Family Legends

Every family has legends which have been passed from one generation to the next. Most families take these legends as truth without ever questioning them. I have heard a few stories about my family that have been disproved with research.

I want to share something that just recently pulled some bricks out of my wall. It's a bit long, but has a point.

I have been quizzing my grandmother (85 years old) about her family and my grandfather's family for about a year. This is a compiled version of what she has told me about her husband's family:

 "Your papaw's grandfather was a German. The Kaiser burned them out so he immigrated to New York and got married and had three daughters. His wife died and his sisters helped raise the girls. Then he was in a prison in New York during the Civil War. He met your g-g-grandfather Wills in the prison. I can't remember his name, but he was a Southern Gentleman (she capitalized it - not me). When the war was over, they let them out of prison and Senn decided to go home with Wills. His daughters were already grown.
 "Wills took your Grandpa Senn to his home, but it had been burned during the war. Wills and his brother and Senn decided to go to Texas. Wills was married and already had a little baby. They came to Texas and Senn went up north to Wichita Falls (TX) and got him a wife. But she had Huntington's disease.
 "When Grandpa Senn found out his wife was sick, he carried her to the Mayo Clinic. His brother was a doctor there. They found out what was wrong with her, but they didn't know how to treat it. They had two children - your papaw's father, Fred, and Aunt Annie. His wife died when the kids were very small. Frederick never remarried."

Now let me tell you what I have found: 

G-G-Grandpa Frederick Senn came to America in about 1846 when he was 7 years old. There are tons of Senns in Switzerland compared to Germany, but Switzerland is a Germanic nation. If he served in the Civil War, I have never been able to prove it. (It's possible that he was in prison for refusing to fight). His obituary states that he came to Texas in about 1886. Fred was born in 1875 (out of the family Bible). The Mayo Clinic was born in 1889 in Minnesota as Saint Marys Hospital, but was not actually called the Mayo Clinic until about 1914. Either way, the (unknown) g-g-grandmother could not have been diagnosed there, she was already dead. Frederick had five children from his first marriage - Clara, Julia, Martha, John and Henry.

G-G-Grandpa George Alexander "Alex" Wills was born in Texas in 1841 just after his parents moved to Texas. He was probably born in Harris County. He served in Company D 18th Texas Cavalry from February of 1862 to the end of the war. If he spent time in prison, he makes no mention of it. His first child was born about 1871, well after the war. However, his parents moved from Tennessee to Missouri just after their first child was born in 1817. Alex inherited all of his father's estate.

This is the part that loosened the bricks:

I was wondering why Frederick would have gone all the way to Wichita Falls to get a wife. Wichita Falls is an extremely long way from Holland - over 250 miles. So I asked Mamaw if she was sure it was Wichita Falls and not Marble Falls (80 miles) or Falls County (40 miles) which are a lot closer to Holland. Her reply was something like, "No.... I'm pretty sure it was way up north."

Frederick's obituary says that his children are:  Mrs. Julia Tuebbs of Buffalo, NY; Mrs. Clara Colby of Corfu, NY; Mrs. M. Geese of Albany, NY; Miss Annie Senn of Robinson (TX); Henry Senn of Buffalo (NY?); and Fred Senn of Austin (TX). Annie is still unmarried and living at her father's newest home. Fred is in a sanitarium in Austin with Huntington's Disease. Henry was a complete surprise to me, but Mamaw says he had to be from the first wife and live in Buffalo, New York (not Texas). I looked at a map of New York. Buffalo and Corfu are close to (20 and 45 miles)......NIAGARA FALLS "way up north" and a tourist attraction.

I did research on doctors named Senn and came up with NICHOLAS SENN (1844-1908), one of the most famous and respected physicians of the Northern states. I don't necessarily think Nicholas is Frederick's brother, but it would make sense that others might think so. Nicholas practiced at the old Milwaukee Hospital (now the Samaritan Campus) then settled in Elmore, IL in 1879 and began a practice in Chicago at Rush Medical College. It's possible that either of these clinics could be mistaken as the Mayo in a rustic central Texas community.

