The ‘last’ aunt

There was no mention of Emily. No mention of her in any yellowed letters or penciled-in pedigrees, or in any “clippings” of scandal or gossip. Indeed, the only snippet of her was as a young girl “with ague” found among census records. There she was, “Emily A. Ginder” in 1870, and 1880 again, living in the household of my great-great-grandparents Jacob and Martha (Lacy) Ginder. Yet there wasn’t the slightest clue as to who Emily was, or what had become of her. There seemed to be no further trace of Emily Ginder. Surely she’d married early on or, as we genealogical types like to say when we don’t have the answer, she simply ‘died young.’


Growing up, any knowledge of my Ginder family had been lost to time. My great-grandmother, Mary (Ginder) Sage, died thirty years before I was born, and clues about her family were minimal. Any facts about the family had seemingly died with her, and those that remained were shrouded in ignorance and mystery. The only “clues” were in the recollections of Mary’s youngest daughter, my grandmother “Nana,” who scarcely remembered anything at all after so many years passed.

It wasn’t that I didn’t ask: “Nana, did you ever know any of your mother’s family?” It was a question met with non-answers, only the tilt of her head and the puff of a bitter cigarette to match her faraway recollections. It wasn’t that she didn’t try to remember; she just didn’t know. She thought she remembered a woman called Aunt Jenny, but wasn’t sure. Jenny, who’d come to visit once when she was a young girl. Still, she had no memory of any other Ginder aunt or uncle, cousin, grandparent, or ‘shirttail’ relative ever being met or discussed. There was certainly no mention of an Emily Ginder.

The years went by and genealogy overtook me. I started to focus on my great-grandmother Mary’s parents Jacob and Martha, and Mary’s little-known siblings. After a while, I was able to discern that “Aunt Jenny” was actually Mary’s older sister “Martha Jane,” an aunt who was enumerated as both “Martha” and “Jane,” but who for whatever reason preferred to be called “Jenny.”[1] My grandmother’s memory had given me my starting point without even knowing it. Indeed, how many of us have started out on our genealogical searches based on the desire to validate the recollections of a loved one? I wanted to know more.

Curious about Jacob and Martha’s other children, I went sleuthing. Therein, I met with some success in “figuring out” their lives. I tracked “Uncle George” in his seemingly solitary life to a pioneer cemetery in coastal Oregon, where he rests near his parents Jacob and Martha.[2] I looked at “the girls,” Aunts Minnie and Margaret, and noted Minnie’s life filled with six children of her own and her notable mention in a local Oregon county biography.[3]  I was able to follow Aunt Margaret’s journey to Southern California in the late 1920s.[4] Still, there was never any mention of Emily.

I couldn’t find a trace of her anywhere.

However, as I went through the records I glimpsed a trend in the names of my great-grandmother’s sisters. I noticed that all the Ginder girls (with the exception of my great-grandmother) went by some other name. For instance, after discovering that Aunt Jenny’s true name was Martha, I saw that “Aunt Minnie” wasn’t really “Aunt Minerva” (as one might have thought), but was actually “Aunt Frances”; her middle name “Arminna” had morphed into the diminutive “Minnie.” And while “Aunt Margaret’s” name became an informal “Maggie,” it all still underlined the trend that the names of the “aunts” were not necessarily their own. So what about the last aunt, Emily? In this regard, I guess Emily had been staring me in the face all along.

I’m a big believer in “genealogical serendipity,” and I’m grateful to Scott C. Steward for allowing this to be a category for some of the posts here on Vita Brevis. While I know that some of the discoveries we find can be called “aha” moments, many are just (in my case) more akin to huge “duh” moments. It’s interesting that the research rules I thought I’d practiced or put into place with regard to one family line could be so quickly forgotten with regard to the next. And, yes, please, in my usual fashion, I know I digress. Indeed, what’s any of this got to do with poor Emily?

Now, I realize that I’m not the first family history rocket scientist to figure out that census records are a menu of people referred to by their middle names, surnames, initials, or nicknames. I’m much like the rest of us here who’ve stared at a census record trying to figure out why a name doesn’t make any sense, won’t fit, or chalking up a particular family member to “they simply ‘died young.’” Indeed, that’s what I’d done in looking at poor Emily. I had inadvertently marginalized Emily’s identity to compensate for my lack of research skills. After all, wasn’t she “just” the same young girl listed with “the ague?” I very much needed that aha! moment for Aunt Emily. Heck, I’d even take a good “duh.”

