Sunday, March 1, 2015

Stories Old as Time, or My Search Begins.

As a person born and raised in Utah, as a descendant of Mormon pioneers, genealogy is very nearly a part of my DNA. By the time I was 12 years old, I could diagram 4 generations of my ancestry off the top of my head. From my earliest childhood, I knew of the people who came by wagon, handcart, and train to live in the Land of Deseret--as the piece of Mexico they settled was once known.

Genealogy is more than a hobby in the LDS (Mormon) religion. It is a responsibility-part of The literal gathering of Israel. While missionaries are sent to invite the living inhabitants of Earth to join with us, the membership are expected to research their ancestors, and by proxy, give them the same invitation the earthly missionaries share. Data necessary to establish existence, identity, and familial connection are required in this work.

Of course, there is more to genealogy than dry data. In the process of looking for the people that precede you, their stories will unfold, tied by circumstance to the events of history. World War II might only be something you read about, until you learn your grandfather was at Iwo Jima. Horrors like the Holocaust or chattel slavery are only chapters in textbooks or scenes in movies, until you find your ancestor listed as an inventory item, just another line in a ledger ?

I was 10 or younger when my step-mother took me to the big Family History Library in Salt Lake City. She was searching through microfilms of the Federal census. She gave me a surname to look for, made sure to tell me that it might be spelled several different ways, and I was a researcher.

Within Mormonism, the gathering of one's ancestors has been a tenet from the beginning. One of the great tragedies told in my paternal family lore was that of handcart pioneers forced to leave behind the papers with their genealogy. Somewhere in Iowa, my 3x Great grandfather Thomas Evans left the records he spent years gathering in Wales, and they were never recovered.

Not ALL Mormons are caught up in genealogy, but my family certainly was.

Because of this, and my youth, I felt no sense of urgency to research my ancestry. So many generations ahead of me had been keeping those records, what could I do but copy what they had written before? When I moved to New Jersey and was married for the first time, my husband's family tree was ripe for harvest. His heritage was drastically different from mine, and heralded from a completely different geographic area of the United States than my predecessors. In preparation for future children, I set about researching his side of our family.  We had no children, and eventually divorced, but a part of me is forever tied to the stories I heard from his parents, cousins, and historical records. A result of part of that adventure is included here.

Shortly before returning to Utah, I made a last minute visit to the Goshen, NY Cemetery. Some of my ancestors are buried there. I lived within 100 miles of this cemetery for nearly 20 years, and never once thought to look for my people. Finally, with only days before my departure, I zigzagged all over that cemetery in a rainstorm, trying to find a headstone with any one of several names tied to my tree. I found nothing that day.

Back in Utah, I decided to tackle my maternal line. I would just make sure the documentation was in place for the history I knew already--4 or 5 generations of Shepherds in Utah--and then work on the "dead end" from New York over to England.

By this time in my life, my maternal grandmother Norma had already died, but my mother was still alive. I began to verify details like birth dates, baptisms, marriages, and deaths. I searched records and gathered documents, checking off boxes like a champ. One day, I was looking for my grandmother's baptism record. (A note here may be in order--in Mormonism, baptism is an ordinance performed when the child is 8 years old, not as a rite of birth). As an interconnected, but international religion, the LDS church keeps fastidious records-as fastidious as the clerk assigned to the job, anyway. Each congregation notes when a family moves in or out of their boundaries and enters data for ordinances performed.

Norma's birth certificate said she was born in 1931 in Spanish Fork, Utah; to Mose and Lillie Shepherd. Spanish Fork was an early Utah settlement, but still a small town in the 1930s. I found Mose Shepherd and his family pretty quickly. There was one problem, though. Mose and Lillie's oldest and youngest daughters-that would be Blanche and Norma, respectively-were not listed in the ledger with the family when they moved from Salt Lake City. Going further into the congregational records, I found Norma added to the membership rolls as a toddler, and at a different time than Mose and Lillie. How could that happen ?  

It doesn't take a broad stretch of the imagination to form the theory that came to my mind. With the oldest daughter, Blanche, missing, I surmised that Norma was really her daughter, and somehow came to be raised by Mose and Lillie. With only a few perfunctory searches into Utah civil records, I knew my theory was valid. My plans of searching English immigrants and New York settlers were instantly derailed.

The first of several holes in my family tree had been blown open.

