Thursday, November 18, 2021

On to the Bright and Shiny


Some research tasks may seem rather perfunctory, especially the deeper we genealogists dig into the documentation. On the contrary, in the case of my research goal for this month, inspired by recovering Marilyn Sowle Bean's photograph collection from a local antique store, I've been attempting to pinpoint the line in her son's pedigree from which he inherited the genetic syndrome which eventually caused his death. With such a mission, the mood can sometimes turn somber, so it's no surprise that I yearn for a diversion. Stumbling upon a brief mention in another obituary caught my attention, and before I knew it, I was off chasing the kind of detail that family historians call a Bright Shiny Object.

The explanation yesterday served merely as the set up for today's pitch: background information to provide perspective on what I found regarding Maude Woodworth Bean's maternal grandfather, Eugene Williams. Now that we've established that connection, it's on to the Bright Shiny Object which pulled me away from this month's research goal.

The BSO was actually a line buried in the 1964 obituary for Maude's mother, Effie Williams. Effie, in turn, was daughter of the man we discussed yesterday, Eugene Williams. Effie had married her teenaged sweetheart William Woodworth in 1890, who had traveled home to Iowa to claim his bride and return to his family's new home in southern California. When William died in 1928, it didn't take Effie long to pack up the family's remaining belongings and move north to be closer to her oldest daughter Nieva.

Nieva had, by the time of her father's death, married, birthed two children, moved to Fresno where she and her husband Fred Searcey welcomed two more children—then lost one—and apparently divorced. Not quite one month after William Woodworth's death, Nieva was married again, this time to Joel Chamberlain.

Perhaps in all the turmoil, it seemed a reasonable move for Effie to head to Fresno to help her daughter with her young family. Whatever the reason was, we learn from Effie's obituary in 1964 that she had been a resident of Fresno since 1930.

There was one other detail to learn from that newspaper entry. Though the obituary was far less a biographical sketch than was her husband's in 1928, it provided one fact I hadn't gleaned from any other source. After mentioning that Effie was born in Jefferson in what is now the state of South Dakota, the article added this point:

She was a member of the Daughters of Union Veterans of the Civil War, Camp No. 8.

You can be sure a statement like that turned into a Bright Shiny Object for a lineage society junkie like me. Finding that, I was off, searching the website of the Daughters of Union Veterans for any sign of their member Effie Williams Woodworth—or at least a token entry honoring her Civil War veteran father.

I found nothing. No sign, even, of "Camp No. 8"—or any explanation to learn how to convert that old terminology to the current usage of "tents" for chapters.

Could that mention in the obituary just have been a family myth? I've learned it is not uncommon for families to pass along romanticized stories of their ancestors, and perhaps I had just stumbled upon such an example. Whether Effie was a member of the Daughters of Union Veterans, I couldn't say from an initial search, but yesterday's exploration into the records of Eugene Williams' last years showed clearly that he was being provided medical services as if, as a veteran, he had been entitled to them. What else could I find to support that statement?

To their credit, the Daughters of Union Veterans included a helps page on their website. Though their website also provided a tutorial for how to search a second website for veterans of the Grand Army of the Republic, the only Williams entries I could find were for other individuals. Still, the tutorial indicated the possibility that more photographs and biographical sketches would be added in the future—in other words, this was far from a complete listing. There had to be more information to confirm whether Eugene Williams had, indeed, served where his last records reported he had.

Sure enough, taking this question to the search engines—after all, what is a Bright Shiny Object for, if not to pursue?—there were several resources to confirm his involvement in the Union army. Prime among them was not only Eugene's application for a pension based on his service, but his widow's request for benefits after his death. His July 1890 original filing likely followed his attendance at his Company's reunion meeting in Milwaukee at the end of the previous August. The reason his name was included in the printed program for the 1907 reunion—as not in attendance—was likely because he and his wife, Elizabeth, had made the long journey to live in California recently enough that his address was still reported, in error, to have been in Sioux City, Iowa.

So what was Eugene Williams' Civil War story? Enlisting August 15, 1862, at Portage, Wisconsin, he served as a private in Company C of the 23rd regiment of the Wisconsin Infantry. Sure enough, thanks to a reprint of the names of men in that regiment posted at Internet Archive, we learn Eugene Williams was then a resident of Marcellon, Wisconsin, only about ten miles to the east of the town where he enlisted—a valuable clue in tracing his earlier history.

As to his experiences during the war, we don't have the privilege of preserved letters sent home like some researchers have found, but there are ample resources to trace the movements and duties of his regiment from that point until the close of the war. Wikipedia includes a brief entry on the 23rd regiment, and the wiki at provides an overview, complete with referrals to other resources. A website called the Civil War Archive provides a brief history of each regiment from each state, including Eugene's regiment from Wisconsin, and the National Park Service website includes an overview, as well. The Wisconsin Historical Society website does the same for those companies from their own state.

That whirlwind tour of available resources to trace the movements of Eugene Williams' comrades in their tour of duty was far more information than I'd need to just confirm basic details of his life, of course, but hey, this is a Bright Shiny Object, and I'm a history buff. Information is out there, if we want to learn—and are willing to test the search waters with available technological tools.

All told, at the close of the war, Eugene was discharged on July 4, 1865, in the place where he had last been serving: Mobile, Alabama. From there, it was the long trip back to Wisconsin, but that was not the last stop for this nineteen year old corporal. Yet, as easy as it was to trace Eugene Williams' movements in his nearly three years of service, finding his next steps wouldn't be quite so clearly laid out.

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