Square One. Home. Notes from the Field

Note to my Readers:  Square One.  GO. It’s where we all start…the beginning.  And where we all endeavor to move away from…far away if we want to make “progress”…learn, grow, change, discover.  Except.  I learned that a visit to Square One is valuable time spent and where the answers to many puzzles and ultimate success often reside.  And that you have to pass GO , move on, land on Boardwalk, buy a railroad or a hotel,  Go to Jail (heaven forbid!), take a Chance and learn before you figure that out.

Lesson learned.  Again.  In a previous post I had found the name of my paternal great great grandmother, Sarah D. Bowker Case Johnson, and that after the young widow remarried, I had no idea what had become of her.  I was wrong.  I always knew.  Just as in the game of  MONOPOLY, I had gone round the board and just had to go to back to Square One.  GO!

Sarah D. Bowker Case

I had the ultimate family history researcher’s triumph…finding the maiden name of a grandmother.  I had the thrill of finding her parents and siblings upon learning her name was Bowker.  I found the child Sarah Bowker, her parents Jonathan and Emeline Powers Bowker and her seven siblings.  In the late 1700’s the large Bowker family had settled in Groton and Lansing and Summerhill, New York and the documentation goes back to Silas Bowker, Revolutionary War soldier from Ulster County, New York.

1870  Summerhill, New York

In 1870 newly widowed Sarah Case and her two children, Willie and Emma,  were reported in the Federal Census living on their farm in Summerhill, Cayuga County, New York surrounded by Bowker, Powers and Case family members.  William had died the year before of consumption.   Five farms away was the large farm of David Penird, six year old Emma’s future father-in-law.  Sarah may have been widowed with two small children and a farm to run, but she was definitely not alone.

1880 Federal Census

Ten years is a long time and it is easy to forget that when you are primarily relying upon the Federal Census information to keep track of individuals and their families…especially in the life of a young widow and her growing children.  There is a farm to run and children need a father and a 23 year old woman needs a husband.  Children grow up.  Widows remarry.  And there I lost Sarah, young Willie and his sister, Emma, my great grandmother.  My early research in the 1880 census and local records revealed none of the Case family members…mother or children.

1890 Federal Census

1890 Census Fire Damage

The big information VOID.  In 1921, the 1890 Schedules were destroyed by a fire in the National Archives.  In 1932 a list of papers to be destroyed was sent to the Library of Congress which included the original 1890 schedules that still remained. Congress authorized the destruction of the papers listed and in 1934 those remaining schedules were destroyed by the Department of Commerce.   A few records remain.  The surviving fragments consists of 1,233 pages or pieces, including enumerations for Alabama, the District of Columbia, Georgia, Illinois, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, South Dakota, and Texas. The records of only 6,160 of the 62,979,766 people enumerated survived the fire.

Local record keeping was usually concerning land ownership and taxes, and, of course, voting and that was a man’s domaine so I held no hope that a remarried Sarah would show up there.  Church records were kept and lost and so it is serendipity when they exist and are archived for research.  The same holds true with burial records.  Twenty years is an genealogical researcher’s eternity with no concrete information on Sarah or her children.  Did Sarah die and were the children adopted by other family members?  Did Sarah remarry and have more children?  Did she migrate west and leave her children behind…William to marry Katie Johnson and Emma to marry her childhood friend, William Penird?  How could I have found Sarah only to lose her again?

1900 Federal Census

Deadwood City, North Dakota Territory 1879 Before the Fire

Six year old, Emma L. Case, from the 1870 census was now a grown, married woman of thirty six with children of her own.  Seven to be exact.  On December 13, 1880 at the tender age of 16,  Emma  married William J. Penird in Groton, New York.  William and his father, David had just returned from Deadwood City in the territory of North Dakota.  They worked as laborers rebuilding the city after the fire that destroyed most of Deadwood in 1879.  They were living at 867 Main Street between Watson and Harvey, Attorneys At Law and Deadwood’s German-born doctor.

Eldest child, Lillian was born in 1883 and then Floyd in 1884.  Ida was born in 1887 and John in 1888.  Little Ida and John died within days of each other in 1890 after a terrible epidemic had swept through Auburn, New York….the same year Emma gave birth to my grandmother, Sarah Leona, her grandmother’s namesake.  The youngest children, Ethel and Harold came long in 1892 and 1899 respectively.

Emma’s older brother and only sibling, William J. Case, had married Katie Johnson in 1884 and had four children of his own.  Like Emma and her husband, they suffered the loss of a child-their first born, William J. Case III in 1887.  Son John William was born in 1889 and daughter, Olia M., followed in 1892.  The baby of the family, Helen May was born in 1899.  Helen died in 1909 at the age of 10.

