When you start digging into family history you’re bound to uncover some scoundrels. In my own family I’ve got Samuel Campbell Clegg, who was hanged as a British spy at Star Fort during the Revolutionary War. Then there are the two uncles that spent time in prison, one of whom I visited when he was incarcerated. Of one branch of our family a fellow genealogy researcher said, “They weren’t nuthin’ but horse thieves and ne’er-do-wells.”
Here in Washington we’ve uncovered at least one potential scoundrel in Laura’s family. While his story is interesting, I think the real story is that of his daughter, Vinnie Alethia Reed Burdick, Laura’s great-grandmother, and her ability to overcome what could have been a disastrous family situation.
Our story begins when we were here a couple of years ago. We found some interesting contents in a safe deposit box.
These were two small gold nuggets in a box from Nome, Alaska, and there’s definitely a story here. According to Laura, these gold nuggets were found by her great-great-grandfather and were sent from Alaska to his family in Iowa.
As the family tale goes, Laura’s great-great-grandfather left his wife and children to seek his fortune in the Yukon. In Alaska he took on a “side-wife” and had several children with her. This is where the story gets weird. He reused the same names from his previous family for the new family. So, if there was a Bob, Joe, and Sue in his first family, there was also a Bob, Joe, and Sue in the new family.
Supposedly the Iowa family never heard from their father again. Yet, we have these gold nuggets from Alaska and somehow the story about the second family got back to the lower 48. As intriguing as this story might be, I knew there had to be more to it.
After our visit with Aunt Ellen I was reminded of the abandoned family story and started doing some digging. The ancestor in question is one James Leland Reed, born in Iowa in 1855. In 1882 he married Everetta (Etta) Mae Oberton (born 1864) from Illinois. In 1884 Laura’s great-grandmother, Vinnie Alethia Reed, was born. That was all of the concrete information I had about the family when I got started. Laura knew her great-grandmother and we have lots of photos and news clippings about her, but more on Vinnie’s life later.
Starting with this information I looked up the names on Find-a-Grave and was surprised to find information on James Leland Reed, buried in Marshall County, Iowa. Apparently he wasn’t lost in the Yukon, as the family story goes.
Even more surprising was the information on the Find-a-Grave listing…
James lost his first family in an epidemic and decided he was going to circumnavigate the globe. Sent letters back to his parents in 1895 with a photo showing him as a scout for the army in the Dakota Territory. Also letters in the next few years as he worked his way to the Pacific Coast and finally caught a tramp steamer going up the coast of Alaska. His idea was then to go to Japan and work his way west. He stopped in Kotzebue, Alaska Territory and met my grandmother. They had 6 children by 1920, five who lived. They then moved back to the family farm in Illinois Grove/Zearing Iowa area and had two more children. Annie got tuberculosis and died in 1926. James lived nine more years and spent his last year’s in the Old Soldier’s Home in Marshalltown, Ia.
Whoa! Lost his family in an epidemic?? This is obviously from the point of view of the other family, and it’s clear that they only have a part of the story, too. Even the stated reasons for his leaving differ.
The second wife, Anna Kenworthy Reed, was 30 years younger than James. Together they had eight children. We know that his first entire family wasn’t lost because Laura’s great-grandmother survived. Not only survived, but thrived, marrying a newspaper publisher and printer, and taking part in the social activities of her new home in Montana. I wonder if this second family even knew about Reed’s first family, or if Vinnie knew about her half-siblings.
I had questions.
- How many children did James and Etta have?
- Why did James Reed leave his family?
- What happened to his wife Etta and young Vinnie after he left?
- Was there any truth to the story about James Reed reusing the children’s names?
- Did Etta Mae or Vinnie ever learn about James’s return?
- Are the gold nuggets in our possession actually from James Reed?
- Was James Reed a scoundrel?
As I dug deeper I hit lots of snags. Every source I found told the story from one point of view or the other, but none presented an entire picture. Every one. James’s references barely mention Etta Mae and his first family, if at all. Etta Mae’s references do include James because Vinnie was a product of that union. However, these never mention James’s second family.
There was also the issue of names. Sometimes James was listed as “James S.” instead of “James L.” I’m not sure where the “S” comes from, but it was obviously the same individual. It wasn’t until well into the research that I found that Everetta went by the shortened version “Etta.” One resource lists her as “Etta Mable” instead of “Etta Mae.” Vinnie’s name was listed as “Vina” or “Vienne” in some resources.
As for the other children, duplicate name listings with the same father were often concatenated, making it hard to track down individuals. Was this one person, or two people with the same name? I finally found some census records that cleared up part of the mystery.
Based on what I found, I’ll try to answer my questions above, then piece together a timeline and narrative to combine the points of view from both families.
How many children did James and Etta have?
From what I could piece together, James and Etta had three children. The oldest was Vinnie, born in 1884. Goldie Aurora was born five years later in 1889. One resource I found said that they had three children. The gap in ages between Vinnie and Goldie makes me think that the third child might have been between them. I’ve not found any reference to a name or even the sex of this third child. I suspect that it died in infancy.
