Monday, February 22, 2010

Tracing the Wells

Of the eight branches of my family tree that comprise the direct lineage of my great-grandparents, the shortest one was the Wells line. My great-grandmother was a Wells but died before I knew her. In fact, when I was bitten by the genealogy bug, I didn't even know her last name was Wells and only knew her by her married name. Once I obtained that information, I was off and running but could only get as far as her grandfather, my third great grandfather Leander Wells. That is where the trail went cold. I shouldn't say cold but just undecipherable to me.

I could find lots of records of Leander on his migration to Iowa but nothing conclusive on his parents. I had one census record (1850) of Leander (17) living with his two brothers Alexander (18) and Philander (13) and one sister Clarinda (10) with a 23-year-old lady named Mary J. Getty. For the longest time, I didn't have any clues to go on until one day I started looked at neighbor's names and found a Peter (63) & Mary Wells (44) that lived next door in the same census. They were old enough to be the parents and they had the proximity of being right next-door but I needed more proof. I started tracing Peter Wells back through the census records prior to 1850, which only tell you the number of kids within a certain age range and the name of the head of household. From 1850 on, the census records listed every person in the household by name. Peter Wells was very easy to track down as he lived in St. Lawrence county New York for most of his life but his census records didn't jive. In 1810 he was married though Mary would have only been 4 at the time. By 1820, he had 3 boys and 2 girls ranging up to 16 years of age, again Mary would have been only 14 at the time. So I suspected that Mary was actually a second wife, which left the mother of my 3rd great grandfather Leander up in the air assuming Peter was his father.

At this point, census records had given me what I could glean from them as far as Leander was concerned so I started tracing his brother's and sister. I found his sister in another later census living with Peter though she was labeled as a domestic, which at age of 19, she probably was. This gave me a better feeling that Peter was their father but still wasn't conclusive enough for me. Brother Alexander simply disappeared and Philander and Leander both migrated to Minnesota where they fought in the Civil War. Leander I would learn would desert the military and go live in Canada for a time before moving to Iowa where he lived out his years. Worse, I was contacted about this time in my research by a lady who was excited because Leander was the brother of her direct ancestor John Wells, also a civil war deserter. I spent lots of time chasing this lead but got nowhere. I couldn't match up census records nor find any proof that John was actually a brother. With dead ends now with all the children and claimed children except for my 3rd great grandfather Leander, I moved on to other lines and left this branch lay dormant.

With most of my branches now beyond useful help of census records, I have started going back to search historical books and newspapers in the counties that they lived. Brief family biographies of the residents of a county were quite common around the turn of the 20th century along with historical descriptions of the county that can often lead to clues from where people immigrated. When I got to the Wells line, I focused on Peter Wells out in St. Lawrence county New York and I did learn some about him but nothing about his wife/wives or anything tying him to Leander. For example, Peter's house was the place of a Canadian raid where several people were brutally killed. I also learned that he was on the street planning commission for the town of Lisbon and was mentioned in a lot of town meeting minutes. Not finding much more, I turned my focus back to Leander in his former places of residence in New York, Minnesota and Iowa but found little to go on. One brief sentence in a county history book simply stated that in March of 1858, Leander began building a ferryboat in Ninenger, Minnesota. Another sentence in a book of civil war letters between James Madison Bowler his wife Elizabeth Caleff Bowler stated the Leander had left for Canada to join his brother after deserting the military and that his wife was as Sam Truaxes and would be joining him soon. Both snippets were certainly intriguing but didn't give me anything to go on.

Then inspiration struck. I thought that with a name like Philander, surely he would be easy to Google some information and sure enough, I struck pay dirt in a 1902 Boone county history book. It confirmed that Peter and Mary Ann (Shaw) Wells were Philander, Leander, Alexander and Clarinda's parents and that they both had been married one before. Mary Shaw (whose maiden name until I read this account had been a mystery) had been married to a Mr. Getty. The light bulb went off and suddenly the Mary J. Getty who was 23 and listed as the head of household for Leander and his siblings was actually a half-sister. Despite the previous marriages, neither had a son named John meaning that the lady who had contacted me so long ago had some faulty research in her hand and had led me down a wrong path for a length of time.

My 3rd great grandfather Leander had died at the age of 67 which though young for his family, wasn't terribly out of line for me to suspect anything but natural health issues. But Philander's biography mentioned that his brother Leander had burned to death in the wreck of the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad at Colorado Springs on January 26, 1901. After some digging, I finally found an article in the January 27th, 1901 issue of the Colorado Springs Gazette with the headline: "A Watchman Cremated." Turns out Leander was the watchman in question and that witnesses had told of an explosion followed by a large fire in a freight building owned by the railroad company. The heat had been hot enough to melt the lantern still in his hand and set off all the cartridges in his revolver. According to the coroner's report, it was theorized that Leander had gone to the passenger depot and lit a fire to warm up the place as he normally did and then gone back to the freight depot, all interconnected, and fell asleep. The fire somehow escaped the fireplace and Leander had raced back toward the passenger depot to deal with the issue but was overcome with smoke before he got there. The paper mentioned that during the investigation later on that very day, a stranger had gotten off another train and inquired as to whose death had occurred in the fire. Upon being told, he learned that it was his father. The author of the article never said the name of the son, but since my 2nd great grandfather William Hix Wells lived just across the Colorado border in Cheyenne, Wyoming, I suspect he was the one.

On a side note of sorts, my 3rd great uncle Philander, I suppose opposite of my civil war deserting 3rd great grandfather, served honorably during the civil war fighting at Harper's Ferry, Shenandoah and the Battle of the Wilderness, Battle of Weldon Railroad in Virginia and finally at North Mountain and Cedar Creek where he was wounded in his left shoulder. He was bandaged up and put on guard duty but was captured when Petersburg fell to the rebels. But he was soon freed at the battle at Clover Hill and acted as an escort to General Grant when Lee surrendered his sword. He continued on with his military career earning the rank of captain and then quartermaster before he was discharged. Perhaps most interesting about Philander was that after he retired he went on to become the director of the Iowa State Fair Association and was responsible for laying out the buildings and the grounds, all of which are still there to this day. He also served as mayor of Boone and was the first one elected to two consecutive terms.


R. Sherman said...

As always, an interesting peak into history via another family's life. Thanks for sharing.


Eutychus2 said...

Very interesting, I'm assuming you've been to the Iowa State Fair a few times?

TC said...

I'm just not as dedicated to my heritage as you are. I should be better.

Beau said...

Awesome history... you're really good at this stuff. The bit about the railroad in Colorado was fascinating, and it must feel very strange to read family history in vintage newspapers.

Ed said...

R. Sherman - You are most welcome.

Eutychus2 - I generally get there about once every four or so years so that would make it somewhere around nine or ten times I've been there.

TC - Be careful. Once bitten, there is no cure.

Beau - Sorting through vintage newspaper is perhaps the most gratifying part of this whole process. Ancestors go from census and tax data to fleshed out humans.

Sage said...

This is interesting. My great-grandfather's brother (my great-great-great uncle) was drafted in WW I, but didn't believe in the war and headed to California where he started a new branch of our clan

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.