Monday, September 22, 2014

Tracking a Black Sheep

When a critter crosses the yard leaving only a trail, honestly I can't tell you if it was a wooly bugger or a wolf. I might know if it was a moose by any droppings, but then again, how to tell the difference between moose and elk pellets?

E. P. Mills
Yet when it comes to tracking down a black sheep in the family tree, just call me "Scout." For years I'd been following the faint trails left behind by James B. Mills, the youngest brother of E. P. Back in the 1800s it was fashionable for men to go by their initials and James B. was often noted in documents as J. B.

Just who are these Mills men, anyhow? Edward Payson Mills was my husband's 2nd great-grandfather. I know as much as anyone can know about the life of this man down to the two sons who died in infancy and were buried in obscurity in the cemetery for which he served on its inaugural council. I can tell you how many times he purchased the mill property in Elk River, how he met his New York wife in St. Anthony, Minnesota and on how many church boards he served. I know where he was born, every place he lived, who his parents were, where his children went and where each of his siblings is buried.

Except. J. B. He was the generation's wandering black sheep.

James B. Mills
The prodigal son is often regarded as the one who slips away into culture counter to the morals of his family of origin. And the Mills family--New England puritans--had high standards regarding business, faith and education. Their father, James Harvey, was so convicted about the ills of booze that he dedicated much of his merchant column in the 1850s Faribault newspaper to the prices of commodities and the closure of the "beer establishment" across the river.

Whether or not J. B. liked beer despite the family abstinence, can't be confirmed. Black sheep are not always immoral; sometimes they are just less successful than other family members.

The eldest of the Mills quartet of this generation was Susan Mills. She married George Albee before the family removed from the Vermont/New Hampshire border to Beloit, Wisconsin in 1846. She and George started a family in what would become Madison, WI. In Beloit, E. P. and his younger sister, Octavia graduated from the brand-spanking new Beloit College, founded by men from Luneberg, VT. E. P. left Beloit in 1852 to teach school in St. Anthony, Minnesota Territory.

St. Anthony and its magnificent river falls of the upper Mississippi, choked with white pine logs, was just getting started as a community. Youthful and enterprising, E. P. was brought into the progressive fold of other New England businessmen and he partnered with Zebiron Eugene Beauharnois Nash (yeah, let's just call him Z. E. B.). The two men founded a mercantile store, and got involved in bringing culture (sans alcohol) to the territory of Minnesota. Politically they aligned with sharp-tongued newspaper editor, Isaac Atwater and got involved in buying land. Atwater, by the way, bought the land that would one day be called Minneapolis  and he would one day be called Judge Atwater.

E. P. bought land in Faribault and Z. E. B. bought a boat. Not just any boat, but the Northern Star: a state-of-the-art steamer built above the falls. It traveled upriver to a place where Ard Godfrey built one of his early mills, lumbering on the west side of the Elk River and flouring on the east. He sold it to E. P. Mills who then sold it to George Albee, his brother-in-law.

Stata Mehitable Mills
James Harvey followed his son to St. Anthony and arrived in 1854 to take over the mercantile. That allowed E. P. to go down river to his Faribault property and establish another. Octavia and Z. E. B. hit it off and St. Anthony held a huge celebration for their marriage. E. P. met the visiting younger sister of Isaac Atwater's wife, Permelia, and followed her back to New York to properly marry Miss Stata Mehitable Sanborn (I'm not making up these names).

It's not always easy to be the baby of any family. We can only wonder what was going on in the mind of 17-year old James B. His siblings were caught up in the whirlwind of the advancing communities of Minnesota (soon to be a state), marrying into proper families, starting more businesses. Did he feel left out? Was he ready to be grown up before his time? Or was it all boring to him?

Next we see James B. in a fireman's hat and coat with a buttoned-up collar. While his hat reads Excelsior, the town by such name didn't exist yet. It could have been a private company. His eyebrows are much bushier than his brother's and while they have a similar dented chin, James B. looks more intense.

