Mary A. Ornduff, Iowa Settler

Our female ancestors are frequently neglected by family historians. As I’ve researched my Ornduff ancestry, I’ve been impressed with the women of that family, who, like many pioneer women, led remarkably difficult lives, their stories sadly lost to time because they were not recorded. In this brief profile, I’ve tried to capture what I’ve learned–and what I imagine–about the heroic life of Mary A. Ornduff, my gg-grandmother.

Mary Ornduff Marriage-1

Mary A. Ornduff Parrett around the time of her marriage

Mary and her twin sister, Martha, were born on August 11, 1846, in Coles County, Illinois. Mary was a redhead! Her mother was also a Mary—Mary Jane, a Willoughby before she married John Ornduff when she was twenty. I’ve never discovered what Mary’s middle initial, A, stood for. Mary Anne? Mary Alice? Evidently her parents chose a different middle name for their daughter to avoid confusion with the mother.

Mary’s parents were both from Virginia, descended from forebears who had migrated to America prior to the Revolutionary War, some eventually serving in the war. The Ornduffs came from Germany originally and the Willoughbys from either Scotland or Ireland. Mary’s father had been previously married to Melinda Davis, from Washington County, Virginia. Melinda died in 1829, shortly after the birth of a son, and John married Mary Jane three years later. She was also from Washington County and may have been related to the Davises. Shortly after their marriage, the couple moved to what is now the Charleston area of Coles County, Illinois, where John established a farm. When Mary and her twin sister, Martha, were born, their mother and father were 34 and 44, respectively, and had been married for 12 years. Five siblings preceded the twins in birth: the eldest, a girl, Elizabeth, then four boys, Andrew, James, Samuel, and Franklin.

Mary was born the year Iowa became a state. “Iowa fever” had been in the air for some time, for Illinois families had heard reports about the cheap fertile farmland available west of the Mississippi River. When Mary was a year old, the Ornduffs joined thousands of families who packed their belongings in ox-drawn wagons and headed west. The trails west teamed with settlers in the fall of 1847 when the Ornduffs made their move. For some months, the Mormons had been making an exodus from Nauvoo, Illinois, passing through Iowa on their way to the Salt Lake Valley.

There were at least ten who came with the Ornduff wagon. The 1850 Iowa census records the family consisting of the parents and their seven children and 21-year-old William Ornduff, probably John’s son from his first marriage. It’s possible William accompanied the young family to help out on the journey, for he returned to Virginia a short time after the Ornduffs reached Iowa. The family settled in Locust Grove Township in Jefferson County, located in the southeast corner of the state, one of the first areas in Iowa to be settled because of its proximity to the Mississippi River.  Continue reading

Baseball and Other Life Lessons

“Show me how far you can hit the ball,” I challenged Dad that day in the park when I was ten. I hadn’t planned to say it. It was an impulse, a child’s rare curiosity to see her father as an individual, apart from his role as a parent.

Dad studied me for a moment, hesitating, then, with a look of amusement, he reached over and took the ball from my outstretched hand. He rested our old family bat against his shoulder with his other hand as he positioned his body, scuffing the dirt into little puffs of dust as his feet found their familiar stance. Then, in an instant, the toss, the coiled torso, the crack of wood against taut leather—a blur of sound and movement that stands out in movie-style slow motion in my headful of childhood memories.

I think of the movie The Natural when I recall the incident now. There’s the leading man Robert Redford standing at the plate, the fans in the stands and the background soundtrack suspended in dramatic anticipation. Then Redford tears into the pitch and it’s slow-mo, fast-mo, the whole laser light show—they pulled out all the stops.

My dad would have laughed at the comparison, being the unassuming man that he was. My memory of that day in the park probably has become exaggerated with time, taking on larger-than-life proportions. It was so unlike my dad to show off, but I was his young daughter, and likely he felt comfortable catering to my whim. Knowing him, I’m sure he would never have overtly tried to impress another adult by grandstanding in such a way.

The incident stands out in my memories of Dad because it was one of the few times I recall seeing a glimmer of ego. Dad was a quiet man, a modest man, one who rarely talked about himself, told stories about his upbringing, or bragged about his accomplishments.

