John Whitney Ferverda: Morse Code, Telegraphs and Trains – 52 Ancestors #213

My Grandfather, John Whitney Ferverda (1882-1962) worked for the railroad for several years. In fact, it was the railroad that was responsible for John meeting my grandmother, Edith Barbara Lore.

Born in 1882 and trained as a teacher, John Ferverda instead went to work for the Big Four railroad in 1904 as a station agent and telegraph operator in Silver Lake, Indiana, near where his family lived. By 1907, John had accepted a position in Rushville, Indiana as station agent where he would meet Edith who was destined to become his wife – and my grandmother.

A station agent, especially in smaller stations, was responsible for everything. People, cargo, schedules and especially telegraph communications known as telegraphy which kept everyone on time and safe.

On their marriage application on November 16, 1908, John lists his occupation as a telegraph operator.

In January 1910, Edith and John returned to Silver Lake where he became the station agent. They purchased the house next door to the depot.

John’s brother, Roscoe Ferverda bought the house across the street and he too eventually became the station agent after my grandfather resigned the position. In the 1930 census, Roscoe was the station agent at Silver Lake.

In 1913, based on newspaper articles, it appears that John was assigned to Markleville, just north of Rushville, perhaps only temporarily.

He was back in Silver Lake before 1915 when, according to the November 13th edition of the Fort Wayne, Indiana newspaper, another agent was sent as a relief agent for “John at the Big 4” while he had surgery on his eye in Cincinnati. Hmmm, I didn’t know my grandfather had surgery on his eyes. I wonder why. Photos in later years show a droopy eyelid. I also wonder if either the condition or the surgery had anything to do with what happened in January 1916.

John was apparently back at work by November 27th, when the newspaper announced that the stork had left a baby boy at the home of ” John Ferverda, our genial agent at the Big Four station” and his wife.

On January 8, 1916, the Rushville Republican newspaper carried an article stating that John Ferverda, “the Big Four Agent at Silver Lake,” had resigned his position with the railroad and had purchased a hardware store with a partner.

The History of Kosciusko County, Indiana, published in 1919, provides us with a little more information about John Ferverda.

Having mastered the art of telegraphy, he entered the service of the Big Four Railway as an operator, was assigned at different stations along that system and remained in that service about 10 years.

The Big 4 Railroad

I had never heard of The Big 4 before, and as it turns out, there are two Big 4s, also written as Big Four. The one that interests us is the railroad company that operated across Illinois, Indiana, Michigan and Ohio.

This map shows the Cleveland, Cincinnati, Chicago and St. Louis Railway (Big Four) drawn on the New York Central system as of 1918.

In 1906, the Big 4 was acquired by the New York Central Railway which operated it independently until 1930. In 1968, the line was incorporated into Penn Central and later into Conrail, CSX and Norfolk Southern.

Telegraph Operator

How or why John Ferverda learned to operate a telegraph machine is lost to history. The local history book indicated that he lived at home until he was 22. John attended a teacher’s academy, was credentialed to teach, but never did. In 1904, he would have been 22 and finished with his classes.

Given that the article in the Kosciusko County History book states clearly that he had mastered the art of telegraphy, then entered the Big Four Railroad service as an operator, we know that he didn’t learn on the job. This causes me to wonder where he practiced, given that his parents were Brethren, lived in the country, and assuredly did not have electricity in their home.

One cannot learn Morse code, the “language” of the telegraph without practicing and becoming proficient. Proficiency using Morse code is measured by either words per minute or characters per minute, and a telegraph operator for a railroad had to be proficient and speedy, which means he had to have practiced regularly using a unit to both send and receive.

I’ve been curious for some time – what, exactly, did a telegraph operator for a railroad do? How did they communicate before the remote areas were entirely wired for electricity? According to my mother, their house didn’t have electricity initially, so the depot next door probably didn’t either. John worked at this profession for a dozen years, a significant amount of his life.

I wanted to know more. Genealogists always want to know more!

By the time I came along, telegraph operators were either obsolete, or at least I had never come across one. The Big Four was gone, and my grandfather died before I could ask him any questions at all.

My mother wasn’t born until 1922, several years after John had resigned the position, so she wouldn’t have been able to answer many questions either.

However, I do have a secret weapon resource at my disposal.

My husband, Jim.

No, Jim didn’t know my grandfather, but Jim is a super bright geeky “radio guy,” meaning an amateur radio operator, known colloquially as a “ham,” and has been for about 50 years. Literally since he was a kid. He was licensed by the FCC to operate a radio before he was old enough to drive! And, he’s proficient at Morse code. Sends, receives and understands it. Plus, he’s a history buff. My lucky day!

If you have a question about radio, or anything to do with radio or electronics, just ask Jim, because if he doesn’t know the answer, guaranteed, he’ll find it for you. And he’ll enjoy it to boot.

Jim and the ARRL

Jim (call sign K8JK) just happens to be the Michigan section manager for the ARRL, the American Radio Relay League, headquartered in Newington, CT.

Recently, Jim attended training at the ARRL headquarters and invited me along. While Newington, in and of itself, unless you’re a “ham” isn’t any sort of Mecca, I like to support his endeavors AND I’m a ham myself, just barely.

I am also extremely interested in genealogy and history, which I know comes as a shock to my readers, and when I discovered that I had ancestors that settled within an hour’s drive, I was all in. Oh yea!

Each day I dropped Jim off at ARRL headquarters, and at the end of the day, picked him up again.

On the last day, the class attendees really did get to go to “ham Mecca” and entered the sacred ground of the small house located in front of the current ARRL building. That initial house had been the location purchased by the founder of the ARRL, Hiram Percy Maxim, whose “rig” has been preserved with its original call sign of W1AW.

The building includes several operator booths, along with antique radios and telegraph keys. Each class attendee was able to spend time transmitting in the original W1AW “ham shack” as a guest operator.

Now you know where this is going, right?

Amateur radio operators still use Morse code at times to communicate, and telegraph keys were created and used for exactly that purpose – in train stations and depots. My grandfather clearly knew how to use this equipment and did daily for a dozen years. I’d still love to know why he decided to take up telegraphy, because aside from trains, I don’t know why or who else in northern Indiana would have a need for a telegraph operator. Perhaps he saw an opportunity and embraced it.

Thank goodness he did, or I wouldn’t be here. So you could say I’m in eternal debt to Morse code for my very existence.

Who knew?

Questions – So Many Questions

I really enjoyed visiting the museum in the W1AW building – and peppered Jim with questions.

What is that?

How does it work?

Which one of these keys, the device used by telegraph operators to transmit Morse code, would have been used by the railroads?

Between 1904 and 1916?

How about on the Big 4 Lines?

How did the keys work?

What is that lever?

How do these connectors work?

What’s this?

Why is there air?

Morse Code, Telegraphs and Why There’s Air

Jim very graciously agreed to explain all this, in technical terms, but not too technical. Just technical enough. I get the idea somehow that he made the offer in self-defense, because by that time, I was digging through his boxes of “sacred antique stuff” (also referred to as “junk”) hoping to find an old telegraph key that might have been used in a Big 4 depot.

I allowed myself to be shooed out of his office when he offered up the article:)

Jim’s guest article begins here:

Hi, my name is Jim Kvochick (K8JK), or Mr. Estes as I’m called at genealogy and DNA conferences. My lovely wife, who is also a ham operator (K8RJE), has asked me to explain what life was like for a telegraph operator when her grandfather, John Ferverda, was working for the Big 4 Railroad in Indiana between 1904 and 1916. It’s hard to believe that was a century ago. Morse code was invented in 1836 by Samuel Morse and is still used in various formats today. In many ways, Morse code as a language is universal and timeless.

Ever since the beginnings of time, people have been trying to communicate over distances greater than the human voice could reach. Early attempts included the use of smoke signals, signal fires, waving flags, and the moving arms of semaphores, shown below.

Mirrors were also used to flash the image of the sun to distant observers.

Railroads had a need for communications as well and clearly their requirement extended beyond the range of visual communications. Early attempts involved a method for attaching hand written messages called “train orders” on a large hook extending from the station. As the train slowly approached the train depot, the conductor on the moving train would reach out to grab the incoming messages, and “hook” the messages or mail destined for that location. If the conductor missed, the station operator had to run alongside the moving train with the messages on a long pole, reaching towards the conductor.

Train orders advised the locomotive engineer of changes in schedule, planned stops, or any other details needed to complete their run. Harnessing electricity was a welcome innovation but adapting that technology to long distances was challenging.

Utilizing electricity, wires were stretched from one point to another and an electric current was either allowed to flow through the wires or broken by a switch called a telegraph key. The key below dates from about 1900.

By Hp.Baumeler – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

The electric current was first used to make marks on a paper tape and later, it was used activate a “sounder” which made clicking sounds. The short and long times between the clicks could be decoded into letters from the alphabet.

By Sanjay Acharya – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

The round discs on the sounder key above are electromagnets and the sounder portion is the spring lever with the tab on the left, shown with the red arrow. The lever gets pulled up against the large metal bar to its right, between the sounder and the electromagnets and makes an audible click when the two pieces of metal touch.

By the early 1900’s most train stops utilized mechanical sounder devices and trained the station operators on sending and receiving Morse code.

The schematic shown above is the design of a typical station telegraph, like what would have been on John’s desk.

This revolutionary discovery allowed people to communicate instantly over distances that had required days or weeks for horse or train-carried messages.

Telegraph stations were set up along railroads first because the right-of-way had already been cleared and it was easy to set up poles to carry the telegraph wires, although unexpected challenges arose. For example, while curved train tracks weren’t problematic, it took several failed attempts before learning that poles located on curves needed to be braced or they fell over due to the weight of the wires. Copper wires stretched, steel wires rusted and broke. Eventually, through trial and error, the right combination was achieved of braced poles and copper coated steel wire.

Railroad dispatchers sent messages via telegraph to control the movement of trains and the wires also began to carry messages telling of news events and business transactions.

Of course, this also meant that the telegraph operator knew everything within the community, and in particular, was the first to receive messages deemed important enough to be telegraphed to the recipient.

It has been said that the “electric telegraph” was the most significant invention of the 19th century. At the very end of the 19th century, it became possible to communicate by telegraph without using wires. This ‘wireless’ telegraph system paved the way for all of today’s complex wireless communications systems.

Although telephone communication began in the 1880’s within a local geography and expanded into long distances beginning in the 1890’s; telegraph signaling held the advantage due to lower costs and minimal infrastructure required. Radio communications was beginning to come into popular usage, but the cost per unit was too prohibitive to deploy widely. To further reduce the cost of installing the telegraph system, only a single wire was used, with reference to an earth ground to complete the circuit.

Many of the stops along the train tracks did not have electric power, so to successfully operate the telegraph stations at that time required the use of batteries.

Batteries in the 1900’s were large open jars containing electrodes and acid, requirimg constant attention by the station operator. Remember too that in many cases there was no commercial power available to charge these batteries. John Ferverda would most likely start out each day with a check of the battery condition and perform the required maintenance to keep his telegraph station running.

Early batteries used highly toxic chemicals which were stored in the station agent’s office. These batteries and their chemicals including sulfuric acid, zinc and copper, created toxic gasses which were eventually vented outside the agent’s office. Perhaps it’s a good thing that John Ferverda only worked as a station agent for a dozen years.

Early telegraph operators would have used the American Morse code, a predecessor to the more widely used International Morse code of today. While the American version relied heavily on the specific timing between the dots and dashes, the International version was far more forgiving, in trade for making some of the letters and numbers slightly longer.

There were numerous styles and variants of older telegraph keys and many are still being used by amateur radio operators today.

Telegraph key collection at the ARRL W1AW building

Most likely John Ferverda used a variant that looked similar to the model below from the ARRL collection.

The telegraph operator was still in demand and used for information at depots or stations well past the 1950’s. Although many train lines experimented with two-way voice radio during the 1930’s, a truly practical solution wasn’t installed in volume until the late 1960’s and early 1970’s.

Today, radio and satellite communication dominate tracking and routing our modern railways.

The humble telegraph paved the way for the wireless communications that all phone “operators” today utilize – those small electronic boxes that we carry in our pockets and love. John Ferverda was a very, very early adopter of the predecessors to cell phones of today.

Oh, and by the way, if anyone happens to run across the telegraph key from the station in Silver Lake or Rushville, Indiana, or any of the Big 4 depots in that region, perhaps at an auction or antique mall, please let me know because I’ve love to surprise my wife. (Shamelessly added to this article by said wife.)


My thanks to the ARRL for their hospitality and to Jim Kvochick for explaining the history of telegraphy and why there’s air, or least why there’s Morse code.

And seriously, if you do run across a telegraph key from the early 1900s in Northern Indiana, I really do want one and would be forever grateful. I sure wish I had John Ferverda’s original equipment.

What’s the history of radio or railroads in your family?

Troll Houses and Salt Boxes – 52 Ancestors #212

Just when I thought I wasn’t going to have an article ready for this weekend, my ancestors came to my rescue. Well, my ancestors with the assistance of two very generous friends, Jennifer Zinck and Keith Wilson, lured by a troll. Yes, a troll!

I’ve been on the road again, and it just so happened that this past week, I was in Connecticut. As luck would have it, about three years ago, a brick wall fell when I discovered that Nabby Hill (married name) was actually Nabby Hall (birth name), and that Nabby was a nickname for Abigail. I knew she was born in Connecticut from the census, but connecting the dots between her parents, Gershom Hall (c1770->1840) and Dorcas Richardson (1769-c1840) to Nabby was a long, complex story.

Nabby’s parents’ stories aren’t quite ready for prime time, in part because I had been unable to complete their research in Mansfield, Connecticut where they lived before they migrated to Vermont sometime after the birth of their last child in 1797.

Identifying Gershom and Dorcas opened the door to several generations of ancestors, including Mayflower and Plymouth Colony lines.

While my trip to Connecticut this past week only scratched the surface of that entire group, it was an incredible experience that I’d like to share with you as an example of how old deed and property records can be a goldmine! Or, in this case, a troll house.


I have proof!!!

Preparing to Visit

In order to maximize my short time in Connecticut, I prepared a summary, in two formats.

  • By ancestor including birth, death, burial location, church, places lived between birth and death, parents, a link to FindAGrave and my online tree. These are quick reference sheets, 2 or 3 pages max each.
  • By location, meaning that for each location, I included all ancestors born there, lived and died there, churches, burial location, home location, etc. This summary would guide my time in the two Connecticut towns, Mansfield and Willington.

Before I arrived in Connecticut, my friends Jennifer and Keith had surprised me by copying and analyzing the deeds from the town of Mansfield. That was the first location my ancestors settled inland from Cape Cod where they had lived until the later 1600s into the early 1700s. A few of my ancestors then moved another 10 miles up the road to Willington, Connecticut about 1727 where they died and are buried. Both towns are in Tolland County.

Towns are different in Connecticut than in other states further west. In Connecticut, an entire county consists of towns which aren’t just a central settlement, but include rural, forest and farm areas as well. Elsewhere, a town would be much smaller and the surrounding area would either be a township or simply fall into the county outside of the town.

In Connecticut, all records are kept in the town clerk’s office, not the county seat. The down side is that you have to know where to look by town, while a county-wide index makes it much easier to search in general. With town records, you can easily miss something if you don’t know exactly which town’s records to review.

The great news is that each town tends to have a library, often a historical/genealogical society and sometimes a town historian.

I can’t even begin to express how grateful I am for all of these organizations and individuals. The historian and societies are entirely volunteer organizations, and without them, much of the transcribed, published and indexed town information and histories wouldn’t exist and would be lost forever.

Mansfield, Connecticut

Gershom Hall’s great-grandfather was William Hall, born in Yarmouth, Massachusetts on June 8, 1651 and who died In Mansfield, originally called Ponde Place, on June 11, 1727. He’s buried in the Old Mansfield Center Cemetery on land he originally owned and traded for other land in order that his original land could be utilized for the local “burying ground.” The original cemetery was only a quarter acre, right in the center of town, but has expanded significantly today.

Here I am with William’s stone on the land he once owned. I can’t even begin to explain the thrill of standing where he stood and visiting his gravesite in person.

In 1696, William Hall arrived “from Plymouth,” [MA] and acquired town land in 1703 by charter. As with many of the early settlers, he bought and sold land, leaving a respectable legacy to his heirs who passed the land to their heirs, often for generations.

Keith discovered work of an earlier researcher who had analyzed the various William Hall deeds and discovered that part of the land William sold to son Theophilus Hall was subsequently sold to Lemuel Barrows; 55 acres and a dwelling. The location noted in 1758 is shown at the intersection of Spring Hill Road and Dunhamtown or Mansfield City Road. By the way, towns change their road names, sometimes more than once.

We know that this property had a “dwelling” in 1747 and we know where the dwelling was located in 1758. What we don’t know, for sure, is whether or not the structure located there today incorporates the original home, or even part of the original.

Regardless, I love to visit the property of my ancestors.

Jennifer, Keith and I set out on a grand adventure to find this location.

We found the house, right where the 1758 notation indicated.

Jennifer started mumbling something about trolls and I was confused, until we turned the corner. Was I EVER amazed at what we discovered next.

I mean, whoever would have thought to look UNDER there for ancestors?!!

Hmmm, maybe that helps to explain this…

Where’s my spare DNA kit when I need one??? What does troll DNA look like anyway?

Willington, Connecticut

The following day goes down in history as starting out as one of the most frustrating days EVER. I won’t go into all of the details, because it would sound like a solo whine-fest, but suffice it to say that without Jennifer and her husband helping me for more than an hour on the phone as I tried to navigate massive road closures that encompassed nearly all of downtown Hartford due to a marathon and associated festivities, I would still be stuck in that mess days later! Of course, I didn’t discover the road closures until after I was already downtown and trapped.

I’m incredibly grateful and I hope I didn’t sound as grouchy as I felt.

After being unable to reach the Connecticut State Archives, I gave up entirely and decided to go to Willington, even though it was raining. In fact, it has rained so much in Connecticut recently that the ground squishes up around your shoes everyplace you walk and mildew is a cash crop.

Willington is less than an hour away from Hartford. I hadn’t prepared at all for this on-the-ground Willington journey that day, because I didn’t expect to have the opportunity to visit. I was headed to the archives, not the cemetery! The last thing Jennifer did, after explaining how to get OUT of Hartford, was to give me the actual physical address of the Olde East Cemetery in Willington.

I figured I didn’t really NEED that address, because the old town cemeteries are always in or near the center of town. I entered the address in the GPS so that I would have at least exit reminders, even though the route was straightforward, or so I thought.

Wow, was I ever wrong.

The rain continued its cold grey countenance as I drove eastward. Many expressway exits were closed due to the challenges in downtown Hartford, and I was simply glad to get on any road out of dodge. Plus, I now had an available day that I didn’t anticipate. How would I spend it wisely?

The dreary rain matched my mood. I was frustrated, dejected and so disappointed. But there has to be some lemonade in here someplace – and I was going to find it.

After exiting where the GPS instructed for Willington and driving several more miles, I found Old Cemetery Road, and it looked nothing like I expected – nor was it in the center of anything. In fact, Old Cemetery Road was a dirt road up a hill.

Willington should have been named Hillington. This looks more like Appalachia than Connecticut – or at least what I thought Connecticut looked like.

Was I lost, again? I was just sure that I had made a mistake. Nope, the cemetery was up the hill to the right, past the swamp.

While I have no ancestors with stones that remain today, there are large gaps in the older front section where stones clearly stood at one time and unmarked graves remain today. Not to mention this was the only cemetery when the town was founded in 1727, and for a long time thereafter.

I honored my ancestors, said their names out loud and talked to them, even though I don’t know exactly where they are buried. Rest assured, they are here someplace, probably in the front near the other stones belonging to people who died about the same time. At least after those hours of frustration, the cemetery was soothing and peaceful. I felt the stress melting away as my ancestors welcomed me.

The rain continued.

Seeing nothing that remotely resembled a town, I decided to find the library and ask for help. Love those librarians who set me up with a fold-out map that included a road index.

Using that map, I located the historic district, the common green, the church and then set off to find the land of Amos Richardson.

Amos was the great-grandfather of Nabby Hall on her mother, Dorcas Richardson’s side. Amos was born August 10, 1698 in Woburn, Massachusetts and died on April 16, 1777 in Willington.

Mark Palmer, the town historian mentioned the following in correspondence a few years ago:

Amos and Abigail Richardson lived off current Polster Road, slightly to the east of where John Watson lived (site of the present-day saltbox.) The time period is sometime from 1725/6 to 1735/6.

I made an important discovery about locating Connecticut farmsteads. Just drive until you see the old rock walls. Whether the original structure remains today, or not, all farms originally had rock fences, and all structures had rock foundations. Those old rock structures have such personality today, holding their centuries-old secrets and memories of those ancestors who stacked the rocks and traversed the dirt roads.

Polster Road isn’t exactly close to the center of the town itself. Miles away, it is very hilly, remote and wooded. After navigating several hills and S curves, I noticed a sign for a one lane bridge ahead. After clearing a sharp curve, into view popped this utterly amazing “salt box” home across the meadow from the river.

Look at the side. I do believe they have a “troll house” underneath too, although I bet they don’t know that’s what it is😊

While this is apparently not the actual Amos Richardson home place, his land, according to Mark, who had not reviewed the deeds at that time, was just east and then subsequently just northwest of this property. Amos’s home was probably similar to this amazing salt box historic treasure.

The raindrops slowed to a drizzle and the sun shyly peeked out from time to time as I was taking my last photos with my phone, happily trotting up and down the road.

It’s really, really difficult to remain upset at not being able to visit the archives when you make wonderful discoveries like this. These aren’t the only photos taken that day, nor the only properties, but I’m saving the rest for the articles about these ancestors.

I do hope these photos and process that I used will entice you to do deed work and search for properties of your own ancestors. Google maps today can overlap older, historic maps and neighbor’s deeds along with landmarks help locate your ancestor’s lands. Sometimes, I need to bring the deeds to current owners, or at least until contemporary addresses came into being, in order to find the property.

Don’t let the fact that you don’t live locally and can’t visit deter your search.

You don’t have to visit in person, although that’s always wonderful. I’ll clearly never be able to visit all of my ancestors’ lands, but I can visit virtually with Google map street view and it’s free. Except for the cemetery up the dirt road. Google cars don’t traverse gravel or dirt roads, or roads without center lines. They also aren’t allowed in some countries overseas,

When I returned to the hotel at the end of the day, I stepped out of the car and was greeted by this stunning double rainbow. It’s like Amos and my other Willington ancestors were apologizing for having to make me so miserable so that I would leave Hartford and visit Willington instead. Or maybe they were just thanking me in the only way they can for remembering them.

My heartfelt thanks to Jennifer Zinck, professional genealogist extraordinaire who writes at Ancestor Central and Keith Wilson, past president of the Mansfield Historical Society for their generosity in making this a wonderful trip and helping me find my very own troll house.

Jacob Lentz Speaks: Rescue From the Death Ship – 52 Ancestors #211

Granddaughter, can you feel me beside you here today?

Can you sense my presence?

Can you hear me as I tell you my story about the death ship – the Zee Ploeg?

Have you come back for me?

Bless you, child.



You can hear my whispers on the cool Nordic winds that whip through your hair. It’s not the wind. It’s the breath of time and the power of memory.

It’s me.

I am standing with you as you look out over the fjord where my life, and that of my wife and her parents unfolded in unimaginable tragedy.

I tried, oh how I tried to tell you the story.

It was there, right there, in the North Sea.

Can you feel me near you?

I am here with you.

Your mother was born half a century after I died. She never knew my name, nor did her father.

But you do.

You found me, and then found my truth.

I am so relieved that someone is interested in my life, although I passed over some 147 years ago this past spring.

My name is Jacob Lenz, or at least that’s how it was spelled in Germany.

The original document is in the “Weinstadt city archive”, which kindly gave permission for the reproduction. Document was graciously retrieved by Niclas Witt.

You can see that’s how I signed my immigration papers before I left my home village of Beutelsbach, but I’m getting ahead of my own story.

In Ohio, where I settled in 1829 or 30 after a long, long journey of 12 or 13 years, it was spelled Lentz, because that’s how it sounds. Since that’s what’s on my tombstone in the Happy Corners Cemetery, that’s how you spell it today of course.

In Ohio, I bought land that I had only dared to dream of in Germany, near the cemetery where you first found me, but that’s not where I began my life. It was an incredibly difficult journey. We nearly didn’t make it. In fact, not all of us did.

Life Began in Germany

I was born in the small town of Beutelsbach, Germany on May 15th in the year of our Lord 1783.

The old Hans Lenz family home stood for a long time after I left.

My birth was recorded in the local church records and I grew up there, a good Lutheran boy.

You can see the church in the middle of the village, even today, surrounded by those beautiful vineyards.

I began working in the vineyards as soon as I was old enough, just as my ancestors for time immemorial had done – trimming the vines, harvesting the grapes and making wine.

I don’t remember ever not being in the vineyards. From the time I was first able to toddle, I went with my parents each morning and all of the village residents, most of whom were family, were working there too. I grew up in those vineyards among the grapes.

It was a good life as a vinedresser, well, until it wasn’t anymore. The wars and devastation took a terrible toll.

And then, those dreadful years descended upon us like a plague of locusts. One would think God himself was angry. The crops failed and finally, in 1816, summer never arrived. At all.

There were no grapes, nor any other food. No crops. Some of our neighbors thought that the Biblical end of times was upon us. Hunger was our constant companion. So was the fear of death. We suffered.

Can you imagine how terrible it is to witness the hunger of your wife, children and parents and be unable to do anything to ease their suffering? Oh, the ache in my heart was far worse than the pain in my belly.

Finally, the King of Wuerttemberg lifted the restrictions on emigration because there were too many hungry people in Germany. Maybe some would leave, reducing the number of people who sought relief and who pathetically begged for food when there was none to be had.

I turned 33 years old the 15th of May in 1816 although I was far too worried about the unrelenting cold weather to remember by birthday. Crops in the vineyard had already failed for the past three years, and 1816 promised to be even worse.

I had married Frederica Ruhle in our little village church more than a decade before. Our oldest son, Jacob Franklin turned 10 in November of that year with no summer, but there was no celebration. By the time November rolled around, everyone knew something was terribly wrong and that there would be no food to survive the winter.

Worse yet, on a cold day in August, yes, a cold day in August – August 22nd, 1816, Frederica gave birth to our daughter Barbara. I’ll never forget, because there wasn’t enough food for the children we already had, yet God blessed us with another.

What was a father to do?

As our plight became increasingly desperate, I realized that the sun would never arrive and we would descend into the winter darkness with the crops never maturing. Tragedy would follow as starvation came knocking at our doors. Riots over the small amount of food available, even flour, were already occurring in the cities. Desperation abounded. The grim reaper was waiting like a gleeful vulture.

I looked over the mountains and down the rivers, and although I was afraid, I knew that America would be our Salvation.



Some of the Separatists in the neighbor village, Schnait, had already left a year or two before and wrote letters home encouraging us to join them. Maybe we should follow. Maybe they were right. It seems that God has smiled upon their countenance, but not ours.

In February of 1817, with no bread in the house, I no longer had to dream. I was done with dreaming and praying, seemingly to no avail, so I acted.

