Surprise – Unknown Uncle Walter

I have shared a few stories about my Father’s Father’s side of the family on this blog. In some recent posts, I highlighted the Althausers, Prestons, Sears, Robinsons, and Dixons, all of whose stories have plenty of interesting turns and surprises. For me, one of the most exciting surprises, and earliest genealogy victories, was finding a great uncle that I didn’t know existed on that side of the family.

In an earlier post, I mentioned that my Dad is a fourth generation only son, so there are very few relatives on that side of the family. On the wives’s sides, many of their siblings either stayed single or never married, so no cousins were produced. Therefore, I was very familiar with the names of the odd great aunt or uncle.

All of my life, I heard about my great great grandmother, Jessie (called grandmother Robinson by my Dad) and her sister, Bertha (called Aunt Bert). Aunt Bert married but never had children, and after Jessie’s husband died, she moved in with Aunt Bert. My grandmother and my Dad knew them both, so I’ve heard plenty of stories about the sisters and their husbands.

My family also has lots of pictures of Jessie, Aunt Bert, and their parents, Charles and Cora Preston. While sorting through some of these family pictures, I found several of a very handsome young man who greatly resembled Charles, but I had absolutely no idea who he could be as all the other males relatives were accounted for. What made the photos even more tantalizing were that many of them were taken at photography studios in Nashville around the same time that Jessie, Bert, and their parents were having their photos taken in Nashville. Who WAS THIS?!

As I began going though other Preston documents, I found two letters written by Cora to Charles in 1882. Charles was living in Nashville and in the process of moving Cora and Jessie down. Cora made a mention of “the children” and what they were up to. Now this was very odd. In 1882, Jessie was six years old, but Aunt Bert wasn’t born until 1886. So, either I had Aunt Bert’s birthday completely wrong, or there was another child born between the two sisters, one I had never heard of before. Was this child the mysterious boy and man in the photographs?

This mystery is one of the reasons I first signed up for Ancestry.com. I wanted to search the census records to see if there was anything that I didn’t know or that my family didn’t know or had forgotten. The first census year I checked was 1880. With any luck, the mystery child was born prior to the census date. Here is what I found:

Preston household in Zanesville, Ohio in 1880.

As you can see, the Prestons are living in Zanesville, Ohio: Charles, Cora, Jessie, and….Walter? Who is Walter? According to the census, Charles and Cora had a 1 year old son named Walter. He is very likely the other child to whom Cora was referring to in her letter. Surprise 1: Cora and Charles had a child named Walter who was completely unknown to me and my parents.

Now I had more questions. Did this Walter die young? Is that why we didn’t know about him? Or did he live, and was he the mystery man in the photos?

Preston household in Nashville in 1900.

Without the 1890 census, I moved on to the 1900 census in Nashville, Tennessee. There, I found Charles, Cora, and Aunt Bert living together. No Walter. However, check out the last two columns. Either Charles or Cora reported to the census taker that Cora gave birth to 3 children, and ALL 3 CHILDREN WERE STILL LIVING. Wow, now wasn’t that a bombshell?!

So Walter WAS alive, but where was he living? He was not living with his sister, Jessie, and her family, so I assumed he must be living somewhere else in Nashville. After some searching, I found the following entry in the 1900 census:

Walter Preston household in Nashville in 1900.

This Walter was the best candidate for my Walter in Nashville. The birth year was about right and he worked as a moulder, the same line of work which his father and grandfather were in. They had been married for 3 years (about 1897) and had no children. A search of the Nashville City Directories showed Walter Preston in 1896 working as a moulder at the Phillips and Buttorf Manufacturing Company, the same company that Charles worked for as the foreman. In 1895, Walter was listed as living in the same household as Charles and Cora. I think I found their son. Surprise 2: Walter was still alive in 1900.

Walter, His Wives, and His Children

On 6 July 1897, Walter married his first wife, Clara Jackson, in Nashville. However, their marriage didn’t last. In April 1898, Clara filed for divorce from Walter. The newspapers cited failure to provide, but the divorce petition also listed not being faithful and cruelty.

