All I had was a very confusing story passed to my by mother, her sister, and her brother about William "Bill" Cook and Mary Martha Higginbotham, their grandparents. My Uncle Everett Cook's version didn't include Mary Martha's first and middle name, but was the same otherwise. Here is my Aunt Ruth Dutcher's version from a letter she wrote.
"My grandparents were William Cook and Mary Martha Higginbotham. Mary Martha was born March 15 1837 and William was born in 1840. My dad was born either in Missouri or Nebraska and was raised in Nebraska. William died in the Civil War and Mary Martha married another man named Cook - no relation to any of us. Got that?"
No. I didn't get it either.
I was finding most of my relatives in the census records and not much information was online back then. It seems almost impossible to sort through every county in Missouri and Nebraska. I decided to look in counties that were near the corner of Missouri and Nebraska where the two states touched each other. One by one I went through counties looking for William in the 1860 census - just before the Civil War. One by one I marked off the counties and spread the search further and further from the border.
Finally I found a William Cook in Atchison county Missouri that was the right age. He was living in a boarding house or hotel - a place with lots of people with different surnames. There was no sign of Mary Martha. I continued to look over the years and spent at least an hour or two each week going over information and checking online bulletin boards for someone who knew about these two.
Aunt Ruth died just a few months after she wrote the letter documenting the story she and my mother had told before. Shortly after that I met a distant cousin from my Hall family who lived in Salt Lake City and we exchanged information via email about that family. Since he is Mormon and really a good researcher, I asked for his help. He invited me to come to Salt Lake City to search and he agree to spend a weekend helping me - too good an offer to pass up.
So I flew from San Jose to Salt Lake City on that very Friday to solve this years-old mystery. It is an interesting place - small town compared to the Bay area. The people are nice and I have never seen so many young people in slacks and white shirts. It is a town pretty much dominated by the church, news about the church, and doing church work. I was anxious to get started early on Saturday morning.
We went straight to the library in downtown. It is the focal point of any genealogy trip there even though there are other records scattered about town in other buildings. The front lobby of the library showcases a large mural that helps explain the church's emphasis on the family. It shows three families reaching across time - one family in the past, one family in the present, and one family in the future. It was a good image to set the mood for the rest of the day.
The library is just off the lobby and is filled with volunteers waiting to help. The help is hands on - for as much time as you need to get started. A very friendly and exciting place. There were lots of people with lists of relatives on the back of their shirt - you never know when you might meet a distant cousin and it apparently pays to advertise!
We got started with a handy index that circumvented the county by county search that had consumed so many years of effort. Within an hour we had located a promising couple named James P. Cook and Nancy Matilda Cook in Macon County, Missouri. They appeared to be living with James' parents William Cook and Elizabeth next door to a family of Higgenbothams. A little more research turned up a marriage between James P. Cook and Nancy Matilda *Higgenbotham*. The birth dates for both matched the birth dates given by Aunt Ruth. I had a hard time reconciling the names however and made every excuse to not belive that these were my great grandparents. It was just hard to believe that my mother didn't know the name of her own grandparents. So I continued to search the next day for perhaps twins - could James and Nancy have twins who also married each other - stranger things have happened.
On Sunday we found a great article about Frank Cook in Gage County Nebraska who married Nancy Matilda Higgenbotham - another match to the story. I returned to California with a lot of copies of information to study and try to figure out what was true.
I remained a skeptic until about six months later when I decided to go back to the last place where I knew my grandfather was in Oklahoma. I though it might be good to get some more information about him and perhaps put the pieces together. I discovered a new publication that included most of the cemeteries in Payne County where they first settled. To my amazement there was Nancy Matilda Cook buried in the same plot as my grandfather's first wife from Gage County Nebraska.
I had a great laugh with my brother who thought I was crazy for continuing this search way past when I had sufficient proof. I am still not sure why I couldn't accept the difference in names - but finding Nancy was convincing and I put this mystery away and started looking for another one. Don't you just love Genealogy?