In order to receive permission to emigrate, Wuerttemberg citizens had to pay all of their debts and advertise publicly for any unpaid debts. I paid everyone, although we had to sell almost everything, but we received permission to emigrate and I knew we must leave very soon – before someone changed their mind and before what few provisions we had were exhausted. The horrible demon breath of starvation was hot upon our necks.

To America

We weren’t traveling to America alone.

Frederica’s parents, Johann Adam Ruhle and Dorothea Katharina Wolfin joined us. They were old by then. Dorothea Katherina – we called her Katharina – was about 62 and Adam was 53. Everyone had been suffering for the past 4 years, but 1816 was the worst. Knowing the future was bleak and uncertain, we took our family with us. We could care for them in America. We couldn’t even provide for ourselves in Germany.

Besides, Frederica’s two brothers, Jacob Christian Breuning, 34, and Johann George Ruhle, 23, who had never married were leaving with us too, as well as her sister, Johanna Margaretha Ruhle, age 17, and many hands makes light work. We would own land in America.


Land of our very own and we would work it together as a family! We would grow grapes! I could smell that earthy soil as I stood, eternally hungry, in Germany. Yes, yes, America was the answer!

A large group of people, 75 or more, was leaving together from Beutelsbach and Schnait, most of us related one way or another. After all, our families had lived there forever and you could see from one side of the village to the other. You could even see the next village and walk there easily, about a mile or maybe 20 minutes – if you didn’t stop at anyone’s house along the way to talk. Of course, that seldom happened.

The vineyards grew on the hillsides behind the houses, and people from both villages walked to the vineyards everyday to tend the vines and grapes.

But the spring of 1817 was different.

Before the green sprouts of spring leaves emerged, or should have, Frederica and I, we packed our few belongings, gathered our four children together and said our goodbyes all around, knowing it was the last time we would ever see our German family members. It was heartbreaking.

Perhaps some of them would follow us to America. We were hopeful. We told them we would write and the minister could read them our letters.

Of course, what we didn’t know is that not all of us would make it to America. The price of passage would be death for many.

What would we have done had we known?

I don’t know.


The village of Beutelsbach grew up beside the river, Rems, between the river and the mountains long before written records. We floated down the Rems to the Neckar River to Heilbronn, where we met up with other immigrants. A large barge would be loaded with emigrant families and whatever they were taking along, which wasn’t much, I assure you. Space was very limited and we had sold everything except for a few clothes.

In the village of Heilbronn, we stayed at the inn named Zum Kranen, The Crane, while the barge was loaded, by crane, with immigrants and our meager possessions for the trip to Amsterdam.

On April 30th, as we tried to wait patiently, a commissioner, Friedrich List arrived and asked us why we were leaving Germany. (1) Adam Ruhle, my father-in-law, an outspoken man, probably uttered more than he should have:

“You just have to look at the tax documents and you will find out by yourselves [the reasons for] our complaints. From a land property of 6 Morgen [according to Wikipedia, a Morgen in Wurttemberg was about 3500 square meters = 37700 square feet] I had to pay 279 Gulden taxes in 3 years. The king`s tax amounts to almost nothing, but the local taxes is exorbitant. If you complain about it, the district mayor does not respond. The citizens are not allowed to look at things.”

Another man from our village, Georg Friedrich Hähnle, had assets remaining of 1000 Gulden and he said:

“The forestry district does not even give greenery to the citizens, and there is also a shortage on dung. If all citizens were able to seel, then half of all citizens would emigrate. The head forester does not either give out wood. Hence people have to take it by theirselves, which is punished immoderately. If one would like to talk about everything [meaning: about all complaints], one would not be finished today.”

And another, Johann Georg Dentler, said:

“The forester treats us despotically. Two years ago, we had to collect the wood, without being allowed to take even a single stick home with us. There is no vine since four years, which has ruined the [lives of the] vintners.”

And yet another, Daniel Gaup:

“The taxes are unbearable and the worst is the sculduggery. Since half a year, a complaint against the district mayor has been filed to the authorities, and the plaintiff would have emigrated as well, if he were not to wait out the outcome of his complaint.

This citizen`s name is Hansgeprg Hammer and he has a property of 8000 Gulden. I have taken with me a letter from him to a good friend in America, in which he writes that he will emigrate next year. Besides him, many more citizens are willing to emigrate due to the bad governance. One is able to find everything [all complaints] in a protocol that has been sent to the authorities. We are at least 25 citizens, who emigrate because of these reasons. I could tell you a lot more, if only there would be the time for it.”

The commissioner asked, “Why didn`t you complain to the district office?”

“We are put off filing complaints; complainers are held captive in eternity. It is a lost try right from the start.”

And then he asked further, “Why didn`t you complain at the higher authorities?”

“A poor man like me cannot go that far to file a complaint to the high authorities. I am not influential enough for that. The other citizens will lose lots of money through their complaints and they do not know yet, how the matter will end. The costs already amount to over 2000 Gulden.”

The commissioner: “What are the complaints?”

“They are about various sculduggeries of the district mayor and several complaints against the forester and the bailiff.”

The commissioner wrote those words in a book and left. I couldn’t wait to climb onto that barge and get underway, because I was afraid we would not be allowed to leave. Complaining in Germany wasn’t safe!

The Neckar and Rhine

We floated down the Neckar and Rhine rivers on barges towards the sea as the winter ice slowly melted.

We passed villages and castles and more hillside vineyards – sights like we had never seen before.

You’ve seen these sights yourself Granddaughter, those same castles. The Rhine was our highway to America.

The land flattened as we approached Amsterdam and windmills appeared on the horizon.

The vineyards and Germany were behind us and there was no going back now.


We were supposed to sail for America from Amsterdam on March 30th, but our departure was delayed, first by one thing, and then by another.

Once in Amsterdam, after many false starts, we contracted with a sea captain for passage. The contact for our voyage stated that the captain, 21 sailors and 400 passengers would sail for Philadelphia. By the time everyone was crammed into the ship, more than 565 passengers were on board, with supplies for only 400.

I was proud that I was able to pay our way, although it took every penny and we were packed into the bottom of the ship, Zee Ploeg (Sea Plow), like sausages, all passengers together in a space smaller than our home in Germany. Still, we knew that life would be better once we landed in America so we didn’t mind the discomfort.

We had hope, something that no longer existed in Germany.

Others who immigrated to America earlier had written letters back home describing the bountiful harvests and freedoms there, and we knew that God would deliver us., although he seemed to be testing our will.

But that was all in the past. We were sailing to America now!


At first, we were delayed leaving the port of Amsterdam because of bad weather but we were able to live on the ship. Lord knows, there was no money to rent a room. In fact, there was no money left at all.

At last, after a few weeks, on May 25th we departed with one Captain Manzelman at the helm, a man I never trusted. He seemed mean, but we needed him and after all, a ship is a ship. A deal is a deal, and we had already paid.

At long last, we sailed into the sea, but then had to stop for several weeks, a month or more, on the island of Texel near the Netherlands. More foul weather. Perhaps it was an omen, but a man died and had to be buried. Yet another storm was brewing.

We had already used much of our ration of food allotted each person for the journey, and the captain’s mood became sourer and fouler with each passing day. That man is the devil incarnate – mark my words.

We took on more supplies and water in Texel, and a few weeks later, finally set sail again as soon as the winds abated. But it was only the lull before the next storm.

Pummeled by another storm, we had to return to Texel, again. Everyone, passengers and crew alike, avoided the captain who seemed angry that we existed. We felt like he wanted us dead, and truth be known, he did, as we would soon discover.

Finally, finally, on the last day of August we set forth again into the Atlantic, expecting to be in America in just a few weeks.

Our spirits soared!

America, here we come!!!

Forsaken by God

Less than one day into the Atlantic, the wrath of God descended upon us in an angry torrent. A terrible hurricane tossed our ship like a cork in the sea. The massive waves first threw the Zee Ploeg ship skyward into the air, then as we descended into the abyss, crashed over us like deafening thunder. People, passengers and crew alike were drown and swept overboard. Our food was washed into the sea as well, and what wasn’t, was ruined. The water casks crashed through the deck into the passenger hold, below, as did the cannons.

We prayed to the Lord to save us, for food and for fresh water, but day by day, we drifted with none in the unceasing storms. Dying little by little, inch by inch. I can’t even think of that horror. It haunted my waking hours and my dreams until the day I died. I could barely speak of it and Frederica could not.

In the darkest of nights in the worst of gales, we heard a monstrous thunderous crashing, then splintering. The mast twisted, shrieking amidst the squalling of the storm and broke in two, like a mere twig. We knew we were doomed, never expecting to see the light of day. We clutched each other as the water rose in the bowels of the ship and awaited our fate. Frederica hugged the baby to her breast. We held each other as tightly as we could and prayed. We would die as a family.

By some miracle, that ship stayed afloat.

A day or two later, more damage to the ship – the bowsprit snapped too. The sea broke the windows in the ship, and water poured in from every hole.

My God, my God, what have we done to deserve this?

Then, our young Elizabeth, just four and a half years old, died. Wet and ice cold, we huddled together for warmth below deck, starving – with no food or water. The stench of death and sewage enveloped us. We no longer knew whether to pray for life or death. Death seemed more humane.

To make matters worse, the captain tried to poison what little food we had. The men, starving or not, well, we had to take matters into our own hands. We were a captainless, rudderless mass of starving humanity adrift on the angry sea. Completely forsaken or at least forgotten by God. Why? Why?

Oh God, why?

A couple weeks later, we drifted by the Faroe Islands and tried to gain their attention with a shot, but that was not to be and we drifted on, devoid of all hope, starving and utterly forlorn.

Death became our constant companion.

Two Months Later – Norway

At the end of September, after being adrift for nearly two months – I don’t rightly recall the day as they all ran together by then, we thankfully, thankfully, shipwrecked into the shore of Norway near an island called Herdla.

You know the place. I saw you there today, standing at the monument honoring the passengers on the Zee Ploeg.

Lakes, salt, sun, universe, eternity and heaven – the symbols on the monument..

I was with you Granddaughter, as you came back to see me. My heart swelled with pride.

See the islands behind you – that’s where the Zee Ploeg came to rest, rocking back and forth, teetering precariously on the rocky island near the Skjellanger lighthouse.

“Please God, we beseech of you, do not let us break free and wash out to sea again.”

We gave thanks because we were sure that the people ashore would help us as soon as they could see us through the fog. In the name of all humanity, how could they ignore or refuse our great suffering?

Herdla was a small island, maybe a mile long and a quarter or half a mile wide. Fishermen in boats kindly brought us food, but the sight of the dead and nearly-dead on the death-ship, reaching out, screaming in an unknown language and desperately begging frightened the local people. We must have appeared mad, and indeed, we were crazed with hunger and thirst.

They didn’t know what to do with us, whether we were just starving or also carrying some plague that would kill them too. There were so many dead. Some we buried at sea as we could, but when the sea was too rough, our dead family members simply remained with us below deck amid the stench.

Perhaps the people on Herdla wondered if we were even of this world. We looked like the walking dead.

They were kind enough to allow us to bury some of our deceased in the churchyard. I hope they said prayers over their bodies and for the souls of our relatives.

We were dying every day now. Entire families perishing, one by one.

The wailing never stopped. The screams and moans of unimaginable night terrors, except it was real and there was no escape. The only escape was death itself.


The men in Herdla sent an emergency message to Bergen, the capital of Norway, further down the fjord. What were they to do with a ship full of starving, sick castaways?

We didn’t know anything about Norway. In fact, we weren’t supposed to be anyplace close to Norway. Driven by the storm, after the mast and bowsprit broke, we could neither navigate nor control the ship, nor did we know exactly where we were.

Fortunately for us, the Norwegian people, at least near the sea, were at least somewhat familiar with Germans. Hanseatic League German merchants had been trading with Norwegians for hundreds of years. A few people spoke a little German and all people living by the sea understood a shipwreck and hunger.

Norway itself was struggling. The country had been gifted to the Swedes by the Danes just three years before, and many of the bureaucrats in charge had little experience.

We were devastated, crushed, when they decided that we could not remain in Herdla and in fact, we could not come ashore at all. It appeared that our incredible relief at being washed up on the island and being discovered was premature.

Overwrought, we were trapped on the ship in our misery which deepened day by day.


The Zee Ploeg was towed to a shipyard north of Bergen, called Elsesro, where we were quarantined on the ship in this bay, right beside the buildings with the red roofs, for 30 days.

This is how Elsesro looked in 1814. It’s still recognizable today – even the red roof buildings

I stood beside you as you stood witness at Elsesro overlooking the sea, where the Zee Ploeg was tied, feeling our sadness across two centuries. Palpable, you can still touch our grief, and through it, you touch us.

The disabled Zee Ploeg was tethered to the dock beside one of those warehouses with the red tile roofs, just beneath you Granddaughter. Perhaps, if I could have peered up into the future, I could have seen you perched upon that hill, reaching out to me through the mists of time.

I was with you in Elsesro today, my Granddaughter.

You stood where we stood, where our children played and we heard their laughter once again as the sun grew warm. You touched the trees that were saplings when I staggered upon that land, falling upon the ground in thanksgiving after emerging from that hell-hole ship, reeking of death.

You stood just a few feet away.

Ahh, some of those sturdy trees are gone now, as am I, but the stump remains, just as part of me remains in you.


We hoped that our fate had turned for the better at Elsesro, but we questioned if it could be so. We didn’t know the language and wondered what would become of us. America was never further away. Germany was in the past. We were in limbo. Purgatory on Earth.

While incredibly relieved to no longer be adrift, we looked out at this bay for 30 long days, wondering if we would leave before that time, feet first.

Death seemed to be the only way off of this terrible ship.

God, it seems, wasn’t yet done testing our will.

Those 30 days and nights were endless, relentless. Still, more people died. And more. And more.

When that eternity had passed, we were allowed to depart the ship. We had no place to go, we still had no food, our clothes were in tatters and as the local residents described us, we “were more dead than alive.” Begging was against the law, but what choice did we have?

Thank God, some of the residents at least took the pitiful wailing orphans into their homes, hearts and families.

You met one of their descendants today, Granddaughter, Christian Rieber. He built that lovely memorial for the Zee Ploeg survivors in Herdla where we stood together.

Christian’s ancestors died on the Zee Ploeg and we tried to comfort the orphans, but could not.

The Zee Ploeg was so badly damaged that she could not be repaired. The breaking masts had crashed through the deck and broken the sides.

Not knowing what to do with us, the Norwegians are a resourceful lot.

At Elsesro, another ship with no masts called the Noah’s Ark was tethered to the Zee Ploeg, upon her deck. Those of us left alive lived between the two ships lashed together in the cove, cold, miserable and suffering as the gloom of winter fell upon us.

Still, it was better than dying one by one, adrift at sea.

The Noah’s Ark Tragedy

Elsesro, where you stood today, was where the tragedy of the Noah’s Ark took place, as if there hadn’t been enough tragedy already. More terror and death.

In January, on the 14th, in the dead of the winter during yet another horrific storm that blew in from the north, the Noah’s Ark broke loose from the Zee Ploeg, crashing into the sea and drowning many of the people who had already survived a shipwreck and starvation, sweeping them out to sea. Then another 20 died in the next fortnight from terror.

The survivors, nearly drown, became very ill. Today, you might call it pneumonia or maybe they had heart attacks, but we didn’t know why back then. Slowly, more died and were buried in the churchyard behind St. Mary’s Church, the church in the neighborhood where the Hanseatic League Germans lived.

Thank goodness those Germans spoke our language and we could at least have the comfort of a funeral service we understood to bury our unfortunate dead. They wrote the names of our dead in their church book, giving us at least some semblance of normalcy and consolation.

Those we had to bury at sea had nothing more than a prayer, and those swept overboard…I can’t bear to think…

22 Kong Oscar’s Gate

You probably didn’t know there were hospitals in 1817, but one, of a sort, existed in Bergen, left over from the war with Sweden three years earlier where captive soldiers needed treatment. That’s where the desperately ill were sent, often to await the grim reaper. 22 Kong Oscar’s Gate, meaning house 22 on King Oscar’s Street.

The building that served as our hospital isn’t there anymore, of course, but I walked beside you when you climbed the cobblestone street, the same one I trod, and visited the building in that location today to see where we lived.

I was fortunate, if you can even use that word to describe our plight, that most of our family was in the hospital and had been since October. They had to carry us off of that ship. We couldn’t walk and were very nearly dead. So I wasn’t on the Zee Ploeg on January 14th when the Noah’s Ark accident happened.

More than 100 people had died by this time, including all 30 babies born during the journey. We no longer knew who was still alive. Confusion reigned.

After the Noah’s Ark accident, many more were sent to the hospital to recover, or die. Twenty more died that next week. There were funerals every day. Graves couldn’t be dug fast enough.

Thankfully, kindly townspeople brought us food, and clothes, for we had none.

The Lawsuit

I know the Bible teaches us forgiveness, but I could not forgive that despicable captain for what he had done to us. Manzelmann, of course, had secreted food away and he didn’t suffer the same fate as we did. Then, he tried to poison us. He was seen acting suspiciously and slipping poison into the kettle of gruel.

Some of the ruined food was saved and indeed, it proved exactly as we suspected – POISON. We should have made him eat it. We had to dispose of that poisoned food, meaning what little food we had was wasted as we starved. His murderous intentions and incompetence in so many ways caused the terror, torture and deaths of our countrymen and cousins. He didn’t care.

In essence, he killed our beloved daughter, Elizabeth. No, I could not forgive that man.

By January 8th, I was once again able to walk, so Johann Fidler and I filed suit against Captain Manzelmann, asking for our passage money to be refunded so that we could pay our Norwegian benefactors and once again purchase passage to America.

Manzelmann claimed that he was not responsible for our predicament, that we needed to sue the company in the Netherlands that we contracted through for his services. Under the dark of night, Manzelmann stole board a ship and returned to the Netherlands, leaving the misery and devastation he caused behind, never having to answer for his actions. We should have hung him on the ship when we had the opportunity.

The Zee Ploeg was too badly damaged to be repaired or rebuilt and her wood became part of those warehouses you saw at Elsesro today, Granddaughter. Who knows, maybe part of her still remains in those rafters.

New Beginnings – A Wedding and a Baby

On February 8th, my wife Frederica’s brother, Johann George Ruhle, married Catharina Koch, a girl from Schnait who was also emigrating. Her mother was a Ruhle, related to my wife, and her grandmother was a Lenz, related to me. Actually, in those two villages, there wasn’t anyone who wasn’t related, several times over.

George and Catharina courted while we floated down the Rhine past those majestic castles and after we climbed aboard the Zee Ploeg in Amsterdam.

Those castles were a romantic sight alright and enough to inspire anyone. In June, they announced their engagement, although we certainly suspected. They would marry after we arrived in America. We all celebrated and well, they might have celebrated a bit too much.

Georg and Catharina married in Bergen in the old Cross Church, just around the corner from the hospital where we had all been taken. The door was always open then too.

I walked beside you in the church today, my Granddaughter. The inside looks much the same as it did when we fervently prayed for safe deliverance.

We sat in these pews and prayed at this alter, day by day, to God to deliver us to America. With no resources, we were entirely at his mercy.

Was there a way for us? Was there any salvation on this side of the grave? How many more would die? I would rather die than go on alone.

I know it sounds odd to say that we were fortunate to be so ill, but the hospital is what saved us. We weren’t on board when the Noah’s Ark broke free, plummeting into the sea.

The hospital was barren and stark. The townspeople of Bergen brought us food and a few clothes. We were so grateful because, austere as it was, it was so much better than the ship. Somehow, we had been transformed from hopeful emigrants to pathetic beggarly refugees.

As we could, we wove and repaired fish nets and anything else we could do, but we were far more of a burden to the people of Bergen than anything else. They too had suffered at the hands of Mother Nature, with starvation knocking at their doors as well. They had little to share, but shared what little they had.

Not to mention that having been defeated in the Napoleonic Wars, they had been overcome by Sweden just three years before. They were terribly poor, just eeking by. Thank God for the blessings of the bounty of the sea, or we would surely have perished altogether.

A Secret

Let me tell you a little secret. No one can hear, can then?

Frederica’s brother’s wife, Catharina, when they married in Bergen, was “with child.”


There was no way for Georg and Catharina to marry on the ship, and although they were properly penitent for their immoral behavior, celebrating their upcoming marriage prematurely one would say, it was too late. A child, we thought, would brighten all of our spirits. This child seemed ordained by God, especially since the baby was born in February, even though his mother was starved during her pregnancy. We gave her as much of our food as we could.

Little Joseph Ruhle was born at the hospital on February 28th. We rejoiced and baptized him right away right around the corner at Cross Church, where his parents were married.

We were so thankful to have a place to worship so close by, less than a block away, around the corner just past the green house.

I proudly carried little Joseph to the church myself as his mother rested! He was the newfound joy in our life. The symbol of our hope for our new lives.

I saw you lovingly touch that baptismal font inside the church today, Granddaughter. We gathered around that font as baby Joseph Ruhle was baptized. We were so grateful to hear him cry, full of life, despite the odds. That day seemed to be the turning point. Frederica’s father, Adam, the baby’s grandfather proudly served as his godfather. Joseph’s birth gave us all renewed hope. Yes, life was improving now!

Things were looking up.

But Baby Joseph too was soon cruelly ripped from us, exactly three months later in May of 1818. We sorrowfully wrapped his tiny body for burial and said our goodbyes. The funeral was held the next day, on May 28th in St. Mary’s Church with a German service, his little body laid to rest in the pauper’s corner, beside the rest of the Germans from the Zee Ploeg who had perished.

More than 2200 people were buried in that field above the church. It’s a Park now, still known as “The Grave.”

Most of the graves weren’t marked then, and all are gone now.

I saw you here too, Granddaughter, searching for his lonely grave in the rain today.

None of us could afford a stone. No one knows now where his little body was left behind, his grave lost to history forever.

We washed you with our raindrop tears, but do not grieve, we are with him now.

The Rappites

After baby Joseph died, our despair seemed to deepen with every new day. We knew that we could not stay in Bergen forever. The Norwegians didn’t want us, and we couldn’t blame them. We didn’t want to live as paupers, taking charity. We couldn’t support ourselves. We still needed to find a way to America, but there were very few options.

Frederica’s half-brother, Christian Breuning managed to arrange passage for himself on a ship for America in July. The Rappites from the Harmony settlement in Indiana were willing to pay the passage for anyone who would join their colony, but of course their way of life was very strict and included complete celibacy. Being a young father, I didn’t feel that was the right answer for our family. Lucky for you, Granddaughter, because your mother’s grandmother, our daughter Margaret wasn’t born until the last day of December in 1822, the day before our 3rd anniversary setting foot on American soil. If we had joined the Rappites, well, to put it daintily, you wouldn’t be here.

Christian Breuning left Bergen on August 13th on a ship that held 80 Rappites, although we understand that the Rappites later felt the German boys were too rowdy for their settlement. Some passengers disappeared after arriving in America and never made it to the Harmony settlement, apparently having a change of heart. We always wondered what happened to Christian.

After Christian departed, our countrymen continued to die. Three of our cousins from Schnait named Daniel Lenz died and are all buried with the others in the poor section in Fredens Bolig Cemetery, above St. Mary’s Church. Conrad Lenz died too. One grief on top of another.

The Ship Prima

The Norwegian grey skies and never-ending winter rains had begun, the sun disappeared for days at a time, and darkness was descending on the country.

The people of Bergen were as desperate to be rid of us as we were to be gone. We could not return to Germany without money, as the king made it very clear when we left that we would never be allowed to return. Germany didn’t need any more poor people and the Rhine was in essence a one way river. Our families there were all in desperate straits as well, with the crop failures and high taxes and could not sponsor our return.

Finally in the late fall, the Norwegian government found the captain of the ship Prima who agreed to transport us to America and allow us to be sold into indentured servitude after arrival in order to pay our passage. Indentured servitude would take another 7 years. Surely Frederica’s parents, Adam and Katharina Ruhle would never live that long. She would be 70 and he would be 61 by then. Who would even purchase them? Indeed, 11 people on the ship were too old to be sold after we arrived in America.

This was Captain Manzelmann’s fault – that evil, despicable man. He had brought this disaster upon our heads. Passage to America should not cost us another 7 years, 7 very long dear years of our lives. It has already cost us one and a half years, and we were destitute refugees in Bergan, not near America yet.

By the time we sailed to America, were auctioned and served 7 years, it would be nearly 10 years since we left Germany, hoping to start a new life. Adam and Katharina’s life would be over. They would have sacrificed and suffered for nothing.

I had paid the first passage for the entire family, but without a penny to my name, we were reduced to charity and utter dependence in Norway. Our sole request was that we would be sold together as a family. With that agreement 270 Germans, us included, climbed aboard the ship Prima and set forth again.

Frederica cried as we boarded the Prima. Terror was in our hearts. Our unsteady legs shook, but we had to climb aboard that ship.

Our child’s body along with so many of our countrymen already rested beneath the sea with more left behind in St. Mary’s churchyard. Of the almost 600 people that sailed on the Zee Ploeg from Amsterdam, only about 350 left Bergen. That doesn’t count the newborns who perished of course, and it doesn’t count the few orphans who survived and stayed behind in Bergen with their new families either.

The first few weeks on board the Prima were almost normal, as voyages go. Captain Woxland chose the southern route due to the lateness of our sailing. Along the coast of Portugal, we caught the never-failing trade winds and sailed across the sea to the West Indies. We heaved a collective sigh of relief, but once again, the unholy seas turned on us.

Captain Woxland had to fight a raging storm, a hurricane that nearly caused our ship to capsize. Terror filled our hearts once again, but Woxland was a skillful Captain and a good man, not at all like Manzelmann.

To help quench our fear, we prayed aloud and sang songs. The Lord had brought us this far and surely, surely, He would not let us perish now. We did not arrive in the fall as planned, and not in Philadelphia as we intended, but weeks later limped into Baltimore midwinter, on New Year’s Day 1819. We had been delivered. We had escaped the dragons of the sea for the sixth time. Thanks be to God.

Of course, we were yet to be sold, auctioned, but we would never have to set foot on another ship, nor would we, for the rest of our lives. Nor would our descendants for five generations, until you, that is. I don’t know, my dear, if you are brave or foolhearty! But you are assuredly one or the other.

Your Return

Granddaughter, I’m so glad you returned in the ship in the sky. I hope you can feel my love and gratitude across the years.

I’m so thankful that you made your way back to look out over the fjord to the island across from Herdla. Never was anyone so glad to be cast upon rocks!

The simple church on the hillside there gave us such hope as we saw the boats approaching from the shore with food. We rejoiced, watching the arrival of our saviors.

I’m so grateful that you returned to give thanks in the church in Herdla for the people who saved us. They’re buried in that churchyard by the sea, you know. We owe those good people our life, and yours.

It’s fitting that a replica of the Zee Ploeg graces that church today, commissioned by Christian Rieber, a fourth generation descendant of one of those pitiful orphans. Our descendants sure have done us proud.

I’m sure you know of the Norwegian custom of building a replica of a shipwrecked ship and donating it to the first church the survivors worshipped in to give thanks to the Lord Almighty for their rescue. See the Zee Ploeg hanging there from the rafters? Now you know why.

