52 Ancestors Challenge (2019)

After failing miserably in 2018, I’ve decided to give Amy Johnson Crow’s 52 Ancestors Challenge another try. I’m already a couple of weeks behind, but my goal this year is not to worry so much about being on-time with the prompts. Instead, I’m just going to focus on completing them.

I’ve also decided that I will be recycling some of the 52 Ancestors posts from 2018 when appropriate and updating them for 2019. The point is to keep researching and writing about genealogy. The prompts are open to interpretation, which is why I look forward to completing them.

Week 1: First

The first ancestor I began researching was my paternal grandmother, Thelma Evangeline Perkins.

Thelma E. (Perkins) Barth, 1953/54

Thelma Evangeline Perkins was born on January 8, 1911, on Poppasquash Road in Bristol, Rhode Island, and died on September 13, 2007, in Windsor, Vermont. I was most fortunate to have my grandmother present on a daily basis for the first 30 years of my life.

We were very, very close. In fact, she truly was my best friend. Even when I left Vermont and moved 811 miles away to Reynoldsburg, Ohio, we spoke daily, sometimes several times a day by phone. I was also the last family member to see and be with her the night before she died.

Despite how close we were and the secrets we shared, she still had many, many secrets that she took to her grave. It wasn’t until 10 years after her death that her secrets would start to reveal themselves.

She was told she was born in an Evangeline Booth Home for Unwed Mothers, and that is how she got her middle name. To date, my father & I have been unable to locate an Evangeline Booth Home for Unwed Others that was operating in Bristol, RI, in 1910/11. Her mother, Amy Beulah Perkins, was listed on Thelma’s birth certificate as being 17 years old at the time she gave birth and was working as a mill employee, which immediately raises the first of many interesting questions. Was she really 17 years old at the time or was the year really 1911? Since Amy was born in May 1892, then in January 1911 she would be 18 years old, not 17. Or was she really 17 when she had Thelma, in which case Thelma was really born in 1910, not 1911. 

There was no father listed on Thelma’s birth certificate (which was not officially recorded until 1947).

More questions emerge.

How does a person born in 1911 have a birth certificate created for them in 1947, when one never before existed? How does a person lose his or her surname? How does a person grow up not knowing whether unanswered questions represent protection from bad news or the door of information being slammed shut? And perhaps the biggest one of all, who is Thelma’s biological father? Some of these questions have answers, but some questions remain. This post will attempt to answer as many as possible, leaving the reader to only wonder about the rest.

My grandmother had a very rough childhood. Her memories are not always easy to put into perspective, but they do shed some light on certain things. For instance, one early memory is of an older woman whom she called “Grammy Shepard”; another, of going to get the cows with a man known to her as “Uncle Charlie”. These are memories of a family farm and family members with whom she lived. She also remembers waking up next to “Grammy Shepard”, with whom she apparently slept, who was dead when Thelma awoke.

Amy Buelah Perkins

The only photo that exists of  Thelma Evangeline Perkins in her mother’s arms, taken probably in 1911.

The farm was owned by her great grandmother, Caroline (Pollard / Rogers) Shepard and Thelma lived there along with her mother, Amy, her great uncle, Charles Rogers, her great aunt, Fanny T. (Rogers) Wiggins and first cousins once removed, Caroline H. and Marguerite Wiggins. This arrangement did not last long, however. She was told by her maternal great-grandmother that her mother “walked out in the middle of the night” when Thelma was 2-years old. Her mother, Amy,  was never seen nor heard from again. Over the years, we have formulated several theories about what really happened to Amy, and those will be discussed in a future #52Ancestors post.

Thelma’s life changed dramatically after waking up next to her dead great-grandmother. She soon found herself living in Hartford, CT, with a woman known to her at the time as “Aunt Marty”, who turned out to be her cousin Marguerite (Wiggins) Skinner and her husband, Albert Skinner. Although no paper trail has yet been established to verify this phase in Thelma’s life, she shared a couple of memories that support these facts. One memory she recalled was that she believed she attended school in Hartford, namely the Wadsworth or Wadsworth Street School. While it is likely this school no longer exists, there could be school records of this time period, even now.

IMG_4868

My grandmother as a child. Date and location unknown.

Another memory she had is hearing the sirens wail, signaling the end of World War I, which is a fortunate memory, because we now know that she was in Hartford, CT around the end of 1918; but not for long.

Sometime probably either late in 1918 or early in 1919, Thelma came to Windsor, Vermont, to live with her great aunt Fannie (Rogers / Wiggins) Herrick, who had married Leslie Elmer Herrick in Windsor on November 20, 1915.  No information has been uncovered so far which would explain how it was that great aunt Fannie ended up in Windsor, VT from Washington, RI, nor how she met and came to marry Leslie Herrick. This is a story of loose ends so that comes as no surprise. Suffice it to say that Thelma’s third, and again, brief home, was with Leslie and Fannie (Rogers / Wiggins) Herrick.

