I decided to participate in Amy Johnson Crow’s 2014 challenge, “52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks.” Of course, I didn’t find out about it until yesterday, so I’m already a week behind, but I can catch up….and so can you.
I think Amy’s challenge is a really great idea for a couple of reasons. First, it forces us to focus and breakthroughs seldom happen out of the blue. Focus is the precursor to success. Second, it gets the information out there – where it can be fishing for us – for cousins, for information, or for people who can DNA test. Take a look at the week #1 recap.
I’m not sure I can turn out 52 weeks of stories that involve DNA, and this is a DNA blog, but I can certainly do a few.
I’ve always been much better at thinking outside the box than coloring in the lines, so I’m beginning my 52 ancestors by writing about someone I don’t know. A half-brother I know that I had, at one time, but I don’t know anything more about him, except his approximate age and his mother’s first name, Ilo, and that in 1922 they had been living in the Battle Creek, Michigan area. According to her letter, her family was from there, but she has suffered humiliation all alone.
You see, my real father was a bit of a rogue, a “ladies man” as they used to say. Mom called him a Scallywag and that was one of the nicer things she had to say.
My father, William Sterling Estes, met Ilo during the first World War. He was born about 1903. We’re not sure of his real birth year as he had “adjusted” his birth year to 1898 to join the military after his parents divorced and he found himself on his own. He joined the Army in May of 1917, at age 14, and in 1919, was in the infirmary at Camp Custer, an Army base where he was stationed, outside Battle Creek, Michigan. The flu epidemic had run rampant at Camp Custer, and I presume, but don’t know for sure, that that was why he was in the hospital. He met his first wife there, my sister’s mother, and he also met Ilo. In reality Ilo might have been his first “wife.” We just don’t know for sure.
When my step-mother died in 1989, her daughter sent me a lot of my father’s things that she had kept over the years, including a box of letters. In that box was a letter from Ilo to my father.
The Ilo letter is postmarked March 22, 1921 and it was addressed to Mr. William Estes, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, Disc. Barracks. Yes, that’s Fort Leavenworth as in the prison. Imagine my surprise! The letter wasn’t exactly “friendly” in tone, not that I can blame Ilo. She and my mother probably shared a common opinion of my father for many of the same reasons.
“I was taking the pains in answering your letter to the baby. I appreciated it very much to think that you thought of him. As for me am very sorry to state that you are and have been since baby was born out of my life. I am sacrificing the love of my parents and of what I call home just merely to get away from this town. No doubt you will hear quite a bit about me on your return to Battle Creek. I am taking this from a letter that you sent to a certain party. Stating what you were going to do when you came back. This was told to me by one of your captors. You talked to him when he came down there with prisoners. And all you said came back to me. And I know your disposition, or at least I think I do. And am leaving on the strength of your own threats. This may seem harsh but I cannot help it. I am going away with some very fine people who are wealthy and willing to take care of baby and I. I have my case in a lawyers hands. I do not need your signature in the case at all. I was illegally married to you in the first place and have suffered the disgrace all alone. We are on our way to the south for a few months and we are coming North again sometime in June. We are motoring through and happened to have a breakdown in Louisville so I thought while resting I would write you and let you know facts. Please don’t be foolish and try to harm me or baby because it will only cause you sorrow. Baby has been quite sick but is gaining some now. He has grown since you last saw him and can nearly walk. He is the only comfort that I have now and I hope he always stands by me. Well as I am tired I will have to close. I don’t suppose I will hear from you and I haven’t any definite address ???? traveling. Well I will say goodbye and good luck. Ilo and Baby.”
Oh, that she had simply written that baby’s name…
It seems that my father was in Fort Leavenworth because he had been AWOL, and it seems that him being AWOL just might have had something to do with having two women, in the same town, pregnant at the same time. Remember, my father was only 16 at the time, really, a mere child himself. He deserted in November 1919, after re-enlisting for a second term in May of 1919. He was gone from the Army through April, 1920 when he was arrested for being AWOL.
My sister was born in May of 1920, so conceived in August of 1919. This unnamed male child of Ilo’s appears to have been born between December 1919 and July of 1920, assuming he walked at the normal time babies learn to walk. Therefore, he would have been conceived between March 1919 and October of 1919. So Dad was busy indeed, with all this begatting going on.
When my father was released from Leavenworth in November of 1921, he traveled back to Michigan and married my sister’s mother 2 weeks later. On that marriage application, he says he has never been married before. But in Ilo’s letter, she says they were married, but it was illegal. Clearly he had himself in a very uncomfortable position and could have been trying to decide which father was more likely to pull the trigger on the shotgun. He and my sister’s mother divorced a couple of years later and he went on his merry and marrying way, but that is a story for another time.
Here’s a timeline:
- March to October 1919 – Ilo’s son conceived
- May 1919 – William Sterling Estes reenlists at Camp Custer in Battle Creek, Michigan
- August 1919 – my half-sister conceived
- November 1919 – William Sterling Estes is AWOL
- December 1919 to July 1920 – Ilo’s son born
- April 1920 – William Sterling Estes arrested for being AWOL
- May 1920 – my half-sister born
- March 22, 1921 – Ilo’s letter to William Sterling Estes saying they had been married but it was illegal
- November 1921 – William Sterling Estes released from Leavenworth, Kansas
- December 12, 1921 – William Sterling Estes married my half-sister’s mother
But what happened to Ilo and to her young son?
Megan Smolenyak and I both tried to resolve this situation. There are no court records to be found in Battle Creek or the neighboring County, at least not that we have been able to find. I have significant doubts that I’ve seen everything as I was not allowed to review the court index books. Their protocol was that you have to give the clerk the information and she would tell you whether it was there or not. Camp Custer is located partly in two counties, so we were dealing with both Calhoun and Kalamazoo Counties.
Megan found an Ilo from that area and then her son. We contacted this man, and he is too young to be my brother. He said he had a brother that was about 18 months older that died. I sent him the letter from Ilo but he said it was not his mother’s handwriting, that she was nearly illiterate. And there, if that was the trail at all, it went cold. It stayed cold. It’s still cold. Was my brother the child who died? Ilo said he had been sickly.
We don’t know the male child’s name, first, or last. We don’t know Ilo’s surname.
There are so many stories about people with surprise half-sibling matches through autosomal testing. I keep waiting for a half-sibling match, or maybe one slightly more removed. Ilo’s son is likely deceased now, but he might have had children or grandchildren. He may never have known who his father was. Ilo was a young woman, obviously embarrassed by the situation as it was, and likely went on to marry and have a family. I hope she found happiness. Assuming she remarried, Ilo’s son’s step father could simply have “adopted” him by giving him his surname and until DNA testing, no one would ever know the difference.
So, if your mother or grandmother’s name was Ilo (or possibly Flo, although the signature looks like Ilo) and she lived in or near Battle Creek or Kalamazoo, Michigan, would have been maybe 18 or 20 or so about 1920, and had a male child, maybe she is the missing Ilo.
I’ve included the letter below, for handwriting comparison.