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Friday, June 25, 2010

Debunking Family History

One day in Oregon, we drove to a small town on the Columbia River. We rolled in, checked in at our motel, and my sister-in-law and I went out to a cemetery where I had information that my grandma’s three beloved uncles were buried.

I had heard stories of these uncles. They helped raise their baby sister, my great-grandmother. One uncle was supposed to be an operator of a riverboat on the Columbia River. The navigation at the mouth of the Columbia where it flows into the Pacific Ocean is supposed to be very tricky, very dangerous. I had formed romantic ideas of his very dangerous occupation. I don’t remember hearing much about the occupations of the other uncles, but they were all supposed to be extraordinary people.

However, in the spirit of the appraisers on Antiques Roadshow who delight in telling people how wrong their ideas are about their inherited wealth, I found the truth about these uncles and their occupations, and a little bit more.

The uncle who was supposed to have been the lifelong bachelor steamboat operator turns out to have started his working life as a carder in a woolen mill when he was a very young man, and from then on he is described as nothing more romantic than a laborer, or a farm laborer. Uh oh, this is sounding downright dull.

The second of the uncles started out promising: as an 18-year-old he was a fireman on a steamboat on the Columbia River. This sounds like our man. Ten years later he is described as an engineer, but what kind is left to the imagination. Maybe a train engineer? A steamboat engineer? Thereafter he was a fruit tree farmer on the old Columbia River highway near Astoria. He married and had two children, one of whom died young.

Then, twenty to thirty years later, something weird happened, and I wonder if anyone will ever know what it was. In 1900, a census taker came around the farm on June 8th, and he wrote down Benjamin as the head of the household, Felicia as his wife, and their son Ralph, age 19, a teacher. It all looked perfectly normal. But the next week, on June 16th, a census taker inside the city limits enumerated the same family at a different location, with some strange differences. Ben was just “B” and the boxes for his parentage and place of origin are filled with one large word across the page: “unknown.” His occupation is listed as “auctioneer” and it says he’s unemployed for five months. It says he owns the home, but it’s mortgaged. The information for Felicia is more complete, but neither of their birth year boxes contains accurate information. Their son Ralph is listed here as being “at school” and unemployed for four months. I wonder if this all means that the parents had bought Ralph a house in town. If there were no more strange census returns, that’s what I would conclude.

However, ten years later things get a lot stranger. On April 26th, the census taker came around to the farm and wrote down Benjamin and Felicia and all the correct information about them. They had been married 31 years. The third person living with them is Ben’s older brother, William, working as a farm laborer. Now Ben owns the farm outright, with no mortgage on it. Things look pretty prosperous.

The next week, on May 2nd, in Santa Clara County, California, another census taker found Felicia as the head of a household consisting of herself and her son, Ralph, who is a professor at the high school. Felicia is employed as the house mother of the “clubhouse.” What does this mean? Has she figured out how to clone herself? Did she move to California and get a job within six days? What happened to her and Ben?

The next year, she is found on a passenger list for the ship Asia disembarking at San Francisco, having come from Hong Kong, China, and planning to return to Portland, Oregon. Did she and Ben decide she should have lots more freedom of movement? Or was the truth that their marriage broke up after Ralph was grown and established?

The final blow comes on 15 January 1919, when she is reported to have married in Clatsop County, Oregon, groom unknown. I haven’t found a record of hers and Ben’s divorce. He didn’t die until 1927. Did she commit bigamy? Hm. It is quite interesting to come across the skeletons in the closet that the older members of our family never told us.

In January 1920, the census taker finds Ben living in a large rented house in Astoria, where he is the head of the household and says he is single, with 17 people renting rooms from him in a sort of boarding house called “Astoria Land Home.” His older brother William had died three years before.

Their younger brother, Joseph, remains something of an enigma. He escapes being enumerated on the census until he has retired, so nothing is known of his occupation. He did not marry until he was 56 years old, and his wife had been married before and was around 50 years old when they married. They owned a home in Portland in 1920 and were still there in1930. Joseph died in the Santa Clara Valley of California before 1940. His wife died in Portland two years later.

The graves I found were in Joseph’s name. He must have bought the lots when the eldest brother, William, died in 1916. William had no other family. Then Ben died in 1927, apparently still estranged from his son and ex-wife, because he is buried next to his older brother. When Joe died twelve years later, his wife buried him there beside his two brothers, and whoever was left after that buried her there too, in that little town on the Columbia River, several hours’ drive from where they lived most of their lives.

It is not the story I thought I was going to find. It’s a lot more human, and it has a lot of sadness in it.

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