"On the road to my Great-Grandfather"

Written by Sylvia F. Wilkins

Originally published 2006, updated with images March 2017

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We've all been there.... you have a surname or a given name and you think that because you have "Jones" or "Smith" or "John" that this is going to be a piece of cake. WRONG!!!!!

You soon discover all the things that you have read over the years is absolutely true about how names as plain as these can be butchered. None intentionally but because of handwriting, phonetic spelling or abbreviations, someone trying to be helpful in an index file or something posted on the web, it is just down right wrong information. I have found mistakes in indexes on the web of well-known sites, CDs, etc. where members of the same family cannot be found because an "every name index" was posted and the head of household has the correct spelling of the surname but then the handwriting of the census enumerator got sloppy (their hand was probably very tired after doing sixty families that day and didn't realize that it was OK to just list the surname for the head of household) and the wife and children end up with a completely different name. It says.... "wife," "daughter," "son." How much more simple could it get?

We all could go on and on about this, so I will get to my point.

What I knew, was that my paternal Great Grandmother's maiden name was "Rippins" and the state and year that my Grandmother was born. What I didn't know was that you could get at least twelve different spellings for something that had one vowel and four consonants!

I do my Soundex thingy, get my code to start my search and go for it.

SURPRISE! I don't find anyone. Of course, I started my search in the state of Missouri where my father was born because it made sense at the time, that my Grandmother had to have lived there at some point with her parents. When this yielded nothing, I thought, where the heck is everyone?

So... now I know this is not going to be simple and I need to be very methodical about how to find my family.

I decided the best way was to work my way backwards and find folks I knew.

The most likely person was to start with my Dad.

There was no doubt in my mind that I knew his exact date and place of birth and who his parents were, so I went for it.

I go to the 1910 Census to look for my grandparents and my father, in St. Louis, Missouri, fully expecting to see everyone enumerated just like the rest of the state. NO SUCH LUCK! Now, I'm really confused. Every document that I ever saw relating to my father stated the same date and place of birth. I knew I had the correct information on my grandparents because I was always told that I "looked like my grandmother" and my name was derived "from both of your grandmother's middle names" and your Dad was "born in St. Louis," etc. . . .

I knew that my grandfather's family was very distinguished and he, in his own right.

His father was in the third graduating class at Meharry Medical College (TN) in 1880, his brother in 1887 and two of his sons, in 1902 and 1915. On August 25, 1886, he and his brother along with twelve others organized the "Lone Star State Medical, Dental and Pharmaceutical Association."1 This was the second organization for African-American medical professionals in the nation. I have also found a notation in "300 Years In Victoria County."2

My grandfather was listed in Who's Who In Colored America 3 in 1928-1929, 1933-1937 and Cincinnati's Colored Citizens 4 in 1926, along with a picture of my father and grandmother. My grandfather had a distinguished career in the United States Army, during World War II with several honors and newspaper articles.

So, you're thinking to yourself, why can't you find these folks? Seems very simple with this paper trail.

Well, what I found was the paper doesn't always lead to the same trashcan.

I racked my brain with "where are these folks?"

I decided that I should find a marriage certificate for my grandparents so I send the necessary documents to the "Marriage Place"5 and they tell me they have no record.

Now what the heck should I do? Every piece of information that I know to be true has not panned out and this is not a good thing.

This means to me I have to do some digging and I'm up for the challenge. My mother was very good about record keeping, so I decided to start there. Beware, it is very spooky when you start digging and you find stuff like cards, drawings, etc., from your parent's coworkers from the day you were born! We won't go into how long ago that was!!!!!

My mother kept a "folder" on all of us, so I opened the one for my father. I paged through things and the first thing I came across was a US Census Bureau document stating the information on the 1920 Census showing my father, grandfather and grandmother.

No big deal. RIGHT! The next thing I find is a letter to my father from his first cousin in St. Louis, MO stating that he had sent for a copy of my Dad's birth certificate. He says, "I think I remember your father's name as .........."


The name he listed is not the name that I knew all my life. The man who lived to be 96 years old and wrote to me all the time. The man who traveled with my grandmother to see us in Pennsylvania and we spent hours in the car to go visit in Ohio!

What the heck was this!

