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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A Perfect Courthouse

I had a dream about the perfect courthouse for genealogical research. My perfect courthouse was not in a basement smelling of mold and mildew. It was not a room furnished with old wooden benches with splinters that dug into my legs and one old scarred wooden table that I couldn’t write on without piling up notebooks to give myself an even level on which to write. It was not hot in winter and cold in the summer.

My perfect courthouse was a new, sparkling glass, climate controlled building with tables big enough to spread my working materials out and comfy, pillowy chairs on which to sit for hours and the records room was on the first floor in an easily accessible, brightly lit room. In my perfect courthouse all the records I want are filed correctly and never missing and filed at eye level so short people like me (in my family we call ourselves normal and everyone else is a giant) can read and reach. My perfect courthouse has workers who are as much enthralled with genealogy and history as I am and they enjoy conversations about interesting topics like cemeteries and county histories and when the first marriage was recorded. And my perfect courthouse is filled with researchers having fun.

In my perfect courthouse, there has never been a fire or a flood. The records are not dry and brittle and the ink is not fading. In my perfect courthouse, they recorded every marriage and actually kept the records and I finally learned the name of my 4th great-grandmother. Ah, my perfect courthouse was a wonder to behold, but alas, I awoke to find my perfect courthouse fading away in a wisp of smoke.

So I am faced once more with the difficulty of deciphering 19th century script written with faded ink on brittle paper. I search for names like Sisley that are spelled in a hundred different ways with the S interchangeable with C and the other letters used however the writer felt at the moment, sometimes Sisley, sometimes Ceslee, or maybe it is filed under Z. So many choices.

There are some wonderful and remarkable courthouses throughout the United States that house interesting collections. If you get a chance, drive by the Decatur County Courthouse in Greensburg, Indiana, they have a tree growing through the roof! My New Year’s wish is that you get to do research in your perfect courthouse and this year find that one record which will break through your brick wall. Happy New Year.

Grandma is related to Robert E. Lee and other stories I’ve been told

Grandma’s second cousin was General Robert E. Lee, at least that’s what I was told as a child. How exciting! I wanted to know more so I did what every inquisitive person does, I researched. The more I researched into my family and who they are and the more I researched into the family history of Robert E. Lee, the more questions I had. As hard as I tried, I could not find any relationship between my 2nd great-grandmother Malinda Lee and the family of Robert E. Lee. I asked others in my family and learned they all had heard the same story but no one had any actual facts or proof.

After years of research I was stuck, I had hit the proverbial brick wall. So what am I to believe? Were the family stories wrong or am I barking up the wrong family tree? Most families have that one story that has been passed down through the generations, some have been told they are Mayflower descendants, others “know” they share Native American bloodlines, or maybe like one of my other lines they are descended from someone famous. I was told my Chaffee line was descended from Geoffrey Chaucer but just a few minutes of searching one night proved that our forefather was actually a foremother, Katherine Chaucer, Geoffrey’s much lesser known sister.

So what am I going to do about the Robert E. Lee story? I am going to sit on it. I am going to let it simmer in the background until I get enough information to either discount it entirely or prove it to my satisfaction. Sometimes our success comes from our failure, like my failure to prove descent from Geoffrey Chaucer instead added a new line for Simon Manning born about 1344 in England. Embrace your failures.