You walked in our footsteps in Elsesro too. A place of great relief and also of great sorrow.

So much to bear, when life was already unbearable. Elsesro’s peaceful beauty today belies the tragedy tucked away beneath years of forgetfulness.

The hospital, our place of salvation and our makeshift home for so many months is gone now, but you visited us there too. Our spirit remains. We trod those same ancient cobblestones as we walked up and down the hills streets of Bergen, and around the corner to the Cross Church.

By Thomasg74 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0 no,

I saw you at the church door today, exactly where we stood too. We passed through that very door.

I was so touched that you walked up the aisle in the Cross Church were Frederica’s brother was married and baby Joseph was baptized with his grandfather standing proudly beside the baptismal font. That was one of our few days of happiness and joy in Bergen.

Bless you for your prayers for our souls there. We pray for yours as well.

The Cross Church provided us with peaceful respite then, just as it did you today.

Sermons at St. Mary’s Church were in German, a comfort to us, and Lord knows, we walked up the streets to that church for another funeral every week, it seems. Sometimes every day.

By No machine-readable author provided. Mortendreier assumed (based on copyright claims). – No machine-readable source provided. Own work assumed (based on copyright claims)., CC BY-SA 2.5,

We stood in St. Mary’s Church beside you today, just as we stood there the day we buried baby Joseph, and Daniel Lenz, all three of them, and Conrad Lenz and so many more.

The tiny bones in the cemetery on the hill behind St. Mary’s Church are long returned to dust. You did what we could not do, standing in our stead at the grave of that sweet baby boy and others that we left behind in that pauper’s field.

The burying ground is a park now, but we walked that sacred land with you. Our dust still remains.

Our memory lives again. We became you. You carry us in your veins. Remember, our and your DNA rests in the Bergen cemetery too, beneath the sea, and in churchyards in Germany, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Indiana.

Frederica’s parents, Dorothea Katharina and Johann Adam Ruhle never made it to Ohio with us to see our new land. We lost them along the way.

Thank you, Granddaughter for rescuing us from the death ship of oblivion. For finding us and telling our story of that tortuous journey. The wonderful people of Bergen saved us then, and you saved us again. As long as someone remembers us, knows our story, we aren’t entirely dead. Well, we may be dead, but we aren’t gone and forgotten.

If you doubt that I was with you today, look upon this rainbow across the harbor at Elsesro, a gift from me and your ancestors already here – your mother too! We struggled to help you find your way to Norway and we are smiling, ear to ear!

You made it!! We never doubted your resolve. After all, you carry our blood.

The rainbow begins, or ends, in Elsesro, in the shipyard – just like it begins and ends with you. Indeed, Elsesro is the pot at the end of the rainbow, on the left end of the faint double rainbow, the beginning of the next generation.

Need God speak louder?

You, Granddaughter, are our pot of gold – although you think that we are yours.

Yes, that journey was terrifying, devastating and our hearts still ache, but it was the path to you. We did survive and live on through you. You make us proud!

Know that as we watched you sail away on a very different ship, we stood on the mountain top watching over you. As we will, Granddaughter, all the days of your life.

Grateful acknowledgements:

Many people played a part in in bringing the life of Jacob Lentz, his wife Frederica Ruhle, her parents, Johann Adam Ruhle and Dorothea Katharina Wolfin, and Frederica’s siblings together in Germany, then in Bergen, and finally in the US. I am eternally indebted to the following people who helped me along this path in so many different ways with rescuing these ancestors, and their story, from oblivion.

  • Christian Rieber – Benefactor for many Zee Ploeg descendant historical contributions including the monument and pavilion being built nearby and the museum documentary. Christian is an inspiration for all generations.
  • Sigmund Steinsbo – Our gracious host on our Herdla day – thank you so much for driving.
  • Arnfrid Dommersnæs Mæland – Bergen historian extraordinaire who served as a wonderful liaison in Bergen. I couldn’t have had this amazing Bergen experience without Arnfrid. Most of the historical images and some of the contemporary photos are courtesy of Arnfrid.
  • Arvid Harms – Arnfrid’s husband, wonderful, patient  and amazingly unique companion (who drives a very cool Bentley).

  • Arne Solli – Bergen historian and researcher.
  • Herdla Church – Steward of the Zee Ploeg ship replica.
  • Herdla church historian – Generously provided access to church and prepared a historical presentation.

Herdla Church visit, left to right, Arvid Harms, Arnfrid Dommersnæs Mæland, church historian, me, Sigmund Steinsbo

  • Herdla Museum and staff – Welcoming guardians of the Zee Ploeg video (in both Norwegian and English) that resides in the museum. The Zee Ploeg monument and pavilion are also located on this lovely property.
  • Gunnar Furre – Herdla Museum Director who hosted our visit and tolerates Zee Ploeg descendants who return like homing pigeons.
  • Yngve Nedrebø – Historian at the Bergen archives.
  • Håakon Andersen – Amazingly talented creator of the Zee Ploeg ship model.
  • Liv Stromme – Assistance with Zee Ploeg research.
  • Lisbeth Lochen – Assistance with Zee Ploeg research.
  • Martin Goll – Assistance with Beutelsbach and Schnait research.
  • Niclas Witt – Assistance with German archival material and retrieval.
  • Jim – My husband who accompanies me on any number of insane adventures and claims to like it:)

Wonderful traditional Norwegian dinner in Bergen with Arnfrid, Arvid, me and Jim. The perfect evening. Jacob Lentz may have been there too, but if so, he didn’t eat much nor drink any of the local brew.

Researchers wishing to remain anonymous:

  • Tom – My cousin, retired professional German genealogist and research partner, whom I adore for many reasons.
  • Chris – Native German speaker, my friend who loves history, is eternally curious, finds the most amazing resources and rounds out our research team perfectly. I met Chris on this trip too, but that’s a story for another time.

Without the consistent combined efforts of Tom and Chris, Frederica Ruhle would never have been identified, which ultimately led me to Beutelsbach, Schnait and then Bergen in person. None of this would have happened without them. These men have never-ending patience and there isn’t a big enough thank you.

I am amazed, over and over again how, through genealogy, we meet complete strangers and emerge fast friends. For that gift, I guess I have to thank Jacob Lentz.


The interviews by Friedrich List were extracted from the book by Günter Moltmann 1979, “Aufbruch nach Amerika. Die Auswanderungswelle von 1816/17,” and translated by Chris.

Aunt Margaret’s Bombshell Letter – 52 Ancestors #210

Aunt Margaret (1906-2005), one of my Crazy Estes aunts, wrote a bombshell letter on January 26, 1978. Little did I know that I had unwittingly been the catalyst, nor that the bomb itself would explode in my own hands a quarter century later.

That letter answered a lot of questions, but it also introduced many, MANY more mysteries, some of which I’ve been able to solve. Others, however, remain stubbornly elusive, nagging reminders of how little we sometimes know about even our closest relatives.

Introducing the Characters

Before I share the letter, I need to give you a dance card with a cast of characters, and believe me, they are truly characters. Otherwise you’ll surely miss some of the essence of the soap-opera-esque plot.

Let’s start with a pedigree chart. Three charts, actually, one for each of my grandfather, William George Estes’s marriages. He’s the character in red, below.

Lazarus Estes and his wife Elizabeth Vannoy lived at the end of Estes Holler in Claiborne County, Tennessee and died in 1918.

While Lazarus Estes and Elizabeth Vannoy, called Betty, had several children, only two are mentioned in Margaret’s letter – Cornie Epperson and my grandfather who is Margaret’s father, William George Estes (1873-1971.)

William George Estes was married three times, assuming all three “marriages” were legal. I’m positive that the first one to Ollie Bolton was official, as I have the marriage documentation. The others, well, you can decide for yourself.

  • William George was first married to Ollie Bolton, having a total of 10 or 11 children. Six are mentioned in this letter and five survived to adulthood. They are, in age order, Estel, my father, Joseph “Dode,” Margaret, Minnie and Elsa.
  • William George’s second marriage was to Joice Hatfield and they had one daughter, Virginia Estes, also mentioned in Margaret’s letter.
  • William George’s third marriage was to Crocie Brewer who had a total of four children with him, but only two of which, Josephine and “red headed” Evelyn are mentioned by Margaret.

White and Black Sheep

Lazarus Estes and Elizabeth Vannoy’s daughter, Cornie Estes (1878-1958), married Worth Epperson (1873-1959) and set up housekeeping right across the dirt road from Lazarus where they lived and died.

Cornie Estes and Worth Epperson celebrating their 60th wedding anniversary. They seemed to be the glue in Estes Holler after Lazarus and Elizabeth died.

Cornie and Worth are buried together in the cemetery called Cedar Hill, at least it was called that by the family, on Lazarus’s land. The road between Cornie’s house and Lazarus’s was barely a two track at the time I first visited in the 1980s.

You can see the cemetery beneath the cedar tree in the center of the photo above.

William George Estes with his sister, Cornie Estes Epperson

While Lazarus seemed to have been the stable cornerstone of the family in Estes Holler, his son, William George was quite the opposite. Put bluntly, William George was unquestionably the black sheep. A very interesting black sheep, but a black sheep nonetheless who seemed to exasperate everyone around him as he drifted from one marriage and crisis to the next, leaving a trail of human carnage behind for others to unravel and clean up, as Margaret’s letter bears witness.

Aunt Margaret

William George and Ollie’s daughter Margaret, the letter-writer, born in 1906, married Edward Wyatt O’ Rourke and moved to California before 1942. The photo below was taken in 1944 and Margaret notes it was in San Francisco.

Margaret and Ed had one son who apparently married, then died (or disappeared) after having one child, a daughter, according to discussions with Margaret back in the 1970s. Unfortunately, Margaret’s stories about her son and the granddaughter were very convoluted and tangled, sometimes contradicted themselves and may have been partly the product of confusion, a propensity towards twisting the truth and mental illness that manifested as paranoia. I wasn’t sure who lived and died, when or where, but I do know it was an ungodly mess.


Aunt Margaret and her sister, Minnie, were both known to be somewhat eccentric in their later years. Ok, maybe in their earlier years too. Both were inclined to stretch the truth from time to time, and sometimes, they simply flat out fabricated stories. They were quite creative as well as experts in manipulating people to draw attention to themselves. These ladies seemed to be addicted to drama, and if there wasn’t any, they stirred some up. Before judging too harshly, read the rest of their story.

When I first read Margaret’s shocking letter, I knew that Margaret had previously been dishonest and manipulative with me. So you’ll appreciate that I had a healthy amount of skepticism about the veracity of the “truths” this letter revealed.

Margaret seemed to grow much worse as she aged as her inclination for tall tales stretched into outright paranoia. I think at one time she knew her stories were untrue, but by the 1970s and 1980s, she appeared to become increasingly unable to discern truth from fiction. The last time I spoke with Margaret who was then living in California, she insisted that I had visited her in either her second home in Hawaii or third home in Singapore and I “knew what I did.” I never met Margaret, nor did Margaret have three homes in different parts of the world, at least not to the best of my knowledge. And clearly, I didn’t “do” anything. Her accusations were nasty, unsettling and frightening. Rather than be drawn into her drama, I simply stepped away entirely, permanently.

Being aware of that history, suffice it to say, I didn’t know what to think, reading Margaret’s 1978 letter a quarter century later. I did what genealogists do, I set forth to prove, or disprove as much as possible.

Come follow along.

Solving the First Mystery

I am summarizing parts of Margaret’s 22-page hand-written tome but directly transcribing much of it, in the order in which it was written. Trust me, it needs her own words.

The letter, written in early 1978 to my step-mother, Virgie, long after my father’s 1963 death, is obviously quite friendly. Margaret opens with “My Dear,” and refers to Virgie as “my darling Sis,” although a red flag shot up when Margaret insisted on paying for a long-distance phone call by sending Virgie a check, even though “we are both on pensions.”

I learned years before that Margaret never did anything without some level of guilt being inflicted. She would voluntarily insist on doing something nice, and then inform you of what a hardship it had caused her. She seemed to live to make everyone around her feel guilty by elevating her own actions. I was a young adult when I was first exposed to Margaret’s behavior. I had never encountered anything like this before and didn’t exactly know what to “do” about it, but I did know it made me feel awful and icky. What I didn’t realize at the time is that’s exactly what it was meant to do. I’ll not ascribe motive, but since Minnie and Margaret exhibited many of the same behaviors, I suspect the root may have been family based, nature or nurture (or lack thereof,) or perhaps all three.

Margaret mentioned in her letter that she had called Virgie “a few years back” and had sent a letter as well to “the address on Hickory” in Dunkirk, Indiana which was returned.

I must say, the mention of the Hickory Street address confirmed something I had suspected from my father’s obituary and Google maps today. 501 Hickory, where Virgie lived when my father was alive is now 202 Shadyside. The houses had been renumbered, apparently between 1963 when my father died and 1978. Virgie’s home was at the intersection of the two streets.

I then thought to check in my mother’s old address book, and sure enough, Virgie’s address on Hickory had been struck through and replaced by the Shadyside address. Virgie never moved, closing her life in the house where it opened 86 years earlier.

These two side by side pictures show the house in 1919 on the left, with my father in uniform, and about 1963 on the right.

The house looks very different today, but it’s still recognizable. One mystery solved!

Margaret Thinks I Ask Too Many Questions!

Margaret begins:

“I have been trying to decide what to do about Roberta’s letter which was so abrupt and chuck full of personal questions regarding my family tree – since her mother seems to have withheld information regarding her connections with my brother, I do not feel it is any business of mine to reveal any knowledge I might have of Bill’s personal affairs or of any members of my family – and certainly not mine.”

Truthfully, this made me bristle.

All I can say is that I did ask lots of questions because there was no one else to ask and Margaret had encouraged me to do so – going so far as sending me letters with photos. I was grateful to find someone, anyone, who might have any answers. Margaret certainly never exhibited this attitude when we talked on the phone. I initially felt welcomed, even embraced. Margaret provided information, copied and sent photos and gave me the names of other people to contact. I was shocked and hurt to read that paragraph about myself.

Margaret was very uncharitable towards my mother who suffered from the behavior of my father in many ways. She didn’t live near my father’s family in Tennessee, and to the best of my knowledge, had only met his father and step-mother on one trip. She didn’t know the rest of the family, so she could hardly have withheld information she didn’t know.

Not only did Mother raise me alone, without financial support from him or support of any kind from any of his family, including Margaret, mother endured the disgrace that his choices reflected upon her. In many cases, Mother believed I was better off not knowing details of his exploits, as she did not want my opportunities to be painted with his brush after his death. Mother believed wholeheartedly that the choices she made were for my own good and in my best interest, given that she could not go back in time and “unmake” my father my father.

Ironically, Margaret closed her letter by saying exactly the same thing – that I was better off not knowing. But, now I do.

It’s wryly humorous that the very letter in which Margaret tells Virgie she isn’t going to provide me with information is the exact letter that provides me with that information. And what a revelation it was…

The First Secret Revealed

“Now I will give you a little secret of Bill’s you may have already have found out.

Our parents were divorced while young. Our father never contributed one dime to any of our support.”

Seems my grandfather had something in common with my father.

“We were all placed in foster homes and seldom had a chance to see each other until we became adults. We would then arrange a meeting at my mothers in Chicago over some holiday – never more than one or two at a time.”

I never knew that. All placed in foster homes? How incredibly sad. My heart melted. Ollie seems to have a perpetually sad look about her, even when she smiles as shown in the tiny photo at left.

My Father Ran Away to Join the Service

“Bill ran away and joined the army in 1916 by hiking his age from 14 to 18 – was a top Sargent during WWI and married Martha Dotter [sic] at Battle Creek Michigan at the age, correct age, of 16. Edna Miller was born while he was still in service. He was later divorced. My mother interfered and had the marriage annulled because of his age plus the fact that she disliked Martha who was much older than Bill.”

Had the marriage annulled? I realize that my father’s marriage to Ilo, another wife, might have been annulled, because he married under an assumed name, but I never heard anything about his marriage to Martha Dodderer being annulled. I would think a judge, especially at that time, would be very hesitant to annul a legal marriage into which a child had been born, effectively making the child illegitimate.

My sister Edna did say something about Ollie kidnapping her and taking her to Chicago when she was young, or at least trying to. So the word “interfered” might be somewhat understated.

Margaret continues:

“Bill was born in 1902 in Springdale, Arkansas. I had two other brothers born there – older ones.”

My father, according to his delayed birth certificate, was born in Sneedville, Tennessee in 1903, but then again, that birth certificate was issued based on his father’s affidavit and a Bible, also produced by my grandfather. His father wasn’t exactly the pillar of integrity.

Who knows why that birth certificate was obtained at that time, or why in Hancock County, Tennessee. If my father was born in Sneedville, or near Sneedville, that suggests that perhaps Ollie was living with or near her family at that time.

I would love to see that Bible. I had no idea a family Bible existed, nor where it is today.

Other records indicate that my father was born in 1901, so who knows for sure.

Given that Margaret was born a few years later, in 1906, she would have been recalling from memory, and she’s correct that the older children were born in Arkansas.

Margaret was only counting living siblings when she referred to “2 older brothers.” She had 4 older brothers in total. Brother Robert burned to death in a cabin in Estes Holler either not long before or about the time Margaret was born. Brother Sammy was born and died in the summer of 1893 and another child of unknown gender was born about 1896 and died before 1900 in Arkansas.

“When you were here I gave you a 8X10 picture of Bill taken at Battle Creek during WWI. I am having copies reprinted of that picture now for other members of the family.”

Ironically, Margaret did indeed copy this photo along with several more and sent them to me. Regardless of how she characterized me in this letter, without her generosity, I would not have the pictures of my family today that are included in this article. Thank you Margaret.

“It was his second hitch in the service when he was in trouble that I had investigated for you after his death.”

My father’s time in the service, including the “problematic” second hitch is detailed in the article about his love letters to Virgie.

Whatever information Margaret found went to her grave with her. Her investigation would have been before the devastating St. Louis National Personnel Record Center fire in 1973 in which my father’s records were burned.

New Year’s Day, 1944

“I last saw Bill on New Year’s Day 1944. I think the year is correct. Mother had phoned me in San Francisco that she was ill and I took a 72 hour leave from work and caught a flight back from the airfield.”

Margaret labeled this photo, “1944 New Years,” so it must have been taken in Chicago during that visit.

“She had also contacted Bill and we had arrived at mother’s the same day – we also left the following day (New Years.) Bill had some woman with him but I don’t recall her name. I think they worked at the same place and he had promised to show her Lincoln Park Zoo. She was not dressed for the freezing weather and I loaned her my fur jacket and gloves and stayed home with mother until they returned.”

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard the phrase “some woman” in conjunction with my father.

This comment suggests that my father was coming from someplace else, since Margaret says they arrived the same day. It may also mean he came from a location significantly further south, where the weather was warmer.

On November 19, 1943, I believe my father married Ethel Hinton in Chicago, so Ethel would clearly have understood Chicago weather. However, by March of 1945, 16 months later, my father had married Dorothy Kilpatrick who lived in Richmond, Indiana. Dorothy should have been prepared for winter weather too – Richmond isn’t terribly far from Chicago. Is this woman with my father at New Year’s a new mystery woman?


“Then we each returned [to] our work. I never saw him again to speak to. However I’m sure I saw him at the post office in San Pedro in 1958 or 1959. He avoided me and seemed to just disappear in the crowd.”

In 1978, when she wrote this letter, Margaret would have been 71 and the paranoia that became very evident by the early 1980s had apparently begun. It may have been present back in the 1950s. I’m not entirely convinced that Margaret, as well as Minnie, didn’t have a form of mental illness that included paranoia well before dementia set in. They both exhibited the same types of behavior relative to being untruthful, as did my father (to some extent, minus the paranoia) and their father.

Another “Clink,” Another Teenage Girl

“Sometime before that I had received a letter from him in some clink in Kentucky.”

Wonderful, another jail record to search for before New Years of 1944. Or did she mean before 1958 or 1959? Sigh. Thanks Dad.

“Seems he had given some gal a ride across the line and she turned out to be [a] teenage runaway. He was caught with her and was in trouble because of it. He needed financial aid. I sent it to him. He also asked me to assist his wife Ethel. I had a letter from her also but can’t remember the details except that she was very much in love with him and would wait for him.”

Lord have mercy, here’s Ethel in Margaret’s letter waiting for Dad. Another piece of evidence that suggests that my father was the William Estes who married Ethel Hinton, and they are one and the same. How I would love to see that letter from Ethel.

If the woman at New Years of 1944 had been Ethel, Margaret would surely have connected those dots wouldn’t she?

Margaret may have been confused about the date or the state in which my father’s brush with the law over the teenage girl occurred. Here’s a brief timeline:

  • November 1943 – A William Estes married Ethel Hinton in Chicago. Uncertain if this is my father, but strongly suspect so, given that Margaret also mentions an Ethel.
  • New Year’s 1944 – Dad in Chicago with a woman he worked with and took to the zoo. Margaret doesn’t recall her name, but this is just 6 weeks after he married Ethel if the William Estes who married Ethel Hinton is my father.
  • December 29, 1944 until March 12, 1945 – My father worked at Eastern State Mental Hospital in Knoxville, Tennessee according to their records. He was married, no wife’s name given, but a relative named Dortha Estes was also a state employee.
  • By March 15, 1945 – Dad was in Walker County, Georgia marrying a teenage girl. He was roughly 43, but lied about his age.
  • According to subsequent court records, at the time he married in Walker County, Georgia, he was already married to Dorothy Kilpatrick who lived in Richmond, Indiana. He was convicted of bigamy in Georgia. However, that episode doesn’t include an underage girl running away or Kentucky. My father and his Georgia bride were married where she lived in Walker County, Georgia under the nose of her disapproving father.
  • March 1945 through December 1948 – As a result of his “error in judgement,” he got to spend time in jail until December, 1948 when he was released and returned to Chicago.
  • February 1949 – Married Ellen in Chicago.

What happened to Ethel (Hinton?) and Dorothy Kilpatrick? Your guess is as good as mine! I’d love to know.


On November 19, 1943, one William Estes married Ethel Hinton in Chicago.

I have been unable, in spite of writing to the Cook County Clerk’s Office multiple times, to obtain the actual application which both the bride and groom would have signed, which would confirm if the groom was indeed my father. If any of my readers know how to obtain the application from Cook County, please let me know.

Name: William Estes
Marriage Date: 19 Nov 1943
Spouse: Ethel Hinton
Marriage Location: Cook County, IL
Marriage license: {7DD8EEDE-D87A-4D33-AF3D-EDFB858ECB23}
File Number: 1795725
Archive Collection Name: Cook County Genealogy Records (Marriages)
Archive repository location: Chicago, IL
Archive repository name: Cook County Clerk

Based on this information from Margaret about an Ethel along with his propensity for getting married, it surely appears likely that this is him.

If Dad married Ethel in November 1943, was in Chicago with another woman at New Years of 1944, in Knoxville married to a Dorothy by the 1944/1945 winter, and then marrying another young gal in Walker County, Georgia in March of 1945, when the heck did he have time to get in trouble in Kentucky? Oh, wait, it’s my Dad after all!

The logical gap appears to be between New Year’s of 1944 and late 1945 when he was with Dorothy which “should be” between Ethel and Dorothy as well. His bigamy conviction in Georgia provided me with Dorothy Kilpatrick’s name and that she was living in the Richmond, Indiana Camping Park at that time.

The piece of information that throws me, however, is that Margaret says that Ethel was waiting for him. This surely must be before March 1945 when Dad was married to Dorothy and marrying in Georgia and before 1949 when Dad married Ellen in Chicago, so maybe Ethel was waiting for him when he was in jail in Georgia? But he was married to Dorothy then. I’m really confused. Could he have been a trigamist – married to the gal in Georgia, Dorothy and Ethel all at the same time? Is trigamist even a word? I can’t believe I have to look this word up in connection with my father. Bigamist was bad enough.

I suspect there’s another juicy chapter buried here someplace. Was he in jail someplace ELSE involving a teenage runaway a different time? In Kentucky? Is Georgia the “clink” Margaret is talking about. Seems unlikely. I need digitized court records. That’s what I’m putting on my Christmas list! Santa, are you listening?

Ollie’s Death

“The next I heard was after mother had died in 55 and I had received the funeral bill some months later. I ate his bottom out about what he had done and why he had let Jean pass herself off as me in Chicago. Also why I had not been notified of mother’s illness. I had been sending money orders and cashiers checks to her monthly. They were easier for her to cash at the store, P.O. or bank than my personal check which was from an out of state bank. I don’t believe she had a bank account but she did have a safety deposit box. She told me that much.

She was also receiving a RR [railroad] pension from my step-father’s death – also her own social security check. Someone had to be cashing them and signing her name. Every time I phoned the house I was told she was out.”

During this time period in Chicago, my father was involved with two women. He had married Ellen in 1949 and my mother later. In 1955, my mother, while pregnant for me, was taking care of Ollie who lived with them, was terminally ill and had terrible bedsores. Ollie did not live in her own apartment, could no longer get herself out of bed, was gravely ill and in a great deal of pain before her death on April 9th. Her death certificate says that she had atherosclerotic heart disease for 1 year and multiple decubitus ulcers for 4 months. This was not a sudden illness.

My mother was VERY unhappy with my father about the circumstances. While Mother was taking care of his gravely ill mother, he was drinking heavily and was more often absent than present. I guarantee you, if Margaret had called and my mother answered, Mother assuredly would have told her that her mother was ill and asked her to come and help.

Mother didn’t know for another year and a half or so that my father had another family and the “other wife” was pregnant too, at the same time! No wonder he was drinking.

I don’t doubt that someone was cashing those checks. It could well have been my father and he might have been spending the money on liquor. On the other hand, that money could have been buying medicine for Ollie and food. Regardless, I find it odd that Margaret didn’t realize how ill her mother, then nearly 81, was and had been for some significant time. Me thinks the lady doth protest too much, justifying her own absence when her mother so desperately needed her presence. Margaret’s mother’s care fell to my pregnant mother. I assure you, my mother would have been extremely grateful for any assistance.

“He didn’t answer for awhile and then to say he tried but couldn’t find me. My address was always on my envelopes with the checks to mother. I write fairly plain and when he needed a favor he had no difficulty in locating me very very quickly – phone reverse charges, telegrams, collect or special delivery.”

My father had a way of finding people when it suited his purposes.

The Halcombs

“A couple years afterwards I was calling on Dad in Lynch, KY. We stayed at the Cumberland motel – not with the Estes or Holcomb family.”

This would have been about 1957.

I had no idea who the Holcomb family was, but a hint like this was too important not to pursue. In fact, I had never heard that name before. How important could this be, anyway, if I had never heard this name?

Buckle up and hold on!!!

A revelation emerged around 3 AM after a long day/night of searching. Bless those Kentucky birth registers, even if they are incomplete.

It seems that both of William George Estes’s daughters by Crocie had children by Halcomb (not Holcomb) men.

On April 4, 1943, John J. Halcomb was born to William Halcomb and Josephine Estes who was then aged 20 years and one month.

