Chasing Lucille

lucille-coffin A barefooted Lucille Coffin, date unknown.

Names are the bedrock of family history research. Finding, sorting, and verifying them takes time. Shared names between generations can cause confusion—such as in the case of professional baseball player Wilmer Flores, whose father, two brothers, and son all share the same first and last names.1 More commonly, however, genealogists encounter the opposite problem—ancestors with names which are missing, partial, or unclear, or which may have changed at some point in their life. Recently, I encountered a puzzle in my family history which included all of these problems.

The story begins with my father, Donald Grover, who moved from Colorado to California with his family at age fifteen. He enrolled in David Starr Jordan High School in Los Angeles and began working after school for the school janitor, whose name was Alvin Coffin.2 The two got to talking and discovered an amazing coincidence: Alvin's wife, Lucille, was a close relative of the Grovers. In fact, she was a half-sister of Donald's mother, Charlotte (Feist) Grover.

My father and his siblings were shocked to learn that their mother had a sibling they had never heard of before. Charlotte begrudgingly admitted that Lucille Coffin was her half-sister, making it clear that she did not approve of her. In Charlotte’s opinion, Lucille was too wild, possibly of immoral character—and worse, frequently seen going barefooted (what scandal!). She claimed that Lucille’s mother, their father’s first wife, had been “an Indian,” citing this as the reason behind Lucille’s “wild” nature. She also said that Lucille had been put into an orphanage when her mother died, and had never really been part of the family.

No first-hand witnesses to these events are now alive, and I have learned to be skeptical of some family stories. Lucille was undoubtedly a true member of the family, but information about her from family sources is scarce. I decided to look online, starting a few generations back.

Lucille and Charlotte’s father was Charles J. Feist, one of ten children born to German immigrants Michael and Theresa Feist. Given time, Michael's ancestors in Germany are likely traceable. However, Theresa’s might prove a more difficult challenge, since her last name is disputed. Most but not all family trees online show it as "Veiler.” The typed county transcript of the record of Michael and Theresa’s marriage in Wheeling, West Virginia, shows it as “Weldtley.”

Marriage record for Mich'l Feist and Theresa ?, November 11, 1849, Wheeling, West Virginia. Celebrant: Bishop Richard V. Whelan, Wheeling Diocese. Witnessed by Aloysius Feist and Theresa Glass. Citing: St. Joseph Cathedral Marriage Records, Office of Archives & Records, Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston, Wheeling, West Virginia, USA. Accessed 1 May 2023.

In case there was a transcription error, I contacted the Wheeling-Charlesworth Diocese to locate the original church record for the marriage. This record is faded and difficult to read, but the maiden name listed seems to be something similar to "Weldtley.” But what does it actually say? A search of death records for Michael and Theresa's children, most of which show their mother's maiden name, gave various results: "Vieler", "Weiler", "Whitney", "Wheatley", and some blanks. Searching for "Theresa Weldtley" in the usual places brought up only that one marriage record. I decided to put aside the last name question for another day.

Next, I looked for records for Charles J. Feist. Marriage records show that Charles had been married twice prior to marrying Charlotte’s mother. His first wife was Christina Reding, who was born in New York. She and Charles were married in 1874 in Bourbon County, Kansas, and had one son, recorded in the 1880 census simply as "C.R.” Christina died of consumption in January of 1881.

At the end of that same year, Charles married Maggie Fisher, who was born in Michigan in 1859. A son, Charles B., was born to them in 1882. Sadly, a newspaper obituary reported that Charles B. died in July of 1883. The other son, "C.R.", cannot be found in any records other than the 1880 census, implying that he died young as well. (Written family information confirms that Charles had two sons who died young in Kansas.) In early 1885 Charles and Maggie moved to Colorado. Maggie soon developed serious health problems, and they decided to travel back to her parent's home in Ohio. They made it as far as Denver, where Maggie died in July of 1885.

Advertisement for Carson's Stage and Express LineCharles was now alone. He stayed in Colorado and became a station agent for Carson's Stage and Express Line, which had major stops in Glenwood Springs, Leadville, and Aspen.3 In 1886, he was living in the mining town of Granite, an overnight stop for travelers going to Aspen by stagecoach. There he met a young girl, Bertha Koch, who was on her way from Toledo, Ohio, to Aspen. After a year-long visit with relatives, she returned to Toledo. She and Charles corresponded for a few years, leading to their marriage in 1888. They established a home in Glenwood Springs, Colorado, where their two daughters were born: my grandmother Charlotte and her younger sister Mildred.

After a few years, the family moved to Aspen, Colorado, where Charles and Bertha would live out the rest of their lives. Charles died in 1938 at the age of 85. Bertha died in 1970 at the impressive age of 102. When she was young, she would have traveled by horse-drawn stagecoach; before the end of her life, she would witness television coverage of men landing on the moon.

The 1900 Federal census for Aspen shows the Feist family: Charles at age 47, Bertha at 31, Charlotte at 7, and Mildred at 5. But wait! Also listed is a daughter Carrie, age 17, born in Kansas. Who is this? No previous records for this family list another daughter.

A clue comes from the January 5, 1900, edition of the Aspen Times, which reports that "Miss Carrie Feist, daughter of the merchant, C. J. Feist, arrived in the city yesterday from Concepcion (sic), Mo." This explains her appearance in the census report taken a few months later. I had been searching for a daughter named Lucille, and instead found one of about the same age named Carrie. If she truly was his daughter, Bertha could not have been her mother, because of their ages and the date of Bertha’s marriage to Charles. Based on her age, Maggie Fisher must have been her mother. Where had this “Carrie” been all this time, leaving no records of her existence, and why had she come from Missouri?

