The Horse Thief

After my grandmother died in 1971, we discovered an old family tree with a dead end. The parents of my g-g-grandfather, Edmond J. Gifford, were not identified. We found out that his parents’ identities were a mystery, maybe even to some of his own children from whom he was estranged. There was no birth certificate or any record of his parents. However, my father was determined to discover Edmond’s parents and in the process learned a lot about Edmond. And this was in the days before computers and the internet. As we learned more about, him some in family started referring to him as the “horse thief” because he always seemed to be on the run.

1850 Indiana Census

Edmond makes his first official appearance at age 20 in the 1850 census when he was living with Rufus Patch, Superintendent of Lagrange Collegiate Institute, East Lima, Lagrange County, Indiana, and attending school there. The records of the school cryptically list his home as Greenfield (Indiana? New York?). By 1852 he had moved on to Bloomington, Muscatine, Iowa, where he worked as a sawyer.

1856 Muscatine, Iowa Census

In the 1856 Iowa census, there is a household headed by an A. J. Warren in Muscatine, Iowa, with his wife Nancy and daughter Lila. In the same household lived Nancy’s sister Mary Renfro and brother George Innis (“Eunice”) Renfro and a 26 year old E. J. Gifford. Nancy Warren may be Nancy’s mother-in-law. Both A. J. and E. J. worked as sawyers. Although E. J. Gifford is listed as born in Michigan, this most likely is our man.

This is because two years later on May 7, 1858 Edmond J. Gifford married Nancy Ann Renfro Warren in Nancy’s home town, Rock Island, Illinois. I can’t find a record of Nancy Ann’s divorce from Warren. He turns up in Arkansas in 1880 with a new wife and three children, but not Lila. She would have been 25 in 1880 and probably married.

When she married Edmond, Nancy was pregnant by, apparently, her previous husband, A. J. Warren. Nancy gave birth to a son five months later, who was “adopted” by Edmond J. and named William D. Gifford. However, given the previous living conditions, William may have been Edmond’s biological son. We will catch up with William again later.

In 1861 back in Muscatine, Iowa, Edmond J. and Nancy had a second son, Edmond (Edward) H. Gifford. That same year Edmond J. enlisted in the 1st Iowa Infantry for three months. This was in response to the first call for volunteers by President Lincoln after the attack on Fort Sumter. The enlistments were for only three months because, without congressional authorization, the president could only call up the militia. It may also indicate some optimism about the anticipated length of the war, but actually, that was the maximum amount of time that militia could be called on to defend the country. An army would have to be raised after that.

Edmond enlisted on the 7th of May 1861 in Company A, 1st Infantry Regiment Iowa and was discharged on August 20. His unit was in the battle at Wilson’s Creek, near Springfield, Missouri on August 10, the second battle of the war, after the first Battle of Bull Run, or Manasses as Southerners called it, both of which the Union lost. 

The Union force lost 24 percent of its command in the battle, while Confederate losses totaled 12 percent. On Bloody Hill, where the heaviest fighting took place, there were over 1,700 total casualties — some 20 percent of the men who fought there. … During the brutal fighting [General Nathaniel] Lyon was struck by a bullet to the chest, becoming the Union’s first general killed in the war. …Wilson’s Creek also underlined a point that Bull Run had first made clear: that the war would not be easy or quick, and that for all the lofty rhetoric on both sides, the reality was that the war would be agonizingly brutal.

Randall Fuller, Professor of English at Drury University, Springfield, Missouri, “We Bled in the Corn”, Disunion in the New York Times, August 9, 2011.

Edmond J. survived the battle, obviously. In an irony of war, another of my ancestors, actually my grandmother Eveline Bonorden’s uncle, Herman F. Döllinger, died in a disastrous fire on aboard the steamship General Lyon in the Spring of 1865.

Her passengers consisted of discharged and paroled soldiers, escaped prisoners and refugees, among whom were about thirty women and twenty-five small children. Two negroes were also among the refugees.

New York Times, 1865

There was talk of sabotage by Southern sympathizers, even though the war was over. We’ll catch up with him later, too.

Edmond J.’s whereabouts after the war are unknown. Nancy Ann had taken their sons, William and Edward, to Davenport, Iowa, where she worked as a seamstress. This is surprising since Nancy Ann’s widowed mother, Elizabeth Cormack Renfro, lived across the Missouri River in Rock Island. There may have been a rift between mother and daughter, but Elizabeth would later take in Edward’s brother William. In 1871 or ’72, Nancy Ann procured a divorce from Edmond J. in Davenport where she remarried and apparently lived until her death.

