By Stephen D. Bowling
It was a strange story. The March 2, 1949 edition of The Lexington Herald ran an article on page 5 from a 49-year-old man in California looking for his mother, who abandoned the family about 1910. The brief article included the man’s address and information about a detective working in Lexington to help find the lady.
Mother Missing Since 1910 Sought By Son A Breathitt county native now living in Oakland, Calif. asked Lexington police yesterday to help locate his mother, who he has not seen since 1910. The man, James Napier, 538 East 17th Street, Oakland, in a letter to Detectives Chief John L. Sellers, said his mother was the former Elizabeth Palmer of Breathitt county. He left her, he said when he was about seven. Napier wrote that he has reason to believe his mother is living in Lexington and that he was "very anxious" to find her. "I have tried for years without success," he said.
Did he find her? No answer was found, and the newspaper did not do a follow-up story.
James Napier was born on July 22, 1899, in Breathitt County near Athol. He was the son of Zachary Tilden Napier and his wife, Elizabeth (Palmer) Napier. James Napier’s mother, Elizabeth Palmer, was born in Lee County, Kentucky, about 1880 and was the daughter of Green and Sarah M. (Porter) Palmer. Little is known of her early life, but she married Zachary Tilden Napier on December 4, 1897, in Lee County. The couple had one son, James.
By 1905, the small family had moved from Breathitt County to the community of Lake in Marinette County, Wisconsin, where Zachary worked as a sawyer in the log woods. What happened in the next few years cannot be determined by the census records and the scattered information about the family. What is known is that conditions in the home deteriorated, and at some period between 1907 and 1910, Elizabeth (Palmer) Napier left the family.
By 1910, Zachary Napier and his son, James, moved to the logging camp in Marinette County, and several of Zachary’s sisters and brothers had joined them. A ten-year-old James was attending school in Marinette County, but the mother, Elizabeth, is not listed with the family and couldn’t be found on the census records anywhere in the United States. She may have already remarried or may have been deceased. Where she was is unknown.
James entered the service in 1918 and served in the United States Army during World War I. By the time the 1920 Census was taken in Marinette County, Wisconsin, Zachary Napier and his new wife, Cordelia Fugate Napier, had four children in their home at Athelstone, in addition to his son James.
About 1924, James Napier met Mabel Ellen Dolan (1899-1983). The couple was married on January 17, 1925, at Iron Mountain in Dickinson County, Michigan. By 1930, James and his wife, Mabel, moved to Coos County, Oregon, where his father had relocated, and James had taken a job as an Oregon State Forest Ranger. They later moved to Washoe County, Nevada, when James found work as a truck driver for a wood contractor.
He never really found a home and later moved his family to California. At some point, James Napier started his search for his mother. His sad quest may have been fulfilled, but we may never know. He and his wife Mabel raised their daughter, Lucille, and lived out their days in Alameda County, California.
It is unknown if James Napier found his mother before he died on December 24, 1972, at the age of 71 in Oakland, Alameda County, California. He was buried in the Crystal Peak Cemetery in Verdi, Washoe County, Nevada. His wife, Mabel Ellen Napier, was buried beside James in 1983.
I am confident that James Napier continued to look for his mother for the rest of his life. I hope that he found her and that his life of unease was complete after knowing what happened or why she left. His story is sadly not the only case similar to his that I have found. One Breathitt County family I know had their father walk to the store and never returned. I hope James Napier’s search had a better outcome.
© 2022 Stephen D. Bowling