William and Katie raised their family in Groton among many of the extended Case family members.  William never lived on a farm again.  Emma and William settled in the Auburn, New York area where the extended Penird family owned farms and businesses.

It was in this census that I searched for Sarah.  She would be 43 years old and it seemed reasonable that she would be close to her grown children.  Many women would either combine households with their grown children or live within a short distance….especially when there were grandchildren to love and nurture and farms to be run.  But Sarah did not appear to be near either of her children…not Sarah D. Bowker Case anyway.


The “brickwall” reality of genealogical research is that sometimes the information void…particularly for females is fixed and certain.  And every family researcher learns to make peace with that.  Almost.

I had left Sarah and her fate to the brickwall limbo several years ago and had concentrated on her husband’s family members…the Cases and the Lern/Learns.  Good documentation…a bit of forensic problem solving, but they left a good trail in Summerhill,  Locke and Groton, New York and surrounds.  And some good pioneer stories.  For another time…another blog.

Square One

I have been a researcher for years now and I like to think that I improve my skills constantly.  I learn from reading history books, genealogical research materials and most informative of all, from my fellow researchers and historians.  More research materials are available every day and I have found archival libraries that are rich and deep for the intrepid and determined.

And I have learned to go back and look at my old research.  I go to Square One with a more educated understanding of the data.   And much of the time, it is like visiting the family and gaining a more profound understanding of their relationships.  It also leads to finding that a guess you made regarding a relationship is not quite right.  Close…but not correct.  And this is how I found Sarah.

Sarah D. Bowker Case Johnson

The fact is that years ago I had found Sarah and her children at the beginning of my Case family research.  Her son, Willie had married Katie R. Johnson.  I had made a leap of faith from an old Case bit of family information that lead me to place her with Sylvester and Sarah D. Johnson as her parents.  As she wasn’t a Case family member, I left it at that.  I could verify that data at some other time.  I moved down the board.  First, I didn’t have the knowledge that Sarah Case was Sarah “D”  Bowker and second, I was still a novice without much understanding about analyzing the information.

My discovery of Sarah’s maiden name was the single most important thing in finding what had become of her after 1870.  The Bowkers and the Cases and the Learns had huge families and surely she would be among them.  And then there were the Johnsons…her daughter-in-law’s family.  And the name Sylvester that had been linked with Katie in old Case family lore.  In one short moment I realized that Sylvester WAS her father-in-law, not her father.  In their time, the titles were interchangeable and the old Case family data that called him “father” reflected that practice. 

This time I looked for Sylvester in the 1880 census and there he was in Summerhill… farming…with Sarah “D” and, “son”,  William “C” Johnson and “daughter”, Emma L. Johnson.  Sarah’s children were recorded under their stepfather’s name.


In 1900 Sylvester and Sarah were now on their farm in Groton and caring for their eleven year old grandson, John Case.  John’s mother was expecting her third child and no doubt the farm and his grandparent’s attention were just the right summer diversion for John.  The Bowkers, the Cases, the Learns still were significant families in the Groton and Ithaca areas and were the Johnsons neighbors…as they always had been.


By this time the aging Sylvester and Sarah had moved on to another farm in Newfield, New York…just a few miles south of Ithaca on Route 96…and a few miles away from their granddaughter, Sarah Leona, and her husband, Albert H. Martin and their two small children, Albert Ernest and Emma Lillian.  Albert Ernest is my father.  My grandfather was born in Brooklyn and grew up there though his father and mother were from Auburn, New York.  I always thought that he went to the Danby-Newfield area because of his Martin-Jennings family members.  I now know that the family that drew them there was my grandmother’s.

Sarah was a great grandmother in 1910 and died that year on March 11th  at the age of 63.  She is buried in Groton Rural Cemetery…yards away from her first husband, William J. Case and her son-in-law, William J. Penird and her son, William and his family members.  Sylvester died in 1944 at the age of 93 and is buried next to Sarah.

Authors Note:

Sarah has given me a wonderful and challenging opportunity to learn more about being a better genealogist, but more importantly, in the process I learned of her as a child and my Bowker heritage.  I  came to know about her as a child, a mother and grandmother.  And it is nice to think that she held my infant father and that as her great great granddaughter, I have been able to not only document her life, but to appreciate it.  A bit like coming home…to Square One.

Deborah Martin-Plugh

Author, Historian and Genealogical Researcher

(c) Copyright 2010.  All Rights Reserved

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