I immediately got on the phone to St. Louis, to speak with another of my Dad's first cousins. He was 88 years old at the time and I told him that I found this document that says that my father's father was someone completely different from whom I knew as my grandfather. His statement was "well, John always looked like his mother." What was that supposed to mean???????

This was not working out!

I called my siblings to tell them what I discovered and that we are not who we think we are and...... they are just too calm about this, so I hang up and plan my next course of action.

Since the name listed by my father's first cousin was a "Whitfield" surname and a given name he wasn't sure was correct, I Soundex the surname and go back to the 1910 Census 6 to see what I can find. I COME UP EMPTY AGAIN!

So logically, you say to yourself, "well, go to the 1900 Census."

Looking through the "head of household" index, I again find nothing. You begin to think, "what the heck am I doing, I must be crazy."

At this point you know the 1890 Census has for all intent and purpose been completely destroyed, your only hope is to plow through the 1900 Census and see what you can find.

Not knowing anything about the person you are looking for other than he is not the "head of household," you have to search the entire state by Soundex. Given name, A through Z.

You start and as you breeze past the "E"'s, knowing that is what his given name is supposed to start with, you begin to say, "please God, don't let the head of household be Zachariah."

Soon, I discovered a "Step Son" with the given name and surname and I go to the Census record.

There are three surnames listed in this one household. "Whitfield", the one I need and two I have never heard of in my life, so I rule them out as having no connection to my family and run with what I have.

When I review the data on the 1900 Census there is the "Head", "Wife" and I see "Step Son" written next to the given name of the person I'm seeking. My heart sinks because this means that I still have no idea of our true family surname. The "step" is actually written almost as an afterthought but I plug away.

Armed with the "Whitfield" head of household on the 1900 Census, I go back to the "Miracode" for the 1910 Census (what a joke this is because it certainly doesn't "mirror" most of the information contained on the 1910 Census) to find my people. EUREKA! Not only do I find my "widower" Whitfield head of household from the 1900 Census but I also find my Grandmother and my 6-month-old father with the same surname. I was ecstatic, until I continued to read the information of my 21-year-old "W-I-D-O-W" grandmother!

Now I'm thinking, "this can't keep happening to me." Why can't I have this "I found 20 generations of my family and I've traced my line back to Charlemagne" kind of story?

Curiosity is the only thing that is keeping me going at this point because I have spent a lot of money on genealogy software, birth, marriage and death certificates for a line that is not genetically mine and I don't want to dwell on that issue.

Immediately, I send for a copy of the death certificate7 of the "Step Son" and four weeks later I get a response that no document existed in the "City" and I should try the "County"8 vital statistics office. I write. No record.

I contacted St. Peter's Cemetery (MO) 9 where 90% of my grandmother's family are buried, to see if he was buried there. No record.

Analyzing all the information I had compiled and the months of back and forth, I still had a big fat zero. I cannot understand how there is no documentation of these events since everything that happened with my grandmother's family happened in the City of St. Louis.

Fortunately for me, I've never known how to "just give it up," "toss in the towel" or "say uncle."

It is now time to use what I really know and that is the exact date of my father's birth. I figured I had that hands down and getting his birth certificate should be a piece of cake. I never sent for it before because I had seen the date written a thousand times, had celebrated it all the years of my life, had a sibling born on the same day, so why did I ever need an official document? Besides, thirty years earlier my father had tried to no avail.

But, this was now important. I had to know who we were because I had started this "project" so that my immediate family would have this information for future generations and I was eager to get on with it.

I prepared the paperwork with everything I knew as a fact. My grandmother's given and maiden name, my father's full name, date and place of birth. Then I wait............

I'm very calm because I know this "certified" copy is going to come back and have all the information that I have given PLUS my "real" grandfather's name. So it was just a matter of being patient with the processing time frame.

The mail finally arrives and I can hardly control myself while opening the envelope. When I read what was inside, I could barely contain myself. There was no record of his birth!

Right then and there I decided to take matters into my own hands and doing this "stuff" long distance was killing me! I didn't know the competency of the folks who were looking for the information, whether they were actually "looking" or just generating income but I had to control this as much as I could.

