Whether you descend from one of these surnames or are just interested in genealogical adventures and stories of discovery, welcome!
Divination with Bricks
For many years, I have wondered who was hiding behind this brick wall—the one behind my maternal 3rd great-grandmother, Sarah Carpenter Smith. When I started researching my ancestry, Sarah herself only peeked from behind that wall... all I knew was her name, which came from an unsourced report from my late great uncle Lowell Perry, who tracked his ancestry in the 1970s before the Internet.
Sarah married James S. Perry after the Civil War, where he survived Gettysburg in the 6th Michigan Cavalry. In 1867, they became a family of three, after their son, George Ricard, was born. I found them living in Algoma Township, Kent County, Michigan in the 1870 and 1880 Censuses. And look, by George! He had siblings: Mary E. and Phoebe E. Talk about a brick wall, however... Both Mary and Phoebe vanished from history.
By this point in time, I had bumped into four brick walls: 1) Who were Sarah’s folks? 2) Who were James’s folks? 3) What happened to Mary and Phoebe? 4) Was George’s middle name, Ricard, a typo—or was it actually Richard? Then I got hit with a brick. An email from an Ancestry.com member named Sidney said:
I believe your Sarah Smith was my great great grandmother. Her first husband was Alexander Ellison, her second husband was James Perry, your ancestor. She divorced Alexander Ellison. Their son was Leroy Ellison, who married Lillian Elwell. Their [Leroy’s and Lillian’s] daughter was Mary Justine Ellison, who married Nelson Wiley Ulery. Their daughter [Mary Justine’s and Nelson’s] was my mother, Mary Belle Ulery.
I have hunted for Sarah for over 40 years. All I know about her is that she grew up in Brooklyn in the home of her uncle, George Ricard, and that she ran away with Alexander Ellison, and they lived in Indiana and Michigan. I have found a few clues through the years. Her father might have been a sea captain named John Smith and her mother might have been a Catherine Brown. I also found a picture of three elderly women, and one of them is supposed to be her. Do you know anything else about her and her family? I would really appreciate hearing from you... You are the first person in over 40 years of hunting that knows anything about my great great grandmother, Sarah Catherine (Carpenter) Smith.
How good it feels to be hit with a brick like that! But I had to rearrange and adjust my questions and follow the clues to see if they lined up.
- Who were Sarah’s parents?
- Was her middle name Carpenter or Catherine?
- Was she married first to Alexander Ellison? (Is there a record of an Alexander Ellison and Sarah living together in Indiana and/or Michigan?)
- Did she have a son named Leroy Ellison? (Can I find a Leroy Ellison, whose mother was named Sarah C. Smith or at least Sarah Ellison?)
- Who was George Ricard? (Why did she name her son George Ricard Perry?)
To break through this wall, I began to hurl bricks at it, first by building a fresh family tree to test the data, starting with Sarah C. Smith. I plugged in the names: Alexander Ellison, their son Leroy, their granddaughter Mary (Leroy and Lillian’s daughter).
Bit by bit, I found records and documents on Ancestry.com that sprouted leaves on this new tree. Leroy, it turns out, had 10 children between two wives. His firstborn was named after Grandpa, Alexander, and he died of cholera the same year as his first wife, Lillian (of tuberculosis), in 1876. Alexander was only seven years old with four siblings, including one named Mary. Ah, good! Mary lined up with Sidney’s email description. Next born was Phoebe... wait a minute. Phoebe? Oddly, a “Mary E.” and “Phoebe E.” were listed in James Perry’s household in 1880. Leroy must have named his daughters after his half-sisters. How sweet. Or, to throw another brick, what if...
See where I’m going here? What if that very Mary E. and Phoebe E. were not George’s siblings after all? Could they have been his half-brother’s children? Leroy’s kids? Could the initial “E.” in both girls’ names have stood for Ellison? Besides, their birth years were nearly identical. It then occurred to me to look for clues in my great uncle’s report, which had been filed away years ago. Maybe I’d overlooked or forgotten things there that were now relevant. Um, check this out.
While he [George Ricard Perry] listed in applying for a marriage license to Lucy Jane Wilson his mother’s name as being Sarah C. Smith, we must also take into consideration that during the early part of this century, he often spoke of having a favorite sister, whose name was given as Mary Ellison Underwood, and a brother by the name of Ray Ellison. Knowing little of the family, we are led to believe that Sarah Carpenter had been previously married, before her marriage to James S. Perry... George spoke very little of his own father, or for that matter of any of his own family, and never to our knowledge of any full brothers or sisters.
