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Online sleuthing helps send Civil War veteran's remains home to Maine
Nine decades after his death, Maine Civil War veteran Jewett B. Williams is returning home.
Williams died in July 1922 at age 78 while he was a patient at Oregon State Hospital in Salem. His unclaimed cremated remains were among thousands of corroded copper canisters stored at the hospital for decades.
On Monday, Aug. 1, a ceremony at the state hospital handed his remains to the Patriot Guard Riders, who will escort Williams on a cross-country motorcycle ride to his resting place at the Togus National Cemetery in Chelsea, Maine.
Williams will be buried with full military honors in his native state Sept. 17.
During Monday morning's ceremony, state Sen. Peter Courtney of Salem, whose discovery 12 years ago of the canisters in a locked hospital storeroom set in motion events that led to the new memorial for the ashes, told a small crowd that he hoped all of the remains eventually "find a way home."
"We have come to help these lost souls find a way home," Courtney told the crowd just outside the glass-walled memorial holding the unclaimed cremated remains. "We have come to this hallowed ground to take Private Williams home, home to Maine.
"I am honored to be here today, and pleased to see the empty spaces in this collarium. Each empty place depicting an individual who has gone home because someone has come to claim him or her. Hopefully, someday, like Private Williams, all those lost souls someday will be able to go home."
A journey West
Williams was born in May 1844 in Hodgdon, Maine, the oldest child of Jared Williams and Rosaline Jackins from New Brunswick, Canada. He had at least eight siblings.
Maine military historians say a 21-year-old Williams was drafted in October 1864 and served the final six months of the Civil War as a private the 20th Maine Volunteer Infantry Regiment's Company H.
The regiment played a key role in the July 1863 Battle of Gettysburg, scattering Confederate forces about to attack its Little Round Top position.
During the time Williams served, the regiment was involved in the Battle of Boydton Plank Road, the Battle of Hatcher's Run, the Battle of White Oak Road and the Battle of Five Forks. The unit also was at Appomattox Court House during Robert E. Lee's surrender on April 9, 1865.
It was mustered out on July 16, 1865.
In 1871, Williams married Nora Carey in Minneapolis. They had six children (five survived) while living in Brainerd, Minn., where Williams worked as a carpenter.
In 1892, they moved to Everett, Wash. By 1900, his wife was living separately in Snohomish.
In 1903, Williams lived in Portland. In 1914, 1915 and 1919, Williams was among a group of Civil War veterans who spoke in Portland-area schools.
In April 1922, Williams was admitted to the Oregon State Hospital for the Insane in Salem, for senile dementia. He died in July 1922 of cerebral arteriosclerosis. (Williams' death certificate misspelled his first name as "Jewitt.")
Williams is one of three 20th Maine Regiment veterans who died in Oregon. Others were in Astoria and Coos Bay. Five 20th Maine veterans lived in Washington, and a dozen lived in California.
In May 2015, when state hospital officials transferred ashes of about 20 military veterans to Willamette National Cemetery, Williams was not among the group. Hospital staff apparently didn't know he was a veteran of the Civil War.
Luck of the draw
Williams' journey home began almost by accident. It started nearly three years ago with the first letter of his last name and culminated in a chance online intersection with a Maine author, a Maine military historian and a Roseburg amateur genealogist who has worked since 2013 to dig up information on hundreds of people whose cremated remains not claimed by families were stored at the hospital and nearly forgotten, in canisters marked with round metal tags that included a name and a number.
"It was just the luck of the draw," says Phyllis Zegers, a retired Douglas County Education Service District advocate who spends up to 10 hours a day, nearly every day, researching the lives and family links of about 3,500 people whose unclaimed cremated remains are at the hospital.
Most of what she discovers is posted on the genealogy website www.Find-a-Grave.com. Zegers has completed work on information about 1,600 people who died at the hospital. "As far as I know, I'm the only one doing it," she says.
