But Why Sonoma?

We’ve taken Ada Mae’s story up through about 1920, where we find her in Kitsap County, Washington, living with her husband Joseph Edgar Cowan, her step-son Louis, her daughters Reah, Pearl, and Ellen, and her son Walter. She’d lived in Washington since her parents moved there in 1886, and her networks, as far as I knew, were there and in the Midwest.

But what I couldn’t figure out for the longest time was why, in 1928, she died in Sonoma County, California, and was buried there under a simple cement headstone, among strangers.

Ada Mae Scott Cowan Stone

By the 1930 U.S. Federal Census, her family had scattered. Reah and Louis we now know were living in northern Washington. Ellen was living with her aunt Phebe (Ada Mae’s sister) and family in Oregon. Pearl was also married and living elsewhere in Oregon, with her 11-year-old brother Walter in her house. Joseph Edgar had taken off to Alaska, where his son Clyde was living with wife and family, and only Joseph’s son Dallas, also married, remained in Kitsap County. Just looking census to census, it looked like a bomb had gone off in the lives of Ada Mae’s family. But the 10-year gap between censuses can obscure so much.

I had learned to see the Scotts as tribal folk, moving primarily among established family networks. (I’ve always been inclined to credit this to their Scots-Irish origins.) And I could not for the life of me figure out what she was doing in California, since the family had no history there. Finally, a cousin supplied the missing piece — naval yards.

Military families probably would have spotted this a lot sooner, but my family wasn’t, as such, a naval family — at least not until Walter joined up in 1937. But when I realized what I was looking at, it was all there.

  1. The 1910 US Census reports Joseph Edgar Cowan and Clyde Cowan as General Day Laborers, but Louis Cowan is a Navy Yard Teamster, and Dallas Cowan is a General Teamster.
  2. The 1920 US Census reports Joseph Edgar Cowan and Louis Cowan both as Navy Yard Laborers, and it lists Dallas Cowan as an Acetylene Operator at the Navy Yard.
  3. Kitsap County was home to a port and naval shipyard at Bremerton, WA.
  4. On 29 April 1927, Ada Mae’s daughter Pearl (who had married Silas Thomas Clark at some point between 1920 and 1927), gave birth to a son, Boyd Thomas Clark, in Graton, Sonoma County, CA.
  5. On 5 December 1928, Ada Mae’s sister Phebe (who married George Earl McKay in 1909), gave birth to a son, Billy George McKay, also in Graton, Sonoma County, CA.
  6. Sonoma County was then home to the Naval Auxiliary Air Station in Santa Rosa, CA.

As far as I can tell, neither Silas Thomas Clark or George Earl McKay ever served (and the latter appears to have eventually become a Church of Christ minister) but the naval bases seem to have given them a reason to be there, at least for a time. By 1930, both families had returned to the Pacific Northwest.

But in the fall of 1928, Ada Mae’s daughter had a toddler whom she’d likely never met, her sister was about to deliver, and both were in Sonoma County. That’s two families getting by on laborers’ wages, the latter already with six kids, not counting the baby that arrived 10 days after Ada Mae’s death. No one was expecting to have to pay for a burial/funeral, least of all Ada Mae.

When I was growing up, my father used to tell me about how Ada Mae’s children had been itinerant fruit pickers, among other things, during (and even before?) the Depression. But the picture I get is very much that they went where the work took them, keeping family close as best they possibly could. And like most itinerant poor families, they buried their dead when and where they could, even as they knew they’d have to move on. “Asleep in Jesus” — they must have found such comfort in their faith, knowing that, in whatever way, she wasn’t really alone.

Ada Mae’s story is a good reminder how easy it is for ordinary folks to be lost in the flow of history. But it also serves as a reminder for me of why I do what I do. There’s an internet meme that asks respondents to “Explain your job/hobby awkwardly.” My response is usually something like, “I sort through digital representations of stained plant matter and etched rocks until I can let the living claim the dead as their own,” yet there’s more to it than that. I also give the living closure, when I can, about the wounds of their dead. My father always wondered why Ada Mae was in a pauper’s grave so far from home, and now we know — she died caring for those who had to wander. RIP, Ada Mae.