On the left, Lillie C. Shepherd and on the right, Norma Shepherd.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Dance Halls and Dark Alleys

A number of years ago, I thought I would “tidy up” my maternal genealogical line so I could set about seriously researching those roots from before their time on the American continent. Having been born into a family of people culturally inclined to record their family trees, I thought it would only be a matter of finding appropriate documents to verify the known data for the first 4-6 generations.

It was not long before I found that I had a family secret or two that affected the accuracy of my genealogical record. One such discovery was of my maternal great-grandmother, Blanche. I had heard next to nothing about her. Of course, there was a reason for that. She and her sister Faye, were involved in serious criminal activities in Sacramento, CA.  Blanche was murdered in 1937, when her daughter, Norma (my grandmother) was only 6 years old. After obtaining and reading the inquest, it became clear that there was more to her murder than officially reported. (The Center for Sacramento History found a mugshot of Blanche, check out my very first blog post here-titled "By Way of Introduction" for more on that.)

Faye continued in criminal enterprises throughout California and Hawaii until she returned home a few years before her death in 1968, leaving intricate lies and half-exposed secrets in her angry wake.

I determined to learn as much as I could about the people surrounding Blanche and Faye during their time in Sacramento. I learned about their friend Kleta. I read about a WWI veteran who returned from war, and established a betting hall, but since he defied the established numbers kingpin, he was raided repeatedly by the police in an attempt to bring him down. I am forever searching for Faye's alias(es), hoping make more connections to determine who else was involved.

I am searching for the person who would have wanted Blanche dead. Who did she cross? Faye had told some in the family that Blanche had ‘talked to people she shouldn’t have”. The family narrative held that Faye and Kleta had immediately fled Sacramento in fear after Blanche’s death. I have come to find that this was not true.

The Center for Sacramento History, and the Sacramento Room (within the Central City Library) provided me with a wealth of guidance and resources. Mugbooks, property ownership maps, city directories—these all helped to build a picture of 1930s Sacramento for me.

 Who ordered Blanche’s death? Ruling out Frank Nisetich-the man mentioned above, whose betting hall, The Equipoise, survived the pressure of crooked cops and other syndicates; I sought to find the person most likely to have held the power in Sacramento vice. This brought me to N.N.S. Matcovich-otherwise known as “Big Nick”.

Big Nick was a prominent and enterprising member of Sacramento business. He owned the St. George Hotel, in which he established an "employment service". He provided agricultural laborers to local employers. The laborers lived in this hotel, paying Matcovich both for room and board, and also a commission for finding them work. Big Nick likely collected a fee from the agricultural companies, as well.

Agricultural laborers at this time were primarily single men. A large majority of the men were of Filipino heritage, or other immigrants, and people of color. At this time in California, Filipino people were considered to be a sub-class of society. The men were legally banned from being seen with white women.

In addition to the hotel, Nick owned several liquor stores and dance halls.  Known as Taxi Dance halls, these were places men could come and pay to dance with one of the many girls there. A dancer would have a ticket book, with stubs for each dance. The man could pay a dime for one dance. The dancer kept a nickel, and the other nickel went to “the House”. In addition to dancing, the women were expected to encourage the men to buy drinks for her and him. In some establishments, a commission on alcohol sold was paid to the woman. While full price was charged for each drink, the dancer would generally be given colored sugar water, though I am sure an occasional full-strength drink made its way to a thirsty dancer now and then. 

Several of Matcovitch’s dance halls were known as “Black & Tan” dance halls, because they were intended for people of color who were not allowed to enter the other dance halls (he owned one of these segregated clubs as well). Sacramento citizens fought against the opening of such establishments, but Nick convinced City Hall, and he was in business.

An extension of the dance hall market, was not surprisingly, sex trafficking. While heavily implicated-both in his own time, and in my research-Big Nick managed to escape prosecution for his certain role in the sexual exploitation of women and girls in Sacramento. Having read the file from his first divorce, it was clear that Nick reveled in his power and held no regard for women.

I have not found anything resembling firm documentation of Nick’s involvement in my great grandmother’s death-but he remains my prime suspect.  I continue to search, building biographies of the people webbed together by their places of work or residence, their marriages, and shared encounters with law enforcement. Blanche, Kleta, and Faye, materialize before me, enticing me down alleys and into the pages of books ripe with musty vanilla and secrets exposed.


Thursday, February 28, 2013


Here is my maternal line--six generations in photos.

Somewhere in this line is the story I am supposed to tell.  Multiple threads run between these women and myself--more than physical characteristics, and beyond things traditionally attributed to heredity.