Congregational Church of Faribault
By 1860, the Mills were secure and active in Minnesota. Octavia and Z. E. B. were living in St. Paul and had a live-in German servant; Susan and G. C. Albee were running a merchant business in Faribault and also had a live-in domestic; E. P. was operating a family farm that employed  laborers and sold product to his father J. H. who was running a store and teamsters. All three men were active in the civil duties of community and donated land and money to build the Congregational church and a college that is today, Carleton.

And James B.? He was fitting into the family portrait at that time. He's north in the Red River Valley, 22-years old and farming a huge swath of land and also employed a driver to take goods to market. What those goods were we don't know--it could have been hay, lumber or cash crops. It was dangerous to live that far out and the Dakota Conflict started in 1862, a year after the Civil War began.

Only Z. E. B. served in the War. He did so as a blockade runner, having rebuilt the Northern Star south of the falls and ran it to supply Union forces down the Mississippi. With war raging on the prairie, Z. E. B. running blockade, and James B. out on the prairie, everyone else holed up in Faribault. Between 1863-1866, the married siblings of James B. collectively lost five children to illnesses such as diphtheria.

By 1863 James B. was contracting to haul goods and by 1865 he had a store in Stearns County, a freight business, a wife and son, Jas. B. Jr. He was bright and able like the rest of his family. Other than pushing out into the prairie, he didn't seem a black sheep at all. But things go down in James B.'s life after 1865.

Elk River Flour Mill
After the wars in the south and on the prairie, the Albees took over the Elk River mills. The Nashes took their steamer downriver and opened a hardware store in New Orleans. E. P. and Stata stayed on in Faribault and had another child after losing two sons. J.H. continued to run the Faribault store. Then disaster hit: an accident at the Elk River mill took the life of G. C. Albee, leaving Susan widowed with five children under the age of 10.

James B. responded and went down to Elk River and helped his sister run the business. J.H. moved to Elk River to be closer to Susan. He started the Elk River mercantile. In the meantime, James B. and his wife Martha, had another son--Harry Lee Mills was born in 1867. That had to have been hard on his wife, Martha, to be left home alone while James B. was taking care of family. Why didn't he take her with him?

Now what confounded me for years as a tracker was the age difference between Harry Lee and Jas. B. Jr. First Jas. B. Jr. was older in the Territorial Census records, then younger. After 1870 the brothers disappeared altogether. In 1880, James B. was living with his parents in Elk River, helping with the store. He's listed as divorced. Several documents between 1870-1880 list James B. as a wild card, roaming all over. He went to Texas where the Nashes went to open up another hardware store. He pushed cattle, learned to make saddles, and returned to Elk River on short visits.

James B. was in Elk River long enough to complete a biography for an 1880 publication that recounts area pioneers. He mentioned his life on the prairie, his business efforts in Minnesota, helping with the family mill and his travels around the state of Texas. Not once did he mention a wife or children. James B. ran his saddle and harness shop only a few years in Minnesota. After that, his trail grows faint.

A Photo E. P. Sent to Friends From Texas
We hear about James B. in the obituaries of his siblings. Sometimes he was in Texas, other times in Montana. He visited Octavia, but not E. P. Although E. P. and Stata spent time in Texas later in their lives so maybe they did see James B. there. In 1900 the Census records James B. in Fergus County, MT as a gold miner (my son was born in Fergus County, MT 91 years later; small world when two roving Millses meet up). James B. showed up for Thanksgiving at Octavia's in 1907 as the society pages of Fort Worth records and the 1910 Census shows him in another part of Texas. No more marriages or children.

Octavia passed in 1922 after Susan and E. P. and it's the final mention of James B.--the sole surviving sibling residing in Billings, MT. That's it. The trail ran cold. I've looked at Billings, Montana inside and out for a grave marker, obituary, even the 1920 Census. Nothing. Where do you go when you are the last of your siblings and you've not set down roots anywhere?

