The Uncertainty Principle

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I don’t follow the news. It’s not that I stay out of touch with the world, but it seems media outlets go through enormous effort to get the story out to the public before the competition. The problem with this approach is the data loss. First, they need a catchy headline or lead-up that will entice the audience to learn more. So few people go past that headline, however. Already deciding their stance on the issue, they never bother to learn more. Even if they go past the headline, the audience is rarely given a full story. Usually updated throughout the day/week as the story unfolds, the article spoon-feeds data in the most haphazard way possible. Rare is the audience that is going to review multiple articles from different sources. Rare are they going to be aware of or accept updates that change the initial data.




If this was the headline to my cousin’s story, what would you immediately begin to think? Maybe he was dead? Well, reading past the headline, the story continues:


SCOUNDREL!!!! Our first impression of Cole’s possible death is turned on its ear as we find him now marrying another woman, with no indication of his divorce to the first. If this had been a Facebook trending topic, you’d find this same story word-for-word regurgitated by dozens of Internet “news sources”. The comments would be vilifying Cole for his bigamy. His “poor wife” Lois obviously suffered a great deal, hence why she never remarried. Who would want another horrible man in their lives? She lived for her children. (Conversely, there will be comments that she drove him away being a grade A pain.) And this Jane Wyman? Total slut and homewrecker! For many, that’s where the story will end. They found Cole and they know the truth.

Genealogists work on an uncertainty principle, however. Basically, we never know anything. We presume. The evidence suggests. It appears. But it never is and we never know. Nothing is obvious. There’s always more to the story, and sadly some of those records will have been destroyed or lost or never made.

Cole’s story does take a terrible turn when one investigates his military history. You see, Captain Cole Houser was captured by the Confederate army. He spent a few months in a prison camp, where he caught a nasty bug and became very ill. After his release, he returned home to his wife Lois, but her letters to her family indicate he was a changed man. They hadn’t been married long and now he was sick and sometimes mean. Cole took up teaching despite the fact that he had been a farm laborer before the war. It seems he was never healthy for any long period of time and teaching was easier on his now frail body. Both wives attest that his bad attitude was not over drink or a violent nature, but more brought on by a frustration with his health. He was a young man who was dying slowly.

How did he end up in Wisconsin with a new wife? Well, every other year or so since the end of the war, Cole found himself in hospital with various ailments. Wisconsin had a veteran’s hospital; a soldier’s home. Jane, it turns out, was a nurse there. After a decade of Cole’s back and forth hospital visits, he was permanently housed there around 1880 (when we lose him in the census). It seems that around this time, his wife Lois also decided she could no longer handle his illness and decided not to relocate to Wisconsin to be near her husband.

This intrepid genealogist was able to make contact with the descendants of the first wife’s children and get copies of letters sent to family, which is how I came to “know” of Lois’ decision to stay near her family and divorce her husband. Did they ever finalize the divorce? I have no idea. I was not able to find it. Was Cole’s bad attitude truly just health related? I can’t say for certain. Maybe Lois was being kind to take some of the blame. Maybe she was playing the martyr and she was a terrible and uncaring wife. I don’t know. Most of my information on Cole after 1880 comes from his military files and pension packet. Several entries for hospital visits. Information provided by his regiment about his troop’s movements and eventual capture. Letters from his second wife Jane as she petitioned for a pension on her husband’s behalf. The death record indicating his illness finally overtook him. So much information that wasn’t readily available (or conceivable) based on prior information. But still there isn’t a complete story. The most I can do is presume.

Tomorrow’s research could turn this all on its head, but that’s part of the fun! When it comes to your relatives, leave no stone unturned. As illustrated above, one of the greatest troves of information available to us is going to be military records. It’s more than a log of who joined what army; it’s a story of a life. Get the story of your ancestor’s life by getting in contact with NARA for their wealth of data. No time? Don’t know where to start? Have Twisted Twigs do the legwork! Twisted Twigs on Gnarled Branches Genealogy can search out your relative’s military file (pre-1912) and scan the entire packet to be sent to you digitally. Don’t leave your tree as just a collection of headlines!




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