When Your Ancestors Lost it All

March 3, 2011

Porter Allen family

These are my great-great-grandparents Porter and Melinda Allen and three of their children. The little boy in the photo is my great-grandfather Walter Allen, who would later adopt and raise his grandson, my father. Porter’s parents settled in Lawrence County, Mo., sometime in the late 1830s. Porter inherited some or all of the family farm. (I see land records in my future.)

Sometime in the late 1880s, while Walter was still a small boy, he and his father were working out in the fields one day when they were approached by two bearded men. Walter called them “Dutchmen,” but they were more likely immigrants from the nearby German settlement of Freistatt. The men spoke to Walter’s father and offered to buy his farm. Porter named a ridiculously high price (or so he thought). The men spoke to each other in German, agreed to the price and pulled out a large wad of cash.

Just like that, Porter sold the farm. After the sale the family moved into town—Mt. Vernon, Mo. Porter invested the money in the futures market and lost all of it. That branch of the family never owned property again. Porter died sometime between 1900 and 1910 in his late 40s or early 50s. He’s in the 1900 census, but in 1910 his wife, Melinda, is living with their oldest daughter and her family. I’ve not found any death or burial record for Porter. There is a cemetery in the area, Spanish Fort, where many of the Allens are buried. My guess is that he’s there, but no one has found a marker with his name. Melinda died in 1921 and is buried in Mt. Vernon, but Porter isn’t there, either.

I’d love to know why Porter made such an impulsive decision. Did the German men catch him on a bad day? A farmer’s life wasn’t easy. Maybe he thought the sale would provide more for his family. Sadly, it seems that the family, both immediate and extended, never forgave him for selling the farm. But to the extent that they’d bury him in an unmarked grave? I don’t know. Maybe there was no money for a marker. Sometime this spring, Dad and I will have to take a trip to Mt. Vernon so I can make my first courthouse visit and look for some answers. And we’ll stop by Spanish Fort Cemetery to pay our respects to Porter, wherever he is.

— Nancy

Family Tree Firsts is an ongoing blog series featuring newbie genealogist Nancy Shively of Skiatook, OK. Read all her posts at Family Tree University.

3 thoughts on “When Your Ancestors Lost it All

  1. Nancy, maybe Porter didn’t want to be a farmer and thought this was his “golden ticket.” Sadly, the grass wasn’t greener on the other side of the fence.

    I thank you for this story. Yes, check land records for the two Germans’ names. Also, perhaps there will be an article in the local paper of the event. Sounds like the kind of “news” editors dug up in those days.

    P.S. re: the Shively photo I commented on last time. My friend, Marjorie Shiveley Stroup, about fell over at the resemblance to her own father. She is sure you are kinswomen!

  2. Wow, that’s pretty incredible. Tell her to look me up on Facebook- http://www.facebook.com/nancy.shively
    I’d love to talk to her!

    As for Porter, yes the whole “I’m so tired of farming” thing occured to me. The sad part is that his son, (my dad’s grandfather) wanted nothing more in life than to be a farmer but was never able to do it. Dad said they always had a cow and a pig though.

  3. Well. . . if none of the extended family had no financial interest in the farm or expressed desire to buy it, STB them. The loss of any home to children is terrible, but a farm can be worse–if you love the life. My parents moved to & from a farm when I was a child. My life would have been so different had we stayed. My daughter was 3 when my parents sold the dream house we had designed & built. My daughter cried(she was 3)& swore she’d never talk to or visit them again.
    Why did he sell? How old was he? How much help did he get from family? Was the soil ‘worked out’? What were his taxes & were they paid? If he set an outrageous price & the Germans took it without dickering; he was in alot of debt, didn’t know property values, or the Germans really wanted that piece of land. Dickering is a German way of life.
    Had they been trying to buy other farms? Did they buy other farms after Porter’s? What did they do with the farm? That might give you some clues. Have you checked to see what they actually paid for the farm?
    How did Porter get the farm? Did he inherit it, earn it, or buy the other family out? Did it come to him debt free?

    As to the burial, do you know from cemetery records that he isn’t buried beside his wife or other family members? My brothers & DH all dig graves. Markers get moved to dig them & for the day of the funeral. Old ones can break. The moved marker can be forgotten due to weather or other incidents. If it broke, it might have been sent to a stone cutter to be remade & no one knew where to put it when it came back. If you know who did his wife’s tombstone, check with them to see if they did one for him. If there wasn’t any money, they might have been waiting to buy just one stone for the 2 of them. Learn the details of his wife’s death & funeral. Families tend to use the same undertakers so there might be records there.
    Check the archives of the local papers for those years for a mention of his death & his wife’s. It could be as simple as Porter died last week or several columns of details.
    Check the church records. Again that could be simple name, date & who officiated or a mini bio.
    Unless she’s listed as a widow, check the census for hospitals, TB sanitariums, & mental facilities. Prisons too.
    Also were there any children who died? That could help locate a grave or different cemetery.
    The lack of a tombstone probably isn’t malicious.

    Hope that helps.


    p.s. my mom sold a house out from under us for no better reason than the people were looking to buy & their price was right. No input from family at all.

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