Picking the Fruits of Family Lore:
Viney Bowerman and Research

by Sonia Yaco

Try telling friends what each of your great-grandparents' names were and you can watch their eyes glaze over in seconds. Tell them how your great-grandmother got to the Dakotas by train and you may have a rapt audience.

Being able to put your genealogical information into a narrative or historical context makes the people in your ancestry come alive. Family legends like " His family fled Russia through Turkey" or "She learned to make lace from the missionaries" immediately provide adventure and human interest to your account.

Most families have passed on their histories in the form of short bits of oral lore. These bits can be researched, illustrated and annotated to flesh out your family's genealogy. Even those stories that are proven wrong or seem to be incorrect can be useful.

In my family, for example, Mommie Bailey, as my maternal great grandmother was called, often lamented not getting a tricycle for her third birthday. She said that if only her parents had loved her enough to get her that, she could have become an athletic child and wouldn't have become so plump as an adult. A grandchild describes her as being wide as she was tall. One might, if it didn't seem incredibly tactless, illustrate this story with a photo showing short, round Mommie in her later years.

To research this 'scrap', I started with the basics - figuring out what year Mommie would have been three - 1886. How much did tricycles cost then? Were they affordable to her father, a school teacher, lumber man and farmer?

When I went looking for historical prices of bicycles, I found that adult bicycles were not in common usage that early. They would have been very rare in the rural parts of Michigan. Upon further research I found that tricycles had not even been invented yet.

Nonetheless the story rounded-out, so to speak, a portrait of Mommie's personality.

As you research, consider keeping an ongoing public log for others to see and have an opportunity to contribute to the research process. One good technique is to list some family scraps and note what you've proven and what techniques have failed to prove anything.

On this Web page, I published my progress in tracing down an ancestor's story of a Mayflower rocking chair in her family. I tried to answer several questions. Was she a descendant of someone on the Mayflower? Did the Pilgrims bring furniture with them? Could a rocking chair from the mid 1600's have survived until 1883?

A reader e-mailed me that rocking chairs weren't invented until at least 1700. That cleared up a lot. No rocking chair had come over on the Mayflower with my great grandmother's family nor with any other family.

Some families are fortunate enough to have family stories and histories, preserved in a written form. They are harder to come by but provide excellent opportunities to research and produce a rich history of your family.

Allow me to give you a case history of the process of annotating a written story.

I found an old stained handwritten incomplete story in a box of family photos.

Mammoth Composition Book


The first step is to read the piece and note whatever basic facts it contains.
I saw that that the author was listed as my great-grandmother and the hand writing looked like hers. Since she wrote her name as Gratia Housler Fox, it must have been written after Gratia's first marriage in 1902 but before her second marriage in 1930.

I read the story, noting the names and basic settings.  The story was about a young woman Viney. Her brother Louis was picking her up after  a month long visit with their aunt Julia. None of this sounded the least bit familiar, but it seemed likely that these were Gratia's relatives. I remembered that she had written someplace that she was writing down some of the stories that her mother, grandmother and aunt had told her.  I looked at her mother's family and found an aunt Amanda Melvina, her brother Lucius and their aunt Julia. I knew that these families all lived in Cass County, in Lower Michigan. 

I realized that since their father was in this story it had to be before Addison Bowerman went off to the Civil War, never to return, in late August of 1863. It also had to be before May of 1863 when Viney was married. [1]

The first line of the story says, "... a boy 16 and a girl ... years of age."

Lucius turned sixteen in 1860. If the story took place in June of that year Viney might have gone to visit her aunt, Juliana Hastings Chapman, because of a new baby girl born in May. In the census taken July 6, 1860,  the baby is listed as unnamed. Her name was Ada B. Chapman.

Unfortunately by July 6, Viney was also listed in her father's household instead of where the story suggests she would have been.

The first few pages of this story were water stained and hard to read. Viney's age was particularly difficult to decipher. I asked a folklorist friend, Tom Dubois[2] , who had a great deal of experience deciphering old manuscripts, to examine the manuscript. He found that the passage actually said that Viney's age was sixteen and Louis's age was twelve.

Based on the birth dates of Viney and Lucius, that would place the story in 1855.

So now I had the identities of the family members in the story and approximately when the story happened.

Next, where did the story take place? In the story the father and daughter travel one morning from their farm near Wakelee in Cass County, to see "an eminent oculist (eye doctor)." By afternoon they are at his office. Later we read that no one in the large Hastings-Bowerman extended family lived in the same city as the oculist.

