Longevity is not just about living a long time, but it also implies perseverance and resilience. One doesn’t just have a body that survives through many years, but it must have a spirit that sustains through difficulties, deaths, betrayals and pain. Mary Knorr Mattson was such a person. She is my 2nd great grandmother on my mother’s side. Born in 1856 to German immigrants Bernard and Dorthea (Wetzel) Knorr, she lived until 1958 – she was 101 years old when she died! Imagine all the things she witnessed in those years? The inventions alone must have amazed her…the telephone, cars, airplanes and miraculous antibiotics.
Mary was most likely born in Buffalo, New York, though later census records have her birth in Canada. This is still a mystery yet to be solved. (There will be a theme here.) Her father, Bernard Knorr was a tanner and her mother Dorthea took care of their nine children.
In 1876, when Mary was 19 she married Ellis Mattson who was a 23-year-old puddler (iron working). They got married at the East Presbyterian Church in Buffalo.
Just a few years later in August 1879, Ellis drowned in Buffalo Creek, leaving Mary pregnant with her second child and their two-year-old daughter (my Great Grandmother Susan Dorthea Mattson). When they have a topic for “Stupidest Ancestor” I will write about him and his ridiculous death.
After Ellis died, Mary did not move back in with her parents and instead stayed with her husband’s family the Mattson’s. She even moved with them when they returned to their home state of Pennsylvania. She can be seen living with their large family in the 1880 census. I find this curious that she chooses Ellis’s family over her own and perhaps it says something about her relationship with the Knorr’s.
She stayed in York, Pennsylvania until 1886 when she moved back to Buffalo, New York. She supported her two girls as a “tailoress.”
In 1889 things get murky. There is no Mary Mattson who appears in any records until the 1900 census and suddenly she had a son named William Mattson!
I searched in the isolated Buffalo Archives ( It was an adventure to go out to this small dark office building in an isolated and destitute industrial area that hadn’t seen any industry in 50 years. They practically required a secret password. I felt sorry for the civil servant assigned out there all by themselves.) It was there that I found an entry of a Mary Mattson marriage in the index records in 1887, but when the archivist did a search for the actual marriage record none was found. Perhaps she did get married and the certificate is just lost or maybe they applied for a license and didn’t follow through with the ceremony? Either way, the mysterious father of William is gone by 1900 and they are living under the name of Mattson again. Because the 1890 census was destroyed, and no marriage record exists I haven’t found a way to determine who this man was. Did he die, or did he just leave? I suspect that he left because there would be no reason to take back the name of Mattson if he passed away. No, I believe that Mary felt some type of dishonor or shame and made the choice to resume the last name of her first husband.
What is interesting is that William went by the last name of Mattson for the rest of his life. William never told his wife’s family about his real parentage. When I exchanged e-mails with William’s great-niece, I had to tell her that it was impossible that Ellis Mattson was his father because he had died in 1879 and William was born in 1889!
By 1910, Mary and William lived with her oldest daughter Susan and her husband Wilber Shuart according to the census.
After 1910, Mary’s children looked for opportunities in other parts of the country and started to leave Buffalo. When her oldest daughter Susan’s first marriage ended (divorce or death TBD), she became a mail order bride and moved to South Dakota in 1913 to marry Frank Cork (my Great-Grandfather). Her daughter Ellice married Claude Lewis Fassett and they moved to Oklahoma by 1913. Her son William may have left then too. There are no records of any Mattson’s in the Buffalo City Directories after 1913. Perhaps he was moving his way across the country? He finally settled in Los Angeles sometime before 1917. With no reason to stay in Buffalo, Mary moved to Oklahoma to live with Ellice according to the 1920 census.
Sadly, Ellice’s husband Claude died in 1923. She was able to make a living as the owner of a cigar store and supported her mother. Then in 1935 Ellice married for the 2nd time to J. Andrew Arnett. What conversation happened between the siblings about who will take Mom? The country was in the middle of the depression and her adult children were, fortunately, all employed but it would be a sacrifice for them to take in another person if money was limited. Poor Mary, did she feel like a burden and vulnerable being shuffled from one house to another? It must have been difficult to pick up everything when you are 79 years old, but that is what Mary did. In 1935 she moved across the country to Los Angeles to live with her son William and his wife Anna. I hope Mary was happy in her final years in the sun of Los Angeles and she lived contently in retirement in a garden with a breeze.
When Mary died in 1958, her son had her buried at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in the Hollywood Hills. This is one of life’s hits and misses…I was born 5 years later, and I lived less than a half hour away from her grave never knowing anything about her or my great-uncle William because my mother didn’t know about that side of her family. My grandparent’s divorced when Mom was a baby and she never knew she had a different father until she was an adult. Mary must have known about my mother, her great grand-daughter, but she wouldn’t have made an overture to meet her. These were different times when divorce was a secret to be kept and still a scandal – she knew all about hiding family secrets.
But now I have found Mary Knorr Mattson and I will remember her strength and tenaciousness to endure through all that life may throw at you. I like to think that might be a family trait.