Did you see that? Ellison! Sure, “Ray” and “Leroy” aren’t the same, but they’re close enough for a story that was told by memory decades after the death of George, who rarely spoke about it, especially if Leroy was nicknamed Roy. And then there’s “Mary Ellison.” So, was “Mary E.” truly George’s half-sister after all—the one listed with Phoebe? Turns out, no. Indeed, they belonged to Leroy, his half-brother. At first the dates may seem impossible, but further chats with Sidney explained it.
I have reread all the letters my mother received in 1940 to 1943 from her Aunt Phoebe. [Gasp! Phoebe?!] It seems that they had been told about the will of George Ricard, which had left Sarah C. out [of it]... It also seems that Sarah C. had run away with Alexander Ellison at the age of 14, and that Leroy was born when she was 15. I remember being told that George Ricard had disinherited her.
George Ricard [Sarah’s uncle] was the second president of the Williamsburgh Savings Bank in Brooklyn, New York, serving from 1865 to 1881. To quote a small book printed by the Williamsburgh Savings Bank in 1951, "He was a soldier, shipbuilder and government official. In 1842, he had come to Williamsburgh where he soon took a prominent part in the Town's business, becoming a director of several companies and a pillar of the Universalist Church there"... George Ricard was the son of a French naval officer, born in 1798 in New York City. He enlisted in the American Army and fought in the War of 1812 against the British when he was 14. After the war, he took an apprenticeship in shipbuilding and became a master shipbuilder. He travelled to China and the East Indies. In 1832, he was appointed to the United States Department of Revenue by President Andrew Jackson, an office he held for 10 years. In 1842 he settled in Williamsburgh. He was on the Board of several companies and in 1864 was on the Presidential Board of Electors, voting for President Lincoln for his second term.
So, that was George Ricard! Quite a person to be named after, and “Ricard” was not a misspelling of “Richard.” George Ricard had had no children, and his massive wealth was doled out to his many nieces and nephews, from which Sarah C. was excluded. Imagine the situation in 1848... The pillar of his community had a 14-year-old niece living in his home, who showed up pregnant. Might he have kicked Sarah out of the house? Was it then that she ran off to Indiana with Alexander, the soon-to-be-father, 17 years her senior? Whatever the case, she had been disinherited and disowned, and the pair would have to fend for themselves to take care of their son, Leroy, and another one, Mary, who would come a few years later. Aha! That would be the “Mary” that my great uncle Lowell mentioned—George’s “favorite sister” (half-sister).
Leroy grew up, married Lillian (a deaf mute), and had kids. His daughters were born about 1872 and 1873. Leroy’s mother, Sarah, was still quite young (because she had given birth to him at such a young age); she was about 36 or so... But she had divorced Alexander before then and married James Perry and gave birth to George Ricard Perry in 1867. George, Mary and Phoebe were close to the same age, but they were his half-nieces, living in Grandma Sarah’s house in 1880. Why? Oh, well, wait till you hear this!
Leroy was a jerk. More than that, he was a brute. He beat his wife senseless regularly. He threw her down the stairs, while she was pregnant with their fifth child, John. Lillian died of tuberculosis soon after, uncared for. He had blinded his daughter, Phoebe, in one eye by chucking a stone at her during one of his temper tantrums. When his wife and firstborn son had died, and his house was still filled with four kids, including the newborn John, he had had no time for kids, and his eyes were soon set on a new wife. Mary and Phoebe went to Grandma’s house to be cared for; another son (named Leroy) disappeared from the record, and John was given away to be raised by neighbors and forgotten about. Leroy married Alice in 1880 and remained in his cabin by a small lake with his new wife. Now I think I know why George didn’t speak much about his family. But it gets worse.
The town buzzed around Leroy’s reputation. Townsfolk believed that he had beat his first wife to death. That his second wife bore him five daughters vexed him endlessly. His loathsome life was hammered out upon Pearl, Edith, Ida, Goldie, and Sylvia. When Pearl was 14, he sold her to an aging Civil War survivor for $10 and a shotgun. When Goldie was born—another daughter— he was so disappointed not to have a son that he tore the newborn away and threw her across the room. The midwives rescued her. The sisters grew up dirt poor and were not allowed to attend school. Leroy forced them to plow his fields and run the farm. John had heard these stories growing up, including rumors that the nasty man was actually his father, who lived only a mile or two away.