When the People Judge

While I may not know how Laodicea, Ellen, or Ada Mae were judged, I know how Reah was. But to tell more of her story, I have to step all the way back to Laodicea’s.

Laodicea’s second marriage produced three sons, the youngest of whom was Joseph Edgar Cowan, born in 1861. I don’t know when his parents separated, but in the 1870 US Census, he’s in the Mahaska County, Iowa house of J.D. and Polly Emerson, without his parents or his brothers. If his parents were somewhere else, prospecting for gold or otherwise, I can’t find them. His brother Cyrus, then 11, appears in another family’s house in town that year, but I can’t conclusively identify where their brother Millard, who should have been 12 or 13, is.

In 1880, though, according to the US Census that year, Joseph Edgar Cowan is living in central Kansas with his new, teenage wife, May Bickford Guernsey, not terribly far from where his mother was living with her third husband and Joseph Edgar’s three younger half-siblings. Joseph Edgar and May had three sons themselves — Clyde (born 1881), Louis (born 1883), and Dallas (born 1886) — all born in Kansas.

This is one of those times I wish I had the 1890 US Census, because I’d like to know when Joseph Edgar, May, and their three boys moved to Washington Territory. I’m entirely tempted to think they might have been adjacent to the Scott migration that took Jasper and Ellen Scott and their children out west, but it’s hard to say.

What I do know is that in August 1892, May died in Tacoma from septicemia. I’m inclined to think this was a miscarriage, but I don’t actually have the evidence to infer that — it’s just a guess. And I don’t have any records of the family from her death in 1892 until the 1900 US Census.

Joseph Edgar Cowan 1900 Census

Here we see 38-year-old Joseph Edgar Cowan, listed as a widower and a day laborer, heading a household with his three sons (a 19-year-old day laborer, a 16-year-old teamster, and a 13-year-old student), a housekeeper, and a boarder. The housekeeper? Ada Mae Scott, the daughter of his half-sister Ellen — and the boarder? Ada Mae’s fatherless infant daughter, Reah.

Two years later, on 11 August 1902, Joseph Edgar married Ada Mae in Victoria, British Columbia. From then on, Reah used her stepfather’s name, and he claimed her as one of his own, even though he seems not to have formally adopted her.

Family lore vs. documentation gets tricky in that respect. The record above indicates that Reah’s father was born in Iowa — the same place Joseph Edgar Cowan cites as his birthplace. Is it possible he was her father and hiding it? If so, why? His wife had died five or six years before Reah’s birth, and his family had no compunction about intramarriage. Reah was 4 when her mother married Joseph, so why wait? And why list them as Housekeeper and Boarder if they were his second family? No, I’m inclined to say that the evidence at hand backs up the story passed down by her son Stanley — Joseph was not Reah’s biological father.

But in the years that followed, he very much considered himself her father. By the 1910 US Census, she’s listed with his surname rather than her mother’s (as in 1900). And their blended family grew with the births of Pearl Marie in 1906, Ellen Gertrude in 1911, and Walter Edgar in 1918. (Another son, whom his parents named Joseph Wendell, was born in 1913 and died at about a month old. He’s buried under a stone that says, simply, “Baby Cowan.”)

So when, in 1920, Reah and her step-brother Louis ran away, married, and started a family (not clear if that was the order) — it looked to all the rest of the world like something very untoward had happened. In all likelihood, the only blood Reah and Louis shared was Laodicea’s. But the fact that they’d been raised in the same house as siblings understandably made it a little more awkward than all the cousin-marriage, blood notwithstanding. Walter Edgar, their youngest half-brother, who was only a toddler when they ran away to Alaska (told you there was a family tendency to that!), apparently believed the worst, and his part of the family simply didn’t talk about it. Walter’s family never realized that Reah and Louis came back to Washington and settled in the Lummi Island/Bellingham area and happily lived out their lives about 100 miles away from the scandalized family that had, to whatever degree, written them off.

I wonder if Ada Mae knew what had become of her daughter and step-son, because what happened next continues to illustrate the importance of family in her life. I’d like to think she was understanding, but maybe she wasn’t. I don’t know.