When I was a young adult, I often wondered if Dad’s reticence about putting himself forward was a form of weakness. I’ve since decided otherwise, realizing that Dad was comfortable in his own skin, a man with a quiet self-confidence who didn’t feel the need to impress others. But his reserve could be frustrating. He knew I wanted to put together a story about his life. I often questioned him about his past, wanting to know more about his childhood, his military service, and his baseball career. He wasn’t much help. He frustrated my need to know with short answers that only skimmed the surface. It’s likely he felt his life wasn’t important enough to write about. His daughter always thought otherwise.

My father, Donald Glen Parrett, was born to Glen and Ethel in Los Angeles, California, on March 5, 1922, ten months after their marriage. He took his middle name from his father, but Donald seems to have been chosen simply because his parents liked the name. There were a number of Donalds in his high school year book, so it must have been a popular boys name at that time. His relatives affectionately called him Donnie, though, even when he outgrew the nickname. On the playing field he was always Whitey, Whitey Parrett, the platinum-haired athlete who seemed to shine no matter what kind of ball he held in his hand.

Early pictures of him show a cute little boy, with blue eyes and a thick shock of straight blond hair. His chubby baby face would lengthen as he grew older, as he developed a long jaw line like his mother’s and that thick blond hair would thin considerably as early as his mid-twenties, for he had inherited his father’s baldness.


Donald Parrett, age 1.jpg

From somewhere in his gene pool, Dad also inherited a gift for athleticism. Baseball, basketball, tennis, or golf, Dad was a natural at all of them, but baseball was his game.

An old wooden trunk sat in the corner of our one-car garage when I was growing up, a curiosity to a young girl. Its large rusty hinges opened to reveal an array of interesting old clothing. Stashed among Dad’s Navy uniforms and tattered sailor hats was an assortment of heavy flannel baseball uniforms, the big blousy-legged variety you see in old photographs of Babe Ruth. Baseball caps, leggings, and flattened, old-style leather gloves had been stowed away in treasure chest of memorabilia from a life before I was born. I’ve often wondered what happened to that old trunk. It was probably thrown away in one of our moves. Why didn’t I ask Dad about it?

As I grew older by a few years, I picked up snatches of conversation at my grandparents’ house that remain with me still. There was talk of Dad being the star of his high school team. “The outfield often moved back when Donnie came up to bat.” “They were always writing about him in the school paper. Sometimes even the local paper.” It was mostly Grandma who said these things.

My father’s sister, our Aunt Virginia, lived with my grandparents. Constrained to a wheel with multiple sclerosis, Virginia made a hobby of preserving her brother’s newspaper clippings in a photo album. After Grandma and Virginia died, the album must have been stored at our house, though I don’t ever remember seeing it. It wasn’t until I began collecting old photographs for my father’s 65th birthday celebration that my mother brought it out.

I flipped through the heavy black pages covered with tattered sports clippings. I had to smile at the glossy black and white photos of Dad in his 20s, 30s and 40s, Dad in the prime of his life. He had played shortstop for the Redondo Beach High School Sea Hawks and was captain of the team his senior year. Turning the pages, I marveled at the number of awards and press clippings that honored him. “One of the most consistent players in recent years….” “Unselfish, a real sportsman on and off the field….” “As a team man, he couldn’t be beat….”

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A Locket’s Worth

My eyes welled with tears as I held the worn gold locket in the palm of my hand, letting its chain dangle through my fingers. I circled my thumb over its smooth oval surface, pausing over the tiny diamond chip that glinted from its center. “I’ve been saving it for you for Mother’s Day,” my mother explained, her voice quavering a bit at the end. “I planned to give it to you after you wrote my mother’s history.”

I clicked open the lid with my thumbnail, revealing tiny sepia photos of my grandparents, Bill and Bella Miller, taken in Scotland around 1910, the time of their marriage. The photos were small versions of formal portraits taken in a photographer’s studio, Bill in a dark suit and light tie, and Bella with her hair swept softly under a large hat with a fashionable feather plume, the locket hanging from her neck. Their eyes look serious, scared. Bill was a coal miner, the son and grandson of coal miners. His petite, pretty bride descended from a line of coal miners. Life had not been easy.


Miller, Bella Bullock - young

Bella Bullock Miller 1887-1943



Miller, William Russell portrait

William Russell Miller 1887-1935

My grandparents immigrated to the United States in 1922 to secure a better life for their growing family. They settled in Pennsylvania for a while, where Bill worked in the anthracite coal mines, and then migrated to California, where the Depression sucked away their livelihood and spoiled their dreams. When their situation became desperate, they tried to hawk the locket for food money. Bill took it to a pawn broker, who cut a tiny chip from the edge to measure its worth.