I began searching the Web for where I could find microfilm of the birth registers so that I could borrow it through an interlibrary loan (that's a whole other story that I will not go into now). Once I found the film I needed, I began trying to get it to my local library but was told that the film was not available for an interlibrary loan but I could purchase a copy. Roll number, information and check in hand, I send for it. Of course, it was weeks later when it arrived and I rushed out to view the film. Loaded it up, ready to solve this mystery, I discover they sent me the wrong film. I won't go into detail about the telephone calls back and forth but the short version is that their website listed the incorrect film number and no one checked that the film in the box was for the years mentioned before sending it. Needless to say, they "rushed," yeah right, the correct film to me.

I load the "correct" film, go to the year, month and day of my father's birth and there he is, "Whitfield" with no first name listed. I know it is my father because my grandmother's given name is listed but the "father's name" lists the same given name as my father, so now I really don't know what is happening. At this point it didn't matter to me how it was listed. I made a copy of the page and sent it along with another request for a "certified" copy of his birth. I was elated that I could albeit too late for him to see, have a record of his birth.

So my quest continued for the name of my "real" grandfather on an official document somewhere.

My initial attempt to find my grandparent's marriage license didn't work because there would never be a record of her with my "fake" grandfather, as I have come to refer to him when describing this situation to others.

Beginning with where my grandmother started and lived her life was not working for me, so my thoughts were to change up and dig where she ended her life.

I write to the County Court House, in the state in which they lived, for a copy of their marriage application and license. I decided it was best that I use her "Whitfield" name instead of her maiden name since she was listed on the Census with it. Not having much hope that this would lead anywhere, again, I wait.

"The envelope, please........"

As I open the envelope fully expecting to see "try your luck somewhere else cookie" there it is, in black and white, the real thing. Hallelujah. I had finally proven this woman was married at least once! This thing was loaded with information. Not only did it document my "fake" grandfather and grandmother's parents given names (including maiden names), places of birth, where they lived, their ages and that they had both been previously married but that my father was nine years old when this happened, so he knew this man was not his father and now I knew.

I was getting crazier by the day.

I had passed every detail onto my siblings, who were still very calm about this entire situation. I thought they would be upset with all this because they were the ones with the children, not me!

OK, now I have to get to the bottom of this "name" thing because somewhere along the way my father's name had been changed and my "fake" grandfather had raised him as his own. I decided to call the Probate Court 10 in the same county looking for an adoption record.

I called and spoke to the clerk explaining that my grandmother's second husband must have adopted my father and I was trying to get a copy of the record. She informed me that "those records are sealed in this state" and there would be no way I could get those records.

I took a deep breath and said to her "what is the point of that, everyone involved is dead?" She thought about it for a moment and said, "OK, send me a copy of your grandmother and grandfather's death certificates, a copy of your parents marriage certificate, a copy of your father's death certificate, your birth certificate and a photo ID."

Things were looking up. Not only had she consented to releasing the documents but I had all the "paperwork" she wanted in my possession and it was in the mail that afternoon.

When the Probate Court record arrived, it listed my grandparent's names, my father's name as shown on the birth register and that my grandmother was consenting, "(the father being deceased)" that her new husband was able to raise and educate my father. My father's surname was changed to his step/adopted father's and his middle name was now his "natural" father's surname.

This was interesting since my Dad didn't use this name but the middle name of his step/adopted father. It began with the same initial, so I surmised that over the years either the legal document was misplaced and forgotten or that if he used the "Whitfield" middle name, it would always raise questions about how he got it. Now, I have a court document that shows that at some point in time my grandmother was married to a "Whitfield."

I can send for this marriage record and prove my lineage as a "Whitfield" and not a "Wilkins." I send to St. Louis City for the license and they again tell me there is no record.

This is unbelievable!

If it didn't happen in the City of St. Louis then where? I called my father's only surviving first cousin who was 84 years old and asked if she knew where folks would get married if not in the city. Since she had married in the city, she didn't know. I called her children and polled them for ideas and soon discovered that the "East St. Louis" that I had been hearing about was not a section of town but was actually a city in Illinois. Everyone kept saying it is "just across the river."

I think I need to know more about this place!

