My mom’s maternal grandfather, Arthur George, was born November 3, 1881 in a hamlet called Edge End in the Forest of Dean, Gloucestershire, England. Arthur was the oldest of eight children (six boys and two girls) born to James William George and Sarah Jane Howell.
Arthur grew up in the Forest of Dean, a rural and geographically isolated area of southwest England with great natural beauty.
Traditional occupations in the Forest were forestry, iron mining, and coal mining. Arthur’s father was a coal miner as was his father’s father. In 1891 the England Census reports Arthur, age 9, as a student. But, it was customary at the time for boys to follow their fathers into the mines by age 14, and no doubt that is the path Arthur followed. At one point in the late 1800s, there were more than 5,000 colliers (men and boys) throughout the Forest. In the 1901 England Census, Arthur’s occupation was coal hewer, and by then he would have had several years of mining experience under his belt.
On August 12, 1903, Arthur boarded the R.M.S. Oceanic in Liverpool, bound for America. With him were his pals John Matthews and Thomas Evans; Arthur and Thomas were 21 and John had just turned 22. They arrived at the Port of New York on August 20, 1903, and were processed at the Ellis Island immigration facility. All three reported their occupations as collier and their final destination as Seymour, Wayne County, Iowa, where they would join friend George Jones. Potential immigrants were screened by the steamship company agents before they could book passage to America and were also subjected to examination by immigration inspectors upon arrival. The passenger manifest noted Arthur and Thomas in “good” health, while John had a slight deformity of his thumbs and blepharitis, an eyelid inflammation that was apparently not significant enough to deny him entry into the country.
Coal became the largest energy source in the U.S. in the 1880s, and the coal industry relied heavily on immigrant labor during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Immigrants came to the coal mines through a variety of means, sometimes lured by advertising agents at local ports, often following friends and family. Many coal miners from the Forest of Dean were attracted to Iowa by Peter Thomas, formerly of Edge End, who was superintendent of mines around Seymour (including the incongruously-named Sunshine Mine). George Jones, friend of Arthur and company, was a brother-in law to Mr. Thomas. However, Arthur and Thomas Evans ended their journey in Cuba, Illinois. Cuba, located in Fulton County, was another Midwest coal-mining mecca which had drawn English immigrants. (John Matthews continued on to Seymour, where he married and lived for the rest of his life.) Among the Foresters who had settled in Fulton County was Arthur’s paternal aunt, Mary Ann Probyn, and her family. Arthur would not have previously met the Probyns, as they left the Forest of Dean in 1879, before he was born. Nevertheless, Arthur had family in his new home, and soon would have more—Arthur’s father arrived in Cuba in March 1904, followed by his mother and siblings (including sister Anna, who was married and had an infant son) in August 1904.
On July 19, 1906, Arthur’s English sweetheart, Esther Yemm, stepped off the boat in Boston. Five days later, on July 24, Arthur and Esther were married in the living room of his parents’ home in Brereton, Illinois (about 15 miles north of Cuba). Arthur and Esther managed to continue a courtship in the three years after Arthur emigrated and plan a rendezvous and marriage from afar, as did many young couples like them. Esther’s brother Joe had immigrated to Cuba in 1904 and perhaps he was part of the scheme. In any case, Joe and Arthur’s sister Anna Edwards were witnesses to the wedding. Esther’s brother Steve arrived in Cuba in 1906 as well, but we don’t know when, or whether he attended the nuptials.
In April 1908, Arthur and Esther welcomed their first child, Ruby. The 1910 U.S. Census shows Arthur, Esther and Ruby, along with Steve, living on Sixth Avenue in Cuba. One year later, in May 1911, Esther was granted a divorce from Arthur. The divorce complaint alleged that Arthur had deserted Esther a full two years prior and was still absent, indicating he left in 1909, when Ruby had barely turned one. Why did Arthur leave his young family? Family lore is that he went west in search of work. Were mining jobs becoming scarce? By 1911, the coal mines were reporting economic struggles and several Fulton County mines closed “for want of trade to keep them going.” Did brother-in-law Steve’s presence in the house create tension in his marriage? Interestingly, Arthur’s father left Illinois to go back to England in that same time frame, leaving Arthur’s mother with four children under the age of 16 to make their way. Might Arthur have felt pressure to help care for his mother and siblings in his father’s absence?
