Armistice Centennial

US_Flag_BacklitExactly one hundred years ago today, on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, an armistice was signed with Germany to cease fighting the Great War. One year later, on November 11, 1919, President Woodrow Wilson declared that the day would be called Armistice Day, to honor those who fought in World War I. More than three decades later—after the “war to end war” gave way to World War II and then the Korean War—the holiday was renamed Veterans Day, and was intended as a day to honor all veterans of the U.S. armed forces.

In today’s post I’d like to honor all of my family members who served in defense of our country.

This is a revised version of a post I did five years ago. Since then, some family members have died, and I’ve discovered twenty-seven additional family members who served our country. Note that I have included only relatives who served the United States or the colonies that would eventually become the United States.

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Zygonia Shearer’s guardianship

Today’s post is about a trio of documents that resulted from some archival research that my wife arranged for me as a present right before we became parents 3½ years ago. It’s taken that long for me to get back to this. I was looking for anything I could find on the life and death of my biological patrilineal great-grandfather, Zygonia Ray Shearer. What I got back from the Wayne County, Iowa, archivist was a brief unprovenienced obituary for Ray, and a set of three papers with a post-it note that read “Found among our guardianship papers.”

These papers tell a story of Zygonia’s childhood about six years after his father died suddenly and tragically by falling off of his house and bursting his abdomen open by landing on a stump. Zygonia wasn’t even 2½ years old when his father died, and he would have been about 8–9 years old when the following legal proceedings were recorded in 1903. His younger sister wasn’t even born when her father died; Mary Belle (Coddington) Shearer was just three months pregnant with Annetta when Gilbert Matthew Shearer died in 1897.

There are some legal concepts involved in these papers that I don’t pretend to fully understand, so for my readers who happen to be lawyers, please do let me know of any context that I may be missing. For instance, why would two minor children need a Guardian ad Litem if their mother was around to make decisions for them? Continue reading

So, you don’t legally exist?

Imagine that you were born in a rural area to poor parents in the back room of your rented house. Your parents moved a lot, and they never told the county officials that you were born. So no birth certificate was ever registered. And then your dad leaves your family when you’re five years old, leaving your mom alone with you and two younger siblings. You’re upset about that and change your last name to that of the kind man who married your mother and stepped into the father role in your family. But for whatever reason, you and your family don’t make the adoption legal, nor do they inform the county or state officials of the name change. And then for unknown reasons, you decide to change your middle name, too, from the traditional Dutch Cornelius to the hip, modern “Curtis.” And again, no government agencies are informed. We’ve all been there, right?

This presents no problems for you for most of your life. You get your Social Security card, you enlist in the Army and serve in World War II, you pay your taxes, you work until your early 60s and you’re beginning to think about your retirement. And then you apply for your Social Security retirement benefits and discover that—poof—you have no proof that you are who you say you are.

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Puzzling out Ray Shearer

It seems odd to me that while I’m able to trace my family back on dozens of lines more than 400 years, my own patrilineal great-grandfather—my father’s father’s father—is nearly a complete mystery to me. I would normally begin an exploration of his life by saying that his name was Ray Shearer, but even that is a bit of a mystery. While many people called him Ray, more often than not, he referred to himself as Zyionyi Ray Shearer. As with many of my difficult-to-research ancestors, I keep setting aside his information, waiting for some hint or help to emerge, as they so often do.

And so it was with Ray. Just this past week I got an unexpected letter from my cousin Peggy, who’s a cousin on my Shearer side. Her great-grandmother was Ray Shearer’s mother—Mary Belle (Coddington) Shearer Stokes. Peggy’s grandmother was Ray’s younger half-sister, Zealia Faye Stokes, and Zealia apparently was very interested in preserving family stories and history, and she passed much of this on to Peggy.

Today’s post could not have been written without Peggy’s help. Thank you, Peggy! Continue reading

More clues about Ray Shearer

1908-12-25 postcard backMy paternal great-grandfather Ray Shearer continues to prove a mystery.  I’ve never seen a photo of him, and until today I’ve found only a single artifact associated with him: a letter he wrote to his son on July 2, 1932. Today I found three more objects associated with Ray, as well as an unidentified photo postcard that might be of Ray, his sister, and their mother.

The first postcard was postmarked December (25?), 1908, from ___dyville, Iowa (possibly Braddyville, Iowa), and was from Ray’s aunt Cynthia. Cynthia is Ray’s father’s older sister, Cynthia Anne Shearer Maxwell (1863–1926). Ray’s father died traumatically when Ray was less than 2½ years old, of injuries suffered from a fall off of a roof onto a stump.

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A letter from a lost father

1932-07-02 Ray Shearer letter page 1From what I’ve heard, my grandfather, Vernon Black, didn’t get much from his biological father—not even his surname. Vernon’s mother, Catalina Edel, divorced Vernon’s biological father, Zyonia Ray Shearer, when Vernon was only 5½ years old “on the ground of gross neglect of duty.” On several occasions, my grandfather even denied that Ray Shearer (the name his father went by) was his father. In his later years, my grandfather was somewhat more forthcoming about his biological father, but it was clear that Vernon held onto a lot of resentment for Ray.

I’ve never seen a picture of my great-grandfather Ray Shearer, nor do I know of any items that once belonged to Ray. What little I know of Ray I learned from my grandfather’s sister, Anelia (short for her given name of Anna Cornelia) Shearer. She was just a little over a year old when Ray left the family, but she kept his last name and kept his memory alive.

