Monday, November 28, 2011

What Was My Grandfather Phillips Real Name and What Was He Trying to Hide?

Genealogy Breakthroughs and Breakdowns:
The Search for My Paternal Grandfather’s True Identity and a Maternal DNA Mistake

Thomas Mathew Phillips
circa 1905-06
Auburn, NY

For the first 60 years of my life I believed and trusted that my paternal Grandfather’s surname was Phillips, as well as it being my maiden name, until the summer of 2009. After 40 plus years of hunting unsuccessful for my Grandfather Thomas Mathew Phillips’ family, I gave up and forked over $355 to Ancestry for a comprehensive paternal and maternal DNA test for my brother Mathew. In a nutshell we discovered once and for all, Thomas Mathew never was a Phillips and technically neither are we, although everyone in our biological family was born with the surname, Phillips.

This information should have been no surprise. Why? In 1992 after requesting copies from the Veterans Administration of my Grandfather‘s original 1899 army enlistment papers in Detroit, Michigan I discovered Thomas spelled his last name 3 different ways in his original enlistment documents. He claimed to be born in Buffalo, NY and was 5 foot 5 inches, the minimum height requirement to join the military. He was almost 23 years old so he should have been able to spell his last name unless it was a new last name. While serving in the Philippines Thomas taught English and the rumor was he would rather buy a book before worrying about what he was going to eat for the next meal. So again spelling was no problem for Thomas.

In the enlistment papers he started off listing his name as Thomas M. Phillipps. Then a little further down in the documents the name was spelled Philipps. By 1902 the spelling of his surname in his Army papers had morphed into the traditional spelling of Phillips which he died with in Auburn, New York in 1956 when I was 7 living with my maternal grandparents in Chelsea, Oklahoma. Thomas ? is buried in an unmarked grave at Fort Hill Cemetery in Auburn, N.Y. He is entitled to a Veterans’ Cemetery Headstone or Marker. The paperwork sets in my office year after year waiting to find out what Thomas’ real last name was. I want it on the headstone in addition to Phillips, the name he served under for 26 years when he retired as an Army Master Sergeant in 1924.

Thomas Phillips to the right of white Pitcher
at Christmas party in 1924 at Ft. Benning, Columbus, Georgia
 My genealogy search for my paternal Grandfather and grandparents began in earnest in 1976 when I wrote his sister-in-law, my Great Aunt Edna in Cato, NY a letter asking for dates and names for my Dad‘s side of the family. My Grandfather Thomas Phillips’ wife Mary was my Grandmother and Edna’s sister.  Mary died a year after Thomas in 1957 in southern California while living with her son Howard, my Dad‘s only sibling. 
Thomas & Mary Phillips
circa 1905, Auburn, NY

My source to the past on my Dad’s side was my Great Aunt Edna and eventually my uncle Howard. In Edna’s 1976 letter she stated that Thomas had “one brother named McKay he met in Texas while serving in the Army”. Some of the closer DNA matches through my brother’s DNA have linked us to a McKay, a McCoy and a  McCabe, all of which after contacting have turned out to be dead ends. The closest DNA match was to Jimmie McKenzie in Montreal, Canada. Jimmie’s past is also a question to him. In August 2010 he emailed he was on to a breakthrough and a visit to a professional genealogist in Scotland. Unfortunately I learned that health problems required a delay in the trip.

Great Aunt Edna said Thomas’ father, my Great Grandfather ran a newspaper in Dayton, Ohio pre 1899. Years ago I contacted various newspapers in the area and no one had ever edited the newspaper by the name of Phillips. Now perhaps I should go back and ask about a McKay, a McCoy or a McKenzie being an editor of the newspaper.

After Edna passed in 1977, I began to quiz my Dad’s only older brother Howard who lived in California about his Dad, Thomas and family. Howard Phillips wrote in a letter August 15, 1991 saying that his father “ran away from home when he was sixteen because of his Catholic mother’s incessant attacks on his radical father.“ He also said, “Grandpa Phillips (?) went to work in the beet fields of Colorado and got in a gun fight and thought - mistakenly that he had killed a man. He fled and joined the army.” Perhaps this is when and why Thomas changed his last name. Uncle Howard went on to say, my “Great Grandfather (?) was fined $3,000 in 1856 for operating a station on the illegal Underground Railway that moved slaves to freedom in Canada. The fine ruined the family financially.” Howard said his Dad, Thomas was born in Toledo, Ohio, however his marriage certificate states Cincinnati, Ohio and his enlistment papers say Buffalo, NY. My uncle also claimed that Thomas’ Dad ran a newspaper, "The Toledo Blade". Research under the name of Phillips resulted in more dead ends here too, but perhaps again I should have searched for Mc names instead of Phillips?

In conclusion, my brother’s DNA test came out surprizingly different than mine on the maternal line! My test had been done a number of years earlier in 2002 by Family Tree DNA in Houston, Texas. For years I had no DNA matches, so I came to the correct conclusion that there was an error in my original maternal DNA test. I contacted the provider and asked for a new test explaining my questions about the results especially since it did not show my brother and I as siblings. They agreed to do a retest in 2009, 7 years after the original. They did indeed make an error in my original Maternal DNA test and yes my brother and I are siblings, darn it.

Mary Alta Phillips (?) Buckingham -
October 12, 2010/revised Nov. 28, 2011

No comments:

Post a Comment