Finding Family Stories = Data + Conjecture
by Diana Bailey Harris
The girl’s name was Adèle. Herlarge portrait, painted by noted New York artist Seymour Joseph Guy in 1861, came to me from my mother in 1992, but Adèle’s story had been lost for decades. My sister Barbara and I discovered a folder of tantalizing clues in 2001 and learned Adèle’s name; that she married Thomas Newton Murphy, a veteran of the Civil War; that their eldest son, Charles Frederick Murphy, an attorney and New York state senator, was our grandfather’s cousin; and that Charles’s wife Jeanette – who had given our mother the painting – was active in civic affairs. Jeanette must have sent the mementos along with the portrait. I thought it would take a research trip to the New York State Archives in Albany to find out more, so I let the mystery percolate.
By the time my husband and I gave the portrait to the Portland Art Museum in December 2012, it was like sending a daughter off to college. Questions lurking at the back of my mind for years now assumed paramount importance. How were we related? How did her father come to have her portrait painted by a notable artist? What sort of person was she?
The folder we found in 2001 also contained a few daguerreotypes: a tinted photo of a young boy in a Union Army uniform, a typed draft of Charles’s biography – probably for a political campaign – and several newspaper clippings about Jeanette. By 2012, I’d become well-acquainted with Google and Ancestry.com, Library Edition (aka FaceBook for Dead People) which has census reports, passport applications, maps, city directories, even sections of relevant reference books. Hints from the folder became my navigation aids.
For example, the reference to Thomas Newton Murphy led me to The Genealogical and Family History of Northern New York (New York: Lewis Historical Publishing Company, 1910, MURPHY, Third Entry).
The uniformed boy in the tinted photo was Adèle’s future husband. The entry says:
At … sixteen … he enlisted … in the Union army…participated in Sherman’s March to the Sea … five times wounded in action, he lost his left arm in the battle of Pine Knob, in Georgia … admitted to the bar in 1870 … began practicing law in Plattsburgh … married Adèle in 1873.
The same article provided information about Adèle’s father who transformed his French name, Juste Le Breton dit La Lancet, into Wright Lance. Born in 1817, he was well-educated and taught school in Canada before moving to New York, where he “engaged in the construction of saw mills.”
I found a Lance/Lalancette family tree, which led to an email address for Daniel Lalancette, librarian and généaologiste extraordinaire from Quebec City. Daniel’s great-great-grandfather was Wright Lance’s brother, which makes us fourth cousins. He and I exchanged pictures – of the painting and old photographs. He put me in touch with Jo Ann Hatstat, Adèle’s great-great-granddaughter, who had given him the photos that she found in a photo album belonging to Adèle!
Daniel sent me an obituary from the Plattsburgh Republican dated September 10, 1897:
Mr. Lance … erected and operated the first steam sawmill in Chateaugay about half a century ago, and for many years engaged in the lumber business in the Saranac valleys … leaves a widow, Adeline, and nine living children: Julia (b. 1844), Mary Adeline (b. 1845), Harriet Elmira (b. 1847), Edward (b. 1850), Adèle (b. 1854), Abram (b. 1856), Frank (b. 1859), William (b. 1861), and Emma Marguerite (b.1864).
My great-grandmother, Marguerite de Lance Gregory – my mother’s namesake – was Adèle’s baby sister.
How did Wright Lance meet Seymour Guy?
“Seymour Joseph Guy: ‘Little Master’ of American genre painting,” describes Guy’s activity at the Dodsworth Studio in Brooklyn from 1854 through 1861. He and fellow artists held frequent exhibitions, attracting the attention of collectors, businessmen and restaurateurs. I figured that, as a mill boss “active in the lumber industry,” Wright Lance must have gone by train from Plattsburgh to New York City to negotiate lumber contracts from time to time. Well-educated and a former teacher, he was probably pleased to attend one of the regular exhibitions where Seymour Guy and his friends displayed their paintings. A charming painting of a girl gathering flowers may have prompted his thoughts: If Seymour Guy can paint his daughter picking flowers on the beach, why not a painting of Adèle with her Newfie? Yes, this will be something very special.
