Clues into Frank McCourtney’s Mysterious Past

Resting spot for Frank L McCourtney at Rose City Cemetery in Portland, Oregon. Photo taken March 2016.
Resting spot for Frank L McCourtney at Rose City Cemetery in Portland, Oregon. Photo taken March 2016.

Frank L McCourtney is one of the most mysterious ancestors that I have researched in a long time. His name came up at a dinner conversation last Christmas, when my Uncle in Law commented that he knew very little about his grandfather, Frank. My uncle had done his own genealogical research into his grandfather, but could not find who his parents were.  Further conversations with other family members about Frank McCourtney made him even more intriguing.  This man did not speak of his past much, at least with his grandchildren, and the varying stories that they had of his youth inspired me to want to find factual sources to get the story straight.

My mother in law, her three brothers, and one of  their cousins shared with some of the stories that they had remembered their grandfather telling them about his youth.  Their were variations of their memories that added to the intrigue of Frank’s past, but most believed that Frank’s father was born in Ireland.  Frank either ran away from home at a young age or was adopted by another family (or possibly both). The family he lived with was believed to be German speaking since Frank spoke fluent German.  One Uncle said that Frank always told people that he was born in Red Wing, Wisconsin, but that he told him that he was actually born in Canada.

Two of Franks grandchildren remembered that the women who he had believed to be his sister was actually his mother, and the woman he thought was his mother was actually his grandmother. This was not that uncommon with teenage pregnancies in the past, and led me to think that his mother was likely very young when she birthed him.  My husband’s second cousin knew that there was some kind of connection with Frank and a Ruth Brown, and told me that if I found Ruth Brown, than I could find his mother.  Frank’s mother lived a long life, and some cousins had found Ruth shortly after his mother’s death. Ruth shared with the family that Frank’s mother thought and wondered about Frank often.

The only story remembered about Frank’s father (besides that he was born in Ireland) was that he had left the family when Frank was a young boy to  join the Barnum and Bailey Circus as a Trapeze artist. There is uncertainty  on his last name as Frank had told his grandchildren that their true family name was Courtney, and that his father (or grandfather) added the ‘Mc’ to ‘Courtney’ so that he could marry an Irish girl.  Apparently he was English, and her parents would only let her marry an Irish man. This contradicted other stories that his father was born in Ireland, but it could be that his parents were English and moved to Ireland before his birth. 

A search on Ancestry.com provided information on Frank’s later years. I easily found him in the 1920, 1930, and 1940 United States Census’, and was able to identify his two wives and six children. He married Verna May Smith around 1912 and had four children with her before she died at the young age of 34 in 1929. Then in 1931 he married Doris Elma Delk in Vancouver, Washington where they had two children.  Frank was listed in the Washington State Death index as well as the Social Security Death Index.  Ancestry.com also revealed two military registration cards (WWI and WWII).

I knew there was a good chance that either his Social Security Card Application or his death certificate would reveal the identities of his parents so I ordered both of these documents. I was correct, both of these records listed the parents for Frank, and the first of his mysteries is solved.  His mother was listed as Carrie Winn in both documents. His father was listed as Morton McCourtney in the Social Security Card Application, and as Martin McCourtney in the death certificate.

Copy of Frank's Social Security Application Form (SS-5). Courtesy of the Social Security Administration.
Copy of Frank’s Social Security Application Form (SS-5). Courtesy of the Social Security Administration.

Once the parents were identified, I did another search in the Ancestry database, and was able to find a Frank ‘McCartney’ listed in the 1905 Wisconsin State Census. However, he was not living with either of his parents. The head of the household was William Winn, who besides Frank, lived with his mother (Philena), his brother (Fred) and a Boarder (Jacob Pali). ‘Frank McCartney’ was 16, and recorded as William’s nephew.  A quick research into Philena revealed that she indeed had a daughter named Carrie. So not only has Frank’s parents been identified, but also one of his grandparents (and uncles too).

1905 WI State Census for Prentice, Wisconsin. From the Wisconsin Historical Society.
1905 Wisconsin State Census for Prentice, WI. From the Wisconsin Historical Society.

The question still stands, why was Frank not living with his parents? I found a Michigan death record for Carrie.  Like the family thought, she lived a long life and died in 1950 at 81 years old. The death record lists Carrie’s mother as Philena Hulburt, and her father as Charles Wynn.  Carrie herself is listed as Carrie Brown, wife of Frank Brown. This reminded me of the cousin who gave the clue, “if you find Ruth Brown, you will find Frank’s mother”. Sure enough, Frank Brown and Carrie Winn had a daughter named Ruth born in 1905. Second mystery solved – Ruth Brown is Frank’s half sister.

The plot thickens when I find Carrie and Frank Brown living in Florence, Wisconsin in 1900 (U.S. Census) with a dauther, ‘Jessie Winn’ aged 14 years old. Not only was Frank not living with his mother in 1900, but he may have had an older sister named Jessie. The fact that the daughter was listed with the last name Winn, makes me think that she is Carrie’s daughter and not her husband’s (Frank Brown), and possibly a full sibling of Frank.

1900 U.S. Census for Commonwealth, Florence, Wisconsin. Ancestry.com Organization Inc. 2004.
1900 U.S. Census for Commonwealth, Florence, Wisconsin. Ancestry.com Organization Inc. 2004.