The family history gods were not appeased with my blasé attitude toward Aunt Emily. Ironically, her near-invisible existence demanded attention, perhaps too tragic to be ignored. Not really knowing where else to turn, I decided to look away from Emily, and focus back on her parents Jacob Ginder and Martha Lacy. I wanted to see if any of their other children had been married at Holt County, Nebraska, in the 1880s, and if Jacob and Martha had been named in the marriage records. I reasoned that if my great-grandmother Mary was married in Holt County, there was a chance her “next eldest” sister might have a matrimonial connection to Holt County, too. That’s when my aha moment landed for Aunt Emily. It turns out that “Emily” wasn’t “Aunt Emily” after all. For whatever reason, she’d either been enumerated incorrectly over the years or chosen instead, like her sisters, to be called something else. Allow me to introduce you to “the ‘last’ aunt,” Miss “Emma” Ginder.

Emma’s name and identity were confirmed on her marriage record on 4 July 1885 in Holt County to Oliver L. Anderson. The record names her parents, “Jacob Ginder and Martha Lacy,” whom we know were in Holt County, based on their appearance in the marriage license for Emma’s younger sister, my great-grandmother Mary (Ginder) Sage. Indeed, there had never been anyone named “Emily,” after all.

It seems like the case of “the ‘last’ aunt” has yet to come to a close. While I’ve been filling in those pesky blanks about my newly minted “Aunt Emma,” the information is somewhat bittersweet. After their marriage, Emma and husband Oliver migrated to San Francisco in the late 1880s. They had one child, a son Frank, and lived there for quite a while before apparent health reasons took them to Los Angeles. Emma’s husband Oliver died from tuberculosis in 1923. Sadly, after Oliver’s death Emma became somewhat indigent and a resident of Rancho los Amigos – the county’s “poor farm.”  It’s now a defunct place haunted by rumors of ghosts in a town that doesn’t exist anymore.[5] Old, alone, and seemingly away from any family at all, here is where Emma (Ginder) Anderson, “the ‘last’ aunt,” died in 1937 from heart disease.

However, Aunt Emma’s story does live on. The Ginder family’s ability to morph their names into names of choice appears to have (for untold reasons) become something of a tradition. There’s an interesting “next chapter” in the life of Emma’s son Frank Anderson. You see, Frank is one of the few people I’ve ever researched whose name on his death certificate is not the same name on his gravestone. Say what?? Like Emma, perhaps it’s just another case of someone lost in the records or a mistaken or hidden identity. In any event, Emma’s keeping it a secret. The last story of the last aunt remains to be told.


[1] Alice (Bragg) Maitland (1889-1967). Her North Dakota death certificate names her mother as Martha Jane Ginder.

[2] George A. Ginder (1861-1922). He is buried at Gresham Pioneer Cemetery in Multnomah County, Oregon, adjacent to his parents Jacob Ginder (1837-1901) and Martha Lacy (1839-1929).

[3] Frances (Ginder) Neely (1870-1947), memorial no. 177145866.

[4] Margaret Grace “Maggie” Ginder (1876-1929).

[5] Rancho los Amigos was built in Hondo, California, a town since absorbed by the City of Downey. The original county poor farm was built in the 1880s but abandoned by the 1980s. See Thomas Harlander, “Take a Look Inside Downey’s Creepy Abandoned Asylum,” Los Angeles Magazine, 16 September 2015.

About Jeff Record

Jeff Record received a B.A. degree in Philosophy from Santa Clara University, and works as a teaching assistant with special needs children at a local school. He recently co-authored with Christopher C. Child, “William and Lydia (Swift) Young of Windham, Connecticut: A John Howland and Richard Warren Line,” for the Mayflower Descendant. Jeff enjoys helping his ancestors complete their unfinished business, and successfully petitioned the Secretary of the Army to overturn a 150 year old dishonorable Civil War discharge. A former Elder with the Mother Lode Colony of Mayflower Descendants in the State of California, Jeff and his wife currently live with their Golden Retriever near California’s Gold Country where he continues to explore, discover, and research family history.

