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The search for Cornelius Cheney

Posted Friday, December 7, 2012, at 2:21 PM

Guest Columnist

My search for Cornelious Cheney started a little more than two years ago, back during the month of October 2010. As usual, I was at my post in the genealogy room at the library when a young couple, Mr. and Mrs. Brown from Knob Noster, approached me with an unusual situation.

They had spent the previous week kayaking on the Blackwater River and had discovered a tombstone buried in the mud just below the bridge on Interstate 70.

Mr. Brown was the first to see the object. Its shape captured his attention immediately. Only about an inch of the top of the tombstone was sticking out of its muddy prison, but that smooth, curved and rounded surface told him that whatever the object was, it would be something special.

Weighing nearly 80 pounds, it took he and his wife nearly an hour to wrestle the tombstone out of the mud. They had nothing to clean it with except water from the river, but eventually they were able to remove enough mud to make out part of the inscription.

They were able to make out "Cor.... Ch..., died Ma....., 3, 1882--age 27years, ..months, ...day."

Unfortunately, they were not able to clean the stone well enough to fill in the blanks, so I did not have enough information to work with to try and find out who the tombstone belonged to.

More puzzling, though, were the questions I wanted answered: Why was the tombstone in the Blackwater River at that location? Who was this individual? Where had he lived? What caused his death? Where was he buried originally?

The answer to these and other questions had to wait another six or seven months, until the early months of summer 2011, when the Brown's once again floated down the Blackwater River in a flatbed john boat and retrieved the tombstone.

Another two months went by, and then a week before my mom and I were scheduled to take our summer vacation, Mr. and Mrs. Brown delivered the tombstone to me at the library in Marshall.

I put the tombstone in my car and took it home with me. Later that evening I washed it, hoping to discover the name of the individual inscribed on it and when they had passed away.

All my efforts to remove the muddy grime that had dried like cement proved to be fruitless at that time.

But, after returning from vacation, I once again tackled the problem of removing the cement-like mud from the tombstone. For nearly a month I soaked the stone in water and finally was able to clean the inscription.

Just over a year after it had been found by Mr. and Mrs. Brown, I was able to read what the stone had to say.

Cornealious Cheney

Age 27y, 5m, 1d

Died March 3, 1882

Finally, I had a name and could start my search for Cornealious Cheney.

My goal was to find out everything I could about him and to answer the questions I had thought about back in 2010 when I was first told about this tombstone.

The 1880 census of Liberty Township, Saline County, Missouri revealed that Cornelious Cheney, his wife, Virginia, and son, David, were residents of Saline County.

Missouri's marriage records for Callaway County revealed that Cornelious Cheney and Virginia L. Thomas, both residents of Callaway County, had been married on Feb. 25, 1878.

Other census records identified his parents as Thomas and Dorcus (Twigg) Cheney, who were natives of Maryland. They had moved to the state of Virginia about 1846, Audrain County between 1868 and 1870, and finally to Callaway County around 1875.

Cornelious Cheney was the fifth of 10 children of Thomas and Dorcus, and was born in Virginia on Oct. 1, 1854.

Shortly after his marriage to Virginia L. Thomas, he moved to Saline County to live near his older brother, John Cheney, who resided near Herndon.

The Cheney's first child was born Feb. 11, 1878, and was named David Orvil Cheney. Their second child was born just before Cornelious died. She was named Julia Elizabeth Cheney.

The next question was what caused Cornelious to die at such an early age. The answer was shocking. The headline in the Thursday, March 9, 1882, issue of the Saline County Weekly Progress stated in big bold words:

"Death In Blackwater."

"After having recounted several narrow escapes from death in crossing our swollen streams, we are called upon to chronicle a fatal disaster which occurred on Friday last at Harris' Mill Ford on Blackwater, twelve miles south of Marshall. Mr. Cornelius Chanie, a young man of about twenty-seven years of age, drove his team into the ford without fearing any danger, being unconscious of the increased depth of the stream. Finding that his horses were getting beyond their depth, he tried to turn around and drive out. This sealed his doom. The wagon was overturned and he being unable to swim was drowned, although there were two men in sight at the time and hastening to his assistance. The team swam ashore with the front wheels of the wagon. On Saturday there was a turnout of the neighborhood to hunt for the body. We learn that there were about 100 men engaged in the search but do not know that it was found. Mr. Chanie was poor man and left a wife and two children and the affair is an especially melancholy one for that reason. We are indebted to Mr. L. T. Prather for the details here given. The moral is: When the stream is high go round by the bridge if it takes all day."

On Thursday, March 30, 1882, the same newspaper published the following article entitled:

"The Body Still Unfound."

"On Tuesday, March 3d, 1882 (March 3RD was actually on a Friday), C. C. Cheney, of Liberty Township in this county, was drowned while attempting to cross Blackwater at Harris Mill Ford. His body, though diligently searched for, has not yet been recovered. It is the request of the bereaved widow that parties living near Blackwater in the lower portion of the county will occasionally investigate the stream in order to discover the body if possible. Deceased was clothed in a heavy suit of overalls--jacket and trousers, and all the money the family possessed was on his person at the time he drowned. The amount is not known. In person the deceased was short and heavyset with dark complexion and blue eyes. Any information leading to the recovery of the body will be thankfully received by the widow, and all such information should be communicated to Will H. Fenwick or J. P. Herndon."