The divorce was put on hold when Walter enlisted in the Spanish American War and was shipped off to San Fransisco for training. In October 1898, the First Tennessee Infantry left for the Philippines, where Walter saw action during the Philippine insurrection. Walter finally returned to Nashville in 1901 with the rest of the First Tennessee after 3 years in the army. During his service, Walter got into some trouble which resulted in a disease that contributed to health problems that he battled for the rest of his life.

In June 1902, Clara finally received her divorce from Walter. Clara moved back in with her parents, and Walter also returned to live in his parents’ house. In about 1905, Walter left Nashville and moved to Waterford, Ohio where he married his second wife, Nellie Shirk. Below is the marriage record:

The next year, Charles Preston died in Nashville, and named Walter as his son in his will. He left Walter a farm in Beverly, Ohio as well as some money.

The marriage record and the will showed that Walter was indeed the son of Charles and Cora McKelvey and was very much alive. Below is part of the 1920 census, which shows Water, wife Nellie, and two daughters Ruth and Cora, living in Cleveland, Ohio.

Walter Preston and family in the 1920 census.

Nellie Preston died in 1923, and as Walter was in such bad health, he sent his two daughters to live with their maternal grandparents. Walter’s health continued to deteriorate, and he finally died in 1927 while living in a home for veterans.

The Photographs

After these revelations – Charles and Cora had a third child, Walter reached adulthood, Walter was married twice and had two children – I took another look at some of the family photographs. There were several photographs labeled Cora and Ruth, who I now knew were Walter’s children. The girls were very distinctive looking, which helped me identify a photograph of their mother, Nellie, standing with the same handsome man, though a bit older, holding a baby in his lap. This was most definitely a photograph of Nellie and Walter. This photograph helped me determine that the other photographs of the same man were in fact Walter, Jessie and Aunt Bert’s brother.

This photo shows Walter in his wool uniform from the Spanish-American War. (Knowing that he served also helped identify that this man was Walter) The original photo was cut in a circle, likely to fit into a frame. I assume this photo sat in either Charles and Cora’s house or in Jessie’s.

Walter in his uniform.

This photograph shows Walter as a very fashionably dressed young man. It was taken soon after Walter moved back to Ohio. I think this is my favorite photograph of him!

Walter Preston, taken about 1906.

Conclusion

I thoroughly enjoyed learning about Walter, the uncle I never knew about. I have a couple of theories as to why we never heard about Walter. First, he died in 1927, before my grandfather was even born. Second, he lived in Ohio for half of his life, and it is doubtful that he ever came back to Tennessee. Third, he lived a bit of a wild lifestyle, and maybe Jessie and Aunt Bert tried to hide that fact. They did a fairly good job of keeping family secrets under wraps. I found out that Jessie did keep in touch with Walter’s children, particularly Ruth, and that Ruth visited Jessie on a couple of occasions. But, for whatever reason or reasons, Walter’s memory just disappeared.

After I told everyone about Walter, they were all so astonished. But the funniest part was after I found all of this out, I asked my grandmother if she had ever heard that Jessie and Aunt Bert had a brother, and she said, “oh yes, I kind of remember that now.”

Nice to meet you, Uncle Walter!

First – My First Genealogy Experience and Discoveries

Happy New Year! I am very excited to start a second year of 52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks. I only hope that I don’t run out of ancestors or stories to tell! If anything, this project has showed me how much more research I need to do on all of my family members!

My “first” post is about my first foray into genealogy and my early discoveries that got me hooked on researching my family.

My fourth great grandparents, McCama and Margaret Robinson, had 8 children. Two died as children, one was killed in the Civil War and was unmarried, two daughters never married, and two other daughters married but never had children. This leaves only one son, Samuel, who married and had one child. Over the ensuing 115 years, each new generation produced only one child. So when I came along, I was the first girl born into the Robinson family since 1846!

