The search for Bessie Mae

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Above: Six of the Cotton girls most likely around the time the diary was written or a little before.

By BARB SMITH HENKE
Special to the Keizertimes

I am a bit sentimental when it comes to family. Anybody’s family. I cry when I watch “A Baby Story” on TV – a new life coming into the world brings me to tears – and I’m not even related. Doesn’t matter.

So, when my good friend, Shirley DeShon of Keizer, once again shared with me a little diary she had,  I just knew it needed to find its way home. We talked about how, if this were my great grandmother’s diary, we would want to have it. Thus began a journey to find Bessie’s family.

I quickly read through the diary and made some notes:

Mable Tucker – seems to be a good friend, probably a classmate.

The name of the little girl was difficult to read. Bessie was clear enough, but it looked like her last name was Malcatten.

It was written in 1919

She is in the 5th grade

She lives in Miles, Texas

I am a cheapskate and wanted to be able to do this without spending any money, if possible. I ultimately found the FamilySearch.org site, supported by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.

While transcribing the diary, I became even more aware of clues that would help in the search. There were names tossed in: Gem, Clema, Anne, Artele, Claud….these all appeared to be her siblings. There was a mention of Pat – and it was used in a way that confused me, as if the diary belonged to this person. I knew it was Bessie’s, but thought perhaps she shared it with another family member.

At one point, someone wrote “Bessie May” and it was then that I thought that, perhaps, instead of Malcotten as a last name, it was really Mae Cotton. That was the crucial clue that ultimately led me to her family records.

With this new information, I searched for a Bessie Mae Cotten in Miles, Texas and, bingo, there she was. I found her listed in the US Census for 1910 and again in 1920. Her parents, James R. and Lillie, were there, along with several siblings. In 1910: Gladys, Ruth, Claud(e), Clema, Annie (Anne), Atelia (Artela), Nora, Bessie, and Jim.

In 1920, Nina was added – and the 2 oldest children (Gladys and Ruth) weren’t there – but they were most likely married by then as they were in their 20s in 1910. Jim wasn’t there in 1920 either but, since he was born in 1909, one might assume he died between 1910 and 1920.

Well, now I had a bunch of names to help find Bessie. Keep in mind all of her siblings were girls (except Claude and Jim  – I later found out that “Jim” was what the census taker wrote down but it was really Gem, which is what everyone called Nina “Gem” Cotton).

I then wondered how I could find her current descendents and thought, “Maybe someone in Miles, Texas, would have a clue.” The local newspaper agreed to publish the story of Bessie and gave my email address so people could contact me if they knew anything.

That’s when our genealogy angel entered the picture. His name was Duane Helweg – he lives in Miles and has done tons of research on genealogy sites for his own family (and has written a book, “Lone Survivor At Shiloh” available at rimrockwritings.com). He offered to help, and before long the mystery of why the name “Pat” was in Bessie’s diary was finally solved.

With Duane’s help, I was able to talk to Bessie Mae’s grand niece, Shari Albrecht. She informed me that her family had always called aunt Bessie “Pat” – there you have it!  Shari was thrilled about the diary as she had done extensive research on the Cotton family for her grandmother, Artele’s, 100th birthday (Artele was Bessie’s sister). As it turns out, Bessie’s daughter, Rosemary, lives in the Los Angeles area, where the diary was found. Rosemary didn’t believe a word of this until I sent Shari the scanned pages – there was no doubt this was the real deal.

The diary is now going to be returned to its family. In a way, it’s sad….as the diary has been a part of a mystery that Shirley and I have enjoyed wondering about.  Why it took so long to finally say, “Hey, let’s try to find her family,” I can’t say – it just seemed like now was the right time.

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