The Click Bait of Its Day

I was recently contacted by the spouse of a cousin asking why I had someone listed as a spouse of E. H. Taft on my tree.  I looked and scratched my head. No earthly idea why I put that woman as his spouse, so she got removed. This was the first time a descendant of my William Watson and Annabelle Gibson had contacted me, so I jumped at the opportunity to learn more.

E. H. Taft is actually Charles H Taft. He was married to Rebecca Walker Watson. Rebecca Walker Watson was named for her maternal grandmother Rebecca Walker. Among the information I was given about Mr. Taft was a juicy tidbit about his death being reported on the front page of many newspapers because, it was claimed, he was a second cousin to President William Howard Taft. Intrigued, I scoured for more information. At first I didn’t get any results, so I turned to the Colorado Historic Newspaper Collection. There I had better luck.

San Juan Prospector 21 Jan 1909 page 1

The above piece was picked up by a number of Colorado newspapers. I realized from these that my search on had the wrong parameters. Armed with a specific date, and dropping the middle initial, I began finding results.

The following piece caught my eye because it put the storm in context.


This one is the clincher, though. The Hearst News Service got their hands on this story and applied some creative license to make the story more sensational. A tactic we recognize today as click bait.


Of course no one would have cared about any of this except for the claim that Charles H Taft was the 2nd cousin of President Taft. We know how common it is for these kinds of claims to be made by and about family. I have a biography of an ancestor published in a ‘brag book’ where the claim was made that the subject was related to Leonard Wood, and his wife a full 1st cousin to Samuel Houston. Neither panned out.

To be a full 2nd cousin, both people need to share a set of great-grandparents. I don’t know how well-vetted this is, but if it had glaring errors in it, I’m pretty sure some knowledgeable genealogist would have challenged it. Here’s a Wikipedia entry that outlines the ancestry of President Taft. His father was Alphonso Taft, grandfather was Peter Rawson Taft, and his great-grandfather was Aaron Taft (1743–1808).

Let’s take a peak-see at Charles H Taft. Charles married Rebecca 8 Jun 1904.1  As we see above, he died in 1909. He does not, then, appear in any US census as married to Rebecca. We learn from the 1900 Census that he was born Apr 1874 in Wisconsin to a father born in New York and a mother born in Pennsylvania.2  

1880 Census Whitewater, Walworth, Wisconsin, ED 239, pg 265A 3

There he is with his father H.L. Taft (born NY) and mother Mary (born PA), and widowed grandmother E.H. Taft (born CT).

1870 Census, Whitewater, Walworth, Wisconsin, pg 295A 4

Now we learn that H.L. is Henry. Mary’s birth state is given as New York rather than PA.

1860 Census, Albion, Oswego, New York, pg 168-169

Now we find Henry living with Mary in what looks to be his father’s household. Mary is again listed as NY, and Henry’s mother Eliza H (E.H.) was born in CT. On the face of it, Henry’s father, is John L. Taft, born in CT. Oh look…at his age: 49. Born about 1811.

1850 Census, Albion, Oswego, New York, pg 141A 6

This census places John L Taft’s birth year at 1809. His Find-A-Grave Memorial lists his birth year as 1811. I’ve seen it suggested he was actually born in 1810.

I don’t know who is the great-grandfather of Charles H Taft. Given that Aaron Taft, the great-grandfather of President Taft, died in 1808, two to three years before John L Taft was born, it seems unlikely that Aaron Taft is John L’s father.

Were Charles H Taft and President Taft cousins? Entirely possible. Were they 2nd cousins? Highly unlikely. As much fun as it would have been if the newspaper reports were accurate, I’m going to chalk this up to ‘another family lore bites the dust’.


