Saturday, June 13, 2020

In Search of Civil War Service and a Missing Man

James Kirk, my third great-grandfather, was born on January 2, 1830, in Licking County, Ohio. He was 31 years old when Confederate forces began shelling Fort Sumter in April 1861 - sparking the four-year American Civil War. 

Did James Kirk enlist during the Civil War?

According to FamilySearch, most of the conflict's 2.75 million soldiers were born between 1801 and 1849, making James a prime candidate for military service.

In about 1851, James married Hester Griffith (their Licking County marriage record was destroyed in a courthouse fire in 1875). Their first child was born in July 1852. 

According to his 1917 death notice, published in the The Des Moines Register, James "was one of the early pioneers of Polk County, having settled here in 1858."

Sure enough, James and his growing family were enumerated in the 1860 US Federal Census more than 600 miles west of Ohio in Saylor Township, Polk County, Iowa. 

1860 US Federal Census: Saylor Township, Polk County, Iowa

The death notice was very brief and made no mention of any military service. Was this an indication that he never served?

In June 1863, James Kirk was enumerated on an Iowa Civil War draft registration record. Recording "all persons of Class I, subject to do military duty..." it listed his residence as Saylor Township in Polk County, his age as 33 years, his occupation as farmer, that he was married and born in Ohio.

June 1863 Iowa Civil War Draft Registration, enumerating James Kirk

Again, according to FamilySearch, "By 1863 it became necessary for the federal government to enroll and draft men into the Army. The Conscription Act declared that men between the ages of 20 and 45 were eligible for duty." Class I men, like James, were aged 20-35 and subject to military service.

Where's the evidence of service?

James Kirk next appeared in Walnut Township, Polk County, Iowa, where he was enumerated in the 1870 and 1880 US Federal censuses.

Unfortunately, neither census asked whether an individual was a military veteran. The 1880 census did ask whether an individual was "Maimed, Crippled, Bedridden, or otherwise disabled," which could hint at a war injury. But, for James, this column was blank.

In 1895, the Iowa state census offered the first direct opportunity for James to confirm whether he was a veteran of the war.

Now aged 65 and a widower, James lived with his son Henry Banning Kirk. The census included columns to record the company, regiment, state, and arm of service and rank for "Soldiers, Sailors and Mariners in War of the Rebellion." The fields alongside James' name were left blank, suggesting that he was not a veteran.

1895 Iowa State Census

It seemed that I had my answer and the case was closed. For reasons unknown, James was apparently never drafted or enlisted into the military.

However, before I could put the research question to rest, I wanted to find additional evidence to corroborate what the 1895 state census was telling me. It should have been easy to do. After all, the 1910 US Federal Census and both the 1905 and 1915 Iowa state censuses recorded military service during the Civil War. Given that James lived to 1917, he should have been included in each document, providing additional evidence to help me close this case once and for all.

Continuing to trace James forward in time, he next appeared in the 1900 US Federal Census where he still lived with his son Henry in Webster Township, Polk County, Iowa. He was a 70 year-old widower whose occupation was "capitalist." There was no clue to whether he served during the Civil War.

1900 US Federal Census; Webster Township, Polk County, Iowa

Curiously, my search for James turned up a new, unanticipated challenge: he disappeared and apparently eluded enumeration in subsequent federal and state censuses. 

Where was James Kirk between 1900 and 1917?

After the turn of the 20th century, James Kirk was absent from census records. I've still not located him in the 1905 or 1915 Iowa state censuses, and I haven't found him in the 1910 US Federal Census. He didn't live with any of his seven children in the decennial enumeration. 

Where would an elderly widower disappear to?

The innocuous effort to determine whether he was a war veteran transitioned to a missing persons search. 

James was MIA until April 1917 when he was committed to the Polk County Insane Asylum, where he died on August 29th of that year.

Where had he been for the prior 17 years?

20th century social media yields clues

An answer came in the form of the 20th century version of today's social media: the local newspaper's society pages.

Searching the ever-expanding collection of digitized historic American newspapers on Chronicling America, I found James, many times over the 17-year gap.

