Gone Too Soon

Lester Albert Ashbacher was born in Dunn County, North Dakota in 1919.[1]Lester graduated high school in Dickinson, North Dakota in June 1936, and started his adult life there.[2] I became interested in him because he was reportedly married to an extended relative. My initial goal was to confirm whether he and my relative had, in fact, been married. But the more I searched, the more intrigued I became with what became of this young man.

There was a gravestone with his name and military information at Dickinson Cemetery in Dickinson, North Dakota[3], but there was no one else with that surname buried in the same cemetery. Later, I found another gravestone with nearly identical information in Dakota City Cemetery, Dakota City, Nebraska.[4] The second gravestone is associated with an application for a veteran’s marker for Lester. Why were there two gravestones for the same person?

Census records are always a good place to start a genealogical search, and I soon learned that Lester was the son of Ethan L. and Esther E. (Mefs) Ashbacher, and that he had two siblings, a sister Eleanor who was born in 1917 and a brother Ralph who was born in 1921. Adding census detail to Lester’s history prompted more Ancestry hints including a very detailed record from his employment at Northern Pacific Railway Company beginning in October 1938.[5] Lester’s employment history revealed several stints as a trucker for his father’s drayage firm, one as a clerk in the local Red Owl grocery store, and one year at college. Lester started at Northern Pacific as a trucker; a year later he was either transferred or promoted to warehouseman. He remained with Northern Pacific until February 1941[6] when he was drafted into the military, serving with the 164th Infantry Company K, Americal Division, North Dakota National Guard.[7]

Lester is next found in Umatilla County, Oregon, apparently assigned to an Army post there. On February 21, 1942, Lester Albert Ashbacher and Florence Stella Reichert (the extended relative mentioned previously) were joined in marriage by a Catholic priest. Their marriage was witnessed by Lester’s brother Ralph and Florence’s sister Magdalen.[8] It was likely a short honeymoon as Lester was deployed to the South Pacific Theater sometime before November 30, 1942, when he was reported as killed in action (some of the Ancestry Family Trees I’ve viewed say he was killed at Guadalcanal, but I haven’t yet found a record with that information).


Having learned the details of Lester’s war-shortened life, I was still puzzled why there were two grave markers for him, one in Dickinson, North Dakota, and the other in Dakota City, Nebraska. Lacking any additional information for the Dickinson cemetery, I moved on to the Dakota City cemetery where the search for the surname Ashbacher was productive, yielding four results. Lester’s name was there[9], of course, as were the names of his parents, Ethan Lester[10] and Esther Emily (Mefs) Ashbacher[11]. There was little biographical information for either parent except for links to each other’s Find A Grave memorials. Fortunately, Ethan’s bio included the names and dates of birth and death for the couple’s three children.

The fourth result for the Ashbacher surname turned out to be Lester’s sister, Eleanor, whose memorial included very detailed biographical information.[12] It turns out that Eleanor married Charles Beerman, a native of Dakota County, Nebraska, in July 1939. Charles and Eleanor returned to Charles’ home place after their marriage, where they farmed and raised livestock for many years.

I haven’t located specific information regarding Lester’s parents’ move from Dickinson, North Dakota to Dakota City, Nebraska (at some point between Lester’s death in 1942 and 1948 when Lester’s father applied for a veteran’s headstone), but it is reasonable to assume they decided to relocate to be near one of their children during their senior years (as a benchmark, Ethan and Emily would have been approximately 57 and 54, respectively, in 1948 when Ethan applied for Lester’s veteran’s gravestone). It is also reasonable that they might want a memorial to their son in their new hometown.

Epilogue: There is no indication that Lester fathered a child during his and Florence’s short marriage. Florence remarried in 1946; that relationship ended in divorce in 1967. Florence subsequently married at least two and perhaps three times before her death in 1996. Limited research indicates Lester’s brother Ralph was a military “lifer”, serving nearly 30 years in the U.S. Army initially between 1940 and 1945 and subsequently between 1950 and 1974. Northern Pacific Railway Company changed Lester’s status from “Leave of absence” to “Deceased-killed in action South Pacific War Theatre” in January 1947.[13]