James, Etta, Vinnie, and Goldie are listed in an 1895 Iowa census. Vinnie and Goldie were 10 and 6 years old.
Only Vinnie’s story moves forward. Most references say that she was the only surviving child from that marriage.
Why did James Reed leave his family?
Our version of the story says that James left to find his fortune in gold. The other version says that he left to travel the world. The latter might indicate that he was distraught because he “lost his family.” I suspect the real reason lies somewhere in between.
An article printed in the Quad City Times in Iowa from December 3, 1920 says the following:
James Reed was working in Butte, Mont., in 1882-1898 when he heard of the gold rush. He went to Alaska, and with two other men prospected for gold.
After two years of prospecting the partners sold their claim, as they did not have the money to work it. They received $1,000 each. Later this mine sold for $50,000, and more recently sold for $1,000,000.
This information is in conflict with the Iowa Census which places the entire Reed Family in Dows, Iowa in 1895. However, it does reinforce that gold was the main motivation for heading north. In other news articles James Reed is described as a “carpenter, miner, and trapper.” More about these articles in a bit.
What happened to Etta and young Vinnie after James Reed left?
From 1895 until 1902 there is no news of Etta Mae and Vinnie Reed. On March 30, 1902, Vinnie married Charles Alex Burdick. She was 17 years old. There is no record of her schooling, and the announcement only lists her as “…strictly a Dows girl. She was born and reared here, and is well known and respected.”
The article states that Charles Burdick is a printer and has recently purchased a newspaper in Amboy, Minnesota, and that the family, including Etta, will move there.
I don’t know what paper published the wedding announcement. This clipping was found in a box with other memorabilia from Charles and Vinnie’s 60th wedding anniversary in Missoula, Montana. In that box was a photo which I think might be Charles and Vinnie at their wedding in 1902.
There are other articles from that box for both their 50th and 60th anniversaries, including one announcement indicating that Laura and Amy attended the 60th anniversary celebration.
The Burdicks moved to South Dakota sometime in late 1908, and it was there that Etta Mae met and married Gabriel Delancey Mabee. Both the Find-A-Grave listing for Delancey and his entry on the Mabee Family history website list Etta as “a divorcee.”
Gabriel and Etta moved back to Iowa, and Gabriel died three years later. Etta married her third husband, an Englishman named Arthur Albert Lowcock in 1919. In 1934 Etta Mae Oberton Reed Delancey Lowcock died and was buried in the Lowcock family plot.
A transcription of her obituary from the Spirit Lake Beacon was included with the Find-a-Grave listing.
MRS A.A. LOWCOCK DIED FOLLOWING PROLONGED ILLNESS
The community was grieved on Saturday morning when the sad news became known of the death of Mrs. A.A. Lowcock, 70, which occurred at 2:30 that morning at her home following a prolonged illness.
Etta Oberton was born August 11, 1864, near Chicago, ILL., and passed away at her home at Spirit Lake, Ia., at the age of 70 years and 1 week. She came to Spirit Lake on July 18, 1913, and was married to Mr A.A. Lowcock at that time.
She leaves to mourn her passing her husband, one daughter, Mrs. Charles Burdick, Missoula, Mont.; one granddaughter, Mrs. Mervin Childs of Bucyruns, N.D.; two great grandchildren; two sisters and four brothers. Two of the children died in infancy.
Funeral services were held at the Donovan Funeral Home Monday afternoon, Rev. Herbert Marsh officiating. Interment was at Arnolds Park cemetery.
*The Spirit Lake Beacon 8-23-1934
Was there any truth to the story about James Reed reusing the children’s names
Yes…sort of. It looks like the only name to be reused was Goldie or Golda Aurora. The first Goldie died as a young child. The second Goldie was born 21 years after the first. Since we don’t have the name of James and Etta’s third child, it’s impossible to know if that name was reused. It looks like he did reuse names, but only for children that had died. There is not another “Vinnie” in the Alaska family (although there is a Viola Veka. Close, but not the same.)
Did Etta Mae or Vinnie ever learn about Jame’s return?
Possibly. We know that Etta Mae and Vinnie had at least heard from him because there are the family stories and nuggets of gold. Sources list Etta Mae as a “divorcee” and not a widow. If she had given him up as lost in the Yukon those listings might be quite different. What is still unclear is whether they divorced and then James left, or if she found out about his other family and divorced him.
By the time James and Anna returned from Alaska, Etta Mae and Vinnie had gotten on with their lives. Etta had married her third husband and Vinnie was married to Charles Burdick and already had a daughter, Arline. James’s daughter Vinnie was actually two years older than his new wife, Anna.
When James and Anna returned to Iowa they were treated as celebrities. There were several news articles about James’s “Eskimo” wife and how she and the children were fitting into life in Iowa. The wife and children were novelties, and described as wearing reindeer coats and furs. In all of these articles there is no mention of his previous marriage to Etta, but given the widespread nature of the articles, it’s possible that Etta and Vinnie saw them. Some of the articles, such as this one from the Evening Times Republican, went into depth describing Reed’s life in Alaska.
Are the gold nuggets in our possession actually from James Reed?