It's as if from mother to mother, some work was commissioned. Hands on their young one, passing dreams and weaknesses, fears and strengths with each touch--changing the shape of the birthright as it moved through the years.

No daughter of my own, the commission must come to light through my hands another way.

Years at this, opening doors, shining light, and I still don't know how to begin. The call doesn't fade, and I never know where I will end up as I repeatedly step into secrets and hidden history. Searching for truths that were buried, weights that were borne, and brilliant flashes of happiness.  I feel them with me, I know there is a need to be understood, redeemed, and loved. I know this, because I need it, too.

I may be an old woman when it happens, but someday I will hold my birthright in my hands and show you what these women gave me.

Monday, September 10, 2012

This Land is Your Land . .

John H. Patrick is my Great grandfather.  This is his signature from his Land Entry File. A Land Entry File is the record that documents the transfer of public lands from the United States to private ownership.

From the National Archives website :

"The Homestead Act established a three-fold homestead acquisition process: filing an application, improving the land, and filing for deed of title. Any U.S. citizen, or intended citizen, who had never borne arms against the U.S. Government could file an application and lay claim to 160 acres of surveyed Government land. For the next 5 years, the homesteader had to live on the land and improve it by building a 12-by-14 dwelling and growing crops. After 5 years, the homesteader could file for his patent (or deed of title) by submitting proof of residency and the required improvements to a local land office."

 "These files can contain a wealth of genealogical and legal information. Depending upon the type and time period of land entry, the case file may yield only a few facts already known to the researcher, or it may present new insights about ancestors, family history, title, and land use issues."

In my Great Grandfather's case, we already have known much about his life.  Living long, writing and telling family stories, he left us with quite a record.  I am one of the older great-grandchildren, and Grandpa lived to 104, so I was able to know him personally.

So what could this 42 page record do for me ?

In the stack of papers, there were witness statements, affidavits, and claimant verification forms.  Ah, government and paperwork are not newlyweds, for sure.  But in all these forms, between all the dry legalese, were pieces of my great grandparents' lives--the details that so often get brushed over in deference to bigger stories of special events and milestones.

A young married couple in the late Fall of 1914, John and Lura Patrick with their baby son, made a Homestead entry for 153 acres in Spanish Fork Canyon, Utah.  In less than 2 weeks, with the help of three hired men, John had built their house-one room, 14' x 16'.  I don't know if they felled the trees themselves or bought lumber, but either way we do know the wood did not come from the land he contracted. The site was described as clay, rock, and scrub oak-with no big timber for a house.  Materials would have to be brought up by horse and wagon.

After building the house, now in November, the land had to be cleared in order to plant. In addition to his own two horses, John hired two men with teams, and they "cleared, grubbed, and plowed 18 acres of land; and planted 10 acres of wheat".  Cold weather stopped any further land clearing, so John set to work on preparing fenceposts--160 of them.

So began a pattern of living on the ranch from Spring to December, planting and clearing, building and improving.  Winters the family would travel back into town, rent a place to live, and John would find work, as a miner or blacksmith in order to raise money for the next Spring's provisions.

Setbacks and obstacles were ever-present. One year, he was "taken down" by appendicitis. Weeks bedridden and a stay at the Provo hospital, disrupted his farming-rendering 10 acres of wheat unsuitable for sale. It would be used as feed for the livestock.  Another year, a flood swept over his land, leaving a layer of rocks over his fields. It took a month to haul the rock off. 

To fence the entire tract took longer than one season, and left parts of his land unprotected. Range cattle had to be herded away. When his fence was complete, he had to deal with the angry government ranchers who had been accustomed to letting their herd water at his spring.

Over the years, they planted wheat, oats, and potatoes. A cellar was dug, and a well, also.  At the end of five years, he was required to submit proof of all his improvements. Three additional witnesses attested to John's marital status and residency.  In these certificates and witness papers are names my grandmother remembers from her youth. One of the men hired to help build the fence was named as John's step-brother.

Years passed after having been granted this land before John was able to buy a house in Springville.  That first winter, the family did not get to live in their new home.  John's load of seed potatoes for the next year's planting got wet on the wagon-ride down from the canyon.  The family stayed somewhere else while the potatoes were spread out on the floor of the new house, being kept dry and warm, turned over repeatedly to keep them from rotting. If there was no Spring planting, there would be no money, and they would lose the house. Those potatoes got top priority.

