Curtis JN “Jenny”  WWI U.S. training airplane

My Grandmother Was An Only Child,
Or So She Thought

Belinda Breidenbach

My grandmother grew up in St Louis, Missouri believing she was an only child. She told pleasant stories of her home, summer days in the Ozarks, and trips every summer to see her aunt and uncle and her three cousins. 


She left St. Louis when she married. Her parents retired to Florida. Shortly before her father, Hutch, died in 1954 my grandmother traveled to see him. Her cousin Evelyn, who was 13 years older, was also there. My grandmother learned the surprising truth that Evelyn wasn't just her cousin. In fact, Evelyn was her half-sister from her father's first marriage. My grandmother was raised as an only child, yet she had a half-sister. 


Why was this kept secret? Hutch’s first wife died. He was a widower with a toddler daughter. His sister raised  Evelyn along with her two daughters. He remarried and had another daughter, my grandmother. These two sides of the family remain connected. This was a family tragedy. Why was this truth hidden until his deathbed? His obituary acknowledged both daughters. It's challenging to reconstruct the cultural norms of the time, the family dynamics, and why the secrecy. I can’t fully understand the way someone else is affected by tragedy or how they deal with grief. 


My dad brought me three cardboard copier paper boxes of old photographs several years ago. I began family research until other things took precedence. This cycle happened several times. Then I was home with most everything canceled due to the COVID pandemic. I used the opportunity to spend more time talking with my family across the country. The connection was helping us all to cope with the isolation. I returned to my family history research.  It was exciting to share my discoveries. I had many interesting conversations at a time when not much else was happening. Ancestry research requires one to be open to unexpected discoveries and be willing to follow paths where they lead. My mother asked me to find out more about her grandfather and the family secret. 

I wanted to find my great-grandfather's first wife, Evelyn's mother. As I began my search I didn't even have her name. I found Flora Alice and I discovered her fascinating family history. Her grandfather and great-grandfather were prominent figures in Cherokee history. Flora Alice was a  Cherokee woman who moved to St Louis after graduating college. She met my great-grandfather descended from the English pilgrims. They married and farmed in Indian Territory. Flora Alice became ill after Evelyn was born and died the following year. Along my research path, I discovered family knowledge long forgotten. 


Piecing a story together from historical documents can be challenging. It's not only what documents are available but what records are missing. It's not only what information is on the records but what information the records request and what is never asked. It is recognizing that the missing information can be as telling as the documented information.

There was another family secret that no one knew about.

World War I Was raging. An influenza pandemic was also raging. The influenza pandemic of 1918 was very different than the current pandemic. The time from transmission to symptom onset was rapid. A person could be healthy then exhibit severe flu symptoms and develop pneumonia in two hours. A few days later the infected person was either recovering or had died. Autopsies revealed lungs torn apart from massive hemorrhaging. One military doctor described patients being covered in so much blood that it appeared they had been on the battlefield (Barry).  This pandemic was frightening. It is documented as having left a scar on most American families. Influenza usually has a high mortality rate in infants and the elderly. However, in this pandemic, the mortality rate was also high in adults 20 to 40 years old. US life expectancy dropped by 12 years. Why didn't my family ever mention this pandemic? There were other family recollections of difficult times in history. 

 

The rapid disease timeline created distinct waves. Just like now, people were anxious to return to their normal lives. Between these waves, St. Louis would reopen schools, reopen theaters, and people would carry on with life as they had before. It was known that large gatherings of people were sources of transmission. Nevertheless, war bond or victory loan rallies we're still being held across the country.  America needed to finance World War I, the war to end all wars. Over a hundred years later this war seems distant. I remember muddy trench warfare from history books, but this was actually a high-tech war. There was new technology on the scene such as machine guns, tanks, and the most revolutionary  development, airplanes. 

 

The Wright brother’s first flight had only occurred 14 years earlier. It had to be courageous or to some foolhardy to enlist as a WWI pilot. A young man in St Louis named Ridge answered the call to be a WWI pilot. His late mother was Flora Alice, his father Hutch, his sister Evelyn, and his half-sister, my grandmother. 

 

What?! A half-brother? My grandmother learned as an adult that she had a half-sister but never knew that she also had a half-brother. What happened to Ridge? Why did he disappear from the family oral tradition? 

 

I searched for pieces to this puzzle. Ridge was three when his mother died. His father advocated for his children and the United States government recognized Ridge as a member of the Cherokee Nation. The 1910  census has Ridge living with his father and stepmother in St Louis, Missouri. Ridge was 14 when my grandmother was born in 1912. 

 

Ridge joined the US army in 1918. One interesting puzzle piece is that Ridge is listed as white on his enlistment papers. That is only half true. Did an intake clerk select on appearance? Could only one identification be selected? Did Ridge think his career prospects were better as white? The 1896 Cherokee Rolls show that his white father had identified with the Cherokee community. These questions may never be answered.

Ridge went to Texas for the academic portion of flight school. Many young men washed out of the pilot  program at this point. Ridge passed and went on to flight school in California where he actually flew.  Pilots trained in the Curtis JN “Jenny” biplane. 

 

While in California, Ridge is coded as having a 25% disability in 1919. Was he involved in an airplane crash?  What does a 25% disability mean? Was it damage to one of his four limbs? I am presented with more questions without answers. From learning to fly, Ridge is disabled and is  honorably discharged. He goes home and less than three weeks after his discharge there's a war bond rally complete with flying demonstrations in his hometown of St Louis. 

 

The April 20, 1919 St Louis Globe-Democrat newspaper carries two seemingly unrelated stories. A war bond rally is planned for Thursday and the next pandemic wave was expected to hit the end of that week. It was not coincidental. The war bond rally was the catalyst for the  next wave of influenza outbreaks. 

 

The Easter Sunday newspaper carried the obituary. Beloved son, Ridge, died at home on Saturday, April 26,  1919. He was buried in the family plot. 

 

Ridge had been away for over a year and was home for only a few days before he died. My grandmother was 6 years old. I can imagine how a child could forget someone if he was never spoken of again. And the family cemetery plot? My grandmother and her parents had moved. When his father and stepmother died their bodies were shipped back to St. Louis for burial. No one living had been to the cemetery. 

 

Presentism, evaluating how things were handled in the past using a lens of how things are today must be avoided. Culture and attitudes change. Even within a culture different people cope with situations differently. Hutch apparently dealt with tragedy by silently going forward, ignoring and thereby erasing the past. In our time and culture, I have learned that sharing feelings and troubles is healthier than hiding them.

My grandmother had a half brother.

Over one hundred years later and in another pandemic. I find it heartbreaking. Ridge disappeared from his own family. The next two generations had no idea he had ever existed. Ancestry research allowed me to find Ridge and be able to tell his story. While there are many unanswered questions I am thankful for all the information that I have. 

 

I now know about Ridge, my family knows, and you do too. He will not be forgotten. He is not lost to history.

Ridge

young man, son, brother, Cherokee, WWI U.S. veteran, lost, now rediscovered

 

 

Barry, John M. 2018. The great influenza: the epic story of the deadliest pandemic in history. New York: Penguin.

Belinda Breidenbach has a BS in Geology and MS in Environmental Planning. She is working on a Master's in Technical Communication at Boise State. Belinda and her husband live in Boise, Idaho. They have two sons. She enjoys hiking, biking, backpacking, skiing, and researching family history.

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