Mystery Monday: My Great Grandfather, the Brick Wall

It’s not very nice to call my own great grandfather a brick wall. But in genealogy terms, that’s exactly what he is: a man of mystery, whose branch on the family tree remains inaccessible, hidden beyond a cryptic ancestral barricade…

I have his name (sort of). I have a photo. And — provided the name is correct — I have a World War I Draft Registration Card. (He’s also referenced, along with my great grandmother, in a newspaper article that I found archived at Ancestry Dot Com.)

Aside from that… nothing. You’d think that with a name, birthdate and location (courtesy of the World War I Draft Registration Card) I’d be able to dig deeper, and find out where the heck my great granddad came from! But so far, no such luck.

So let me tell you more about him, and perhaps somebody reading this can give me some ideas on where to look further. Who knows — maybe one day, one of his other descendants (i.e., a long-lost 2nd cousin or cousin-once-removed) who just happens to have a treasure trove of information (or any information) will stumble across this and share!

The great grandfather in question is my paternal grandma’s father. I’ve actually written about him before on this blog, and even shared his picture. Here it is again:

My paternal (maternal) great grandfather, George Von Batenburg.

Sorry the quality isn’t the greatest; this is a photo of a photo. Thanks to Steven and Darla Tillinghast for sharing it with me!

 

Handsome, wasn’t he?

As far as his name goes, my Uncle Steven filled me in on that last year; George Thomas Van Batenburg was the name my uncle gave me. Upon searching for that very name, I found… zilch. I tried different spellings. I tried searching without the “Thomas”, then without the “George.” I was able to trace the surname “Van Batenburg” back to the Netherlands, but otherwise, my efforts proved fruitless.

However, for reasons I’m still not certain of, my grandmother’s maiden name was not Van Batenburg, but Cornwell. I’ve heard vague statements from family members that she “made up” the Cornwell, but none of them ever elaborated as to why. (She was raised by her grandparents, so one might think the “Cornwell” came from them, but no; her grandfather — actually a “step”-grandfather — was named Grafton Baber, and her grandmother was born Clara Halcumb. Her biological grandfather wasn’t the one who raised her, but for the record was named Herbert Hampton. No Cornwell anywhere in their line.)

So I tried searching “George Thomas Van Batenburg” along with “Cornwell”, and voila! I eventually found that World War I Draft Registration Card — actually for a Thomas Van Voltenberg Cornwell. Despite the slight variation in the name, I definitely believe there’s a connection:

1.) According to the card, Thomas Van Voltenberg Cornwell was born April 24, 1897 in Oakland, California (he still lived in Alameda County at the time he filled out the card). This birthdate would place him at 4 years older than my great grandmother (born Hazel C. Hampton in Shasta, California in 1901) so that seems appropriate. It also fits with my grandmother’s age (she was born in 1922); the card indicates that he would’ve been 25 when she was born.

2.) More tellingly, the card is consistent with the newspaper article I mentioned several paragraphs ago. What article? If I was more blog-savvy, I’d link to it; someday, I hope to transcribe it, because it’s an interesting (albeit short) story. Basically, in 1920, one of the Oakland newspapers published a front-page blurb about a custody battle involving a baby girl named “Faith Elizabeth” — who happened to be my grandma’s half-sister. (I’m positive of this based on family anecdotes, pictures, and other resources.) According to the news blurb, the baby was born Faith Elizabeth Ruble; her biological father, Mr. Ruble, was fighting for custody against the baby’s mother and her then-husband… aka, Thomas and Hazel Cornwell.

There’s no question that the “Thomas and Hazel Cornwell” mentioned in the story were, in fact, my great grandparents. (Meanwhile, if you’re wondering about the custody battle, I’m not sure what happened there; Faith, like my grandma, eventually spent at least a portion of her childhood raised by her grandparents, Grafton and Clara Baber.) Again, though, the details on that World War I Draft Registration Card fit with the details presented in the news story — including that my great grandfather went by “Thomas.”

Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to find anything else on him. No family trees, no birth records, no death records… nothing!

On the other hand, I’ve found out quite a bit more about my grandma’s mother, Hazel (for a long time, she was almost as mysterious as my great grandpa; however, it turns out that my father even remembers her. Specifically, he remembers her as “fat and crabby” and that she used to bring him books every time she visited. The “fat and crabby” part might not sound very flattering — but if you know my dad, you know that anybody who made a point to bring him books couldn’t have been too bad a person!)

At some point, Hazel married a man named Peter Richtschied; for the rest of her life, she was Hazel Richtschied. I’m honestly not for sure if she and my great grandfather were ever actually married. If they were, it doesn’t seem that they stayed married for very long. Of course, I can’t find any marriage records to confirm one way or the other!

As for “Cornwell”, if my great grandfather truly is the man on the World War I Draft Registration Card (which I’m fairly confident is the case), that indicates that my grandmother wasn’t the one who made up “Cornwell”; it goes back at least as far as her father. That said, searches for “George/Thomas Cornwell”, without the Van Batenburg or Van Voltenberg, sadly haven’t turned up anything, either.

The only other possibly-relevant bit of information: Thomas Van Voltenberg Cornwell listed an “Annie Cornwell” (a sister-in-law) on the draft registration card as his “closest living relative” (this card was, of course, filled out several years before my grandma or her sister came along; I’m guessing he hadn’t met my great grandmother yet, who wasn’t even a teenager at the time!).

If anybody has any suggestions on cracking this mystery, I’d love to hear them. Meanwhile, according to my clock, Tuesday’s just a couple of minutes away… I’d better hurry and push ‘post’ before Mystery Monday is over!

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3 responses

  1. During World War I lots of Americans (and Brits) who had German or German-Sounding names changed them. Also, people could have many names (My Grandpa had four, members of the Royal Family have more than that,) the standard first-middle-last name is a recent norm and people with more than that have to pick and choose when filling out limited forms.

  2. That’s true about the German names (and I believe I traced “Van Voltenberg” to Germany; though it could be that “Van Batenburg” was German and “Van Voltenberg” Dutch). If that was why they added “Cornwell”, it seems odd that they would’ve kept the “Van” [whatever] name and used both. But it could be that Cornwell wasn’t even a “made up”/changed name, and someone was just remembering wrong — and if that’s the case, perhaps the “Van” name was just a middle name. Hopefully, ONE of these days I’ll find out for sure!

  3. Grayson Van Valkenburgh | Reply

    Often the “v” looks like and is transcribed as “b” and the “o” as “a”. There’s bunch of Van Voltenburgs in the Effingham Co, IL area starting about 1850s. There is a Thomas VV in Steuben Co, NY, you might check out. Several Van Valkenburgs in Alemeda Co, CA, area after the 1850s. (May be spelled “Van Valkenburg”, “Van Valkenburgh”, “Vaulkenburg”, “Vaultonburgh” or a variation). I’m printing your info so I can work on it.

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