One week later, on Thursday, April 6, 1882, it was reported in the Personal Paragraph section of the Saline County Weekly Progress that: "The body of Mr. Chanie, who was drowned in Blackwater a few weeks ago, has been found and buried."

The next day, Friday, April 7, 1882, The Sweet Springs Herald provided some additional information that added clarity to the above statement from the Progress. It stated: "The body of C. C. Cheney, who was drowned several weeks ago in the Blackwater, was found last week near the place he went in, and was buried on the bank close by."

My search could have ended at this point. I knew who he was, where he was born, when he got married and to whom, when he moved to Saline County and who his family was. I also knew why he had died and where he was buried.

But, I did not know where he had lived in the county, or if he had additional family members other than his wife and son.

And so, I felt compelled to continue on, to see if there was other information about Cornelious Cheney.

A check of the County and Circuit Court Record revealed that he had never been in trouble with the legal system in Saline County.

At the same time, I was able to find a Probate Record for his minor children, David and Elizabeth.

Once again I received a terrific shock concerning the information that was revealed about Cornelious Cheney and the estate that was left to his children.

The grandfather of David and Elizabeth, Thomas Cheney, petitioned the court for guardianship of the two minors on Feb. 19, 1886. In doing this, the court records indicate that about two months before, or sometime in early December 1885, the mother had died and left the two children without parents.

From this point forward things continued to spiral downhill for David and Elizabeth. Sometime around the first of August 1888, their grandfather, Thomas Cheney, without notifying the Probate Court, packed all his belongings in a wagon and, during the dead of night, left the state of Missouri -- leaving six year old Elizabeth and nine year old David to fend for themselves. The court was slow to react because it took nearly two weeks (Aug. 13, 1888) for the Public Administrator to assume his role as guardian for David and Elizabeth.

The Public Administrator failed to exercise proper guardianship for David and Elizabeth, as well as thirty other estates he had been appointed to care for. Eventually he was charged with embezzlement and lost his job as the Public Administrator.

Ultimately, he was found innocent of all the charges against him, but the toll it took on his health and his ability to exercise proper guardianship for those he was appointed to oversee caused David and Elizabeth to turn to an old friend of the family, G. M. Francisco, to become their guardian. This occurred on June 22, 1897, and with Mr. Francisco's appointment things began to get better for the children.

Mr. Francisco made his final settlement with David and Elizabeth on Dec. 4, 1900. This would indicate that both David and Elizabeth were no longer minors, but that David was over the age of 21 and that Elizabeth was over the age of 18.

The final and third shocking detail about Cornelious Cheney was revealed in his probate records. At first glance, looking at the inventory of the real and personal property that was part of the estate of Cornelious Chaney that had been left to David and Elizabeth, it all appeared to be normal and what I had expected.

Cornelious had been described as a poor man at the time of his death. The inventory list contained the following property and had been appraised by three of the neighbors as the following shows:

Personal Property

One Bay Horse of the value of $45.00

House Hold furniture appraised at $6.00

One Plow $1.25

One Set Harrow Teeth $0.50
Real Estate Property40 Acres SW NW , Section 9, Township 48, Range 21, in Saline County, Missouri.

This entry about the 40 acres was the clue I had been looking for, because it would provide and pinpoint where the Cheney's were living at the time of his death.

I could hardly contain myself as I got out the plat books to check it out. Who currently was listed as the owner of these 40 acres of land?

It was at this point that I discovered it was my family who now owned the 40 acres originally owned by Cornelious Cheney, his wife, Virginia, and their two children.

Furthermore, I discovered that his death had occurred at the Harris Mill Ford on Blackwater. This old ford is located on another piece of property owned by my family.

When his body was found and buried on the south bank of Blackwater, just below the ford, the burial was on this same piece of property that my family owns today.

As I thought about these things, I suddenly remembered something my father had told me about more than fifty years ago, back when I was nine or ten years old.

As we walked across the open field on that 40 acres, he pointed to a grove of trees near its eastern edge and told me long before he was born a house had been there, and the family had suffered terrible calamities and had just disappeared. That place my father revealed to me was the home place of the Cheney's.

One can only speculate as to how his tombstone managed to travel down river over a half a mile.

On Tuesday, Dec. 4, I approached the Saline County Commission, requesting permission to relocate his tombstone to Cornelious' old home place overlooking the site where he died and was buried.

After presenting the information to them and some discussion, I received their permission to relocate the tombstone.

The old Harris Mill Ford is still there -- but has not been used for more than 100 years.

Somewhere just below this old crossing is the gravesite of Cornelious Cheney, his life and death long forgotten. But a new site, a memorial to signify that he is not forgotten, will stand silently on the hill to the south of the Harris Mill Ford, overlooking his final resting place.

Note: The spelling of Cornelious Cheney's name was written with several different spellings. Wilhite has documented it in this story with the spelling found on Cheney's tombstone.

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What a great story! Thank you Mr. Wilhite for all you do for Saline County.

I hope more is forthcoming.

-- Posted by Oklahoma Reader on Sat, Dec 8, 2012, at 12:18 PM

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