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 →
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.
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 →
My 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.
From 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.