Thursday, January 8, 2015

Melissa McCleery Richards

Melissa McCleery Richards

Melissa McCleery Richards is not one of my ancestors, she is a collateral relative. More specifically she is my 3rd great grand aunt. She is a member of one of the more colorful families in my family tree, and I have a soft-spot for them. 

Melissa was born in Wabash, Indiana in August, 1861 to William J. and Julia Claspil McCleery (more about each of these folks later I'm sure). Just a few months after she was born, William enlisted in the 47th Indiana Infantry and served for the entirety of the Civil War. 

At some point between the start of the war and 1870, the family moved from Wabash to Bluffton, where her father worked with his brother as a shoemaker. When Melissa was 9 years old, her father was murdered by one of their neighbors in a petty dispute. The trial of William's murderer became a media sensation with all the "leading ladies of the town," in audience each night. This had to be incredibly difficult for the family to bear.  Her mother Julia was left to pick up the pieces and she moved the family to Ft. Wayne, Indiana where Julia and her older daughter Mary got work as domestics. 

A few years later tragedy struck the family again as Melissa's older brother, William Jr. became ill and eventually died, I do not know exactly what killed him in 1873, but I know that in 1872 he was ill with the measles, and this became a source of contention with their old neighbors in Bluffton, Indiana. The mayor of Bluffton sent the notice below to the Ft. Wayne paper, asking the health department to prevent William Jr. from coming to their city, because they had heard he had small pox, Ft. Wayne responded that he did not have small pox, but rather the measles and that he was on the mend. 

William Jr. died 13 months after this exchange appeared in the paper he was 20 years old. 

Melissa and her family had been through quite a lot at this point, the separation of war, the violent death of a parent, and the premature death of a sibling all by the young age of 12. 

In about 1883, Melissa answered an advertisement in the paper from a Virginian gentleman who was looking for a wife. I came across this completely by accident while doing an Ancestry newspaper search for the name McCleery.  The story tells of a two year long courtship by letter, that ended in Mr. Wilbur F. Richards showing up on my 3x great grandmother's doorstep to claim her little sister Melissa's hand in marriage. 

The Fort Wayne Daily Gazette, Thurs, November 19, 1885

But even as Melissa was heading off to make her fresh start with her new husband; it was met with a negative response to the couple in the Ft. Wayne Sentinel, the Cincinnati Telegram, and the Bluffton Chronicle. The Bluffton piece in particular made reference to Melissa's "history." Someone rebutted these stories on Melissa's behalf.

The Fort Wayne Sentinel, Thu, Dec 3, 1885 – Page 1

Fort Wayne Daily Gazette, Fri, Dec 4, 1885, Page 5

This story has always intrigued me. Why did some of the Bluffton citizens have a negative enough opinion of Melissa, or her family to publish these comments in the paper. She was only 9 years old when her father was murdered in the town. I do know that she kept in some contact with her older sister (my 3X great grandmother, Mary) thanks to this news article. 

The Fort Wayne Sentinel, Wed, Jul 30, 1890

Also, among our family pictures are some pictures taken by a Clarksburg, West Virginia photographer. I don't know exactly who these children are, but I think they must be Melissa and Wilbur's children,  as we have no other family in that town. 

I have been attempting to trace Melissa's line, because I am desperate to find other artifacts of the family that may have been given to her and have been passed down. We have a letter written by her father while serving in the Civil War, I'd love to see a picture of him, or get more information about him, and we know nothing of her mother Julia's life before marrying William. I have been wanting to try reverse genealogy and connect with Melissa's descendants, but I haven't been successful yet. 

To Melissa and Wilbur I have found 4 children: 
  • Wilbur (1887- )
  • Evelyn (1888-)
  • Vera (1889- )
  • Sibyl (1891-) 
I have not found if these were the only children, or what happened to Melissa. I have not found a record of her death yet either. I did find a letter her daughter Sybil wrote to my 2nd great grand aunt Sister Rose Beatrice. I was sad to learn that she didn't know much about her heritage, "... you see I have never known anything Mama's people, she never discussed her family."

When I saw the suggested theme was a fresh start, I could have chosen any number of immigrant ancestors, there are many (including William and Julia McCleery) but for some reason, Melissa's story came to my mind and I knew I had to tell the story of Melissa McCleery Richard's fresh start. I hope some down to trace her descendants and reconnect with our long-lost McCleery cousins.