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Charlotte Riley Cheney

AP US History

April 27, 2017

Assignment: Choose a branch of your family tree and follow it back as far as you can.

My mother, Margaret Cheney (née Newton), was born in 1976, here in Fort Collins. She teaches third grade at Bacon Elementary School.

Emily Newton (née Yorkie), my grandmother, was born in 1947 and was, in her words, "a complete surprise". Her father, my great-grandfather Tyler Yorkie, was stationed in Washington, D.C. during World War II while my great-grandmother stayed here in Colorado. She worked and raised their three children on her own while he was away. His tour of duty ended ten months before Emily was born.

My great-grandmother, Lucy Yorkie (née Masen) was born in 1908. She was the first person in our family to go to college and earn a degree. She holds a Masters in Library Science and worked for the Denver School District. She attended Morgridge College, which later became part of The University of Denver. Her brother, Jacob, attended the same college, but left after two years, deciding to work on the family farm.

These are all interesting, smart women who worked hard in life and raised loving families, but in my research I became most impressed with Lucy's mother, Isabella.

My great-great grandmother Isabella Masen (née Swan) was born in 1872, in Newport, Rhode Island to Charles and Renee (née Higginbotham) Swan.

Renee, second of four daughters born to Reginald and Eula Higginbotham, was disowned by her wealthy family upon her insistence on marriage to someone not of her family's choosing or social rank.

Eula Higginbotham (née Claypoole) was a kissing cousin to Cornelius Vanderbilt, and enjoyed all the wealth and prestige that went with that association. Reginald was new money and not quite of the right class, but their marriage was still considered a good match.

The family scandal began in 1870, when Charles Swan was engaged as a piano teacher for the Higginbotham daughters. Swan had no family nor formal education but played piano well enough to be sought after as accompanist or soloist during the social season. Swan was the son of a very well-known New York opera singer and came by his musical talents naturally.

Upon her elopement with Charles, Renee was stricken from the family bible, but given an allowance of seven thousand dollars per year from her grandmother Claypoole's trust, as were all the Higginbotham daughters. Charles Swan had no living family, little savings and a very unreliable income.

The Swans, with two-year-old Isabella, moved to England in 1874 to embrace a bohemian lifestyle and to find work for Charles. Together, they spent the next twelve years moving around Europe from concert hall to concert hall. Charles tried his hand at composing, but never quite made a name for himself as his compositions were not well received by the Europeans. The family lived well due to the trust; it was their main source of income.

According to her death certificate, Renee Swan died of a bilious fever weeks after they journeyed back to the United States in the spring of 1886. Charles informed her family, none of whom attended the services for Renee. Instead, the Higginbothams sent a lawyer to inform the widower that the trust did not include rights of survivorship. They refused to amend it for what they considered an illegitimate marriage, in effect disowning Isabella entirely.

With no savings of his own, nor means to fight Renee's family on Isabella's behalf, Charles attempted to work as a conductor and musician in New York for a few months. However, grief over his wife's death robbed Charles of his passion for music.

He decided, foolheartedly, to try his hand at gold-mining. Almost everything of value was sold—Renee's jewels, gowns and personal items—setting aside a few special pieces saved for Isabella. Charles used the money to invest in a gold company, buying, sight unseen, a stake and the equipment needed to start mining for gold.

Charles and Isabella journeyed first by train and then by covered wagon to Northern California, eventually finding the claim near the Nevada border.

The stake turned out to be a small cave and a section of stream for panning. Charles never made more than two hundred dollars in his search for gold before he sold his stake for a loss. He moved with his daughter to Ely, Nevada and secured jobs for both of them.

Isabella was sent to work in the kitchen of the local hotel and Charles played piano at the town's saloon. Charles ended up in debt to the saloon owner to the tune of one hundred and fifty dollars for the destruction of two pianos as well as a sizeable drinking tab.

One night, Charles was caught in the crossfire of an argument between two saloon patrons over a prostitute. He was shot in the head as he played, leaving young Isabella an orphan at the age of fifteen. According to an article found in the Ely Gazette about the fight, my great-great-great grandfather died instantly. The two patrons were hanged for his death.

Charles' debt fell to Isabella to repay. She sold what items she could, refusing to part with a set of her mother's hair combs and a few books as personal mementos.

By the beginning of 1888, Isabella had worked the debt down by fifty dollars. She worked as many jobs as she could in addition to her job in the hotel's kitchen, taking in mending and such. Isabella was living in a shared, rented room at a boarding house and was watched over by the hotel's manager and his wife.

Wildfires ravaged the town in the fall of 1888, forcing the hotel to close down. After losing her main source of income, Isabella was able to secure a job as a cook at a logging camp in northeastern Utah. The owner of the logging camp bought her debt from the saloon owner. With hard work, she was able to save almost all her pay to put towards the debt. The logging camp folded two-and-a-half-years later. The matron of the camp secured Isabella a new position.

