My grandfather’s hidden life intrigued me. I began a search to uncover the roots of our family secrets. When I couldn’t find answers to all the questions about my grandfather in my genealogy research, the idea of writing the story as fiction began to take hold. Sarah’s Secret is the result. I also wrote a free e-book, Searching for Family Secrets describing this search.
New Opportunities: Speaking
I have now made several presentations about my genealogy journey. I enjoy presenting my genealogy journey and addressing the questions from the audience. It is satisfying to offer my creative hypotheses and the historical context I uncovered in my research.
As I have introduced and read from Sarah’s Secret, I discovered audiences resonated with my genealogy search for family secrets. Looking for unknown ancestors, family enigmas and mysterious family connections is now a very popular pursuit. Many audiences are more interested in my genealogy journey than in the creative story I wove to imagine my grandfather’s life.
The questions these audiences ask are often the very questions I sought to answer.
- Why did my grandfather leave his family?
- How did he disappear for over 12 years?
- Where did he go?
- Why did he only change his first two names?
A New Identity
I can only share my hunches, some developed based on my historical research of the time of he disappeared, 1878-1890. It was the time of the cattle drives, when thousands of longhorn cattle were driven from Texas to Dodge City, Kansas as well as further North. My hypothesis has been that he joined a cattle drive and followed it north to Wyoming where he re-surfaced in the 1890 Veterans Census and filed a land claim.
After all, there was no Google and not even Social Security numbers, and in the atmosphere of the Wild West it was easy to disappear. In addition, it was common practice for cowboys at that time to change their first names to provide a cover for their identity when they were running from the law. I believe he changed his first two names because he was at least on the run for abandoning his family. Perhaps, as I imagine in the book, he was also on the run for another serious offense such as murder.
Why Did He Leave?
I have no idea why he left his children and his wife pregnant with their sixth child. Perhaps he was unhappily married and he chose a common man’s divorce by running away. Or, as I envisioned in the book, he didn’t originally intend to desert his family but got caught in a situation that required him to either skip out or be arrested. Without knowing why he abandoned them, we are left with an image of a scoundrel or a cheat who was irresponsible and negligent.
Audiences also ask questions about my grandmother, too.
- How did she find out?
- Why didn’t your father or his siblings know about their father?
- How did your grandmother manage to raise five children at that time as a widow?
These questions I can answer based on more factual information. The depositions I uncovered in the National Archives reveal a sensitive and compassionate report submitted by the government agent who came to tell my grandmother she would not receive the widow’s benefits she had applied for. The agent describes that
“until I informed her (Grandma) of the fact, claimant declares she had no knowledge of the existence of a former wife. Her grief and tears were convincing of the truth. She begged me not to tell anyone in her home neighborhood.”
This report confirmed the basis for the secret held by my grandmother and never revealed to her children. When I was growing up and asked about my grandfather, my father knew nothing and Grandma would change the subject.
Women in Teaching
In the early decades of the twentieth century, women were not welcome in the work force. My grandmother taught school before her marriage. Since she needed to find a way to support her family after the death of her husband, it was a logical move to want to return to teaching. However, women were not accepted as teachers after they married. In fact, in many places it was against the law. Yet, I found documentation that Grandma took over a class from one of her nephews who joined the army around the time of World War I. I believe that gave her an opening in a welcoming community. She continued teaching and ultimately became the school superintendent. Although teaching is not a lucrative career, it did give her a means of supporting her children.
I look forward to future opportunities to speak to audiences and share the roots of Sarah’s Secret.