In his mid-teens, John learned it was true, and he tried to build a relationship with his newfound father but witnessed his brutality toward Alice and his half-sisters. Alice had once run away to escape his abuse, but Leroy borrowed money from John to go after her. To John, it must have seemed true—his father surely was responsible for his mother’s death, whether out of abuse or neglect. He wanted a better life for his half-sisters, especially for his favorite, Goldie. Time after time, he begged Leroy to send her to school. He refused. Without much formal education, John taught her to read himself. And his relationship with his father worsened. Without pay, John worked on his father’s farm, ever begging to send Goldie to school. Leroy preferred to whip them all into submission and blame them for his farm’s failure to make a decent living.
John was a smart, thoughtful and outspoken boy, as meek as he was. George Washington, he said, was not a good man. He had helped to rob the Indians of their country. John bemoaned white man as Indian killers. His foster parents saw that he was in pain mentally, as he jumped from one incomplete chore to another, undisciplined in work, and could often be heard in the barn or from the woods, howling in anguished prayer or awake beside his bed in the middle of the night rocking his head in his hands. He split his time between there, his father’s cabin and his job at the charcoal burning camp—a rough place of bullies, who had once robbed and beat him.
Early one Sunday morning, on his way to work, he brought with him a knife for protection. He stopped first at his dad’s house to pick up some of his clothes. Leroy and Alice lazed still in bed, and the sight of John enraged him. From the doorway of the bedroom, John hoped to reason with him. Goldie, he said, shouldn’t be plowing the fields; she needed to be in school. John asked to be paid back the money that Leroy had borrowed to go after Alice, when she’d run away. No, despite John’s free labor on the farm, Leroy said he’d keep the money for the food John ate, until he got himself a better job. Rage turned to shouts, and Leroy leapt from his bed to throttle his son. John snatched out his knife, and his father’s chest met it with force. In the frenzy and panic, John plunged it twice more into his back, presumably as they were now chest on chest with John’s arms flailing around the torso of his red-eyed father. Two of his half-sisters then rushed into the room and cried for them to stop fighting. John shoved his father back onto the bed, where he would die hours later. John fled but turned himself in by noon. His lawyers pleaded insanity, and after 12 minutes of deliberation, the jury’s verdict was set. No one doubted Leroy got his just deserts, but John was convicted of murder in the first degree and was sentenced to life in Jackson State Prison—the world’s largest prison of its time. He was 21 years old. Murder in the first degree? I’m not convinced.
Where was Leroy’s mama during all this? None of the newspaper articles mention Sarah throughout the entire court trial of 1897. This period of her life was packed with drama, of which the murder of her firstborn son was only part of it. That said, I suddenly found myself with fewer bricks to throw, although her wall had taken a whooping. The details of this test-tree seemed to corroborate a number of facts. Let’s work backwards with our original questions.
5. Who was George Ricard? (Why did she name her son George Ricard Perry?)
Check. Sidney’s story is plausible. Later census records even report that Sarah and Alexander both were born in New York, where George Ricard was president of a bank. Although disinherited, she named her son after a noble man.
4. Did she have a son named Leroy Ellison? (Can I find a Leroy Ellison, whose mother was named Sarah C. Smith or at least Sarah Ellison?)
Check. Leroy’s death record reports that his father was Alexander Ellison, and his mother was Sarah C. Ellison.
3. Was she married first to Alexander Ellison? (Is there a record of an Alexander Ellison and Sarah living together in Indiana and/or Michigan?)
Check. Although answer number 4 above shows that they were Leroy’s parents, and although no marriage record has been found for Alexander and Sarah, Leroy’s marriage record to Alice in 1880 says he was 31 years old and was born in Elkhart, Indiana. The 1850 Census record, featuring a Leroy Ellison in Elkhart, Indiana as a one-year-old, names his father as Alexander and his mother as “Mrs. C.A.” Wait a sec... That’s not quite right, is it? How can we make the leap from “Sarah C.” to “C.A.”? In short, we can’t exactly. But after adding up the previous clues to the additional clues that follow, I can form an interesting—if not plausible—guess. Guessing is sort of a no-no in proper genealogy research, but follow me.