Josephine, above, born in 1923, was Aunt Margaret’s half-sister through their mutual father, William George Estes and his third wife, Crocie, who lived in Harlan County, Kentucky.

I don’t know if William Halcomb and Josephine were married or not. With this family, I’ve come to view the word “married” not as a legal condition, but a description used when socially convenient. However, they must have been living as a family, because Margaret says they didn’t stay with the Holcomb’s, indicting that there was a Holcomb household.

Sadly, Josephine’s son, John Halcomb perished tragically on August 9, 1965 at 9:45 PM, at the age of 22, per his death certificate. His parents were both listed on that document, and Josephine Jackson, his mother, then married to Andy Jackson, reported the death.

John died in a car accident, immediately, of multiple internal and external injuries causing shock and hemorrhage. The note on his death certificate says, “ran off roadway” on Highway 160 near Lynch. Highway 160 is the dogleg road in Harlan County that runs upwards through Lynch, beside the creek and the coal mines, to the top of Black Mountain. William George Estes and Crocie lived in “Shack 74.” on Highway 160. Everyone there lived in shacks.

John Halcomb was buried in the D. L. Creech Cemetery, the same location where William George Estes was buried a few years later, along with John’s grandmother, Crocie, who had died 4 years before his death. Neither John Halcomb nor William George nor Crocie have tombstones. Josephine and Andy Jackson’s graves are marked with funeral home markers. Once those are gone, if they aren’t already, their graves will be entirely unmarked.

The only person in this entire family to have a stone is Josephine’s sister, Evelyn, who shares one with her second husband, Marco Pusice.

John Halcomb was Josephine’s only child. In the few pictures I’ve seen of Josephine, she is never smiling. Now I have a much better idea of why.

I never knew my grandfather had this grandson, or that the grandson was killed in a car accident two years after my father was killed the same way. William George was 90 when my father died and 92 when his grandson was killed.

The Second Halcomb

Next, I discovered in the Kentucky birth records that a daughter, Joyce Lee Halcomb was born on December 13, 1953 to a Halcomb male, who I believe is Jake (maybe Jack?) Halcomb and Evelyn Estes. The Kentucky birth index doesn’t provide the entire record, only the child’s and mother’s names. Of course, Evelyn is Josephine’s sister.

Both sisters had children by Halcomb males? What???

I had to recheck these records, because frankly, I was dumbstruck. I could find no Estes and Holcomb or Halcomb marriages for either Evelyn or Josephine.

This soap opera truly never ends, but back to Margaret’s letter.

“Bill and some woman along with mother’s dog King had been there.”

I suspect that woman might have been Ellen. Margaret apparently knew my mother, at least by name, but never referenced Ellen in her letters, although my father had been married to Ellen since 1949. King died tragically when I was about a year or maybe 18 months old, so Margaret’s visit, and my father’s, was after April 1955 when Ollie died and before 1957 when King died.

Bad Checks

“Bill had cashed a bogus check on some New York Pharmaceutical Company he was said to be working for. The store that cashed the check (Balls) was looking for him. Dad had promised to make it good but he was only drawing $10 from KY state – so I went down and paid it off. Also he later wrote one on himself which bounced.”

According to a court case, Smith Ball, a controversial man, died in 1964 and had operated a second hand store in Harlan County, engaged in the business of lending money and accepted promissory notes.

A New York Pharmaceutical Company? As odd as that sounds, my father was practicing medicine in Tennessee as he came and went, so that’s entirely feasible. Maybe by this time he was one of the early “drug reps.” At that time, doctors dispensed their own medicine when they saw patients.

“Seems mother used to sign notes for him on Chicago banks and I’d end up paying them off to save his neck. Since they were always paid his credit was good so he just kept repeating it and mother kept signing and I kept paying.”

Joe “Dode” Estes

“I was also sending Dad money and helping Joe [Dode] with his medical bills only to find out he was spending it on trips to Tazewell, Tennessee while working at the same time.”

Tazewell, in Claiborne County, the epicenter of the Estes clan, was about an hour south of Harlan County. I suspect Joe, nicknamed Dode, was visiting Claiborne County from Illinois.

“I also chewed him out in 57 when Ed and I visited Eppersons and Dode was working in the cain patch after telling me he was down and couldn’t get up. We went after him and when Aunt Corny Epperson told me Joe had come there splurging money received from his son’s death in the armed service – yet crying hard luck to me, I flipped my lid and really laid him out flat with a good lecture. I never wrote to him since and was told several years later he was killed in a accident but it’s only hearsay I’m repeating what Josephine wrote me and Edna Seal had told her.”

Above, Worth Epperson, husband of Cornie Estes Epperson, at left and William George Estes, at right.

Edna Seal (1917-1987) is Edna Epperson, daughter of Worth and Cornie Estes Epperson, who married Wilson Seal (1900-1961).

Joe Estes wasn’t killed in an accident, despite the family stories to the contrary, but died an old man in 1994. His life, like my father’s, was shrouded in mystery.

My mother also thought Joe had been killed in an accident, which suggests my father believed the same thing, but Joe died in 1994 in Fairfield, Wayne County, Illinois where he apparently had been living in 1942, according to Margaret’s letter.

Joe’s granddaughter told me that her father, Charlie, at about age 10, so about 1938, witnessed “men with guns” come and take Joe away. Joe was not seen by Charlie again until he was an adult.

I did find a record from 1926 in Fowler, Indiana where Joe was arrested for stealing a car. In a 1930 newspaper article, Joe admitted that he stole 21 chickens from the farm where he was employed and was sent to the penal farm for 6 months.

In another document, the police in Indiana were questioning my father in 1938 or so about whether or not he had seen Joe. shows that Joe’s wife filed for divorce in September 1940, giving their marriage date as 1926 and separation date as September of 1930.  Their son, Robert Vernon Estes was born in March of 1931, so she didn’t file for divorce for another 9 years, which would have been after the 1938 timeframe when Joe’s oldest son, Charlie, remembered the men with guns taking Joe away.

We know Joe was in California visiting Margaret in 1942. I originally thought perhaps Joe was involved with a witness protection program, but now, I’m thinking possibly prison. The Indiana and Illinois records might yield interesting information. An “accident” would be a good way to “cover” the fact that Joe was “missing” while in prison, although that accident supposedly occurred after 1957, not between 1938 and 1942. Like I said, this man’s life is full of inconsistencies.

Joe may well have been in an accident at some point, because his granddaughter reported that he had amnesia and would wander away. Margaret also mentioned medical bills. I surely will be glad when brings the newspapers from that part of Illinois online.

Older folks in Claiborne County during my 1980s visits mentioned that at one time Joe had purchased a diner in Claiborne County with the money from his son’s death, then lost it. The son who died in the military was named Robert Vernon Estes whose family apparently discovered after the end of the Korean War in 1954 that he had perished in Korea in 1951. In August of 1952 when Robert’s mother, who had remarried, died, Robert Vernon was still listed as missing in action in her obituary.

William George Estes Dies

“Dad wrote me a nasty letter and I also cut him off. I had been sending him $25 a month and also when he was in Tazewell [Tennessee] I was sending Eppersons $25 towards his food. $50 here and there costs money and couldn’t take any more pressure. Seems I was a SOB and everyone else was just dandy.

When Dad died no one knew where to reach me and Josephine’s husband Andy arranged the funeral. Some 3 or 4 years later I learned about it and sent them double what they had paid out. Andy spent $750 and I sent $1500. Plus other amount at different times. Then I went back in the hospital for care and never contacted any of them since.”

William George Estes, my grandfather, died in 1973, 4 months shy of his 99th birthday. Andy Jackson was Josephine’s husband by 1965. I called the house in about 1978 when I was first trying to piece the puzzle of my family together. A boy, maybe age 10, answered the phone and a gruff man yelled at the boy to,”hang up, you know we don’t answer the phone after dark.” I’ve never heard of that tradition before, but mountain people were sometimes “funny” about things.

Regarding Margaret’s hospitalization, she told me in 1978 that she had liver cancer, but when they opened her up, they found a second functioning liver underneath and removed the cancerous one. Miracle or myth? I don’t know. Amazingly, she didn’t pass away until 2005, 3 months shy of her 99th birthday, so if she had cancer in one liver, with an extra one next door, the cancer clearly hadn’t spread which would be extremely unusual.

Bombshell – Grandpa was a Bigamist Too

Boom, mic drop!

“Dad was never divorced from Virginia’s mother.”

Virginia’s mother was William George’s second wife, Joice Hatfield, at left, with Virginia at right.

I can’t find any record where William George Estes and Joice Hatfield were actually married, although many of the Hancock County, Tennessee records were destroyed by fire. I’ve checked the records of Indiana, Kentucky, Virginia and Tennessee. If you never get married legally, you don’t have to bother to get divorced. So much less hassle. So maybe William George Estes wasn’t technically a bigamist after all. Maybe.

“Josephine doesn’t know that. But there’s something Virginia doesn’t know either.

My mother caught Joice and Dad one day in bed together and nearly beat Dad to death with a plow rope because of it and the only thing that saved Joice was her Aunt, Mrs. Tom Folley pulled mom off before she killed them both. Then is when our family was broken up. Dad later got the divorce with Mrs. Folley as witness of the beating but never the reason.”

So William got divorced because Ollie beat him after catching him “in the act” of cheating? He’s lucky she didn’t kill him.

This picture appears to be the last family picture taken, in 1914, in Fowler, Indiana. Ollie looks anything but happy. Children are Margaret at left, Joe “Dode” behind her, Estel the oldest in the middle top, my father, William Sterling at right in the rear, and Minnie, the blonde child beside Ollie.

I called the clerk and rechecked for divorce records in Benton County, Indiana, where Fowler is located, from 1908-1922, with no records found. I had checked previously, but sometimes rechecking yields different results. Those divorce records might make for interesting reading as there may be more to the story. The story at this point IS that there aren’t any records in Benton County. Were William George and Ollie ever officially divorced?

Ollie moved to Chicago by 1918. Surely Mrs. Folley wouldn’t have been testifying in Chicago about something that happened in Indiana with William George who was then living in Tennessee or Kentucky with Joice.

The Hatfield-Estes-Brewer Drama

“Hatfield forced Dad to marry Joice when Virginia was born. They sent for her cousin Crocia Brewer to come and help take care of Joice and the baby. Low and behold Joice caught them in the same way mother had caught her. Joice grabbed a shot gun and was going to kill Dad and Crocia and Aunt Corney Epperson took it away from her and Grandpa Estes [Lazarus] run Dad and Crocia both off and told them if they ever came back he’d kill them both. Aunty told me this herself years later.”

This had to occur before 1918 because Lazarus died July 7, 1918. However, Virginia wasn’t born until November 25, 1918, so clearly something is amiss with this story, because Virginia was born 4 months after Lazarus died.

I heard this same story about Lazarus running William George and Joice off because of how they treated Ollie, after Ollie caught them. Same story, but cheating on different wives.

On September 12, 1918, William George Estes registered for the draft in Tazewell, Tennessee, giving “Joisce Estes” as his wife and the address as S. Tazewell, so they were apparently “married” by this time – or at least had moved back to Tennessee and were living as a couple. Joice would have been about 7 months pregnant at that time.

Clearly Margaret’s story or dates are a bit confused.

Two years later, in the 1920 census, Joice was still living with William George in Claiborne County, and Crocie along her son Horace were living with them as well. Crocie was Joice’s cousin, 2 years younger. So it appears that the incident where Joice caught William George “with” Crocie didn’t happen before the census of 1920 – because they assuredly didn’t live together after that event. By that time, Lazarus had been dead for 2 years.

If indeed Cornie Epperson took the gun away from Joice, this tells me that they were living in Estes Holler, not in Kentucky at that time – and indeed, the 1920 census bears that out.

So, I’d wager that Lazarus actually ran William George and Joice out, that William George moved back to Estes Holler in 1918 after Lazarus died, where he was living in 1920, and that the incident where he was caught carnally with Crocie happened in Estes Holler, where Cornie Estes Epperson lived, after the 1920 census.

William George Estes was a serial “cousin cheater.”

Crocie Brewer

Margaret didn’t mention this, but according to my mother, Crocie Brewer was deaf. I don’t believe she was able to speak either. My mother accompanied my father to visit William George and Crocie just one time between 1950 and 1955 and reported that my grandfather treated Crocie terribly. Mother refused to ever return. She used to shudder discussing it and flat out refused to provide any details.

Margaret continues:

“Well, the old man took her [Crocie] over in Arkansas where he and mother had started out. He made a good living for awhile with his camera. He was also a master carpenter.”

William George was a photographer, among other things. Many people had multiple skills and did whatever combination of things they could to make ends meet.

William George Estes and Ollie lived in Springdale, Washington County, Arkansas for several years after they were married. Crocie’s first child with William George, Josephine, was born March 19, 1923 in Arkansas, so Margaret’s information seems to be accurate. Perhaps he had truly worn out his welcome in Estes Holler by that time.

Given this information, Crocie would have gotten pregnant in about June of 1922, so Joice and William George would have split sometime between mid-1920 (census) and mid-1922.

“He was pretty old when he showed up at my brother Estel’s place in Appalachia, VA and confessed he had never married Crocia but by then there was children by her also. Estel didn’t know Joice had never divorced the old man so he took them over on the KY side and got them married.”

Children implies more than one child.

We know that William George Estes was in Arkansas in 1923 when Josephine was born. Daughter Helen May Estes was born in 1925, but her death certificate doesn’t indicate where. I can’t find William George in the 1930 census, so he may have been in transit or back so far on the mountain that the census taker missed him.

We know that by 1935, William George is back in Harlan County because the 1940 census says he lives in the same residence that he did in 1935 which would have been “Shack 74.” In the 1930 census, shacks 71 and 72 exist, but shack 74, apparently “up above” Lynch towards the top of the mountain, doesn’t. His appearance at his son, Estel’s house, in Appalachia, VA would have been sometime probably between 1925 and 1935.

In 1925, when the second child was born, William George was 52. He had two more children, the last one being born in 1935 when he would have been 62.

Appalachia, Virginia is located on Highway 160, down the other side of Black Mountain, across the line into Virginia, 15 miles along hairpin turns crossing the summit of the highest mountain in Kentucky.

William George lived near the top of the mountain on the Kentucky side. My mother said the drive was harrowing and treacherous and that was before the days of guardrails and paved roads.

For most of the 15 mile distance, the road is but a thread between rocks on one side and a precipice on the other, more comfortable for mountain goats than cars. It’s easy to see why John Halcomb died when he ran off the road. Today, the road has guardrails.

The first flat land that includes houses of any kind is about a mile east of Lynch on Main Street.

When I visited a few years ago, William George’s place was described by locals as “up above Lynch.” I’m sure Shack 74 is long gone. This shows Highway 160, heading “up” out of Lynch where the last houses are found today.

Bombshell Two – Worse Than Bigamy

Wow, I didn’t expect that bigamy bombshell. My grandfather was a bigamist, assuming he was actually married to either (or both) his second and/or third wives. For all I know, he could have been a trigamist too. Indeed, William George provided a right fine example for my father and the rest of his children. It’s possible that we have double trigamists, a father and son pair.

Margaret was right. Karma struck Joice for what she did to Ollie.

“The grandparents had long been dead when Dad took Josephine over to visit her relatives at the age of 15.”

The grandparents would have been Lazarus Estes and Elizabeth Vannoy who both died in 1918. Josephine, born in 1923, would have been 15 in 1938. “Over to visit her relatives,” would have referred to “over the mountain,” meaning to Claiborne County.

“After that he went alone and stayed lengthy vacations leaving Crocia and the kids to make out the best way they could.”

This information implies that William George has been absent from Claiborne County for many years, from the time he and Crocie left before 1923 until about 1938. Yep, I’d say he wore out that welcome. After an absence of 15 years, as a fairly old man, he returned. But why, and why then?

In 1938, Crocia had two living children. Josephine born in 1923 (so age 15) and Evelyn (age 7,) born in 1931, just a month after smallpox killed Crocie and William George’s daughter, Helen May.

However, a baby boy, James, died in 1937 at 17 months of age…apparently of starvation. His death certificate generously says that he died of “acute intestinal indigestion due to improper feeding.” This was the secret to terrible for anyone to discuss openly.

Of course, when I read that, pieces suddenly fell into place. I remembered being told that my father and his siblings were fed moonshine in order to ease the pain in their stomachs so they could sleep when there was no food. And that was 24 years before baby James died, when William George was more physically able (assuming he was willing) to work.

Apparently Crocie and the children weren’t doing well at all, and Crocie was dealing with this alone. Where the hell was William George? Why was he hanging out in Claiborne County when he was clearly needed at home?

The 1940 census tells us that the neighbor families on Lynch Road in Harlan county were working most of the time and made $1350, $1820, $2600, $1190 (3 families) and $1720, compared to the paltry $144 made by William George Estes in the 12 months ending Dec. 31, 1939. William George, age 67, claimed he was unable to work as a farm hand, Crocie was doing housework and Josephine, age 17, was working at “other.” William George had worked no hours the previous week, and only 24 weeks the previous year.

In addition to bootlegging, William George reportedly cut timber to shore up the mine shafts. I don’t know how a man could be an unsuccessful bootlegger on a mining mountain, but apparently he was.

Oh, and if you think we’re done with the bombshells – we’re not!

Bombshell Three – A Third Halcomb?

“I helped Estel and I helped out as best we could. He wasn’t working half the time and I helped out all the way around doing without myself.

Aunt Corny was sick [died in1958] and Bill Epperson’s wife Lou wasn’t well [died 1962] but was taking care of everyone else. Meanwhile, my step-father died [1941] and I had double responsibility, no help from the others. Somehow we [we is struck through] managed to plug along – dishing out here and there and raising our own son. Both Ed and I was well fed up with the whole mess but continued to do the best we could by all of them until we caught up with what was going on. Seems like the old man would roost at Eppersons until the red headed Evelyn would go after him to come home and sign for my registered check. He’d cash it, give it to Crocia and catch the next bus back to Tazewell.”

For “red-headed Evelyn” who was born in 1931 to have been old enough to drive, this would have had to have been after 1947, or so, assuming she drove a car.

“Uncle Worth was pretty disgusted and so was everyone else. Lou wrote me and explained they hardly could feed themselves as I would send one check to Lou at Tazewell, one to Dad at Lynch so everyone didn’t show up to be fed free. It seems because people who live on farms is expected to have a generous supply of food on hand at all times and all relations welcome. First one and then the others.

I contacted the undertakers at Tazewell for an estimate of funeral cost for the old man and was going to make arrangements for his internment at the family burial plats on Cedar Hill. I was afraid he would get down sick at Eppersons and no one to pay for his funeral bill. I would have prepaid when the estimate came back. Well I never got such an eaten out as to mind my own business. His son-in-law would take care of his expenses, etc., etc. So I washed my hands of the whole shebang.

Later I was told his son-in-law, Jake, walked out on the whole mess when he learned that Evelyn, his wife, was not Dad’s daughter, but his own uncle’s daughter by Crocia. Yup!

Then the fat was in the fire. Seems Jake had been working in the mines and paying the bills. Now they were all out on their cans.”

OK, now I’m really confused. Jake was a Halcomb. If Evelyn was Jake’s uncle’s daughter, that means that Jake and Evelyn were first cousins. That’s not so unusual, but that also means that if Evelyn’s daughter or granddaughter ever DNA tests, and that’s a true allegation, I’ll never know because Evelyn wasn’t an Estes. Of course, if they test and match me, then obviously Margaret was wrong.

So both of William George’s daughters AND his wife were carrying on with and having children by Halcomb men? Lordy, I want to see what these men looked like!

I can’t exactly piece the Halcomb line together, but this is Philip Halcomb from Letcher County, KY, born in 1898, probably from the same line. He is quite handsome, but still…

In the 1930 census, there are two William Halcomb’s in Harlan County, both sons of different William Halcombs. The only Jack of even approximately the right age was born in 1926, son of Melvin and Armilda Halcomb. There’s another Jack born in 1928 to a mother named Susie – the Kentucky birth indexes don’t provide the names of the father.

So, we’re left with the question – who is Jake’s uncle? For that matter, who, exactly, was Jake?

Margaret STILL isn’t done!

The State Mental Hospital

“From what Estel told me the red headed one [Evelyn] done a time for drunkenness in the State Hospital.”

That doesn’t surprise me, given what we know about William George’s bootlegging, not to mention that Estel (left, below), Evelyn’s half-brother, reportedly continued that family tradition – having his daughters (also below) deliver moonshine in the mining town of Fleming, Letcher Co., KY where they lived in the 1940s.

Furthermore William George Estes was the grandson of Joel Vannoy (1813-1895), one of the first patients in the Eastern State Mental Hospital in Knoxville, TN when it opened it’s door in 1886. Some of Joel’s descendants were patients there as well. According to Uncle George Estes, Joel’s great-grandson who was born just 16 years after Joel died and clearly knew the family, Joel simply “lost his mind.” There is no evidence that Joel drank, but the Estes clan certainly did, and mental illness and alcohol are a very, VERY bad combination.

Unfortunately, I don’t have any pictures of “red headed Evelyn” but she is reported to have been stunningly beautiful.

The “State Hospital” in Kentucky at that time was located in Lexington, KY. Unfortunately, admissions records aren’t public after 1913.

Josephine and Andy Jackson

“Dad went to live with Josephine. Crocia died [1961]. All a mess. But my guess is with all the trouble Josephine and Andy [Jackson] went through with them it must have been a relief when both old folks died.”

I don’t know when Josephine and Andy Jackson married, but it was before her son, John Halcomb, died in 1965.

I also never knew that William George lived with daughter Josephine, apparently after Crocie’s death. He would have been 88 when Crocie passed away.

Dumping Evelyn

“Bill tried to dump Evelyn off on some of the kin folk and it didn’t work. I will always believe that’s what he was up to when I saw him in San Pedro. I think he got cold feet.”

Margaret’s paranoia was showing. The first flaw in her logic is the question of why my father, who lived in either Chicago, Illinois or northern Indiana at that time was in any way involved with Evelyn’s life in Harlan County, Kentucky, hundreds of miles away.

If my father wanted to dump Evelyn off with kinfolk, there were a heck of a lot closer places than California. Not to mention, where would he have gotten the money for that trip? My Dad was always poor as a church mouse.

Evelyn was with Jake Halcomb by 1952 when her daughter was born, so this “dumping” attempt in Margaret’s mind that supposedly happened in 1958-1959 would have been after Evelyn had been with Jake for at least 6 years and was 27 or 28 years old. That just doesn’t make sense.

Foster Homes and Elsa, the Lost Sister

“Elsa my younger sister was born 5 months after my parents was separated.”

Oh my God, poor Ollie. Forty years old, five living children, pregnant for the sixth, and a husband cheating with her 20-year-old cousin. The only child old enough to be on their own was Estel who married in February of 1914. Elsa was reported by Margaret to have been born in 1914.

“My mother had placed the rest of us in foster homes by that time. I was with the Freeman family. Dad’s x-boss, Bert Freeman was a building contractor. Dad his master carpenter. Minnie was with the Hamptons and Dode was at Pete LaFountains in Royal Center, Indiana.”

Abuse and Near Starvation

At one time, Margaret told me that my father had been married to Laila LaFountain. I wonder now if Margaret had the names Laila and Ilo confused, and the surname LaFountain mixed in for good measure. Joe was associated with that family, not my father. After all, it had been more than 60 years by the time Margaret was recalling that information.

Margaret told me that Laila used to hook Dad to the plow like a mule and whip him to plow the field. Said she saw it with her own eyes in Indiana. I was horrified and at that time, couldn’t even imagine such a thing.

The 1910 census shows no Laila LaFountain in Benton County. I’m relieved, but did someone hook Dad to a plow and whip him? Or Joe? Why would Margaret make something like that up? There is surely some grain of truth someplace. Did someone really do that to my father? Is this really why he ran away and joined the army in the middle of a war? My heart just aches.

“Sterl [my father’s nickname] had just arrived from Tazewell all tattered and torn – hungry and hollow eyes – he had stayed behind with Dad but it seems he got run off. Mother sent her cousin Ebb Cook money for his train passage and Cook sent him on to mother. “

Ebb Cook was Albert Rice Cook (1860-1942) who married Mary Jane Bolton, daughter of Milton Halen Bolton, half-brother to Ollie’s father. Ebb was Ollie’s half first cousin.

Obviously, Ebb was someone Ollie felt she could trust, and indeed, he did prove trustworthy. He probably saved my father’s life.

“A more pitiful sight you never saw. Mrs. Freeman would send me over every night with fresh milk and food for mother, Bill and clothing for the baby. Grapes were ripe so there were always plenty of juice for them. Later mother hired out as a cook in a café. Elsa was turned over to Dr. Nellie Green to care for. Dr. Green had no children of her own.”

Oh NO! Ollie had to give up her baby too??? Margaret once told me that “something was wrong” with Elsa and she died as a child, but Margaret never mentioned that Elsa was placed outside the family. Downs syndrome of course was my first thought, given Ollie’s age, but nutrition or birth trauma may have been a factor as well. I doubted the story of a female being a doctor in Benton County, Indiana, in 1914, but lo and behold, according to the 1910 census, it’s true and indeed, Nellie Green had no children.

In 1920, Nellie was still practicing, and her 19 year old nephew was living with her, but no Elsa. There are no Elsa’s or Elsia’s listed in the 1920 census that look to be candidates with the possibility of Elsie D. Bonham born in 1912. Did Elsa die in Benton County? Did she go to Chicago with Ollie and die there? Did she actually exist at all? I can find absolutely NO RECORD of this child’s birth or death, anyplace.

Margaret also told me that Ollie had twins about 1913 that both died as well, and again, no records. How can so many records be constantly missing for the same family?

1914 must have been the bottom of the barrel for Ollie – reduce to accepting charity, twins dead, another child born with challenges, no way to feed your children, and a  husband cheating with your cousin who also betrayed your trust.

“Bill was placed out on a farm with some people named Harkrider. Later mother also went to work there. Bill was at Harkriders when he ran away and joined the Army.”

For obvious reasons, my father never spoke of any of these dark and terrible days. They must have seared his soul. In 1914, he would have been between 11 and 13. So much death, grief, fear, hunger and pain.

My father would have lived and worked on that farm for about 3 years. At least he ate. This also explains why he enlisted on May 14, 1917 at Fort Benjamin Harrison, near Indianapolis. Apparently Ollie and the kids were still residing in Indiana at that time. I thought they had already moved to Chicago by then, but this explains why Dad enlisted in Indiana. The military was his escape from worse – never mind that the US was heavily engaged in WWI. War was better than Hell.

“Mother didn’t know where he was for several months and by then decided it was a good place for him. In the mean time Dode was lonesome for the hills and mountains so he left LaFountains and hopped a freight train back to Tazewell only to find Dad was no longer there. Hungry, cold and rejected by both Dad’s people and mother’s, the boy was afraid of being beaten and worked to death so he stretched his little skinny neck another foot tall and hiked up his age, borrowed some long pants off a clothesline and hiked over the mountains to Fort Monroe, VA and enlisted in the army. I’ll send you a picture of the lad in uniform. You can judge for yourself what a scared dejected little boy looks like trying to be a man of war.”

