Lona Winterhalter – My Mother

My mother was born on the afternoon of September 25, 1941 to Lonnie Winterhalter and his wife Elsie Westphal. Her parents intended to name Lana, after Lana Turner, but somehow her birth certificate ended up with Lona, I don’t know why my grandparents never had it corrected – maybe they thought it was unique and decided to stay with it, who knows.  Lona was raised a Lutheran, baptized into the faith in 1951, though by the time I was born she had moved away from organized religion; I like to think she was more of a deist than agnostic or atheist.  When I was young I attended Sunday school; later in life my mother told me that she pulled me out of Sunday school when I came home one Sunday and told her we shouldn’t vote for someone because of their religion.

The earliest photograph Lona WinterhalterI have of my mother shows a young girl with bright eyes, freckles and a mop of blonde curls. You can see the joy and happiness in her eyes, she a young girl who looks forward to tomorrow. I don’t know that I can I ever saw that young girl in my mother; by the time I really was old enough to understand who she was the young girl was gone, replaced by a woman whose life was far removed from the dreams of her youth.

My mother rarely talked about her childhood. I know her grandfather would take her to the race track to watch the horses run; my Mom said she used to enjoy that. That is about the only personal story I remember my mother ever sharing. Everything else  I know comes from talking to others who knew her – but not her mind, her hopes or dreams.

The two biggest resources I have for my mother’s youth are my aunt and my mother’s best friend. Their accounts differ in a lot ways, but there is one area where they seem to agree – my mother was not happy about her home life. In their own way each paints a picture of young woman who wanted more out life.

Nobody that I’ve spoken to knows when or how my parents met. They didn’t attend the same school. Los Angeles was a smaller place in the 1950’s so it may be that they simply met at a local hang-out and started to talk. My parents eloped on October 3, 1959; it must have been one heck of a surprise to my grandparents. My mother told me once that on the trip back my father’s car broke down and they had to call my great grandfather for help.

I’m not sure where my parents lived once they returned home. My mother returned to school but dropped out not too long afterwards. My mother said she got tired of all the other girls asking my mother what it was like to married which in the vernacular of 1959 meant that they kept asking her about sex. My mother, who was already a quiet girl, found it was all too much and choose to drop out of school and become a fulltime stay-at-home wife.

After more than one miscarriage my mother finally managed to carry a pregnancy to full term – the result was me.  My parent’s marriage didn’t last very long. I suspect that neither of them was really ready to be adults, let alone the parents of a small child. Both spent time dealing with mental health issues.

The Three Slack Brothers – Who Were They?

A couple of months ago I met up with a cousin who had some very interesting items. Aside from family photographs that I had never seen, he also had a letter from my Great, Great Grandfather, Jessie Slack. It passes down the oral history of our family starting with Benage Slack.

According to the letter Benage was born in 1695. He and his wife had three sons who came over to America from England in the early part of the 1700’s and went to work in the shipyards of Philadelphia. One of the brothers went south while the other two remained in the north. The two brothers never knew what became of their southbound brother. From what I can make out the brothers names were William, Philip and Daniel.

In the letter Jessie relates a story about a day in 1917 when he and his wife Emma went to a new store. Emma picked out a new dress and paid for it with a check that Jessie had signed. When the owner say his name he called out to his wife whose maiden name was Slack. Jessie relates the conversation they shared about their common ancestors. It’s here that Jessie says the names of the three brothers were William, Philip and Daniel.

In my research I have come across the names of William and Philip in records I obtained from Canadian sources; some but not all regarding the United Empire Loyalists. So I am beginning to develop a theory that Daniel is the brother who went south, William and Philip the brothers who stayed in the north until after the Revolution when they migrated to Canada.

It’s just one of many leads I have to follow. With every new discovery I make I find myself with several more clues to questions I didn’t even know to ask. But I guess that is why I like the personal history of tracing my family tree – it’s not events but people I learn about, and people are always more interesting.

Katie Dewitt James – The Rest of the Story?

My last post was about the murder of a distant cousin in 1905 – Katie Dewitt James. The post gave the basic story of Katie and her ill-fated trip to visit relatives after she had filed for divorce from her husband.

However there is so much more to the story. There is the story of young man who was said to have seen Katie’s body in the back of a wagon; a woman who supposedly claimed to have been a part of the murder – if her paramour is to be believed. There is also the curious reaction of her husband and his air-tight alibi that just happened to be provided by a friend who was also the local deputy sheriff.

The story of the young man who claimed to have seen Katie’s body in the back of a buggy is an interesting one, and one that seems to lend some credence to other stories told about the murder.

According to the nephew of George Cornell, the man who found Katie’s body in August 1905, a young man came to Mr. Cornell’s law office in Oklahoma City and detailed what he saw on the day of Katie’s murder.

On the day of Katie’s murder the young man was cutting fence posts near Deer Creek when he was approached by four people, 2 men and 2 women. He was asked to open the gate for them and as they passed by he saw blood dripping out of the buggy.  When one of the men noticed that the young man had seen the blood he raised the alarm and the group stopped. At first there was some disagreement among the group about how to handle the situation; one of the women consistently cried out for the young man to be killed to keep him from talking about what he’d seen however, one of the men said there had been enough killing and that he had another idea – an idea that if this story is true is somewhat gruesome.