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Emma Merkt (1873-1937)

I once asked my dad to tell me what he remembered about his grandmother. He squinted his eyes, trying to resurrect a memory of her that would satisfy his inquisitive daughter. My father was only six when his grandmother died in Denver, Colorado, so I wouldn’t have blamed him if he had no mental image of her. I suspect he only saw her a time or two, if that. However, after a time, my father looked at me and said, “I recall her having black hair sprinkled with grey. Wore it short. I’d say she was about 5’2” and stout. And it seems like she was a good cook.” I’ve since wondered if he actually remembered these things about her, or he picked them up from a conversation he once heard. Regardless of the source, I’ve held onto these tidbits to help humanize a woman I know little about.

My great-grandmother, Emma Merkt, was born in Coffeyville, Kansas, on November 27, 1873, one of seven children born to German immigrant parents, John Georg (John) and Christina (Baier) Merkt, who had come to America when they were teenagers. Emma spent her first 13 years on a Kansas farm, like Dorothy in “The Wizard of Oz.” Her father’s obituary states that he was a missionary for the Lutheran Church, so religion must have played an important role in their family life.

Emma Merkt, sepia

Emma Merkt (1873-1937)

Before medical research discovered the cause and cure of diseases like malaria and typhoid fever, these illnesses frequently swept through Midwestern communities at certain times of the year, taking the lives of young and old and devastating families. Such was the case when, in the fall of 1886, Emma’s mother succumbed to typhoid fever at age 44. It’s not difficult to imagine the loss a thirteen-year-old girl would have endured losing her mother at that critical time in her life. Emma had at least five siblings, two sisters who were 15 and seven when their mother died, and three brothers, aged 21, 19, and 15 at the time. Emma’s father may have felt the need to start afresh after his wife’s death and business opportunities elsewhere may have promised a better future for his family than farming. Whatever the reason, John abandoned the farm and departed for Colorado, where gold and silver mining and the booming railroad industry were attracting settlers from all over the country. Emma and two of her siblings accompanied their father in a covered wagon to Chaffee County in southern Colorado. It’s possible they may have lived in the wagon for a time until they could find a suitable place to live. John eventually became a patent medicine salesman, a popular and sometimes lucrative trade in that day, though considered more of a shady occupation as the medical profession and pharmaceutical industry developed. Continue reading

Johann Georg Merkt 1838-1910

My great-great-grandfather’s multi-faceted life would make an interesting book, or provide a good story script for someone like Mark Twain or Garrison Keillor to turn into a magical stage show. Public records indicate that at various times he worked as a joiner (wood worker), farmer, clergyman, Lutheran missionary, and peddler of patent medicines. After emigrating from Germany with his sister when he was 16, he lived in New York, Ohio, Illinois, and Colorado. I suspect it may have been common for people mid-nineteenth century to live such a mobile, varied life, especially newcomers to a country that was spreading its boundaries on a regular basis and discovering its place in the world. Johann George Merkt seems to have stretched and discovered all his life.

Johann Georg Merkt was born in the village of Fluorn in the Oberndorf district, in Württemberg, Germany. Oberndorf lies in the Neckar River Valley in Germany’s Black Forest, surely one of the country’s most picturesque showplaces. I visited that area many years ago and have never forgotten its storybook aura and lush, natural beauty.

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The Neckar River Valley when Johann Merkt was born.

Johann began his life there on November 24, 1838. He was the son of 26-year-old Lucia Merkt and a father whose name has been lost to history. Lucia had also been born in Fluorn, as had her mother Margaretha (Ruos). Lucia had three other children, a daughter Anna Maria, born four years before Johann, another daughter, Christina, born two years after Johann and died within a month, and another unnamed child, who died four days after its birth in 1842. All four of Lucia’s children were illegitimate, which I’ve learned was common in that area of the world at that time. It’s unclear whether the children all had the same father.

German emigration records show that Johann’s grandparents, Nicolaus and Margaretha Merkt, took their children to the United States in 1817, including Lucia, who was only five at the time. Apparently, America did not suit them or something soon called them back to Germany, for they were living in Fluorn six years later, when Margaretha died, when Lucia was eleven.