[1] Lester Albert Ashbacher, Confirmation Register, St. John, Dickinson, North Dakota. Ancestry.com. U.S., Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, Records, 1875-1940 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2015.
[2] Lester Albert Ashbacher, Employment Record, Northern Pacific Railway Company. Ancestry.com. U.S., Northern Pacific Railway Company Personnel Files, 1890-1963 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2013.
[3] Lester A Ashbacher, Find A Grave memorial # 96097555. Ancestry.com. U.S., Find A Grave Index, 1600s-Current [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2012.
[4] Lester A Ashbacher, Find a Grave memorial #106191530. Ancestry.com. U.S., Find A Grave Index, 1600s-Current [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2012.
[5] Northern Pacific Railway Company, previously discussed.
[6] Northern Pacific Railway Company, previously discussed.
[7] Lester A Ashbacher, Application for Headstone or Marker. Ancestry.com. U.S., Headstone Applications for Military Veterans, 1925-1963 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2012.
[8] Umatilla County, Oregon, marriage license and certificate 19420038 (1942), Ashbacher-Reichert; Umatilla County Records, Pendleton.
[9] Find A Grave Memorial #106191530, previously discussed.
[10] Ethan Lester Ashbacher, Find A Grave Memorial #113675222. Ancestry.com. U.S., Find A Grave Index, 1600s-Current [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2012.
[11] Esther Emily Mefs Ashbacher, Find A Grave Memorial # 40260629. Ancestry.com. U.S., Find A Grave Index, 1600s-Current [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2012.
[12] Eleanor Edith Ashbacher Beerman, Find A Grave Memorial #76692324. Ancestry.com. U.S., Find A Grave Index, 1600s-Current [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2012.
[13] Northern Pacific Railway Company, previously discussed.

His answer to a simple question

Posted for the meme Genealogy Blog Party hosted by Elizabeth O’Neal of Little Bytes of Life. September’s theme is “Back-to-School” and invites posts discussing essential genealogical lessons.

My maternal aunt, Dolores [surname withheld], and Leland E [surname withheld] were married in McLean County, North Dakota, in December 1975. According to their marriage record, Leland E was 49 years old at the time, meaning he was born in approximately 1926. Significantly, their marriage license indicates that Leland was never previously divorced. That detail prompted what has become a fortnight’s-long adventure into the genealogy of two large families with, as far as I can tell, a single contact within (i.e., Dolores and Leland E) my maternal family tree.


A search of find-a-grave.com yielded one listing for a Leland E [surname withheld], and, sure enough, that person’s details (e.g., age, location) were remarkably similar to what I expected for my Leland E, but the posting indicated this Leland E was married to someone other than my aunt, and that the couple were parents to five children. This discovery nearly convinced me that my Leland E was a different person than the one memorialized at find-a-grave, but I wasn’t quite ready to give up. [I failed twice here: (1) I did not query related surnames within the same cemetery and (2) once I did, I didn’t immediately recognize the much earlier death of a possible spouse compared to when my Leland E died.]

My next step was to order a copy of Leland E’s death certificate, hoping it would list my aunt as spouse/next of kin. That turned out not to be the case, though the spouse on the death certificate was not the same person associated with Leland E’s find-a-grave entry. Later, it occurred to me to check find-a-grave.com and newspaper obituaries for the spouse reported on Leland E’s death certificate. Finally, a breakthrough!

genealogybank.com and find-a-grave.com both had obituaries for Leland E’s end-of-life spouse and, fortunately, those accounts had sufficient detail for me to conclude that my Leland E could have been married to my aunt and his end-of-life spouse (i.e., they didn’t marry until 1987) before the find-a-grave Leland’s death in 1992.

Meantime, I began investigating the extended family of Leland’s presumed first wife and have, as a result, pieced together a hypothesis for what has turned out to be a fairly complex series of relationships. One of the most significant clues was a newspapers.com clipping from the Bismarck (ND) Tribune in June 1954 where Mr. and Mrs. Leland E [surname withheld] were listed as attendees at the marriage of a couple where the groom turned out to be a sibling of Leland E’s first wife. My current hypothesis is:

  1. Leland E was first married in the mid-1940s and was widowed at the time he and my aunt Dolores were married. His first wife died in 1972, and the five children mentioned for both their find-a-grave memorials are almost certainly their children together.
  2. Leland and Dolores divorced sometime before 1987 when Leland married his end-of-life spouse.

I haven’t yet requested divorce documentation for Dolores and Leland E, but that certainly seems the most likely resolution to their relationship. Of course, I won’t be entirely satisfied with my tentative conclusion (that my aunt Dolores and this Leland E were married) until/unless I obtain divorce papers for the couple or an obituary for Leland E that corroborates this conclusion. I’ve since requested marriage information and an obituary search for Leland and his first wife from the archives at the State Historical Society of North Dakota. I’m hopeful those details will finalize this aspect of my family tree.