I’ve been going through a stack of papers and letters from my grandfather’s teenage years, and I found one envelope that was particularly worn out and discolored (as compared to the relatively clean envelopes that contained letters from Vernon’s friends and girlfriends). When I removed the letter contained in the worn envelope, I was surprised to see that it was a letter from Ray to Vernon, dated July 2, 1932, when Vernon was 15½ years old.

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He’s dead, Jim (or, Down a blind alley)

In the last three posts, I laid out the evidence for my hypothesis that my great-great-grandfather’s death shortly before 1900 was a ruse, and that he had instead lived to the ripe old age of 87, dying in 1965 in Denver, CO.

I felt at the time that this was the simplest explanation that accounted for all of the known facts. Over the last two days, I’ve been digging hard and deep into historical documents to fill in the blank spots in the story. The evolving picture was consistent with the posts I wrote about the death being a ruse. As I mentioned in the third and final post, the alternative scenario was that there had been two Gilbert M. Scherers running around at the same time, who just happened to have been born in the same place on the same date, to families which had the same first names, and with only one of these Gilberts at a time being documented in the historical record. To me, that seemed a greater stretch than the faked death story.

But then I stumbled upon this document—an 1870 census return from Smyrna, Iowa—and everything started to fall apart. On this census is a five-year-old boy named Gilbert M. Shearer, a Gilbert M. Shearer who would have been about 13 years older than the Gilbert M. Scherer I had been documenting.
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A Death Greatly Exaggerated, part 3


Warning—the conclusion of this post is now known to be incorrect.  See the “He’s dead, Jim (or, Down a blind alley)” post for details.


In part 1 of this story, I explained how my inherited last name should have been “Scherer” or “Shearer,” but my grandfather, Vernon, refused to use that surname because his birth father, Zyonia Ray Shearer, abandoned him and his family when Vernon was only 4 or 5 years old. But then I looked briefly at Zyonia’s (Ray’s) childhood and found that he, too, had lost his father when he was only 4 or 5 years old. Family tradition held that Ray’s father, Gilbert Michael Scherer, died shortly before 1900 due to traumatic injuries he sustained in an accident:

“Gilbert Shearer was building a home in Missouri.  He was working on the roof when he fell off across a tree stump, bursting his abdomen open.  He fell from his house while shingling his roof.  He was taken to a sanatorium, but died four days later. He was buried in Edmond Cemetery, 4 miles north of Powersville, MO.”

In part 2 of this story, I introduced Gilbert Michael Scherer and his wife Mary Belle (Coddington) Scherer, and tried to present everything I know (or thought I knew) about Gilbert, his short life, and his death. At the end of part 2, I presented the first piece of evidence that Gilbert was still alive long after his supposed death.

In this third and final installment, I’ll make the case for Gilbert not having died when, where, or how the family tradition maintains he died.

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A Death Greatly Exaggerated, part 2


Warning—the conclusions of this post are now known to be incorrect.  See the “He’s dead, Jim (or, Down a blind alley)” post for details.


In part 1 of this story, I introduced my great-great-grandfather Gilbert Michael Scherer. According to family tradition, Gilbert died a traumatic death shortly before 1900, when he was only about 22 years old or younger. According to his granddaughter, Anna Cornelia (“Anelia”) Hayes, who wrote a history of the family,

“Gilbert Shearer was building a home in Missouri.  He was working on the roof when he fell off across a tree stump, bursting his abdomen open.  He fell from his house while shingling his roof.  He was taken to a sanatorium, but died four days later. He was buried in Edmond Cemetery, 4 miles north of Powersville, MO.”

This would indeed be a sad end to a short life, if the story were true. It is not.

I don’t know if Gilbert fell off a house, or if he landed on a tree stump and burst his abdomen, or if he was in a sanatorium as a result. What I do know is what I’ve learned through my research; namely, that Gilbert did not die in 1900 as the family (or at least some of the family) was led to believe. Instead, he appears to have moved away and started a new life. At least two family members—his mother Emma and his sister Ivy—knew about his second life, and it’s very likely that his younger brother Leslie also knew that he hadn’t died.
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A Death Greatly Exaggerated, part 1


Warning—the conclusion of this post is now known to be incorrect.  See the “He’s dead, Jim (or, Down a blind alley)” post for details.


My grandfather, Vernon Curtis Black, was named Vernon Cornelius Shearer at birth. I don’t know why he stopped using Cornelius (his maternal grandfather’s name), but I have a fairly clear understanding of why he changed his last name. When Vernon was only five years old, his biological father, Ray Shearer (born Zyonia Ray Shearer), was given an ultimatum by Vernon’s mother Catalina: he could sober up and stay with the family, or he could continue to go out drinking with his friends and flirting with women. Ray chose the latter option, and Vernon never saw his biological father again.

As the ancient proverb states, however, there are always two sides to every story. Ray was apparently a friendly, outgoing man who had his own childhood scars—he also lost his father, Gilbert Michael Scherer, when he was only about five years old. According to Vernon’s younger sister Anna Cornelia (“Anelia”) Hayes,

“Gilbert Shearer was building a home in Missouri.  He was working on the roof when he fell off across a tree stump, bursting his abdomen open.  He fell from his house while shingling his roof.  He was taken to a sanatorium, but died four days later. He was buried in Edmond Cemetery, 4 miles north of Powersville, MO.”

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