A photograph was taken in 1910 of an older gentleman and two young women, standing on the porch of an old house on Baltimore Street in Kansas City, Missouri. The older gentleman to the left was my maternal great-grandfather, Warren Cole. The young woman on the right was his daughter, my grandmother, Josie Cole Neff. I didn’t recognize the woman in the middle, but on the back of the photograph were written these words, “Isn’t this a dear picture to have? So fine of Father, and the sweetest picture we have of Irene (Schutz, the German girl who burned to death).”
In February, 1941, my grandfather, Frank Chaffee Neff, M.D. wrote a Summary of Recollections and Data Concerning a Branch of the Neffs in response to a request for information about the Neff family from Arthur K. Love, of Hagerstown, Indiana, who was conducting research for the benefit of Neff descendents. No evidence could be found that the information my grandfather sent him was ever made available to the general public. Dr. Neff, though, clearly had a sense of his family’s place in history, as, in addition to both handwritten and typed copies of his Recollections, he carefully preserved letters, historical documents and photographs for future reference. The photograph described in the opening paragraph was one of these, and its cryptic message became my catalyst for delving into family history.
Running out of Footprints is a set of biographies about six brothers, their sister, parents and children. The book pays special tribute to the youngest brother, my grandfather, Dr. Frank C. Neff, a gentle pediatrician and teacher whose life work involved laying the foundation for development of the pediatric department at the Kansas University Medical Center. He was the first Chair of the department and its first professor of pediatrics. While other members of his family made contributions to the growth of the Kansas City community, my grandfather’s contributions were the most significant and lasting; he was the star. I honor him by writing not only of him, but by exploring the lives of the men he admired: his father, brothers, nephews and sons. These ancestors seemed especially proud of their surname and the lineage it represented. I was quite attuned to this as I was growing up, so when my grandfather’s notes came into my possession after my own father’s death, it seemed as though I was destined to pick up the Neff banner, dust it off, embellish it and raise it up once again. My intent was to learn what I could about these relatives and then to introduce them as once-prominent citizens of Kansas City.
I admit to being hopelessly enamored with these Neff men. They were larger than life. I relished their accomplishments to the point of bragging, identified with many of their ideas and values, and took delight in their legendary sense of humor. However, as my research progressed, I began to feel a need for a more inclusive family history, one that was open to social change and could accept family members who had different ideas about race and religion, one that had room for the nearly invisible women who walked through history with their male counterparts, one that remembered Irene as someone more than “the German girl who burned to death,” and a family history that had room for me, although I was a woman, and no longer a Neff.
I was not a researcher by nature or training when I started to write this book in 2007. I had help along the way by good people who knew what I needed to learn and who kept pointing and re-pointing me in the right direction. As a novice, I was under the illusion that there would be answers to all of my questions if I just looked long enough and hard enough. I had to settle for conjecture at times, admit defeat in the face of some perplexing, unyielding family mysteries, and learn to live with frustration as research trails thinned out or scraps of detail failed to connect or proved themselves irrelevant. Along with the many frustrations, however, were many, many serendipitous occurrences that served as intermittent reinforcers and propelled my research along.
Names form the search engine of family research, and the study of names has a strong presence in this manuscript. Without names, there is no family tree, no structure for understanding historical relationships, no meaningful content in family stories. Anyone attempting to learn about ancestors understands the importance of knowing names as a starting point for research as well as the frustration engendered when names change, spellings vary, or too many people have similar names. Name frustration was a constant companion in my own research. Trying to find out who Irene Schütz was and to whom she belonged, when her name was spelled four different ways, was exasperating, and kept her forever anonymous. Keeping generations straight was a challenge when generation after generation used the same name or slight variations. In just one family alone there was a Webster Wirt Hetherington who went by Webster, his son Webster Wirt Hetherington who went by Wirt, Wirt’s brother Harry Hale Hetherington who went by Hale, Harry Hale’s son Webster Wirt who went by Webster, and his son, Hale.
We have an old photograph labeled Allen H. Neff, brother of Andrew Jackson Neff. In the photograph, the soldier is wearing a Union officer’s uniform. My father’s cousin, Margaret Bosse, requested Civil War records for Allen H. Neff, but received records for Allen O. Neff. The Adjutant General’s office in Indiana reported that there was only one Allen Neff who fought for the Union during the Civil War, and that was Allen O. Neff. Why do we have a photograph of Allen H. Neff wearing a Union uniform? Were Allen H. Neff and Allen O. Neff the same person? Census information for 1850 showed both an Allen H. Neff and an Allen O. Neff, each in a different Indiana county with a different wife and child. Both were born at about the same time in Ohio, both moved to Indiana, both married within a few months of each other and both had an infant daughter. Allen O. Neff has a Civil War record. Allen H. Neff has a Civil War photograph.
