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  • Writer's pictureGregory Winters

The Mystery of Merriman and Merryman

Little did I know when my great-grandmother was showing me an old photo album that I would one day be submerged in a baffling mystery. Who were these people in this album and why was this in my family's possession? The answer was hidden behind a single letter in a surname.

One of the last conversations I ever had with my great-grandmother, Nettie Merriman Lesh, was about some very old photos that were part of a 19th century album. The album (photo below) is absolutely beautiful. It had a latch on it back in the day with a tiny key that unlocked it, and the pages inside are thicker pasteboards with slots that can accommodate photographs back-to-back.

Unfortunately, my great-grandmother was not feeling well at the time and our conversation did not last long, but the message I remembered was that the individuals featured in the album were my "family". It wasn't until years later - when I came into possession of this album - that I became fascinated with this 'family' and how they fit into my tree.

My great-grandmother's maiden name is Merriman. She is the daughter of Robert William and Catherine Kame Merriman, and here is where the mystery begins...

This assumption proved to be the cause of the mystery.

My g-g-grandfather regularly spelled his surname "Merryman" (it is spelled this way on his marriage certificate), and did not seem to mind when others spelled the name this way. Because the initial set of documents that I came across used this alternative spelling, I naturally assumed that this was the proper spelling.

This assumption proved to be the cause of the mystery.

Because my conversation with my great-grandmother was so short, she couldn't really elaborate on the photos - with once exception. There was a tintype in the album of one of her great-uncles who had served in the Civil War. As the story goes, he was shot in the stomach during one battle but his life was saved by his large iron belt buckle.

Everything else in the album went largely unexplained. There were no names associated with the photos. However, underneath each of the photos of four individuals (shown above), handwritten in ink were the words "Your great-grandmother" or "Your great-grandfather" - as if the writer had the grandchild in his/her presence and wrote the words and they would be understood.

I assumed that even then that "Your" referred great-grandmother. In other words, the individuals in the photos were her great-grandparents. I could see that they could easily be great-grandparents for someone who was born in 1888, although much later I would discover that although the generations were somewhat congruent, the actual math (the actual number of years) didn't work.

When I decided to begin researching my Merriman line, I naturally started with the materials I had one hand, and I believed this album to be a prime source. I felt that if I could patch together the Merriman tree, that I could learn who these folks were in the photos.

Interestingly, it didn't take me long to identify our four featured individuals. Because of the 'Merryman' lead, as well as the age of the Individuals and the photos, and knowing when my great-grandmother was born, I was able to determine that they are (clockwise from upper left): Thomas R. Cole, Mahala Talbot Cole, William M. Merryman, and Nancy Hoobler Merryman.

It wasn't Ohio, but it wasn't a thousand miles away, either.

From here, the task seemed fairly straightforward: trace Nettie to her great-grandparents! I began the journey backward in time...

I already knew Nettie's father, as indicated previously, so the investigation could start at Nettie's grandfather. Going into the census records to start, I found young Robert living with his parents, Basil Davis and Susanna Griffiths Merriman Pennsylvania. It wasn't Ohio, but it wasn't a thousand miles away, either. The good news was that I was only a generation away from connecting the dots...or so I thought.

Further research into Robert Merriman's line revealed that Robert's grandfather was not William "Merryman," but Frederick Merriman - also of Pennsylvania. I had originally believed that this was an error because when Robert's father, Basil, was born (1822), Frederick was 66 years old - not impossible, but rather unusual. At that age, it was easy to believe that I was missing a generation, but then I learned that Basil was born to Frederick's second wife, Mary Flowers Merriman, who was sixteen years Frederick's junior - a much more plausible situation.

Well...where did all that leave me? First of all, it was rather easy to see that Robert's use of the surname "Merryman" (with the 'y') was incorrect, but then this left a h-u-g-e question: who were the people in that photo album if they weren't ancestors of my great-grandmother?

In late 2003, I began my canvassing of Merriman descendants in search of clues, but each time I came up short. It was becoming more and more apparent that these "your great-grandparents" were not Nettie's ancestors at all - and for more reasons than my original research revealed.

Since William Merryman wasn't going to come to me, I decided to go to him, and discovered a number of well-versed friendly descendants who chipped in tidbits here and there. Both the Merryman and Cole families hailed from Jefferson County, Ohio - a noticeable distance from Stark County, and even further from Pennsylvania. In fact, one could say that the Merrimans and the Merrymans in my story lived too far apart to be related as far back as the early 1800s.

As it turned out, one of William and Nancy's children was one Mary "Polly" Merriman, who married one Kinsey Talbot Cole, so I was able to see how these families ended up in the same photo album. This still didn't connect to my family, however, so I had to keep tracing down.

...then I finally hit paydirt...

I painstakingly waded through everything I could find about Kinsey and Mary's children, then I finally hit paydirt: A daughter Nancy eventually married Edward H. Maxwell - who was the fifth and last husband of my Nettie's mother, Catherine.

Sharp-eyed readers might be asking, "But didn't you say that Catherine's husband was Robert William Merriman?" Yes, it's true, but Robert was Catherine's third husband. Robert left the family when his children were just small and Catherine had remarried, then married Ed Maxwell. This is how she became known as "Grandma Maxwell" to her entire family from that point forward.

Wood Maxwell with parents Ed and Nancy Cole Maxwell ~1898. (photo courtesy Shelley Kellogg)

Ed Maxwell had one child from a previous marriage - Wood O. Maxwell, and this is where I realized that this is where the photo album came into frame (no pun intended). The "Your" in the handwriting in the album was intended for Wood: the four individuals were indeed Wood's natural great-grandparents.

From there, I knew the rest of the story. Ed Maxwell died while he was still married to Catherine and she probably had to take care of Wood for a time. She somehow managed to retain possession of Wood's photo album and for some reason, he did not take it with him when he left home for good.

The upshot was that I had in my possession the photo album of the son of my g-g-grandmother's fifth husband. As for Robert Merriman? We have traced him to California where he probably worked on the railroads, but he remains an unsolved mystery.

It certainly is amazing how important spelling and phonetics are to genealogy research. It can mean all the difference in the world between the discovery of usable facts or trailing down a rabbit hole toward a dead end.

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