Mysteries, Scandals, and an Ancestor’s True Identity Revealed

April 23, 2012 at 8:48 am | Posted in Genealogy Research Strategies, My Family History Stories | 2 Comments
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Jonathan Rhoades - images from
Jonathan Rhoades
images from

I honestly never gave a second thought to researching Jonathan Rhoades, even though I tell genealogists all the time to look beyond the blood line at friends, neighbors, and associates.  You may recall Jonathan Rhoades was Louise’s second husband, who abandoned her, from a recent blog post – A Civil War Wife’s Story Told Through Genealogy Records.   He was a mere supporting character in the drama of my ancestors, George and Louise Watson, so why bother looking into his story.   Then a kind and loyal reader of this blog asked, did Louise ever get a divorce from Jonathan?  Of course, I couldn’t let that lie.  And I’m so grateful for the question, because in pursuing an answer a story rich in mystery, scandal, and family legends revealed came to life.

Who Was Jonathan Rhoades?

Jonathan Rhoades (b. 1817 Lynn, Essex, MA) was a shoemaker by trade his entire life.  He must have been either very good or very proud of his profession because every document I touched called him out as a shoemaker.  Which I must say, was a godsend in helping track him over time.  Again, it is those extraneous facts we sometimes overlook that are the keys to genealogy success.

Jonathan at the ripe (old) age of 35 married Mary E. Allen (b. 1826, Albany, NY) in Southbridge, MA on January 27th 1852.  They settled in to a conventional life by all indications, raising three children, Albert (b. 1848), William (b. 1853) and George (b 1854).  You may notice Albert’s birth pre-dates the marriage.  That could mean either this is the reality as is (birth before marriage), there was a transcription error somewhere, or another marriage.  We just don’t know.

What we do know that is that tragedy befell the family in 1859.  Mary died of “fever” at the young age of 33.  Jonathan is now 42-years old, single with three dependent children.  As is common for the time, single men did not raise children alone.  Either they married seemingly quickly a suspiciously young bride or they found alternative arrangements for the children.  The later is the case with Jonathan.  William and George are raised in the home of Joseph U. Royce (age 69 in 1860) and Mary Williams Royce (age 64 in 1860) in Wales, Hampden, MA.  Seemingly, as they are no longer able to care for them they are cared for by close neighbors and maybe relatives George and Mary Boynton.

By 1860 (US Census for MA), Jonathan is living as a single man, shoemaker by trade, in Mrs. Kendall’s Boarding House in Worcester, MA.  In the boarding house were 15-20 adult men of varying ages all tradesmen by profession – tinmen, painters, polishers, carriage painters, blacksmiths and wire drawers.  It’s not hard to imagine a rough and tumble, very manly lifestyle Jonathan experienced at this stage of his life.  Sad, too, he’s lost his wife … and children.

Mrs Kendalls Boarding House where Jonathan Rhoades Lived
Mrs Kendalls Boarding House where Jonathan Rhoades Lived

Jonathan Rhoades and the War

The country had been at war from April of 1861 and by the time Jonathan had enlisted in the late summer/early fall of 1862, Lincoln was calling for another 300,000 troops and the cities and towns were offering a bonus for enlisting to get recruits.  As a Private, his occupation at the time of his enlistment, was a bootmaker.  For more on this regiment visit the 51st Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Site.  Know that at this time in our American history we were an all-volunteer army and  Jonathan enlisted as a volunteer as most men did at the time.  Indeed, the draft did not come into play until 1863, at which time Jonathan officially registered for the draft – occupation: shoemaker.

Jonathan and Louise

While Jonathan is married and having children in the early 1850s,  Louise had married Francis Bullard, and they had two children –  Elvira Josephine and Walter Henry.  Additionally, by 1862, Francis, like Jonathan, had enlisted in the Massachusetts militia.  However, unlike Jonathan, his fortunes were short-lived, dying in battle in September 1862.

With the fall of 1862 upon them Louise and Jonathan were both widow and widower having had children and each a family.  I can see where when their paths crossed they found common cause.  By November 1862 – only two months after Francis died – they wed.

New records recently discovered force changes to my original narrative of their lives.  According to the 1865 Massachusetts Census for Worcester, MA, Jonathan and Louise are still the tight little family in 1865! (I had thought they were separated by 1865.)  Jonathan’s children are not in the household, but Louise’s children from her marriage with Francis (Elvira and Walter) are with the family.  Realize, too, that Louise had set up a guardianship for Elvira and Walter with Allen Price two years earlier.  Nonetheless, she retained custody – at least until May 1st, 1865, when the census was taken.

