The Challenge: Spend four hours researching someone from scratch, using only internet sources. See how far you can get. Post what you find.
The Setting: My office. 2am. I couldn’t sleep, and the beauty of the middle of the night is that I’m guaranteed a chunk of work time without interruptions.
The Tools: Half of a box of S’mores Pop-Tarts (my go-to snack for middle-of-the-night work). Diet Coke. Ancestry.com. GenealogyBank.com. NewspaperArchive.com. The Minnesota Historical Society’s online genealogical resources. The (fairly) new Minnesota Marriage Index. My trusty collection of DeLorme map books (I’m old school—I still like the paper maps—and these have both township and county lines clearly visible, so they’re perfect for genealogical research).
The Woman: Ferol Cora Wright, who was born in Verndale, Minnesota in February 1888. She grew up in nearby Staples,and married my great-grandmother’s brother, Allert B. Nelson, in November 1912. The couple probably lived in Little Falls for a time, and eventually moved to Minneapolis, where they lived when Allert died in 1921. Ferol died of cancer three years later, at age 36. They had no (known) children, and neither lived to be 40 years old. I know that my great-grandmother was close to Allert and Ferol, and I wanted to know more about Ferol’s family. I also wanted to know whether some of the photos of unknown people in my collection might be relatives of Ferol’s.
The Starting Point: Ferol’s obituary, which I pulled years ago. It’s from the Staples [Minnesota] World, Thursday 10 April 1924, page 5, column 6:
Ferol Cora Wright was born in Verndale, Minn, February 22, 1888. With her parents, she moved to Staples in 1890. Here she spent her girlhood days and attended the public schools. On November 27, 1912, she was united in marriage with Alert B. Nelson of Little Falls, Minn. Her husband was a telegrapher employed by the Northern Pacific railroad company and in 1919 he was transferred to Minneapolis, Minn. where they made their home until the death of Mr. Nelson which occurred April 5, 1921. Since the death of her husband, she has made her home with her parents, Mr. and Mrs. W.S. Wright of Staples, Minn. She leaves to mourn her loss, her father, mother, and five sisters: Mrs. J. P. Sawyer of Portland, Ore., Mrs. H. T. Malm of South St. Paul, Minn., Mrs. O.C. Lauby and Mrs. E. S. Lacombe of Minneapolis and Mrs. K.R. Seifert of Staples, Minn. The funeral was held at the Oakley chapel at Minneapolis at 2:30 p.m., April 2, 1924, Reverend Howard Vernon of the Judson Memorial Baptist church officiating. She was laid to rest in the Crystal Lake cemetery by the side of her husband. From the Reverend Don Frank Fenn, Rector of the Gethsemane Episcopal church of Minneapolis, Ferol Wright Nelson received the sacrament of Holy Baptism, thereby making her a member of Christ, the child of God and an Inheritor of the Kingdom of heaven.
The Research: I already knew that Ferol’s parents were Walter and Sarah Wright; they’re buried next to Ferol and Allert at Crystal Lake Cemetery in Minneapolis. I wanted to learn more about Ferol’s siblings, so I started by finding the family in the 1900 census and the 1910 census. I found the entire Wright family living in Staples:
- Walter S., born in Iowa in August 1860
- Sarah A., born in Iowa in May 1863
- Bertha E., born in Minnesota in December 1882
- Ferol C., born in Minnesota in February 1888
- Muriel G., born in Minnesota in August 1890
- Nina B., born in Minnesota in April 1894
- Daisy D., born in Minnesota in May 1885
- Vera M., born in Minnesota in May 1888
So now we know the first names and ages of Ferol’s five sisters. How do we match them up with the married names (Sawyer, Malm, Lauby, Lacombe, and Seifert) that appear in her obituary, so we know which sister married which man? I checked the Minnesota Marriage Index to see what I could find. It’s not perfect, and it doesn’t include every marriage in every county, but it’s a good starting point.
I didn’t find Bertha, Muriel, or Daisy in the marriage index (at least, not married to anyone with the names listed in Ferol’s obituary). I did find Ferol herself, along with Vera’s marriage to Edward Lacombe on 1 January 1921, and Nina’s marriage to Oscar C. Lanby (Lauby) on 26 September 1917. That last record rang a bell, and a few minutes later I realized why: I have a photo in my collection that is labeled “Nina and Oscar Lauby,” taken at with my 2-year-old grandfather at the site where his family’s new home was being built.