Schooling-wise, per this month’s prompt, my first self-lesson is to mine records for every detail, no matter how minor. The statement that Leland E had not been divorced before his union with my aunt Dolores was significant in this case. Second, I should have checked for people with Leland’s surname in the cemetery where he is buried. Third, I need to continually remind myself to be receptive to alternative explanations and willing to investigate even far-fetched connections because they might just turn out to be the one that proves the case!

I was fortunate in this investigation that my aunt’s spouse had a fairly uncommon given name, and that he was born and/or lived in a sparsely populated state, thus limiting other possibilities. I also have other indexed records that support my conclusions, e.g., Ancestry’s various public record indexes, but I’m always cautious about indexed records because of I can’t personally view the information.

Genealogy Potluck

Posted for the meme Genealogy Blog Party hosted by Elizabeth O’Neal of Little Bytes of Life. August’s theme is “Genealogy Potluck” and invites posts revealing writers’ favorite genealogy resources. I hope others will enjoy my “dish,” and I’m certainly looking forward to a new “recipe” or two as I learn about other writers’ favorite genealogy finds.

My maternal great grandparents, Anton and Barbara (Ehli) Armbrust and Joseph and Agnes (Heiser) Jaeger, immigrated to the United States in 1892 and 1889 respectively, settling with their families in or near Stark County in southwestern North Dakota. They and many others came from Ukraine, Russia, but their heritage was German rather than Russian. These “Germans from Russia,” as they eventually became known, settled in the U.S. midwest (Minnesota, North and South Dakota, Nebraska, and Colorado, among others) and Canada, and some migrated again further west to California and Oregon.

Official records about these early ancestors and their children are scarce—census records, marriage licenses and certificates, and a few draft registration cards are available—but personal information is even more rare. You will understand, then, why I was so pleased to discover two organizations that collect and make available obituaries for people of this ethnic/geographic background.

I became aware of the first organization, American Historical Society of Germans from Russia[1] [in my experience, better viewed in Internet Explorer than Google Chrome], when I found an ancestor’s obituary on Family Search[2] in a collection entitled “United States, Obituaries, American Historical Society of Germans from Russia. 1899-2012,” but I didn’t at the time appreciate the scope of the organization’s contribution. According to the Family Search link, there are nearly 456,000 images in this collection. Many I have viewed are original newspaper clippings; others are transcriptions of newspaper obituaries.

Another organization, the Germans from Russia Heritage Society,[3] headquartered in Bismarck, North Dakota, provides an extensive index of transcribed obituaries via the Research Library link on their home page. Ordering obituaries is accomplished via e-mail; once the requested obituaries are located, the staff e-mails to let the requester know the total cost. The transcriptions are sent shortly after they receive payment. The first obituary is $2.50 with other obituaries in the same order an additional $1.00 each plus a modest postage fee (my initial order for 20 obituaries totaled $24.50).

I found several relatives listed on the GRHS site but didn’t see listings for my maternal grandfather or my mother. I recently supplied obituaries for these relatives and was pleased to see that both have since been added to the indices. Note: for married women, search by married rather than maiden name.

Having investigated these sites a bit more thoroughly for this post, I recommend searching the Family Search link first to see what they might have about a “German from Russia” relative and then following up with North Dakota’s Germans from Russia Heritage Society (because of their extensive obituary index) and the American Historical Society of Germans from Russia and each organization’s affiliates to see what those entities might have.

Brick wall success story: The GRHS obituary index was the key to learning death date and burial information for my great aunt Elizabeth (Wehner) Ulschak. I knew from previous research on this family that their surname was frequently misspelled, so when I couldn’t find “Elizabeth Ulschak” in the index, I decided to use the Find function (Ctrl_F) to search for all occurrences of Elizabeth. Recreating the search just now, my Elizabeth was #12 of 32 in the very long “U” list and, sure enough, the surname was misspelled (Ulshak vs. Ulschak). From there, I was able to check North Dakota’s Public Death Index[4] to verify the summary information presented on the GRHS site.

[1] American Historical Society of Germans from Russia ~ http://www.ahsgr.org/
[2] United States, Obituaries, American Historical Society of Germans from Russia, 1899-2012 ~ https://familysearch.org/search/collection/2367299
[3] Germans from Russia Heritage Society ~ http://grhs.org/index.html
[4] North Dakota’s Public Death Index ~ https://apps.nd.gov/doh/certificates/deathCertSearch.htm