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My Elusive Great-Grandfather

Updated: Nov 20, 2021

Sigh. Great-Grandpa Byron, what can I even say about you? The two of us, we have a love-hate relationship. I love to search for him and he hates to be found. Oh, but I got him. Over the last few years, I have been dedicated, and I mean DEDICATED to finding out who he was. The answer unlocked everything else.


It all started when my father told me about this mysterious man named Byron James Sanford. My father was a storyteller, and he must have recounted the tale about fifty times. It went something like this–“Grandpa thinks his father died when he was a child, but he’s not sure. He never met him. Never even saw his picture. I don’t think he really wanted much to do with them after everything he went through. You probably can’t find out much about the family because of that.” Oh, but was my curious mind satisfied? Absolutely not! I would discover my heritage or die trying (it sounds so dramatic, but I literally would have been that old lady who keels over at her desk after researching her ancestry for 70 years).

Luckily, I had help. After searching in vain for a long while, I finally got on a message board and asked if anyone knew this name. Low and behold, somebody did. A few months later, I received a reply that changed my quest forever (thanks Elroy, I am forever indebted to you). Not only did Byron J. exist; he had a family history that dated back to 16th century England!

But my search for Byron J. was not complete. I still knew nothing about him. Who was this man who could so easily abandon my grandfather (census records showed him alive and nearby during my grandfather’s childhood)? My first clue came from an unexpected source: a prison record. That’s right, our Byron J. was a felon. The record said “conspiracy”, but I soon learned the deeper reason for his time behind bars–fraud.


Even after hours of pouring over official court records at the archives in San Bruno, I’m still unclear as to what he did. Someday I’ll acquire the time and mental energy to go back, but for now, I know that he was somehow swindling people out of money through his real estate business. And he served a year at the McNeil Island Penitentiary in Washington State to pay for it. Prison records tell us he was 5′ 7″ and a Protestant, that he and some of his relatives suffered from kidney disease, and that he had once broken his leg in a fall. But nothing about the actual man. Although he did write an awful lot of letters to a woman named Evelyn Pinkston in Portland, far more than to his children staying with relatives in Nebraska. Maybe that tells me more than I need to know already.​

​Newspaper clippings reveal that he was granted a divorce from his allegedly abusive, “man-hating” first wife, Nellie Brown. You can read a rather amusing account of this event below. With her, he had his first three children–Floyd, Glenn, and Raymond, before running scared in the other direction. I don’t know how he met my great-grandmother; nor have I found a record of their marriage. His prison file lists him as “married”. A year after my grandfather’s birth, I tend to assume this was to Mary Burns, though they clearly weren’t communicating. Records of his other children seem to vanish after World War I registration cards, making this family a mystery.​


​The rest we gain from oral tradition. My grandfather was working in a hospital when he received a call over the intercom. Upon arrival, he found a man waiting who had heard the same announcement and recognized his name. Though only seven at the time of Byron T.’s birth, Ray remembered his little brother and like a tear-inspiring novel, the two reunited and became lifelong friends. I don’t know why my grandfather never asked him about his family.

Maybe he did and simply kept it to himself. I think the pain and bitterness of abandonment most likely prevented him from really wanting to know. Regardless, he felt close enough to name his fourth son after the estranged brother and even served as a pall-bearer to his funeral in 1969.​

And so my quest to discover Byron J. Sanford continues. At least I know he took responsibility for his other children. After his release from prison, census records show him living with Glenn and Ray, managing a theater. Perhaps I’ll never know whether he chose to be absent in my grandfather’s life or was forced to be by my eccentric great-grandmother. He seemed rather drawn to unstable women, I’m afraid. But uncovering even a part of his life helps to solve the grand puzzle before me.​

My hat’s off to you, Byron J. You’re quite the elusive man. But the next time you want to hide from your descendants, don’t go stealing people’s money and getting caught for it! I have a feeling there’s more to your story, and I can’t wait to unearth it.​

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