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After Work: The Grandmother I Almost Had

...I’ve always been somewhat of a history buff. No, that’s not quite accurate. Let me put it another way. I’ve always been a sponge for trivia and the trivial. Digging up dead relatives’ stories is right up my alley...

Dona Gibbs digs into her family history and finds a link to the infamous Dalton Gang who robbed banks and trains throughout Kansas and Indian Territory in the 1890s.

To read more of Dona's wonderfully entertaining cvolumns please click on After Work in the menu on this page.

I’m wrestling with an addiction. And I’m not alone.

For the past two years I’ve been deep into genealogy, teasing apart a web of ancestors. Searching for one’s family roots, so I have read, is a hobby that in North America has surpassed quilting, stamp collecting and even gardening.

The Internet has made this hobby accessible to anyone with a computer, time and curiosity. Thousands and thousands of records are now online with more added every day. Some sites are by subscription; others are free. Of course, the documents you find are secondary sources – but it makes for an entertaining hobby.

The Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints has amassed a collection of 2.2 million rolls of microfilm, 724,000 microfiche, 300,000 books plus thousands and thousands of other family records from 100 countries around the world. The library, housed in Salt Lake City, attracts some 2,400 people everyday from around the world. So it seems I’m not the only nerd out there.

I’ve always been somewhat of a history buff. No, that’s not quite accurate. Let me put it another way. I’ve always been a sponge for trivia and the trivial. Digging up dead relatives’ stories is right up my alley.

Add that to the fact that I was born and raised in the South. Southerners have always had a keen interest in family history. The elderly among us think there’s nothing rude in inquiring as to “Who are your folks?”

They’re looking for a connection. You might just be kin – a third cousin twice removed or something of the sort.

I never knew my grandmothers and so I missed out on sitting on the porch, enjoying a tall glass of sweet tea and hearing family stories. I rely on records and old books that I can access from the Internet. The facts and figures don’t have the anecdotal charm by a long shot, and the blue light from the screen lacks the romance of a porch light. But I make do.

From time to time out of past there comes a fleshed-out story. I have one my grandmother wouldn’t have told. It’s the story of my grandfather Albert and my almost grandmother: Julia Johnson.

Now my grandfather was Delaware Indian with a bit of Sauk and Fox thrown in. More to the point, he was a hell-raising bad hat in his Kansas youth. The government marshals, I learned from National Archives records, stepped in, caught him, hauled him in front of a federal court and convicted him. Seems he was the proverbial horse thief that people always joke about finding in their family trees – usually hanging dead from a limb. Albert got sent away for three years. This time of enforced reflection probably saved him. Perhaps he even got rehabilitated.

Seems that during that time of hootin’, hollerin’ and running off with a man’s horse, he met Julia Johnson. Some say he married her. Anyway the U.S. government keeps some detailed records on their “guests”, including records of letters to and from the Big House.

Julia Johnson wrote Albert. And Albert wrote back. She is listed as a “wife”.

Time passed. Albert wrote another letter. This time it was addressed to Julia Gilstrap. Julia had found another man.

Records show that Julia found several other men. According to what I read, Gilstrap was killed in a shootout on the street of Bartlesville, OK, and U.S. marshals shot another of her husbands, Frank Lewis, in 1907 in yet another shootout.

At the time of her death from cardiac failure, due to a ruptured appendix, in 1947 in Fresno, CA, she had been married five times.

If she specialized in bad guys, she hit pay dirt with Emmet Dalton. He was a member of the infamous Dalton Gang who robbed banks and trains throughout Kansas and Indian Territory in the 1890s. Their careers as outlaws came to an end October 5, 1892 when they attempted a double bank robbery in Coffeyville, Kansas.

The law and the local citizenry had had enough of the Daltons’ bloody exploits. Two of the Dalton brothers were killed along with two other gang members and four citizens. Emmet was seriously wounded. He served fourteen and a half years in Kansas’ Lansing State prison.

When he was pardoned and released, he married Julia. In his version of the story, he made much of Julia’s waiting for him. That was a romantic conceit, especially when you consider two of her husbands were shot dead on the street while she supposedly pined away for Emmet.

The happy couple, however, settled in Bartlesville, OK. and then moved to Los Angles where Emmet sold real estate, wrote and worked in the movie business. His specialty: the Dalton Gang.

My almost grandmother cashed in on the Old West craze too. She was paid $10,000 as a “technical supervisor” on the movie based on Emmet’s book. “When the Daltons Rode.” Look long enough on the web and you’ll find a picture of Julia and Emmet in their Hollywood days. The movie starred Randolph Scott, Broderick Crawford and Andy Devine. I discovered that Emmet’s book can be had for $3,600 on one rare book site.

Meanwhile my grandfather spent the rest of his life quietly, by all accounts, marrying my honest-to-goodness grandmother and raising three daughters. Besides the usual vital records, the only one of note of his later years is a description of his oil well’s production in a geological survey. Yes, he turned out to be one of the fortunate Indians, dying in his bed.

“Have you ever heard of the Dalton Gang?” I once asked my mother.

“Why do you ask?” she replied. Her eyes narrow, her mouth drawn down at the corners.

“Oh, just wondering,” I stammered.

“If you keep digging up the past, you might not like what you find,” she snapped.

She was wrong. It’s stories like this that keep me up, far into the night, tapping away at my keyboard.


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