So let me re-write the family story:

Frederick Senn immigrated to America as a small child. He arrived in New York with his well-to-do parents and siblings in 1846. He grew up in northwest New York and met and married a pretty local girl. The couple had five children and the wife died. Almost immediately, Frederick remarried - this time to a pretty girl he met at Niagara Falls. Frederick fathered two more children and, as a result of the births, the wife's health deteriorated. She began to twitch and stutter and Frederick grew concerned. He'd heard of a clinic in Chicago where a young doctor was turning medical ideas upside down, so he carried his wife to this medical college.

Dr. Senn told Frederick that his wife had a neurological disease that could not be cured and all they could do was make her comfortable. Frederick carried his wife home and kept her drugged and comfortable until she died.

Frederick decided to move. He'd heard that there were wide open spaces in Texas where a man could truly get lost and forget his troubles. His older girls are now mostly grown and one is married, they choose to remain in New York. Frederick packs up his youngest son and daughter and moves them to a remote community called Holland, Texas.

In Holland, Frederick is known as a respectable widower with youngsters who work hard around the ranch. His son, Fred, meets a young lady from another respectable family. Fred falls in love with Beatrice Wills, daughter of Alex and Sarah Wills. In the summer of 1899, they marry. Frederick has become quite successful and moves to Robinson Community near Waco, Texas. Within a few years, Fred begins to twitch and stutter. The couple now has four children. Frederick becomes concerned. He sends Fred to Austin to another medical school. They confirm that Fred has the disease which killed his mother.

Fred and Beatrice find out they are about to have their fifth and final child. A year after J.J. is born, Fred admits himself to the state sanitarium in Austin. He is able to make brief visits to his family for the next two years, but the visits stop in 1913. Beatrice also visits Fred and has taken up medical studies. She has decided to become a nurse. She is afraid her children will also have Huntington's Disease.

[Fred died in the sanitarium in Austin in either 1928 (the Bible) or 1930 (the state). His oldest and youngest sons also die in the sanitarium from Huntington's disease, and the youngest daughter suffers from it for about 50 years. The older daughter died at age 26, we will never know if she had Huntington's.]

The first story is better, but the second is closer to the truth. Most of it is supposition, but now I know I have been looking in the wrong place for Fred's mother. I'm sure that at the end of the Civil War, Alex spent some time in a holding facility until the Union Forces sent him home. It's possible that Frederick spoke of being in a prison during the war and his two surviving grandchildren assumed that Grandpa Wills and Grandpa Senn were in prison together.

Since I wrote this article, I have found the names of Frederick's older children. Julia F. Senn was born in 1862 and married Frank D. Tubbs. They died in 1947 and 1915 respectively. Clara was born in 1864 and married Garrett Colby, they died in 1942 and 1915. Henry C. was born about 1866 and married Clara Ashley. they died in 1939 and 1933. M. is Martha. She was born in 1867 and married Emil T. Gesse. They died in 1933 and 1929. All four of these siblings and their spouses are buried in Evergreen Hill Cemetery in Corfu, Genesee County, New York. John was killed fighting in WWI, probably in France. His body was not recovered but there is a memorial to him at Evergreen Hill. I also found an 1880 census which lists Frederick's new wife as Barbara - in Genesee Co, NY.

I have also heard that I am related to Quanah Parker because one grandmother was named Anetta Parker. I have not yet found Anetta in any documents. I have heard that my husband is related to Jim Bowie but can find nothing to prove it. Dad insists that we are related to Walt Disney but, if we are, it is VERY far back. He also insists that Tex Ritter and son Jack are our cousins, but our only Ritter is Minerva who married a distant Armstrong cousin and her family would not be related to us. Take family legends with a grain of salt and you will be much happier.