1 Colorado, County Marriages and State Indexes, 1862-2006

2 1900; Census Place: El Moro, Las Animas, Colorado; Roll: 126; Page: 7B; Enumeration District: 0068

3 1880; Census Place: Whitewater, Walworth, Wisconsin; Page: 265A; Enumeration District: 239

4 1870; Census Place: Whitewater, Walworth, Wisconsin, Page: 295A

5 1860; Census Place: Albion, Oswego, New York, Page: 168-169

6 1850; Census Place: Albion, Oswego, New York,Page: 141A


100 Years Ago Today

William Mitchell Watson
William Mitchell Watson

My great-great-grandfather was William Mitchell Watson. His death certificate, Civil War Pension file and obituary all confirm his birth date was 17 Mar 1842, in Neshannock, Lawrence (formerly Mercer), Pennsylvania. He died 12 July 1915 in Trinidad, Las Animas, Colorado. His parents were Alexander Johnston Watson and Susannah Mitchell; he had four younger brothers and two younger sisters. He was raised as a Presbyterian on the Watson farm/orchard/pottery factory. His Scotch-Irish family was active in the church.

He enrolled into Company H of the 100th PA Infantry (aka the Roundheads) on 28 Aug 1861 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The Roundheads were ordered to Port Royal Harbor on the coast of South Carolina. After a storm-tossed voyage they arrived on November 5th of 1861. Following fighting in such battles as Secessionville and Bull Run, William’s military career was unceremoniously ended at Chantilly, Virginia on September 1st, 18621 when he was shot in the backside by either a musket or mini ball. He was taken to the Emory hospital in Washington DC, and discharged honorably from there on December 23rd, 1862.

He returned to the New Castle, Pennsylvania area and began 51 years of marriage to Miss Anna Belle Gibson on 28 April 1864.

Anna Belle Gibson Watson
Anna Belle Gibson Watson

They remained in the New Castle area until at least 1876 where they had six daughters and one son who all survived to adulthood.

I haven’t sorted out all the places that William lived yet. The Civil War pension has details about his whereabouts that conflict from one telling to the next. They seem to have gone back and forth between New Castle, Pennsylvania, Wilson, Kansas and various points in Colorado. All this migration will probably warrant its own post, but that’s for another time. It seems clear what made all this movement possible: the railroad. Wilson, Kansas was a favored destination of Texas cattle drovers wanting to get their beef to market by train, free of harassment by settlers complaining about their crops being trampled.2 The Watsons settled north of the Kansas Pacific railway tracks in Highland Township, Lincoln, Kansas. They were farmers, but William is also listed in the 1885 Kansas State Census as an engineer. I’m going to guess that meant on the railroad. His brother Cornelius was an engineer, too.

In addition to working for the railroad and being a farmer, I’ve found listings for his employment as a stationery engraver, a silver miner and he worked in a laundry, probably the laundry my great-grandmother ended up owning. It’s been fun reading the list of Colorado mining towns he worked in: Carbondale, Caribou, Red Cliff, Leadville, Freedland and Cripple Creek. Some are ghost towns now, which is kinda cool.

I admire him and his wife for keeping their family together the entire time, no matter what was going on in the world, or where they were in it, they remained close. Respectability was important to him. So was patriotism. He was one of the charter members of the Grand Army of the Republic Post #25 in Trinidad, Colorado. His military service was a great source of pride for him.

1913 Trinidad, Colorado. William is the man walking between the rail tracks.
1913 Trinidad, Colorado. William is the man walking between the rail tracks.

Anna Belle was the author of his obituary. She was proud of him, and about him she wrote:

On the fourth of this month, though scarcely able to stand he placed a number of large flags about the Hindman home and spent the greater part of the day under their tri-colored folds.

You see that bullet was never removed from its place next to his tailbone. He lived with it and the pain (from the resulting rheumatism) his entire married life. A few days after the Fourth of July he was released from that pain and buried with military honors in the Masonic cemetery. Six months later Anna Belle joined him there. I visited the cemetery a few years ago. It is still lovingly maintained by the community.

Thank you for your service to our Union, great-great grandfather William. May you rest in peace.



