Monday, July 20, 2015

Don't Look a Genealogy Gift Horse in the Mouth?

Have you ever heard of Jean Léon La Forêt?  I hadn't either, until a couple of weeks ago.  That's when a fellow genealogist in the Bay Area tracked me down in the Oakland FamilySearch Library and walked over with a bulging bag in her hand.  "Do you have a minute?  I have something I want to show you."

The bag contained two boxes, two notebooks, and two scrapbooks full of photos, documents, and a mystery.  The cast of characters includes Mr. La Forêt and Emma Margaret (Schaefer) La Forêt, Earl Elden Cobb and Rosita (La Forêt) Cobb, John Schaefer and Elizaeth (Walz) Schaefer, and many more.  Locations include Algeria, France, Switzerland, the United States.  Accusations appear to include child neglect, theft, swindling, and possibly murder.

Sound good so far?

About 1865, John Schaefer married Elizabeth Walz.  They had at least one child, Emma Margaret Schaefer.  Mr. Schaefer died suddenly in 1867 without having written a will.

As was common at the time for widows with young children, Elizabeth remarried, this time to Mr. Curdt.  He seems to be the villain in this story.  Poor Emma Margaret is said to have been mistreated and frozen out of her inheritance, with the assistance (deliberate or unintentional?  as yet uncertain) of her mother.  She ran away into an early marriage, to Mr. Petit.  That apparently didn't work out.  Later she married Jean La Forêt, who might be the hero of the piece.  He was a former Marine (because there is no such thing as an ex-Marine) and a Vice-Consul in Algiers (at different times, of course).  They had one child, Rosita.  Elizabeth later died in a suspicious fire.

There are copies of wills and probate proceedings.  Originals of deeds and naturalization documents, State Department and U.S. Senate letterhead, newspapers and clippings, business and calling cards.  Lots and lots of notes.

This interesting package was donated several years ago to a local society, but no one there really knew what to do with it.  One person decided to take it home and try to piece everything together and make a narrative, but other things always took priority, and it sat in the back of a closet.  And then suddenly she came up with the idea of giving it to me.  (Remember the old Life cereal commercial?  "Let's get Mikey!")  She said she thought I could do the mystery justice.  So how could I turn it down?  It has certainly tickled my curiosity bone!

The first thing I'm going to have to do is look through all the items and figure out a logical way to sort them, so I know what I actually have.  Normally the order in which items are kept is important, but these have changed hands enough times that any original sequencing appears to have been lost.   Then I'll start analyzing everything.  I plan to post updates as I work through the documents.  I don't know if I'll find an answer to the questions the first collector posed, but it should be an interesting journey.

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