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Twila Van Leer: Family history jigsaw puzzle reveals cousin Adrian

A Civil War photo shows member of the Massachusetts 38th Infantry, none identified. Adrian Ruggles served in the unit for most of the war.
A Civil War photo shows member of the Massachusetts 38th Infantry, none identified. Adrian Ruggles served in the unit for most of the war.

Genealogists, I think, would agree the jigsaw puzzle analogy fits. Except that when you are trying to piece together the life facts about a deceased relative, the puzzle pieces are scattered all over creation and are prone to change shape as you dig further.

When I became a missionary for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' Family History Department, I was green as grass with no understanding of the Family Search process whatsoever. Out of kindness, my mission leaders steered me into the company of Grant Skousen, one of the LDS Church's genealogy experts, for a time. In weekly sessions, he tried to help me make sense of the process by guiding me in finding the information that created a life-image for my distant cousin Adrian D. Ruggles. (In the course of our meetings, Brother Skousen determined that he and I were related through a common ancestor, James Lake Jr. Oh my. To whom, in Utah, am I not related?)

Armed with that basic course in genealogy 101, I set forth recently, with help from my son Russell, to see if we could replicate Adrian's data, with the source for each item of information or, as we genealogists like to say, puzzle piece.

Here's how it has lined up, with the supporting data:

Adrian DeWight Ruggles was born Feb. 12, 1846, the son of Obed and Julianne Peck Ruggles, according to the record of Massachusetts births, 1841-1915. (Incidentally, Russell's birthday is also Feb. 12.)

Census records show him a child in the household of his parents from then until 1862. On Aug. 20, 1862, Adrian enlisted in Company G of the Massachusetts 38th Infantry, according to U.S. Civil War soldier records and profiles. He listed his age as 18, but that could not have been correct. He was 16 at the time, according to his official birth date record. Apparently, according to Civil War stories I have read, many young men exaggerated their ages to get into the military.

The 38th, as reported in Civil War records, was sent to Louisiana and attached to the Army of the Gulf. The unit took part in a number of battles, including the Battle of Fort Bisland, the Seige of Port Hudson, the "ill-fated" Red River Campaign and the Battle of Cedar Creek, in which they experienced "significant casualties."

The unit mustered out after three years of service, on July 13, 1865. The 1865 Massachusetts census lists Adrian as a resident in the home of his parents in Medway, Massachusetts, age 19 and a soldier by occupation. Try to add that up. He went into the service at age 18 and returned three years later 19 years old.

Very soon after mustering out of the Massachusetts 38th in July, Adrian signed up for the Massachusetts 17th Infantry of the U.S. Army, as did many of the Civil War vets, just a month later. He claimed then to be 21 years of age. He enlisted in New York, New York. The 17th was assigned to bases on the East Coast region and had unexpected enemies. Malaria and yellow fever were "the scourges of the camps" and made serious inroads into the complement of men, including the commander of the unit. About half of the company leaders died, along with many of the enlisted men.

On July 21, 1867, Adrian's name was on a fairly long list of men of the 17th who deserted. On the same record of U.S. Army Registry Enlistment, 1848-1914, the list of dead was reported. I had felt a bit of shame that a cousin of mine could desert, but maybe he felt it was better than taking his chances with yellow fever. Not an excuse, but at least a reason. He was dishonorably discharged. I learned over again that judging the dead is not a good way to spend time.

Adrian's two marriages also resulted in some misshapen puzzle pieces. In the 1880 U.S. Census, he was reported to be married to Nellie Ruggles, no maiden name. Her occupation was reported to be "keeping house" and Adrian was a "druggist."

Massachusetts marriage records from 1840 to 1915 report that Adrian married Julia Ella McKenna on Oct. 22, 1882. He was 35; she was 19, according to that handwritten record. From this record, we also were able to find her parents and siblings and so were able to complete some of their temple work. Adrian now is sealed to both his wives, although we were not able to find any more puzzle pieces related to Nellie. The 1880 census said she was born in Wisconsin, but without any more information than that, we couldn't go any further, leaving some holes in the puzzle where she is concerned. Another mystery, her death was set in 1883, a year after Adrian's marriage to Julia Ella.

In his searching, Russell found an interesting tidbit about Adrian in The National Tribune of Washington, dated Sept. 25, 1884. It reported that "comrades" of Adrian Ruggles were accusing him of fraud. The article noted that he had been dishonorably discharged from the military and that he was 5 feet 8 inches tall, crippled in his lower right leg and walked with a cane. Their complaint: He had claimed to be a surgeon. (Part of his military record said he was an assistant to camp doctors and on census records he was "a druggist.")

We weren't able to find a death record in any of the records in or And there you have it. The incomplete picture of Adrian D. Ruggles. Puzzling, isn't it?