Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Scoping out the Setting

I have a hard time wrapping my head around my own family tree, much less someone else's ancestry. But when the case I'm pursuing may involve two men from the same vicinity possessing the same name, multiply that puzzle.

What we are dealing with here is a photograph of a couple I found in an antique store in northern California. The only clue, besides the imprint of the photographer in Council Bluffs, Iowa, is the name of the couple written on the reverse of the cabinet card: Mr. and Mrs. Albert Roberts.

Currently, I'm working on constructing a timeline of Roberts family events by gleaning those chatty tidbits often featured in small town newspapers in the midwest. I searched for the name Albert Roberts on GenealogyBank, using a date range from the mid-1890s through 1950. I wanted to make sure I caught all the references to that name as the family grew older and births and marriages were added to the family history.

I was able to capture thirty such references, which I then cut and pasted into a document in date order. I also did a second categorization: I listed the references by location, as sometimes the newspaper mentioned Albert Roberts was from the town of Riverton, and other times, the location was a place called Atlantic.

And then, I got to wondering whether I was looking at news for the families of two different men with the same name. Or maybe three.

Since I'm not familiar with any part of Iowa at all—other than the small town where my own mother was born—I had to look up where those two towns were located. While they were mentioned in the Council Bluffs newspaper, I wanted to make sure each of them was within a reasonable traveling distance. After all, perhaps this was merely a case of Albert Roberts moving from one place to another over the years.

It turns out that Council Bluffs is located toward the far southwest corner of the state of Iowa, apparently just across the Missouri River from Omaha, Nebraska. Council Bluffs happens to serve as the county seat of Pottawattamie County, directly to the west of Cass County. Cass County—if you get my drift here—happens to have as its county seat the city of Atlantic. And Riverton, the third location mentioned in these newspaper reports about Albert Roberts, happens to be located two counties directly south of Pottawattamie County, in Fremont County.

Would it be possible that a couple would travel—mind you, in all their finery—all the way to Council Bluffs for their photograph? Or that they would move, in their later years, from Riverton to Atlantic? I'm not really sure. But if that means there are two possibilities for the identity of our Albert Roberts, that means we'll have to research at least two family trees.

Fortunately, there are ample mentions of this family name in the Council Bluffs newspaper, including those tediously long lists of everyone who attended the family reunion over the summer. Though I have yet to find any obituaries to help—remember, all I have is the name of the husband of this couple, not the wife's own name—we can at least put together a family constellation to lead us to other, more traditional, tools of the genealogical trade.

There is one other detail, too: thanks to a comment by reader Far Side, we now have a more accurate date range to pursue. Based on such clues as the woman's bustle and other details of her outfit, the time frame we are looking at is more likely to be around the early to mid-1880s. That timeline will require me to see what earlier newspaper reports I can add to my news clippings. Of course, one reason I may have run into what appears to be more than one Albert Roberts could be that the elder one gave his son the same name.

We'll start taking a look at the condensed version of the newspaper reports tomorrow. 


  1. I love browsing through those old newspapers. It is so wonderful they are now available to us on line.

    1. Miss Merry, every time I get to thinking about the convenience of searching these old newspapers, I am still amazed. Most of these mentions of Albert Roberts in the Council Bluffs newspaper are barely one-liners, buried in the midst of lots of text. It would have been a tedious process, indeed, to have to search for these tiny tidbits by speed-reading through years and years of the entire newspaper, and yet, with a few well-chosen search terms and the click of a mouse, the results get served up to me, painlessly. We can do so much more in search now than prior generations of genealogists could ever have hoped to achieve.

  2. My husbands Grandparents are from that area of Iowa, the train was a way to travel...they talked about taking the train to Council Bluffs from Missouri Valley. My husband has a relative who used to be the pres of the Pott County Historical Society.

    1. I was wondering about all those mentions of going to and coming from Omaha, Nebraska...until I realized it was basically across the river. Maps really help when the area is a new one for research! And yes, I wondered whether they all traveled by train. The mentions of travel sounded too convenient to be any other way.

      I'll be connecting with local societies in this search, I'm sure, and have already been searching through the Pottawattamie County Historical Society's website. Of course, the dream resolution would be if someone had an archives of old photos taken at the studio. For now, at least I can hope...


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