One summer day in 1999, I decided to clean the upstairs closet where I had deposited boxes of my mother’s papers, as well as stored my college clothing from the early 1960’s and other treasures. The closet runs the depth of the house–22 feet–and is four feet deep; it holds LOTs of stuff. After my mother died in 1996, my father divided her papers and possessions, rather randomly, and gave some to each of the three children. My brother is the music teacher, but I ended up with her organ and piano music. However, I set the box of music aside and dragged out several boxes of old letters. As I examined each paper, slowly working my way through the large box, I came upon a large manila envelope from my great-aunt Mattie Lewis Grubbs in Kansas, postmarked 1974. Inside were two large cardboard pages, pasted front and back with newspaper clippings. I drew them out and casually read through to see if I recognized any names. Grubbs was the most familiar name, but what caught my eye was the yellowed obituary for “Father Riner,” which was centered on one page. Daniel Riner was born in 1796 in Harper’s Ferry, Berkeley County, Virginia and died in 1885 in Burr Oak, Jewell County, Kansas. The name tugged at the edge of my memory; my grandmother’s maiden name was Hazel Lewis and my grandfather was Ralph Parsons. The name “Riner” was not familiar—and yet, it was.
I laid the page aside and walked downstairs to find the Kansas trip pictures. I had taken my mother to Kansas in 1992, where we visited her cousins in Jewell County. We visited Formosa, the town where she was born in 1918 and Randall, the town where she grew up, as well as Burr Oak, where her mother Hazel was born in 1895 and where her grandfather Calvin Lewis had homesteaded in 1871 after the Civil War. We also visited the homesites of her father’s family, the Parsons. We visited several family cemeteries and I had taken pictures of the gravestones. Rummaging through the pictures, I found the one I was seeking: the gravestone of Mary Riner Clayton [1838-1889]—the grandmother of my grandmother Hazel Lewis. I took the picture and ran up the stairs to compare it with the news clippings. I could hardly believe what I saw. Daniel Riner had to be the father of Mary Riner. The room absolutely spun as I realized I had found the obituary of my grandmother’s great-grandfather—six generations from Daniel to me. I began to read the rest of the obits and down in the right hand corner of the page was an obit for Mary Riner Clayton, who died five years after her father. After I searched through my desk, I found the family tree I had written down on the Kansas trip. It did not go back to Daniel, but did identify my grandparents’ brothers and sisters, many of whose graves and former homes we had visited.
“Father Riner” married Mary “Polly” Starry in Berkeley County, Virginia [now WV] in 1826 and in 1829 they moved with her parents, Daniel and Hannah Smith Starry, and some siblings, to Warren County, Indiana, where Daniel Riner received a land patent and they raised a family of nine children. In 1850, the family moved fifty miles northwest to Iroquois County, Illinois where by 1867 Daniel owned 520 acres of land. Tragedy began to strike a few years after the move to Illinois as TB infected the families crowded in small cabins. The third son, Samuel, died in 1857, age 20. Then Mary Starry Riner died in 1861, followed a few months later in 1862 by the second son Daniel, age 29. Daughter Elizabeth Riner Kennison Kizer died in 1872, leaving a family of children. The oldest Riner son, Jacob, having served as a lieutenant in Company M, 9th Illinois Cavalry and having resigned six months later due to ill health, moved his family to Lebette County, Kansas in 1868, where his wife died in 1870, and he died in 1874, leaving three underage orphans who were cared for by their older brothers. Daniel Riner married his sister-in-law Rhoda Starry in 1862 and she died in 1867. Afterwards, he married Penny Wilcox in 1867 and divorced her several years later. On the 1880 Census, Daniel is living in Onarga with his granddaughter Martha Drake Duncan, next door to John W. Grubb, the grandfather of Mattie Lewis Grubb’s husband Homer Grubbs. Around 1883, the surviving children brought Daniel to Burr Oak, Kansas, where he lived with his youngest daughter Susannah Riner Skeels and her husband Robert. Daniel died in 1885 and the family took his body back to Onarga, Illinois where he is buried next to his first two wives, Mary and Rhoda Starry. The five surviving Riner children all died in Burr Oak: Mary Riner Clayton in 1889; Susannah Riner Skeels in 1892; Roseanna Riner Pangbourn in 1893; Hannah Riner Drake in 1899; and William Riner in 1907.
My grandmother Hazel had talked often of Onarga and a couple of years later, well into my genealogy research, when I finally looked up Onarga on the map, I had another head-spinning moment. Many times on my way home from visiting son Jim in Madison, Wisconsin, where he was in graduate school from 1993-2001, I had left I-39 and driven across Illinois on Highway 24, coming out north of Lafayette, Indiana and driving on down I-65 to home. Highway 24 goes through Iroquois County, Illinois. About two miles north of Onarga, the road jogs north and then goes through Watseka, the county seat. Every time I took this not-short-cut, I would wonder why, but I was drawn to drive across that stretch of land again and again. Years later, I understood. Unknowingly, I had been driving through the farms my family settled in 1850-1855. Onarga is directly east of Peoria on the eastern border of Illinois. To travel to Burr Oak in Jewell County, Kansas, one would go due west, dropping south a slight angle of less than fifty miles….i.e. point the oxen west and start out. Today the route to Burr Oak takes one on Highway 36 which is 20 miles south of the Nebraska border and runs parallel to the northern border of Kansas. Burr Oak, Kansas is twenty miles from Red Cloud, Nebraska, home of Willa Cather and the setting for some of her novels.