“He and I was always very close until he just didn’t give a hoot about anything but wine. I sent for and had him come out here and work in 42 but he just couldn’t adjust to California life.”

Joe in California in 1942, photo from Margaret.

I had heard from other sources that Joe had an alcohol problem. This means that all 3 of William George’s sons had alcohol addiction issues, along with at least one daughter. It’s no wonder.

“He went back to Fairfield, Illinois.

My brothers were very tall tho they were very young. Hard life gave them the older appearance.”


“Minnie was about 8 when she went to live with Dr. Pierce in Rose HiIl, VA. She was with mother very seldom after that.”

Photo of Minnie, age 8, Rose Hill, Virginia, according to Aunt Margaret.

Minnie was born in October of 1908 according to Margaret, but Minnie’s actual birth record says she was born on September 13, 1909 in Tazewell, Tennessee, so that would have meant she went to Rose Hill in about 1916. Dr. David Q. Pierce and his wife Kitty, a childless couple, raised Minnie. Margaret told me they wanted Minnie to help take care of the doctor’s wife who was somehow disabled. In the 1920 census, Minnie is age 13, listed as their granddaughter, and shown living with them. Minnie married John Raymond Price (1896-1977) in Lee County, Virginia about 1926, when, according to Minnie years later, “I was young and he was old.” By 1934, they were apparently divorced, because John R. Price married Marie Anderson in Claiborne County.

Minnie, above.

Margaret Talks About Herself

Margaret moved to Chicago with Ollie. I don’t know exactly when, but Margaret sent a photo with the words, “Mother, Franklin Park, Illinois 1918” written on the back. Given that we know that Ollie was still in Indiana in August 1917 when my father enlisted in the military, and was in Illinois in 1918, the move was apparently either in late 1917 or  1918.

Ollie looks extremely old in this photo, so much so that I wondered if this was actually Ollie’s mother, Margaret Clarkson/Claxton, of whom I have no photos. In 1918, Aunt Margaret would have been 12, Ollie would have been 44 and her mother, Margaret Claxton Bolton would have been 67. Given that Aunt Margaret labeled the photo and is in the photo, I suspect the picture is Ollie. After the living Hell Ollie had been through in the past several years, it’s no wonder she looks ragged.

“I worked for one family after another till I could get into the Cook County Hospital in Chicago and took nursing. Married young and like many other teenagers in and out of pitfalls of troubles but always managed to come out on top. Mussed up but never beaten down where I couldn’t catch a handful of hair to pull to my feet. It was not been an easy life by any means but I’ve managed to keep a fairly decent one.”

Margaret, modeling in 1925 in Chicago. Margaret was in Milwaukee in 1937, then in California by 1942.

The Plain Facts

“I’m giving you an outline of the plain facts. You will hear various tales. Just sort out facts for yourself and go from there.

I don’t think there’s anything in the family history that could be of any help to Roberta but only dampen her spirit, so I would not divulge any of this history to her. She no doubt feels she’s entitled to know but she better off to leave well enough alone. She may not be any better received by the relatives than I was. All had plenty of bread but only Uncle Howard Friar and Aunt Mary shared theirs with Mama and her Estes brats.”

James Howard Friar (1875-1962) was married to Mary Ann Bolton (1873-1942), daughter of Daniel Marson Bolton (1841-1924,) half brother of Ollie’s father. That made Mary Ann, nicknamed “Ropp,” Ollie’s half first cousin, who just happened to be her best friend as well.

Mary Ann Bolton and Howard Friar, above. The photo was probably taken by William George Estes. Notice that Mary Ann is dressed to the 9s, but Howard has worn through his shoes.

This photo taken about 1913 in Fowler, Indiana shows William George, at far right rear, with Ollie to his left. I believe the lady that Ollie has her arm around is Mary Ann “Ropp” Bolton Friar, and her husband beside her. The two men in the front right are “Smith cousins,” but I don’t know who they are or how they connect. Margaret is in the middle, Minnie in front of her mother, my Dad front left and Estel beside him. Joe was absent from the photo and at scouts, according to Margaret. It’s amazing with all of the poverty, pain and grief how these people put on happy faces for the few photos of that time. You’d never guess their struggles.

Little did Ollie know that in just a few short weeks or months, her life and that of her children would be shredded so tragically, traumatically scarring all of them permanently, the devastation rolling like an avalanche downhill to the next generations, yet to be born.

“Now you know your husband’s secret. We all loved our parents and tried to understand their motives – never loved or cared for by either and all going in different directions. Just a bunch of scared lost lambs that grew up to be a herd of hard fighting black sheep.”

William Sterling Estes and the Backwards Tombstone, 52 Ancestors #209

You know, I was already feeling bad enough that I hadn’t been back to visit my father’s grave, but then…well…this. My father’s life, it seems, was never straightforward and was always twisted around, backwards, and confusing. Dad hasn’t changed one iota, not even now in death.

His grave is backwards. Seriously.

You know, I swear…I think he was laughing at me!

The “Accident”

My father, William Sterling Estes, died following an automobile accident on August 27, 1963, in Jay County, Indiana where he lived with my step-mother, Virgie.

It was just a week before the beginning of my third grade year. For many reasons, none of which I understood at the time, I was not allowed to attend his funeral. Back then, children were often “protected” from sadness and death, but retrospectively, that was a very bad idea. For years, I never really believed he was dead.

The following summer, Virgie invited me to visit and I went to Dunkirk for a week.

I adored Virgie. She was a lovely, kind woman and I looked forward to spending time with her. She told me stories about my father, some of which I never forgot. All of which I wish someone had written down.

Her mother, “Grandma,” who lived with Virgie, was the grandmother I never had and spent long hours reading to me, playing Barbie, making doll clothes and telling me fascinating stories about the cards I viewed through a stereoscopic viewer, like the one below.

Grandma, born in 1878, was a bit more reserved and didn’t say much about Dad at all, except for a grunt now and again which I found interesting, but I didn’t exactly know how to interpret. Grandma was very kind to me and I have very fond memories of long hot summer afternoons spent playing with Grandma. She was one of the few adults that actually had time and enjoyed spending it with children.

I think her own grandchildren had grown up far too fast for her liking.

Hidden Messages

My mother and father hadn’t seen eye-to-eye for years, to put it mildly. I think it might have had something to do with the fact that he was married to another woman at the same time, but I’m just guessing😊

After being divorced from both women, however that worked, he then married Virgie, his teenage sweetheart from when he was enlisted in WWI, on April 24, 1961.

While my mother had absolutely nothing nice to say about my father, when she said anything at all, Virgie had nothing bad to say about him. Virgie truly loved and cherished my father. I’m glad, I think he really needed that.

Dad left Virgie love notes scattered in hiding places around the house. She found them for years after his death, tucked behind photos in frames and other out-of-the-way places.

Dad’s death was ruled an accident, but retrospectively, I believe it was a suicide based on what his employer, ironically, the funeral director, told me and things Mom said combined with tidbits like those loving mementos. If you didn’t plan on “leaving,” why hide things for someone to find after you were gone?

The First Cemetery Visit

My visit during the summer of 1964 was spent talking with Virgie about Dad. We both missed him.

We spent time going back to the places we three had visited together, like the VFW post. Dad and Virgie played the two slots that sat on the end of the bar, and Dad let me pull the handle. I thought that was loads of fun, especially when it was followed by that nice clanging sound! What fun. Mother would have had a fit.

Everything however, wasn’t fun and games.

Virgie took me to visit the IOOF Cemetery where Dad is buried. I recall that the grave she showed me that summer didn’t have a headstone. Virgie explained that when Dad’s sister, Aunt Margaret, whom I had never met, came from California to visit, they would select a headstone together.

I stood looking at the barren dirt that marked the location of the grave that Virgie told me belonged to my Dad. It seems so raw, so unkempt. The grass was just beginning to grow over the barren grave in raggedy tufts. The earth was still mounded up, washed round by rain but quite pregnant with a casket underneath. In there, Dad’s body.

Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust.

I desperately wanted to reach out those few feet to touch him one more time, but I couldn’t. Standing there in the glaring sun, looking at the all-too-silent grave of my father ripped my heart out. I had no idea a child could feel grief so profoundly. Tears streamed down my face in the searing heat. My heart ached too badly to even sob. I just stood trance-like as the waterfall tears wouldn’t stop.

Was Daddy really there? Really dead? If anyone would have told me the truth, surely Virgie would have. I didn’t want to believe it.

At Virgie’s house, the cemetery was visible from the end of the street. She allowed me to walk across the field to the cemetery. I could find Dad’s grave, because it was in the new row, towards the back, closest to the house.

I walked to the cemetery every day, a heartbroken little girl. I sat and talked to Dad, and cried, for hours, as curious cemetery-goers looked on but eventually left me alone again. I missed what we had, Dad’s visits, fishing, our special coffee each morning which was mostly milk and sugar with a splash of coffee for color. I grieved for what we would never have.

I grieved and grieved and grieved with no respite.

The Accident

Virgie told me little about the accident, other than Dad had hit a pole after having a heart attack. At 8, that’s all I needed to know.

She never told me the rest of the story, if she even knew it herself.

The unanswered question wasn’t so much his official cause of death, but why he had the accident in the first place.

What Virgie did say is that his last words, in the hospital before he passed away at 1:10 AM, were about me. Messages of love and encouragement, telling me to never give up and to graduate. I assumed then that he meant high school, but Dad may have had far more in mind.

A Decade+ Later

Virgie wrote letters to both me and Mom over the years, but the next time I would see her would be more than a decade later. In true Hoosier fashion, I just decided to drive to Dunkirk one day a few weeks after my son was born. I wanted to see Virgie and to visit Dad’s grave.

Truth be known, I wanted share my baby with Dad.

I had slowly come to believe that Dad probably was dead. Not because my mother or even Virgie told me so, but because I knew he would never willingly stay away from me that long if he had any choice.

I had also grown up, matured and realized that just because I didn’t want him to be dead was no reason to believe that he wasn’t. 99% of me believed that he was gone. But then, there was that skeptical 1% that still stopped and stared at men who resembled him – to the point of approaching a man on the sidewalk just a couple years earlier, my heart pounding so hard I thought it would burst through my chest.

I wish I had been allowed to say goodbye in the casket.

Calling Virgie in advance to ask if a visit was convenient, for some reason, never dawned on me. She was family – of course it was OK.

I pulled up to Virgie’s house in my bright red Chevy and knocked on the door. Cars were parked outside, and she was hosting a ladies’ card luncheon. She graciously introduced me and her grandbaby that she had never seen before. The women, grandmothers all, ooed and awed. After Virgie finished her hostessing, we caught up on news for awhile before I suggested that we take a ride to the cemetery.

Dad had been gone a decade. The grass had long ago covered the scar of his burial. The earth recovered, flattening itself, as if nothing had gone wrong.

Why was there still no stone on his grave? Aunt Margaret obviously came and went, if she had come at all.

At that time, I was in no position myself to purchase a headstone. It was all I could handle to buy baby formula and diapers.

A headstone in place would have quenched that tiny flame of doubt, but it wasn’t to be.

Another Three Decades

Time passed, life changed. As they say, life is what happens when you are making other plans.

I did graduate from high school and then college with degrees in computer science, a field completely foreign to my father’s world. I left Indiana as a single parent for an opportunity working for a think tank. My trips back to Indiana were to visit my Mom and step-father on the much beloved farm.

The raw urgency of my father’s death had faded and was now only a distant ache, and sometimes a painful stab. Dunkirk wasn’t close to or on the way to anyplace.

I still wrote to Virgie from time to time, always pleased to receive her letters which took me back to a much gentler time and place. She was a lovely lady.

When I remarried, she wrote that she was having health issues and trouble leaving the house for shopping and such, so there would be no wedding present. I didn’t care about presents, but I did care about her letters, and her, and told her as much.

I wanted to see Virgie again and called her from time to time, but in 1989, Virgie died.

After Virgie’s death, her daughter found items of my fathers and sent them to me. I am forever grateful for receiving the veteran’s flag that was placed on his casket at his funeral, then folded and presented to the widow. Oh how I wish I had been present.

Virgie had shown me something signed by President Kennedy after my father died, and now that “something” was mine.

Virgie’s daughter also sent 11 love letters that Virgie received from my Dad when he was young and in service – when they first met in 1919. Virgie saved these for 42 years, thinking of course that she would never see him again, let alone marry him one day. Love letters that would steal your heart, written in his own hand. Hers to cherish then, and mine decades later.

Reading those letters, I understood why they had married 42 years later and why she missed him so desperately. She used to tell me that no matter what anyone told me, he wasn’t all bad, and that no one understood the things that had happened to him. She was right, I had absolutely no idea and wouldn’t for several more years.


In 2003, 40 years after my father died, Virgie’s daughter found a letter from Aunt Margaret, written in 1978, to Virgie. It was this letter, written some 15 years after my father’s death, and coming into my possession another quarter century later that finally shed light on the hole in my father’s soul. That letter is the subject of a future article and it’s a bombshell, believe me.

About this same time, I asked Virgie’s daughter if she could show me where my father was buried, convinced that I would never be able to find it myself. She graciously agreed, and I traveled to Dunkirk.

We met at the cemetery. I had presumed that when Virgie died, that she and my father would share a headstone, but I was wrong.

Virgie did have a stone, beside my father’s grave, but he still had no stone. I was both shocked and saddened and couldn’t help but wonder why.

Virgie’s daughter suggested that we request a military stone based on his service. I didn’t realize that military stones were available. She contacted the funeral home and was informed that they would order the stone, and the family was only responsible for having it set once the stone arrived.

Dad would finally, finally, 40 years after his death, have a marked grave.

Meeting Elizabeth Wilson Ballard

I had meant to visit again shortly after the headstone was placed, but once again, life simply got in the way. Mother became ill, passed away, and suffice it to say, I simply didn’t make it back to Dunkirk. At least, not until this summer.

My 52 Ancestors series has had the effect on me of highlighting unfinished business in terms of research. However, in this case, the unfinished business was visiting my father’s grave.

I was making a trip back to Indiana for research in Fort Wayne, a trip to visit mother’s grave and a class reunion – fully aware that that trip was probably my last trip back – except perhaps to the library in Fort Wayne.

I refer to this as the “Goodbye Tour,” like rock stars😊

For me, in many ways, it was about unfinished business.

After a highly emotionally couple of days, I was messaging back and forth with a genealogy friend from Indiana, Elizabeth Wilson Ballard who writes at Diggin’ Up Graves.

Elizabeth asked where I was, and did I want to meet in person to say hello. I did, but it occurred to me that she was actually relatively close to the cemetery where my father is buried – and what better thing to do with a fellow genealogist.

We agree to meet for lunch, and then drive cross-country on an adventure.

The Cross Country Journey

Indiana farmland is a lot more fun with someone else in the car. Elizabeth and I had never met personally before, but we are convinced that somehow we are related and just can’t figure out how. “Sisters from another Mister,” as Elizabeth quips. Our conversation picked up like we were old acquaintances and had never not known each other.

Using our phones for navigation, we set out cross-country for Dunkirk and the cemetery. My father’s grave is listed on Find-A-Grave, so I at least had an idea of where the cemetery was located.

Leaving Cracker Barrell, the first thing we found was a pink farm, or better stated, a B&B with pink outbuildings. We laughed and joked about how they gave directions, such as, “When you see the pink barns you’re there. Yes, really, you REALLY CANNOT MISS IT.”

And then we laughed all over again.

Comic relief perhaps, but the cornfields and scarecrows felt good as we laughed and chatted our way across the Indiana backroads.

As we approached the cemetery area, from the country side, our tone became more somber, in part, because we had to pay close attention to find the cemetery since we were approaching from the backroads side.

In part, because we both knew what was lurking ahead and neither of us really knew quite what to expect.

The Cemetery

Finding the cemetery was a bit comical. Two experienced genealogists really shouldn’t have had this much trouble, but the corn was high and the address was not available from Find-A-Grave so we were doing what I call “dead reckoning.”

I had always approached the IOOF Oddfellows Cemetery from within Dunkirk, and I knew it was within sight of Virgie’s house. But that wasn’t how we arrived. The GPS had a mind of its own.

On the map below, you can see the location of Virgie’s house marked with the red pin, along with the cemetery directly across the field to the west, with the curved end. That part is new and did not exist when my father was buried.

I couldn’t remember where Dad’s grave was located, except that it wasn’t near the county road, and it was near an internal road. It was at the back of the cemetery in 1964.

I looked for the stones that showed burial dates of 1963 and finally found him in the quadrant below with the red arrow.

Finding Dad’s Grave

Finding Dad’s grave in the cemetery was somewhat more of a challenge. We finally found it by finding Virgie’s stone, which was larger and her name faced the main road, or west, as you see it below. This is what we saw driving down the internal cemetery road from the main county road.

The “other” side of Virgie’s stone, which I would have considered the front, is where the dates are carved, and that side faces towards her house, or east.

Before we move on, I want to mark the location of Dad’s stone for posterity. I don’t know who would ever want to visit, all things considered, but if someone does, the red arrow below is pointing to his stone.

Here’s the location from a different perspective.

In the cemetery, you’ll notice that Dad’s small white stone is directly behind and to the right of the red McGraw stone, and to the left of the Brown stone when driving in from the main road.

Here’s my vehicle parked in front of the spruce tree in the photo, at the intersection of the little cemetery roads inside the cemetery. You can see the red McGraw stone directly behind my rear bumper.

Ummm, But Where’s Dad?

Ok, now we found the stone, but where is Dad actually buried? And why would I even ask a question like this? It’s obvious, isn’t it?


Of course, the first thing you’ll notice is that while Virgie and Dad both have carving on the front (West) side where his dates are carved, Virgie’s birth and death dates are carved on the “other” (East) side. His East side is blank, above.

Which begs the question of where the bodies are buried.

What the heck???

This is beginning to sound like a murder mystery, not cemetery stomping!

I thought burials were on the “date” side, so you’re standing on their head as you look at their birth and death dates. After all, it’s called a headstone.

And regardless, if it’s the other way around, and they are buried on the back side, you’d think it would at least be consistent in the same cemetery. And if not in the same cemetery, at LEAST consistent with a couple who share the same burial plot? But their dates are carved on opposite sides.

What happened?

And where are they actually buried?

Clearly, one is not buried on one side and one on the other, so one is buried on the date side and the other is buried on the “other” side – since I’m making a leap of faith here and assuming that they are actually both buried side by side on the same side.

Elizabeth and I were both confused, and we were not leaving without figuring this out.

But how does one do that?

Thank goodness we were the Genealogy Dynamic Duo!


The first thing we did was to look around at the other graves. If you look behind me as I’m leaning against Dad’s grave (the blank East side), you’ll notice that the stones behind me aren’t consistent either.


We realized that some graves have flat stones that look to be between graves, which was very confusing. A grave consumes a certain amount of space.

However, I walked until I found a flat one that was a footstone for the headstone in the same row as Dad’s grave. AHA!

This footstone confirmed that the bodies were buried on the “back side,” meaning the side with Virgie’s dates and the side that is blank on my Dad’s stone, that I’m leaning against, above. So I was sitting on Dad in that picture.

Why the heck would someone set the stones for a couple differently? Why would they set Dad’s stone with his body on the blank side, and Virgie’s the opposite? Her’s was already in place when they placed his. Wouldn’t they have faced it the same way?

Elizabeth remembered that she had been told that cemeteries always face the east so that when the Rapture comes, the bodies will “rise up” from the graves facing east. If this is the case, then Dad’s head is indeed at the headstone, right where this headstone/footstone grave down the row would seem to indicate. And true to the religious custom, if he stood straight up out of his grave, he would be facing east.

So this is where Dad is actually buried, below, at the back of his marker.

NOT on the date side (below). All I can say is that I’m EXTREMELY glad I didn’t exhume Dad for DNA testing, given the possible confusion. Whoever considered that he might have been buried on the OTHER side of the tombstone?

I hadn’t thought about taking flowers, since this visit was very much a spur-of-the-moment event, so Elizabeth and I picked some wildflowers and decorated their graves as best we could. No, these are not weeds. Weeds are a matter of perspective:)

I can tell that Virgie’s family comes to visit her grave.

Dad’s grave looks naked by comparison.

Truthfully, I still wasn’t convinced, so after returning home, I called the funeral home and the cemetery sexton. When I said I was confused, they both started laughing. Apparently there is no consistency and yes, the bodies ARE BURIED, at least in this section, on the east side of the markers.

So, Dad is buried on the blank side and Virgie is buried on the date side and they are buried side by side. That explains why the little angels and things her family leaves sit on that side of the stone.

For the record, I did inquire as to how much it would cost to turn his tombstone around. I never heard back after three calls, so I’m not going to have it rotated. However, if anyone should ever visit and discover that it has been turned, someone did a veteran a favor.

One mystery solved, but now a difficult decision.

To Go or Not to Go?

My father died by suicide. I didn’t know that until I was an adult. I found the newspaper article and using Google maps, I had determined where his accident occurred.

When I was a child, clearly Virgie never discussed this nor took me to the place that claimed his life.

As an adult, should I go or not?

Grief is an exceptionally private emotion – especially when it involves suicide. So many thoughts swirl through your brain.

Elizabeth already knew about the circumstances of my father’s death, and she and I had previously talked about all sorts of difficult topics, of which suicide was only one. Her understanding, nonjudgmental presence was comforting to me.

Was I prepared to see where my father died?

Did I even want to?

I knew it was either now or never.

What would it be?

I asked Elizabeth her opinion, as we sat in my car in the cemetery, beside my father’s grave.

If I could have only turned and asked him why.

Elizabeth and I discussed the pros and cons, and eventually reached the consensus that I should “go for it” and that we were both mentally prepared. Neither of us quite knew what to expect. How do you prepare for something like that?

How could I anticipate how I would feel? It’s not something I’ve ever done before – and not something I ever want to have to do again either.

The first thing I did, however, was to drive to where I thought I remembered Virgie’s house being located.

Virgie’s House

I remembered, as a child, walking from Virgie’s house, directly down the street, across the field, to the cemetery. It was a straight shot. As I drove to where I thought it was, I was rewarded with this vision. This is the same view I remember from those hot summer days that I spent sitting beside my father’s grave.

I drove on down the street and indeed, found Virgie’s house. It looks a lot different today, of course, but it’s still the same house. That window above the kitchen was the upstairs bedroom where I slept. I pretended it was a fun secret room in a castle.

The porch looked so familiar. Grandma and I used to sit there, fanning ourselves during the heat of the day. Sometimes Grandma would read and I would sew my Barbie clothes, with her looking on watchfully, of course. The address on the porch confirms that indeed, it’s 202 Shadyside.

Mt. Auburn at Main

My father died at the location of Mt. Auburn and Main. The newspaper article about his death stated that he “was traveling westbound on Mt. Auburn at the time of the accident and his car struck a pole 100 feet west of North Main Street.

Please note that my name is listed incorrectly as Barbara, his half-sister is listed as his step-sister, all of his other siblings are omitted as are other children.

Using Google maps, I had already determined that the pole he hit was the one at the location of the grey pin on the map, below, far left. What looks like a street where the pole is located is actually an alley.

Once again, Elizabeth navigated using her phone as I drove.

This time, we proceeded in silence, except for an occasional “turn right” or “turn left.”

Sitting at the corner of Mt. Auburn and Main, I can see the pole in the distance in the alley, beside the yellow garage and behind the trash container, dead center ahead. This would have been where he sat, or didn’t, those last few fateful minutes.

I felt like I was in a time warp. There it was.

Looking up the street, there isn’t another pole that could be hit without going through a house and the article would surely have mentioned hitting a house had that occurred.

No other poles were visible in either direction.

Did he intentionally aim between the houses?

Why this location? Was it a split second decision? Had he been drinking? Or was he remorseful because he had fallen off the wagon.

Or, was there something else? My mother thought that he was ill at the time of his death, based on his health when they lived together. More specifically, she thought he had cancer, but there was no mention of that and he had an autopsy.

Elizabeth and I knew that particular pole was the only candidate, and it was located exactly as the article described. Utility poles aren’t often moved because the wires are attached.

We pulled down the alley.

A fist-sized lump appeared, not in my throat, but in my stomach as we approached.

That pole is old, bearing the scars of many years of climbing. It’s possible that it could be the same pole that was there at the time. Or was the pole was replaced when he hit it?

Looking back from the other side, it’s somehow ironic that red paint had been sprayed on the pole. I know it’s meaningless, but just the same…

Physics of the Accident

Because I’m who I am, I have to understand this.

Dad would have hit the pole from the back side, towards the road and away from the alley. Given the speed involved, I suspect that the pole would have been damaged, and this pole does not seem to bear that kind of scar – although I’m certainly not an expert in utility pole collision damage. Wooden utility poles are generally expected to survive for about 40 years although some last much longer. He died 55 years ago.

How fast was he going, and what would have happened to the pole?

At 40 MPH, your body (and car) are moving at 58 feet per second. This was also before seat belts, so his body would have crashed into the steering wheel, which was moving towards him at the speed in which his car, a Rambler, crashed into the pole. The pole would probably not have fractured at those speeds, according to impact studies, but would clearly have been damaged.

At 40 MPH, his car would have traveled that entire distance of 100 feet between the intersection and the pole in less than two seconds. If he was traveling at 20 MPH, the distance would have taken a total of 3.5 seconds. In a Road and Track article, Lt. Dan Bates says that in older cars, just 20 years ago, one stood a good chance of dying if you were traveling at 20 MPH and had a head-on accident into a stationary object like a pole. Dad didn’t die right away, so he probably wasn’t traveling at a terribly high speed.

This causes me to ponder another question.

If Dad had floored the gas pedal, he would have hit harder and faster – at least I would think so.

Did he change his mind part way through a suicide attempt, but too late to stop?

That thought nauseates me.


Elizabeth and I sat in the alley for several minutes and discussed the dynamics of the situation – both physical and personal. I’m surprised no one called the police.

She asked me if I was alright. I tend to “go silent” at times like this and just think. My thoughts were swirling and tumbling over each other in a 55-year-delayed grief-filled blizzard of emotions.

I was more saddened by visiting the place that took his life which looks so innocuous than by visiting the cemetery where he is buried. The place where he decided to die. The place where uncontrollable grief and agony of some description overtook him, then took him. The place where the darkness won and death seemed like the best option. The place where his heart ached enough to end his life and remove himself from mine.

I could feel it all, sitting there, just a few days shy of that terrible anniversary – a summer day much like when he pushed that gas pedal, knowing full well what would happen.

Seeing that pole rush towards him – what was he thinking?

All parents pass away eventually. We will all one day have a cemetery to visit, but not everyone has a utility pole. Not everyone has to deal with the knowledge of suicide and wonder why? What pained a loved one that much?

Did he think or know that he was ill and dying? If so, that’s easier to handle than other demons that might have driven him here.

Did he fall off the wagon, again, as Virgie’s daughter suggested, and unable to deal with the guilt, personal disappointment and pain it would cause others, decide to end that never-ending battle with alcohol forever? God, I hope not.

I wonder what might have been different had he lived? How would my life have changed? And would it have been for the better or worse?

Unanswered questions. Unremitting pain and sorrow. But there’s no turning back time. No other road. Just this one – the path he chose.