I go online and get a county map of the state of Missouri and one of Illinois. I trim them and paste them together so that they are seamless. I can now see that the "City" of St. Louis actually borders three Illinois counties "just across the river." I go back online and find out what the requirements are for obtaining a marriage license in these three counties and pick the one that is one day, no blood test and off goes the paperwork to St. Clair County (IL). 11 Preparing for the worst, I also filled out the documents for the other two counties, anticipating the "no record" response that I was so used to getting.

For once I was not disappointed!!!!! It arrived and had more information than I could have hoped for.

It showed that they had married in 1907 in East St. Louis and that it was the first marriage for both, their ages, places of birth, occupations, residence and their signatures. Also, listed were both their fathers' names. The groom's father was the "head of household" that I found him living with on the 1900 Census as a "Step Son." My nightmare wasn't over yet because although the "father's" name was validated by this document the census record voided it.

So how do you prove the "Head" is the Step Father and the "Wife" is the mother, when the places of birth listed for the "Father" and "Mother" of the Step Son don't add up on the 1900 Census?

To make a long story shorter, you don't go into the specifics but you do state that you sent for the marriage license of the "Head" and "Wife" in the same state where you found the "Step Son's" and you find all the same juicy information on it, that proved who your grandfather's parents were.

It shows that this was the "Head's" 2nd marriage and that his residence at the time of this marriage was the same state of the "Step Son's" birth.

If you are still not satisfied, you send to that state's County Court House and get the marriage license of the 1st marriage, which then matches exactly what the 1900 Census shows as the places of birth for the "Step Son's" parents. You want to get his birth record as well but discover that not only were they not recorded at the County level but that the State didn't officially start recording vital statistics until 1912.

And now, after all this time and effort we know that the "Wife" was actually the "Step Mother" and she was answering the questions of the Enumerator and that is how the "Step" got added to the record.

We still have the issue of the death certificate.

I had tried to locate it in St. Louis City, St. Louis County and St. Clair County, Illinois with no luck. I had tried the other counties because they were so close and his occupation may have taken him there and he may have died while working.

I was still convinced that it occurred in St. Louis City and was just waiting for a new lead.

Let's recap what I knew.....

I knew that my "real" grandfather and great-grandfather were listed on the 1900 MO Census. I knew that my grandparents were married in 1907. I knew that my grandmother was a "widow" on the 1910 Census. I knew that my father was six months old on the 1910 Census. I knew that it takes nine months to make a baby. I knew that this man had to have been alive sometime between January 1908 and January 1909.

I got a lucky break when I was told that the St. Louis Genealogical Society had just released a new CD-ROM 12 with burials in St. Louis. I went to their website and looked at the cemeteries listed on the CD-ROM and the one my family had used was on there. I immediately sent for the CD-ROM.

When the CD-ROM arrived, I loaded it up, did a search for my surname with the first name initial and there he was, as big as day. He died December 1908. His name wasn't butchered, his age was correct and although his date of death was not listed his burial date and cemetery were. IT WAS THE SAME ONE THAT I HAD ORIGINALLY CONTACTED!!

I called them stating that I had previously contacted them about this burial and was told he was not in their cemetery but I had just purchased a CD-ROM published by the St. Louis Genealogical Society and he is in their cemetery. I asked for all the information that she could provide and gave her what I had. I was placed on hold.

She comes back and says that he is definitely buried there but he is in the "baby section" and didn't know why and there was no other data in their files.

I then decided to call the Recorder of Deeds office where I had attempted to get a Death Certificate and give my newfound news. I was told that she had thoroughly looked before but she would check again and call me back.

When she called and identified herself I was ready for the "no record" song and dance but she said, "I found it." I was so stunned that I wasn't sure what she said and I said. "You have it?" She then stated that this was at the time when they were switching from one recording system to another and this was actually a book, where the pages were stuck together at the end and no one had noticed it before. She apologized profusely but I didn't care, I was so happy that she found it. She said a copy would be in the mail that day and I couldn't wait to get it.

I had found my "natural" grandfather, who died of pneumonia, nine months and nineteen days before my father was born, as well as, my great-grandfather.

Although this was very satisfying, I felt quite fortunate and proud to have known the man who raised my father and loved us madly. So, the moral to this story is before you spend one red cent on copies of vital record documents, census records, microfilm, CD-ROMs, military records, etc., make sure you are, who you think you are!

Happy hunting!