Finally Edmond J. resurfaces on 7 August 1873, when he married Josephine Johnson Westcott in Grand Rapids, Michigan. They had a daughter, Una (Annie, Mia) V. Gifford in 1874 and a son, Willie in 1876, who died four months later. By 1880 Edmond J. was living in Petoskey, Emmet, Michigan with his wife, Josephine. In the census he says that both his parents were born in Vermont and that he worked as a grocer. However, he later says that his parents were born in Massachusetts. Others in the household are Una V. Gifford (age 6) and Edwin R. Westcott (age 17), Josephine’s son from her marriage to Randall Westcott.

I recently discovered a photograph of Edmund online. This must be Josephine with him, as he appears to be wearing a war medal.

Edmond and Josephine

Although he enlisted in Muscatine, Iowa, Edmond was a member of the the Grand Army of the Republic (G.A.R.) in Petoskey. Memorial services were held by local G.A.R. veterans over the years and around the northern states. His trips to these meetings are often reported in the Bismark Daily Tribune where he is referred to as “Captain” Gifford, although his highest rank was private.

In the 1889 Edmond J. and his wife and daughter are still living in Petoskey. By this time, he was a very successful businessman. But, by 1890, Edmond J. had moved to Bismarck, North Dakota, where he invested in dry-land wheat farming and lost everything. According to the Bismarck Daily Tribune (August 23, 1900) Edmund often went to visit friends in Petoskey, Michigan.  Josephine, who was in poor health, remained in Petoskey with her daughter Clarissa until her death.

However, Edmund J. seems to have been a very kind man and devoted husband. The following is an excerpt from an essay written by the granddaughter of Edmund’s wife Josephine, from her marriage to Randall Westcott.

“…Josephine left New York at this time [the death of her first husband, Randall H. Westcott in 1864] and went with her two children to live with her family….Her family thought that perhaps she should go back to the young ladies’ seminar and teach. She tried this, but was not well enough and she began to cough which made them afraid that she might have tuberculosis. After a while her mother offered to care for [her children] and she was sent to the pines of Michigan to get well….

“Later [Josephine] married a Mr. Gifford in Petoskey. He was smart – a lumber inspector, engineer and had a real estate office….He owned the flatiron block where Rosenthal’s was, etc….

“Just as property was getting valuable in Petoskey, Mr. Gifford decided to go to Bismarck, N. D. and invested his money in wheat land. After several dry years, he lost all his money he invested in farming. He got a job overseeing a group of men who cared for a big railroad bridge at Bismarck. He also surveyed and sold real estate. One day [Josephine’s daughter Clarissa] received a letter from Grandfather Gifford saying that [Josephine] was not well and that he was going to take her to St. Paul for an examination. He wanted [Clarissa] to meet him there. [Clarissa] went and found out that [Josephine] had a cancer and that it would be best for her to come back to Petoskey and live with us. Grandfather [Gifford] went back to Bismarck to sell out. We children had heard something about Grandmother [Josephine] not being well and we expected that she would look very ill, but she was so pretty and looked so happy. She had very black hair and beautiful violet eyes….

“Finally, [Josephine] was not well enough to be up and she was in bed most of the time. Grandfather Gifford sent his entire bank account here to [Josephine] so she could have anything she needed. He paid all her church dues in her Bismarck church as long as she lived. Dr. John Reycraft cared for her. He never let her suffer….

“Grandfather Gifford did not get here before she passed on. She had seemed so fine and passed so suddenly. We had not sent for him. He was trying to settle his affairs in Bismarck….”

Josephine’s obituary tells another story.

Mrs. E. J. Gifford, after a long and painful illness, died at the home of her daughter, Mrs. C.J. Pailthorp, yesterday morning. Mrs. Gifford came to Petoskey many months ago from their home in Bismark, N.D., to be near her children, Mrs. Pailthorp and E.R. Wescott and for better medical attendance and has never been well enough to return. Her husband arrived from Bismark Sunday and was with her at the end. Mr. and Mrs. Gifford were among the first comers to Petoskey in 1874, and at one time owned the whole of what is now the flat-iron block. About twelve years ago they removed to Bismark. Mrs. Gifford was a woman of fine Christian character and a devoted member of the Methodist church. She leaves a husband [Edmond J.], and three children, all married….

Petoskey Record, 22 May 1895

Well, maybe he was with her in the end. Edmond returned to Bismarck to live out his days as a watchman on the Northern Pacific Railroad bridge over the Missouri River. It’s doubtful that his experience with railroads had anything to do with his son and future grandson choosing to build them. Who knows? However, it is probably at this time that Edmond acquired a pocket watch that I still have.

Edmond’s pension applications shed some light on his years as a widower. He first applied for a military disability pension in 1890, at age 60. Based on his doctor’s description of his disabilities, he seems to have been suffering greatly as a result of his three months service in the Civil War. The doctor describes his chronic diarrhea and heart ailments as the main causes of his disability, as well as mental derangement. Remember, he was only 60. In 1903, when he applied for a pension increase, he had “two teeth in the upper jaw and two in lower, all loose and puss extruding from sockets”. 

