Everybody seems to have an incredible story about their family history that they hear at every family reunion and holiday gathering. The details are gray, seem to be ever-changing, but the core of the story everyone insists is true. Maybe you’ve heard you're related to a famous person or your family descends from Royalty. In my own family, we have family lore that’s been passed down through generations. But how can you confirm or deny the credibility of these family stories?
One recurring family story says there were wealthy ancestors from Scotland (or England, according to some). I was told about two brothers who owned a castle, a lot of land and possibly coal mines. One day, one of the brothers ran away with another man’s wife and went to America. When the other brother in Scotland died, the brother in the U.S. could not return to claim the fortune because the wife’s husband was waiting for him. Other relatives tried to return to claim the fortune and even sent a lawyer over to help claim the money. That’s where the details get murky. Some of the accounts say that the lawyer was murdered. Others talk about a page of the family bible proving the family’s claim to the fortune was torn out and destroyed.
We had found little to prove or disprove any of these claims. My great aunt Hazel had once told a relative that she distinctly remembers relatives returning from the trip and bringing her trinkets from England (which contradicts the Scotland story). A lot of the story didn’t add up. We knew that my great great grandfather John Steel coming to America with another man’s wife, but the Steel family did not appear to descend from any sort of royalty. They were gardeners in England, could not read or write and the paper trail showed no connection to this incredible story. If such a fortune actually existed, there had to be some kind of documentation talking about it.
I found this article in my ancestors’ hometown paper, the Morris Daily Herald. It reveals that my grandfather’s Aunt Jeanette Ferguson McNabb was involved in the hunt for the fortune too.
November 15th, 1909 pg 5. col. 2
Go to Scotland to Claim an Estate
Mrs. Harry McNabb and Joe Steel, Cousins, Leave Morris in Quest of Fortune of 15 million pounds.
Mrs. Harry McNabb and Joe Steel, cousins, left Morris this morning having secured passage to Liverpool, England. They are going in quest of a fortune estimated by some as high as 15 million pounds, located in Scotland. The estate is said to have been in litigation for fifty years and has increased vastly since that time. Mr.s McNabb has a cousin in London who had looked up the fortune and claims that the Morris people are some of the rightful heirs. Mrs. McNabb was a Ferguson and the fortune is said to be coming to the Ferguson and Steel families from an uncle or great uncle.
There were clues here that helped me narrow my search for the truth. With the date of this article, I confirmed the trip actually took place with ship records showing Jeanette sailing to Liverpool at an unknown date and returning to the U.S. on December 11th, 1909. The article also states they traveled to England, but the fortune was located in Scotland. Another helpful clue was that the case had been in litigation for 50 years.
New York Ship Register
UK outward register
A follow-up article appeared in the paper a few months later after Jeanette and Joe returned home.
"Mrs. Harry McNabb and her cousin Joe Steel have returned from their trip to England where they went to look after some property which is to be inherited by them on the death of a very aged relative"
This article sheds some new light on what happened after their trip. The inherited estate could not be claimed due to the ancestor connected to it had not died yet.
I have heard relatives talk about the family’s refusal to talk about what happened after they returned from overseas imply that they were embarrassed by being scammed or not being related after all.
When I went to pick up the mystery box I had heard about through an ancestry.com member, Bette (who had held on to the box for a few years) mentioned there was a letter addressed to someone named Jeanette. I was ecstatic because Jeanette was someone who I had very little information about and thought maybe there would be some clues about where my Ferguson roots came from in Scotland. As I took out the letter and began reading, I was floored. I couldn’t believe what I was reading.
Stay tuned for Part 2 next week!