My great grandfather John Albert Draper was born March 23, 1877 in Marshalltown, Iowa to Nathan and Mary Ann Draper.

He married my great grandmother in 1905 and by 1906 had left the family home. My great grandmother filed for a divorce from him in 1915, it was approved based on abandonment.

There were many family stories, most said he had died by 1910. My mother had told me that her father thought he had been in contact with his family until my grandfather became an adult based on an Uncle and an Aunt providing his clothing and necessities. He believed his father was sending money to his Uncle to support him.

The only records I have found are his WWI draft registration 1917 in Fargo, North Dakota and a few newspaper articles in Legrand, Iowa. One in 1911 about his mother's death saying he was living in Colorado and another in 1926 that his brother was asking anyone who knew of his whereabouts to let him know as they hadn't heard from him in several years.

My mother said her father had heard from him in 1931 and was living in Texas, although my grandfather was deceased by the time I heard this story and I was unable to validate it. It was well known that my great grandmother was very controlling in almost all aspects of my grandfather's life (even when he was an adult) and very bitter about John Draper so if there was any attempt at contact she surely would have squashed any further communication, which leads me to believe that there may be truth to the 1931 story.

I have searched through the records and each time I find something that may be promising it ends up not being him.

Looking for help or suggestions that may help me find out where he ended up or when and where he died.

  • Thank you for viewing my post. I have located him on US census, 1880, 1900, Iowa State 1905 in Belle Plaine, Marriage to Mabel Mayer in Cedar Rapids, Linn County June 5, 1905 Waterloo, Iowa city directories 1906 & 1907, divorce from Mabel Mayer Draper Belle Plaine, 1915 and the WWI draft 1917 Cass, ND. The references in newspaper articles I located on the newspaper archives.
    – Thorsma
    Jan 28, 2013 at 2:24
  • I think it would be helpful if you are able to edit your question to include links to any of these events that you can - that way as people try to assist they can quickly review what you have done already.
    – PolyGeo
    Jan 28, 2013 at 23:11
  • Have you tried Jack instead of John? Maybe even Johnny? Jan 29, 2013 at 0:07

2 Answers 2


Oh, those missing-in-action/elusive ancestors. I have a great grandfather who is elusive. He lived just earlier, though. This case is different. Even though your John Albert Draper has common names (given and surname) he was born in the US and lived during a time that I consider a "sweet spot" of opportunity. There are likely an array of modern records about him (and about others with similar names); the WWI draft registration being key among them. If you develop a plan and stick with the work, the odds are very good that you will solve this case.

While not applicable equally to every race, color and creed, the record circumstance (including accessibility) is remarkable for those researching U.S. born men who both registered for the WWI draft and survived beyond 1920. Consider that in addition to the draft:

  1. There is probably a modern death certificate about them; for most, a state record of same (for their children, good chance there are modern marriage and death records; some modern birth records)
  2. These men were most likely enumerated in the modern federal censuses of 1900, 1910 and 1920
  3. Some states also conducted census in this period
  4. Newspapers and city directories flourished; in small towns, the news was still folksy. Most people knew their neighbors.
  5. US Copyright laws favor the ability to distribute materials that predate 1923
  6. Although less accessible, court records of this time are often available

In order to locate the records about someone, you need to be able to identify them. There were more people in this 1900-1920+ time period; more names to be easily confused. The records continue to contain errors and omissions. The population is increasingly mobile = more work to identify persons (from confused wannabes) within each new setting. Especially in the Midwest--not every man now owns a farm nor becomes a farmer. How dare them, some move to urban areas (often, more than one).

The backstory about John Albert Draper (family split, etc) explains a perspective, but it doesn't really change the work. This challenge involves a common name and large geographic area. (As to the latter, tradition suggests mostly US Midwest, but stretching from the Canadian border down to the Gulf of Mexico.)

When the work seems "stuck," it is often a clue to step back in both time and place. Revisit earlier information and/or "inchworm around" to learn more about the subject. You might lay this out on a timeline/spreadsheet, with columns for date, locations, names and events/comments.

