Monday, August 23, 2010

Monday Madness: Family Myths

Jennie Cole Kint Purdy Phelps
Many years ago, my grandfather told me two very interesting things about his grandmother Jennie. One, she could remember the day that President Lincoln was assassinated and two, she lost her father very young when he died in a Confederate Prison Camp. As usual, these family stories don't quite hold up.

Jennie was born on April 14, 1864, exactly one year before Abraham Lincoln was shot. Remember? I doubt it.

As far as her father, the story goes that when Jennie was only six weeks old, he was working on the roof and was conscripted into the Union Army when the troops passed by their house. Allegedly, he died in a Confederate prison camp shortly after that. While still very young, Jennie was sent to live with her maternal grandparents Asa and Mary (Eastman) Cole because her mother's new husband didn't like having her around.

When I first started researching my family, this was one of the first things that I tackled: Who was Jennie's dad?

Unfortunately, I found more questions than answers. For one thing, why was Jennie's surname her mother's maiden name? Why didn't she seem to have any contact with her father's family? Where is her mother's "first" marriage record? Why was her mother listed as "Amanda Cole" on her "second" marriage record? Why is there no record of a pension application for herself or her mother? Jennie lived a very long time (1950) and had six children, so why didn't anyone seem to have the slightest idea what her father's name was?

For most of you, I think the answer is pretty clear.  Jennie was, in all likelihood, illegitimate and that "romantic" story was made up to protect her and/or her mother and family. Who knows, Jennie, herself, may have even believed it.

Nevertheless, she still had to have a father, right?

I have a nice big empty hole in my family tree that I would very much like to fill in. However, I don't have much to go on. According to the 1860 Federal Census, Jennie's mother Amanda Cole was living in Peninsula, Grand Traverse, Michigan working as a domestic for an Avery family. She was about 19 years old then. Jennie could have been fathered by someone in that household, but that is more than three years before her conception. It is difficult, if not downright impossible, to determine if she was living/working there for that long.

On May 8, 1866, Amanda married John Ira Grandy in Kane County, Illinois. I have never been able to find Jennie's birth record (of course!), but she was said to have been born in Illinois, so Amanda may have been there by 1864. Jennie was just two when her mother married Mr. Grandy, so, at least, the story of her being sent to live with her grandparents makes sense. As further confirmation of this part of the story, she is found living with the Asa and Mary Cole in the 1870 Federal Census in Wisconsin.

Almost ten years have passed and I am no closer to finding out who Jennie's father was, however, I have learned to be skeptical of family stories. As a researcher, it is very important to realize that many of these stories are nothing more than folklore and fables. If we are lucky, they just might have a gleaming kernel of truth that can lead us to the answers we are seeking. Then again, I have discovered that, sometimes, only our DNA will whisper the secrets of our ancestors.

**Read more about Jennie here.


  1. Wow, how weird to have stumbled onto your post today. I grew up in Traverse City (well not in 1860 ;)and across the street from us were the Avery's! Ok, so what right but what a coinkidink.
    What brought Jennie's mother to Grand Traverse and when? Alot of my Lillie's and Youker's for example came to G.T. c1860's from Pennsylvania with alot of other people from the same area in Penn. That helped me when looking for the 'clan'. Have you contacted Brenda Wolfgram Moore @ Grand Traverse genweb, she might have some ideas.

  2. Interesting story by the way how lucky to have so many photos of the stages of her life.

  3. Holly,
    That is funny!
    Very good points you make. Amanda Cole and her family came from Perrysburg, Cattaraguas, New York sometime between June 1855 and 1860 when they were enumerated on the census in GT. I have not contacted Brenda, but I will and I do appreciate the point in the right direction. My Moore line also came through Michigan, so who knows, maybe she (or her husband) is related to me!
    I am so happy to have Jennie's photos. I do wish I had the younger ones though. I am told that she was VERY beautiful. Her daughter donated boxes of her photos to the Salvation Army in 1950. These probably included her wedding photos and photos of my great great grandfather Jonathan Purdy who I have never seen at all.
    Thanks so much for commenting!