If Sarah ran away with Alexander when she was 15 years old, and he was 17 years her senior, born about 1818, then his age in 1850 would have been 32, which is what shows on the 1850 Census. Her age should be 16, but it says 19. It’s not hard to imagine them fibbing about her age with a one-year-old in tow, making her “18” at the time of Leroy’s birth, if no more than to fend off the potential evil-eye of the census enumerator. It may have been the story they maintained with their neighbors since arriving in Elkhart.
The census reveals that each of this pair was born in New York. Makes sense, too. But I can only guess what “C.A.” stood for. Could “C” stand for “Catherine” — the middle name proclaimed by Sidney in her original email (not Carpenter)? Possibly. Might Sarah and Alexander already have parted ways, and “C. A.” was already Alexander’s second wife? I doubt it. Not only would Leroy likely have gone with Sarah, but also, Sarah and Alexander had a second child together in 1856: Mary... Remember? Mary’s records also prove that Alexander and Sarah were her parents. Although none of this is exactly proof that Alexander and Sarah lived together with Leroy in Indiana around 1850, the circumstantial evidence mounts up, not to mention the frequency of inaccuracies within records of all sorts that I have found over the years for every branch of my tree, as well as hints of people’s memory lapses or lies for the record. Mistakes (and lies) happen more often than I’d like for research’s sake.
2. Was her middle name Carpenter or Catherine?
How thrilling it was to sort this one out, too! Without my great uncle’s original research notes, I had no way of knowing how he came up with the middle name Carpenter. What could I do but trust him? I have learned not to.
Now and then, branches of the family tree flutter with names without any documentation to back them up. They come from a number of places, including hearsay, or from hopeful clues in other people’s trees that you forgot to follow up (yikes, another no-no), or even from appropriate documents that otherwise cannot be cross-checked with other sources—sometimes never. Until they can... When I loosened my grip of trusting every source’s accuracy as gold, subtle clues about Sarah C. Smith and James S. Perry began to sparkle.
To shake up Sarah’s secrets, I wondered what might happen, if I were to throw some bricks at James next. He, too, sat behind a brick wall, and his parents were there with him. Might I be able to rattle him up to divulge something?
James S. Perry: not a name so unusual that it wouldn’t be duplicated in his time. It surprises me even today how many people exist with my own name. But with fewer people living during his decades, where did the James Perrys live? I narrowed down my search to the ones born in New York, as his later census records reported was the case. Well, thanks, New York, for loving the name; there were scads of them. OK, then what about James Perrys born in the vicinity who ended up in Michigan? In the 1860 Census, I found a James S. Perry, head of household, living with a woman 30 years his senior named Phebe (popular name). His mother? What about other published family trees for clues? I searched for people’s trees that listed a James S. Perry whose mother was named Phebe. Bingo! Several trees documented the same family: a man named James S. Perry, who was born to Thomas Perry and Phebe Simpson, and whose wife—get this—was Permilia Carpenter. Carpenter! Uncle Lowell, you were so close! Permilia Carpenter was his first wife, who died before the War.
Sarah’s middle name seems not to have been Carpenter after all; rather, it was likely Catherine, just as her descendent, Sidney, had said. Check!
1. Who were Sarah’s parents?
The drama of Sarah’s life in 1897 didn’t stop or start with the murder of her son. Her husband, James, had died in 1896, the same year her second son, George (my 2nd great grandfather), would have a stillborn child. Her world would continue to be rocked in 1898, but we’ll get to that.
As you would expect, Sarah eventually died. Her death certificate revealed several nuggets. Her death was reported by “G. R. Perry.” Bronchitis had stolen her away from Ensley Center, Michigan on January 1, 1920, at the age of 84. She was a widow, and her name at death was Sarah Olin—her latest husband, James Olin. Well, who the heck was he?! To flesh out her story with the hopes of more clues to who she was, I had to hunt this fellow down. Enter Ancestry.com: “James Olin, Ensley Center, MI” around the years 1896-1920. Nothing. Nada. Zilch. Not a marriage record, a census record, a death record, a military record, nothing! Not even a James Olin from that area, within the proper age range, in the decades before. But what have we learned about “golden records” and the power of chucked bricks?