In the brief interview in his application, he was asked a few questions about his residences and family, which are infuriatingly brief. When asked where he was living before enlisting he says “In the West, from 1852 Muscatine, Iowa.” No mention of where he lived before age 20, which I suppose he believed to be irrelevant. But we do learn that his eyes were blue, his skin was light, and his hair by this time was gray. He stood 5 feet 7 ¾ inches tall and weighed 165 pounds. So he was rather small, but this may be average for his generation. When asked about his children, he remembered the birth dates of Edmond H. and Una, but does not mention William. He describes his son Edmond H. as “may be living. I have received no letter from [?] since 1885.” That’s 18 years.

Edmond J. died at age 73, in Bismarck, North Dakota, 30 November 1903 while still a watchman on the bridge over the Missouri River. His body was returned to Michigan for burial. He was buried in Greenwood Cemetery, Petoskey, Michigan.Bismarck Daily Tribune 30 Nov 1903:

At St. Alexius hospital at six o’clock this morning occurred the death of Mr. E. G. [sic] Gifford, long a resident of Bismarck. For many years he has been employed as watchman of the Northern Pacific bridge across the Missouri River and has lived in the watchman’s residence there. A number of days ago he was taken ill and his condition became such that he was taken to the hospital for treatment.

Mr. Gifford was well and favorably know in Bismarck, where he lived with his family for many years. His wife died several years ago and he leaves one daughter here, Mrs. C. N. Hendrix of Steele. He leaves also a son and daughter in Petoskey, Mich. from which state he came to this city.

Mr. Gifford was seventy one years of age at the time of his death and was a native of New York state. He was a veteran of the civil war and a member of the local G. A. R. It is probable that his remains will be taken back to Michigan for interment.

Funeral services will be held at the Methodist church tomorrow afternoon at one o’clock. The remains will be taken to Michigan for interment.

Bismarck Daily Tribune 30 Nov 1903

Mrs. Hendrix is Edmond’s daughter Una. There is no mention of Edward. Since there were no “son and daughter” in Petoskey, this may refer to his stepchildren. But that is still a nice obituary for a watchmen.

Death of E. J. Gifford

The remains of E. J. Gifford, one of the pioneer settlers of Petoskey, are expected to arrive tomorrow for interment by the side of his wife in Greenwood. In 1875 Mr. Gifford was one of the energetic pioneer business men of this tiny village. He owned the three cornered piece of land on Lake and Howard streets called the flat-iron block, and built a house where the department store of S. Rosenthal & Sons now stands. He also owned other pieces of property now very valuable, but in the early 80’s he disposed of his Petoskey interests and moved to Bismarck, S. D. [sic], where he has since resided. Mr. Gifford was the step-father of Mrs. C. J. Pailthorp of this city, and E. R. Westcott of Big Rapids, and leaves one child of his own, a married daughter living in Steele, N. D.

Petoskey Record on 2 Dec 1903:

Mrs. Pailthorp is Josephine’s daughter Jessie.  Again, no mention of Edward or William.

The body of E. J. Gifford was brought to Petoskey Thursday afternoon for burial. The funeral precession went from the station directly to the Greenwood cemetery where a brief service was read by Rev. H. H. Shawhan. Mr. Gifford was a step-father to Mrs. C. J. Pailtrop of our city and E. R. Westcott of Big Rapids. He has a daughter, formerly Miss Una Gifford whose home is in Steele, N. D. Mr. Gifford was a former resident here and extensive property holder in the early days of the village. He moved to Bismarck, North Dakota years ago, and has since made that place his residence. The six pall bearers were old pioneers of the city and friends of the deceased.

Petoskey Evening News on 4 Dec 1903:

None of the obituaries mentions Edmond’s sons Edmond (Edward) H. or William D. from his marriage to Nancy Ann Renfro. Not only was Edmond J. estranged from his own father, but he seems to have been estranged from his two sons as well. However, he was not a horse thief, but actually a well regarded businessman and devoted husband, the second time around any way. Nice to know.

The following are buried in Greenwood Cemetery in Petoskey, Michigan:

Edmund J. Gifford, father, b 1829, d 11/30/1903 Josephine A. Gifford, mother, b 1839, d 5/21/1895 Willie Gifford

There are also three vacant plots in the lot, perhaps purchased for Edmond’s other children, Edward H., William D. and Una. Maybe they weren’t forgotten.

With all this information, all we know about Edmond’s parentage is that he was born in 1830 in Utica, NY and his parents were born in Vermont or Massachusetts. But that may be enough.

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