He’s my father. The childhood me adored him. I love the man I knew.

I ache for his pain and the loss that affected us both so tragically. His pain ended that day, but mine was just beginning.

Heartfelt thanks to Elizabeth, indeed, sister-from-another-mister, for her support and encouragement during the final chapter of this part of my journey.

Heinsmann (Heinrich) Muller (<1635 – <1684) of Schwarzenmatt, Switzerland – 52 Ancestors #208

The 1684 Miesau, Germany marriage record of Johann Michael Muller, widower, to Irene Liesabetha Heitz identified him as, “Michael Müller, legitimate son of the deceased Heinsmann Müller, resident of Schwartz Matt in the Bern area.” Of course, Bern is in Switzerland.

Thank goodness for the location and name of Michael’s father, because without those tidbits, we would never have found that information and Michael would have been our dead end.

Schwarzenmatt, Switzerland

My trusty friends Chris and Tom drilled down on the available information to determine what could be discovered. Chris says:

“Schwarzmatt” is/was part of the church books of Boltigen.

The Boltigen church books are online here among the Bern area church books:

So it should be possible to verify if there was a Michael Müller, son of a Heinsmann Müller in Schwarzmatt.

Heinsmann is a very unusual name. My friend Chris has been researching the Boltigen Muller family on my behalf and he contacted Konstantin Huber who had searched for the Millers from that area years ago. Konstantin didn’t have additional information about the Boltigen family but did state that “Heinsmann” is a rare, old-fashioned form of “Heinrich” that he has never seen before in the 16th/17th century church books from Switzerland. Hence, he suggests that the original name of Michael Müller`s father in Switzerland may have been “Heinrich” and was maybe changed to or simply recorded as “Heinsmann” in the German Palatinate. Chris believes that with Konstantin`s decades of experience on Swiss emigration to Germany that this is a valid suggestion, and I agree.

Chris continues:

I also found that a daughter of a Müller from Boltigen married in Dudweiler, Sulzbach, Saarland, Germany:

“Am 03.05.1718 wird Anna Magdalena Müller, Tochter des …. Müller aus Boltigen im oberen Simmental, Kanton Bern in der Schweiz, dem Johann Jakob Blatter, Sohn von Michael Blatter und Maria Mögel auf Neuweiler Hof, angetraut.”

On the page about Swiss immigrants in Saarland, you will find this in the first half of the page (and a few records below a Hans Stutzmann in Völklingen).

Chris subsequently discovered another document discussing the Muller family in Schwarzenmatt.

In the description of the old house in Schwarzenmatt it is stated on the first page:

“Vor 1615 gab es im Dorf Schwarzenmatt nur wenige Hofstätten. Mit Sicherheit lassen sich bloss deren vier nachweisen, dazu gehörte auch das Haus auf der Kreuzgasse. Wie Eintragungen in den Kirchenbüchern zeigen, besass stets die gleiche Familie Müller dieses Haus, mindestens seit 1700; im Jahr 1872 verkaufte aber David Müller den ganzen Besitz seinem «Tochtermann» Friedrich Bhend, der 1868 von Unterseen nach Schwarzenmatt geheiratet hatte.”

Translated to: “Prior to 1615 there were only few houses in the village Schwarzenmatt. We can only safely verify four, among them the house in the Kreuzgasse. As records in the church books show, this house was always owned by the same family Müller, at least since 1700; but in the year 1872 David Müller sold the entire property to his son-in-law Friedrich Bhendd, who, coming from Unterseen, married to Schwarzenmatt in 1868.”

I am aware this is very weak evidence to assume a relationship to the Michael Müller family, but at the very least it goes to show that a Müller family was among the first in the village Schwarzenmatt.

If Heinsmann/Heinrich is identified as Johann Michael Muller’s father in 1684, and Michael was born in 1655, then we know that Heinsmann was born no later than 1635, and possibly significantly earlier in the 1600s. It’s only 20 years between 1615 and 1635.

What else did Chris find?

Here is a Margaretha Müller, born about 17 December 1696 in Boltigen-Adlemsried. She moved to Bruchsal-Heidelsheim (Northern Wurttemberg, close to the Palatinate), where she married on 6 May 1727 and died on 15 Feb 1728:

I looked up the original marriage and burial record, but no further information on her family there.

If Michael Müller was a widower at the time he married Irene Liesabetha Heitz in 1684, who was his first wife? Did she die in Steinwenden or in the area or rather already back in Switzerland? Maybe it is worth to have another close look at those burials in the Miesau church book from 1681 to 1684 to maybe find her there?

Alas, there was nothing more in Miesau.

Tom found a 1681 Boltigen record where one Michael Muller married Anna Andrist.

Is this our Michael, son of Heinsmann/Heinrich? We don’t have any way of knowing. Parents weren’t listed in these early records. Michael would have been about 26, a typical age for a man to marry at that time. Right time, right name, right place.

What do we know about Schwarzenmatt? Was it large or small? How likely would it have been to find two Michael Mullers of about the same age?

The Village and the Valley

We do know one thing. We’re getting a lot closer to Michael Miller’s cousin, Jacob Ringeisen. In the Steinwenden, Germany records, Jacob is identified as Michael’s cousin and is stated as being from Erlenbach, Switzerland. Schwarzenmatt is only 17 km away, or about 10 miles down the same valley, on the one and only road.

Schwarzenmatt today is a tiny village – about 150 feet East to West.

Clicking on the red balloon shows us the Swiss vYntage Chalets of Schwarzenmatt nestled in the mountains.

Looking at property booking sites (yes you can rent the chalets,) this red pin location is billed as a 400 year old house. If this is indeed true, then that property dates back to 1618, and would be one of the 4 original properties. Heinsmann or Heinrich Muller would have known this house and assuredly, visited, even if it wasn’t his.

Another house nearby is billed as 325 years old, so dating from 1693 or not long after Heinrich had died.

You can see a variety of photos here and here. Just click on the photos at left.

This winter view is stunning, as is the summer one below.

I love old photos! This is similar to what Heinrich and Michael Muller would have seen.

These black and white photos, even though they are from the 1900s, give us at least a peek at what life was like in this valley before the modern era.

Did Michael and Heinrich ski? Was skiing a way for residents to navigate in the winter instead of a sport like it is today? Note that tiny house.

Are these my relatives? I’d bet that almost everyone in or from Schwarzenmatt is my relative!

The alps are breath-taking.

Be still my heart.

I surely wonder what these men were carrying, and why. Did Heinrich do this too? They kind of look like human trees.

Seriously, I want to walk down this street beside the chalets. The entire village is only a block or two. I want to under those umbrellas and drink in the luscious mountain air.

Going for a walk, perhaps? What are they carrying?

The chalets and valley are shown here in an early aerial photo.

The Muller family may have lived in this valley for centuries before the first recorded history that includes the surname in 1615.

This place is stunning, no matter the season.

I’m so grateful that these preserved chalets provide us with a glimpse through the door to the past.

Looking at this door, I do have to wonder if it’s original, meaning perhaps was found in the village when Heinrich lived there. Did he open it himself?

Where did Heinrich Muller actually live?

Historian Peter Mosimann

Just when you think it can’t get any better, it does.

Chris found Peter Mosimann who, as fate would have it, wrote a book about Schwarzenmatt and even more miraculously, owns the Muller chalet. Yes, THAT Muller chalet.

The book is out of print, but here’s the forward, translated from German by Google translate. This isn’t the best translation in the world, but it certainly conveys the idea.

In 2009, the couple Mosimann the Earning a parent’s home, a former mountain farmhouse at the Kreuzgasse in Schwarzenmatt Boltigen im Simmental, dating back to 1556 and certainly one of the oldest houses in the Bernese Oberland is at all. Since the spouses do not live here themselves you can take with the foundation «Holidays in the monument» of the Swiss Homeland Security concluded a license agreement for thirty years.

The foundation had the house renovated and refrained from advise the preservation of monuments. When planning the renovation the thought came to the future holiday guests to make a booklet out of which they have something about the past of the house, the place and the valley could learn. This is now an extensive book from over 340 densely written pages, that you read with great pleasure and profit – even if you are not a holiday guest in Schwarzenmatt.

It is dedicated to Mrs. Mosimann by her husband, who since 2009 innumerable archives visited, innumerable books read and interviewed countless people.

Is in itself the approach of the couple Mosimann – the purchase of the house and its conversion – very much correct and praiseworthy, so does the book the whole still the crown on. Not only was the house saved, but also his story, including the story of one whole valley. Peter Mosimann has been through many sources worked, so to only the most extensive series to name, through twelve choral court manuals the Congregation Boltigen (1648-1875) and six choral court manuals the parish of Oberwil im Simmental (1587-1768) and thirteen parish registers of Boltigen (1556-1875) and fifteen from Oberwil (1562-1875). He has cleverly understood the “little” stories, which he found here to be associated with the “big” story, which he drew from the secondary literature. On example: standing in the gable triangle of the rescued house the year 1556 – at that time Emperor Charles V thanked Habsburg, in whose empire the sun never set, and set up the first parish register in Boltigen (page 30).

Everywhere you can feel the ordering hand of the former Secondary teacher.

The fact that at the house on the Kreuzgasse the former Saumweg led into Jauntal, not over the Jaunpass, but over the Reidigenpass, gives rise for a whole nice chapter about the traffic history. This is very clever with old and new.

Illustrated are photos showing tracks in the terrain sees who would miss out on the terrain itself.

The road led to Jauntal, the catholic («idolatrous») remained and for the severely reformed disciplined Simmentaler the country of vice – but also the temptations and pleasures par excellence – represented. But you also like reading the chapter about the “companions”, as there are: restaurants, Mills, saws, forges, a lime kiln, cheese dairies (initiated by Welschen Greyerzern!), school houses, castle ruins and stones. It’s not just the good, but also the bad old time to the language, alcoholism, the poor, home and child labor, at the for a few cents matches for the matches were produced in Wimmis.

The result is a home customer in the best, namely in the critical sense of the word.

Peter Mosimann is not content with the old one time, but asks to the present. He speaks from the revival of livestock in the Simmental in the 19th century, from the introduction of electricity and the damming of the simme. He is very well aware that in today’s, rushing changes a whole world to disappear threatens, and he therefore has older Simmentaler asked about their knowledge and memories, so operated “oral history”. A nice example is the reconstruction a mining year around 1960, probably with the help of his wife and in-laws. Only here it becomes clear how far already 1960 – not 1860 and also not 1760! – is past. Especially nice and consistent is when people each speak for themselves: one Hemmer sitting in a tavern in Freiburg had shared the bed a bit too much (p. 94), the Daughter of the Wegmeisters Eschler, in the first half of the 20th century for the maintenance of the Jaun pass was responsible (p. 111 f.), the last geisshirt of Eschi (p.180 f.) Or Peter Mosimann’s wife Berti itself, from which the last chapter comes, that the house is dedicated in Schwarzenmatt. Or from the pastor of Boltigen, who died during the plague at the end of the 16th / beginning of the 17th century. Century not only lost all his children, but also three wives (pp. 12 f.). So sad this last one.

History is – you can Mr. Mosimann to his just congratulate factory.

State Archives Freiburg

PD Dr. phil. Kathrin Utz Tremp

Scientific Associate

In essence, we can thank the ski industry today for encouraging the salvation of these old chalets.

These lifts are only a few miles away and tourists need a place to say. Who wouldn’t love to stay in an alpine chalet?

The Swiss Alps tower above Schwarzenmatt and Boltigen.

The Muller Chalet

Chris found several links, and more information. This photo taken about 1912 in front of the chalet shows:

“Susanna Katharina and Friedrich Bhend-von Allmen with their children Fritz, Karl and Hans.”

Peter Mosimann’s wife’s father was Hans Bhend, so Susanna Katherine was apparently a Miller by birth, perhaps a descendant or at least a relative of Heinrich Muller from the middle 1600s. I would so love to see if my mother or other Miller descendants would match her DNA!

This house was built in about 1556 and was in the Muller/Miller family from before 1615. I can’t help but wonder how the date of 1556 was established. Perhaps by tree ring dating of the wood (dendrochronology.)

There is no ownership record before the Muller family, so they could have built it. In 1872, David Muller sold the property to his son-in-law, Freidrich Bhendd. Peter Mosimann’s wife was born a Bhend and grew up in this same house, shown above.

The article, in German, also shows additional photos.

I can’t reproduce the article here, but I can summarize.

Peter Mosiman, the local historian, states that this is one of the earliest dated peasant residential buildings in Boltigen and perhaps in all of the Bernese Oberland.

The sunny location where the house was built was on the mule track over the ridge to Juan and then to Gruyere, although the translation suggests that the house was on the path to Juantel, which I cannot locate on a current map.

I do wonder this this village was a stop-over location, and people rested the mules at this farmstead.

The ancient Juanpass through the mountains is first mentioned in 1228 as Balavarda and again in 1397 as Youn. Was the Muller family here then? What originally brought them to this high, remote location, and when?

The road was paved in 1878 and today is on the list of the highest paved roads in the world. Looking at the map, you can see the switchbacks. The pass peaks at just below 5,000 feet, the ascent 8 miles long and rising almost 2000 feet.

By Norbert Aepli, Switzerland, CC BY 2.5,

Take a look from the pass here.

The photo of the pass, above, is exactly how I remember the Alps.

Here’s the same map with Gruyere, on the other side of the mountain, added.

I have to stop and admit right here that I love the Alps. And I mean LOVE them with all caps. I spent an amazing, life-changing summer in 1970 living in Versoix, Switzerland and spending time in those beautiful mountains and meadows not far from this very location. If you could see across the mountaintops, I lived about 25 miles as the crow flies. I know, what are the chances??

The summer in ski resorts is an inactive time. I spent a month or more there, hiking and wandering the beautiful alpine meadows. Today that resort is Crans-Montana, but then it was a sleepy, tiny Swiss mountain village.

The fact that my family actually originates here stirs my heart and touches my soul in a way I simply cannot put into words. It feels like my ancestors reached out to me, infusing their love of these mountains, even though I didn’t know them then.

But back to the Muller chalet.

Peter Mosimann says that he has documented the house ownership back to at least 1700 in the Muller family. Clearly, Heinrich lived in Schwarzenmatt in the first half of the 1600s. He would have been born either in or before 1635, probably right in this village or at least this valley. Most likey in this peasant house.

The walls were wood and stone that came from the surrounding area. Some stones are outcrops of the mountainside on which the house perches. The stones were connected with lime mortar and whitewashed. A stable was connected to the house, and the “goat-lick” still survives and is shown in photos in the document. Do you know what a goat-lick is? Neither did I!

The ground floor originally only had one small room. A “smoke kitchen” allowed the smoke to drift up between the slats in the rafters where meats were hung to be smoked and cured. The beams there are still black with centuries of accumulated soot.

Water came from the village well or fountain. Schwarzenmatt was lucky and had their own well. Kreuzgasse, the street where this chalet is located had their own fountain.

When I hiked the Alps, we drank from the icy-cold streams, although we were warned about drinking only near the headwaters because mountain goats tended to contaminate the water. We didn’t worry much about that.

In the Muller chalet, it appears that there was a loft type of structure upstairs where the children slept. They warmed some type of sack on the stove and took it to bed with them. Of course, as a quilter, today I think of this in terms of a quilt.

The original windows were sold at some time and installed in a restaurant in Obersimmental, about 10 miles distant. The homeowners thought they got the better end of that deal, because they installed new windows which were surely more winter-resistant, weathertight and warmer.

Clothes and dishes were washed in a basin on the table, and clothes were dried on a wooden rod in the kitchen.

Plums, pears and apples were dried for the winter to go along with the smoked meats.

Peter says that the renovation exposed 1705 construction with holes in posts suggesting that earlier building had occurred and the 1705 construction itself was either an expansion or a remodel. A stable was added at that time to house 4-6 goats and two pigs.

A cheese tower yet preserved shows that cheese was manufactured on this farm. Three circular pieces of wood are attached to a pole set in stone and connected to the rafters.

Chris located a photo before the renovation occurred.

Drum roll please…here’s the beautiful chalet today from a different angle. And look, just look at those mountains.

This chalet even has its own Wikipedia entry. At this link, you can see what it looks like in the winter. Another photo here and the renovation here.

The Muller Chalet, shown with the red pin below, is almost next door to the Swiss Vyntage Chalets I first found on the booking site.

I can’t tell you how much I want to visit this location and see the Muller chalet in person. Actually, I don’t just want to see it, I want to stay and sleep there, basking in the ancestral glow.

Johann Michael Muller

We know that Michael Muller, a widower, who married in 1684 in Steinwenden was from Schwarzenmatt. We know that a Michael Muller married in Boltigen in 1681 in the church where the Schwarzenmatt residents attended. There was no other church in the valley. The question is, is this the same Michael Muller?

This area was very small at the time, not to mention remote. Chances are very good that the Michael who married Anna Andrist was the same Michael Muller, but there could have been more than one. We also know that our Michael’s father was Heinrich, recorded as Heinsmann in Germany, who was from the tiny block long village of Schwarzenmatt.

In Switzerland, when a resident left, they were required to register. In essence, they carried a lifelong passport with them and as long as they left in good standing, they could always return as a citizen.

Those rolls were called Mannrechten and they exist for 1694-1754 from the Bern region. Of course, that’s after our Michael left, but several Millers from Boltigen were listed. Chris checked with the archives, and has kindly translated their reply, as follows:

– There are no “Mannrechtsrodel” earlier than 1694, so probably no direct proof of Michael Müller`s emigration to Germany.

– Mr. Bartlome (archivist) writes that at the time no permission was required to leave Switzerland. However, there was a heavy tax on money transferred abroad (“Abzugsgelder”). If an emigrant transferred money abroad, at the same time the emigrant passed on their citizen rights in Switzerland. This was done to prevent the emigrants possibly returning to Switzerland later on as a poor person.

– Only around 1700 an alphabetical name register was started for Swiss citizens who passed on their citizen rights. The register (listed in the link above,) is such a register. Please note that this passing on citizen rights could be done by children or grandchildren of the original emigrant! So the listed persons are not necessarily the emigrating persons!

– The register does not list the emigration date, but the date on which the citizen rights were passed on, plus the money that was transferred abroad and to which place.

– Finally, Mr Bartlome notes that emigrants may also be found in the protocols of the Bern government (“Ratsmanuale”). The transferred money (“Abzugsgelder”) was also listed in bills of the bailiffs (“Rechnungen der Landvögte”). So this may be another way to find emigrants in old documents, but it is a tedious process and with no guarantee.

As Chris comments, clearly not what we had hoped, but still, the door isn’t entirely slammed shut.

Chris later discovered a list of Swiss emigrants from 1694-1754 who settled in the Palatinate, Alsace-Lorraine, Baden-Wurttemberg and Pennsylvania in an article by Kary Joder in the October 1983 Mennonite Family History Newsletter, Volume II, #4, available in the book section at Family Search. In this document, one Michael Miller is noted on page 136, along with Miller men from Boltigen, as follows:

Chris wondered where my Johann Michael Miller the second, the son of the original Johann Michael Miller, from Schwarzenmatt, was located in 1720.

Chris translates from the original German version:

“2.12.1720 Michel Müller von hinter Zweisimmen zieht nach Leistadt (Bad Dürkheim).”

Translation: “2 December 1720 – Michel Müller from behind Zweisimmen moves [read: “his money”!] to Leistadt (Bad Dürkheim).”

Could this Michel Müller possibly be identical with Michael Müller the Second? I am not as familiar with his life dates as you are, so I have to ask you if this remains a possibility. I know that in 1721 he became a citizen in Lambsheim. Lambsheim and Leistadt are 8.5 miles apart from each other. Do we know for sure that in 1720 Michael Müller the Second was still in Steinwenden or was he maybe “on his way” to Lambsheim?

“From behind Zweisimmen” suggests to me that possibly this Michel Müller could not name the place of origin of his father. “Behind Zweisimmen” would definitely go well along with Schwarzenmatt. Zweisimmen and Schwarzenmatt/Boltigen are only 6 miles apart from each other.

It’s amazing how quickly ancestral knowledge of locations and events fades. By 1720, Michael Muller the first had been dead for 25 years, having died when his son was only 2 years and 3 months old. It’s no wonder that Michael Muller the second couldn’t remember the name of the town in Switzerland where his father was from. He never knew his father – only through his mother’s remembrances.

In April of 1718, Johann Michael Muller (the second) is identified as the farm administrator of (the farm) Weilach in a baptismal record for his child in Kallstadt. He is still living in Weilach on April 5th, 1721, but by January 15, 1722, when he is once again mentioned in a Kallstadt baptism record where he stands up as a godparent, he is a Lambsheim resident about 12 miles distant from Weilach. Citizenship records tell us that Michael moved to Lambsheim between April and July of 1721.

As the map above illustrates, Leistadt is very close to Weilach and Kallstadt, both. It was less than a mile from Weilach to Leistadt, the closest village. Certainly close enough to walk. The Michael Muller on December 2, 1720 who moved money from Schwarzenmatt to Leistadt is very likely Michael Muller the second, son of the Michael Muller the first, son of Heinrich Muller. Perhaps he moved the funds in preparation for his move to Lambsheim. It was only a few years later that he emigrated to America.

Until that time, Michael Muller the second had been a Swiss citizen, although he was born in Germany.

Mullers in Boltigen and Schwarzenmatt

The Mullers were clearly visible in the Boltigen area, which includes Schwarzenmatt. Several (in addition to Michael) were mentioned in the Mennonite document that references moving money.

  • Muller, Benedicts from Boltigen to Eppingen-Churpfalz on November 29, 1726
  • Muller, Wolfgang from Boltigen to Maulbronn-Wurttemberg on May 6, 1732
  • Muller, Johannes from Boltigen to Horbach-Swiebrucken on March 14, 1754

These three Miller men transferred funds to the same region of Germany, near where Michael had moved.

Were all of these men from the same Muller family from Schwarzenmatt and Boltigen?

Were there multiple Miller families living in Schwarzenmatt or Boltigen by that time?

If so, did they descend from a common Miller ancestor, or different men that just happened to carry the same surname?

Is this the same Muller family that had a coat of arms awarded in 1683, right about the time Michael Muller the first is found in Germany?

The Miller family in Boltigen had a coat of arms awarded in 1683 which looks to be a cogged wheel of some sort, perhaps a miller’s wheel?

The history of German heraldry isn’t terribly helpful, except to say that noble coats of arms included a barred helmet, and burgher’s/patrician’s coats of arms included a tilted helmet. The Muller coat of arms includes neither, so this tells us that the family wasn’t noble. It’s noted that in Switzerland, in the 17th century, Swiss farmers also bore arms. Given that the Schwarzenmatt Muller family, as evidenced by the restored home, was clearly a farm family, the coat of arms isn’t as surprising as it might otherwise seem. I am very curious though at the meaning of the yellow symbol on the coat of arms and if the blue background has any significance. I also wonder if this coat of arms would have included “all” of the Muller family or clan, or only one specific family unit.

There’s no way, of course, without Y DNA testing or non-existent records to tell if this is the same family. The Boltigen church records were lost in a fire in 1840. I have a DNA testing scholarship for any Miller male from the Schwarzenmatt/Boltigen area, or whose ancestors lived there.

A painting, below, remains of the old Boltigen church and parsonage from 1822, before the fire. This would have been the church that Heinrich attended, and where Michael was married in 1681.

From this photo of the current church, built after the 1840 fire, it looks like the new church was built in the same location and in the exact same style and footprint as the old church.

By Roland Zumbuehl – Own work, CC BY 3.0,

Boltigen is just down the valley, about a mile from Schwarzenmatt. A lovely Sunday walk to church.

You can walk home from church in half an hour, but of course, it’s uphill! Probably not very pleasant in the winter.

Schwarzenmatt was tiny then and it’s tiny now. Heinsmann (Heinrich) and Michael lived here – lost in time today, but not lost to memory anymore.

Leaving Schwarzenmatt

This part of the world is truly beautiful – nature at her finest. I wonder what compelled Heinrich’s son to leave. It’s certainly possible that the isolation was a factor. The family that lived in this house, with who knows how many children, were peasants, and their children would be peasants too. Perhaps Michael wanted something more. Perhaps he found no comfort here after his wife died. Did she pass away giving birth to their first child?

The Thirty Years’ War had devastated and depopulated most of the Palatine and the Swiss were invited to come and settle, tax free, with a promise of land. Looking at the tiny Swiss village, and having lived in the Alps, I understand that this area could only support a limited population and had little potential for expansion. The German offer meant, for Michael, that opportunity was knocking and perhaps providing an escape from the pain of his wife’s death.

Once Michael left Schwarzenmatt, given the distance to Steinwenden, he likely never returned, which meant he never saw his parents or family again. Perhaps both of Michael’s parents were deceased before he left. We know, according to his marriage record in 1684 that his father was already gone by that time, but what about his mother and siblings – assuming he had siblings?

Heinrich likely was born and died in Schwarzenmatt and is buried in the churchyard of the old church that burned in 1840. Perhaps generations of Heinrich’s ancestors are buried near him there as well.

Michael would have passed that location one last time, perhaps stopping to say one final goodbye to his father and wife, on his way down the valley, through the village of Erlenbach, perhaps gathering his cousin Jacob Ringeisen, on his way to Germany.

Heinrich was the last of his generation here, at least in my line, and Michael was the first generation in Germany.

We think of the Muller family as German, but in reality, Michael the first only lived in Germany as an adult, retraining his Swiss citizenship the entire time. His son, Michael the second lived in Germany until 1727 when he emigrated to the US. He only relinquished his Swiss citizenship in 1720. In total, the Muller family lived in Germany for between 43 and 46 years. They were only exclusively German, meaning no Swiss citizenship, for 7 years. Before that, they were Swiss, probably for generations. After that, American.

How long had the Muller family been settled in Schwarzenmatt? When did they arrive? And from where? Is the surname Muller the trade name for the local miller? Does it reflect the occupation of Heinrich or his ancestors? Were they millers on the creek that runs through the valley?

We don’t have answers to those questions, but we can look at what the Miller line Y DNA tells us.

Genetic History

Our cousin, the Reverend Richard Miller took the Big Y DNA test in order for Miller descendants to learn as much as possible about our heritage.

Our Miller terminal SNP, or haplogroup, is R-CTS7822.

SNP Estimated Age
CTS7822 5000-5300 (Bulgaria)
Z2109 5300 (Russia, India)
Z2106 5300-5500
M12149 5500-6100
Z2103 5500-6100

In the R1b Basal subclade project, our sample is the only one with a terminal SNP of CTS7822.

There are other people who have another SNP downstream that we don’t have, some in Germany and Switzerland, and many in Scandinavia. Those would be descendants of CTS7822. In other words, at some point in time, a branch of the family headed north, long before surnames were adopted. Another branch headed south, across the Alps to Italy. One branch is found in Bulgaria and another in England.

Z2109, the branch immediately above ours, also our ancestor, is found in India, the Russian Federation and Turkey. That’s a fascinating span and suggests that the person who carried the ancestral SNP, Z2109 might well have been in the Caucasus before his sons and their descendants fanned out in all directions.

Unnamed Variants

Perhaps even more exciting is that eventually our Miller line is likely to have a different terminal SNP. Cousin Richard has 36 total unnamed variants.