Family provenance would suggest that they are. Laura’s mother was cleaning the Burdick house after Arline’s death. Arline was Vinnie’s daughter Merline Wright’s mother. The family was known to keep important papers and items in the freezer for some reason, and there she found the gold nuggets.
I checked on the name on the box, R. B. Zehner. In addition to his jewelry store in Nome he held mining interests along the Kougarok River on the Seward Peninsula, relatively close to James Reed’s home in Kotzebue. That also lends credence to these being actual nuggets from Reed’s claim.
Was James Reed a scoundrel?
From the story passed down to the Wright family he certainly appears to be that way. However, we have no way of knowing the circumstances of his departure. Was he leaving to try to provide for his family and got…sidetracked? Were there other problems of which we were unaware?
I found one news article from the right time period and from a place nearby in Iowa where one James Reed threatened to kill his wife and young child and did kill a deputy sent to apprehend him. I found another article in the right place/time where a James Reed had gotten into trouble for gambling debts. Given the bias for our side of the family tale, it would be easy to lump these into the story. However, I think the name is just a coincidence, and that these had nothing to do with our James Reed.
In his post-Alaska celebrity the news articles never mention Reed’s previous family. That seems a bit harsh, but is probably understandable. I think we can call him a scoundrel, but it’s probably much more complicated than that. At least his obituary did mention his previous marriage, but gave no further information.
From Ames Milepost November 1935
James Reed, 79, son of one of the pioneer families of the Illinois Grove neighborhood, died at Marshalltown Friday evening.
Funeral services were held Sunday afternoon at 2:00, after which the body was taken to the Illinois Grove cemetery for interment by the side of his second wife, who passed away a few years ago.
Mr. Reed, who was born at Marietta was raised in the Illinois Grove community and had lived in Iowa the most of the time with the exception of some years spent in Alaska.
The first wife died years ago he leaves one daughter, Mrs. Vinnie Burdick of Montana by that marriage.
Later, while in Alaska, he was married again to a mission school teacher and to them five sons and two daughters were born and survive the parents.
They returned to Iowa a few years ago and here the wife died and was buried at Illinois Grove.
Besides these children, he leaves one sister and five brothers. The sister is Mrs. Viola Oakes of Zearing, while the brothers are Ed D. Reed of Zearing, J. Fred Reed of St. Paul, Frank Reed of Marshalltown, Claude Reed of Eldora and Clay Reed of Illinois Grove.
Maybe that question of whether or not James Reed is a scoundrel is best answered by my interpretation of the whole saga, pulling together the data from both sides and throwing in a hefty bit of speculation.
Summary and Timeline
So here’s what I think happened…
James Leland Reed marries Etta Mae Oberton in 1882. James works as a carpenter to support his new family. In 1884 they have their first child, Vinnie Alethia. Sometime between 1884 and 1889 a second child is born and dies in infancy. In 1889 Goldie Aurora is born. She reaches the age of 6 in 1895, but dies shortly thereafter, possibly due to illness.
James can’t handle the grief and needs to get away. He leaves Etta and Vinnie, working for a bit in South Dakota and Montana, then catching a steamer for Alaska. Eventually he makes it to Kotzebue, up above the Arctic Circle. He meets and marries Anna Kenworthy and they have several children. The first child dies in infancy. Daniel Boone Reed comes next. The third child is a daughter and he names her Goldie Aurora, for the child he lost. Five other children are born to the couple.
In 1902 Vinnie marries Charles Alex Burdick and they move with Etta Mae to Amboy, Michigan. This is four years before the birth of James and Anna’s first child, so it looks like Vinnie and Etta got on with their lives even before James and Anna met. Etta first marries Gabriel Delancey Mabee, and after he dies she marries Arthur Albert Lowcock. Etta dies in 1934 at the age of 70.
James returns from Alaska with his new family in 1920 and they resettle in his hometown of Zearing in Marshall County, Iowa. His family is treated as exotic novelties. Anna falls sick in 1926 and dies. James dies in 1935 in Iowa.
Charles and Vinnie own and operate several newspapers across South Dakota and Montana including Hettinger, SD, Lemmon, SD, and Moccasin MT. Eventually they settle in Missoula where Charles opens a printing business. The sign from Charles’s print shop now hangs on the wall at the Samish Island house.
Both Charles and Vinnie feature prominently in the social sections of the local news. Vinnie is active as an officer in the Daughters of the Union Veterans of the Civil War…
…and as a serious competitor in county and state fairs.
Vinnie also raises canaries, which she sells to help support the family.
It’s a fascinating story, and much more intricate than the one that got passed down. There are still seven years missing from the time James Reed left to the time that Vinnie married Charles. That would have covered most of Vinnie’s schooling, including her high school years. I’d love to know how Etta and Vinnie got by during that rough time. Regardless, somehow Vinnie overcame the abandonment of her father and was able to thrive with her husband in Montana.
As for the family that posted the information on Find-a-Grave that led me down this rabbit hole of research, I doubt that they know anything about Etta and Vinnie. I’m tempted to send them an e-mail. Should be an interesting exchange.