A Case of Mistaken Identity

Week 5: #52Ancestors – Census

By Eilene Lyon

Because I am trying to find as many living descendants as possible for Henry Zane Jenkins and his wife, Abigail Bedford, I have been following many family lines down to the present.  One of these lines is the Rackleffs of Oregon.

Last year, while working on this line, I noticed that I had a duplicate person in my tree: Allison Rackleff.  It happens by accident sometimes when adding a record.  No problem; I will just merge them.  Then I noticed I had him with two different sets of parents.  Whoops!  That must have happened in my earlier days on Ancestry, before I started training my laser-beam eye of scrutiny on every person and record added to my tree.

It didn’t take me long to discover the source of my error: Find-a-grave.  Now, FAG is a wonderful place to find research tips, but it is hardly a reliable source overall.  Even the information carved in stone in a cemetery is frequently wrong.  In this case, there turned out to be two memorials for the same grave, but the biographical information was different on each.

The grave is that of Ellis L. Rackleff.  One stated that his first name was really Allison, and the creator said his parents were Leland Rackleff and Vivian Spicer.  The other stated that his full name was Ellis Leland Rackleff, no mention of the name Allison, and his parents were Lawrence Rackleff (Leland’s older brother), and Grace Sumerlin.

First of all, a statement that seems unfounded, such as claiming that Ellis is really named Allison, triggers my suspicion.  Are Ellis and Allison one person, or are they two different people?  Since Ellis/Allison appears to be born in 1920 per his headstone, a census year, that is where I first looked for evidence, finding both brothers, Lawrence and Leland, with their wives.

Here is the older brother, Lawrence, and Grace in 1920.  They have no children.


And here is Leland and Vivian, with their son, Allison E., one month old.  What does the middle initial “E” stand for?  We don’t know, but maybe it’s Ellis.


So next, I looked at the 1930 census for the two brothers.

Here is Lawrence and Grace, now with two children – Ellis L. and Maxine M., ages 10 and 7.  It clearly states that Ellis is their son and Maxine is their daughter.  But could they be adopted?


Here is Leland in 1930.  He is now “single” and a roomer.  There are no children with him.  What happened?  Did his wife die?  Did they get divorced?


Well, here is Vivian in 1930.  Her last name is misspelled as “Radcliffe.” (If you say Rackleff out loud, you’ll see how this could happen.)  She also has no children with her, and it states she is divorced.


At this point, or even before looking for Vivian, someone apparently came up with the hypothesis that Ellis L. was really Allison E. and had been adopted by his uncle and aunt.  It’s a plausible hypothesis, but someone stopped there and went no further.  Such a claim needs to be backed up by a more diligent search.

So, next I looked for Allison in 1930, and this is what I found:


Allison E., age 10, is living with his grandparents, Edward and Mary Rackleff.  Lela M., age 8, turns out to be his sister.  So, when Leland and Vivian divorced, neither of them took the children.  They went to live with Leland’s parents.  Without a doubt, Allison and Ellis are two different people, first cousins, and both born within a few months of each other.  It turns out that the 1920 census records for both Lawrence and Leland were taken in January.  Allison was actually born in November 1919.  Ellis was born in early 1920, but after the census was taken.  The 1930 census was taken in April, after both boys had had their 10th birthday.

It would have been nice if I could have found birth records for both boys, but neither Ancestry nor Family Search had either one.  Finding some of Allison’s records was complicated by the fact that he eventually switched his first and middle names, going by Edward Allison or Edward A., and much later he changed the spelling of his last name to “Radcliffe.”

However, I was able to trace all four children – Ellis and Maxine, Allison and Lela – through their entire lives.  Unfortunately, one of the FAG memorials is still stating that Ellis is Allison and the creator’s reasoning is that Allison/Ellis was counted twice in 1930, and somehow Maxine and Lela are also one and the same person.  This really defies logic.  I also have it on authority from someone who actually knew Ellis Rackleff, that he was indeed the son of Lawrence and Grace.

Ellis Rackleff’s obituary clearly states that he was born 20 January 1920 at the family home to Lawrence and Grace Rackleff.  This is somewhat conflicting with the 1920 census which is dated “28-29-30 January” (see feature image, above).  But census takers do make errors, too.

2 thoughts on “A Case of Mistaken Identity

Add yours

  1. Interesting. I wonder how often census takers made honest mistakes… I’m glad to read your take of FAG. I’ve wondered about its accuracy from time-to-time. Not that I do a lot of genealogical research, but that which I’ve done has made me wonder about FAG.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Just today I saw how someone had taken a memorial from FAG and attributed it to the wrong person and it just got passed on through many other trees. No one actually looked at the information. Glaringly obvious that it wasn’t the right person. Ugh.

      Liked by 1 person

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