Guy must have come to Plattsburgh, but Adèle would not have posed for the portrait. Like many artists of the time, Guy photographed his subjects and their surroundings, then created the painting in his studio. The Lance family home was a couple of blocks from Lake Champlain; Guy embellished it with a forest background. Adèle and her Newfie likely played and waded along the shore. In the painting, the Newfie eagerly waits for her to throw the red ball far out into Lake Champlain. Adèle was eager, too; she didn’t even change clothes after church. The ring on her finger and exquisite dress tell us that she has made First Communion.
Why are there no portraits of the other children?
Adèle was the youngest daughter in 1861; her father delighted in her adventurous spirit. Wright and Adeline were not wealthy. Census reports list him as “sawyer,” “files saws at mill” and “boss filer.” Their teenaged children are listed as tailoress, seamstress, printer, store clerk and milliner. It finally struck me: the tailoress, seamstress and milliner would have learned their professional skills from their mother Adeline, who must have made Adèle’s intricately-pleated, eyelet-embroidered dress. This unique portrait, then, is evidence of her loving skill and of a father’s affection for his exuberant daughter.
Thomas Newton Murphy enters Adèle’s life
Adele’s future husband, Thomas Newton Murphy, probably met Wright Lance soon after arriving in Plattsburgh in 1870, and Adèle not much later. When they married in 1873, 28-year-old Thomas took 19-year-old Adèle eighty miles northwest from a bustling town of several thousand to a small village near where he grew up. They had seven children over the next eighteen years.
Their house had a separate side entrance for his ground-floor office and a second side entrance to the back stairs. As was customary, Adèle’s bedroom and sitting room were at the top of these stairs. Thomas also bought a farm outside town and brought in a tenant to manage it. An itinerant lawyer who went from town to town about the county, Thomas spent less and less time at home. He filed for divorce on June 20, 1898, claiming Adèle had committed adultery with four men “at diverse times” and was “a prostitute for pay.” He demanded sole custody of the three youngest children.
Adèle’s great-great-granddaughter, Jo Ann Hatstat, sent me her typed transcript of handwritten court records. Testimony given by Thomas and the farm tenant must have been have been humiliating, yet Adèle refuted the accusations in court and countered that Thomas was the adulterer. However, the judge awarded custody to Thomas and decreed that he could marry again but Adèle could not. Thomas took the children to Michigan, where his mother lived, and married Addie Crandall, the “other woman.” This marriage only lasted a year. Then he returned with the children to New York where, it seems, everyone but Thomas and Adèle tried to disguise the fact of the divorce.
Adèle died in 1917 and Thomas in 1929. Interestingly, their son Charles, who arranged both burials in Plattsburgh, ensured they shared the same headstone.
As for Adèle’s portrait, Wright Lance gave the painting to her and she gave it to Charles and Jeanette. Jeanette gave the painting, clippings and pictures to my mother in 1960. Mother gave the painting to me in 1992, and I donated it to the permanent collection of the Portland Art Museum last year.
I now have Adèle’s story. Diverse elements drawn from many sources marinated, flavoring each other. To mix metaphors, I had to read between the lines of data to connect the dots.
My favorite aha moments?
- Discovering that the young Union soldier was Adèle’s future husband, not, as I had previously guessed, a brother.
- Deducing that sawmill boss Wright Lance occasionally went to New York City on business, where he probably met striving artist Seymour Guy.
- Realizing that Adèle’s mother trained her girls to sew professionally and, therefore, she herself made the beautiful dress in the portrait. The painting is indeed a tribute to mother and daughter.
Researching family stories requires looking for specific details in old family pictures, scrapbooks, journals or letters. These trail-markers can help you mine your stories from the rich archival resources of the Internet. Formulate your questions carefully: The trails do not converge by themselves. Then you must sift through and mull over fragments to find bits that fit together and make sense. You will know them when you see them.
Welcome to the latest article in our Writers on Writing series, where authors share how they do what they do: Find inspiration, create drafts, make choices on how – and what – to add, subtract, revise. In this series, each author will offer insights into her creative process that we hope will inspire your own.
Diana Harris used “data + conjecture” to write Reflections of a Civil War Locomotive Engineer: a ghost-written memoir, inspired by the collection of letters and papers her great-grandfather saved from 1863-1899. Supplemented with selections from original documents and a liberal application of informed conjecture, the story reads as though Diana’s great-grandfather told it himself.
Diana is now writing a novel titled Women Absent Men, a multi-generational family saga about the impact of separation through divorce, death and sheer distance, inspired by Adèle and several other strong women in her family.