In the past, I’ve touched upon the mystery surrounding George Hiram Thoma, who used an alias for a number of years before reverting back to the use of his original name. Born on 29 September 1880 in Clayton County, Iowa to Fred and Matilda (Hammond) Thoma, census records indicate that George remained in his home county at least until 1895.1 Family lore states that he left home as a teenager due to a poor relationship with his father;2 he was said to have bicycled from northeast to northwest Iowa where the next definitive record of his existence shows him marrying Anna Leota Fenton in the spring of 1902.3 However, he married under the assumed name of George A. Neilson, and later affidavits attest that this was one and the same person.4 George continued to use this assumed name for a number of years before finally reverting to the Thoma surname.
Now, a century has passed, and none of his living descendants, including his youngest daughter, seem to have even heard of the Neilson alias! In an effort to learn more about the potential cause of George’s name-change, a closer look was taken at his movements during his late teens and early twenties:
Did George leave home as a teenager? It was said that George had a poor relationship with his father, and recently uncovered evidence shows that he did, in fact, leave home as a teenager. However, at least at first, he didn’t go far. At the time of the 1895 Iowa State Census, George was fourteen and lived at home in the community of Garnavillo.5 Two years later, sixteen-year-old George attended high school in Postville, a town about twenty-five miles away.6 As George’s maternal grandmother also resided there, it’s certainly possible that he may have lived with her while completing his education.Also in 1897, George served with the Postville Fire Department.7 As reported in a local newspaper decades later, “Back in 1897 […] the Postville fire department members wore white duck trousers, red sweaters and blue military caps when on dress parade, and on dress parade they often were, for that was the period when firemen in Iowa towns met regularly for field days and what a time they had, with contests, feasts, and dances.”8 George, slim and clean-shaven, sits cross-legged in the front row of the group of twenty men, among whom he may have counted both former classmates and kin. At this time, after having dabbled previously with the idea of becoming a tinner,9 he was a clerk at a local hardware store.10
Did George really ride a bicycle across Iowa? Although family lore states that George left home as a teenager and bicycled across Iowa, I’ve always questioned whether this particular tale was entirely true or, indeed, even possible. As it turns out, George did, in fact, have access to a bicycle, and according to a blurb in the Postville Review in the summer of 1898, he “took an overland trip by bicycle to Farmersburg last Saturday, returning on Sunday.”11 From Postville to Farmersburg was a distance of more than fifteen miles—more than thirty miles roundtrip—which, with an eye to both the quality of bicycles of the era as well as the condition of the roads, frankly impressed me. Maybe he did bicycle across Iowa, or at least part of it, but from this clipping we are able to learn that he did not make the journey before he was eighteen; he remained close to home and was known as George Hiram Thoma at least until 1899. In January of that year, the Postville Review shared that he had spent several days visiting his parents in Garnavillo.12
How long did George use an alias? Thanks to the record of his daughter’s birth as well as the discovery of the record of his relinquished homestead, a fairly concrete date can be determined for the conclusion of George’s alias. His eldest daughter was born Fern Neilson in September of 1907;13 George A. Neilson appeared in a city directory printed in late 1908;14 and in February 1909, George H. Thoma made application for a homestead in western Nebraska.15 Perhaps the need to sign a record at the federal level inspired George to embrace his true identity once again! As for when George first used his alias, however, I have as of yet discovered no definitive records of his life between February of 1899, when he was known locally as George Thoma, and March of 1902, when he was married as George A. Neilson.16
What could have happened in those three years to give George reason to change his name? His experiences between the ages of eighteen and twenty-one remain a mystery to me. While I don’t yet know why George Hiram Thoma used an alias throughout a seven to ten year period of his early adulthood, however, I do have a more complete picture of his life during his late teens: he was a high school student, clerk, and fireman who lived apart from his immediate family but maintained a relationship with them, and he was apparently known well enough in his community to be mentioned routinely in the local newspapers.
Further complicating matters, however, is the fact that, in December 1905, during the midst of his documented use of an alias, a newspaper in his home county noted that “George Thoma, from Nebraska, is visiting with home folks since Friday.” This suggests both a continued relationship with his parents as well as the fact that his alias was either unknown or unacknowledged by those in northeastern Iowa. In any case, further information gleaned from historic newspapers could ultimately narrow the search for answers as to why, exactly, George Hiram Thoma was known as George A. Neilson.
Copyright © 2016 Melanie Frick. All Rights Reserved.