Brick Wall Breakthrough: Follow The Breadcrumbs On & Offline

by Claudia Breland | Nov 14, 2011

Claudia Breland

When I first started exploring my family history, I was insatiable - I couldn't find enough family records. When I'd found everything I could find on my direct ancestors, I started in on their brothers and sisters, later finding out that that's good genealogy practice. My great-grandfather's sister Eliza proved to be elusive for several years, until the advent of online sources enabled me to follow the breadcrumbs from Michigan census and court records to Colorado newspapers and cemetery records.

Explore Collateral Relatives

Beginning genealogists often concentrate on just their direct ancestors, wanting to push their family tree ever onward and upward. However, don't neglect the "collaterals"; the siblings, aunts, uncles and cousins of those you are descended from. Often family photographs, letters, Bible records, or other heirlooms have been passed down to another branch of the family, and extended research can uncover their existence!

From the beginning, Eliza May Randall was a puzzle. She was my great grandfather Herbert Randall's oldest sister, and on the 1880 census they were living in Pentwater, Michigan with their widowed father Augustus and younger sister Laura. In 1895 Herbert married Claudia Grace Thompson in Manistee, Michigan, where Claudia's father Stacy Clay Thompson was a well-known businessman. Several years ago on a research trip to Michigan I was able to visit the Manistee County courthouse and find a death record for Laura (who died in 1901 of consumption, at the age of 25) and a marriage record for Eliza May Randall, who married Edwin Udell on 20 Sept. 1888. As I was to discover later, each research trip builds on the information gained since the last trip. Eventually I obtained Augustus Randall's death certificate, to find that he died in 1915. And on another research trip, I found his obituary in the 11 Sept 1915 issue of the Manistee News-Advocate. At the end of details about his military service in the Civil War, it mentioned that he was survived by "one son, H.K. Randall, of this city, and Mrs. E.M. Johnson, of Ignacio, Colo." A number of census searches for her in Ignacio, La Plata County, Colorado, failed to find any trace of Eliza or E.M. Johnson.

Search Online Sources Again & Again

Online sources for genealogy information are never static! New information is added constantly, and it would serve you well to check back with your favorite websites on a regular basis. One example of this is the volunteer-driven US GenWeb, on which I have found cemetery records, land records, probate listings, and biographies and county histories.

Although Eliza May Randall and Edwin Udell married in 1888, they are nowhere to be found on the 1900 census of Manistee, Michigan. But in the household of Stacy Thompson, which included his daughter and son-in-law Claudia and Herbert Thompson, there was a 6-year old adopted daughter named Florence. I had never heard of Florence before, and she wasn't listed on the transcription of Thompson Bible records I'd received from a cousin. She wasn't on the 1910 census of Manistee, either.

One of my favorite volunteer websites is the US GenWeb. Admittedly, the quality of the information can vary, according to the level of participation of the local historical or genealogical societies, but it's always worth checking. I had explored the Manistee County GenWeb site thoroughly, but not long ago I checked it again. I was very interested to see a new link, to a list of Probate Court Calendars. Hoping to find probate records for my great-grandfather Stacy Clay Thompson, I checked the list. To my surprise, there was a listing in the probate calendar for 1855-1907 for Florence Marie Thompson, which gave the numbers 1205-613. The web page gave the directions for finding the information on the Family History Library microfilm, but I decided to go right to the source. I sent a letter to the Manistee County Clerk, requesting a copy of whatever records were in that file. I think it cost me all of $10.

The papers I received told an amazing story. Edwin and Eliza (Randall) Udell had a daughter Almira, born in 1893. In the late 1890's Eliza was widowed and destitute. Her brother Herbert's father-in-law Stacy Thompson and his wife offered to adopt Almira. All parties agreed, and Almira was folded into the Thompson household, her name changed to Florence Marie. Thus she was listed as an adopted daughter on the 1900 census of Manistee.

By 1906, Stacy's wife had died and his other children were grown and out of the house. Eliza had remarried to Mr. Garrett Johnson, and wanted to adopt her daughter back. The judge agreed, and Florence was returned to her mother, with the new name of Florence Johnson. The papers in the file telling this story consisted of two letters written in 1959, from an attorney in Chicago named Hugh R. Porter, telling of his destitute client (Florence Johnson) and her need for a birth certificate, and the county clerk's letter in response. This was great information, but no amount of searching turned up Eliza Johnson or her daughter Florence in census records.

And there the matter stood, until I learned about the Random Acts of Genealogical Kindness. I sent a request to a volunteer in La Plata County, Colorado, asking her to look for newspaper articles about Mrs. Eliza Johnson. In just a couple of hours she emailed me, referring me to the Colorado Historic Newspaper collection, where she had found some articles mentioning Mrs. E.M. Johnson and her sons Percy and Stanley Udell. With her reply, the brick walls crumbled like dust. There were several "Letters from France" that Stanley Udell wrote to his mother and brother in the midst of World War I, and in one of them he writes, "I had the honor of marching through London with the first foreign troops that have marched through London for hundreds of years. When we got back to the station women were giving us cigarettes, tea and cookies." (Stanley Udell, "Letter from France", Weekly Ignacio Chieftan, 12 October 1917, p. 1; digital image, Colorado Historic Newspapers Collection; accessed 2 Aug 2011)

The newspaper articles provided an important clue: that Eliza and her sons had moved from La Plata County to Otero County, halfway across the state. In short order I discovered Eliza Johnson and one or both of her sons on the 1920 & 1930 censuses of La Junta, Otero County, Colorado. From there I went to the Otero County GenWeb, and discovered a link to Otero County cemetery transcriptions. That page provided me with death dates: Eliza Johnson died in 1955, her son Percy in 1978, and Stanley in 1981.

Email The Local Library For More Information

Obituaries are a very important resource, and whenever possible I track down the obituary after I learn the date of death. The local public library often has the town newspapers on microfilm, in organized files of newspaper clippings, or in an online database. You can find a website for a local library on LibCat: a guide to library resources on the Internet, or on Public Libraries, or simply by Googling the name of the town and adding "public library."

I found the website for the Woodruff Memorial Library in La Junta by Googling it, and (since the La Junta newspapers were not on the Colorado Historic Newspaper website) emailed the librarian to ask if they had the local newspaper on microfilm. I gave her the names and dates of death I was interested in, and soon afterwards I had the obituaries.

It turned out that Eliza had come to Colorado from Kansas. In 1900, when their sister Florence was living with the Thompsons in Manistee, Stanley and Percy Udell were boarding with separate families in Franklin County, Kansas, and Eliza is nowhere to be found. In 1910 Eliza had established a home in Superior, McPherson County, Kansas and had Percy and Florence living with her. The obituaries for Stanley and Percy did not mention their sister Florence; they were survived by their wives and stepchildren but had no direct descendants.

Research Always Continues

Naturally, all of this information added a great deal to what I knew about Eliza Randall, her husbands and her children, but each question answered gives rise to others. What happened to Florence? None of the obituaries for her mother and brothers mention her. Where was she living in 1920 and 1930, and was she living in Chicago at the time of her attorney's letters to Manistee in 1959? How did Eliza and her sons end up in Kansas? Hopefully, the 1940 census (available next April) can answer some of these questions. I will continue to learn more about this family and others in my ancestry. Genealogy research is never really finished - that's the beauty, the fun and the puzzle of family history.

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