What if you found out your ancestor was a female mining prospector in the 1800s, made a fortune but then lost it all, and later won a lottery and died a wealthy woman? That’s exactly what Lynzi Coffey discovered as she pieced together her family’s story using Newspapers.com.
We wanted to share Lynzi’s story, and others from time to time, to show how our members’ research techniques and tips can inspire you in your own genealogical research.
Lynzi had census records for her ancestors and knew they traveled across the country. Plotting the locations where she knew her ancestors lived, she searched newspapers along the route between locations. In the process, Lynzi pieced together the amazing story of her 2nd great grandfather Michael O’Brien and his wife Mary Helde.
Finding Michael in the newspapers required time and patience. O’Brien was often misspelled. Sometimes the “O” was left off, or the apostrophe dropped, and papers spelled “Brien” in a variety of ways (click here to learn how to search for common misspellings using wildcards). Lynzi’s persistence paid off and she found newspaper stories that mentioned his Irish hometown, an employment history, and his family history. She even discovered that Michael was present at the Golden Spike Ceremony in 1869 and found his face in the familiar photo of the rails joining in the Utah territory. It was the resiliency of his wife Mary that really inspired Lynzi.
Mary Helde was already married when she met Michael, although she did not live with her husband. Through newspapers, Lynzi learned that not only did Mary lose three daughters in their early infancy, but she also had two sons that died tragic deaths. Mary operated a boarding house in Cheyenne, Wyoming when she and Michael crossed paths. She was already independently wealthy having purchased a number of mining claims that apparently paid off. One clipping described her selling her assets for $30,000 in 1866 (about $475,000 in today’s dollars).
Mary left Cheyenne, sold the boarding house and all of her possessions, married Michael, and accompanied him to Nevada and later Utah. Mary described herself as having a “speculative disposition,” and Lynzi realized how true that was when she found clippings of Mary’s numerous mining investments. Sadly, it appears that Mary’s speculation led to a loss of her fortune.
When news came of mining claims opening in North Dakota, Michael left for the Black Hills. Mary joined him about a year later, but their marriage faltered. In 1891, Michael reportedly drowned while swimming, leaving Mary a penniless widow. Unbeknownst to Mary, however, Michael was very much alive. He’d conspired with some friends to stage his accidental death and left town, a fact Lynzi uncovered in Michael’s Civil War pension file.
Alone and broke, Mary decided to take her last $20 and enter the Louisiana State Lottery, where she won $5,000! She then organized a group of women to invest in mining and once again grew her fortune. When Mary died in 1912, she had no heirs and divided her estate among friends who had helped her during difficult times, a children’s home, and her church.
The colorful story Lynzi uncovered on Newspapers.com shocked her. Her tips include searching for alternative spellings, plotting your ancestors’ locations and checking all the papers along the way, and exhaustive searches! “Discovering records about my ancestors helped me plot points in their lives, but finding them in Newspapers.com helped me bring their story to life,” said Lynzi. Have you discovered your family’s story? Try using Lynzi’s tips and start searching today on Newspapers.com.