This means that mutations, SNPs, have been found in these locations on his Y chromosome that have never been found before. These SNPs aren’t yet named and placed on the haplotree. Our line will be responsible, when another male tests that has these same locations, for 36 new branches, or updated branches, on the Y tree.

I always knew our Miller line was quite unique, and Heinrich’s Y chromosome, passed to Miller men today proves it!

Heinrich Muller’s DNA will be providing new discoveries in a scientific field he had absolutely no clue existed. His final legacy wouldn’t be written into record until more than 337 years after his death in the tiny village of Schwarzenmatt in the Swiss Alps. Not chiseled into stone, but extracted from his descendants Y chromosome.


I know this is the last stop on the Miller/Muller road, in this picturesque tiny village in the Swiss alps. There are no more records. I am attempting to contact Peter Mosimann, and if I’m lucky, there may be more photos!

With the difficulties in colonial America determining who Michael Miller (the second) was, and where he came from, never in my wildest dreams did I think we’d find our original homeplace in Switzerland two generations earlier.

And not just Michael’s home location, but his actual swear-to-God home, as in house.

I’m still reeling from this stroke of amazing luck – but then luck favors the prepared. My amazing German genealogist and cousin, Tom and my German-speaking friend, Chris receive all the credit for their amazing sleuthing work. None of this would have happened without their diligence.

I am ever so grateful.

I have wanted to visit Germany for decades. With this latest discovery, I’m checking airfares. My husband is in the other room having a coronary at the potential cost of the trip, but I’m focused on the emotional toll of not going. I always regretted not taking my mother back to Mutterstadt before her death, and count on it, she’ll be accompanying me in spirit😊

Maybe she has been guiding the way all along.

It was a long journey, in terms of miles, ships and time, from Schwarzenmatt to where I sit today. Ten generations and almost 400 years of mule paths, rutted wagon roads and 3-masted ships. From a farmhouse of stone and wood on a mountainside sheltering people, goats and pigs, with water hauled from the community well to an electrified dashboard from which I can travel the world, even back to Schwarzenmatt, without leaving my driver’s seat.

Yet, I know that there’s nothing like visiting in person. Walking where Heinrich walked. Standing where he stood. Visiting his grave, or at least the graveyard where he, his wife and their ancestors are surely buried in unmarked graves.

I hope to be reporting back to you in a year or so from Schwarzenmatt as I trace my ancestors’ footsteps and generations back in time.

Ancestor Birthdays Mean Presents for YOU!

I’ve been wanting to celebrate my ancestors’ birthdays for some time now, and I’ve finally figured out exactly how to accomplish this goal in a really fun way.

Being reminded once a year about their birthday and the anniversary of their death reminds me to work on their genealogy, and in particular, genetic genealogy. With more people testing every single day, meaning different people at every vendor, we need to check often with specific ancestors in mind. You never know who’s going to be the person who puts the chink in that brick wall.

With this in mind, I’ve put together a spreadsheet to track what I know about each ancestor. This makes it easy to schedule those dates in my calendar, with a reminder of course, and then to check my spreadsheet to see what information might have been previously missing that might be able to be found today.

It’s like a birthday present for them, but now for me. I am, after all, their heir, along with the rest of their descendants of course! If I’m lucky, I inherited part of their DNA, and if not, their DNA is still relevant to me.

Checking the List

Here’s my spreadsheet checklist for each ancestor:

  • Birth date
  • Birth place
  • Death date
  • Death place
  • Spouse
  • Y DNA haplogroup (if male)
  • Mitochondrial DNA haplogroup
  • Autosomal confirmed
  • Ancestry Circle

New information becomes digitized every year making new information available.

Additionally, some items may change. For example, if a base haplogroup was previous known, a deeper haplogroup might be available a year later if someone has taken a more detailed test or the haplogroup name might have been updated. Yes, that happens too.

I originally had a triangulation column on the spreadsheet too, but I pretty quickly discovered that column was subject to lots of questions about interpretation. Is the actual ancestor triangulated, or the line? I decided that “autosomal confirmed” would suffice to cover whatever I decide constitutes confirmation and a comment column could hold the description. For example, my grandparents are autosomal confirmed because I match (and triangulate) with cousins who are descended from ancestors upstream of my grandparents. If my grandparent wasn’t my grandparent, I wouldn’t be related to those people either. In particular, first cousins.

I also added an “Article Link” column to paste the link to that ancestor’s 52 Ancestors article so I can quickly check or maybe even provide this spreadsheet to a family member.

Here’s an example of what the first several entries of my Ancestor Birthday Spreadsheet look like.

Ancestor Birthday Presents for You

In order to remind myself to check on my ancestors’ status, on their birth and death days, I schedule reminders in my phone calendar. Every morning when I wake, I’m greeted by my ancestor – well – at least this much of them.

  • First, I check at Family Tree DNA for new matches, haplogroups and the presence of my family lines in surname projects.
  • Then it’s off to Ancestry to see if I have any new green leaf DNA or record hints, to add or update the circle for this particular ancestor, and to see if any of my matches would be a candidate for either Y or mitochondrial DNA testing, assuming they reply to messages and agree to test at Family Tree DNA. I keep a separate spreadsheet of each person that I’ve identified as a match with an identified ancestor. I know it’s extra work, but that spreadsheet is invaluable for determining if the ancestor is autosomal proven and if the match is a candidate for Y or mtDNA testing.
  • Then I get another cup of coffee and check at MyHeritage for new record matches for that ancestor, along with new DNA SmartMatches.
  • GedMatch and 23andMe aren’t as easy to check for matches specific to ancestors, but I still check both places to see if I can find matches that I can identify as descending from that ancestor.
  • While I’m at it, sometimes I run over to FamilySearch to see if there’s anything new over there, although they don’t deal with DNA. They do, however, have many traditional genealogical records. I may add another column to track if I’m waiting for something specific to be digitized – like court minutes, for example. FamilySearch has been on a digitization binge!
  • As I go along, I add any new discovery to my genealogy software and my Ancestor Birthday Spreadsheet as well.
  • Last, I paint new segment information from Family Tree DNA, MyHeritage, GedMatch or 23andMe at DNAPainter. My three articles about how I use DNAPainter are here, here and here.

I just love ancestor birthdays.

Any day that I get to find something new is a wonderful day indeed – fleshing out the lives, history and DNA of my ancestors. With this many places to look, there’s seldom a day that goes by that I don’t discover at least something in my ancestor scavenger hunt!

Ancestor birthday presents for me😊


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Robert Vernon Estes (1931-1951), Nightmare: Prisoner of War – 52 Ancestors #207

Photo courtesy GraveHunter.

Robert Vernon Estes was born on March 27, 1931 to Lucille Latta and Joseph Harry “Dode” Estes, my father’s brother and best friend.

Robert’s nickname was Bobby. He enrolled in the Army during the Korean conflict and was captured on November 30, 1950. He was held as a prisoner of war and died in Korea on January 31, 1951. The family was not notified.

His nickname was Bobby.

This isn’t the end of Bobby’s story, but the beginning.


Bobby is my uncle’s son. His father, Joseph “Dode” Harry Estes born September 13, 1904 in Claiborne Co., Tennessee and died December 9, 1994 in Fairfield, Wayne Co., Illinois.

Bobby has been a “missing” family member for years. His father, Dode, suffered from amnesia, probably from an automobile accident, and became lost to the family who believed he had died. With Dode’s absence, his sons also became lost to the family.

This week, I found Robert Vernon Estes. He is memorialized on FindAGrave, although his remains were never returned and he is not buried on American soil.

Bobby is listed at both and with the American Battle Monuments Commission, but some of that information was incorrect, such as his death date.

United States Korean War Battle Deaths
Name: Robert V Estes
Event Type: Death
Event Date: 30 Nov 1950 (captured on this date, he didn’t die until January 31, 1951)
Event Place: Korea
Gender: Male
Race: Caucasian
Citizenship Status: U.S. Citizen
Casualty Type Note: HOSTILE – Died while captured/interned
Military Service Branch: U S ARMY
Military Component Reserve (USAR, USNR, USAFR, USMCR, USCGR)
Military Rank: Private First Class
Service Number: 16312230
Birth Date: 1931
Residence Place: White (County), Indiana, United States
Source Reference: 7234 hasn’t indexed the newspapers for Monticello, Indiana where his POW status, or death, would have been reported. MyHertiage hasn’t digitized the yearbook where he went to school either. However, FindAGrave has more, thanks to GraveHunter, including his regiment and division, which made it possible for me to track Bobby further.

Corporal Estes was a member of Headquarters Company, 1st Battalion, 9th Infantry Regiment, 2nd Infantry Division. He was taken Prisoner of War while fighting the enemy in North Korea on November 30, 1950 and died while a prisoner on January 31, 1951. His remains were not recovered. Corporal Estes was awarded the Combat Infantryman’s Badge, the Prisoner of War Medal, the Korean Service Medal, the United Nations Service Medal, the National Defense Service Medal, the Korean Presidential Unit Citation and the Republic of Korea War Service Medal.

Bobby’s remains still have not been recovered or returned for burial, 67 years later.

I can’t help but wonder at the circumstances surrounding his death. Was he wounded as he was captured? Was he captured because he was wounded? Was he wounded or ill and left untreated? Or was it the unthinkable, unspeakable? Was he tortured to death?

The Korean War

The Korean War (1950-1953) began in June 1950 when the North Korean Communist army crossed the 38th parallel and invaded non-Communist South Korea. Armed with Soviet tanks, they quickly overran South Korea, executing every educated person who could, would or might lead a resistance against North Korea. The United States came to South Korea’s aid in a “police action” sanctioned by the United Nations Security Council.

The war lasted a miserable 3 years, with over 55,000 US men killed. The goal was to prevent a third world war. The American troops and people were frustrated with the lack of a decisive victory, unlike with WWI and WWII. Instead a divided Korea was established, with North Korea remaining a hostile dictatorship to this day.

The United States reported that North Korea mistreated prisoners of war. Soldiers were beaten, starved, put to forced labor, marched to death and summarily executed. War crimes were reported by both North and South Korea and document by photos of soldiers with piles of bodies. I can’t even look.

What Happened to Bobby?

From Wikipedia, we can surmise something of what was happening in Korea during the time Bobby was captured under the heading “China Intervenes.”

After consulting with Stalin, on 13 November, Mao appointed Zhou Enlai the overall commander and coordinator of the war effort, with Peng as field commander. On 25 November at the Korean western front, the PVA (Chinese People’s Volunteer Army) 13th Army Group attacked and overran the ROK (Republic of South Korea Army) II Corps at the Battle of the Ch’ongch’on River, and then inflicted heavy losses on the US 2nd Infantry Division on the UN forces’ right flank. The UN Command retreated; the U.S. Eighth Army’s retreat (the longest in US Army history) was made possible because of the Turkish Brigade’s successful, but very costly, rear-guard delaying action near Kunuri that slowed the PVA attack for two days (27–29 November). By 30 November, the PVA 13th Army Group managed to expel the U.S. Eighth Army from northwest Korea.

This is exactly when Bobby was captured, November 30th, so it would make sense that he was involved in the Battle of Ch’ongch’on River which was launched by General McArthur under the “Home by Christmas” offensive to expel the Chinese forces from the Korean peninsula and end the war. Not only did the war not end, no one came home by Christmas and Bobby still isn’t back.

This photo shows soldiers from the US 2nd Infantry Division in action near the Ch’ongch’on River on November 20th. This was Bobby’s unit just 10 days before his capture. For all we know, one of these men could be Bobby.

The terrain was rugged.

Soldiers from the Chinese 39th Corps pursue the US 25th Infantry Division. This wasn’t Bobby’s unit, but the pursuing Chinese probably didn’t look much different anyplace. Men chasing you, shooting guns is universally terrifying.

The Secret Report

A now declassified secret report states that on November 30, 1950, the day Bobby was captured, all records of the S-1 section were lost in the vicinity of Pugwon, Korea due to enemy action. This unit, Bobby’s, was known as the 9th “Manchu” infantry regiment. The secret report details the “defensive and rear-guard delaying action” that took place November 26-30 which followed an attack that had taken place November 12-25.

Extracted from the report:

On November 2nd, the unit was assigned to counterattack and destroy or hold the enemy that had broken through the Republic of Korea (now South Korea) lines and was advancing with no resistance.

On November 8th, the unit made contact with the enemy. On November 10th, tensions mounted and on the 11th, the unit celebrated Armistice Day “in its own special way firing a three-round concentration from all weapons at 1100 hours on appropriate enemy targets.”

The battled ensued until November 25th when the unit began the final push to crush the enemy and drive him across the Xaln River.

On November 25th, the 1st Battalion was attacked by the enemy and by 3 PM the following day, the entire 9th had been forced to withdraw and take up defensive positions across the Chongchon River.

On November 28th, they withdrew to Yongdam-Ni where a new defensive position was established. The 1st Battalion was attempting to withdraw from south of Pugwon.

Just before midnight, they fell under heavy enemy attack that completely cut them off until the early morning hours of November 27th when they fought their way free and reorganized in the vicinity of KuJang-Dong.

Under fire, on the 28th and 29th, the 9th reorganized in the vicinity of Kunu-Ri. As a result of the action from the late hours of the 25th to the 29th, the three battalions of the 9th had sustained over a 50% casualty rate, as a result leaving the 2nd and 3rd with less than 400 men each.

The 2nd was Bobby’s unit.

At approximately 8 PM on the 29th, a verbal order was received to attack and destroy the enemy roadblock on the Kunu-Ri-Sunchon Road. Combining the men left in each of the 2nd and 3rd into a reinforced company of approximately 400 men, the order was received and carried out during the remainder of November 29th and the early morning hours of November 30.

At 3:30 AM, the 2nd followed by the 3rd Battalion moved from the assembly area at Kunu-Ri to vicinity of the roadblock. At 6:30 AM, the 2nd Battalion on the right received enemy fire that increased in strength until 7 AM when enemy fire was coming from all sides. All vehicles withdrew. Although the fire continued for about 2 hours the unit held its position. The 3rd with a platoon of tanks contacted the enemy in the vicinity at approximately 7:15. The 9th advanced about 1000 yards through the roadblock until resistance of the enemy was such that farther progress forward was stopped.

The 9th completed a perimeter defense of the area and elements of the 2nd were allowed to pass through the roadblock. At 1:30 PM, with all available transport, the unit began to run the roadblock and engaged in a running fight while crossing it until 4 PM. However, enemy S/A fire was continuous and heavy along the entire 8 to 10 miles of the roadblock. The 2nd, on order, mounted all available transportation and engaged in a running fight with the enemy until reaching the vicinity of Sunchon at 4 PM. At 5:30 PM the group cleared the roadblock, taking fire on the rear and left flank, arriving in Sunchon area at 8 PM, proceeding to Hwange to set up a perimeter defense and reorganize.

Bobby clearly never made it to Sunchon. The report continues:

The regiment has suffered losses, heavy loses, in both men and equipment with what that undefined something that all great units have, the regiment wasn’t talking about the “downs” but what they would do the next time and hoping that time would be soon.

There was sadness, yes, but with that a grim determination that the enemy would pay, and pay the terrific price for what they had done. Instead of a defeated regiment the “Red” forces had succeeded in making a stronger, greater and inspired regiment of the 9th “Manchu” Infantry Regiment of the 2nd Infantry Division.

Signed, Edwin J. Messinger, Colonel, Infantry Commanding

The map above shows the roadblocks, the route along which Bobby was captured.

The declassified report includes summary documents stating that the regiment’s many losses occurred during November 27-30 “when the Chinese troops attacked our positions in overwhelming numbers. A total of 1766 battle casualties were suffered, 37 killed, 370 wounded and 1359 missing in action.”

On November 30th, the unit had a total of 257 enlisted men, but they don’t say whether that count is before or after the offensive.

The 2nd reported 15 killed, 125 wounded and 191 missing. They had started out with 798 on November 1st, so one way or another, lost 41% of their men. Bobby was one of those 191 missing, many of whom would have become prisoners of war.

The Gauntlet

This horrific battle was later named “The Gauntlet.”

Lieutenant Colonel William Kelleher of the US 1st Battalion, 38th Infantry Regiment described the carnage at the Gauntlet:

“For the next 500 yards the road was temporarily impassable because of the numerous burning vehicles and the pile up of the dead men, coupled with the rush of the wounded from the ditches, struggling to get aboard anything that rolled…either there would be bodies in our way, or we would be almost borne down by wounded men who literally throw themselves upon us…I squeezed [a wounded ROK soldier] into our trailer. But as I put him aboard, other wounded men piled on the trailer in such number that the Jeep couldn’t pull ahead. It was necessary to beat them off.”

A summary written later stated that when the North Korean forces collapsed, the Chinese sent their units to establish the roadblock which would have isolated and surrounded the entire Eighth Army. The 2nd infantry didn’t know the strength of the roadblock and US intelligence mistakenly reported that an alternative escape on the road from Kunu-ri to Anju was also blocked by the Chinese. Therefore, the unit decided to withdraw through the valley and the attack on the roadblock began.

On that fateful morning, four tanks were initially sent down the road, but the Chinese held their fire. The length of the roadblock caught the infantry by surprise, as they were not aware that it has been extended by the Chinese the previous day. The Chinese lured the unit into the trap, and the road was soon filled with bodies and disabled vehicles. The sterility of the official (now declassified) report belies the horror of the men inescapably trapped and abandoned there.

Those who tried to take cover in the ditches were left behind by the convoy rushing south. Air cover provided some protection in the day, but not at night. The Chinese finally blocked the road entirely by destroying parts of the 2nd Infantry Division which immobilized artillery pieces, forcing the abandonment of the rest of the vehicles. The men that could retreated by hiking through the hills, but not everyone was able to escape. The men from the 2nd, trapped in place, continued to fight after the rest had left.

In one of the last acts of the battle, the retreating 23rd infantry fired off its entire stock of 3,206 artillery shells within 20 minutes, shocking the Chinese troops and preventing them from following the regiment. The last stragglers from the 2nd Infantry division, the few left alive, arrived at Sunchon on December 1st.

On this satellite map, you can see Kaechon (Turk) near where the battle started, Sunchon and Anju, a distance of about 25 miles.

By comparing the rivers, I can map the rough location of the roadblocks. However, given the map distances and the fact that the roadblocks were reported to be 8-10 miles long, the roadblock area was probably about a third of the distance between Kaechon and Sunchon.

I believe this this region is the area where Bobby was captured. It’s somehow ironic that today, I’m viewing far more information about where their son was on that fateful day than either of Bobby’s parents were ever able to do in their lifetime. The report wasn’t declassified until after both of Bobby’s parents had died.

By the next day, the Chinese had moved on, but Bobby was in the hands of the North Koreans. The horrific final chapter of Bobby’s inescapable death had begun.

Korean Concentration Camps

Bobby didn’t die for 2 months and 1 day, so he very clearly was in some kind of detainment facility. I discovered this list of Korean POW camps. Based on proximity and the early date, the only camps possible where Bobby was held would have been:

  • Camp 5, [old] Pyoktong, 1950-52—town name moved after war

According to the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, the original site on the south bank of the Yalu River is believed to hold 550 remains of US servicemen.

The following holding points were in operation at that time as well:

  • The Valley at Sambakkol, mainly Nov 1950-Jan 1951 (near Pyongyang)
  • “Death Valley” at Pukchin-Tarigol, mainly Dec 1950-March 1953 (this site is believed to hold the remains of 350 US POWs)
  • “The Apex” camps at Chunggang-jin, Hanjang-ni, and An-dong, Nov 1950 to Oct 1951
  • Kanggye, used by POWs from the Chosin Reservoir, Dec 1950 to Mar 1951 (further east)

The official US POW/MIA page states that the majority of the men who died in these sites passed away during the winter of 1950-51 before food could be delivered reliably and shelter was haphazard at best. Temperatures in Korea in December and January range from 15-30 degrees. More than 7800 men were lost and remain unrecovered and about 5300 of those were lost in North Korea. This site shows a map with the locations of the various POW camps annotated.

This chills me to the bone.

Another soldier from Bobby’s unit captured in the same battle was sent to the Pukchin-Tarigol Camp Cluster, shown on the map below, about 30 miles north of Kaechon, where he starved to death on February 16, 1951, just two weeks after Bobby died.

Yet another soldier from the same unit captured at the same time died in the same prison camp four days before Bobby. There’s a reason it was called “Death Valley.” Those two soldiers were not listed on POW lists, were not among the remains returned in 1954 and were declared unrecoverable, but were found in a secondary burial site and returned in 2016 and 2018, respectively. Maybe there’s hope for Bobby yet.

I found the Pyoktong concentration camp location on the map as well, although the Korean War site says the town was moved after the war.

The notorious Pyoktong on the map today was located 60 or 70 miles north of Kaechon. Death Valley would have been closer to where Bobby was captured.

Exorbitant death rates in concentration camps probably account for the 900% (not a typo) discrepancy in the number of POWs that North Korea officially claimed to have held after the war, as compared to their own announcements and known South Korean captives during the war.

The original Pyoktong location is shown in the photo below on the south bank of the Yalu River that divides China and North Korea.

It’s reported that more than 2000 bodies are buried behind this location.

The 55 sets of remains (of over 7700+ still missing) that were recently returned by Korea only included one set with dogtags, and they weren’t Bobby’s. Given that Bobby was a POW for 2 months, they clearly had his tags. It’s unlikely that any of the remains repatriated are his.

Bobby’s Military Awards

I wondered if the awards that Bobby received posthumously might tell us more about his duty. Regardless, he deserves to be fully recognized for each one.

Combat Infantryman Badge – Awarded to infantrymen and special forces soldiers who fought in ground combat after December 6, 1941.

Prisoner of War Medal – Awarded to any person who was taken prisoner or held captive while engaged in an action against an enemy of the United States

Korean Service Medal – Created November 1950 by President Harry Truman for participation in the Korean War.

United Nations Service Medal – An international military decoration established by the United Nations December 12, 1950 in recognition of the multi-national defense forces which participated in the Korean War. The back reads “For service in the defence (sic) of the principles of the charter of the United Nations.”

National Defense Service Medal – Established by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1953, the medal is a “blanket campaign medal” awarded to service members who served honorably during a designated time period of which a “national emergency” had been declared during a time of war or conflict. This medal is awarded to men who served in Korea, Vietnam, the Gulf War or the War on Terrorism.

Korean Presidential Unit Citation – Award presented by the government of South Korea to any military unit of outstanding performance in defense of the Republic of Korea. In recognition of allied military service to South Korea during the Korean War, all US military departments were authorized the unit award for that period.

Republic of Korea War Service Medal – Military award of South Korea originally authorized in December of 1950 to honor those who participated in the counter assaults against North Korean aggression in June 1950. In 1951, South Korea authorized the award to “the brave and valiant members of the United Nations Command who have been, and are now, combatting the communist aggressor in Korea.”


Bobby’s mother, Lucille Latta Stockdale died on August 18, 1952 of a stroke at age 45.  She only knew that Bobby was missing, not that he had died. Or did she, in her mother’s heart? She must have worried every single hour of single every one of those 625 days between his capture and her death.

As a mother, I can’t even begin to imagine how Lucille suffered. Surely she hoped for the best. And feared the worst. Every minute of every single hour

She probably jumped every time a phone rang or someone knocked at the door. She would have been constantly waiting for a good news call, or, for the dreaded telegram to arrive. Would it be Bobby’s voice on the other end of the line, or the men in military uniform at the door, bearing dreadful news?

It was never either.

Did the constant stress of his captivity lead to her stroke? It certainly didn’t help, that’s for sure.

I wonder when the family was finally notified? I knew that my uncle’s son had been killed in “the war,” but I never knew any details, including which war, when he died, nor even Bobby’s name.

My own father died when I was young, although he kept in touch with his brother as best he could until they were both lost to all of us.

His Namesake

As I processed this heartbreaking sequence of information: the battles, Bobby’s capture, his horrific time spent in Korea including those torturous last two months, his prolonged “absence” that was in fact the stillness of death, his mother’s demise and his father’s subsequent disappearance – the warmth of a revelation suddenly crept across me like sunshine emerging from the clouds after a devastating storm.

I had always known I was named “for” someone, but I had never known who that someone was. I knew positively it wasn’t anyone on my mother’s side. Mother said my father selected my first name and she chose my middle name. She seemed none too happy about that circumstance, but it was years too late when she and I had that discussion. My mother had ongoing issues with my father, but if she had known I was named for Bobby, and the circumstances, she would have told me with pride.

Now, I realize that I was named for Robert Vernon Estes, along with his nickname, Bobby, which my father bestowed upon me as well. I love my nickname, which I spell Bobbi, but I was never the least bit pleased with Roberta. I never understood. That’s all different now.

Robert, I’m busting-at-the-seams proud to be your namesake. I will stand in the stead of your parents until my death, still praying that we can bring you home soon, hoping that the least I can do is stand at your graveside as you are buried. It would be my honor.

Thank you for your service, your name and your ultimate sacrifice.

John Whitney Ferverda (1882-1962) in the 1966 Yearbook? – 52 Ancestors #206

When MyHeritage first began autosomal DNA testing, I transferred my autosomal DNA test to MyHeritage (for free) and purchased a records subscription with little hope that a company out of Israel would have the focus or records to provide anything that an American company wouldn’t already have, or that I, as a decades long genealogist wouldn’t have already uncovered. But genealogists are desperate creatures and we’ll try anything once.

I’m happy to say, I was wrong.

The combination of my DNA and my tree, separately and together has provided a smorgasbord of new information. Of course, I view other people’s trees with the requisite grain of salt, or the entire lick, same as anyplace else. However, the MyHeritage record matches are golden, as are the DNA Smartmatches which combine DNA matches and trees with common ancestors. Just yummy!

The Yearbooks

At Rootstech 2018 when Gilad Japhet, MyHeritage’s CEO announced that they were digitizing yearbooks, I thought that was nice, but I don’t care about my own generation and yearbooks wouldn’t be relevant for my parents and grandparents.

My Mom graduated in 1940 and her parents were born in 1882 and 1888. Did yearbooks even exist as a “thing” back then? Even if they did, my mother’s family was from a small Brethren farming community in northern Indiana and my father’s family from a mountain community in Appalachia. I guarantee you there were no yearbooks in Claiborne County, Tennessee at that time. There were barely schools.

Well, guess what – I was wrong again.

I sure am glad I have that MyHeritage subscription.

Here’s the notification e-mail I received.

When I saw the year, 1966, I almost deleted this e-mail, but I’m so glad I didn’t. It seems that the 1966 Leesburg High School yearbook included historical photos which MyHeritage indexed as well.

Oswego 1900

Yearbooks, it turns out, aren’t just for high schools.

In 1900, the entire school in Oswego, Indiana turned out in front of the building for a photo. My grandfather, John Whitney Ferverda, was among the students and so were several of his siblings.

The Ferverda family was a significant contributor to the Oswego student population that year.

I didn’t know that my grandfather attended school at Oswego. They lived near Leesburg, so I assumed he attended school there. There’s that nasty word again. It appears that that Oswego children were considered Leesburg alumni? How’s that, when my grandfather turned 18 years old in 1900, so clearly graduating that year or the next?