Frontier Women

This is the story of Ada Mae Scott. It’s hard to explain her, though, without introducing you first to her grandmother (and mother-in-law), Laodicea Hartman.

Laodicea was born 10 December 1833 in Ohio to Jonathan Hartman and Susannah Russell. In the biblical context, Laodiceans were not the most committed folks to their faith, so it’s an odd name for a child in that respect. But translating from the Greek, it comes out more like “the people’s judgment” or “the people’s justice,” which is also an odd name, since the people’s judgment, in Greek legal systems, didn’t really amount to much. Still, it’s interesting to reflect on as we lay out her life.

Laodicea’s first husband, whom she married 2 July 1849, was Thomas Martin Scott. The Scotts were an interesting bunch — deeply religious, and almost tribal. They moved together in family units among particular nodes around the Midwest, sometimes bouncing back and forth within that network every few years. They also tended to intermarry.

Thomas Martin Scott was born in Indiana in 1824, the fifth child of 14 born to a couple of cousins. He was 25 years old when he married 15-year-old Laodicea in Iowa, where her family had moved from Ohio, and two years later, their daughter Phebe Marie Scott was born. A little over a year later, their second daughter, Nancy Ellender Scott was born. And about three years after that, in the spring of 1855, Thomas died. That made Laodicea a 21-year-old widow with two small children. But she was a survivor, and in 1856 or 1857, she remarried to a widower named Joseph Upton Cowan. They had three sons — Millard Fillmore Cowan (born 1858), Cyrus Presley Cowan (born 1859), and Joseph Edgar Cowan (born 1861).

Then, sometime in the next decade, Laodicea and Joseph Upton Cowan separated. There’s some family lore around prospecting for gold during this time, and this may have been the start of a longer-running Cowan family association with Alaska — but I can’t confirm that. (There’s a Joseph Cowan roughly the right age who marries in Montana in 1886 and dies in 1888, but after he and Laodicea part company, I can’t be sure what happens to him.) But in 1871, Laodicea married again, to Adolphus Herndon. She was now in her late 30s, but they had three children, and it’s not clear to me if some were adopted or all biologically hers. When she died in 1896 at the age of 62 in Kansas, she’d done a lot of living.

Her second daughter, Nancy Ellender (“Ellen”) Scott, followed the Scott pattern, marrying a cousin named Jasper Wilson Scott in Missouri on 20 June 1872. He was 19, and she was 20, and their first child, a boy named Thomas (presumably after her father), had been born a few months earlier. It is their third child, though, Ada Mae Scott, who is properly the subject of our story.

Left: Ada Mae is back row, center. Around her are her brothers, Thomas, George, William, Roy, and Robert, though I can’t identify which is which, except to say the baby in front of Ada Mae should be Robert.

Right: Ada Mae is again back row, center. On either side of her are her younger sisters, Dinah Laodicea (“Lalie”) Scott (left) and Phebe Scott (right), and their mother, Ellen.

By 1875, when Ada Mae’s brother George was born, the family was living in Kansas, where Ada Mae would also be born on 16 December 1876. Sometime in the next few years, Jasper was apparently thrown from a mule, resulting in a brain/spine injury. His health would decline over the next decade, even as he and his wife continued to grow their family and eventually moved to Washington Territory in 1886. His youngest daughter, Phebe, was born there on 18 March 1888, shortly before her father’s death on 7 June of that year.

That made Ellen a widow in her mid-30s with eight children, including a new baby. Ada Mae, the third child and eldest daughter, was not yet 12 when her father died, but I suspect his declining health and the number of her siblings meant she shouldered a lot of responsibility from early on. When I look at the picture above as her of a child, surrounded by her brothers, it’s hard not to see a tough little girl who grew up as “one of the boys.”

In 1897 or 1898, Ada Mae gave birth to a baby girl named Reah. Family lore records her father’s name only as “Mr. Mose,” and he and Ada Mae were evidently not married. Whoever he was, by 1900, he was out of the picture.

Like her mother and grandmother, Ada Mae was also a survivor. They were frontier women whose hard lives became all about family because they had to be. I’ve often wondered how society judged them, and I wonder how much they cared. I’d like to imagine the answer to the latter question is “Not.”