Two maps pinpoint exactly where James Perry’s family lived, about 3.5 miles directly south of Leroy’s property on the small Lime Lake. Their names and acreage are displayed on Land Ownership Maps of 1876 and 1894. Another small lake a hop, skip, and a jump west of there (if that far) is Olin Lake with adjacent property owned by “J. C. Olin.” Could that be our James Olin? Enter Ancestry.com’s search engine only the last name Olin, limited to that township, in that time range... Up comes John Coleman Olin. Aha! Initials J. C. Olin from the map. I found two marriage records for him: first to Rosanna M. Whitehead. After a few kids and her death in 1890, he then married an Amelia C. Smith. What?! What’s stranger, most Ancestry.com members who listed John Coleman Olin in their family trees listed his second wife as Amelia C. Smith Perry, with absolutely no further documentation. She was an unknown to everyone, except to me, I was convinced. Yeah, “Amelia” is anomalous, but the rest of the clues kept mounting, starting with the name comparison... I mean, “— C. Smith Perry” married to a “J. Olin”? Secondly, the marriage record states that this “Amelia” lived in the same town as Sarah (check), and that she was born in New York about 1830 (check), and that she was married twice before (check). And it kept coming...
John Olin’s house, according to the 1870 Census was right next door to the Westons. So? Well, Leroy’s daughter, Phoebe (who lived for a time with Grandma Sarah), married Josiah Weston, who lived there! But it’s juicier yet... John Olin and Sarah’s marriage record (as “Amelia C. Smith”) listed her parents: John H. Smith and Hannah C. Fordham! Yo, Sidney! You suspected a John Smith! That’s a lot of exclamation points for one paragraph! And it took a ton of bricks.
Yet it itches my brain... Why “Amelia?” And why is there a wavy line across the page through that specific entry? I don’t know yet. Perhaps the record contained mistakes, such as parentage: maybe Sidney’s “Catherine Brown” was actually Sarah’s mother’s name after all, and not Hanna C. Fordham. It’s yet another brick wall to bust through.
As mentioned, 1898 would continue to test Sarah’s character. After her husband, James Perry, and one grandchild died in the fall of 1896, her son would be murdered by her grandson, John Ellison, the following spring. He was tried and sentenced to life in prison later that fall, a few short months after his half-sister, Pearl, was freed from the dying Civil War vet she had been sold to; he committed suicide at the veterans home. Alice and three of her young daughters were in and out of the county poor house; two of them were shipped off to a state boarding school near Detroit for neglected children. Sarah would marry John Olin later that winter, one month before her grandson, William was born (my great grandfather—the father of my great uncle Lowell). The following summer, Leroy’s wife, Alice, and their first daughter, Pearl, were raped in the old cabin by a gang of low-lifes, and Sarah’s husband, John Olin, died a few months later. The Ellison family was scattered. Pearl succumbed to tuberculosis in 1906; Alice died in 1915 of a purulent infection and septicemia (bacterial infection in the blood). Although many of the other Ellisons fell from record (as yet), John was released on parole in 1917, when he registered for the draft during WWI in northern Michigan, where his sister, Phoebe, and their Aunt Mary lived. Phoebe and her sister, Mary Justine, went west, where Sidney would eventually be born in California, descended from Mary Justine Ellison Ulery, who had gone to the state of Washington. Sidney is my (half) third cousin, once removed. John Ellison showed up in Arkansas by 1930 as a stone age relics dealer, having amassed a valuable library of books while in prison—a luxury he’d not had before. He died in 1936, a recluse, and was buried without a headstone.
George Ricard Perry had five surviving children. Although mysteries exist among them, they are easier tracked. Their dramas are their own and largely unknown to me. My own story trickles down one of those lines, but I confess with thanksgiving that it is a happier one than Sarah’s.
A photo exists of Sarah Catherine “Amelia” Smith Ellison Perry Olin, taken shortly before her death, along with four generations of descendants through her daughter, Mary Ellison. She is seated with one arm hugging her belly, the other hand raised to her brow, pressing her left temple. All women but her stare at you from the other side of the camera lens, but Sarah’s gaze is fixed aside, appearing lost in thought, pondering the meaning of the moment, as if she’d hit a brick wall without hope of getting through it. Perhaps she’s peering into the future, because she was a psychic, after all, as the 1900 Census shows: Amelia Olin; Occupation: fortune teller. Shouldn’t she have seen it all coming? Her misfortune, she surely knew in hindsight, was what it was. To divine her future, perhaps from her chair in the photo—her best prediction would apply to everyone: what will be will be, brick walls and all. May she rest in peace, somehow knowing that people are peering into the past, looking after her 100 years later, with care.