Fast forward to last year. A genealogist named Betty reached out to me, asking what I knew of Martha J. Wyman. She had been James B.'s wife. Particularly, she wanted to know when they divorced because Martha remarried and she was trying to determine if the second marriage was before or after the birth of Frank James Lyon. I didn't know about Frank James Lyon. I didn't know about the second marriage. New tracks emerged!

Betty sent me an 1881 Census record for Canada. I never thought to look in Canada, but there on the Census record was Martha, her second husband, Harry Lee "Lyon" and Frank J. "Lyon." Remember that birth order that had puzzled me? Well, this census record matched the 1870 census record exactly--Harry was listed as the older brother. I did some more digging and a 1900 census record which asks mothers to list the number of children born and number of children living. Martha listed three born, two living. A-ha!

Jas. B. Mills Jr.  born in 1865, died in 1868. Harry Lee Mills was born in 1867 and the second Jas. B. Mills Jr. was born in 1869. James B. had three sons, not two. I can't imagine the pain of losing a child and I question who had the bright idea to name the third son after the first when the pain of his death still had to be raw. According to 1870 documents, James B. was already out of the household, but according to the 1870 Census he was still listed as head of house with Martha and two young sons.

Faribault County Court House does not hold a divorce decree, but it does have a quit claim document that turns over property in Faribault from James B. Mills to Martha Mills. It's dated 1873. James B. had been in Texas over two years by then. Next, I found an April 1874 marriage record for Mrs. M. J. Mills to Wm. Henry Lyon. Betty then found the will of William Lyon, leaving sums and property to his two "step-sons" in 1897.

From there I was able to match up my research to Betty's research and we could prove that Frank J. Lyon was actually James B.'s third son, born in 1869 as Jas. B. Mills Jr. I learned that Martha married another merchant, one from Canada, and that they lived in Canada for a short time before opening a merchant block in Salt Lake City, Utah in the 1880s (known as the Lyon Block, today). Like the Millses, the Lyons operated several businesses. They had interests in a gold mine in Marysvale, as well as a store.

Betty also told me a wild story that is well-documented in the history of Marysvale, Utah. In 1897 Harry Mills shot and killed a fellow townsmen over a dispute, in a saloon. Oh, Harry, your grandfather would have warned you of the evils of saloons! After a long and tedious trial, covered by the sensational journalism of the day with judges quoting Shakespeare and Mrs. Harry Mills swooning in court, Harry was declared "not guilty." They hastened out of Utah and resettled in Wyoming to ranch and run a restaurant.

Wyoming? That's close to Montana...the Scout is on the trail, maybe. Eureka! There he is in the Wyoming 1920 Census record: J. B. Mills, living in the same county as his son. But not with his son. J. B. Mills is an inmate in the Fremont County Poor Farm. He is listed as born in Vermont, but his birth year is off by 5 years. This man who covered the west as a firefighter, teamster, merchant, farmer, cowboy, saddle-maker and gold-miner lists his occupational skills as "none."

In 1920 his sister Octavia was still alive. When she died in 1922, her family thought him living in Billings, MT. Was that his location the last they heard from him? When J. B. Mills died, no one knew much about him. His death certificate is reported by a "Mrs. Holt" who got the facts screwed up: he was born in 1830 (1837), in Elk River, MN (Vermont), widowed (maybe, if he took another wife or counts Martha's 1903 death as such). He died of "senility" so doubtful he had the facts straight, himself.

Mount Hope in WY courtesy of Find A Grave
James B. Mills is buried in Mount Hope Cemetery in Lander, Fremont, Wyoming next to his son, Harry Lee Mills. Buried next to the son who evidently didn't even know his biological father's own name--J. B. is buried as John B. Mills. We can hope that whatever drove James B. to wander the west and allow another man to raise his children, he came to make peace with in Wyoming.

And now I know where the black sheep of E. P.'s siblings is buried. The trail is complete...but not quite.

The reason that genealogist, Betty, contacted me in the first place was on behalf of her friend, Bobbie Bailey. Bobbie's grown children wanted to know more about their Lyon heritage. Bobbie's father, who died in California in 1956, when she was barely 20, knew little about her father. He had served in both WWI and WWII and was a mechanic on airplanes. His mother had married a doctor who died in 1916 at the age of 47.

