05 May 2010

In the Beginning

It all started innocently enough. I have always had a very strong sense of "family," and therefore also had a deep-seeded need to know where I came from. And like most people, I started with my surname "Walker." Ironically for several reasons that would also prove to be one of the toughest nuts to crack, especially for a fledgling genealogist.

First, my paternal grandfather had passed away decades ago, and no one, including me, had the good sense to interview him before he died. Not to say he would have told us the truth anyway! But more about that later. He was the baby of his family, and all his siblings had also passed away, so that avenue was a dead end.

Second, my paternal grandfather had been raised for as long as he could remember by his mother and his step-father. He never knew his real father, and as far as we know no one ever told him who he was, or did they?

Third was all the "hearsay" stories about our family history. Nature abhors a vacuum so something had to go there. My paternal grandfather used to say we were "Pennsylvania Dutch." This was allegedly done, according to family history, because we were German and to dissuade negative encounters during World War 1. Following on that idea, came the speculation that our Walker surname had become anglicized, and was originally "Voker" or "Vokker" or some sort. None of which would prove true.

Finally, because I was such a newbie, I really made it harder than it had to be. I was often trying to force Ancestry.Com to give up what it didn't have, and that I could have gotten easily with a few letters to some courthouses.

But this is where I started. I talked to my Dad and his older sister Violet to get what I could on their grandfather, my paternal great-grandfather. We started with initials "H. Walker," then "H. M. Walker," and then "Henry M. Walker," each step was a possibility that required fleshing out, and as soon as I had meat, it was on to the next possibility.

I tried approaching the conundrum sideways, by researching my paternal great-grandmother Lucy Walker (nee. Chesley). After a lot of work, that got me a location of their wedding (Kansas), and a possible residence -- Illinois. But do you know how many Henry Walker's there were in Illinois around 1900?! Enter the process of elimination -- tracking the history of the other Henry Walker's so they can excluded from being my Henry Walker. Problems arose though, the only Henry Walker's that could not be excluded had dead ends and all in the same census. It was at this time a fellow member of Ancestry.Com pointed out to me that all the Walkers for that census, in that county, had been entered misspelled. Now I had a possible location for his birth -- Metamora, Woodford, Illinois. But that too did not come without complications, as the Henry Walker that I was researching was a "Junior" sharing the same exact name as his father.

It was about this time that my Dad and his sister recalled something about "Lena, Illinois" as a possible place for where Henry was buried. So it looked like a little research forward might be in order. I wrote the Lena Historical Society, and got a nice, helpful reply -- Henry's obituary, and a map to his gravesite in a town called Stockton, a few short miles from Lena. All things were coming together, this was indeed the Henry that I was researching from Metamora, but a mystery was still brewing. In his obit he made no claim to ever being married or having kids. On his census he said he was a "Widower," which my paternal great-grandfather could not have been. Factually he had been married, had five kids, and my great-grandmother survived their marriage.

Let me take a nota bene moment here and point out my naivete which only complicated things. First, I thought the Census records were seriously accurate. But now I can't remember a time when I opened them up and didn't find at least a misspelling and often worse like the bastardization of facts. Second, I believed people told the truth. Now I know you have to "trust but verify" what is said. Third, this last fact also relates to newspapers, books, records, and especially other genealogical research! Look, I am not saying you can't trust, I am just saying you don't know something until you know you know it. And if all you do is "trust" without the "verify" you wind up going down a lot of wrong roads, and even running into dead ends that really aren't. I learned all this the hard way.

About this time I receive an email from a Chesley descendent who saw my queries about Lucy. She sends me an email offering to share everything she has with me if I will share back, and then she baits the hook, "I even have the story about when Henry shot Lucy." HUH?!?!?!?!?!!!! Shock and utter surprise! Now another piece of the puzzle fell into place, the Henry Walker I found in the 1900 Census, residence the Nebraska State Penitentiary, was my Henry Walker!

My new found cousin sends me her Chesley family GEDCOM and a transcription from a Calloway, Nebraska history book that chronicles the time my great-grandfather shot my great-grandmother three times, in the back twice and once in the forehead, this last of which severed the small finger off her right hand as she tried to shelter her face. She survived, and he went to prison. I got out some pictures I have of Lucy and could make out what appears to be a dent in her forehead!

I sent off a quick letter to the Custer County (Nebraska) Historical Society. They confirmed the story, and sent me copies of the newspaper clippings, and their divorce papers. The nice elderly lady from the Historical Society sent me a private note, "It is no wonder you and your family never knew, back them people didn't talk about such things in 'polite society.' The people who did know, took their knowledge with them to the grave."

In essence my great-grandfather was a pariah, and intended to be forgotten. But I would soon learn he had ancestors who were heroes.

The next plan of attack was to follow Henry's father Henry (Sr.) and his siblings, with a two-pronged approach now, still looking to factually tie Henry Martin Walker of Metamora, Illinois as my great-grandfather, and to see what was behind him, but he fell off the Earth somewhere around 1865, the time of the Civil War. So I had to start researching Henry Sr.'s relatives. I found on the Internet another researcher who was researching the same Walker line behind Henry Sr., and I jotted him off a quick email, telling him what I was researching saying "I think we may be related?" He wrote back, "if we are you hit the mother lode" pointing me to the website Descendants of Captain Samuel Walker (1615-1684), there it was the whole Walker family tree researched and documented back to the first to step on this continent! I quickly went to the name index and there I found them, Henry Sr. (died in Louisiana during Civil War) and Henry Jr. of Metamora, Illinois. I got goosebumps and celebratory, and then teary-eyed. I felt more whole; I felt more complete. Some will think that incongruous and/or silly. Some know precisely what I mean.

To seal the deal, and tie up all my research in a big knot, I joined the Walker-Surname DNA Project and had my Y-chromosome mapped, and it confirmed I am related to that Henry, and that family line.

A couple years later my son and I drove up to Stockton, Illinois to visit Henry's grave. I had interviewed an elderly woman in Lena who knew him when she was a little child. If her recollections were accurate he was a very eerie man, not the kind I would want to know. But visiting his grave was like putting the period on the end of the sentence, the completion of all my hard work. An abstract question mark becomes a tangible identity.

He has a simple little marker, befitting the man. My son and I each put a stone on the marker, not out of respect as most do, but simply to show his grave had been visited. We took a couple pictures and left.

© 2010, Copyright Kevin W. Walker

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