  1. Who was John, the young man? Seek out more information about John from records that exist about him as a young adult. When John marries Mabel, he is almost 30. Who was he by then? What was his education, his vocation/occupation. Where had he lived?
    (a) 1895 Iowa state census. An index of the record is available here. This "Johnny A. Draper"; residing apparently with his mother and two brothers is living at Marshall County, Iowa (no town listed). We want the details, right. From the digital images we may learn whether John is in school or working and at what. (P.S. This county was not part of the Ancestry.com collection, "Iowa, State Census Collection, 1836-1925.") (b) 1900 U.S. census. I viewed this entry at Ancestry.com. As "John A. Draper," he lives with his mother, brother and sister-in-law at Belle Plaine, Benton County, Iowa. At that time, his occupation was given as a "caller." What is a caller? What more can be learned about his work? (BTW, here is a link to the finding aid for his brother's first marriage; this reports the marriage at LeGrand, [Marshall County,] Iowa, in February, 1900.) (c) The 1905 Iowa state census doesn't extend much the information "about John." Relationship information isn't available, but he seems living with his apparent mother and brother, Fred; all at Belle Plaine, Iowa. To view the image at Ancestry.com, click here.
    As noted above, hopefully there are news archives available from the towns by which more "about John" can be learned.
  2. Who was John at the time of his marriage to Mabel? Have you obtained the full marriage record document(s)? Two Iowa marriage index collections are available from FamilySearch, but they are not a substitute for the original(s). The record appears indexed three times in "Iowa, County Marriages, 1838-1934"; see 07 June 1905 index record for John A. Draper and Mabel Mayers (Cedar Rapids, Linn County, Iowa). (Maybe a typo above for the 5 Jun 1905 date? Or maybe you have a license record?) Are there any news items about the couple from the 1905 period? I wondered how they had met? Was John living at Cedar Rapids then? Who were the witness to the marriage? Perhaps there was news at the time Donald was born? Something that calls out John's occupation or associates would be helpful. Were his parents Quakers? (I viewed Mabel's entry in the 1910 US census at Ancestry. She was living with Donald at Belle Plaine, Benton County, Iowa, in 1910.) I peeked at what could have been your public tree; it looked to me as though son Donald could have been born Keokuk Co., Iowa. (Perhaps her home town?) Do you know if John and Mabel had moved there?
  3. John's mother died in 1911. Before that public tree came down, I was able to read his mother's obituary (link probably broken now), John was said to be a Denver, Colorado (which is more specific that saying he was at "Colorado"). Although at this point, it is more like a dust bunny than even a wannabe, the Denver, Colorado, 1910 city directory contains an entry for one J. Draper, a salesman for "Chipley-Hammon Inv. Co." (p. 449). The entry provided for his residence address as "621 17th Av." There were other Draper families/men of Denver at that time. Given other information about your John, that 1910 directory entry didn't seem like a good fit. However, I did not track down a 1911 or 1912 directory. You might check with the Denver Public Library. See their "Western History and Genealogy" webpage.
  4. I was able to read the 1926 news item. Was not able to learn the exact date it was published. Might that have been your Donald Draper hoping to make a connection with his father about the son's pending marriage to Grace?

John's WWI draft registration

I became very interested in your challenge when I read John's WWI draft registration. I made notes as follows:

  • Among other details, I assume you used the "Nearest Relative" information (items 19 and 20) to corroborate that this particular "John" is indeed your ancestor. As kin, therein, "Fred Draper" at "Belle Plain[e], Iowa." (John Albert Draper's date of birth, 27 Mar 1877, is consistent with that reported about him in the 1900 US census; see above.)
  • The response to section 29, "Has person lost arm, leg ... or is he obviously physically disqualified?" reads, "lost left leg at knee." There is probably both a story there and a distinguishing characteristic. Wow. I found myself pondering this over and over again.
  • He signed the draft card as, "J. A. Draper" (with a pretty funky "D," IMO). This doesn't mean we won't find him in later records as "John," or "Jack," or even "Tom Smith," but it is reasonable that he used the same signature on other materials.
  • Perhaps because the card was sent from one location to another (see below) the actual date of registration is blank (see "Date of Registration". There were three waves in the WWI draft (one in 1917 and two in 1918). Each wave used a different form of draft card. John's is version C, which was used September, 1918 (not 1917).
  • I find two different locations mentioned on the card, and what might turn out to be two different businesses, too. These would all be associated with that September, 1918, date. Locations: Based on the handwriting on the card, it looks as though registered at Minnewaukan, Benson County, North Dakota, where he was apparently working then. John's draft registration seems to have been forwarded from Minnewaukan to Fargo, Cass County, North Dakota. (Browsing the FamilySearch images, see image 1817 of 6183.) A quick Google check reports these two cities, Fargo and Minnewaukan are 190 miles apart. Employer and Residence: The employer is Darling & Sears. For some family history about what seems the "Darlings" and the "Sears" see William Sears, "Darling-Sears-Lund," ca1956. Also had a hard time making out the "occupation." Might it be "Threshing?" I struggled to understand the "permanent" address at Fargo, as it appears to include the words, "... Dairy & Produce Co."

enter image description here

Inchworm John's 1918 WWI Draft Registration.