The answer is found in a Fort Wayne, Indiana newspaper article in 1917 stating that:

“The first real commencement exercises of the Leesburg High School were held last week in the Methodist Church. Leesburg adopted the four-year high school last year and not much attention was paid to the graduating class.”

There were only two graduates in 1917, Donald Ferverda, my grandfather’s brother, being the valedictorian.

I’ve researched in the local libraries in the area too, and either they don’t have these yearbooks, or I never thought to look. The great thing about these notifications is that you don’t have to know to look. Plus, I would have NEVER looked in 1966, for anything, in Leesburg. My family was long gone by then.

The family always said they were from Leesburg, probably because “Grandma Ferverda” moved to town in her later years, but the original family farm was actually probably closer to Oswego.

I know, from family members that the Ferverda family lived on the same road as the Old Salem Church of the Brethren, about a mile south of the church. Unfortunately, Google Street view doesn’t follow the length of this road.

In any case, wherever the farm was located on this couple mile stretch, it wasn’t far from Oswego – actually closer than to Leesburg.

But that wasn’t the only surprise.

Yearbooks aren’t just for students.

School Trustee

My grandfather, John Ferverda, married Edith Lore in 1908 and they settled down the road about 20 miles in Silver Lake, Indiana where John was the railroad station master.

My mother graduated from Silver Lake High School in 1940, and beginning in 1946, my grandfather became a trustee. Who knew!

These yearbook photos provide some wonderful mid-life photos of my grandfather – none of which I’ve ever seen before. It looks like the trustees had their pictures taken every year too. My grandfather would have been 64 in 1946 and 68 in 1950, so this gives me a 5 year span of pictures.

The next mystery is why his name is in capital letters when not all of the trustees were.

John Ferverda continued as a trustee through 1950 which included a larger photo page as well.

Of course, this now begs the question of whether there were yearbooks when my mother was attending school in Silver Lake. I doubt it, but I’d surely love to be wrong for the third time. It’s back to MyHeritage to look.

Eleven “Soldier Boy” Love Letters from the Lost Summer of 1919 – 52 Ancestors #205

By June of 1919, my father, William Sterling Estes had already served more than two full years in the military. Born in either 1901 or 1902, he enlisted in May 1917 when he was either 14 or 15 years young. He was discharged as a Sergeant First Class in May of 1919 and re-enlisted the next day in the Army 10th Infantry. His re-enlistment papers tell us that he was a marksman, not mounted, no battles, no medals, no wounds, good condition, typhoid shots, paratyphoid and he was single.

Dad was stationed at Camp Custer, then named Fort Custer, near Battle Creek, Michigan for most of his time in the service. He was included in this human shield of 30,000 soldiers, the photo taken from the Camp Custer water tower in 1918.

WWI was coming to an end in the summer of 1919, thankfully.

Somehow, probably on leave, Dad met Virgie Houtz who lived in Dunkirk, Indiana. In the summer of 1919, Virgie was 16 years old and attended high school.

Dad was either turning 17 or 18 that October, but in one of his letters to Virgie, he told her he was turning 20. We know for a fact that wasn’t true. Not only is he not on the 1900 census, his sisters said that he was born in 1902 and several other pieces of documentation point to either 1901 or 1902 as his birth year. The 1910 census tells us that he was 8 years old in April. He was born on October 1st, so he would have turned 9 later than year, which means his birth year was 1901 if the census is accurate.

Dad and Virgie fell in love that summer. They were two starry-eyed young kids – except one of them had been toughened by being turned out on his own at age 12, then fending for himself until he was old enough to “age himself” appropriately so he could join the military. I’m guessing the Army was his best bet for regular meals.

Indeed, he was one handsome lad. He was also still a boy, and a boy who had been rejected and abandoned by both parents before he was even a teenager. Dad had completed only 8th grade, according to later census records, which would have been about the time he and his younger brother Joe hopped a train for Tennessee when his parents split and neither parent wanted the boys. Dad would further his education later, but in 1919, he wrote amazingly well, considering.

The Letters

Ninety-nine years ago, almost exactly a century, as I sit here today light-years removed, my father was using a fountain pen and ink well to write letters to his sweetheart after he finished his duties on the military base including feeding the horses which were widely used in the war effort.

In total, 14 envelopes and 11 well-worn letters remain.

From these historical gems, we gain an intrusive glimpse into their young love, and as a side-note, we also get to peer into his life at Camp Custer.

Reading these letters felt almost invasive, like I was a peeping tom, peering into something intensely personal. However, when this bundle arrived roughly 8 decades after he penned each letter with lovesick yearning, years after both of their deaths, I was exceedingly grateful to Virgie’s daughter for sending them. I read them with much trepidation, unsure of exactly what each page would reveal.

In addition to the letters, Virgie’s daughter included several photos that Virgie had cherished all of those years.

This treasure trove was truly amazing, all things considered. All things? What are those “all things?”

This is an unbelievably bittersweet love story. I’ll let Virgie’s letters and photos tell their story of summer love.

Bill and Virgie

My father was obviously very smitten with Virgie. Smitten doesn’t quite do this justice. I think the phrase head-over-heels-in-love is a better description.

We have Dad’s letters to Virgie, but of course, we don’t know what her letters to him said – although we catch some glimpses of that as well, between the lines so to speak.

I am sharing some of his letters, but not all. As you might guess, if you remember being 15 or 16 and lovestruck, they say “I love you” in every single way possible over and over. I’ll spare you that. I’d also like to afford them some privacy, even in death.

The first letter is dated June 25th, 1919.

Dad opens by telling Virgie that it’s 7:05 AM, he had already fed the horses, ate his own breakfast and is taking a few minutes to write to her. He calls her “Blue Eyes” and asks why he has only received one letter from her. He says he has written 4 to her. This appears to have been a whirlwind romance that turned serious quickly. He jokes that if she keeps it up, meaning not writing, she may “be without a hubby,” so they are obviously discussing a permanent relationship – whirlwind or not.

At first I thought he meant he had written her 4 letters since she wrote one, but based on later exchanges, I think this was actually the beginning of the relationship and he had just left Dunkirk a few days earlier.

He says that since coming back to Battle Creek:

“The girls there don’t abount (sic) to a hill of beans.”

Yep, he’s hooked!

I’m guessing that Dad had been with his friend, James, because he says that James took the car home when he was discharged and therefore, Dad has “nothing to do.” James and the car may be how he met Virgie in the first place, since he seems to write as if she knows James.

If they get paid before the 4th of July, Sergeant Lynch and Dad are going to visit Dunkirk. They may live it up after they arrive and go to Redkey or Eaton, both crossroads towns not far from Dunkirk in the land of cornfields and soybeans.

I have to wonder whatever brought these soldiers to this remote country location 171 miles from Camp Custer in the first place.

Dunkirk isn’t close to much of anything and not on the way to anywhere.

Apparently Virgie called Dad “Buddy.” I never knew that was his nickname. Maybe it was only between them.

Dad appeared to be writing to Virgie every spare minute. The next letter is dated the following day.

Later in this letter, he tells Virgie that he showed her photo to the lady at the YWCA Hostess House who told him Virgie looked like a nice girl and he must think a lot of her. I’m sure Dad was showing Virgie’s photo to anyone who would look and listen, and probably a few unsuspecting people who wouldn’t.

He told the lady:

“Yes and I’ll tell the whole world I do.”

Ah, the achiness of fresh, new, overwhelming love.

But then, he said something very prescient.

“I will be true to you till death.”

If someone had told him that day that he would die as her husband, but would not marry her until 42 years later, he would have thought them crazy.

“There isn’t anything I wouldn’t sacrifice for you, even my life.”

Then, perhaps having gotten too close to the hole in his soul, he changed topics abruptly:

“The boys, we are arguing about the war, but I don’t know about their brains. Ha. Ha.”

Later the same day, he writes a second letter. For a man in service to write two letters to his intended in the same day – he had to be wonderfully, miserably lovesick.

In Dunkirk, I can see Virgie going to the post office every day to look for a letter – maybe multiple times every day. In the era of “general delivery,” mail wasn’t delivered to homes. Of course, that meant the entire town knew who received mail from whom. In Michigan, Dad probably lived for mail call, either elated or dejected, depending on what was waiting.

Look at the back of this envelope! Apparently he had proposed and she had said yes.

If you’re groaning at the syrupiness of this, I know, me too. Yet, I remember doing this same thing at about the same age.

I should probably explain at this point that he refers to himself as her husband often. They were clearly betrothed. If you’re laughing, remember that this was nearly a century ago when women often married as soon as they were old enough to reproduce. Tennessee, where his family was from was notorious for marriages that began at 15 or 16 and lasted a lifetime, whether they should have or not. Large families and poverty are powerful cement.

Soldiers in WWI received tetanus, typhoid and smallpox vaccines although experimentation with a flu vaccine followed the Spanish Flu Epidemic of 1918. Regardless, only Virgie would be allowed to touch his sore arm:)

In this letter, Dad asks Virgie about Fluffy, “their child.”

I do believe this is Fluffy. This man was no dummy. Way to her heart! If he’s asking about Fluffy in the letter, this photo would have been taken just a week or two prior.

Oh, and if a kitten alone doesn’t work, try a kitten and two ducks. Who can resist this? Seriously!

Fluffy is perched on his shoulder, eyeing the ducks I suspect or wondering how to get down.

“Your hubby sure does love you with all my heart and soul.”

He tells Virgie that he’s saving for July 4th, which appears to be when he plans to visit her in Dunkirk again. He rode horses in the afternoon and had “a sweet time” but wishes she was with him. That theme, of course, permeates all of his letters.

He is probably the only soldier at the Knights of Columbus Hall that is writing to a girlfriend instead of dancing. He tells her never to doubt his love.

“I stay awake at night thinking of you. You will be my wife soon. I am yours forever and ever.”

An empty envelope is all that remains of a June 30th letter. Did she love it to death, hide it from her parents maybe, or lose it somehow?

The 4th of July

The next letter follows on July 8th, and based on its contents, we know where he was over the 4th of July.

I can’t help but wonder what happened in Fort Wayne to cause him to leave so late and drive all night. Today, that same drive is about an hour and a half or two hours, max. At about 100 miles, that means they averaged about 15 miles an hour. Cars were a lot slower then than today, roads were in a lot worse condition and tires had to be patched regularly. The Model T which began to be manufactured in 1908 was the first affordable car and is probably what they were driving.

Not only did he manage to get back to camp late, which means he was technically AWOL, but he also seems to have had a case of tonsillitis severe enough to require surgery. This is a decade before the invention of antibiotics.

Dad goes on to say that $30 a month isn’t much to live on, which I would presume is his salary. He thinks it will cost them $25 a month for “light housekeeping” but he can get his groceries on base and his clothes from Uncle Sam.

“I sure want my baby dressed nice but we’ll try and get along somehow. Oh, I know, well just live on hugs and kisses.”

I remember being so in love I could have cared less about anything and everything except for that person. Apparently, I inherited that trait from my dear father.

Dad says he’s expecting Virgie to visit the 4th of the following month. He references an old girlfriend who he identifies as having a “hairlip.” Apparently, the old girlfriend referred to him as Billy when she was inquiring as to why he had not written to her. I’ve also never heard my dad called by what was probably his boyhood nickname.

I’m suspecting that Dad told Virgie about the other gal on purpose to “keep her interested” and so that Virgie wouldn’t think that there weren’t other gals pursuing him. He doesn’t say, but if the “hairlip gal” is who I think she is, her name is Martha. Dad told Virgie that he replied that his wife was there, on base, so there was “no chance now.” Ummm, that wasn’t exactly true either, but I don’t want to get ahead of the story. Just remember Martha.

Another empty envelope from July 29th, followed by a letter on August 5th that tugged at my heartstrings.

My father was apparently quite ill.

“I thought I was a goner.”

Why did he think Virgie might not love him anymore? My heart aches for him.

“You know I was going to come and see you this pay day and then I never herd (sic) from you and now I can’t come.”

He asks:

“Have you been true to me?”

I’m not clear why they apparently need or want to wait two years to marry. Yes, he’s in the military, but other men marry while in service. Perhaps her father wouldn’t allow it until he got out, or until she was 18 or perhaps graduated from high school? The only two people who know the answer to that are together now, and not here to ask.

“I’ll be true to you.”

“For you I would die.”

Oh, my heart.

Then he says goodbye with:

“10,000 kisses and as many hugs.”

The next letter is mailed from the base hospital. If you’re keeping track, this is the third time in just over a month that Dad has been hospitalized.

He has been and remains very ill.

I wonder if he had meningitis or encephalitis introduced when they removed his tonsils. Maybe they shouldn’t have done that surgery while the tonsils were infected. He had been hospitalized at this point since about August 7th, two days after his last letter.

The next letter is dated August 20th, almost two weeks later, and he’s STILL in the hospital and hopes to get out in a couple weeks. Sadly, he mentions that Virgie is only writing him once a month. Uh oh!

He tells Virgie that he has a case of “phenomia fever.”

I can’t even imagine being a critically ill 16 or 17-year-old boy, claiming to be 20, trying to be grown up, alone, in the Army, and with my lady-love not writing. Talk about feeling frightened, alone and abandoned. Again.

First, he survived his family, then two years of military service during a war, and now something that kept him hospitalized for 3 weeks.


The next letter is dated August 23rd. Virgie has apparently written, thank goodness!

He mentions his mother, Ollie Bolton Estes, in Franklin Park, Illinois. Apparently Ollie said that “Bessie is looking short,” whatever that means. He then goes on to mention that it has been “only 4 months since I busted up with her (Bessie) and Mama said she claims it’s all my fault.” I’m not quite sure how he could go with a gal in Franklin Park, Illinois and be in the service in Battle Creek, but then again, he’s going with a gal in Dunkirk, Indiana.

I’m making a mental note of a woman named Bessie in Illinois in April 1919, just in case that half-sibling DNA match arrives. However, given that 1919 is 99 years ago, I guess that match would have to be the half sibling’s child, grandchild or great-grandchild. Um, that might explain something I’ve been wondering about. I have a mystery match at MyHeritage of 383cM that is clearly on my father’s side, is about exactly perfect to be a grandchild of a half sibling, and hasn’t answered my messages, but I digress.

Why oh why does he use no one’s last name?

Dad vacillates between asking Virgie if she still wants him and then says he is “sure she is true.” This sounds like one terrified young man. I just want to hug his heart that longs to be loved.

“I will always do all that I can to make you happy and to help you.”

Dad then once-again switched abruptly to, “I am going horseback riding this afternoon.” He closes by saying he wishes she was there to ride with him, signs as “Hubby” and fills the rest of the page with Xs.

In the next letter, dated August 24th, I clearly sense an air of desperation. Note that he is still in the hospital.

“I shall love you the longest day I live and you can depend on me as your best friend in the world.”

Dear God.

“There isn’t anything I wouldn’t do for you.”

What else is there to say? While in the hospital no less. What pain he must have been in to have to pen the next line.

“You know I’m nothing soft, so write plain what you think and I will thank you for it.”

He knows.

This is killing me.

On August 30th, another letter on hospital stationery hints at answers. Apparently, high drama has occurred in the small down of Dunkirk, and someone told Virgie “something.” If this reminds you of Junior High School and 13-year-old girls, keep in mind how old these two were, and the naivety of the time.

Dad’s letter doesn’t tell us what Virgie said, but he replies:

“Don’t believe any thing like that for I never thought of saying such a thing. I came to see you because I loved you. I love you so much and you are the light of my life. There are lots of people in Dunkirk that would like to brake (sic) up our friendship but if it’s left up to me it will never be broken up.”

He goes on to expand on that thought in loverly fashion, and then says:

“I have been true to you since I began going with you and I have letter what can prove to you that I’ve stopped all of my correspondence with all other girls.”

A few paragraphs later he states:

“I think of you if I am idle on duty walking post at midnight or riding across the camps. You are the vision of my dreams and you always will be. Won’t you please believe in me forever and trust me.”

The next part is a bit confusing, and he is clearly flustered or exasperated, but he in essence says that he wants her to think of him when she is in specific “other company,” which means another boy.

He follows with:

“I am in camp waiting and saving for you and preparing for your future and think how much I love you. Then after you think it over and consider your love for them, if your love for me isn’t strong enough to resist other company, then you may go ahead but never with my consent. That last kiss I placed on your lips I placed it there to stay till I came back. It wasn’t placed there for other fellows to take off. If I ever have to give you up I don’t want to ever see another girl for my love is too strong for you. I have never asked for a release from our engagement for that has never entered my mind. I won’t want one if you will only be true to me and promise to believe in me. I have you a sapire (sic) ring for your engagement ring. I will bring it when I come to see you if you will only let me come and nobody else.”

He must feel terribly out of control, like he is at a severe disadvantage, remote, and unable to “compete” by being present. Yet, he somehow found the money for an engagement ring that I don’t think she ever saw.

Dad then asks when her school starts and tells her to study hard and hurry and graduate.

“I love you enough to die for you.”

“I’ll protect you till the end of time.”

Why would he invest this much effort if these feelings weren’t genuine?

He closes by telling Virgie that he’s now out of the hospital, although this 8-page letter appears to have been written in sections and probably over several days.

“Your Soldier Boy.”

My heart is screaming.

The next letter is dated September 4th and opens very differently. Instead of calling her by a pet name, he greets her with, “My Dearest Virgie” and proceeds to talk about when they went to pick strawberries, referring to that time nostalgically as “the good old days.” Something has changed.

He says he would like to visit her next month and then at Christmas. Unbeknownst to him, his life by Christmas would be very, very different.

By the end of the first page, departing dramatically from earlier letters, there are no professions of love. Instead, he asks if she ever thinks about him. At the end of page 2, he tells her he would like to kiss her and then closes by telling her one last time, and the only time in this letter, that he loves her.

“My love is yours.”

One final desperate try.

The tone has changed dramatically.

This is the last letter.





For more than 40 years.

However, this heart-wrenching picture taken outside her parents’ home with the message written in Virgie’s hand tells a different story.

“Thou Art Gone.”

She clearly grieved this loss, as did he.

I don’t exactly know what happened between them, or didn’t, but there are hints and I have some thoughts.

Life is what happens when you’re making other plans.

Remember Martha?

Martha Dodderer and Edna

My DNA confirmed half-sister, Edna, was born to Martha Dodderer on May 22, 1920. Martha, indeed, had a cleft palate which was at that time referred to as a hairlip. Edna told me that her mother met our father when she was a volunteer in the hospital or infirmary at Camp Custer.

Using a conception date calculator, and assuming that Edna was born after a normal gestation period, the most likely time of conception was August 21-28, with the possible dates ranging from August 18th to September 2nd. Right after the desperation letter and before that last letter. If we presume that he didn’t get out of the hospital until about August 30th, then the conception was closer to September 2nd, and probably before September 4th, the date of the letter in which the tone was significantly changed – like he had given up.

We have a desperately ill young man who thought he was dying – in the hospital three times, totaling 4 or more weeks in 2 months, the last time for 3 weeks – and far from any family to visit. During this time, he becomes increasingly desperate as his sweetheart is not writing to him and appears, at least to him, to be interested in someone else.

Martha, about 5 years older, took care of him in the hospital, was kind to him and perhaps commiserated with being rejected. One thing led to another, which led to Edna.

Dad didn’t marry Martha until 19 months later, in December of 1921. Their divorce was final three years later and the proceedings made it quite clear that their marriage probably should never have occurred at all.

He didn’t marry Martha in the fall of 1919 because he had already married someone else.

Yes, you read that right.

And it wasn’t Virgie.

I wonder what the engagement ring looked like.

Ilo Bailey and Lee Joseph

As if this story wasn’t complex enough, Martha apparently wasn’t the only person that my Dad had been seeing. On December 3, 1919 in Calhoun County, Michigan, he married Ilo Bailey under an assumed name. And yes, I’m positive it’s him.

Their child, unproven by DNA testing because Lee is deceased and had no children, was born on February 24, 1920. Again, using the conception calculator, the most likely time for Ilo to have become pregnant was May 29-June 2, with possible dates being May 23-June 7th.

Both of these pregnancy events, Ilo and Martha, skirt the timeframe of the letters from Dad to Virgie. Ilo before and Martha after. The letters to Virgie began in late June and ended two months later in late August, with the last one of a much different tone being dated September 4th. In other words, he may well not have been cheating on Virgie. These two relationships appear to bracket their brief engagement.

If Ilo got pregnant about the end of May or beginning of June, she would have been hunting for my father in August to tell him of her plight. It took him 4 months after that to marry her. I suspect strongly that he sincerely loved Virgie and not only had he “lost” Virgie, he had found a family he didn’t exactly anticipate. That marriage, however, didn’t last long.

In a letter from Ilo to Dad 15 months later dated March 22, 1921, Ilo states that she is leaving for Kentucky, their marriage “is illegal anyway” and “it’s in the hands of an attorney now.” Apparently, by December 12, 1921, he was unmarried because he married Martha Dodderer, Edna’s mother.

But that may not be all either.


Dad’s letters to Virgie are increasingly desperate and heart-wrenching. I’m left with the impression that both Virgie and my Dad were just too young and emotionally unprepared to withstand such a trying situation, even without complications of health, war and distance.

But there might have been more in play as well.

It’s very unusual for a healthy young man to become deathly ill for more than three weeks. It’s simply not normal. It wasn’t during the deadly flu epidemic which had hit Camp Custer hard in October of 1918 and it wasn’t during the winter, but the middle of summer. Reading historical documents from that time period, the first step of suspected flu on base was indeed to isolate the patient, but if he had the flu, he would have said so instead of “pneumonia fever.”

Dad was hospitalized for the second time right after he had a tonsillectomy. His third hospitalization was for three weeks. He mentioned that his head ached terribly, he had a high fever and was dizzy. I have to wonder if he contracted either meningitis or encephalitis during his surgery that caused some level of residual brain damage, impairing his executive function ability which regulates decision making. Executive function is the filter that keeps you from jumping out of the car and slapping the person silly who cuts you off in traffic. In other words, road rage results from the lack of executive function.

My father’s first stent in the service was not marked by any known disciplinary action and he was a Sergeant when he re-enlisted in May of 1919. Everything was fine right up until it wasn’t, and then it went to “hell in a handbasket,” as my Mom would have said, right after his illness.

Beginning right after his last letters to Virgie, his behavior changed dramatically. It’s as if there was an invisible line in the sand. Here’s a brief timeline.

  • April 1919 – Breaks up with Bessie, according to letter to Virgie, possibly in Franklin Park, Illinois
  • May 20, 1919 – Dad re-enlists in the Army at Fort Custer
  • Late May or early June 1919 – Ilo gets pregnant in Battle Creek
  • Mid/late June 1919 – Dad meets Virgie
  • June 25, 1919 – first letter to Virgie
  • July 9, 1919 – in hospital for tonsillectomy
  • August 5, 1919 – just released from hospital, but “I thought I was a goner.”
  • August 7, 1919 – hospitalized again for 3 weeks
  • August 30, 1919 – letters to Virgie increasingly desperate, out of hospital
  • September 4, 1919 – last letter to Virgie, very different tone
  • Late August or early September 1919 – Martha gets pregnant in Battle Creek
  • November 4, 1919 – Dad is AWOL and remains AWOL until April 1920
  • December 3, 1919 – Dad marries Ilo in Calhoun County, Michigan under an assumed name
  • April 1920 – Dad arrested for being AWOL and sent to Leavenworth
  • March 1921 – Dad released from Leavenworth, returns to Camp Custer
  • March 1921 – Ilo letter to Dad saying she has left and they are getting divorced, letter found in possession of Martha Dodderer at her death
  • August 8-11, 1921 – AWOL again
  • August-October 1921 – I think he was back in Leavenworth
  • November 1921 – discharged from service
  • December 1921 – married Martha Dodderer in Calhoun County, Michigan
  • February 1924 – divorced from Martha Dodderer

This also may have been about the time Dad started drinking heavily. Then again, being quite ill, having two separate women pregnant, losing the one you love who is not one of the two pregnant women, and being AWOL at the same time will do that to you.

What a mess he got himself into with absolutely no good way out.

I keep hearing the refrain, “Looking for Love in All the Wrong Places.”

By then, it was simply too late.

Fast Forward to 1960

We’re going to fast forward through several decades and failed relationships. In hindsight, it feels to me like Dad never got over Virgie and continued to make decisions that lacked in judgement – each new situation weighed down by the quickly accumulating baggage of the past.

In the mid-1940s and again in the 1950s, he was involved with two women at the same time, one of which was my mother. As late as 1960, we have a photo of Dad in Fort Wayne, in his “other” wife, Ellen’s living room, provided by my “half-brother,” David Estes, who turned out not to be my Dad’s biological child.

Dad had a penchant for just showing up and hunting people down after absences of many years. In spite of his prolonged absences, he was an extremely likeable guy, and it was very difficult to remain angry with him – at least initially, according to Edna and others. Edna told me that she hadn’t seen him in literally 3 or 4 decades when he appeared at her house about 1960, wearing a suit and looking quite dapper. The photo below was taken that day with Edna’s children.

This wasn’t long after the period when he was practicing medicine in Tennessee and elsewhere. If your mouth just dropped open, welcome to my world. That’s a story for future article, and it’s a humdinger. My father was anything but boring.

About the same time that this photo was taken, Dad decided to stop by Virgie’s parents’ house in Dunkirk to see if he could find Vergie. He must have been on a search-and-recover binge that year.

Keep in mind that he had last been there 40 or 41 years earlier. Virgie’s father had died, Virgie had married, raised her kids and divorced, and just happened to be living with her mother in the same house where she resided back in 1919.

What are the chances, right?

Virgie had never remarried. She squirrelled away Dad’s pictures and letters that entire time – 4 decades. If Dad thought 2 years was a long time, 40 years is forever.

On April 24, 1961, Virgie and Dad married in Rome, Georgia. No, I don’t know why Georgia, but knowing Dad, I’m sure there’s a story there someplace.

He may or may not have been officially divorced from Ellen at that time. Mom mentioned that Virgie had to “fix” something in that regard, having to do with a divorce not being final in Florida. I found a corresponding envelope with no letter dated October 17, 1961 from the law firm Jopling, Darby and Duncan in Lake City, Florida. The official story was that the waiting period was somehow “messed up,” or that the lawyers got the divorce petition filed a day late. I have been unable to find any divorce record in Florida. Maybe I should check other Lake City (Columbia County) legal records. Maybe there’s more that I don’t know. Hmmm….

Regardless, he and Virgie lived the next two years and 4 months happily in the little house with Grandma. They had such a short time to make up for 42 irrecoverable years. Virgie loved Dad and adored him, at the same time aware of his foibles. I hope Dad found the love, security and acceptance he desperately craved.

Dad died on August 27, 1963, with Vergie at his bedside. He had promised Virgie all those years ago to love her until his death, and he did exactly that, just as he had sworn. I believe that Virgie was indeed his true love, his soul mate. I’m so glad he found his way back to Dunkirk and to Virgie.

I know this isn’t your typical love story happy ending, but I think those last two fleeting years were as happy as either Dad or Vergie ever were, except, of course, for those few days during that long-ago lost summer of 1919.