I love to go to antique stores and flea markets. Like many people, when I go looking through these haunts I come across old papers or photographs. Too many times in this situation, the store owner has placed a price on the item that is cost prohibitive. The trend of buying old photos and frames to gain an instant ancestor often drives up the price too high for good Samaritans who want to reunite the items with their rightful owners.
Recently, our publisher, Illya D'Addezio, came across such a find that included old papers, birth announcements, and awards (view the collection). In an effort to reunite family members with these items, I was given the assignment to see if we could trace some of the families involved.
To begin this project, I reviewed at all of the items and looked for commonalities, if any. I wanted to see what clues the items might give just by themselves. The first thing I noticed was that three of the items seemed to be tied to each other. The birth announcements for Francis Avery Dalton and Edwin Dwight Chapin were both addressed to a Searcey family in Nebraska. The perfect attendance certificate bookmark had the name Harry Searcey on it. So I decided to start my search with the Searcey family.
The Searcey Family
The award and the birth announcements provided me with two Searcey names to look for. Harry Searcey, the recipient of the award and Milo Searcey the addressee on the Chapin birth announcement. The Dalton announcement had an addressee that initially looked to me like "M.H. Searcey," so at the beginning of my search I wasn't sure if this was Milo Searcey or yet another Searcey name.
I began my search at Ancestry.com. I did a search for a Harry Searcey who lived in Nebraska. From the perfect attendance certificate I knew that Harry was alive and attending school on March 1, 1918. The envelopes were addressed to a Searcey family in Nebraska, so I assumed that that was where Harry was from. From that initial Ancestry search, there were hits for the 1920 and 1930 U.S. census, the Social Security Death Index, and an online family tree. I began at the earliest date, checking out the 1920 U.S. Census. Ancestry showed two Harry Searcey's for that census. Both of them lived in Nebraska. One was born in 1880 and the other in 1906. The 1906 birth year sounded right for someone who would have been attending school in 1918, so that is the one I focused on. This census image for Plum Creek, Pawnee, Nebraska showed a Harry Searcey, age 14 living with his parents, Milo A. Searcey and Ethel Searcey. This looked like a match for the Milo and M.A. (not M.H.) as I had originally thought on the birth announcement envelopes. I continued to look at census returns for 1910 and 1930 and followed the Searcey family through those years.
Now that I knew an approximate year of birth for Harry and that he was, indeed, from Nebraska, I looked at the Social Security Death Index (SSDI) for a possible listing. Harry was in the SSDI, and from his listing, I learned that Harry L Searcey was born on 1 October 1904 and died on 8 March 1988. His last benefits were sent to Beatrice, Gage, Nebraska. Although the SSDI only shows where benefits were last sent and not where the person died, I felt like this might be a clue pointing to Harry's living in Nebraska all his life and perhaps some living descendents also living there.
Now that I knew for certain that Harry was deceased, I wanted to try to find the family. I checked out the USGenWeb site for Gage County, Nebraska. One of the items I found there was a cemetery listing for Liberty Public Cemetery in Gage County. According to the list, complied by volunteers, Harry's dad Milo and other family members were buried at Liberty Public Cemetery. Along with the listing was a note that names with an asterisk had obituaries available from the Friends of the Wymore Library. I shot off an email to them with a small list of names for which I was interested in obtaining obituaries. I figured these Searcey and Dalton kin obituaries might list living family members. After some time, I did receive the obituaries for these families but, in the meantime, found another way to contact the descendents.
I had the good fortune of making contact with the family historian from whom I learned more about the Searcey and Dalton families, and learned that the Searcey family is very involved in collecting and distributing their family history. My contact provided me with the missing link in solving the mystery around the Francis Avery Dalton birth announcement and provided me with the contact information I needed . . . and a photograph.
The Dalton Family
The Dalton's are related to the Searcey's through the Bowhay family and two sisters who married, one into the Searcey family and one into the Dalton family; thus, the connection. As a result of my inquiry, I was able to piece together the life of a man I had come to know only through a simple birth announcement and some cenus data.
Francis Avery was born to Marion and Mary Blume Dalton on March 10, 1913 in Nebraska. His family, like many of those in Nebraska, were farmers. Francis was one of two sons born into the family. During World War II, Francis' brother Arnold, fought and died in the war. One day as Francis and his dad were in town, soldiers arrived at the Dalton farm and spoke with Mrs. Dalton. She was informed of her son's death in Europe at a time when she didn't even know that he had yet been shipped oversees. His death had a devastating impact on the family.
Francis's college years were spent in Lincoln, Nebraska and then he returned to his community to farm, like his father before him. Francis married and went on to have three daughters, one of whom still lives on the property purchased by her family over 100 years ago.
In reuniting the Francis Dalton birth announcement with the Dalton family and the Harry Searcey school award with the Searcey family, I basically did two things; I researched the past by looking at census records, military and cemetery records and family trees. I also looked at the present by conducting some private investigator-type work by looking through phone directories and websites about the towns involved, to find current family members. As is prudent in this day and age, the person I contacted did take the time to verify who I was and who I claimed to represent. When we finally spoke, she said, "It was hard me to understand how a birth announcement for my family could end up in the hands of a woman in California." Once my identity was verified, the family was delighted at the news of this long lost document they didn't know existed.
I would caution people trying to reunite items with their original owners that in our world of identity theft and overall fraud, people can and should be wary when being contacted by unknown persons — no matter how innocent or altruistic the motive appears. In all cases, one should seek to independently verify the authenticity of the person making contact.
What transpired in searching for the families of these orphan documents took a lot of time. But I think that time and effort is part of what genealogy is all about: finding the people from our past and helping descendants become excited their history. Reuniting families with long lost family treasures provides yet another way to connect the past with the present.