I’ve learned nothing about Johann’s childhood before he was 16, when he immigrated with his 20-year-old sister Anna Maria to the United States on the Westphalia, arriving in New York on December 19, 1854. The ship’s manifest states that he departed from Bremen. There were other Merkts on the ship as well, but they’re not  listed near the teenagers’ names on the ship’s manifest and their relationship to the brother and sister is unknown. I’ve wondered how the two could afford such a journey. As teenagers, Johann and Anna Maria worked prior to emigrating, for the manifest reported that he was a joiner and his sister a seamstress. One can only imagine the loss and heartache Lucia, then 42, experienced when her two children departed for America. Anna Maria was back in Germany only a few years later, however, for in 1859 she married Friedrich Knopfle in Oberndorf and remain there, raising six children.

Johann, who went by John or J.G. in America, married another German immigrant, Christina Baier (sometimes Beyer) shortly before his 24th birthday on November 13, 1862. The couple married in Cincinnati, Ohio, where numerous Merkts were living at the time, but I’ve been unable to link John with any of them. Perhaps John had stayed with some of these Merkts after arriving in America? John’s 20-year-old bride also came from the Wurttemberg area of Germany, but her parents are unknown, and it’s unclear where the couple met. John and Christina moved around a great deal in the early years of their marriage. The country was embroiled in the Civil War, and it’s possible societal unrest or lack of employment drove them from place to place. Their first child, George, was born in Illinois, the next three, Charles, William, and Mary, in Buffalo, New York, and the last two, Emma and Lena, were born in Kansas. (Emma was my great-grandmother.) John and Christina had seven children, but I’ve only been able to identify six.

Merkt, John George - oval

Johann Georg Merkt

Federal and state census records reveal about all I’ve been able to find about the family without more extensive research.

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Remembering Janet Sellars: My Scots 2nd Great-Grandmother

The lives of our female ancestors are frequently neglected by family historians. As I’ve researched my maternal ancestry, I’ve been impressed with the women in my family, who, like many women, led remarkably difficult and heroic lives that have gone largely unremembered and unrecorded. One of these women is Janet Sellars, my Scots great-great-grandmother.

Janet was the daughter of a cotton weaver, the wife of a wagon driver, and the mother of eight children. She was born on January 25, 1823, the only known daughter of John and Margaret (Mackay or Mackie) Sellars, who had three other known sons. The family lived about 20 miles southeast of Glasgow in the village of Carluke, near the Clyde River in central Lanarkshire. Janet was a popular name in Scotland in that era and the name and its derivatives, Jessie and Jean, show up  in many branches of my maternal family.

Weaver's Cottage

An Etching of a Weaver’s Cottage

When Janet was born, Carluke was a prominent cotton-weaving center with about 400 residents, the majority involved in some aspect of the cotton industry that would continue to flourish for another 40 years. Nearly all weavers’ cottages had a hand-loom, for the production of textiles was typically a family enterprise. The men nearly always worked the looms, while the women and children contributed by winding pins or doing needlework and embroidery. It’s likely that Margaret taught young Janet the requisite needle skills to be useful, for the Sellars children would not have attended school. While Parliament passed a law regulating child labor in factories in 1833, such laws  did not apply to families working from their homes in rural villages, where there was simply no time or opportunity for luxuries like schooling.

Janet was in her early 20s when she married John Clark around 1844, though no marriage record currently exists to document the exact date. John came to Carluke from the village of Fenwick in Ayrshire, a fertile agricultural area on the Firth of Clyde. (See map below.) His parents were James Clark and Marion Wylie. The Wylie family has been traced back to the 1500s. Some were large landowners in the Stewarton area.

Following their marriage, the Clarks moved to Wishaw, a coal mining town five miles from Carluke. The Clarks had eight children, evenly divided between the sexes, over the next 18 years. They followed the Scottish naming pattern of that era, naming their eldest son James, after John’s father, their eldest daughter Margaret, after Janet’s mother, the next daughter Marion, after John’s mother, and their fourth child John, after Janet’s father. They named their other children Janet, Robert, and Isabella. Unfortunately, another son, born on 1858, has never been identified by name.

