By Bill Miller
When you dig around in family roots you dig up many colorful and memorable characters. Sometimes they are referred to as “skeletons,” but they were flesh and blood, and carrying our DNA! For example, take Alvaretta Shumway, who I found in a shoebox. Actually, it was a shoebox of old photos, saved by my mother.
Below is the unlabeled photo that captured my attention. My first thought was that she looked like a tick, with a small head and big body, until I looked more closely and discovered a pretty, young woman in a big petticoat. But who was she? One aunt identified her, “Oh, that’s Rettie Shumway. She used to be a pigeon-feeding, bag-lady in our town.” She was remembered as an old lady, carrying bags, singing hymns and walking the streets of a neighboring town. In this photo I would guess that she was about 18 – 20 years old (about 1871), but I enjoyed the mental picture of Rettie as an old, bag-lady surrounded by pigeons. After much research I discovered what they forgot to tell me – Alvaretta was my 2nd great-grandmother! I had to find out more about this lady’s story, and it is an interesting one.
Alvaretta was born in N. Adams, MA in 1849, the youngest of four children born to. Joseph and Martha Shumway. The Shumways had immigrated from France about 1655, so they were a well-established family in town. Her sister Helen was six, Sarah was three, and brother Henry was one. So Alvaretta probably had a normal childhood as the youngest of four siblings. As a young adult she was described as “a great beauty, dark hair, dark eyes, fine, classic features.” At age 22 she caught the eye of a recent immigrant from England, a “miner” named John H. Mitchell. She married him on June 3, 1871, in the Methodist Church. A baby boy named William arrived soon after in 1872. Five years later they had a daughter, Effa Cutting Mitchell, who became my great-grandmother. One year later, 1878, they were expecting another baby. Apparently, John had enough. In the middle of her pregnancy, John moved to Leadville, CO to become a miner again. In August 1879 word came that John had died in a mine accident in Wolftone Mine in Leadville. He was 31 and they had been married 8 years. Strangely, her brother Henry later suffered the same fate. In the 1880 Census, Alvaretta is a 29 year old widow, mother of three and living with her parents. It must have been a tough time.
It may be that these years are when she created a reputation as “a lady of many romances,” according to family lore. At the age of 37, she married one of her male friends, 50 year-old sea Captain James Randall, on May 30, 1886. He had just moved back to N. Adams after 34 years at sea. Three years later they started a new family with the birth of a son named Frank. In the 1900 census, James is 59, Alvaretta is 50 and Frank is 11. No other children are mentioned. They had been married 14 years.
Apparently, sometime later, their son, Frank, joined the Canadian Army, entered World War I and never returned. He was “missing in action.” About that time they must have separated. Rettie gave Frank’s sea chest and a grandfather clock he had made to a Dr. McGrath. Old Captain James was put in the County Poor Farm, where he died in 1918. Rettie started attending Jesus Saves Tabernacle, and walking the streets of town until her death from pneumonia in 1920, at the home of her daughter. She died under the name of Rettie E. Randall and her obituary says she was, “A woman of estimable qualities.” That means she was “worthy of esteem.” The final note on Alvaretta’s life was, “Her funeral was delayed by a snowstorm.”
So, you never know what’s behind an old picture, but it is worth finding out. Also, if you come upon a bird-feeding, bag-lady, give her a kindly smile and ask yourself, could she be related to me? But, more likely, she is probably somebody else’s great-grandmother! For help finding fascinating characters in your family, contact your local genealogy center at Mountains Branch Library.