I stumbled upon David Ralston's name penciled at the bottom of the Sears Family Bible with these cryptic words: "D. C. Rolston buried in Knox, Co. May 1884, died in the arctic with the Greely Expedition." It would take some old fashioned genealogical detective work to discover the true story of his life. Seeking information about my great, great, great, grandfather's grandson, I read Leonard Guttridge's book on the Lady Franklin Bay Expedition titled, The Ghosts of Cape Sabine. Although a very good detailed accounting of the expedition, much of what the author wrote about Sgt. D. C. Ralston appears to be untrue. Therefore, the record needs to be clarified.
After writing to the National Archives in Washington
D.C, the Massachusetts Vital Records and other places for information
the true and untold story of Sgt. Ralston's life revealed itself.
And it all turned out to be far more interesting than any historian could
Who were his parents? And what was his boyhood like?
David Ralston's mother, Nancy Sears was the youngest daughter of a very successful Ohio state legislator and farmer, Ephraim Sears and his wife, Charlotte Shotwell. His father, Lewis Waltemeyer Ralston, was a pioneering farmer in Appanoose County, Iowa, making David the son of two very distinguished families. When David was almost out of high school the Civil War was being fought. Most of his older cousins enlisted and many of them died in battle. Patriotic fervor filled the young man and he tried to enlist into the Union ranks with others from his home town. Knowing that he was two years below the minimum age requirement, he lied, stating he was 18 years old on the muster roll. He enlisted on October 13, 1864 with the 33rd Iowa Infantry, Company A. But someone let the cat out of the bag concerning his true age and seven days later he was quickly mustered out and sent home. He finished school and worked as a farm hand in Iowa, probably on his grandfather Ralston's farm. But military life still held an enticing allure for him and he inevitably joined the army. It's noted in his pension file he first enlisted in the Army Signal Corps on April 30, 1872, nine years before joining Lt. Greely's Expedition.
Matilda McHenry Fisher:
He met Matilda Amanda Fisher while working in the Army Signal Corp's Boston branch office. She and her parents, Mack and Nancy McHenry were Irish immigrants. They, like many other immigrants before them came from Ireland to the U.S.A to escape the potato famine. Upon finding a thriving Irish community in Boston the McHenrys settled there. Matilda may have been as young as 15 years old when she married her first husband, Eberhard Fisher, a man seventeen years her senior. An immigrant, Eberhard had come from Germany and made his living as a baker. He was not rich. They had one daughter from this union, Elizabeth, who was born in 1858.
At the age of 49, Eberhard became stricken with Erysipelas, a highly contagious skin and tissue disease that made the sufferer experience fevers, chills, itching, painful burning and facial swelling. The Erysipelas started from a leg wound, if he had lived today he would have been treated with penicillin and antibiotics and probably have survived. Modern day cures were not yet readily available and he died on February 14, 1875. Eberhard Fisher's death certificate from the Massachusetts Vital Records.
Death Certificate of Eberhard Fisher.
(View Document, 125K file)
Three months after burying her husband, Matilda quickly married Sgt. David C. Ralston. When they married on May 18, 1875, he was a 28 year old bachelor. Matilda McHenry Fisher, on the other hand was a 32 year old widow with a grown 17 year old daughter, and several months pregnant. This may explain the urgency of the marriage, in order to legitimize the baby's birth. A Catholic priest, the Rev. Michael Ronan of Boston performed the marriage ceremony despite the groom's Methodist background. Their marriage certificate found in Sgt. Ralston's pension records copied from the NARA.
Marriage Certificate from pension record.
(view document, 168K file)
Who was the father of Matilda Amanda Ralston?
On November 30, 1875, about six months after they tied the knot, Matilda gave birth, making David Ralston a father for the first time. They named the little girl after her, Matilda Amanda Ralston. Birth Certificate found in his pension records from the NARA in Washington D.C.
Birth Certificate of Matilda Amanda Ralston from pension file.
(view document, 120K file)
On the child's birth certificate Matilda names Sgt. David C. Ralston as the father. As paternity tests did not exist back then, it is doubtful that he questioned whether or not he was the baby's father. It is obvious because of her first husband's age and poor health that Ralston had good reason to believe that he was indeed the infant's biological father.
