Going West

Long before the popularity of genealogy website, ancestry.com, family history was one of my favorite pursuits. Some might call me a devotee, but the honest truth is it’s more of an obsession, a positive (though time-consuming) addiction.

Why genealogy, you may ask? How will I write the “great American novel” when I’m distracted with genealogy?

Well, I’ve already wrestled with many of life’s burning questions:  who am I? where am I headed? who is John Galt? And I’ve managed satisfactory answers for myself. The single nagging unanswered question persists:  from where have I come? My compulsion has been to develop an understanding of who my ancestors were.

I grew up in St. Louis, my dad’s hometown. My mother hailed from Philadelphia and after WWII moved to St. Louis to marry my dad and raise their family. A post relating to my Stricker origins is here.

The unattainable was, of course, what captivated me. My mom’s the last survivor in her family. (Read more about Ruthe here, here, and here.) She had one sibling (who died before Mom was born). Mom was five years old when her dad died (he suffered mustard gas poisoning in WWI). She was twenty-four when her mother died.

In the days before Ancestry, I’d visit my local library laboriously combing census records on microfiche to uncover whatever I could find about Mom’s Philadelphia West forebears. She’d grown up knowing scant details about her dad; from the 1910 Census we discovered he had a sister (long since deceased) whom Mom had never known existed!

West_Frank abt1930

One of my fascinations with genealogy is a quest to discover the unique experiences of these real (though departed) individuals. They’re more than names on a family tree and the summary of their vital statistics is hardly a start. Yes, a gravestone gives evidence of a life once lived, yet rarely provides more than a hint (if any) of that person’s totality. Did he like to joke? Was she witty or plain? What were their struggles?

Here’s my great-grandfather Franklin Pierce West (1853-1935) whose story illustrates how this puzzle presents itself. Some of my mother’s early recollections include Frank serving briefly as a father figure to her. (He died when she was nine.)

To get some perspective on who Frank was, the backstory is crucial. Frank’s father (Samuel P. West, 1832-1864) died at Spotsylvania Courthouse (VA) when Frank was barely eleven. In time, Frank, his two brothers and a sister, grew up and went on to have families of their own. But there’s an underlying turmoil that the various census records fail to expose.

Frank married Julia Boyle (1857-1903) in 1876 and they had four children, two of whom died as infants. The 1880 US Census shows the couple together, having already buried their firstborn. No 1890 US Census information is available for them. In 1900, I’ve been unable to find a census listing for Julia, though she didn’t die until 1903. Frank is listed living with his younger brother (and family).

Where are their two remaining children? Bethesda Home (a charitable institution?) in Springfield, Pennsylvania lists two children who are close matches, but that information is far from conclusive. The 1910 US Census shows Frank and his now adult children are reunited in the same household; under Frank’s marital status, there’s a “D” for divorced.

Did Frank and Julia legally divorce? I’ve found no records to support it. I can surmise there must have been a serious rift though. After Julia died on New Year’s Eve 1903, she was buried in the same burial plot as her parents.

Even when records exist, they’re often incomplete. Relations who might have fleshed out the frame have gone to their graves with the answers. Nevertheless, the mystery motivates more exploration, not less. As I research, I find new possibilities and eliminate others. It is (I hate to admit it) a quest without end.

So far, though, I haven’t discovered a connection to John Galt. I’ll let you know if that changes!