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.


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