My Almost Great-Grandfather

At the age of 17, my great-grandfather deserted the U.S. Army, packed his belongings into a rucksack and made his way by foot to Lockport, New York. He changed his name to John Gates during a stop in Ohio, married my great-grandmother in Buffalo and raised five children of his own. He didn’t tell anyone–not his wife, not his children and not his grandchildren–about his past, and he never reached out to his parents or siblings again; it’s as if he appeared on-the-scene when he became John Gates in 1941. It took me years to connect the dots, and I made a few wrong turns along the way. Most notably? For a while, I thought my great-grandfather was a different John Gates: John Randolph Gates of Ashland, Kentucky. And today, I’m setting the record straight.

Growing up, my dad was told a number of conflicting stories about his grandfather, but the legend always started in Kentucky. Some relatives claimed that John was adopted and took his adoptive parents’ surname as his own, while others speculated that “Gates” belonged to his birth parents; everyone agreed, though, that he was born in 1924 in Kentucky. And that’s where I started: in the Spring of 2011, I came across a man named John Gates who was born on November 12, 1924 in Boyd County, Kentucky. At first glance, it all seemed to fit, and as a new genealogist, I didn’t delve too much further into his past. It wasn’t until two years later that I found this man’s Find-a-Grave entry, listing his death date as November 5, 1988; I knew, without a shadow of a doubt, that my John Gates had died in 1971.

Gates, Albert
John Randolph Gates’ paternal grandfather, Albert Wirt “Mort” Gates

It took a few years to connect the dots and discover my great-grandfather’s story, and I shared the details in my Applegate Origins series when I first started blogging. But as you can expect–even all these years later–a number of family historians have copied my original research and saved it to their own trees, linking John Randolph Gates to my family–which just isn’t true. I’ve decided to share his true story–to conduct a little extra research of my own–in the hopes that one of them will stumble on my blog in the future. He had a life and family of his own, and he deserves for his story to stand alone, independent of our line; without further ado–

John Randolph Gates was born on November 24, 1924 in Boyd County, Kentucky to William Silas Gates and Ollie Jane Pack. He grew up in the city of Ashland–along the southern bank of the Ohio River–and he had three brothers and three sisters: Albert (b. 1916), Clara (b. 1917), Leslie (b. 1919), Fern (b. 1921), James (b. 1923) and Phyllis (b. 1929). John was drafted into the United States Army on December 26, 1942 at the age of 18, and he served for the duration of the war; his draft registration card lists his complexion as “ruddy” with blue eyes and brown hair, and he was missing half of his heel on his left foot. The highest grade level he had completed was the seventh grade, and he was working at Graber Printing Company (an aside–what interests me most is the printing company, as my great-grandfather worked for a paper factory in New York).

When he returned home from war, John married Patricia Jane Capriotti–the daughter of Ralph and Stella (Falarski) Capriotti–and the couple moved to Altoona, Pennsylvania. They had four children of their own–three daughters and one son–and have many grandchildren living across Pennsylvania and Canada. John passed away on November 5, 1988 at the age of 63, and he was living in Pennsylvania at the time–not in New York. He never married Marie Helen Getman, he never lived on a farm in Ohio and he never had children in Lockport. And while he seems to have a very interesting family tree (he’s even related to General Horatio Gates, which would be fascinating to unpack), he isn’t a part of my family tree in any way at all.

I hope this helps to set the record straight–to sort out the family legends, if you will. My great-grandfather, John Gates, is not the John Randolph Gates of Ashland, Kentucky, and I truly am sorry for the research mistake. In my defense, I was young, I was a new genealogist and my great-grandfather did not leave a paper trail or any clues for us to find; in the years before DNA testing, my research was all speculation and uncertainty on this line. And that’s kind of how genealogy works, anyway: we stumble, we take a few wrong turns and we make some mistakes along the way. As long as we try to right them–as long as we seek to verify each claim–I’d say we’re in pretty good shape. 

11 thoughts on “My Almost Great-Grandfather

  1. Love that you were able to follow the trail leading to this discovery. I have a public tree as I want extended family to be able to find, discover, remember, share, connect but…I have a number of family historians who have taken my family members with the same names and incorporated them into their tree where they don’t belong and their tree branches off all wrong. Even communicating and asking them to remove doesn’t always do the trick. Discouraging but a hazard of a public tree. Great post 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Genealogy is like a puzzle; sometimes some pieces don’t fit and other pieces get lost, but that should not stop you from trying to put it together. Well done, Jamie!

    Liked by 2 people

  3. My grandfather also just appears in 1941! My mom never met family members and he never talked about it. We are in the same boat hoping for info from their life before 1941. I think it might have been a way to avoid going to war.

    Liked by 1 person

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