Bobbie was born Roberta Lyon to Frank J. Lyon, the son of Jas. B. Mills, Jr. Except he had gone by Frank J. Lyon for most of his short life. He was the doctor who featured in the trial of Harry Lee Mills. He was the brother of Harry Lee Mills. He was the son of James B. Bobbie is the great-granddaughter of James B. Mills. By all rights, she should have been born Roberta Mills.

What a shocker! Can you imagine, your children ask you for more information on your paternal line and the genealogist comes back with the news that you're not even descended from the family that you thought you were. That your family surname was changed after an 1873 divorce. You are a Mills, not a Lyon.

Bobbie took the news in stride and the genealogist promised to pass my information on to Bobbie. I at least wanted to say, welcome to the Mills family! Bobbie did contact me and turns out that she's a wonderful story-teller and loves history as much as I do. She didn't know her dad well and is open to learning about the Millses.

My big surprise came last week when she sent me a note that she was headed my way! Turns out that one of her and her husband's favorite camping places is along the Clark Fork River just 11 miles past the Idaho border. That's only an hour away from my house! You bet I got in the car with my Mills man and binders full of research and the old E. P. Mills 1863 photo album with the picture of James B. in his fireman's uniform.

Meeting Bobbie yesterday was beyond delightful. To hug a woman who's great-grandfather was one of my biggest black sheep to hunt down was awesome. She was worried I was going to be sophisticated and I was worried she'd not like that I was not sophisticated. We hit it off! We're both married to rascals so we had plenty to laugh about. You'd think our husbands were the cousins. She and I also share an Alexander line, but I'll have to dig deeper to find our common ancestor.

Bobbie's first question after we hugged and sat down to share photos and stories was, "Do you think my father loved me?" I cannot help but think that it was the same question that haunted the sons of James B. Mills.

Dedicated to Bobbie Bailey who helped solve a black sheep mystery and returned the lost Mills line back into the fold.


  1. What a great story! Such history! How exciting to lay to rest the mystery surrounding both the JB's. That would be such a shocker to grow up believing you were a part of one family only to find out you weren't. I'm not sure how I would have reacted to that kind of news. I found it interesting after talking to my mother that she has a relative that lives in the same town as you and that you have family where she is. It is such a small world when one stops to think about it. Loved you shared this link with me. Thanks!!

  2. Thanks for reading--it's a story that took about 12 years to figure out. It has a feeling of coming full circle, though with Bobbie. When I saw where your Mom lives, I laughed! It's such a little town and it was E. P.'s son, Harry Dean Mills who lived there for a time, raising turkeys. His descendants are spread out, but he has a granddaughter who is like 96 years old who is still in the area. Thanks for letting me link up!

  3. More great family histories. You certainly have a passion for it!

    1. Living in Minnesota with that state's impressive historical library was a lot of fun when it came to research. Having family to research was a bonus. I like finding those stories. :-)

  4. What a maze to travel as you uncover family lore.

  5. I was also impressed that the daughter, Octavia, graduated from college in the middle of the 1800s! An educated girl, what were they thinking? ;-)

    1. Yes! Although many New Englanders were progressive that way. E. P.'s son put his fiance through two years at the University of Minnesota in 1894. He gave her schooling before he married her. They were very education-minded. The anti-alcohol sentiment was also an early precursor to women's rights because it was believed that drinking led to domestic violence.

  6. My goodness, what a detective you are, Charli! I think you know more about your ancestors than I do about my dearest friends ;) I'm glad you're enjoying the search - your delight in the process really shines through in your writing. :)

    1. This is why my dearest friends are worried! ;-) Actually, I've been known to be so obnoxious about my interest in family history that I've begged my dearest friends to let me peek at their trees...and they have some great stories! Thanks, Lori! I'm excited to reach a point in my writing where I can let these two passions--history and telling stories--meld.