Monday, February 25, 2013

Mystery Monday: The Strange Life of Samuel Albert House

Samuel Albert House (1832 - 1917) had an strange life, at least to my prying eyes. As my second great grandfather, whom I share with plenty of other interested parties, he's the exception in the tree. By that I mean that there are numerous well-behaved ancestors, but Samuel Albert was something else. Oh, it's not just that he was, and Mom is real sure about this, illegitimate but it's that his life, at least from the comfort of my computer screen, appears to have been a tad of a mess. Let me tell you what we know about him and you can draw your own conclusions.

Samuel Albert House was born on 11 Feb 1832 in Hampshire County, West Virginia, in the vicinity of the small town of Magnolia. His mother was Rebecca House born 15 Feb 1808 in that same place, about that there's no discussion and here's what the Hampshire County, West Virginia /Virginia records say and the text of the listing for his birth:

HOUSE Samuel Albert                   Feb 11 ,1832           Isaac/Rebecca Biggerstaff

And here's the image:

And here's the URL of the index at "Hamshire County VA: Vitals: Births":

And the index is all we're likely to get because of fires and floods and whatnot at the courthouse. But as you can see it lists the parents of Samuel Albert House as Isaac and Rebecca Biggerstaff. Case closed, right? But why is the baby listed as having the last name of House? This makes me want to know more about this indexed record.

Back when Mom started this genealogy thing she went around asking her living relatives what they knew about the ancestors. Mom wanted to know more about her great grandfather, Samuel Albert House, so she went to ask Uncle Tuck. Uncle Tuck was Mom's absolute favorite uncle and he shared more than one bit of oral history with her and proved out to be a good solid source. Uncle Tuck gave her a few bits and pieces and then said cryptically, you shouldn't go nosing around because you never know what you'll find and you might not like it.

Now, you have to know Mom, because if you tell her she shouldn't know something, that's exactly what she's determined to find out! Off she went and found out something interesting about Samuel Albert right away. As you can see below, in the 1850 US Census he's 16 years old, living with his mother, Rebecca Caton, working as a laborer, and calling himself Samuel Biggerstaff. Rebecca House married Patrick Caton 13 April 1834, just after Isaac Biggerstaff, who had married Elizabeth Longstreth, died.  Here's the 1850 US Census.

And thus began Mom's journey to find out who Samuel Albert's birth father was, just who was this Isaac Biggerstaff, and piece together what might be known. You can check out a previous post to this blog here where you can see Mom's reasoning for arriving at this conclusion... and without much help from Uncle Tuck.

Quite a while back Mom received a write up of a House Family Reunion held in Ohio about 1910. In it attendees discussed how everyone in the community knew that Samuel Albert was illegitimate and that Isaac Biggerstaff was his father. OK, so Samuel Albert House was most likely illegitimate, big deal. If that's the worst thing that happens in a family it will be a miracle.

But as I'm piecing his life together, beyond the records, I start building an image of a troubled soul. Uncle Tuck is the source for a second story about SA House, and this one is not at all pleasant. But let's follow his life along using what's gleaned from records and the US Census returns. Here's his marriage record where he wed Mary Elizabeth Farrell on 20 Aug 1855 in Hampshire County VA.


In the 1860 US Census he's listed as living in the Piedmont area of Hampshire County, Virginia and working as a laborer and living with his wife and three children: John age 7, James age 4, and William age 2. So he'd gotten married, had a couple of kids, was working as a laborer (no skill mentioned, no employer mentioned specifically) going west from Magnolia, down the Potomac River to live and work near Piedmont.

Then there's the Civil War. Samuel Albert House joins up with the Confederate Army, even though all of his neighbors and relatives, especially his brother-in-laws, supported the Union. Family oral tradition (through Uncle Tuck) and Mom says that he got drunk, went "over the hill" into Virginia, and signed up with the Confederacy in August and was absent without leave by October of 1862. I found his war records on Fold3 and that's pretty much what happened.

It was difficult living in this part of Virginia that had just voted for secession from Virginia and become West Virginia on April 17, 1862. Skirmishes raged daily in the woods and streets. You could get killed hanging the clothes out to dry. A local story posted to the Hampshire County RootsWeb goes like this:
The Confederates built the cook fire one morning, the Yankees put the bacon on to fry, the Confederates ate it, and the Yankees put the fire out. The military would count this as one turn-over, but the beleaguered population considered it three turnovers.