So that was exciting.
Now I knew three of the sisters’ married names. What about Bertha, Muriel and Daisy? Which of them married Mr. Malm of South St. Paul, Mr. Sawyer of Portland, and Mr. Seifert of Staples? For these, I checked the 1920 and 1930 censuses for clues.
I quickly found Karl Siefert married to Bertha E. Seifert in Staples, Minnesota in both the 1920 and 1930 census. Karl’s middle initial is wrong, and Bertha’s age isn’t quite right, but the other details are a fit, Staples was (and is) a small town, and errors are very common in census work (in fact a perfect record is somewhat rare). Karl is a railroad worker, and I know that Muriel’s father also worked for a railroad (as did Allert, Ferol’s husband). This couple is a good bet for Ferol’s oldest sister and brother-in-law.
John P. and Muriel W. Sawyer are also listed in both the 1920 and 1930 census, in Portland, Oregon. John was a truck driver in 1920 and a carpenter in 1930. Muriel is the right age to be our Muriel, and her birthplace and those of her parents are correct. They have a daughter, Arlene W., who appears to have been born about 1915-1916.
If we’re right so far, it means that Daisy, the remaining sister, must have been married to Mr. Malm. I found Homer and Daisy Malm in the 1920 census, in South St. Paul, right where the obituary said they’d be. They’re there in 1930 too, with two new additions to the houshold: Homer’s mother, Elizabeth, and a 10-year-old “son” named Daniel. Wait, what? Where was this son in 1920? And why does his mother’s place of birth not match Daisy’s? I suspected that Daniel was perhaps a son of Homer’s from a previous marriage, a nephew, or some other Malm relative. I went back to the 1920 census and found young Daniel living with another couple, Daniel and Esther Malm. Could this father named Daniel be Homer’s brother or another relative? The 1910 census provides a possible answer: a Malm family with a mother named Elizabeth, and (among others) two brothers named Homer and Danny. Perhaps this boy is Homer’s nephew, the son of his brother Danny. There’s much more work to do to prove this, but it’s a good starting point for further research.
Next, I looked up the census records for the sisters whose spouse’s names I’d already determined by using the Minnesota marriage index:
Nina and Oscar Lauby are in Minneapolis in the 1920 census; Oscar is listed as an “advertiser” for a drug store, and Nina works in a shirt factory. I didn’t find them in the 1930 census; there’s a couple that may be them, but there are too many details that don’t fit to be sure. I’ll know more when I’m further along in the research on this couple.
Vera Wright and Edward Lacombe weren’t yet married at the time of the 1920 census, but in 1930 they’re living in Odell, Oregon, where Edward is the proprietor of some sort of store (it doesn’t say what kind). There are no children listed.
So now we have a good sense of which sister married which brother:
Bertha married Karl Siefert
Muriel married John Sawyer
Nina married Oscar Lauby
Daisy married Homer Malm
Vera married Edward Lacombe
What became of these people? I started looking for death records and obituaries to find out.
- Karl Richard Seifert was easy to find in the Minnesota death index; he died in Todd County on 21 February 1947. Bertha wasn’t listed in the index, so I went on to look for obituaries. Staples, Minnesota is a very small town, but nearby Brainerd is larger, and NewspaperArchive.com has the Brainerd Daily Dispatch for the time period I needed. I found tons of information on the Seiferts, including those fantastic small town mentions of who had a party last weekend, who was visiting whom, who wasn’t feeling well, etc. Karl’s obituary confirmed that he was married to Bertha, and that he also left behind a sister in Nashua, Iowa (but no children). A 1954 piece mentioned that Bertha was living in that same town in Iowa, so I went to look for her in the newspaper there (and if you have Iowa roots, you should definitely subscribe to NewspaperArchive.com, because their collection in that state is impressive). I learned from the Nashua Reporter that Bertha lived there for some time (and that her friends threw her a birthday dinner on New Year’s Eve 1959, which seems to fit Bertha Wright’s birthday, which was in December). The newspaper said she had a heart attack in February 1964, and in March it said that her sister, Mrs. Vera LaCombe of Odell, Oregon, had come to care for her. Vera didn’t have to stay long; Bertha died on 11 March 1964.