2 Guide Map of the Best and Shortest Cattle Trail to the Kansas Pacific Railway: with a concise and accurate description of the route: showing distances, streams, crossings, camping grounds, wood and water, supply stores, etc. from the Red River Crossing. Kansas Pacific Railway Company. Ramsey Millett & Hudson printers, Kansas City, Mo. (Date unknown);view=1up;seq=4

(I’ll come back later to fill in the rest of the citations. This post is time-sensitive.)

First Generation American

All four of my great-grandmothers are either First Generation American or Immigrants. All four of them married men who come from families with deep roots in the colonies. Anna Ophelia Horneman Slemmer was the first of her family to be born on American soil.

Horneman, Anna work outfit
Anna Horneman

Friedrich Peter Joachim Simon Horneman married Maria Dorothea Elizabeth Spohn on 12 July 1863 in Wittenberge, Germany.1 In the four years following they had three children; two died in infancy. On the 26th of May, 1869 Friedrich, Maria, Friedrich Jr and the widow Elizabeth Spohn (Maria’s mother) set sail for America from Hamburg, Germany on the Germania.2 Two years and three days later, Anna Otillic Hedwig was born in Minonk, Illinois.

Anna's baptism record from St Paul's Lutheran Church in Minonk, Illinois
Anna’s baptism record from St Paul’s Lutheran Church in Minonk, Illinois

She later changed her middle name to Ophelia.

I’m fortunate to have this family mentioned in one of those county brag books, so I can check records I find against what was written there.3 There were two subjects of that biography: Anna’s father Fred S who was a prominent business man in the small town of Minonk, and her brother Fred W who was Mayor of Minonk at the time of publication. Sadly her brother Fred W died of Tuberculosis four years after the biography was published.4

Hard work was a central theme with this family and Anna was no exception. Her father is listed as laborer on the Hamburg Passenger list. Years later he had saved enough money to purchase one of the towns four grain elevators. It’s a classic tale of migrating for opportunity and hard work paying off.

Horneman Grain Elevator 2nd from the right.
Horneman Grain Elevator 2nd from the right.5

My mother told me that Anna worked as a secretary at that grain elevator. I believe that the photo of her at the beginning of this post is her work outfit based on the style of the time for work wear for women.  Her younger brother Charles also worked at the grain elevator. Hard work and a strong education were important to the Horneman family. Everyone at the very least completed High School.

Anna’s sisters, Elizabeth Newcomer and Helmina Jeidel graduated from college and got medical degrees. Helmina was among the very earliest John’s Hopkins medical school classes that graduated women. She went on to complete a year of internship at John’s Hopkins and another year in Paris at the Pasteur Institute, then went on to become a noted specialist in children’s medicine.6 Elizabeth Newcomer was a Radiology specialist with a focus on cancer treatment.7 Even though Anna didn’t get a secondary education, she was no slouch intellectually. She belonged to a women’s study group in Colorado that covered a wide variety of topics from comparative religion, Shakespeare, history to food.8 Anna remained intellectually curious her whole life. The younger brothers who lived long enough to have families had a range of occupations: barkeepers, merchants and owning their own shops.

St Pauls Lutheran Church (Defunct?) Minonk, Illinois
St Pauls Lutheran Church (Defunct?) Minonk, Illinois

27 Jan 1892 when she was just 20, Anna married Edmund Charles Slemmer at the same church where she was baptized. Unfortunately, she also contracted tuberculosis. At the time there was a prevalent belief that moving to an arid climate was the best treatment, so she and Edmund moved to Raton, New Mexico.9 They owned their home, and he was a conductor for the Railroad. The cure didn’t work, so one of her lungs was removed. By 1919 they settled on a ranch in Parker, Douglas, Colorado. They got into the dairy business, and were by all accounts very successful at it.

Anna was an avid gardener, and a full partner in the business. She milked the cows every day, hauled the milk, cleaned the barns, repaired the farm equipment…you name it, she did it. All with only one lung. She was one tough bi-lingual German. I’m the first generation of that line to grow up not hearing German spoken in the home.