Like everyone else, we had female ancestors who were difficult to track once they took a husband’s surname. Given names also tended to be repeated, adding to the confusion. In our family, we had generation after generation of women named Elizabeth, Ann, Helen and Josephine. We had cousins whose children married each other, and sisters naming their children after their sisters. Sometimes a name would imply the wrong gender. My father’s Uncle George had a second wife named Willie. Her maiden name was Witty, making her name Willie Witty, which must have made sense to someone at the time. There were adoptive names and birth names, each with a set of appended relatives. It was always a relief to be tracking women whose names were less popular, like Musette and Marietta.
There is a little town in Preble County, Ohio, where my great-grandfather, Andrew Jackson Neff, was born. It is just one space but it had the three names of Dover, Newcomb and Camden in the short time the Neffs were there. A genealogist I contacted for some research regarding Andrew’s town of birth, told me there was no town named Dover, so Andrew couldn’t have been born there. And, it turned out he was right. The name had been changed from Dover to Newcomb by the time Andrew was born, and now only Camden is on the map.
I liked reading through old Kansas City directories for addresses of different ancestors, and then driving by those houses to get a feel for the neighborhoods. Very few of the old homes were still standing, but even when a house was found standing at a particular address, it took careful scrutiny to verify it as the one I thought it was. Street names and house numbers were often changed over the years. For instance, some of our Neff ancestors lived on Walrond Avenue in Kansas City in the late nineteenth century, but the blocks of Walrond that our relatives lived on, later became Benton Boulevard. Another Kansas City ancestor’s house numbered 2819 in one century became 2823 in the next century. Did our relatives live in the space that is now a vacant lot, or did they live in the house still standing next to the vacant lot?
Technology has made tracking the lives of old family members easier than it used to be. Previously, one had to pour over obscure records in county clerks’ offices far from home or tediously sift through old newspapers with a magnifying glass. When technology gets on a case, it can work tirelessly on your behalf, using the sparest of clues, and sometimes even solve mysteries long after you have stopped working on them. I had been trying to find out the married name of my adopted Aunt Frances’s birth sister, Musette. One day, I turned on the computer, and the answer was just there, waiting for me. Musette’s last name may have been easier to find than had her first name been Susan or Linda, but given time, even Susan and Linda’s last names might be dredged from archives by the constantly churning connections that computers are making in the bowels of cyberspace. I can’t tell you how many hours and days I spent trying to find additional information about Andrew Jackson Neff’s brother, Allen. Then, one day, my long-standing subscription to ancestry.com paid off when I got a message from a man who turned out to be Allen H. Neff’s great-great grandson. He was able to send pictures and help me construct Allen’s lineage. Without computer technology (and the geniuses who develop software) Allen’s life would have remained veiled and inaccessible to me.
Family research may start with names placed on a family tree, but often times there are missing limbs, branches or leaves on that family tree. Even the best-kept family Bibles, legal documents and written material have gaps and errors. Record-keeping gaps and errors in one generation make for mysteries in succeeding generations. Misspellings, multiple spellings, poor handwriting, blatant and/or deliberate errors at one point in time will cause endless confusion and frustration down the line. And, even if a person’s name is spelled correctly and written neatly, there are occasions when the name is right, but the relationship isn’t. Just because someone is said to be the child of someone else, doesn’t mean it’s true. Only one or two people can know for sure who slept with whom at a given point in time, or how a particular child came to be part of a family. Not only have dalliances occurred with some regularity since the beginning of time, it wasn’t that long ago that adoptions were well-kept secrets, as evidenced in numerous cases in our own family. There is always a direct line of descent; it just may not be the one you think it is. DNA studies can be helpful for a few generations back, but are currently most accurate for men, for those willing to participate and for those still living. Digging up bones to prove lineage is reserved for the special few. Fortunately, families are about more than DNA.
As I was attempting to unravel the past and solve a few family mysteries, I had to remind myself that those mysteries were not mysteries to my ancestors, but rather a lack of documentation. My grandparents knew very well who Irene Schütz and her parents in Germany were, they knew the names their adopted children were born with, who the unlabeled people were in a slew of photographs, what houses they lived in and what the addresses were and what Allen H. Neff’s military history was. They just didn’t write everything down because they were busy living their real lives, it didn’t seem important at the time, or they felt whatever it was, was none of our business. And sometimes when they did write things down, they didn’t write things down correctly. My on-the-job training in family research has taught me that genealogists and historians are bold when they make factual statements. I have been shocked to learn just how subjective history can be.
The frustrations I have encountered pale in comparison to the great sense of satisfaction I have felt acquainting myself with and writing about my ancestors. Running out of Footprints was written based on my grandfather’s original notes and documents. It has been expanded to include extensive research, contributions from multiple family members and the gifts of strangers. Wishing I could have been there, I have also taken the liberty of inserting myself into these stories as an active participant.
I begin with a day spent hiking with my grandfather in Jackson County, Missouri, in 1892…