Carluke 1880s

Wishaw, Scotland, in the 1880s

John Clark supported his large family as a wagon driver. He may have driven the 44-mile round trip to Glasgow early in his career. When the railroad came to Wishaw in the 1840s, his work likely became more local. It had to have been a repetitive, tiring job, requiring physical strength. His temperament may have been well suited for such labor, for once the wagon was loaded, he had time to himself, navigating the dusty roads alone, the Scottish sun rarely too hot. It was his life’s work until he reached the age of forty-nine. Then tragedy struck. Continue reading

Jasper Parrett: He “Out-Crusoed Robinson Crusoe”

When I was old enough to appreciate a good family story, my mother told me that Dad’s great-uncle Jasper—she drew out his name in an exaggerated, spooky Jaaaasss-sper—had been murdered at his gold mine in the Sierra Nevadas. Either that, she said, or he was bitten by a rattlesnake. She wasn’t sure which story was true. Every family needs an unsolved murder or grisly death to snare relatives into genealogical research. Some years later I took the bait.

I had to face the rumors about Jasper’s death when I began writing about the Parretts for my family history, The Parrett Migration. Jasper was a brother of my great-great-grandfather Joseph Parrett, one of the subjects of my story.

With minimal research, it was easy to put Mom’s titillating tale to rest. Jasper hadn’t been murdered after all, but the circumstances of his death still surprised and puzzled those who had known him for years. Jasper was a hermit, which explains to some extent why his life is tinged with mystery and intrigue.

From left to right: Hillis, Jasper, Edward and Collins Parrett. Hillis, Jasper’s nephew, worked at the mine with Jasper for a time and eventually inherited it. Edward and Collins, Jasper’s brothers, were visiting from their farms in Iowa.

He was also something of a romantic frontier hero, a Civil War veteran who headed west with the rest of the crowd hoping to make a fortune in mining. It turned out, in the late 1870s, he entered the first of what would become fourteen claims in the Sierra Nevadas. Jasper was in his mid-thirties, a bachelor. His family back home in Iowa heard he had made good. Real good. Continue reading

Marion Wyllie Clark Bulloch, My Scots Great-Grandmother

Marion Wyllie Clark Bulloch, 1851-1938

Marion Wyllie Clark Bulloch, 1851-1938

Marion Wyllie Clark was born in the middle of the nineteenth century on June 29, 1851, in Wishaw, the heart of Lanarkshire, Scotland’s coal mining and cotton weaving region. She was third of eight children born to Janet Sellars, the daughter of cotton weavers, and her husband John Clark, a wagon driver and farm laborer. Marion’s parents had been married seven years when she was born. They followed the Scottish naming conventions of that era and named her Marion Wyllie after her paternal grandmother, who lived in nearby Ayrshire, where John had grown up.


Textile weaving was an important industry in Scotland in the nineteenth century.


Marion was born at a propitious time for genealogists in future generations. Because 1851 was a census year in Scotland, information about Wishaw is readily available. The town had 4100 residents in 1851, double the number reported in the census a decade earlier. The railroad had come to the parish in recent years, generating an industrial boom and new job opportunities. Until then, the area had been a home for Scotland’s flourishing cotton-weaving industry, which had provided a living for Janet’s family. Most Wishaw homes had a textile loom and, except for the very young or old, all members of a family typically were required to perform one or more of the varied tasks required to turn cotton into fabric. Textiles were hauled north to Glasgow, first by wagon and later by train, and sold throughout Great Britain and elsewhere. Other Wishaw households eked out a small living as tenant farmers who typically worked for either the Coltness or Wishaw estates, owned by the Stewart family. James Stewart, who owned the Coltness property, was a successful economist and author who published books pioneering his economic theories. By mid-century, however, the cotton weaving industry in that area was giving way to coal mining and brick and tile works.

When Marion Wyllie was born, Wishaw’s long main street housed artisan workshops and service trades in the upper end and row housing for about 120 pit workers and their families in the lower section. The majority of the mining families lived in either the Byrnes or Wilson colliers’ rows.

Marion was eleven when her father died in a freak accident that caused him to be crushed between two wagons. By then there were eight children in the family, five of them younger than Marion, one, six-month-old Isabella. In that era, there would have been no life insurance to help out a widow in the event of the death of her husband. Likely the family had barely subsisted on the meager earnings of their father even before his death. One can imagine the grief and financial crisis the family endured after John Clark’s passing. Then, six months later, the tragedy was compounded when year-old Isabella died. Marion’s older brother, James, was barely seventeen. It was common in that era for children to begin helping support the family in their early teens, so it was likely James had probably started working a couple of years earlier, probably as a coal miner. Now he was the main breadwinner for the family, but at his age, he wouldn’t have earned enough to make ends meet.
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