The Puzzling Family of Charles W. Howell
It all started with a DNA match. My husband’s match to his mother’s cousin, to be confusingly precise. He remembered her name bandied about the house when he was growing up, “Esther Ann” this and “Esther Ann” that. And after sending her a message, we found that Esther Ann remembered his mom too!
Besides being a really special connection to the Howell family, this cousin turned out to be something else as well – a repository of genealogical information in the form of a photo book. She snapped a few pictures of some interesting pages and sent them over to me. I immediately felt thrilled in the way only a genealogist can when looking at three mourning cards and an unnamed photo of a white-bearded Civil War soldier.
The Victorian-era mourning cards were beautiful, large black cards with gold lettering. I was familiar with the names, unsurprising for someone who spends half her time browsing through 19th century New Jersey censuses. But how Delilah or Marshall Wildrick fit into the Howell family was a mystery, and I was ready to solve it!
First I performed an incredibly sophisticated genealogist’s trick, used only by professionals who really know all the ins and outs of the genealogical world. I Googled it. And bingo. Someone had transcribed a 1949 pamphlet containing a huge genealogical history of the Wildrick family in Warren (earlier Sussex) County, New Jersey and there he was! Charles W. Howell, born in 1861, had married Marshall Wildrick’s daughter Jennie. The pamphlet also stated that the couple didn’t have any children. This could explain why their photo album ended up in the hands of a sideways relative.
I did a quick search through my extensive Howell tree but no one matched this Charles. Although I found Charles’s headstone and his marriage record, neither pointed to possible parents. It was time to dig a little deeper.
My first hint of a connection to our tree came in the 1880 census. 19-year-old Charles lived as a “nephew” in a household of Howells who I knew very well. The two “sisters” he lived with – Charity and Ellen – weren’t sisters at all, but an aunt and niece.
These loosey-goosey relationships made me doubt his real relationship to them, but Ellen did have a brother who was the right age to be the father of Charles, and her own father shared his name. Maybe she was, literally, his aunt. I decided to form the hypothesis that Charles was the son of Ellen’s brother.
Ellen’s brother, John Wesley Howell, had died of typhoid fever at the age of 23. He worked as a stone mason in a small town where it seems he was related to nearly everyone! He owned his own land even at such a young age. Although his death record shows he was married, he appeared all alone on the old family tree. If Charles was John's son, then his mother could have been Abbie E., the widow who administrated John’s estate.
While I wasn’t able to find a birth record for Charles, I did find a girl named Addalin born to John W. and Aba Howell in 1864, just nine months before John Wesley died.
This sure looked like the right couple! Was this little girl a younger sister of Charles? She didn't appear in any census with Charles or the other Howells. Had she lived with her mother? Did she die? What happened to her?
It was time to do some research on Abbie. I searched the 1860 Warren County census for that first name only. What I found was an “Abbey C. Bennet,” a male! It was the only probable match, but I wasn’t sure the census taker would make that kind of mistake.
Following the family back to 1850, the male “Abbey” was gone and in his place was a female “Elizabeth.”
I remembered Abbie's middle initial. Could Abbie E. Howell actually be Abbie Elizabeth Bennett? I added this to my hypothesis.
It was then that I found the string that tied this family together. A Pennsylvania death certificate for “Addie,” with parents John W. Howell and Abbey Bennett. This must be our little Addalin, who had grown up and married, and even had a daughter of her own!
In 1870, 9-year-old Charles was living with a whole household of Howells in Warren County, but where was his sister? The Pennsylvania death certificate inspired me to expand my census search outside of New Jersey. And there they were, the clan of Bennetts, and right there at the bottom, 6-year-old Adeline Howell. It became clear that sometime after John's death, Charles was taken in by the Howells and Adeline was taken in by the Bennetts.
A fellow genealogist sent me Charles’s death certificate from the New Jersey State Archives. His parents were listed as Wesley Howell and Abigail Bennett.
This direct evidence laid to rest any remaining doubts. My hypotheses were correct, and I knew just how this family fit together!
One mystery remains: what happened to Abigail Elizabeth Bennett? Did she die, leaving her two children behind to be raised by their grandparents? Did she marry someone else and move away? In 1866 she sold John’s land in Warren County as the administrator of his estate. Was she selling because she was about to be married? Was she planning to move to Pennsylvania with her parents? Did she need the money, or didn’t need the land? There’s so much work left to do.
John Wesley Howell had only two children. His daughter Adeline had just one daughter, Eva. Eva had no children at all. John's ancestral line has ended, but what remains is a record of generations who lived and loved, explored and adventured. And instead of a singular, lonely John Wesley Howell in the family tree, this family puzzle has been pieced together!