  1. He is reported to reside at Fargo, Cass County, North Dakota. Are there records that suggest John lived there in 1917? In 1919? See Fargo City Directories--FamilySearch/FH Library films 1843263 and 1843264 are reportedly the Fargo, and Moorhead city directories for 1917 and 1919, respectively. (The catalog entry reports 1918 is missing. Perhaps a local library, Cass County Historical Society, the State Historical Society of North Dakota knows more.) I note that Cass County is bordered by two Minnesota counties, Norman County and Clay County. The Red River Genealogical Society serves the adjoining North Dakota and Minnesota Counties along the state borders. See "Red River Genealogical Society."
  2. Can you discover more about the place in Fargo that he was living? Who he was living with? What might have attracted him to Fargo? What connection might he have with the employer (at Minnewaukan)?
  3. FYI only. I could find no newspapers indexed as North Dakota the Library of Congress project, "Chronicling America" ("All Digitized Newspapers 1836-1922").
  4. North Dakota State University at Fargo, "NDSU Libraries-NDSU Archives" has a few indexed databases online. (See, "Genealogy & Biography.") These include (a) Marriage Licenses, 1870s-1944 (no returns), (b) Probate Records, 1876-1949 (only a George Draper, 1870s), (c) Divorce & Civil Case Records, 1870s-1942. Names mentioned in the last of these were: Ellis F. Draper/Eliza W. Draper (no date); Samuel L. Draper/Great Northern Railway (no date); Draper A. Lindsay/James M. Kelly (no date); Geiser Manufacturing/Leslie B. Draper (no date); Ella Draper/Frank Draper (1917).
  5. Same site has a "Newspaper and Periodical Index." Also a "Fargo Forum Obituaries" database. I found no relevant Draper returns, but you may want to check for yourself.

Other Research/Misc

To the extent that you do begin continue to look for your ancestor in many of the different midwestern and western states, you might consider the following tips and information.

  1. A reasonably exhaustive search can't be accomplished by searching for someone in the well-known and diversified/humongous databases we often frequent. Consider that while valuable, the coverage of the underlying information is spotty. For example, not all states are represented in the marriage collections, and for those that are, the collections frequently doen't report about all the counties over the full periods named.
  2. You might organize the research into states and, as you develop leads, into counties in those states. The FamilySearch library catalog is a good first stop to learn about the resources available by state and county. The catalog includes information about the resources that FamilySearch has filmed, but not yet digitized/indexed. There is usually a link from the catalog to those collections that have been digitized on FamilySearch.org. Research broadly in specific collections. Keep track of the name of the film (or collection) you search, and the date you made the search.

I made notes about a few of Colorado collections this week, as below:

  • "Colorado, Statewide Marriage Index, 1900-1939" (not yet indexed); FamilySearch.org, see "Dorsey, Myron-Dunn, W.H." Draper marriages, 1692 (of 4361) to (1768 of 4361). You may want to page through these; image 1732 is a John A. Draper (no age given) m. at Denver 1930 to Georgia Mildred Fruse/Freese (no age given).
  • "Colorado, County Marriages, 1864-1995" (not yet indexed); FamilySearch.org (I did not browse these).
  • "Colorado, Denver County Probate Case Files, 1900-1925" (not yet indexed); FamilySearch.org, see "Probate Packet Index 1900-1925". No cases for surname Draper.
  • "Colorado, Statewide Divorce Index, 1900-1939" (not yet indexed); "Dempsey, Theresa-Falsetta, Raffaelo." Draper cases are images 1632 (of 4379) to 1644 (of 4379). One John B. Draper divorce reported; marriage had occurred in 1886.