- John P. Sawyer is listed in the Oregon death index; he died in on 11 June 1954 in Multnomah County. There are several John Sawyers in the index, but only one with the right middle initial…and that same one is also the only one in Multnomah County (which includes Portland). Then I went to GenealogyBank.com, which has over 100 years of The [Portland] Oregonian. There I found an obituary for John “Jack” P. Sawyer. It’s short and doesn’t include a list of survivors, so I’ll have to wait until the death certificate arrives to confirm that this is the right man. Muriel Wri[ght] Sawyer is also listed in the Oregon death index; she died in Multnomah County on 18 January 1975. Oregon restricts access to death certificates that are fewer than 50 years old, so I can’t get hers just yet, and GenealogyBank‘s images of The Oregonian stop in 1972. I’ll have to wait until they add a few more years to the collection before I can pull Muriel’s obituary. I did search for both of them in the rest of The Oregonian index, though, and found a number of mentions of Muriel Sawyer. She was apparently very active in women’s clubs and literary groups, and was at one point a columnist for the “Voice of the American Woman.” I’ll have to wait to get that obituary to see if this is the right Muriel, but if so, I can’t wait to learn more about her. She sounds cool.
- Oscar Conrad Lauby turned up easily in the Minnesota death index; he died on 15 December 1970 in Hennepin County (which includes Minneapolis). Nina Beatrice Lauby died there on 11 September 1989. None of the databases I use have the Minneapolis newspapers for these years, but I’ll be taking a research trip to the Wisconsin Historical Society’s library in Madison soon, and I believe they have them. For each couple I also checked the Minnesota birth index with the surname and mother’s maiden name, to see if I could find any children. In the case of this couple I hit pay dirt: Beverly Nina Lauby was born on 9 February 1925, and Walter Wright Lauby was born on 7 January 1927. The Minnesota Historical Society owns this collection, and you can order the birth certificates and receive them instantly online (how cool is that?). Both certificates confirm that these are the children of Oscar Conrad Lauby and Nina Beatrice Wright. I’ve already found living descendants of these children. Yay!
- Homer T. Malm was also in the Minnesota death index, which shows that died on 14 February 1947 (just a week before his brother-in-law, Karl Seifert) in Ramsey County (which includes St. Paul). Daisy D. Malm died on 18 March 1957, also in Ramsey County. I also spent a bit of time working on that mystery “son,” Daniel Malm, who was living with Homer and Daisy in the 1930 census. I ordered his birth certificate and got it instantly online; his name was Daniel Carl Malm, and he was born to Daniel Malm and Esther Paske Malm in South St. Paul on 17 June 1919. There’s a Daniel Malm in the Minnesota death index who died on 13 February 1936. His date of birth isn’t listed, so I’ll have to wait until the record arrives to see whether it’s the same kid. I also looked for his parents, Daniel and Esther. There was a Daniel Malm who died on 1 March 1922, and an Esther Malm who died a week later. Both died in Dakota County, which includes South St. Paul (the city where they lived in the 1920 census). If this couple is young Daniel’s parents, it might explain why he was living with his Uncle Homer and his wife eight years later. I’ll know more when the records arrive.
- Edward S. Lacombe was listed in the Oregon death index; he died in Hood River County on 5 July 1964. Vera also died there, on 5 February 1980. Both are too recent to order death certificates, and I couldn’t find an online newspaper for Hood River County, so I’ll have to do some old-fashioned legwork to find out more about them.
So that was four hours well-spent. I’ve got some great leads here. I know a lot more about the Wright sisters, and I have $146 worth of vital records on the way, which means I can eagerly watch for the mail carrier every day for the next month or so. And all before 6am!
The Disclaimer: Internet research is a lot like Pop-Tarts. It’s delicious, and you can’t wait to have it, and you have a smile on your face when you’re done…but a steady diet of it will kill you. The meat-and-potatoes stuff comes in the form of real research, and that’s where you actually prove that these are the right people, and that they did the things you think they did. I won’t enter any of these people into my database until I’ve seen the vital records that tie them together. When I do, I’ll cite my sources. Then I’ll look for supporting documentation, like courthouse records, books, periodicals, WAY more newspaper research, cemeteries, yearbooks, correspondence with living relatives…lots and lots of stuff. That’s the difference between real genealogy and…well, Pop-Tarts.
Note: You can learn more about affiliate links like the ones above here.
Pop-Tart photo by Amy Loves Yah. The other photos are from my own collection.