Kate Murphy was a prostitute in Sheridan in the late 1800s. She was a surly woman who carried pistols on her hips and cursed worse than a sailor. No one liked her husband either. Kate and her husband died within weeks of each other in 1893, she by suicide.
The article that ran in The Sheridan Post about their deaths said their gravestones were mile markers on the road to hell. No tears would be shed for them.
The Wyoming Room manager Kim Ostermyer said that article is one of the coldest things he has seen written about a person. We may have been raised not to speak ill of the dead, but something caused the Sheridan community then to vilify these people in their graves, he said.
Throughout his career, Ostermyer has learned the summation of a person’s life is more than what appears in a single-page obituary, and by learning history, we relate better to the present.
His research has allowed him to discover the regrets, motivations and desires of some of the country’s most prominent historical figures and his own ancestors — to learn that each person is more complex than their most newsworthy moments.
Ostermyer’s family has been in Sheridan County since 1889, when they came from Nebraska to escape a 17-year drought and locust infestation. Early exposure to family stories led Ostermyer down a path to becoming a student of genealogy, which he said illuminates aspects of sociology, religion, geography and culture.
“It’s not just names, dates and dead people,” he said.
Each project shows how families fit into the historical American drama. Ostermyer said he uses the tales of his ancestors as parables — lessons for his children to put their day-to-day challenges into perspective. As he goes down the rabbit hole accumulating knowledge, interpreting facts in context is important, but can also reveal some harsh truths.
Despite the fact that most Quakers had abandoned slavery by the late 1700s, one of Ostermyer’s Quaker ancestors was disowned by his church for remaining a slave trader. Ostermyer has read the names of some of the slaves his ancestors owned. Other ancestors moved to the south and became part of Robert E. Lee’s guard unit. Some became well-known inventors and agriculturalists.
One family member told Ostermyer he was “stirring up dust” in the family because of what he has learned through his research. A great-grandfather had been stealing money from envelopes while working at the post office during the Great Depression. Ostermyer said he asked himself what he would have done in that situation if he were trying to take care of his family. It’s a decision he can’t judge because he wasn’t there, he said.
It is difficult to comprehend how people felt during abstract historical points that most people encounter via a history textbook, Ostermyer said. Genealogy is often called micro-history because it helps make those accounts more relatable. It zooms in on broad story lines and expounds on witness experiences and themes. Many historians still disregard the field as just a hobby, he said.
“But if you want the average person to buy into the need for history, they have to have some way to connect to it,” Ostermyer said.
Learning about precedents for policy and government operations, understanding state statutes and municipal codes or knowing the history of a house can help people understand how to improve and connect to their place in the past and present, he said.
Some needle-in-a-haystack projects are frustrating and others are enjoyable and rewarding, Ostermyer said. In 1976, two graves were discovered on East Sixth Street while maintenance staff were working on a water main. When Ostermyer came to the Sheridan County Fulmer Public Library in 2015, he started doing cemetery research.
“There was this momentum, I could feel that something was going to break in all of this stuff,” he said.
In October of that year, he found obituaries for a woman and a child, who turned out to be the sister-in-law and nephew of Cornelius Grinnell — and the anonymous people discovered on Sixth Street. They were reburied in the cemetery.
History is subjective and can’t be established without bias bleeding into interpretation of accounts, he said. But in his opinion, we have to know where we’ve been before we can go forward.
Math would dictate that after the 17th or 18th generation in our family line, we should each have trillions of ancestors. But genealogy shows that because of how our ancestors lived, loved, fought and died, we’re all more closely related than we might think. ♦