36 thoughts on “The ‘last’ aunt

  1. Very interesting and a good reminder to “think outside the box” when it comes to census records and names. I’ve run across the switching of first & middle or nicknames many times in my research for myself & others. Can be confusing & misleading for sure!

    1. Chris, Cousin Frank is no where near as entertaining as Uncle Morris. Wow is all I can say, and kudos to you for some amazing sleuthing on putting those puzzle pieces together. In re-reading your story about Morris I have to say it was one of your most interesting “twisted tales” of research! I enjoyed your grandfather’s description of Morris’s ignoble demise. I hope to do a follow up on Cousin Frank – we’ll see. I’m still trying to gather the stray ends. Many thanks!

  2. Enjoyed the post. However having Emaline and Emmalines in my family I think Emma and Emily both nicknames fir same. Maybe called Emily when little and selected Emma for herself a little later.

  3. Jeff, I always enjoy your Vita Brevis stories. In fact, I think they are my favorites. You might want to check the location of Gresham Pioneer Cemetery in Multnomah County. We Oregonians would never consider Gresham as “coastal.”

    1. I was going to write that as well! It’s 90 miles and nearly two hours from the closest coastal location (Tillamook). In my book, Astoria, Toledo, and Otis are about as far inland as could be termed “coastal.”

      But I also was going to say that my great-grandmother’s brother-in-law was enumerated in the 1940 census living at Rancho Los Amigos, so that was a somewhat familiar location for me. One of his granddaughters was ring bearer at my grandparents’ marriage in 1929.

      1. Hi Pamela….It’s interesting to me how many connections people here have to Rancho los Amigos. What a small world! I’m from Los Angeles but had never heard of the place before.

        On a side note, I always find it interesting our shared California and Oregonian “interconnections” (for lack of a better word or description) Pretty cool.

        Thanks Pamela!

    2. Joan – A BIG shout out to all my friends with the Oregon Society of Mayflower Descendants! And yes, I checked the map again on Gresham. My error. I must have thought that in relation to Nebraska everything in Oregon becomes coastal?? (Some days I have “old man brain” so it’s hard to know!?)

      You spoil me with your kind words Joan.Thank you!

      1. Jeff, for what it’s worth: I am a PacNW transplant stranded in Vermont. Many people here still think all of Oregon is wet and rainy all year long, not reaizing that more than half the state qualifies as desert. I would love to allow them to continue to think of my home state as dreary and barely livable, but unfortunately, somebody figured it out and now the truth about Oregon has gone viral. Darn. I’d hoped to move back but can’t afford the inflated real estate!

  4. I’m glad I’m not the only one with ‘duh’ or ‘aha’ moments! I have quite a few ancestors with different names than listed on census and/or death certificate records! I too have added the children of my great aunts and uncles to see if I can find a connection back to my great-great grandparents 🙂

  5. I think it became all the rage in the 1870s to begin using a middle name. My grandmother’s father’s family all seemed to disappear between 1870 and 1880, even though they spent their lives in one town. With a little digging, it became apparent that my great grandfather and all his siblings switched to their middle names and continued to be known by those middle names for the rest of their lives.

    1. It’s been going on for a longer time than that, I think, Linda. When people started giving their babies two given names in the late 1700s/early 1800s, they were not regarded as first name/middle name, but as given names that were interchangable.

      My own research shows that often they were used interchangably, or one name used in one context and the other in another. Some people started out using one name and at some point changed to the other. I suspect that part of it is the recycling of family names and the need to differentiate between sometimes multiple people in multiple related lines with same names. In my family, I have to be on the alert for this kind of thing constantly.

      I suspect the change came when Social Security came on the scene, with registration limited to First name/Initial/Last name, and the increasing tendency to require that other documents also follow that pattern. We are still at it, though. I didn’t recognize a cousin’s tombstone because it had his “legal” first name. I’d always known him as “Jack”, a name that had nothing to do with either of his given names.

      And the given name I use was originally my “middle name”. When I retired, I had to have it legally changed because all the paperwork required that I use my name as it appeared on my birth certificate and thus SS. No way was I going to spend the rest of my life with that hated name (I found a Gaelic substitute for it to use as my middle name, and so continue to follow the family tradition).

  6. Don’t be too hard on yourself, Jeff. Census takers were famous for mis-hearing names of family members, or at the end of a long day simply wrote down information about the next, but unvisited, family provided by a neighbor.

