Skeletons in the Closet

Sometimes, our ancestors do things that are less than admirable. As I discovered recently, in the 1790s, my fourth-great-grandpa, Buckner Jones, fathered a child out of wedlock — or “bastard child” as it’s written in the 18th-century court records.

john wesley miles
Great-great-grandpa John Wesley Miles

In about 1880, my great-great-grandpa, John Wesley Miles, left his wife and infant child in Kentucky for a Wild West adventure. As the story goes, John told his young wife Josephine — and I’m paraphrasing here — “Hey, Sweetie, I’m going to go get a sack of cornmeal, OK?”

Then he left and didn’t come back for 20 years.

When he did return, he was carrying a sack of cornmeal, which I guess proves he had a sense of humor. By then, however, Josephine had moved on, marrying — or at least taking up with — the older brother of her son’s wife. It’s said she held no grudges, though, and loved that scoundrel John until the day she died.

After returning to Kentucky, John married two more times, had more children and supposedly died at age 106. I say “supposedly” because the dates of birth I’ve found for him range wildly. The record of his marriage to Josephine says he was born in 1859. The 1940 U.S. Census estimates his birth at 1853. An article written about his 105th birthday claims 1850. His death certificate says 1851.

In short, who the heck knows?

So what was John doing for all those years away? That’s where things get even fuzzier. The story I always heard was he went to Oklahoma or possibly Texas, where he sold trinkets to the Indians, started a new family and — according to tales he told after he returned home — joined the U.S. Marshals.

In the 1950s, John told a newspaper reporter he tried to serve a “desperado warrant” on Cherokee Bill of the infamous Dalton Gang. He said he met U.S. Presidents Lincoln, Garfield and Teddy Roosevelt, and heard Gen. Ulysses S. Grant speak in Springfield, Missouri.

It would take lots of work and a good bit of luck to find out if any of those things could possibly have happened, and it might not be possible. However, according to “Uncle John,” as the reporter called him, he did go through Springfield en route to Indian country, so the Grant story could be true.

The reporter wrote that in Kentucky John “met up with another man and they walked to the nearest railroad and caught a train to Springfield, Mo. He says from there he walked over 300 miles into the Southwestern part of the country.”

In the 1880 U.S. Census, I found a John W. Miles working as a cowboy on a cattle farm in Jack County, Texas. This John Miles reported he was born in Virginia, but he’s 27 years old, which fits into the range of birth dates, and it’s in the right part of the country and at the right time. Could this be him?

john w_0001
All dressed up

Somewhere out West, there’s another family with a similar story: of a tale-telling man who came from Kentucky, started a family, and then left after 20 years — in their case, never to be seen again. I’m pretty sure I have relatives out there somewhere, and I’d love to find them someday.

I never met John Miles. He died in 1957, before I was born. My mom, aunts and uncles, however, recall him fondly. He’s a beloved figure in their family and no one is allowed to say anything bad about him. I might be ostracized at the next family reunion for calling him a “scoundrel,” but how else would you describe him? Loveable scoundrel?

The thing is, at this point, it’s not so much scandalous or shameful as it is interesting. So let those skeletons pour out of the closet.

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