Isabella Swan arrived in River Forks, Colorado in October, 1891. Her debt of twenty dollars was purchased by Mr. Stanley, a local entrepreneur, who then sold the rest of the debt to Mr. Edward Masen, a widower farmer. Town records show Edward Masen, age twenty-eight, married Isabella Swan, age nineteen, in May of 1892.

Isabella raised Edward's two sons from his first marriage, Emmett and Jasper, and went on to give birth to six more sons and one daughter.

Edward Masen III, born 1893,

Anthony, 1895,

Michael, 1898,

Philip, 1900,

Riley, 1902,

Jacob, 1905,

Lucy, 1908.

Isabella lived the rest of her life in River Forks, Colorado. She died in 1961 at the age of eighty-eight. Her husband, Edward, died in 1960 at the age of ninety-seven. They died a month apart and are buried side-by-side in the town's graveyard.

While listed on the official census as a farmer's wife, Isabella Masen was much more than that to our family.

When America entered World War I in 1917, five of the Masen boys were old enough to enlist. Emmett, the eldest, stayed home and contributed by maintaining his sheep farm. The wool, lanolin and meat he produced were necessary for the war effort. Jasper, who was a pastor by profession, was stationed in Boston as an Army chaplain, ministering to returning and injured soldiers. Eddie, due to weak eyesight, was determined unfit to fight, but helped with both his father's and brother's farming efforts on the homefront. Anthony and Michael entered active service and were sent to France.

Michael was killed in action in 1918 during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, three weeks before his younger brother, Philip, turned eighteen and enlisted. Anthony was honourably discharged and came home safely. Michael is buried in the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery, in Meuse, France.

Philip, like many other soldiers, returned home sick with the Spanish Influenza. The pandemic claimed just under seven-hundred-thousand Americans that year. After his recovery and the pandemic's abatement, Isabella and her friend Esme Cullen opened a small sanatorium in the mountains near the family farm, to help others recuperate in the clean mountain air.

The ladies began by taking in some convalescing adults who had nowhere else to go and no family to nurse them, but the purpose of the sanatorium changed as the years went by. It slowly became a refuge for women escaping abusive husbands. Esme Cullen was battered during her first marriage. Her history became part of the shelter and the driving force behind their fundraising efforts. Mrs. Cullen published a short story, posting excerpts to women's magazines of the time, about her history and the need for support for women living in the West.

However, the reason they permanently changed the focus of the sanatorium from a convalescent home to a women's shelter was Esme's eldest daughter, Rosalita. She had married the son of a prominent Salt Lake City businessman, but returned after six months of marriage, severely beaten. Rosalita took him to court and was granted a divorce, which was highly unusual for the time. She used her experience to help others, petitioning the state for women's rights, and educating people about domestic abuse. Rosalita Royce eventually married Isabella's eldest son, Emmett Masen.

Esme Cullen resigned her position at the retreat when her youngest daughter, Alice Evanson, died. Alice and Jasper Masen had been engaged, but she suffered a mental breakdown before they wed. In 1907, she was institutionalized. She was released in 1931 and committed suicide shortly thereafter. Jasper Masen never married.

In 1925, several years into the sanatorium operation, Isabella was surprised to receive a registered letter containing a sizable check made out in her name. Her mother's youngest sister, Marie Higginbotham, had died—childless, but immensely wealthy. She had divided her estate between all of her nieces and nephews, Isabella included.

It took her legal firm two years to locate Isabella in River Forks, Colorado. The inheritance was generous. There was more than enough money to pay off the remainder of Emmett's mortgage on his sheep ranch and buy a new roof for Jasper's church and rectory. Homes were purchased for each of her other children and there was plenty left to send Lucy to college. Isabella kept little of the money for herself.

In a letter I found during my research, Isabella wrote to thank the executor of her aunt's estate, stating the money would do her children well, but she had no need of any extra money, as she had her husband, Edward, and her children. She further stated that she considered herself already a rich woman because of them.

Isabella Swan Masen may not have lived a glamourous life, but she helped run the sanitorium and shelter as if every person who found themselves there was a member of her family. Esme's name may have been on the letterhead, but Isabella was known as the backbone of the operation.

The Esme Cullen Home for Women closed its doors in 1998.

The original Masen family homestead is still there, near River Forks, in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. Masens still run the farm and the sheep ranch, and every ten years we have a reunion at the old farmstead. The next one is scheduled for this fall. The cabin Edward Masen built by hand is still standing, near the creek, although no one lives there now. Isabella's rocking chair holds its place of honour on the porch, where, over the years, generations of Masens have been rocked to sleep.

The End