By the time of the 1870 US Census, the Civil War has ended and he's moved his family again, this time to Springfield, West Virginia, and has a new profession working for the rail road. The railroad was the high-tech industry of the day and if you could land and keep a job there and could keep it, you were set for life. Springfield is about half way as the crow flies between Piedmont and PawPaw (near Magnolia or what's left of it, and read more about that here.)

In the 1880, 1900, and 1910 US Census he's living in Maryland but hopping around a bit. In both the 1880 and 1900 censuses he's a farmer.

And just why did he move from Virginia to Frostburg, showing up in the US Census there in 1910? Oral tradition has it that he was drinking a lot - too much - making a nuisance of himself and being abusive to his family. The adult male members of his family had what today we might call an intervention and moved him over to Frostburg where they could keep an eye on him. In that 1910 census he's in Frostburg and listed as doing odd jobs.

There was, as per Uncle Tuck, a particularly ugly scene in Frostburg, during which Samuel Albert threatened to kill his wife, Mary Elizabeth Farrell. Uncle Tuck's father walked in to find Mary Elizabeth kneeling on the floor saying prayers while Samuel Albert raised a hatchet over her head. Uncle Tuck's father put a stop to the madness by threatening in no uncertain terms to call the police if he ever raised a hand against her again. And he never did.

It seems to me to be a troubled life. I can't of course be certain of that but it would seem so from the details here and especially from the oral tradition handed down by Samuel Albert's grandson, Uncle Tuck, to Mom.

So what are the issues at play here and why am I posting this to the blog? First, they say it's difficult sometimes to set out what's known of a troubled ancestor's life. One needs to be objective and present factually accurate data about what's known and the source of that information, being respectful of lives I really know very little about.

And it's important to capture oral tradition too, which can be colored by personal leanings and the retelling of the story. Each person who retells it is a filter and can't help but change and modify the truth, whatever that was.

When looking at the gathering of research and stories I don't feel positively or negatively or judge; that's not for me to do. I can't know how his world saw him in the light of his well-known illegitimacy. Was it no big deal or a mark against him? It was remembered and talked about and recorded at the House Family Reunion in Ohio years later so it must have been something of note. But enlisting in the Confederacy when others in your family and community were fighting for the Union? And then going AWOL two months later? And the possibility that he was drunk when he enlisted and went AWOL is a tad unusual, don't you think?

The most difficult and egregious for me is his abusive of the family. The fact of it is not proven beyond a doubt nor documented in any manner except for oral history and I must remember that.

And then there's the need some of his other descendants feel to do what they can to cover-up his life. Changing names on a death certificate, looking and looking until they find an Isaac House, half-way across the state and presuming that he's the father, posting that to web sites near and far. Silly, really. Why not look at the man's life for what it was and lend some compassion to his presumed pain? And I do presume that he was is some sort of pain because drinking is mentioned in almost every story about him.

Samuel Albert House 1832 - 1917
Samuel Albert House 1832 - 1917 and Mary Elizabeth Farrell House 1835 - 1919


  1. Diane, I think this post was very well-written AND objective. I really enjoyed reading it! Oral tradition definitely can't be ignored, but it also needs to be taken with a grain of salt (although Uncle Tuck seems to have some special power for remembering stuff).

    I can only imagine the role that Samuel's well-known illegitimacy may have played in his interactions with the community, and how it may have hindered his ability to become anything more than a "laborer" working odd jobs.

    I agree with you - it's not our place to judge; only to follow the evidence wherever it may lead. And - if you're like me - hope and pray for some sort of scandal just to shake things up a bit! :) (Seriously, I must have the most boring ancestors EVER).

  2. Hi Jenny-- Thanks for commenting. This one was not easy to write. It's my first crack at taking a serious and objective look at an ancestor who wasn't always amusing when drinking or a model citizen.
    Uncle Tuck remembered a lot and was a strong bearer of oral tradition. He liked Mom a lot and eventually told her stuff because she kept asking, did her research, and cared about family history.
    Very nice to have your feedback:) I'll send a good thought for you to discover some outlaw ancestors!
    Cheers, Diane

  3. Hello Diane. I don't know if you are going to receive this note, but just in case you do, I happen to be part of the House family from Frostburg. My mother, God rest her soul, was Hazel Mae House. I enjoyed reading this story and would like to see more of your writing if possible.