One J. A. Draper at Kansas City (Missouri), 1910

While I was not able to fully identify the man in the entry, one J. A. Draper is found in the 1910 U.S. census at Kansas City, Missouri; has wife "Mrs. J. A. Draper." By some additional research (below), his name can be devised as "John A. Draper." This seemed an entry you would want to memorialize in your research notes. Comments follow.

Census entry: The couple resides 414 ?Aldine Court; census reports they have been married two years (first marriage for both). He is age 33 (thus b. ca1877); his birth location and those of his parents are all "un[known]." This J. A. is a driver/Hack; The FreeDictionary online defines a "hack-driver" as a taxi driver. [(View this image at Ancestry.com) You'll have to forward to the next page to view the entry of interest].

City Directory: The graphic below is from the 1910 Kansas City (Missouri) City Directory. I have highlighted the information points by which my logic followed that J. A. Draper in the 1910 census was almost certainly "John A. Draper." Also that "Mrs. J. A. Draper" was most likely otherwise, "Winnie (_ _ _) Draper."

enter image description here

As if there were not enough ...

I found the names "John Draper" and "John A. Draper" to be common. There is evidence of what seemed an unrelated John Albert Draper born in the 1940s at Texas (and what seems a Jr.; perhaps a III). The name becomes even more common when you consider ordinary alternatives--J. Draper; J. A. Draper. All this got a chuckle out of me when I came across the news item below.

enter image description here

Make a good plan and take the time to reasonably exhaust the different resources. Consider setting up a free public wiki as a workspace. I'm confident you will solve this one. There is a great story to be told here.

  • GeneJ, just a short side question to your awesome answer: how did you create the city directory image with the two enlargements in red squares?
    – Til Hund
    Feb 6, 2016 at 19:10

Thank you for reviewing my post and for all the research into my brick wall.

The LDS church has their marriage record listed as June 5, 1905 in Linn County. It has their names and their parents names. I have located all family members of both John and Mabel who were all living or near Belle Plaine and What Cheer respectively, up through 1920ish. Neither of them had family in Linn County that I have found. I thought they got married there for that exact reason, likely to hide their real marriage date to save family embarrassment.

Regarding the draft registration, I thought draft record said Cast left leg at knee, now I can see that it says lost leg at left knee. Thank you for bringing that to my attention. Yes this is definitely him, Fred Draper in Belle Plaine was his brother.

I had noticed the two different locations on the draft card. I was unable to figure that one out either. As far as I know, the Draper stayed in Marshall/Benton county area so I had no idea why he was in North Dakota and I couldn't figure out why the locations of the addresses he provided were so far apart. I also determined his occupation to be threshing, so possibly he was working in agriculture, that would tie into the dairy and produce company.

I am not certain how John and Mabel met, she would not talk about him so my grandfather had very little information. My mother thought she had overheard one time that it had something to do with the railroad. His brother Fred was a conductor for the railroad, so I theorized that possibly he met Mabel riding the train with his brother.

Their relationship prior to marriage may have been more of an "encounter". They married in June and my grandfather was born August 31st. My guess is that it was a forced marriage since Mabel was clearly 6 months or better pregnant when they married.

I found it was odd that her child was born in Keokuk, but possibly she went there to be close to her family when she gave birth and then returned to Belle Plaine after Donald was born or they married for namesake and Mabel stayed in What Cheer but moved to Belle Plain after their child was born. John never lived in What Cheer. After John disappeared Mabel continued to live in Belle Plaine and newspaper articles indicate she associated with the Draper family until after she remarried and moved to Des Moines about 1920.

My mother was told that Mabel had John declared dead but I found her divorce decree stating she lived with John Draper as man and wife from June of 1905 until early 1906, that he did not return home and she had no idea where he was, she had not seen or heard from him since. Her claim for a divorce was abandonment.

  • Learning "what is a caller" and trying to identify the place where he lived/business at Fargo--those are both great Genealogy.SE questions.
    – GeneJ
    Feb 1, 2013 at 22:09
  • " Neither of them had family in Linn County that I have found. I thought they got married there for that exact reason, likely to hide their real marriage date to save family embarrassment." Have you looked at a map? People often marry in the next county over because the county seat for that county is easier to get to than the one for their own county. This may not be as critical as for previous centuries (where looking at topographic maps can reveal a lot) but it still applies.
    – Jan Murphy
    Dec 15, 2013 at 19:45

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