Jonathan and Louisa Rhoades - 1865 MA Census
Jonathan and Louisa Rhoades – 1865 MA Census

Just to recap –

  • Jonathan and Louise are still together in 1865
  • Jonathan gives away his children from his first marriage – at least they are not with him.
  • Louise legally gives up custody of her children from her first marriage.
  • Jonathan and Louise keep Louise’s children from her marriage with Francis Bullard.

Then we have Francis.  Little Francis Rhoades joins the family in September of 1864 to be recorded as eight months old in the 1865 MA Census.  The family was growing. Life was looking up and settled.

Louise and George

But wait! You might exclaim, if you recall I previously had George and Louise wed in 1863.  How could they possibly be married if Jonathan and Louise are married in 1865?  Very easily.  I made a mistake.

George, upon further investigation, did return from battle and stayed at home with his parents, Samuel and Olive Watson at least through 1865 to be identified in that same census. Further, it seems George and Louise were married in 1867, not 1863.  There it was clear as day on the marriage register.  Ooops.

I also noticed in revisiting the marriage register was who exactly George married.  George married a “Maria J. Bullard” from Clayton, Michigan.  Both listed the event as their first marriage.  But look at the name of the bride –  Maria (Louise’s middle name) and Bullard (from her first marriage).  Additionally, I know she’s given her name in pension records as “Louise M J Bullard.”  I’m certain she is Louise.  I’m also certain this is the right George H. Watson, because the parent names (Samuel B. and Olive) are exactly correct in the register, and they aren’t the common Mary and John-type names to be easily confused.

Marriage Register for George H Watson and Maria J Bullard
Marriage Register for George H Watson and Maria J Bullard

It’s clear to me that Louise married to George under an assumed name.  She never divorced Jonathan, as we might infer from her statement “he (Jonathan) abandoned me” in the pension records. She seemingly didn’t want it exposed that she was marrying illegally.  Why she picked place of residence as Clayton, Michigan, I don’t know.  Maybe she felt it couldn’t be disputed or she identified easily with a distant location.  Louise, you sneaky girl.In November of 1867, Louise and George form a family, and by 1870 they are inDes Moines, Iowa on their way to Kansas to start a new life.

What About the Children? 

What became of Elvira Josephine and Walter Henry and Francis Rhoades?  Before I answer that, I do want to confirm that Jonathan did go his own way.  By 1870 he was living with a family, who must have offered a small boarding house connected to the home.  There were a handful of adult men – railroaders mostly – living there with Jonathan, the shoemaker.  He remained inWorcester Countythe rest of his life dying at the age of 82 and was buried in the Lynn Cemetery with a GAR (Grand Army of the Republic) headstone.

As for Elvira and Walter, they were, as mentioned in the first blog post, given to Allen Price.  But we now know it was sometime between May of 1865 and November of 1867.

And Francis? 

It is my belief, for reasons I’ll explain, that Francis Rhoades stayed with George and Louise and became the man we know as Frank Watson.

  • There has always been a family legend that Frank Watson was adopted.  This would support that case.
  • In spite of exemplary vital records kept in Massachusetts, I’ve never found a birth record for Frank Watson.  If what I’m saying is true, “Frank Watson” was never “born.”
  • Frank Watson in every record throughout his life maintains he was born in 1864.  George and Louise didn’t get married until 1867.  Indeed, Louise was married to Jonathan until 1865.  They couldn’t have been Frank’s biological parents.
  • Francis Rhoades was born in September 1864 – exactly the time presumed to be Frank Watson’s birth.

Therefore, it is my contention that Frank Watson’s biological father is Jonathan Rhoades.

In Conclusion… 

What a heart-stopping journey this has been.  Abandonment.  Illicit marriage.  Assumed names.  Changes of identity.  A mystery writer couldn’t have concocted this with any measure of believability.  But it is true, or so the records would have us believe.  Speaking of records, I don’t source my stories in detail in the blog.  However, if you would like the detailed timeline with sources – all 26 of them – I’d be happy to share.

And in the meantime, happy researching.



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  1. […] now you’re well acquainted with the near infamous Jonathan Rhoades.  And while the story is quite rich, there are still questions to be answered.  Among them is […]

  2. Here is a direct link back…

    Gale Wall
    Hutchinson, KS
    Digital Cemetery Walk
    Cemetery walks offer an afternoon of discovery.
    Every stone has a story. And they are waiting to be told.

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