This is both a fortunate and unfortunate situation. Fortunate because my parents inherited everything that belonged to the Robinson family, including the family Bible that Samuel gave to his wife Sallie on her birthday one year. Unfortunate because we don’t have any Robinson relatives on that side to the family! We have a few relatives on each of the wives’ sides, but that is it. This means we only have family stories told by my direct ancestors; nothing from brothers or sisters of any generation who might have had different stories, different opinions on family events, or different insights into the family in general.

But back to the fortunate. One of my favorite family heirlooms is the Robinson family Bible. It is quite large, heavy, with beautiful embossed leather. On the front, it is inscribed to Sallie C. Robinson for her birthday in 1875. Six generations of Robinsons are recorded in the Bible, but sadly, Samuel did not record his parents or Sallie’s. The only clue to their residence was a notation on the marriage page which said it took place at No. 63 Spruce Street in Nashville. I also have one newspaper article which announced Samuel and Sallie’s marriage. Luckily, it gave the name of her father, T.D. Cassetty, but it failed to give the name of her mother or anything about Samuel.

I knew about the existence of this Bible for many years, and no one in our family knew anything about Samuel or Sallie’s origins. So when I decided to begin researching our family, I started with Samuel and Sallie, my first brick walls.

Before I went to the archives in Nashville, I purchased an Ancestry.com subscription and searched the census records. I knew I was looking for a Samuel and Sallie Robinson in Nashville. As they were married in 1869, I began with the 1870 census. I found a “Sam and Sallie Robison” aged 34 and 28 respectively, living in a very large household. It included T.D. Cassetty, a magistrate, his wife Matilda, their five children, four borders, and five domestic servants. At first, I remember being really discouraged. By 1870, Samuel should have been 38 and Sallie 29, and Robinson was spelled incorrectly. Did I have the right people? The names and ages were close but not perfect. After reaching out to a fellow Cassetty researcher, I learned that ages were often wildly incorrect and names depended on what the census taker heard. That was my first lesson: historical records are not always perfect.

1870 Census

After I got over my initial hesitation, I couldn’t believe my luck! Not only did I find Sam and Sallie, but they were living in the same house as T.D. Cassetty, who was named as Sallie’s father in the marriage announcement. I was pretty sure that I found Sallie’s parents, but more information about them would take more research.

Ecstatic, I then searched the 1880 census for Sallie and Samuel. I found them living in Nashville with their 7 year old son in the house of a dry goods merchant. I later learned that Samuel never bought property; instead he moved from place to place, always renting.

The census records also told me something none of my family knew: Samuel Robinson was a printer. This was a huge discovery because my father and grandfather both owned printing companies, but neither of them knew that families members were involved in printing in the 19th century!

Sadly, Sallie died in 1886 and Samuel in 1891, so my census research could not go any farther into the future. At the time, Samuel remained a brick wall, but I did find Sallie living with her parents in the 1850-1860 censuses.

Another major research first came soon after: my first visit to the archives. I spent a day at the Tennessee State Library and Archives, which was only 30 minutes from my house, trying to find as much information about Samuel, Sallie, and the Cassettys as I could. The TSLA staff were so kind and helpful, that by the end, I had more information than I knew what to do with. I remember struggling to make the microfilm machines work, using the reference guides to find newspapers and death records, and pouring over the records to located their names. That day I found:

Death notices for Samuel, Sallie, and Sallie’s parents

Sallie Robinson’s death notice. It gives the names of her parents, T. D. and Matilda Cassetty.

City death records for Samuel, Sallie, and Sallie’s parents

Samuel Robinson death record.
Sallie Robinson death record.

Nashville City Directories that gave their addresses during their residence in Nashville.

I remember going home that night just so excited about what I had found out about the Robinsons. After that, I was completely hooked. I had to know more and more! To this day, the Robinsons hold a special place in my heart as the first part of my family that I researched. I was so inspired by my research that I later used Samuel’s grandmother, Ann Dixon, as the focus of my Master’s thesis. I think it is fair to say that genealogy changed my life and set me on my current career path. So cheers to a new year, and I hope I experience many more “firsts” in the year to come.