William Riner and his wife Jenny Lewis Riner were the first of Daniel Riner’s children to arrive in Burr Oak, coming in 1872. By 1882, Daniel’s daughters Roseanna Riner Pangbourn and Hannah Riner Drake had arrived with their husbands and children. The youngest daughter Susannah and her husband Robert Richland Skeels came in 1872, left in 1874, and returned in 1881. Mary Riner Hunt Clayton, my great-great grandmother, and her second husband Ben Clayton homesteaded in Franklin and Coffey Counties in Kansas in 1868, and later settled in Yates Center in Woodson County. Ben Clayton’s obit was on that cardboard sheet, as was that of George Fry, first husband of my great-grandmother Belle Hunt Fry Lewis. Ben and George died within a few months of each other in 1883-84. Their widows, Belle and Mary, mother and daughter, along with Belle’s two small daughters, soon moved to Burr Oak to be with Mary’s family. Thus, the five surviving children of Father Riner were living in Burr Oak in late 1884 when a family portrait was taken showing the white-haired patriarch surrounded by his four daughters and one surviving son.
In the spring of 1871, after his wife and son died, my great-grandfather Calvin Lewis, and his older brother Tom, left their home in Onarga, Iroquois County, Illinois and homesteaded in Burr Oak, Kansas. They were the third homesteaders in Burr Oak. The first winter they lived in a dugout along the creek, afraid to build a fire because the Indians would stuff grass in the stovepipe. In the fall of 1872, Calvin’s brother William Lewis and his wife Phebe Brown Lewis, Calvin’s sister Jenny and her husband William Riner [son of Daniel] and their mother Lydia Patton Lewis, along with their aunt Elizabeth Lewis Miller and her sons Thomas Miller and Washington Miller, came to Burr Oak from Onarga in a wagon train and settled on farms near Calvin and Thomas Lewis. William Riner, Calvin Lewis, Thomas Lewis, and William Lewis, along with other Riner cousins, had all served in Company M, 9th Illinois Calvary in the Civil War, fighting engagements along the Mississippi. Thomas and William Lewis were captured and spent 18 months in Andersonville Prison. After the War, the younger generation was looking for land and many families from Onarga saw their children leave to pioneer in Kansas and the West.
My great-grandmother Belle Lewis’s obit was not on those sheets and I later wrote to the Kansas historical society for a copy. Whoever wrote Belle Lewis’s obit, when she died in 1938, did not know the story of the second Lewis-Riner marriage. Of course, it took me several years to piece it together. In 1878, having homesteaded a few years in Burr Oak, Calvin Lewis married Sue Biggs. After having two sons, James and Earl, Sue died in childbirth with her third child in 1883, widowing Calvin Lewis for the second time. His sister Jenny Lewis Riner raised one son and Tom Lewis and his wife Lydia took the other. Belle’s obit states that she met Calvin while visiting her brothers in Iowa in 1886. Well……not really. On the 1870 Census in Onarga, Illinois, Calvin and his first wife Tillie Denning, and their daughter Hattie, are living next door to Daniel Riner. Belle, Daniel’s granddaughter, was born in 1861 in Onarga, and obviously would have known her grandfather’s next door neighbor when she was a child. Her family moved to Kansas in 1868, but since her uncle William Riner married Calvin’s youngest sister Jenny Lewis in 1867, the families clearly knew each other quite well. There were only several hundred people in Onarga in 1870. Odd how the stories are forgotten or confused by later generations. The U.S. Census is an excellent means of straightening out misconstrued family chronology.
When I took my mother to visit in Kansas, we visited the Burr Oak Cemetery, which is set on a hillside southeast of town. Over the years, evergreens have grown to surround the graves. It is a lovely place, a windswept hillside on the prairie. We visited Great-grandmother Belle’s grave, and that of her mother Mary nearby, and saw the tall monument erected for Belle’s brother Daniel who was electrocuted while serving in the Army in 1907. I still think about the visit to that cemetery where I heard the friendly spirits of the family call to me that day. A few dozen people buried in that cemetery are blood kin and I felt at home there, surrounded by many loved ones. I heard their call and pondered on it for some years, until the day I found Father Riner’s obit. Discovering Father Riner was a life changing moment for me. Within a few days I had bought a genealogy program and begun a serious family genealogy research project. I have traced many family lines, but the Lewis-Riner line that met in Onarga, Illinois about 1853 and pioneered in Burr Oak, Kansas in 1871 is especially dear to my heart. I hope the family spirits who called to me that day approve my bringing forth their stories for yet another generation to read.