Monday, February 18, 2013

Mystery Monday: Welcome to the Family, Aunt Margaret!

Grandpa John Bartram
You ever have one of those ancestors you think you know everything about, but then they throw you a curveball you weren't expecting? If you've been researching your own family history long enough, I think you know what I mean.

My big ancestral surprise came from none other than my Grandpa John Bartram. You know, the grandfather I write about all the time. Not quite two years ago, I wrote a post about Grandpa John's life on what would have been his 100th birthday, and I included information about his wife, my Grandma Donna, and his four kids: my Uncle Jim, Aunt Brenda, Uncle Clay and Mom (Becky). What I didn't mention in that story was that, when Grandpa John passed away in 1987, he left us with a bit of a mystery about his life that we've been trying to solve ever since.

To recap, John Bartram (1911-1987), was one of 17 children and the youngest boy of the bunch. He married my grandma, Donna Madsen, in 1938, and they had four children (including my mom). Grandma Donna died in 1966, about seven years after she and Grandpa had been in a horrific car accident that left Grandma with brain damage and other health issues. 

When Grandpa John died in 1987, at the age of 76, I started hearing odd rumors about him possibly being married before Grandma Donna and having a daughter, who would be the older half-sister to my mom and her siblings. Now, Grandpa's generation were pretty good at keeping secrets. Occasionally, odd information and rumors seeped out after some alcohol intake, and then it would quickly be recanted, so we never had much to go on. My Aunt Brenda knew that I was dabbling in our family history, and encouraged me to do a little research to see what I could dig up. Of course, this was before the internet, and we didn't even have any names or dates from this possible earlier marriage and child. 

Over the years, I've searched for a woman who might be my mom's half-sister, but have had no luck finding any info on her or Grandpa's previous relationship: no birth, marriage or divorce records were surfacing in any of the locations where it made sense that he'd lived. I did find the marriage application for Grandpa John and Grandma Donna and, where it asks if either party had been married before, they both claimed "No". OK... So, I knew that Grandpa John was a bit of a wild cowboy, as well as a handsome young man, so it's possible that he had a child out of wedlock. Still, as the years went on, I wasn't having much luck with this mystery. 

Meanwhile, I started this family history blog a couple of years ago and, even though I wasn't terribly active on it for quite awhile, it still got daily hits. One hit that changed our life came this past June: I had been at a family party one day, and Aunt Brenda asked me, again, if I'd had any luck getting closer to finding her older sister. I told her that, honestly, at this point I thought that, if she was even still alive, she was going to have to find us. Well, when I got home that afternoon I checked my email and found a message from a woman named Susan in Oregon who emailed me to say that she had found information on John Bartram on my blog, and she was pretty sure that he was her Grandpa John, too! We compared notes and, sure enough, her mom is my Grandpa John's oldest daughter, and my own Aunt Margaret! 


I couldn't wait to tell Mom and Aunt Brenda. Luckily, Aunt Brenda was staying at Mom's house that night, so I got to break the fantastic news to them together. 

It didn't take long for us to fill in the blanks of how Margaret fits into the family. As I've mentioned before, Grandpa John came to California from Kansas for a short time as a teenager, and then returned for good in around 1927 with his parents and several siblings. The family settled in Clearlake, Lake County, California. According to what Susan had told me, as well as a birth record I found at, Margaret was born in Lake County in April 1929 to John Bartram and Perrilee Adkins. When looking at the 1930 US census for Lake County, I found Perillee's (aka Pearl) mother and several siblings living right next door to Grandpa's widowed mother, my great grandma Alice Veale Bartram, and her youngest daughters. It seems that Grandpa John fell in love with the next door neighbor girl and got her 'in the family way', so to speak!

May 1929 marriage record for John Bartram
and Pearl (Perrilee) Adkins
Now that I had some names and dates, I've been able to find a few official records that document Grandpa John and Pearl's marriage, and subsequent divorce, as well as Margaret's birth. John and Pearl married in May 1929, about a month after Margaret was born. From what Margaret and Susan have told us, their marriage was short-lived and rocky, which led to an unstable early childhood for Margaret. It also seems that Grandpa John's family, particularly his mother and his younger sisters, did not approve of Pearl and her family, and that there was some bad blood between them. I'm sure that was made more uncomfortable for the couple, given that the two mothers-in-law lived next door to each other! I did find a divorce record at the San Francisco court house (handily, a short bus ride from my office!) that shows Pearl sued for divorce in 1932, citing willful desertion, and it was finally granted to her in 1935. That was around the time that Grandpa John was traveling quite a bit while he competed in rodeos, and the 1940 census shows that he was also living down in Hayward, California, by 1935. Our combined guess is that the dissolution of the marriage had to do with several factors: they were both young and seemingly a bit wild, Grandpa liked to drink (and apparently got in trouble at least once when he was entertaining friends while he was supposed to be watching baby Margaret), and they had families that didn't care for each other (to say the least). 

After Pearl and John divorced, Pearl married another man, John Creed, who would later adopt Margaret. By this time, Grandpa had already remarried and started his new family with my Grandma Donna. Apparently, Grandpa John refused to sign the adoption papers until he got to see his first daughter one more time. That was the last time Margaret remembers seeing her biological father. 

Fast forward to now: it turns out Margaret lives in southern Oregon, just a few miles away from my cousin, Dee Dee (Aunt Brenda's oldest daughter). So Mom, Rodney (my step-father), Aunt Brenda, Uncle George (her husband) and I drove up to Oregon the weekend after July 4, 2012, just a few short weeks after we'd found each other, to meet Margaret and her daughter, Susan (my new cousin who made the initial connection with me). They couldn't believe that we had been looking for them for so long. Susan later told me that she had found the information about Grandpa John earlier, but waited about a month to email me because she was nervous that we might not want anything to do with them. She couldn't have been more mistaken!!  

Mom, Aunt Margaret and Aunt Brenda: Sisters!!
Our first meeting was just wonderful. I loved watching Mom, Aunt Brenda and my new Aunt Margaret get to know each other, and Dee Dee and I had fun comparing notes with our new cousin, Susan. The conversation flowed easily and the afternoon ended too quickly. We had many stories to tell Aunt Margaret and Susan, and we were happy to hear their stories, too. We also shared lots and lots of photos with each other. We were sad to know that Margaret had not known a loving childhood relationship with her father's family, but we're happy that she can now begin a new relationship with her half-siblings!

Since our first meeting, the sisters have kept in touch via phone calls. Aunt Brenda has also been back up to Oregon to visit Aunt Margaret and Susan, and has had the pleasure of meeting her husband, Lewis, and at least one of their three sons. I enjoy keeping up with Susan on Facebook and the occasional phone call, and look forward to meeting the rest of my new cousins in the not-too-distant future and having them meet the rest of their Bartram family (remember, Grandpa John was the youngest boy of 17 kids, so there are a LOT of us). 

I think that meeting her half-sisters has been a bit healing for Aunt Margaret as she hadn't known her biological father since she was a little girl, and never had siblings growing up. We're just thrilled to FINALLY solve this nagging mystery and have her as part of our family!

L-R: Me, Aunt Margaret, Mom (Becky), Aunt Brenda, Dee Dee, Susan
BTW, Aunt Margaret looks SO MUCH like her father and my beloved Grandpa John!


  1. What a great story! It's great that everyone is so pleased at discovering previously unknown family members. Thanks for sharing.

  2. That's a fantastic story & an inspiration to keep blogging!