The Leon Reporter, a local paper covering the town of Leon and surrounding communities in Decatur County, Iowa, tracked James' visits to his sister, Sarah (Kirk) Eaton, and, in later years, her daughter Ella (Eaton) Hamilton.

Although the paper began circulation in 1887, Chronicling America's earliest digitized copy dates to December 1899. The first mention of James appeared in a July 1902 issue:

Leon Reporter, Leon, Iowa, 17 July 1902

The newspaper confirmed that James lived in Grimes, Iowa in 1902. Grimes is a city that overlaps both Dallas and Polk counties in Iowa. Grimes was already familiar to me. James was eventually buried in Grimes' Sunny Hill Cemetery alongside his wife Hester who pre-deceased him in 1889.

Nearly seven years later, in March 1909, James was mentioned again. This time he was recorded visiting his niece Ella Hamilton, daughter to his sister Sarah.

Leon Reporter, Leon, Iowa, 04 March 1909

James' residence was now Granger, a town about seven miles northwest of Grimes. Was this where he was enumerated in the 1910 federal census (or where he should have been enumerated)? Why could I not find him?

In 1913, James was mentioned on four separate occasions (January 16, January 23, March 13, and April 24). Each mention seemed to indicate that James was now a resident of Leon, perhaps living with his niece Ella.

For example, "Mr. Len Hamilton [Ella's husband] and uncle James Kirk were city callers Wednesday afternoon" and "Mrs. Ella Hamilton and uncle James Kirk were business callers in Leon Monday."

But fast-forward to September 1914, and a society page clipping indicated that James still lived in Grimes.

Leon Reporter, Leon, Iowa, 03 September 1914

In March 1914, Ella's husband Len Hamilton died. Seven months later, in October 1914, the society pages recorded the widow taking on a caretaker role for her uncle.

Leon Reporter, Leon, Iowa, 29 October 1914

From subsequent mentions in the newspaper, James lived with his niece through 1915. In one mention, we learn that his son Henry came for a visit from Grimes. Perhaps James was living with his son Henry in 1902 and 1914 when the newspaper gave his residence as Grimes.

By autumn of 1916, James was no longer a resident of Leon. In September of that year, the society page labeled him a visitor.

Leon Reporter, Leon, Iowa, 14 September 1916

James left for Gentryville, Missouri for an extended visit with his son James Jr., nearly seventy miles southwest of Leon. About a month later, both father and son were again recorded in Leon's newspaper having come "for a visit with relatives in this city." This was James' last recorded visit to Leon.

Eleven months later, the society pages wrote of Ella's travels to Grimes where she attended James' funeral. The paper recalled that he "was well known by a number of Leon people, having been a frequent visitor at the Mrs. Hamilton home in this city."

Apparently, the old man was bounced around from home to home. Perhaps that would explain why he was never recorded in the 1905 and 1915 Iowa state censuses nor the 1910 US Federal census. Or maybe I've simply overlooked him and he will eventually turn up.

In the absence of census enumerations, the usefulness of local newspapers is clear. The Leon Reporter helped trace James' whereabouts over the last 17 years of his life when traditional genealogical records like the census failed, underscoring the value of newspapers in research.

In the end, I seem to have confirmed that James wasn't a Civil War veteran and, I also found him, when I didn't even realize he was missing.

That's the thing about genealogy, one research question always leads to another...


  1. I waited for years for my local NJ newspaper to be digitized and, now that it has been, I've found literally hundreds of entries about my family. Excellent family sleuthing on your part. :)

    1. Thank you, Linda! Just imagine the many other family mysteries waiting to be solved with more papers digitized. It can't happen soon enough! I've been waiting on early 19th century papers from Licking County, Ohio for years. Some day...

  2. Good job using the newspapers to supplement the missing census, Michael. What a great timeline!

  3. Great work piecing together his story. Sounds like those missing 17 years were difficult.

    And do you think the Leon newspaper ever learned how to spell "niece"?

    1. Haha! I love that you noticed that spelling error. I was transcribing the blurbs directly into Ancestry and had to do a double take each time.