The Disappearance of Rebecca Rice Cole

As I began building a family tree last year, I expected that some brick walls would be inevitable. I figured that every single family line would reach a point beyond which no more names could be found. What I did not anticipate was discovering that some of my ancestors had disappeared. I have not yet uncovered the end of my maternal third great grandmother, Rebecca Rice Cole, who walked away from her life in Wakeman, Ohio, in the late 19th century. She left after bearing a dozen children to a husband who had a wooden leg due to a train accident.

A few months into my family research, one of my great aunts lent me boxes of family photos and genealogical information related to my great grandpa Cook, who was one of Rebecca’s many grandchildren. There was a startling family group sheet for Rebecca and her husband Cyrus Cole:

I really wish I’d scanned this sheet instead of merely taking a picture of it.

As I soon as I read the note about Rebecca’s escape, I looked back at the dozens of family trees online that include her. Not a single one offered the date of her death, and I have yet to find a death record or cemetery plot that belongs to her.

In the meantime, I’ve let this mystery brew in the background of my family research. I still don’t feel optimistic that I will solve this one. Today I returned to it because I had a proverbial light bulb moment about the youngest child listed, Claude Lewellyn Cole. I realized that the only source material I have for his existence is that family group sheet above. It is based in part on the genealogical research of my second great aunt Gladys Cook, who undoubtedly asked my second great grandmother Mary for a list of her siblings. The information is too specific to be a mistaken sibling duplication from a census record, wherein family members look new because they are listed under a nickname.

I think it is possible that Rebecca took baby Claude with her when she went on that walk into town from which she did not return. I have seen pictures of all of the Cole siblings except for him, and I have not found any further references to him. Their fate as a pair could be easier to divine than hers alone.

Whether she was alone or had a child in tow, she’d have faced great adversity in starting over again. I can only hope that her transformation was not forced upon her in short order, for reasons that are unknowable in the here and now. There is the ghastly possibility that she was never truly a missing person to someone.

Whatever the reason for her escape, I know that eleven of her children and her husband definitely survived her departure. My second great grandmother and at least one of her siblings were raised as orphans from the time their mother left until they reached adulthood. Inside the family box was an empty bag with a note attached, “Jacket that belonged to the woman who finished raising Mary and Nellie.”

Mary must have cherished that jacket, and someone else regarded her foster mother highly enough to keep this item but leave behind a note that implied how important she was to my second great grandmother. In my mind’s eye, I see this top as a faded black bed jacket with faux seed-pearl beads stitched haphazardly around the button placket. I didn’t know that bed jackets existed until I started knitting and crocheting a dozen years ago. They were a garment of pure economy from harder times: just enough stitches to look like one was wearing a robe while sitting up in bed.

Most of Rebecca’s children stayed in touch for the duration of their lives despite the fracturing of their family. Her oldest daughter, my third great aunt Hattie, moved to Douglas County, Oregon:

The Springstead farm in Douglas County, Oregon, 1917. Hattie is wearing a striped dress next to the Border Collie. Her son Birdie holds the yoke on the left. Yes, I have an ancestor named Birdie, but he does not have the most unusual name in my family tree. That distinction belongs to my paternal third great aunt Experience Allard.

I also see evidence that Rebecca’s children were not estranged from their father Cyrus. He was living with Hattie out in Oregon during the 1910 Census, but he died close by his children who were still living in northern Ohio three years later.

I will close with more pictures of my Coles. I call them mine because I am a Cole by marriage and by family tree (my husband and I have not found a connection between our Cole lines). I for one am grateful that Rebecca was one of the thousands of my ancestors whose choices all converged to make my life possible.

Clarence Cole, who belonged to the International Order of Odd Fellows and migrated to Kansas and Texas
Marion Cole and his daughter Blanche. This is one of my favorite pictures of my ancestors. He looks like the kind of guy who has nothing to hide.
Mabel Emma Genevieve Mary Cook
My second great grandmother Mary Cole Cook with my great grandpa Cook’s three sisters. Note the litter of kittens.