In Sgt. David Ralston's diaries his wife and immediate family are never mentioned and there is a very, very good reason for that.
By the time he joined the Lady Franklin Bay Arctic Expedition Sgt David Ralston had been married six years to Matilda. He had worked almost entirely in the Army Signal Corps. He was in so many words, a professional army surveyor. He had worked his way up to the rank of Sargeant. But four years before joining the expedition his wife did something that put a permanent rift in their marriage and helped him decide to join Greely's arctic expedition. What happened was such a horrible personal tragedy that he never uttered a word of it to others, not even to the men with whom he would share his last breath.
In 1877 Matilda Fisher Ralston took their two year old daughter to Chicago and lost her.
What Matilda was doing in that big city so far from her home can only be guessed at. She states in a court document that she was "penniless and without a home". How she came to be in such disstressing state with a small child under the age of five underscores a state of mind that was obviously not using logical thinking upon which to base sound decisions. Her choice to stop in Chicago makes sense only in that the city was a key train junction for travellers, enabling them to easily connect to the rest of the United States. Where she was going remains a complete mystery. Her husband was working in Washington D.C at that time and her eldest daughter, Elizabeth, still lived in Boston. In Sgt.Ralston's file from the Washington D.C, National Archives, WC 242-344; the following document reveals how she lost custody of their child.
Affadavit from pension file.
(view document 236K file)
It states: "That in the year 1877 she was in Chicago, Ill. while travelling, and being poor and without a home, placed her daughter Matilda Amanda Ralston by the advice of Judge Scully of said Chicago in the Home for the Friendless No 1926 Wabash Ave for safe keeping temporarily. In a few weeks she called for her child. The authorities of the Institution informed her that they had given the child to a family and refused to give her their address. That she applied to Judge Scully who made demand for the child but who was informed by the authorities of said institution that they did not know where the family was or who had her child. That her said child was given to said family without her knowledge or consent that she has made deligent search for said child personally and through others and has been unable to find it."
The only conclusion that can be made about this tragic episode is that Matilda F. Ralston had probably been picked up for vagrancy with her daughter after running out of money. It is also obvious she had done nothing against the law and that Judge Scully was primarily concerned with the child's well-being. That he asked her to place Matilda Amanda in Chicago's Home for the Friendless is not unusual. The home was a place that the poor of the city placed their children in, not so much for adoption purposes, but for temporary foster care. Then when the parent (s) had found a job and shelter they would return to reclaim their child. What is unusual is that an adoption usually required a written form of consent from at least one parent to have a child adopted.
It may be rightly assumed that little Matilda Amanda Ralston was a likable child and the perfect age for adoption, being about two years old. It is also an age where a child can barely remember its own name, let alone its parents, making it easy to change the toddler's name. When a family came to the children's home looking for a little girl to adopt they quickly bonded with her. Since the natural mother had not been back in several weeks to visit the ladies in charge of the home convinced themselves that Matilda was not returning, and so permitted the interested family to take the child.
As a result of this tragedy Sgt. David Ralston's lost his little girl, Matilda Amanda, the only child he would ever father. The family unit he had once been the head of completely crumbled. It was a such a bitter loss he never spoke of it to anyone.
Sgt David Ralston signed on November 17, 1881 for the Lady Bay Franklin Expedition at Fort Conger as a replacement for one of the original members who had either quit or was dismissed from service. He died at Cape Sabine on May 20 of 1884 from "water on the heart induced by insufficient nutrition."; In other words, from starvation.
The following is an extract taken from the National Archives of one of his diaries (microfilm 27.4.5) covering August 10, 1883 to January 27, 1884. It is not written in his own hand, a member of the NARA, Washington D.C rewrote this version from the original. It has parts missing due to the diary's fading handwritten pages, which made deciphering impossible for the copier. Sgt. David Columbus Ralston died in his sleeping bag at 35 years of age on May 20, 1884 at Cape Sabine next to the man he had loyally served under, his commander, Lt.Adolphus Greely.