    1. JamaGenie – It makes me wonder just what sort of errors in names does the census get wrong today? I know they do a great job with a massive workload, but I wonder if it still happens. Thanks for this!

      1. The census takers make typos of have bad handwriting or make assumptions, but they are also writing down what an informant is giving them. I had one family who listed dead children! I wondered why the children were in one census, not in the next, and then reappeared in a third one and found they had died before the middle one. I guess the parents were grieving still 10 years later or misunderstood the question!

  7. I had the same problem with my Richards line. My great-grandfather, Andrew Francis Richards, alternately went by Andrew or Frank.

    1. One of my grandsons is a Fourth. His dad and grandfather go by some variation of Stuart, their original namesake, but none have never and will ever go by their middle name (Ormel).

    2. Hi Rita – thanks for this. I just hate it when someone named say “Thomas Robert Smith” hates his name and goes by something like “Bill.” Then with my luck he ends up spelling his surname “Smythe.” They sure don’t want to make it easy for us, do they!

      1. I would like to add that his name is incscribed as A. Frank Richards on his tombstone and he is buried with his first wife, whereas I am descened from his second wife.

  8. I had a great aunt Emma who was always known to the family as Aunt Emmie. One census in her childhood did list her first name as Emily. My guess is that the census taker misconstrued Emmie as Emily.

  9. Rancho Los Amigos, where your Emma lived, is very familiar in my research. My paternal grandfather was a gardener there in the 1930’s, and my dad (b. 1927) enjoyed some of the perks of being the child of an employee. He loved the movie night the most, and cheered on Tom Mix and other stars of the day. Patients, like your Aunt Emma, were seated on the main floor of the theater, some in wheelchairs. Employees’ kids, like my dad, sat in the balcony above. Other perks were getting to eat food from the gardens there, and during those depression years, that was a big one. Dad also loved the beautiful flowers, the small zoo, and the freedom to roam the grounds and interact the patients. I can only hope the last years of your Aunt Emma’s life were less dismal than you might think.

    1. Hi Karen+Miller: I very much appreciate your comments about Rancho los Amigos and learning about your grandfather and his work there. You describe it so lovingly that I have to believe Aunt Emma was happy there. I guess when researching her life I only saw what looked to be Emma’s sadness at being alone. I apologize sincerely if I let that description of Emma carry over too far in my take on life at Rancho los Amigos. That was unfair of me – I appreciate the different perspective on the Rancho as now I have one for Aunt Emma too. Thank-you for this!

  10. My aunt worked at Rancho Los Amigos back in the day. Did you know that much of it just burned down about 3 weeks ago?

    1. Yes, there was a large fire there recently, and I was sad to hear about it. I went often as a young child in the early ’50’s, because my maternal grandmother worked serving food on the wards and took me along to “show me off.” My brother and I would sit on people’s laps to talk, play games, sing, and help push wheelchairs on the sidewalks. We always looked forward to going, partly because people would sneak us candy!. (Not particularly relevant to this particular post about Emma, but part of the story of the place, I guess! )

    2. Pat, that’s incredible! I did not know. Lord, I hope Emma didn’t do it – that is light a match! It’s amazing because exactly three weeks ago I was finding Emma there at Ranch los Amigos and putting together the post about her life. Kinda spooky! Thanks for this!

      1. Hmmm! Not sure they ever found a cause for the fire. Maybe Emma was ready to move on once you found her…

  11. My great-great grandfather was married 1838 as Rovell Crego; death certificate he is George Crego; tombstone Ralph Crego, in Madison County, Ohio. We don’t know why. Great article…

  12. Nicknames, middle names as first names, and names that have no basis in official certificates are par for the course in my family’s census entries.

    My great-great-grandmother, Emma (Murry) Thoits Spiller appears variously in records as “Emma” or “Emily”. On her gravestone, her name is spelled “Emly”. Because of those variations (and the lack of a marriage record for Emma and Isaiah Winslow Spiller), it took me a while to figure out that the two husbands of my great-grandmother Catherine (Emery) Thoits Spiller, William Thoits and Leonal Spiller, were half brothers.

    1. Bessie would be Elizabeth if it’s a nickname. I do, however, have an aunt named Bessie, not Elizabeth. Kellie/Kelly doesn’t seem to be a nickname for anything.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.