The fun challenge of writing about ancestors I’ve never met is the amount of research that’s required to cobble together enough information about someone to tell a story. It forces me to review and reevaluate every piece of information I’ve accumulated over the years; put it in context; see the big picture. This process exposes errors and reveals patterns I hadn’t noticed before. It’s taken me several days to write this post.

One pattern I noticed was that of infertility in this family. Yes, Maria and Friedrich had nine children. Seven of them survived to adulthood. Of those seven children only one had more than one child: the oldest Friedrich Jr. had four children. Of the six children born in America: Anna had one child; John died unmarried at age 25; Helmina had no children; Charles, Elizabeth and Robert each only had one child. That strikes me as odd.

Oh well. Anyway, back to Anna. She helped raise my mother for a few years of her early childhood. My mother speaks fondly of her, and with great admiration. I’ve enjoyed getting to know her through this process. After Edmund died in 1936, Anna sold the ranch. It’s a housing development now. She moved to the Olin Hotel in Denver to live out her remaining days. She died at age 74 on 11 Jan 1946 and is buried with her husband. They had been married for 44 years. She is a testament to what we can do if we put our minds to it in this lifetime. I wish I had had the chance to know her.


1 “Deutschland, Preußen, Brandenburg und Posen, Kirchenbuchduplikate 1794-1874,” Database with images, FamilySearch

2 Hamburg Passenger Lists, 1850-1934,

3 The Biographical record of Livingston and Woodford counties, Illinois. (1900). Chicago: S.J. Clarke Pub.

4 Woodford County, Illinois Clerk & Recorder’s Office, death certificate #23922

5 Photo courtesy of the Minonk Historian Jari Lynn Onckyn

6 Obituary, Denver Post, Denver, Colorado, 10 Aug 1939, pg 8

7 Obituary, Rocky Mountain News, Denver, Colorado, 4 Aug 1952, pg 5

8 Record Journal of Douglas County, various issues, Surname file at Douglas County Historical Society.

9 1910 US Census, New Mexico, Colfax, Raton, Ward 3, ED 39, pg 7A, HH# 160

Last Call for Alcohol

My father was an alcoholic. He died from cirrhosis of the liver 28 years ago.1

I recently watched the episode of Who Do You Think You Are? (US) that featured Sean Patrick Hayes, and was fascinated by the trail of Irishmen who drank too much and ended up leaving families behind to cope that they documented for him. It inspired me to take another look at the topic in my family.

I have enough distance from the issue now to be more objective about what I’m seeing when I analyze my ancestors. It turns out what I found wasn’t at all what I expected to find. When I looked at the evidence from the perspective of a genealogist instead of a descendant, the vague beliefs were clarified. I knew I had other alcoholics in my lineage, but to be truthful, they weren’t really where I thought they’d be, and it led me to form an entirely new conclusion.

You see my father’s father was not an alcoholic. His vice was cigars. However, his father, John Wesley Basford did have a drinking problem, that was the death of him.

John Wesley owned the first Barber shop in Ravenwood, Missouri.

Basford, John Wesley inside barber shop no note

Family lore, brought down through multiple branches of the family, states that John was alone in the Barber shop, attending to the fire one night. He passed out drunk on the floor and took a chill that became pneumonia. He died of pneumonia a few days later.2 He was only 37 when he died and left behind a widow, Anna, and 4 children ages 15, 10, 5 and 1. Anna was a dressmaker. The two oldest children (Nellie and my grandfather) are shown in the 1900 census as strippers in a cigar factory (that my grandfather would later own).3

Basford Cigar Company

It is unknown if John Wesley’s father Ransom had a drinking problem; we know one of Ransom’s brothers did. Ransom died at age 28, probably of tuberculosis, leaving John Wesley an orphan at age 8. John Wesley was raised by his grandparents Jonathan S. (previous post) and Guly. I’ve found no evidence of drinking being a problem in any of the previous generations. As things stand now, I’m going to speculate that alcoholism was an aberration in my paternal line.

Taking a look at my maternal line was an eye-opener. The women didn’t drink, but the men they married all had problems with booze. That doesn’t happen by accident.