Zegers isn't paid for her efforts, but she's helped draw national attention to the remains. Her work was even the subject of an April 2015 news report by a Johnstown, Pa., television station.
The remains include patients from the state mental hospital in Salem, the Oregon State Tuberculosis Hospital, the Mid-Columbia Hospital, Dammasch State Hospital in Wilsonville, the Oregon State Penitentiary and Fairview Training Center.
State officials say that a hospital memorial fountain with underground vaults called Memorial Circle served for years as a columbarium for the remains. Hospital staff moved the containers to a storeroom because of water damage and leaks.
The state's $458 million replacement project included a memorial plaza, designed by Seattle's Lead Pencil Studio and dedicated in July 2014, where hundreds of the remains are displayed behind a glass wall.
'Let's start here'
Zegers began researching Williams' life after spending several years digging into her family's history. She zipped around Ancestry.com, online news archives and genealogy websites finding information about her kin, until, Zegers says, she became "bored with that" and wanted a new challenge.
During her family research, Zegers discovered a distant cousin who had been institutionalized at the state hospital in the 1880s. She dug a little deeper and discovered the thousands of cremated remains of patients who died that were unclaimed by family.
"I thought that would make a very interesting little project to start researching those people," Zegers says. "I was honoring their lives."
She found a smattering of other information about the remains that had been posted on websites. Some of that research (fueled by Courtney's 2007 bill to fund replacement of the aging hospital building and allow public release of the names of unclaimed remains) started at the beginning of the alphabet. So, Zegers decided to start near the end of the alphabet. Her first project was Jewett B. Williams.
"I just said, 'Let's start here,' " Zegers says.
Forging new links
Her 12-paragraph information about Williams' life was posted on Find-a-Grave.com in October 2013. In early 2015, Maine author and historian Tom A. Desjardin came across the information as he researched a new book about the 20th Maine Regiment.
Desjardin's 1995 book, "Stand Firm Ye Boys From Maine: The 20th Maine and the Gettysburg Campaign," focused on the Civil War. His new research looked at the entire history of the regiment, ending in the 1930s, when its last members died.
Desjardin has studied the 20th Maine Regiment for more than four decades (his doctoral thesis became the 1995 book). His research has led to burial sites for many of the regiment's members.
"So far, I have located the graves of 700 men who served in the regiment, which is about half of the total," Desjardin says.
As Maine's education commissioner at the time, Desjardin mentioned his discovery at a meeting of the governor's cabinet and urged the Northeast state's adjutant general and director of veterans affairs to pursue returning Williams' ashes to Maine.
Maine's U.S. Sen. Angus King also stepped in and asked Oregon to return Williams' remains. The request was handled by Oregon's Department of Veterans Affairs, which is coordinating the handover early next week.
Daniel Goodheart, deputy commissioner of Maine's Department of Defense and Emergency Management, says it is "common practice" to honor veterans by returning their remains to their home states.
"This is the only Civil War remains returned in anyone's memory," Goodheart says. "It surely happened before, but not recently. We have had repatriated remains from WWII and Vietnam in the past couple of months."
In stepped Lt. Jonathan D. Bratten, Maine Army National Guard historian, who began communicating with Zegers by email in November 2015, while gathering information about Williams. After Bratten's initial email, Zegers says she dug deeper into Williams' life, finding even more about the Maine native.
Usually, when Zegers finds someone willing to claim a patient's ashes, they often are shocked and surprised that their relative was at the hospital. This is the first time she's helped connect a Civil War veteran with his home state.
"Jewett was actually one of the very first people I researched and posted on Find-a-Grave.com," she says. "I was looking for living relatives, but I never found any."
Zegers plans to attend Monday's ceremony handing Williams' remains to the Patriot Guard Riders. It's a fitting tribute to her "labor of love."
"There are a lot of different stories and a lot of different paths to getting there," she says. "I really enjoy connecting with the families and hearing what they plan to do, and the connections that living relatives make with each other. There ends up being a lot of new links that are made among the people who claim these ashes."