The story says that Viney and her father left home after breakfast, stopped at noon for a one hour break and were in town by two. If we assume that they left home about eight o'clock in the morning, they would have traveled about five hours.

A horse and buggy driving on early summer roads without mud could go at most five miles an hour. With an old slow farm horse four miles or less an hour seems likely. 

The "story problem"then is: what city at least twenty mile away from Viney's family farm would have had an "eminent oculist"but none of Viney's relatives?

After a bit of research I found a listing for oculists in 1863, close to when we think this story took place. It showed that the little town of Vandalia, Michigan had an oculist but it is only three and a half miles from the Bowerman's farm. Too close.

The bigger towns of  Niles, White Pigeon, Elkhart, (Indiana) and Berrien Springs all about twenty miles away [3] , had oculists listed and had no known Hastings or Bowerman relatives residing there.  Any of those could be the right place.

In Niles, I found that there was a well known oculist, who was part of a father and son medical practice that spanned some sixty years. 

The father, Dr. Evan J. Bonine practiced general medicine in Niles before and after he served in the Civil War, including the year we are interested in, 1855. His son, Dr. Frederick Bonine was a world famous and much hyped eye doctor who began practice in about 1887, well after this story took place. 

I found the Bonine family had married into the East family who also married Osborns. Dr. Osborn was a partner of the Bonine doctors in the early 1850's.

Viney's family lived near other members of the Bonine, East and Osborn families.

Dr. West in the story could easily be the author's mixing of the Bonine and East families she heard about as a child. Gratia may also have assumed that since Dr. Frederick was an oculist, his father was also.

We've said that the chosen town needed to be devoid of anyone related to Viney's family. No one in Viney's family seems to have lived in Niles.  It is curious to note that despite the proximity of these families no one in Viney's family ever married into the Bonine, East or Osborn family.

It would seem that Dr. West in this story was probably Dr. Evan Bonine  practicing in Niles, Michigan.

Dr. Fred Bonine's offices, Niles, Michigan circa 1920

Dr. Fred Bonine's offices, Niles, Michigan circa 1920

However, there is another possibility. The doctor's son's name in the story is Woodbridge. Horace A. Woodbridge was an oculist and farmer according to the 1860 Michigan census living in the same town as the Bonine office, Niles, Michigan. There is also a Charles Woodbridge is listed as an oculist in the village of Marquette, Marquette County, Michigan in the 1870 Federal Census [4] .

Several other sources [5] show that Horace was a physician, in several different towns,  but only one shows that he was an oculist. Charles Woodbridge is not listed in any historical physician listings nor is he listed as an oculist elsewhere. Why would that be? Oculists at that time were not required to be licensed. Consequently many oculists were not physicians and in fact had no formal medical education at all. Nonetheless, some oculists performed surgery and  prescribed ointments, gave out prescriptions. The result was that a fair number of people had their eyesight permanently damaged.

Could these be the father or son in Viney's story?

Charles, a one-time oculist who lives in the same boarding house as a saloon clerk [6] , seems very unlikely to be the genteel young man that appears in our story.

Horace seems to be an actual physician. Records show that he moved from Wisconsin to Michigan and back several times. In the mid-eighteen-fifties, when our story takes place, Dr. Woodbridge, would have had five small children from his first marriage, just married his second wife, and only recently moved from Wisconsin to Michigan. This setup does not match the image of the long settled doctor's family in our story.

Neither of the oculist Woodbridges seem to have any link with Viney's story.

And now the story in its entirety with footnotes.


[1] Viney married Jacob M. Anderson, who mustered into Company A of the 19th Michigan Infantry three days before his new father-in-law mustered in.

[2] Tom Dubois is a professor in Scandinavian Studies at the University of Wisconsin Madison.

[3] Distances between their farm and:
Wakelee to Niles 20.7 miles.
Wakelee to White Pigeon 17.7 miles.
Wakelee to Elkhart 21.3 miles.
Wakelee to Berrien Springs 23.1 miles.
Wakelee to La Porte, Indiana 46.8 miles.

[4] Charles  Woodbridge Oculist. Born 1837 in Michigan, eligible to vote, living in a boarding house with his wife and infant daughter.

[5] Federal censuses for 1860, and 1880:
1860 H.  N. [A.] Woodbridge age 61 medical dr. from Vermont, with Sarah B. age 62 in Penn Township.
1880 H. A. Woodbridge age 71 Physician Buchanan, Berrien County, Michigan from Vermont.

[6] 1870 Census shows Joseph King , "Clerk in Saloon," living in the same household.

Copyright @ Sonia Yaco 2004