(Link to text of David Ralston Diary)
One of the rescuing ships, The Thetis, returned Sgt.David C. Ralston's body to the USA for burial. Unlike the other members of the expedition he is not buried in any National Cemetery or government provided plot. Grieving parents, Nancy and Lewis W. Ralston, arranged to have their son's body brought to Knox County, Ohio. The people who loved Sgt. David C. Ralston stood proudly by at his grave side as they buried him. His tombstone is located not far from his parents's Howard home at The Jelloway Methodist Cemetery in Brown Township, OH.
On August 10, 1884, the local Civil War veterans organisation,
Joe Hooker Post No. 21. of the Grand Army of the Republic, kindly stepped
in and did the honor of giving him a proper military funeral. He
died honorably in the service of his country, recognised only by those
who had loved him. (source: Democratic Banner and Republican Newspaper
Boston Insane Hospital:
After her husband's death Matilda Fisher Ralston received a military widow's pension of $12 a month; the same amount a common laborer with a wife and family of six to support lived on at the time. Sgt. Ralston made a decent living as a Signal Corps Sergeant, and despite what others may say to the contrary, he did not leave her completely penniless and she did not die in an almshouse. Also, because of the records presented here, it is rather doubtful she could ever have functioned in Washington D.C job provided by her husband's commander, Lt. Adolphus Greely. Starting in 1882 she began living with her daughter, Elizabeth F. McMullen, and resided in the Boston vicinity until her death.
But how is it that Matilda was always short of funds? Was she living beyond her means having once been pampered by her much older first husband? Or was she a sufferer of some dark impulses over which she had no control over? After looking carefully at evidence concerning her life it can be safely deducted that she had no self-control and that being perpetually short of funds was another sign of her mind's disorder.
Affadavit of residency of daughter.
(view document 187K file)
Four years after Sgt. Ralston's death in 1888 her daughter, Elizabeth Fisher, decided she could no longer continue to take care of her unmanageable mother. After watching over her for six years, she herself had married and was now a mature 30 years old. She turned to a close family member of her deceased father's, Alexander H. Fisher, for help in making this inevitable decision, having him named as her mother's guardian. Together they decide to place Matilda in a hospital for the mentally ill. On June 28th, 1888 it is noted by court order they have her committed to the Boston Insane Hospital. Matilda is 45 years old at the time and she remains in the care of the Boston Hospital until her death on September 10, 1904 when she dies from senility. Court affidavit from Ralston's pension files from the NARA.
Court affidavit, commitment document.
(view document 138K file)
Matilda Fisher Ralston is buried at the Mt. Hope Cemetery across the street from the Boston Insane Hospital. Her last name is misspelled in the cemetery records as Rolston. She is buried in Grave. 6 of lot 1834 Roxbury Wall. All of her hospital records are sealed. It would require a court order by a family member to open them. At present no plans have been made to do so.
Some family members thought Matilda F. Ralston died giving birth to little Matilda Amanda. Other family members mistakenly believed that Elizabeth, also known as "Bessie", was David Ralston's child. But none, not even close family members knew the truth about little Matilda Amanda, or of her disappearance.
This is Matilda Fisher Ralston's death certificate from the Massachusetts Vital Records with the official state seal affirming authenticity.
Map of Mt. Hope Cemetery.
(view document 160K file)
It is still not known what became of the lost child, Matilda Amanda Ralston. When recounting the tale to various members of my family I am always asked what became of her? I simply do not know. I am looking for Chicago's Home for the Friendless and adoption records, if any should exist. It is hoped that little Matilda Amanda Ralston was adopted into a loving family and lived a full and happy life. What I do know is that in life her father, Sgt. David C. Ralston, was separated from her and as he neared the end God granted him the peace of mind he needed to die. As a hundred years have passed since his death I believe he was, if not on earth, reunited at last with his little girl in heaven.
Physical Remains of the expedition's camps:
Fort Conger: Located on Ellesmere Island it was set aside by Canada as a Historic Heritage Landmark in 1990. It is now part of the Canadian National Parks Preserves.
Cape Sabine: Stone mound remains may still exist of the camp where Sgt. Ralston and several other members of the expedition died. All of the members of the team were put to rest in the USA.