Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Fallen Branches of the Family Tree, Part One

When my girls were younger, they used to travel to cemeteries with me as I documented the final resting places of Civil War soldiers. Invariably, we would stumble upon stones that depicted lambs or angels that were placed as memorials on the graves of children.
Angel guarding the grave of sisters 12-year old Maud Montague Mathews & 10-year old
Florence Vane Mathews at the Old Stone Presbyterian Church in Lewisburg, West Virginia.

My daughters felt sympathy towards those youngsters whose lives had ended far ahead of their time – some of these young sons and daughters never made it past their first year of life.
Grave for my great-grandmother's first cousin
Willie Mandeville Myers at Independence Cemetery, Butler, Ohio
While I have been unable to find exact figures of child mortality rates from 100 to 150 years ago, I would feel safe in ascertaining that the rate has significantly dropped since that time. This can be attributed to advances in medical science, better nutrition, and the overall cleanliness of society. While childhood deaths still occur, they have become the exception rather than the rule. In the past, it was quite common for families to lose a number of children before they reached the age of majority.

Examples from my Family

In my own family, I’ve found a number of childhood deaths. My paternal grandmother lost two children from her first marriage. Her oldest, Roy Dalton, was almost 2 ½ years of age when he died of membranous croup in 1897. The fourth of her six children, Gertrude, lived only four months until she succumbed to cholera infantum – a disease that ravaged infants during the summer months. She died in August 1903.

My grandfather Owston had two siblings that did not survive childhood. His older sister, Essie Marcelli Owston, died of scarlet fever at the age of two years and ten months. A much younger half-brother, John Gillon Owston, was three months shy of his fifth birthday when his body was ravaged by measles and whooping cough.

While childhood diseases took their toll on many, another significant cause was an accidental demise. One example is the first cousin of my grandfather: 8 year-old Ovington Campbell. His death occurred four days before Christmas in 1901 and was the result of a winter sledding mishap. The Daily News reported,

“Ovington, with his older brother George, Jr., were on the same sled and were coming down the street [Whigham Street] at a rapid pace. Fred Jordan . . . was passing along Walnut Street on his delivery wagon. The boys were powerless to stop their sled and Jordan could not get out of the way. The sled dashed into the wagon. The wheels passed over Ovington, the younger boy, but George shot clear under the wagon. Both boys were carried to the office of Dr. C. A. Rankin, where Ovington died in a few minutes. George soon revived and it was discovered that he was not seriously hurt.”

Unmarked Graves and Missing Records

I am unaware if John Gillon Owston has a grave marker, as I have never been to his resting place in Massachusetts. None of the others, Roy and Gertrude Dalton, Essie Owston, and Ovington Campbell, have permanent markers to acknowledge their life . . . or memorialize them in death. Due to Pennsylvania’s lack of a mandatory vital records law until 1906, at least three of the four have no birth or death certificates. Only two, Essie and Ovington lived at a time when a census was being taken.

Gertrude was the first interment in a new family plot; however, her older brother Roy is buried in another cemetery where records are scant. Outside of family tradition and their obituaries, information on my father’s two siblings is nil. As we go back further in time, records of other fallen branches of our family trees tend to be non-existent.

Cemetery deed purchased by Gertrude's father the day after her death;
he would be buried in the same plot three months later

Relatives Found

Because records are not always available, the discovery of additional children can be exciting to a genealogist. I am reminded of a find I made for a friend in his 2nd great grandfather’s Civil War pension record – three heretofore unknown children who had born to this family between 1850 and 1860. Since their birth and death occurred between two censuses, his family had no previous knowledge that these three children ever existed. Their final resting places remain a mystery.

Sometimes these severed branches are complete surprises – as was the existence of John Gillon Owston. His birth and death records were found in a database of Massachusetts’ vital records, as I am prone to search my surname in any online database. Finding him also gave necessary clues to the middle name of my great-great grandfather.

I had always believed that my great-great grandfather's middle name was Gillon after his maternal uncle by marriage - John Gillon; however, there was nothing to confirm this hypothesis until the discovery of his namesake grandson. Knowing that his son (my great grandfather) would have never had any contact with the Gillons that remained in Scotland, the use of this surname as a middle name must have had precedent with as his father's middle name. There is no indication that even my great-great grandfather had any contact with the Gillon family as he was the youngest child of the family, was born in Canada, and had immigrated to the US as a young man.

Others I have found have been siblings of my great-grandparents. A number of years ago, I located the tombstone for my great-grandfather’s younger brother in a church yard in Fulton County, Pennsylvania. Alburtes Brakeall died at the age of 1 year, 2 months, and 16 days.

The almost illegible tombstone of Alburtes Brakeall;
the Tonoloway Primitive Baptist Church is in the background.

 It must have been a trying time for the family as Lucinda Myers Brakeall mourned the loss of her child, while also caring for her two oldest children five year-old John and three year-old Martin. The misery was compounded by her husband John C. Brakeall being away from home serving in the 3rd Maryland Infantry of the Potomac Home Brigade in the Civil War.

Likewise, when researching my great-grandmother’s family, I became aware of two children that were unknown to our family. Their remains lie resting in a cemetery in Butler, Ohio – 140 miles from my hometown. I encountered the headstones for two heretofore unknown siblings of my great-grandmother in Independence Cemetery during the summer of 2007.

We had known of my great-grandmother’s brother and three sisters, however, the newly found brother and sister had never been spoken of by my great-grandmother to my mother who lived next door and spent much of her life in her home. The brother, named for his uncle Francis W. Myers, Francis W. Staley only lived 1 year, 11 months, and 19 days.

A sister, Mary L. Staley, has no dates associated with her short life of one year and thirteen days. Mary L. Staley's place in the family's birth order is a mystery. With six other children in the mix, I would believe that she was probably the youngest child and probably was born and died after 1870.

Why Bother?

While no cousins exist from these fallen branches, I think it is helpful in knowing about these tragic events and how a death of a little one impacted our ancestors’ lives. Knowing the pain and the sorrow suffered by the family via sublimation helps us in connecting to our past.

In our next installment, I will provide a case study of one of my relatives who succumbed to a tragic death by accidental poisoning at the age of three. This death not only changed the dynamics of this particular family, but was one that rocked the medical community as well.