IMG_4869

Thelma E. (Perkins), age 7, Windsor, Vermont

 

Sometime before 1920, Thelma found herself in her fourth home, this time living with Bert and Martha (Graham) Reed in Windsor, VT. No one alive today knows why this move was made, but by 1920, Thelma Perkins had become known as Thelma Reed.  She was led to believe that she had been adopted by the Reed’s and attended school in Windsor as Thelma Reed.

Sometime after 1920, she saw Aunt Fannie and Leslie Herrick move back to Washington, RI to live on the farm where she had lived, while she continued to live with the Reed’s until she married John Daniel Barth on September 23, 1928, in Windsor, VT, giving her maiden name as Thelma Reed.

IMG_4870

My grandmother, in her school uniform, as a freshman in 1926.

At the time of her marriage, Thelma said she did not know her last name was originally Perkins. However, at some point in time between 1928 and 1933, Thelma tried to find out if she had really been adopted. She went to Judge Robinson in Windsor who told her that she had never been legally adopted by the Reed’s and that her maiden name was in fact, Perkins. This led to several “worries”, including a wrong last name as well as wrong names of parents on her marriage license.

By 1933, Thelma was apparently fully aware that her maiden name was really Perkins. On the birth certificate of daughter Margery Louise in 1933, as well as on the birth certificate of son John Edward in 1939, she listed her maiden name as Thelma Evangeline (Perkins) Reed.

IMG_4871

Thelma, age 26.

And so, life apparently went on. Thelma would occasionally try to find out some information about her past but always met resistance. Then something happened. Sometime around the end of World War II, Thelma and her Aunt Georgia May (Perkins) Darigan “found” each other. All the details of how this happened are not known, but they were “reunited” when Thelma made a bus trip to Cranston, Rhode Island to meet the aunt she had never known. She remembers specifically that this took place shortly after the end of WW II, and that there was some sort of bus strike ongoing at the time, as the passengers had to be escorted by police from one bus to another in Springfield, MA. This reunification with Aunt Georgia May also corresponds with Thelma’s story of how her aunt helped her to get her birth certificate. 

As previously mentioned, Thelma’s birth had never been recorded – no record existed in Bristol, RI. Aunt Georgia May was apparently able to speak to the Town Clerk in Bristol, one John Church, who said he remembered Thelma’s birth, and subsequently registered her birth on February 13, 1947, a full 36 years after the fact. By the time her daughter, Georgia, and son, Thomas (my father) were born in 1949 and 1951, respectively, Thelma had completely dropped the “Reed” from her maiden name and listed it only as Thelma Evangeline Perkins.

It was on this trip, that Aunt Georgia May offered to take Thelma to meet her father. He apparently lived just a ferry’s ride away in or near Bristol, RI. He had married and had other children, and my grandmother declined aunt Georgia May’s offer to meet her father. My grandmother never shared the identity of her father’s name while she was alive, and claimed she didn’t know his name.

IMG_4872

Thelma, in her work uniform. She was the head cook at the hospital in town.

His name would remain a mystery until late fall, 2017. (That will be discussed in a future #52Ancestors post.)

My grandmother only married once and had 4 children. My father is the youngest of the four. He has two sisters–one who is 2 years older than him, and the other is 18 years older than him. My father also has one brother who is 12 years older than him.

IMG_4873

My grandmother’s 4 children. My father is in the front to the right.

Her husband is listed as the father of each of the 4 children on their birth certificates.

Three of her four children have each taken Ancestry’s autosomal DNA test. My father was the first to take it back in 2014. Then, his oldest sister (who is 18 years older than my father) took the test in early 2017. Next, my father’s other sister took the same Ancestry DNA in the fall of 2017.

DNA tests are a Pandora’s box. They can be very helpful, but they can also knock you right out of the family tree you thought you belonged in and shake you to your core. And this is when we begin to learn about the secrets my grandmother kept and took with her to her grave…

Secret #1: My grandmother’s husband is not the biological father of my father.

Secret #2: My grandmother’s husband is not the biological father of his oldest daughter.

Secret #3: My grandmother’s husband is not the biological father of his youngest daughter.

Secret #4: My grandmother’s oldest daughter has a different biological father than her two youngest children (my father and his sister).

I love my grandmother dearly, and the results of the DNA tests do not change that in any way. If she were here with me today, I would say to her, “Gram, I love you with all my heart. I have not and never will judge you, just as you have always accepted me for who I am. Now, can you tell me more about this man Roy…”

I have no doubt that she would put down her knitting, put the kettle on for tea, and say to me, “Well, he’s dead and gone now. What do you want to know?”

And we’d sit and talk for hours.

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