My great-grandparents farmed their whole lives, providing for their family, one hard year at a time. For me, gardening is a hobby, kind of a therapeutic luxury.  I sigh when my Amana orange tomatoes get blossom-end rot, and I wonder what I will ever do with all this basil. 

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

On the Shelf--somewhere . . .

This is Main Street, Springville, Utah.  The picture had to have been taken prior to 1914.  I know this because the man standing on the left is my great grandfather, John H. Patrick.  He is standing in front of his blacksmith shop.  With the advance of automobiles, John knew the end was coming for blacksmithing.  He and his wife Lura, took their one year old firstborn along when they went to look at a piece of land in Spanish Fork Canyon, and through the Homestead Act, they acquired "The Ranch" as it is known in our family. The blacksmith business was sold, and the building and its contents moved to another location. The son carried up the canyon was born in 1913, giving a cutoff date.  John H. worked the ranch in the summer, digging hundred of holes for fenceposts and clearing the land. In the winter, he would return to Springville, and continue to work as a blacksmith in those months.

Alternatively, this picture represents a variety of genealogical resources. 

The larger building on the right housed the photo studio of George Edward Anderson, and he is the photographer responsible for this image. Below his studio is a store called "The Golden Rule"--the precursor to JC Penney.  George Edward Anderson photographed much of Utah County-both street scenes and portraiture.  Thousands of his photographs are in a searchable digital collection available online through BYU.  You can type in a family name or location and possibly find your Utah County ancestor, their home, or place of business.  I have found several. 

Now, we have always had a copy of this picture--just not a very good one. Our copy was cropped and "stepped on" by being reproduced many times through the years.  I wanted a better copy.  It turns out this particular photo was NOT in the digital collection. 

A friend from Springville with an ardent interest in history makes it a habit to attend the local Historical Society meetings, and to browse their archive of photos and newspapers.  I asked him to keep a "lookout" for this picture.  Upstairs from the Historical Society is the Springville Daughters of Utah Pioneers (DUP) Museum. They also have an extensive collection of photos, life sketches, and pioneer artifacts. It was in their collection that my friend found this much improved copy.

If your ancestor came to Utah during the Pioneer Era, chances are that you could find something relevant to your genealogy in one of the small town DUP museums, or even in the newly renovated State DUP Museum in Salt Lake City.  Research is encouraged, and volunteer assistance is available at each location.

Not to be overlooked is the resource of friends and family. I had visited the DUP myself, and somehow not found this. The more people who are in on your search, the better your results will be.

Many photographers donated their negative plates to local universities.  Additionally, your spinster great aunt who hoarded all those papers, photos, and journals ?  She might have donated them to a college or municipal library.  They could be just sitting there, waiting for you . . .

Monday, May 28, 2012

Memorial Day

These are my grandmother's peonies.  

As a side-effect of my parents' divorce and my father's remarriage, I have THREE grandmothers.  When I was an adolescent, one of my younger siblings ( I can't recall which one) thought it wasn't fair that I had an extra grandmother. What can I say, I was lucky.

All three of my grandmothers had been young women during World War II.  Perhaps this, along with traditions of the time, led to one of the common threads I experienced with each of them--Memorial Day visits to the cemetery.  

While I remember taking flowers with each of them to their respective family plots, no one prepared for Memorial Day as thoroughly as Grandma Beth. She dedicated a large portion of her beautiful yard to beds of peonies and iris specifically for Memorial Day flower arrangements.  

Honoring and remembering family members was lively and colorful--the flowers and the stories.  Much of what I know about my ancestors was told to me in a cemetery. 

Even gardening to me has generational pull...I have tried to gather parts of floral family history and carry the pieces with me.  Iris, roses, and these peonies have history I remember every time they bloom.

Today is Memorial Day, and I will be going to the cemetery with my one remaining grandmother.  We will undoubtedly run into cousins, and stories will be retold about the people whose grave sites we are visiting.   This is tradition.  What can I say--I am lucky.

Sunday, May 6, 2012



This is Faye, my grandmother's aunt.   She holds the keys to one of the biggest mysteries in my family tree.

It is Faye's sister, Blanche, who I recently discovered to be my hidden great-grandmother.  My grandmother Norma would have only been 5 years old when Blanche was murdered. Even before being orphaned, Norma was being raised by Faye and Blanche's parents as their own.  I do not know when or how Norma was told about her true parentage, but the secret was kept for decades.

