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Published: Sunday, October 26, 2008, 12:01 a.m.

Forgotten grave reveals a local link to Obama

  • Rachel Abbott Wolfley, the great-great-great grandmother of Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama, is buried in Evergreen Cemetery in Everett...

    Michael O'Leary / The Herald

    Rachel Abbott Wolfley, the great-great-great grandmother of Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama, is buried in Evergreen Cemetery in Everett.

EVERETT -- Rachel Wolfley's grave marker at the Evergreen Cemetery in Everett hadn't seen the light of day in decades.
It had literally faded into the landscape, covered long ago by a thick rug of grass and forgotten over nearly a century since she died.
There is no date of birth or death or family tribute on the gray concrete block, just her name -- and the last name is misspelled.
Wolfley's marker would no doubt still be buried beneath the cemetery sod were it not for her famous great-great-great grandson, who on Nov. 4 could be elected the next president of the United States.
"Everett and Snohomish County now have a close connection with Barack Obama we didn't have before," said Jim Shipman, a retired funeral home director who once managed the Evergreen Cemetery. "Who would have known?"
Wolfley, the widow of a Civil War veteran, spent the last few years of her life living with her daughter and son-in-law at 3611 Hoyt Ave. in Everett. Her grave marker on a hill overlooking I-5 was unearthed and cleaned Oct. 14 after her identity was confirmed.
Shipman has been working with local historians, Civil War buffs and genealogy sleuths who connected the dots between the presidential candidate and the long-lost grave by using public records and family trees.
The Obama connection is one of a long list of surprises Shipman has encountered over the years as he wanders the 100 acres of cemetery hillside where more than 50,000 people are buried. Much of his energy since he retired five years ago has been focused on finding the grave markers of Civil War veterans who are honored each fall in a colorful ceremony complete with cannon blasts. A search for their life stories begins each time a record of another soldier is found.
That Civil War research is what opened the door to finding Rachel Wolfley's grave site.
Snohomish resident Karyn Weingarden puts cemetery records, Civil War veterans' records and obituaries of Snohomish County pioneers on a Web site for people tracing their family roots. She also adds the obituaries of the wives of Civil War veterans who died in Snohomish County on the same site.
In 2002, Weingarden found Wolfley's 1911 obit in The Everett Daily Herald. On a genealogy Web site Weingarden posted information about Wolfley and the woman's daughter's family name -- Butts -- so anyone searching the surnames Wolfley or Butts would know where the family settled.
"I did not know of her connection to Obama, only to a Civil War veteran and a family living in Snohomish County," Weingarden said.
Genealogy and history buffs who had studied Obama's roots recently made the connection when they saw her posting. Some knew that Wolfley's husband, Robert, was buried in Olathe, Kan., and that Wolfley had died in Snohomish County. What they didn't know was where she was buried.
When workers at the Evergreen Funeral Home and Cemetery received a call last week from a woman wondering if Obama's great-great-great grandmother was buried on their grounds, they went looking.
Wolfley's name was pulled from records at the cemetery and a maintenance worker poked around the burial plot to find the marker. He cleared a grassy patch only to find Wolfley's last name was misspelled as Walfley.
Wolfley died Feb. 8, 1911, was buried four days later. She is next to her son-in-law and daughter, Nathan and Addie Butts, Obama's great-great aunt, who died in 1936 and 1937, respectively.
Addie was also known as Anna.
"We have both Republicans and Democrats who work here but everybody was excited by it," said Allen Ice, general manager of the Evergreen Funeral Home and Cemetery.
Shipman said it is rare to find an ancestor five generations removed from a national figure in cemeteries in Washington state, which became a territory in 1853 and a state in 1889.
"It's like a needle in a haystack," he said.
"What you found is accurate," said Joshua Field, campaign director for Obama's campaign in Washington state, after checking records. "It's interesting. I don't think people realize his Washington state ties."
Obama's mother, Stanley Ann Dunham, lived on Mercer Island before moving to Hawaii after she finished high school. Obama's mother died in 1995 of ovarian cancer. Obama took time off the campaign trail Thursday and Friday to fly to Hawaii to visit his ailing 85-year-old grandmother, Madelyn Payne Dunham, who helped raise him. Rachel Wolfley is a great-grandmother to Madelyn Payne Dunham.
Local historians are now trying to learn more about Wolfley's life story.
Her four-sentence obituary said she died at age 75 in her daughter's home after a 3 1/2-year illness. It said she moved from Kansas and was a member of the Methodist Episcopal Church.
The cursive scrawl from the 1910 U.S. Census in Snohomish County said she and her parents were born in Ohio and that she could read and write. She married Robert Wolfley in 1859 in Ohio.
Military records show that Robert Wolfley served with Company A in the 145th Ohio National Guard infantry near the end of the war. It was a 100-day regiment formed to protect Washington, D.C., during the major campaigns that Gen. Ulysses S. Grant led into Virginia in the spring of 1864, Shipman said. He received a Civil War pension, which went to his wife after he died in 1895.
Robert and Rachel Wolfley lived in Ohio and Kansas, where his occupation was listed as a farmer in several U.S. Censuses in the 1800s.
Shipman speculates that it would have been too expensive to send Wolfley's body back to Kansas to be buried alongside her husband. Her grave marker is typical of temporary ones of that era that were meant to be replaced by permanent stones later, Shipman said.
Shipman hopes to get permission from Rachel Wolfley's descendents, perhaps even Obama himself, to replace the grave marker with the misspelled name. He wants it to match the permanent gravestone of her daughter and son-in-law. Shipman and Ice have started a fund under the Evergreen Historic Committee, 4504 Broadway, Everett, WA 98203, to raise money for the stone.
Wolfley has been added to a Everett Public Library podcast and map of noteworthy figures buried at the Evergreen Cemetery. The podcast for self-guided tours of the cemetery is expected to be available at www.epls.org on Oct. 31.
"She's right on the main tour route," said David Dilgard, a historian at the Everett library.

Reporter Eric Stevick: 425-339-3446 or e-mail stevick@heraldnet.com.
Story tags » EverettPeople

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