The Problem of Elmer Fister

One of my early blog posts concerned the puzzle presented by my great grandfather, George Feister (1882-1952), who told his children that he had Native American ancestry. It would be a fairly credible claim to make, as George was born and raised in Cattaraugus County, New York, in which part of the Seneca Nation Reservation lies. But the evidence just isn’t there.

George R. Feister with Bill, Delia and Valeta, circa 1923

George R. Feister with children: Bill, Delia (my grandmother) and Valeta, circa 1923 in Olean, NY

George Fister was raised by his mother, DeEtta Bishop Brisley (1863-1947), and step-father, John Brisley (1861-1941). Lacking birth records for either George or his sister, Mary Fister, or a marriage record for DeEtta and their father, I sent for copies of George and Mary’s death records. George’s death record lists his father as Ralph Feister. Mary’s death record lists her father as Elmer Fister. Before receiving Mary’s death record, I had already surmised that Elmer Fister was their father (see my post on DeEtta Bishop Brisley).

Elmer grew up in Little Valley, Cattaraugus County, NY. He first shows up on the 1865 New York State Census living with his adoptive parents, George and Mary Cullen, and their adopted daughter, Elizabeth. George and Mary Cullen immigrated from England, probably before 1850. Of note on this Census record is that George Cullen is working another man’s farm, so he didn’t own his own place. At age 48, he was apparently a poor farmer. Also to note is that he was a naturalized citizen (click on image to enlarge).

1865 New York State Census

1865 New York State Census

As a minor, Elmer was listed on the 1865 New York State Census (above), 1870 U.S. Census and 1875 New York State Census with his adoptive father’s name. At the time of the 1880 U. S. Census, he was 19 years old and using his birth name, Elmer Fister. The Cullens were in their 60s by then, George had is own farm going, and Elmer worked on it.

As Elmer was growing up, DeEtta Bishop lived just down the road, and John Brisley’s family also lived nearby. The three of them grew up in Little Valley together and probably attended school together. The area was very rural, the population about 1150 people in 1875. (History of Little Valley)

The Nov. 18, 1881, issue of the Moravia Valley Register reported a curious incident involving Elmer: he was mugged. Why a newspaper about 200 miles away from Little Valley reported the event is mildly curious.

Moravia Valley Register 18 Nov 1861

Moravia Valley Register 18 Nov 1881

George Fister was born in Aug. 1881; his sister Mary was born in Feb. 1883. By 1888, their mother DeEtta had married John Brisley. There is a line on the 1930 U. S. Census which asked “Age at first marriage.” For John, that age was listed as 24, or the year 1885. For DeEtta, the age was 17, or the year 1880. Presumably, DeEtta and Elmer were married in Little Valley in the year 1880.

But, what happened to Elmer? Was there a divorce? Did he die? Were he and DeEtta actually ever married?

I have yet to find records which prove anything. But, “Elmer Fister” isn’t exactly a common name. Online searching for an Elmer Fister, born 1861 in New York, produces only one potential candidate. Presuming, that is, that he didn’t change his name or leave the country. Below is information gathered about him:

  • The 1915 New York State Census lists Elmer Fister living outside Buffalo. Age 53; single; living in a boarding house; employed as a peddler.
  • The 1920 U. S. Census lists Elmer Fister, his wife Marion, and his mother-in-law Gertrude Wilson, living in Irondequoit, Monroe County, New York. Marion and her mother were from Canada.
  • There is a memorial page on Find-a-Grave for Elmer Fister with the information that he died May 20, 1920, in Clarendon, Orleans County, NY. His parents are listed as Isaac Fister and Sophia VanBuren.

Could this Elmer Fister be the father of George and Mary Fister? I believe he could be.

Isaac Fister was an itinerant Methodist minister. He was born in Pennsylvania in 1803. He was married and widowed three times. A month after the death of his 3rd wife, he was declared insane, committed to an asylum, and died a few months later. A detailed memorial page has been posted for him on Find-a-Grave.

Isaac’s 2nd wife was Sophia Van Buren (1829-1861). It appears that she died the same day Elmer was born: Dec. 15, 1861. Isaac was 58 years old at the time, with a 5-year-old son (Clarence) and a 3-year-old daughter (Harrietta). It is perfectly conceivable that he would give up an infant to be raised by another family.

Isaac traveled around Western New York State from the late-1820s through the mid-1860s when he settled in Cattaraugus County. Just before Sophia died, the couple was living in Pomfret, Chautauqua County, with their two children, as seen on the 1860 U. S. Census (click on image to enlarge).

1860 U. S. Census

1860 U. S. Census

About the year 1863, he married his 3rd wife, Julia Ann Mackey Caldwell. The 1865 New York State Census lists them living in Salamanca, Cattaraugus County. Salamanca is about 10 miles from Little Valley, where Elmer was living with the Cullens in 1865.

The Rev. Fister remained in Cattaraugus County up until he was committed to the asylum (see 1870 U. S. Census, 1880 U. S. Census). Did Elmer grow up knowing that Isaac Fister was his father? What went on with him when, at the age of 22 and having fathered two small children, his father was committed to an insane asylum? Is that why he took off and left DeEtta to raise them? It certainly would fit the pattern for him to believe a man could simply walk away from his children; after all, his father had abandoned him to be raised by George and Mary Cullen.

While I feel there is circumstantial evidence to support the theory that the Rev. Isaac Fister was Elmer Fister’s father, I’ll continue looking for evidence to back up the dots I’ve connected in this story line.

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2 Responses to The Problem of Elmer Fister

  1. Megan says:

    Hi
    Do you have any info on Elmer’s sister Harrietta? I believe she maybe my Great Great Grandmother.

    Any info you could share would be greatly appreciated.

    Thanks
    Megan

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