Curious (About) George … George Ralph Feister (1882-1955)

George Ralph Feister

I’m curious about George.

At some point or other, many family historians face the challenge of proving or disproving a family legend. My siblings and I grew up being told we had Native American ancestry through our great-grandfather, George Feister. My mother had been told this by her mother, Delia (Feister) Irvine. Delia and her siblings had been told by their father, George Feister, that his mother was either partially or fully Native American. Because the family was rooted in Cattaraugus County, NY, which is home to part of a Seneca Indian Reservation, it probably never occurred to anyone to doubt the story. But my grandmother never took her children to meet George’s mother, DeEtta Bishop, despite the fact that she was still alive during their childhood.

John and DeEtta Brisley with Eddy and Bill Mosman, abt 1939

DeEtta was known to some of her grandchildren through George. In 1939, on the occasion of their 50th wedding anniversary, DeEtta and her 2nd husband, John Brisley, were captured posing for a photo with Eddy and Billy Mosman, DeEtta’s grandchildren through George’s oldest daughter, Harriet (“Hattie”) — my grandmother Delia’s eldest sister.

When I started to research family history, one of the first things I was interested to find was the so-called Native American connection.

I began by tracing George Feister’s life in Olean, NY. I found him in old city directories and both US and NY State census records. Also in census records, I located his mother, her parents and their parents. I’ve been able to take DeEtta’s family back to her grandparents on both sides. According to numerous Federal Census records, none of them were Native American.

I began to think that perhaps in the telling the story got mixed up and it was George’s father who was Native American? But who was his father?

George R. Feister was born on Aug. 20, 1882, in Cattaraugus County, New York, to DeEtta Bishop. I have no official record of George’s birth. On his death certificate, his parents are listed as Ralph Feister and Dietta Bishop. I do not have a marriage record for Ralph and DeEtta (my preferred spelling), though on the 1930 Federal Census, DeEtta claims she was age 17 at the time of her first marriage.

(Note: Clicking on the Census links throughout this article will show you the original census documents with persons listed.)

This would indicate that DeEtta and Ralph were married some time between July 1880 and June 1881. DeEtta was unmarried and living in Little Valley with her mother and siblings at the time of the 1880 Federal Census, which took place in June of that year. George was born in 1882 and his sister Mary in 1883. DeEtta married John Brisley in 1888. Sometime between 1883 and 1888, Ralph Feister disappears. Did he die? Were they divorced? Were they ever even married?

I’ve been unable to find official records (e.g. census or other) for a person named “Ralph Feister” which fits the time frame and location to be DeEtta’s husband and father of George and Mary.

Suspiciously, living nearby to DeEtta at the time of the 1880 Federal Census was a certain 18-year-old young man named Elmer Fister, the adopted son of George and Mary Cullen, immigrants from England (see Census listing). The birthplace of Elmer’s true parents is listed as Germany. This makes sense, as Fister is a German surname (from the German, Pfister). Could Elmer Fister actually be the father of George and Mary? Is it a coincidence that DeEtta’s children bear the same names as Elmer’s adoptive parents? Unfortunately, I have no idea what happened to Elmer Fister.

The first official record I have of George is the 1892 New York State Census. George is listed in the household of John Brisley, along with mother DeEtta, sister Mary, and the Brisley children. The family was living in the town of Salamanca, Cattaraugus County. Note the spelling of the name: “Fister,” not Feister.

Brisley family in Salamanca, NY – 1892

Skip ahead eight years and George, age 20, is still living with the Brisley family, residing in Conewango Township, East Randolph Village, Cattaraugus County, at time of the June 1900 Federal Census. As in the 1892 Census, his name is listed as “Fister.”

Four years later, George “Fister” appears in the 1904 Olean City Directory, working as a machinist and boarding at the Genesee House.

The first time we see a change in the spelling of George’s surname is the 1905 New York State Census. George is still boarding at the Genesee House and working as a machinist. Why the change in the spelling of his name?

In August of 1905, George Feister was married to Laura Tidd.

Of interest in this wedding announcement is mention of George Feister being from Austin, PA. Austin is a town about 43 miles southeast of Olean, in Potter County, PA. Apparently, George was working in Austin at the time. George and Laura must have known one another in Olean before George moved to Austin for work. I guess they maintained a long-distance relationship until they married. The couple may have remained in Austin through 1910, for the 1910 Federal Census lists George, Laura and daughter Harriet living in Austin, where George is working as a machinist in a saw mill.

At some time before 1915, the couple had returned to Olean. The 1915 New York State Census has George and Laura, with children Harriet, William and “Fleada” (Valeta) living at 229 N. 10th Street in Olean. George is working as a machinist.

In 1918, George registered for the draft. He was 36 at the time and working as a machinist at Myrick Machine Company, where he was employed for many years.

The 1920 US Census shows the Feister family still at 229 N. 10th Street in Olean. George was 38 years old.

In the 1924 Olean City Directory, the Feisters are living at 712 Division Street and George, age 42, has advanced to the position of foreman at Myrick.

George at house on N. 10th Street

George with Bill Delia and Valeta

George and Delia

George, Delia & Laura

In the 1930 Federal Census, the Feisters are renting a house at 128 S. 10th Street in Olean. George, age 48, is still working as a machinist.

The photo below was taken in Olean some time between 1933 . In the back row are George Feister, daughters Delia and Valeta, George’s wife Laura (Tidd) Feister and Harriet (Tidd) Caufield. Seated are William B. Tidd and Delia (Rice) Tidd. I haven’t identified the children in front.

Grandpa and Grandma Tidd with family, circa 1934

Just a few more sources record George’s life at the end of the Great Depression, during the War Years and after:

  • In 1936, the family has moved to 1213 Washington St., as listed in the Olean City Directory. George was 54 at this time.
  • Two years later, we find the George (age 56) and Laura living at 137 N. 12th Street. George is working as a machinist at Luther Manufacturing, according to the 1938 Olean City Directory.
  • The 1939 Olean City Directory has George and Laura living at 212 Genesee St. in Olean. George, age 57, is still employed as a machinist.
  • In the 1940 Federal Census, we locate George (58) and Laura (56) renting a place in Dansville, NY, at 14 Sophia St. It must be that a job opportunity took them away from Olean. George was working 42 hours a week as a machinist manufacturing boiler equipment.
  • In 1943 the couple is back home in Olean. The City Directory lists them at 1312 1/2 W. Henley St. George is back working at Luther Manufacturing.
  • Seven years later, in the 1950 Olean City Directory, the couple is still at the same address. George (68) appears to no longer be working, but Laura (66) is employed at St. Francis Hospital. The 1952 Olean City Directory includes the same information.

George passed away in June 1955 at the age of 72 in the Gowanda State Homeopathic Hospital in Collins, Erie County, NY. Laura passed away two years later, in 1957, and the couple rest together at the Pleasant Valley Cemetery in Olean.

George and Laura Feister headstone

My grandmother did not have a good relationship with her father, George Feister. Perhaps if things had been different, we may have learned something more of his roots and had some evidence of the Native American ancestry claim. The facts I’ve been able to discover do not support this, so I am skeptical. But, new information may come forward and I will continue to search through Cattaraugus county records to see what might be found.

UPDATE:

It turns my suspicions about Elmer Fister were correct, as proven in the death record of George’s sister, Mary Fister Newton … note the father’s name. (Bizarre that the recorder completely butchered her mother’s name!)

Mary Fister Newton death record

The other confirmation that there is ZERO Native American genetic makeup in me came with the results of my AncestryDNA test.

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