ordered a copy of the 1920 Federal Census from the library and eagerly searched for Ambrose Chaffee (before the days of indexing). There he was! Married to a Grace with a daughter Fern. Who were they? Fern Chaffee was 7 years old in 1920 and born in North Dakota. Remember, this was 1999 so there was no 1930 Federal Census released yet. And in 1999 Fern Chaffee would be 86 years old if she were still living. So my now very excited mother posted a query on a North Dakota USGenWeb.org site seeking information about Ambrose Chaffee married to Grace with a daughter Fern.

Within days of the query, a very kind woman in Minneapolis answered and said she grew up in the house next-door to this family and she remembered that Fern married a man named Kenneth King and moved to Las Vegas. What?? Las Vegas???? That is where we lived and where my grandfather Kenneth Chaffee had died. So my mother grabbed the phone book (1999 remember) and found 3 “F. Kings” listed. She called each of them and left messages about Ambrose Chaffee.

Fern Chaffee King was the only one of the three who returned the call. As expected, she was a very skeptical 86-year old woman and didn’t really believe my mother’s story that her father Ambrose had a third marriage. Fern grew up knowing her half-sister Pearl Chaffee but had never heard about a brother. Fern and my mother agreed to meet at a local restaurant and both coincidently brought the same photograph of Pearl and Olney which sealed the deal. My mother had finally met her Aunt Fern. Aunt Fern learned about family she never knew.

Fern and my mother developed a close relationship and shared stories by phone and visits. Pearl Chaffee had died in 1932 leaving behind 2 young sons. These sons had eventually moved to Las Vegas and Fern had followed in 1988 a few years after the death of her husband.

Fern died on May 2, 2014 in Las Vegas, she had celebrated her 100th birthday the previous December (the last time I was able to see her). Fern was excited to learn about her new family and at one point we learned her father had another marriage with yet another child. We were able to meet even more family as the daughter of Leroy “Chaffee” Owens made the trip to Las Vegas to meet her new Aunt Fern and cousin.

Finding new family is an amazing experience. Having them accept you and the new information you share is even more amazing. When you are trying to break through your brick walls, think outside the box. Look for tax records and land records and even phone books in surrounding states. And don’t forget to post those queries. Maybe you too will find your Fern.

My Grandfather Kenneth Chaffee and his siblings

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