Sunday, December 09, 2012

Whither and yon

I moan a lot about getting sidetracked when doing research -- straying from the ancestral line and wandering off into unmapped territory. At the same time I know it is important to learn as much as possible about the relatives and in-laws who inevitably beckon.  Aunts, uncles, cousins all have something to contribute, and studying them may lead to new information about our own forebears. so where is the line between going off on possibly fruitless tangents, and doing worthwhile exploration?  

The other day I was bemused by my own reaction to discovering (get this): the middle name of my grandfather’s second wife’s first husband. Well, middle names can be important identifiers, and while I know where Frank Martin Curry is buried, I wanted to confirm that the body of his remarried widow, Frankie Mae Hildebrand, was interred next to him instead of beside her second spouse, my grandfather.  (In another case, I have a relative who is neatly interred between his first and second wives. You probably do, too.)

In rereading a letter from my grandfather, with news of Frankie’s death, I learned that her daughter by that first marriage had died some 30 years earlier. That bit of information certainly narrows down my search for her!  So looking for a seemingly trivial bit of information turned up something else at least as significant.

In other news, I have still been trying to tie up some loose ends re the sons of a Howard cousin, Elvira Thompson.  Her mother was born in Indiana, as were most of the other Howards of that generation, so I had been intrigued to learn that Elvira came west, married and eventually two of her sons were born right here in Northern California (Petaluma, Sonoma County,  and San Rafael, in neighboring Marin County).

A vague reference to one son’s Navy service led me to write for his military records. With general dates (and a check for $60), I was able to obtain a thick packet of material for Rowland Maynard Thompson. When I read them, my mental picture of Rowland was completely turned around by the physical description they contained! 

In 1902 this young man was said to be 5’ 6” tall, with blue eyes, brown hair, and a “ruddy” complexion; he reportedly weighed 122 lb. But most intriguing was the entry for his physical characteristics: “ink marks right front arm.”  A similar record when he re-enlisted four years later had more: “ 7” birds left arm and shoulder; coat of arms, dagger, “NSGW” right front arm; snake, left leg; fly right leg; bird top both feet … scar forehead.” In the interim he had gained not only a lot more “ink marks” but ten pounds in weight.  In other words: short, stocky, scarred, and well-tattooed.  Not as I had imagined him at all.

Interestingly, Rowland’s precise year of birth is still in some question. The 1880 census shows him as three years old, and in 1900 he is reported as having been born in June 1877.  But his death certificate gives the birth year as 1884 (the informant was not a relative), and when he enlisted he gave 1879 as his year of birth. 

One more item in these papers helped me locate his parents -- in 1902 he stated that his father was living in Corning, California. Since they were in San Francisco in 1900, I had wondered whether they left for Corning before or after the 1906 Earthquake and Fire.  Now I know.

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