By 1910, Arthur’s sister Anna disappeared, and so far as we know, she was never in contact with her family again (more on Anna’s story in a future post!). Arthur’s mother died in 1911. His sister Minnie married in 1912, and moved to Viola, Illinois. His brother William also married in 1912. How much of that family news did Arthur know?
Did Arthur go to Seymour, Iowa to try and find work? Or did he travel farther west, to Nebraska, or even Colorado or Wyoming? Did he send money home? Esther did have to work to support Ruby during Arthur’s absence. Did Arthur communicate with Esther or his siblings when he was gone? We do know he eventually returned to Cuba and remarried Esther on March 7, 1914. Their son Kenneth was born in February 1915 and daughter Eileen was born September 1916.
In September 1918, Arthur registered for the draft. At the time, he was still a British subject. He was employed by Star Coal Company. His WWI registration card reports his physical characteristics: dark hair, medium build, gray eyes. Not all men who registered actually served in the armed forces and Arthur never enlisted.
In early December 1918, Arthur was struck with bronchiopnuemonia. Soon after, he contracted influenza. On December 13, 1918, Arthur died, a victim of the Great Influenza Epidemic that, incredibly, killed more people than did WWI. Arthur was 39 years old. He is buried in the Cuba Cemetery. Arthur’s friend, Thomas Evans, died five years later at the age of 44 and also rests in the Cuba Cemetery. John Matthews died when he was 58 years old, in Seymour. All three men worked nearly their entire lives in the coal mines—difficult, dirty, and dangerous work that surely exacted its toll on their health.
Much of Arthur’s life is and will remain a mystery to us…so many questions and no answers. We can imagine he had hopes and dreams and a sense of adventure. He must have been excited to board the Oceanic with his friends, heading for a new life full of hope and possibilities. The only photo we have of Arthur, taken on his wedding day in 1906, yields no clues of what was to come. Within a few short years after that photo was taken, Arthur absented himself from the life he had created. With his years away and his premature death, Esther had precious little time with him. Ruby was six years old when Arthur returned to Cuba and just ten when he died. She remembered very little about her father except the changes his reappearance brought to her life—she was no longer the darling of the salesmen at the hotel where her mother worked, two younger siblings now competed for attention, and her father had a sternness that her mother did not when it came to table manners, practicing the piano and such. Sadly, Arthur never had the opportunity to know his three children as they grew up, and as a result, we can’t know him, either. But when I look into Great-Grandfather’s faraway gray eyes, I know he is part of me. What do you see?
CODA I ~
I have often wondered where “out west” Arthur went when he left Cuba. Arthur had Forest acquaintances in Iowa and I believed that was a possibility, but I was curious if he traveled further west. Arthur’s final destination was revealed in a remarkable collection of personnel files from the Northern Pacific Railway Company that recently became available on Ancestry.com.
On May 1, 1909, Arthur began working for Northern Pacific in Billings, Montana. Over the next 18 months, he worked in a variety of positions for the company, in the freight department and as a mail carrier. While in Billings, Arthur completed his petition for naturalization as a U.S. citizen.
Arthur’s sister, Anna Edwards, who was a witness at the wedding of Arthur and Esther in 1906, had at some point left Cuba herself. Family lore is that Anna “disappeared,” never to be heard from again. Although I haven’t been able to directly connect Arthur and Anna in Billings, I have learned that Anna married Fred Kathan in nearby Miles City, Montana (a stop on the Northern Pacific line) in 1912. Coincidentally (or not?), Fred’s mother, Lottie Kathan, was a cook and resident at the Commercial Hotel in Billings when Arthur lived there—both are listed in the 1909 Billings City Directory. I suspect that Arthur’s and Anna’s stories are intertwined.
The records tell us that Arthur resigned from Northern Pacific Railway effective December 31, 1910, to return to Illinois. By March 12, 1911, when his mother died, Arthur was back in Cuba.
As one question is answered, a dozen more arise. Perhaps in time, more details of this family mystery will come to light. But in any case, there is satisfaction knowing something of Arthur’s life in those “missing” years, and I am grateful that these 100-year-old records were preserved!