My mother didn’t know her father Francis all that well. When she speaks of him, she basically spits out the words. She was petrified of him because he was a mean drunk. She lived with his parents for a few years during her childhood, and spent most of her time hiding from him in the barn when he came around. Her parents weren’t married, so most of her childhood was spent with her mother and grandmother. Her encounters with her father left a deep and lasting impression on her, and I’m convinced that unconsciously influenced her attraction to my father.

But what influenced my grandmother Doris’ attraction to Francis, a mean drunk who was unfaithful to his wife Marie?


He was a blond-haired, blue-eyed German. Like most alcoholics, I suspect he mastered the charming child presentation, which any woman shopping around for a father figure to fix would find irresistible. Near as I can piece together, it was a pretty intense romance. He even left his wife briefly to live with her when Doris was pregnant.4 [Insert Soap Opera script here.]

The root of Doris’ need for an alcoholic in her life leaps off the death certificate of her father, Clyde Francis Watson: Chronic Nephritis at age 57.5

These days that diagnosis tends to be attached to renal failure caused by overuse of Tylenol and/or ibuprofen. Family lore likes to sugar coat this diagnosis by calling it Bright’s Disease, but back in the 1930’s it was code for chronic alcohol abuse.

Watson, Clyde photo portrait
Clyde Francis Watson

There’s Clyde, a blond-haired, blue eyed, charming Scotch-Irishman who was unfaithful to his wife. I could point out that his father, William M. Watson also has a death certificate that reads Chronic Interstitial Nephritis,6 but because he saw action and was injured in the Civil War, and I need to learn more about his life, I’m going to give him a pass if he abused alcohol (he was in pain his whole adult life). Instead I’m going to focus on the previous statement, “…who was unfaithful to his wife.” Wow, did that cause a lot of problems for a lot of descendents over the years. Now we’re to the real reason why this cycle began.

Here’s the culprit:

Carl Gustav Johnson
Carl Gustav Johnson

See what I did there? I deliberately picked the most nefarious look for him. Yes, it was a studio picture, and those weren’t his clothes, but it’s emblematic of his rough and ready, hard-drinking railroad worker he was. His drinking did a number on my great-grandmother, Julia. He died at the age of 55, and yes, it says Nephritis on his death certificate.7 That’s backed up by family lore that he was a drunk.

One of the key characteristics of children of alcoholics is a hyper-sensitivity to betrayal. My great-grandmother was an extreme example of someone who exhibited a self-righteous lack of forgiveness–to the point of vindictiveness–toward anyone she perceived as causing her to feel betrayed. Julia was set up by her father’s drunkenness to choose a mate who drank. She not only never forgave her father, but she never forgave Clyde, and by extension all males as a result. After Clyde divorced her and married his girlfriend, Julia never remarried. To my knowledge, she didn’t even date. She basically swore off men for the rest of her very long life. She must have held some kind of record back then for years as a divorcée—50 years.

The main conclusion I drew from this exercise is that non-drinkers are just as capable of being the carriers of this destructive disease as drinkers. Carl messed up Julia with his drinking > Julia married an alcoholic who messed up Doris > Doris hooked up with a mean drunk who messed up my mother > my mother married an alcoholic who…well you get the picture.

There is a silver lining to this cloud, though. None of my parents’ descendents have issues with alcohol. The cycle has been broken. Just like Sean Patrick Hayes who learned he could forgive his father after learning about his family’s pattern of abandonment, I learned to forgive as well. Sometimes family history can help us heal.


1 Texas Department of State Health Services death certificate

2 obits from Nodaway Democrat 2 Mar 1899 and Ravenwood Gazette from unpublished Arza Bozwell obit collection

3 1900 US Census, Missouri, Nodaway, Maryville, Ward 4, ED 123, pg 15A, ln 33

4 U.S. City Directories, 1821-1989

5 Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment Death Certificate.

6 Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment Death Certificate.

7 Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment Death Certificate.