There were many reasons for the secrecy.  By almost any measure, Faye and Blanche were the source of scandal for their family.  Besides the more typical things such as divorce and illegitimate birth, both Faye and Blanche were involved in nefarious (and apparently profitable) activities. By all accounts, Faye was in charge.  Blanche was the older sister, but never as tough as Faye.

The girls' father, Mose, was hard working, but poor.  The best job he ever had was as a mechanic for the Denver Rio Grande Railroad.  By the time this picture was taken, it was the Great Depression, and Mose was scraping by, herding sheep in the Utah mountains.  Blanche had tried, and fairly succeeded, to marry her way out of poverty.  Her first husband was from a well-off and respectable family.  When Blanche married her second husband, Norma's father, they lived in an apartment in the rich side of town, where the rent was four times what her father Mose was paying for his house. 

Faye left school early, and worked in a Salt Lake City ice cream parlor.  Could this be where she met her first husband ?  I don't know.  I have yet to track down any civil or church document for their union.  The only reason I even know his name is because one day, Faye's little brother was looking for his birth certificate.  Rifling through the Victrola cabinet where his mother kept all important papers, Lee found a Post Office Wanted poster-there was the face of his uncle Philip Chadwick, Faye's husband.  The flyer is long gone, but Lee pointed Philip out to me in a family group photo. The name is likely an alias, and I have not found any matching records of Faye or Philip.

I don't know what ever became of Philip, but Faye left Utah for Sacramento sometime before 1932.  This picture was actually taken on one of her visits home.  I imagine it was this trip when Blanche decided to try her luck in California.  Her second divorce is dated 1934.  Not much longer after this, Norma is listed in her grandparents' church congregation--as their daughter.

It was in the Coroner's inquest transcript of Blanche's murder that I found her alias--Dorothy Owens.  Someone identifying herself as a sister was interviewed at the time, and gave her name as Patsy Owens.  With these names, and an archivist's help, Blanche's mugshot as Dorothy was discovered at the Center for Sacramento History. Arrested with Blanche was a friend who used the alias Leta Owens. One look at her picture, and I could tell she was definitely NOT Faye.  I visited the Center myself, and searched through the mugbooks--I could not find anyone who resembled  Faye.  Since the girls came west in 1933, and Blanche was killed in 1937, there was no census taken in that time.  I did search City Directories, and found Dorothy and Leta, but not Faye.

As for the murder, Faye's account to the family and the coroner's inquest are vastly different.  Reading the inquest, it is clearly fiction.  Police corruption and vice are extensively documented in the newspapers of the time.  According to the family story, both Faye and Leta fled Sacramento immediately following Blanche's death.

Faye went to Hawaii.  She continued to return home on occasion, visits punctuated with trips to the bank to stash jewelry and cash.  Faye carried a handgun, and her Hawaiian husband ran a Tailor shop in Hilo, supposedly as a front for his heroin trade.  Faye's brother Lee could only tell me the husband's last name.  Another marriage document I have yet to locate . . .

In 1961, Faye came home to Utah after some trouble in Hawaii.  A friend had written home to Faye's mother, telling tales of outlandish behavior, public drunkenness, and morphine addiction. The friend said Faye had been taken to the hospital's psych ward.  The friend's letter, and those from Faye before this incident, came from an area notorious in Hawaii for prostitution and opium.

Lee drove his mother to Salt Lake to retrieve Faye.  They picked her up downtown-not at the airport. Her head was shaved and wrapped in a scarf to cover marks she said came from a fire. Supposedly the Tailor shop had burned down, and her husband died.  Before getting in the car, Faye pulled some papers out of her purse, crumpled and threw them to the ground. She set them on fire, and when they were completely destroyed, got into the car to go home.

Faye's erratic behavior continued, and she was admitted several times for treatment at the State Hospital.  I have read through her records, and not once did she give the true name of her Hawaiian husband.  Faye never had children, and died in 1968-taking her secrets with her.

I wrote to the Hawaiian Police department, and was rewarded with four accident reports and one incident report.  With these, I can place Faye and her husband in Hawaii as early as 1949.  I also confirmed that her story of a fire and dead husband was not true. I waited excitedly for the 1940 census, since I now know the street she lived on while married.  I searched the appropriate enumeration district and somehow cannot find her house number there, or any household that resembles hers.  Now I am waiting for the indexing to be completed.

Her lifetime of eluding detection has colored and thwarted my research.  I want clues to who really killed my great-grandmother in Sacramento, but without Faye's alias and their associates, I have only hypotheses.