Since Frank had shared that who he thought was his mother was actually his grandmother, I thought that he may have been living with Philena, his maternal grandmother in 1900. Well, I found Philena in the 1900 Census, but Frank was not listed as living with her.  Could he have been living with his father? Possibly, but I have not found him on the 1900 census yet.  I found two possible 1900 census records for a young ‘Frank McCartney’ living with non-family members which could confirm the story that he lived with an adopted family, but I have no way of telling  which or either of these Frank’s are the right one.

I found Martin and Carrie McCourtney in the 1885 Minnesota State Census living next to Carrie’s parents, Charles and Philena. This is before Frank or his possible sister, Jessie had been born. Carrie was 16 years old, and Martin 26, which means that Carrie was around 19 years old when she birthed Frank. This is young, but not so young that a grandmother would raise the child to avoid family embarrassment, like I had thought. Since Carrie had taken Frank’s last name they were likely legally married, which also makes me wonder why Carrie would not have raised her child herself. The Minnesota Historical Center located and transcribed a marriage certificate for W. M. McCourtney and Carrie Winn. They were married in Florence County, Minnesota December 15th in 1884.

1885 Minnesota Territorial and State Census: Otter Tail County. Minnesota Historical Society.
1885 Minnesota Territorial and State Census: Otter Tail County. Minnesota Historical Society.

Unfortunately Frank’s mysterious years are between 1888 when he was born and 1900. Most of the 1890 U.S. Census records were destroyed in a fire making this period a challenge for many genealogists. To find information for an ancestor during this period, one needs to dig a little deeper. Some records that can be helpful are probate records, tax records, newspapers, and city directories. I have been contacting genealogical societies in the cities, counties, and states of where Frank and his parents have lived, but have not found any major clues yet.

Frank’s World War Registrations Cards and Socia Security Application Form state that he was born in Plainview, Minnesota. The 1905 and 1920 census’ also says he was born in Minnesota, but the 1930 census lists Wisconsin as his birth place, and the 1940 census says it is Montana. Many family members say he was born in Redwing, Wisconsin. The Plainview, Minnesota Historical Center could not locate any records on Frank or his parents. I have also not been able to find a birth record in Wisconsin. Maybe, the secret that Frank told one of his grandsons about him being born in Canada is the truth.

U.S. WW II Draft Registration Card (Front side) April 27, 1942. Vancouver, Clark, Washington. Ancestry.com Operations Inc 2010.
U.S. WW II Draft Registration Card (Front side) April 27, 1942. Vancouver, Clark, Washington. Ancestry.com Operations Inc 2010.
U.S. WW II Draft Registration Card (Back side) April 27, 1942. Vancouver, Clark, Washington. Ancestry.com Operations Inc 2010.
U.S. WW II Draft Registration Card (Back side) April 27, 1942. Vancouver, Clark, Washington. Ancestry.com Operations Inc 2010.

If Frank was indeed born in Canada, but fudged all his documents to say he was born in Minnesota, this makes me wonder what else he may have fibbed in the records. The family was really certain that the ‘L’ of Frank’s middle name stood for Laverne. One of Frank’s sons was named Laverne possibly after him. However, both of the Military registration cards and his Social Security Application Form list his middle name as Lemar (or LeMar). Is Lemar his middle name, and the family just assumed it was Laverne? Or was Frank fibbing his middle name AND birth location. I hope to find a legal birth document in the near future to answer these questions.

U.S. WWI Draft Registration Card, June 5, 1917. From Ancestry.com. Card from Musselshell, Montana Roll: 1711437.
U.S. WWI Draft Registration Card, June 5, 1917. From Ancestry.com. Card from Musselshell, Montana Roll: 1711437.

Although there are still many mysteries unsolved about Frank McCourtney’s early years, I am happy with the progress that I have made so far, and excited to share what has been discovered with the family. I will continue to search newspapers, probate records, and write to genealogy societies in Wisconsin and Minnesota in attempt to discover more about Frank between 1888 and 1900. If you have any stories, documents, or photos to share about Frank, please leave a comment.

Summary from Ancestry's Lifestory of Frank L McCourtney. The map shows locations that Frank has known to live.
Summary from Ancestry’s Lifestory of Frank L McCourtney. The map shows locations that Frank has known to live.

2 thoughts on “Clues into Frank McCourtney’s Mysterious Past

  1. Wow, I am so happy that you found this too. I will have to share this with my Mother in Law (a McCourtney) she will get a kick out of this. Is your father interested in taking a DNA test. It is one way to tell for sure that it is not Joyce McCourtney. There are a few of the McCourtney’s now on Ancestry DNA. If he still struggles with finding his birth family, it could really help. If he or you live in the Portland area we can meet and look at the results together (I live in Vancouver).

  2. I feel fortunate to have stumbled upon this! My father was born Feb. 10th 1959 in Portland OR and was adopted at birth. He never knew who his biological parents were but a couple of years ago he decided to request a copy of his original birth certificate. His mother was Joyce L. McCourtney, daughter of Frank L. McCourtney. His father is unknown but after making contact with some of Joyce’s children, it is suspected that his last name was McClure. I greatly enjoyed reading about Frank, who would have been my great grandfather. Thank you for sharing!

Leave a Reply