Thursday, August 20, 2015

Chapter 19: Seeing the Forest, not just the Trees

If you've been with us from the start some four months ago, you have gotten a close-up picture of the James and Julia Ann Fawkner family. You've learned the details, as best we know them at this time, of James' and his children's lives. More research will produce more details, but it is time to step back and look at the big picture.  It is time to describe the forest, not just the trees.

This can be a challenge for detail-oriented genealogists. Those family members around the Thanksgiving table don't always want all the details. They want to know the essence of the family.

This research adventure started with the biographical memorial booklet prepared for Elizabeth Ann Fawkner's funeral in 1952. It pointed to the Fawkner family in Arcola, Illinois. A little census sleuthing took the family back to Boone County, Missouri, where James had married Julia Ann Angell in 1862. This was pretty basic family history research, but it soon became evident that the story was not quite so simple.

  • James was over 30 when he married Julia Ann. Might he have been previously married?
  • Living with the family in Missouri in 1870 was Ann Sears, 21 years older than James and 34 years older than Julia. Was she related? (Remember, the census did not record family relationships until 1880).
  • An affidavit in James Fawkner's Civil War pension file mentioned the funeral of a first wife in Indiana. Who was she? Were there any children?
  • A probate file for James' son Fred indicated that Fred (deaf himself) had a deaf half-sister. Was she a child from the first, or other previous, marriage?
 If James' life could be placed in a nutshell, the story would be something like this. At age 10, James' life changed forever when his father died in 1839 on the Indiana prairie. After his mother remarried, he had three full brothers, one full sister, and xxx half-siblings. Raised in a blended family, James married his stepfather's daughter (from a previous marriage). She soon died and James remarried to Elizabeth Stephens and went west to the Mississippi River town of Montrose, Iowa, where Josephine and Ida were born. The marriage fell apart, James abandoned wife and daughters, and went back to Indiana, where he enlisted in the Civil War. The war took him to Missouri, where he married the "girl at the top of the stairs," but it also took him to a Confederate prisoner of war camp. James and Julia went back east to Arcola, Illinois, where James struggled with poor health and died a poor man.

James and Julia's childrens' lives also took unexpected twists and turns.

Robert Grant moved around working for the railroad. He  married a divorcee in 1895, but the couple separated before 1920 and lived hundreds of miles apart.  He had no known children.
  • Julia married George Watson, an Arcola man, in Colorado. They spent time in Indiana and back in Illinois, before farming in northeastern Minnesota. As was well until their son, Fred, was asphyxiated while taking a bath in his Uncle Cyrus' home and the daughter died just months after marrying.
  • Cyrus attended the Illinois Institution for the Deaf and Dumb and took up barbering in Duluth, Minnesota. Having moved to Minneapolis, he endured the tragedy of his nephew's death. His marriage might also have had a few bumps -- afterall, he advertised in a Denver newspaper for an eligible young woman -- marriage intended -- in 1922.
  • Elizabeth Ann married an Arcola man, Frank Ehlenbach. They were the first of the family to settle in the Duluth-Superior area. There marriage also frayed; they lived apart in 1920 and 1940 with Elizabeth stating she was a widow.
  • James Henry married in Superior, Wisconsin, in 1900, but his marriage soon failed. He moved to California, remarried, and worked in a variety of sales jobs until establishing a liquor business. Census evidence suggests he also separated from his wife.
  • Frederick Perkins was perhaps the star of the family. Deaf, like his brother Cyrus, he also attended the Illinois deaf school, where he learned the photography trade. He worked in studios across the eastern U.S., before dying in Virginia. He, too, late in life seems to have separated from his wife.
One might conclude that this family was not good at marriage. However, that would be too judgmental. We have no first-hand knowledge of events. We don't know what personal circumstances or challenges might explain events. Surely there were many more positive life stories that we simply don't know about. The problem for a family history researcher is, perhaps, that negative events are more likely to leave records, creating an unbalanced view of past lives. If there is a lesson in the Fawkner family story, it is perhaps that life could be messy -- even in the 19th century.

 But, wait, you say. What about Ida and Josephine -- the daughters of James and his second wife, Elizabeth Stephens? I am going to hold their stories back for a while. When we get back to them, their lives will only reinforce the theme. Families are complicated; each person has their own story, and that story can be amusing, inspirational, or tragic.

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