Monday, July 11, 2011


I have been digging roots. Somewhere beneath the surface of all that I am is a history that must be revealed. I believe that when we speak the names of our ancestors, a part of them lives again, and in that uprooting, comes a healing; not simply for the ghosts of those who lived before, but for those of us living now. Nelse Smith and Fannie Harris were names in my Mother's bible, that for years were left unfinished. A couple of dates had been splashed behind their names to define them as having lived--no personality; no story; no knowledge of what had befallen them.

I had gone online to find out who my ancestors were, on a free trial, doubtful that I'd find anything, since I felt that we were an insignificant family with humble beginnings; peasants all. Boy was I wrong. It turns out that not only were my mother's mother's mothers descendents of the mayflower, but in Europe we were knights, lords and Wessex kings. Nice. All in all, my family line follows fame and leadership past Wessex to the Norse kings, into the Frankish royalty and various and sundry other lines of royals and nobles, including a demi-god or two. Yet, with all of this fancy family line, I am obsessed with Nelse and Fannie, and their daughter, my great-grandmother, Lyda, pictured above around 1895.

Through my searching and piecing together what I could find through a new-found cousin of my mother, I have found Nelse and Fannie, have been able to trace them from birth to death and have found their family lines past the Mayflower. Their story is sad. Nelse was born Adam Nelson Smith in Ontario Canada, in 1836 to Nelson McQueen Smith and Jane Cramer. He had several brothers and sisters; among them, Charlotte, who would later play a large role in the stressful upbringing of his children. Around 1850, the family emigrated to Jackson County, Iowa. On August 16, 1862, Nelse enlisted in the army and was placed into the 31st regiment, company F. He was injured some time during the war, and after returning home, relocated to Rock Island, Illinois, where, in 1865, he married Fannie Harris.

Fannie was born the day before Christmas, 1843, in Wayne, Indiana to Jesse Beeson Harris and Mathilda Thalls (whose last name seems to be a derivative of reality. I have not found the proper spelling yet). It is unknown whether or not Fannie (nee Frances M.) had a large family, but from the records I have found on her, there were few, if any, siblings. Between the 1850s and 1860, she moved with her family from Tobin, Indiana, to Rock Island, Illinois.

Nelse and Fannie, once married, moved together back to Woodbury County, Iowa, (Grant) where they kept a farm, and had four children: the oldest was Charles, followed by Egbert, (Burt, as he was later known by his descendents), Lyda (listed as Eliza in the 1880 census), and Levi. One of the boys must have had the additional name of Edward, as there is mention in the family of Burt's brother being named "Ed". They were the direct neighbors of Nelson and Jane, Nelse's parents.

In 1883, tragedy befell the Smith family when Fannie died and was buried at Bethel Cemetery in Woodbury County. It is not yet known what caused her death, but it must have created a great burden on Nelse to raise the children that were left at home. Three years later, due to the unrecorded wounds that he received during the Civil War, Nelse also died, leaving his children orphaned. He was buried at the Buckthorn Cemetery in Jackson. Lyda was nine. Listed on his pension records as the guardian of the recipient minors was his sister, Charlotte, now Hunt, as she had married Abner Hunt, ten years her senior, In Jackson, Iowa in 1867. The family story is that Aunt Charlotte and Uncle Abner, previously known as "an aunt and uncle of the children", were mean to them. I can only speculate as to the reasons for the "meanness". Perhaps, since they had a number of their own children, four more mouths to feed were a burden; there may have been a lack of familial love such as would be given from parents; perhaps, as is common with the era, the discipline was harsh. Whatever the reason, memory has painted them as not very friendly to the children.

Some time before 1895, the government was threatening to take the children away from the Hunts and place the younger ones into an orphange. It was at this point, that, rather than be placed in the care of the US government, Lyda, then 18 years old, married William R. Drake, my great-grandfather. It is not known what happened to the other Smith children. I can only assume that the older boys must have gone their way in the world, too old to be placed into the care of the state. It is not yet known what happened to the youngest child. There are records of a Burt Smith who lived with an Ed Smith in Alliance, Nebraska, where family has said Burt is buried. Therefore, I assume little brother Ed went to live with big brother rather than with Lyda and her new family.

Lyda, now a Drake, moved slowly from Iowa, to Nebraska, to Arkansas, back to Nebraska and finally to Los Angeles. Lyda had several children, many of whom died in their childhood, sadly, at an age when she would have become rather attached to them. Little Chancy, a baby, was killed when a cup of hot tea was spilled on him. Lila May, seven years old died in Presho, South Dakota in 1907. Kenneth Addison, named after his father's father, Addison Drake, died of Rheumatic fever when he was six years old and was buried in Alliance, Nebraska. Twins, Viola and Violet were "called away", as the Alliance, Nebraska newspaper reported, within three days of each other when they were only a month and a half old in 1910. Although Lyda had been familiar with death by this time, I cannot imagine that it would have been easy for her to lose them. Despite the number of children that Lyda had lost, several children survived: Ethel; my beloved Auntie Pearl; my Grammy, Opal; and Uncle Henry.

In finding the story of Nelse and Fannie, I feel that there is life for them. It is one thing to have a half-told story passed down through the generations, but quite another to put pieces together toward a conclusion. One day I will visit their graves and place my flowers, but it is through knowing their story that I have found my connection to them, and thus to a part of who I am. I resemble Lyda some, and to a great degree, my Auntie Pearl. They are within me, in spirit and in blood. As far as I know, I am one of the few people living that knows this story, and now that it has been revealed, will be retold for a few generations more.

The photo above is of Lyda and William (center) surrounded by family, somewhere around 1906 or so. My Grammy is on the lap of the unknown lady sitting next to Gramma Lyda. Auntie Pearl is standing next to Grampa William.The lovely "modern" 1920s woman standing in the photo above is Aunt Pearl.

Finally, the lovely woman in this picture with her beautiful babies is my Grammy, Opal. The children pictured are my mother Emma and her baby sister, Jackie.

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