In the back of the buggy a canvas tarp had been used to cover up the source of the blood. The man pulled back the tarp and revealed the body of woman with blood streaming out of head wound. The body was pulled from the buggy and the young man was forced to sever the head from the body with the axe he’d been using to cut fence post. Once the deed was done the group departed with a warning to the young man that he was now part of the murder and if told anyone he’d be strung up along with the rest of them.

Sometime after the young man told his story to Mr. Cornell, Mr. James and another man visited with Mr. Cornell at his office. When the topic of Katie’s murder and the young man’s story was mentioned, both Mr. James and his friend are said to have become uneasy.

The story told by this young man seems rather interesting because it brings back the idea that Mrs. Norton may not have acted alone. Could the four people this young man met have been Alta Hood, Fanny Norton, Katie’s husband and his friend the deputy sheriff?

New Family Members

My family tree has grown a few more leaves recently.

A few weeks ago I noticed a family tree on Ancestry.com that contained people in my own tree. I contacted the owner even though it had been a while since they had last logged in; I really didn’t expect to hear back from them but I was actually surprised when they got right back to me. After a little bit of probing to see how we might be related, it turned out that the owner of the other tree was the daughter of someone I had been looking for!

Later than night I received a call from a woman named Myrtle who graciously spent over an hour giving me little updates to my tree and filling in some leaves. Myrtle is in her 70’s but still sharp as a tack; she has personal knowledge of many of the people in my tree and is helping me bring them back to life.

Just this week I received an e-mail from someone who provided me with a brief history of my family; a couple of days ago I called the individual who sent me the e-mail. His name is Mike and he is the grandson of someone in my tree. We spent some time talking about family history and just getting to know one another.

These past few weeks have really energized me to keep working on my family history project. Who knows what gems these two contact hold, or what new family members I might discover next.

Update to a Surprising Find

Not too long ago I posted a story about how I had come across letters from the civil war in some of my mother’s old things and how I had no idea how my family connected to the author of the letters. In researching this little mystery I’ve discovered that what I have are not copies of the letters themselves, but copies of the letters made by the person who holds the actual letters.
Mike found the letters in a manner similar to me except that his mother was alive when he found the letters. Unfortunately he never got around to asking his mother why the family had the letters. The letters are, as you might expect, fragile and Mike is reluctant to do anything with them except keep them in an acid free environment and away from light so that the writing doesn’t fade any further than it has.
Since talking to Mike I’ve made some progress in tracking down the family of Joseph Thompson. Joseph joined the Illinois 38th Infantry with his brother John in 1861. Joseph was wounded severely early on in the war and spent most of it in a hospital. Most of the letters we have are from John, but John didn’t survive the war. I’ve made significant progress in tracking down Joseph’s descendants and finally found someone who is a living descendant. I sent them a note via Ancestry.com last night and I hope to hear from them soon, and maybe then I can put to rest the mystery of how Mike and I connect to these letters.

The Old Family Homestead in Iowa

Not long ago I sent a letter to the people who currently own the farm my 3rd great grandfather purchased in the 1850’s. Part of me expected to never hear back from them, part of me expected a polite “we don’t have anything for you”. What I never expected is that they would not only be interested in the history of the farm but would go to the local library and dig up information without my every asking!

They have provided me with so much information I don’t know where to begin, and they have more coming in the next couple of days. I can never thank them enough for the help they have provided me.

My Family’s Beginings

Growing up I never really knew anything about my family history. My mother never talked about her family and I really had no contact with my father. The only family I knew was my step-father’s mother and grandmother, and my mother’s parents – and I was okay with that until one day in the late 1990’s my sone came to me and asked about our family because he needed to make up a family tree. So began my journey to discover who my ancestors were.

I started by looking for my Father’s side of the family. I had recently made contact with his sisters who provided with enough information to get started. I used whatever limited resources I could find for free on the internet though eventually I did sign up for Ancestry.com.

I was able to trace my father’s side of the family back to 1821. My 3rd Great Grandfather was a man named Daniel Slack who was born in Leeds Ontario. I later found a diary written by a woman who was his granddather; I made contact with the person who posted it and he provided me with the only photographs I have of Daniel, his wife Rebecca Benedict and their son Philip. I learned that my own connect is through the 8th of the 10 children, Jesse Slack.

Jesse was born in 1856, not long after the family had moved to an 80-acre farm in Iowa. Jesse eventually moved to Oregon with his wife Emma Hobson. Jesse and Emma had four children, 2 boys and 2 girls. My great grandfather was the second child, Dale Slack. Dale married a girl from Kentucy, Mattie Belle Taylor. My grandfather Glen was their first child.

Glen was born in Wellington Kansas in 1906. He eventually made his way to California where he met and married my grandmother, Deloras Myatt. My own father was their only son, Robert Lee Slack.

My mother’s side of the family was originally from Germany. My maternal 2nd Great Grandfather was a man named Ignatius Winterhalter who came to America in 1822. My grandfather, Lonnie Winterhalter, was born in 1914 in Kansas City, Kansas. My grandmother was Elsie Westphal. Lonnie and Elsie had 3 daughters. Their first child I have found no record of other than on my mother’s birth certificate where she is listed as Elsie’s second child. My Mother was born in 1941; Lona Winterhalter.

Robert Slack and Lona Winterhalter ran off to Las Vegas to get married in October 1959. On the trip back their car broke down and they had to call my mom’s grandfather to come get them. I was born in 1960, the day after my mother’s 19th birthday.