Conception, Missouri, in Nodaway County, is the location of a Benedictine abbey. An archivist at Conception Abbey helped me locate records for Carrie Feist. She was placed at St. James Orphanage, which was operated by the abbey, around 1884 when she was eighteen months old. Charles and Maggie would have been living in Emporia, Kansas, at the time. Records also show that Carrie permanently left the orphanage at the end of October 1900, two months before arriving in Aspen. The name Lucille does not appear in any of the abbey’s records.

A 1910 marriage record from Avoca, Iowa, shows twenty-eight-year-old Carrie marrying Charles E. Grissom. Her father's name is listed as Chas. J. Feast, and her mother's as Maggie Fisher. Her middle name is given as “Marie.”

The name "Feast" brings up a recurring aspect of the name problem. Many records have information that is transmitted orally to the person recording them. In the United States, the German name "Feist" was usually pronounced "feast.” I have found family records under "Feist,” "Feast,” "Fiest,” and "Fieste.” Despite the various spellings, this Carrie was certainly a half-sister to Charlotte Feist.

The 1920 census finds the Grissoms living in Englewood City, Arapahoe County, Colorado. Here, Carrie’s middle initial is given as "L"—apparently she was no longer using "Marie.” Then around 1921, Carrie and Charles divorced. A marriage record dated October 1921 from Littleton, Arapahoe County, Colorado, shows Lucille F. Grissom, age "legal,” marrying Alvin H. Coffin, age 31. She changed her name! Was the use of "Lucille" as a first name foretold by her use of "L" as a middle initial in 1920?

By the 1930 census, the Coffins were living in the San Antonio Township, Los Angeles County, California, which is now part of the city of Los Angeles. Alvin is listed as working as a janitor in a school. Based on their address on the census form, they lived less than one mile from David Starr Jordan High School.

There was one final possible last name change: a 1962 marriage record from Riverside, California, for Lucille C. Coffin and John Hodson. I am now certain that Carrie and Lucille were the same person. She started life as Carrie, became Carrie Marie, then Carrie L., then Lucille F., then Lucille C.

A marriage record for the Coffins’ son, Sterling, lists his mother as "Lucille Fiest.” In the will of Maggie Fisher's father, Elihu C. Fisher, one dollar was bequeathed to "my Granddaughter Caroline Feist" (she was not the only one to receive one dollar). There was no granddaughter named Lucille listed in his will.

What about the claim that Lucille had Native American ancestry? Her mother, Maggie Fisher, was born in Michigan, and is consistently listed as "white" in the census reports. This is also true for her parents, who were born in New York. But the detail that squashes this possibility for me is an obituary for Maggie's mother, which appeared in a newspaper in Lincoln County, Kansas, in 1873. It describes the difficulties the family faced in establishing a farm in Kansas, in particular disputes with "savages" who at one point drove them off the land. The Fishers later returned, and the obituary describes what followed: ". . . gun in hand," Elihu Fisher helped defeat the "red men" with their "upraised tomahawks and unsheathed scalping knives." It seems very unlikely that this man's daughter was of Native American descent.

I can only speculate on Charlotte’s motives for telling stories about her half-sister. She may have felt some resentment towards her. Charlotte was seven years old and the eldest child in the family when Lucille moved in. She never knew Lucille’s mother, and may not have known about her father’s previous marriages before Carrie arrived. No doubt her arrival changed the dynamic of the family’s domestic life. On top of all that, Charlotte was brought up in a Catholic family, so she likely disapproved of Lucille’s more unconventional life choices, especially her divorce. Lucille changing her first name could also have been viewed as rebellious. And of course, there is the shocking fact that Lucille liked to go barefoot. Charlotte’s insinuation about Lucille being “Indian” is reflective of negative and prejudiced attitudes towards Native Americans which were unfortunately common at the time. It may have been her attempt to distance Lucille from herself socially and delegitimize their family connection.

I don’t know why Lucille changed her first name. There is no evidence that her chosen name was ever part of her birth name. One can only wonder how her identity and self-esteem were affected by growing up in an orphanage, then going to live with a family in which she had no place.

Investigating and sorting out missing, obscure, changed, and sometimes misheard names is part of the challenge of researching family history. If genealogical information was easily found, genealogy would not be the rewarding investigative puzzle that it is.


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2 David Starr Jordan (1851-1931) was the first president of Stanford University. The high school's name was changed to Jordan High School in 2020 due to the discovery of Jordan's promotion of eugenics and his published fears of "race degeneration".

3 Carson's Stage Line was operated and owned by J. C. Carson. The stage was affectionately called the Kit Carson by locals. At that time it provided the only public transportation into Aspen, then a booming mining town. Carson's was put out of business in 1887 when both the Denver & Rio Grand and the Colorado Midland railroads began direct service from Glenwood Springs to Aspen – a shorter route and more comfortable ride.

Philip Grover

About Philip Grover

Philip Grover is a retired chemical engineer who got involved in genealogy by helping his mother enter her extensive family research into Personal Ancestral File for Mac. Little did he know then what a slippery slope that minor involvement would become. After getting deeply involved in doing his own research, he realized how disinterested family members can be in genealogical charts, lists, and diagrams. His focus since has been making his family history more interesting and accessible, and toward that end he has self-published three books of family history.View all posts by Philip Grover