The monument at left marks the death of George Armstrong Custer on Last Stand Hill in the Battle of Little Bighorn in Montana, while the one at right marks the burial of Reed Custer in the Prosper, Minnesota, cemetery. Are they related? The Custer cousin connection as outlined in my genealogy software program comparison report. (Photos courtesy Lisa Brainard and Debra J. Richardson)
The monument at left marks the death of George Armstrong Custer on Last Stand Hill in the Battle of Little Bighorn in Montana, while the one at right marks the burial of Reed Custer in the Prosper, Minnesota, cemetery. Are they related? The Custer cousin connection as outlined in my genealogy software program comparison report. (Photos courtesy Lisa Brainard and Debra J. Richardson)
I see surnames everywhere. They call out my name on book spines, township maps, road signs and in one of the greatest inventions of mankind: the index.

To a genealogist a last name is more than a couple of vowels thrown together with a few consonants. Surnames in my genealogy database are the lineage of my direct ancestors and the link between family groups. Surnames are who I am by blood and who I am connected to by marriage. My collective surnames are my tribe.

Spotting own name

I see surnames, of course, at every cemetery I visit. Chipped into marble, chiseled out of granite, I could spot one of my family surnames on a gravestone at 50 yards under a full moon.

I once had opportunity to prove that, in theory if not in practice, when unexpected road construction forced me on a detour past a cemetery in western Iowa. I admired an array of tombstones as my car swiftly swept past when suddenly I nearly slammed on the brakes.

Yes, I was aware a branch of my family line settled in that county, but no, I hadn't gotten far enough to research the precise whereabouts of said family's burial location. As it turned out, I didn't need to.

They were right before my eyes on a stately slab of stone. Some relatives just go out of their way to be noticed and if it means orchestrating a detour to do so, hey, no problem.

Since that experience, I've been OK with summer road construction. I'm thinking the dead are on friendly terms with the Department of Transportations. Who knows what relative might want to be found around the next bend in the road?

Surnames become the genealogist's magnificent obsession. Our curiosity isn't easily satisfied and certainly doesn't stop with our own families. We just have to know if so-and-so is related to the line of someone with a same last name. As I tromp through cemeteries, I'm forever collecting and connecting surnames.

Chasing down Custer

Here's an invitation to come along with me on one of those tromps. Today let's head off to the corner of highways 52 and 44 in Canton Township. Just north of the living community of Prosper we find an acre-and-a-half community buried within the Prosper Cemetery.

In the 1882 "History of Fillmore County," the Prosper Cemetery is described as a "free burial place." Purchased by subscription, the property in Section 25 was fenced and well cared for throughout the years by neighbors and families of those buried there. Not until 1981, over a century after its establishment, was a charge imposed for burial lot fee.

We enter the cemetery's gates, and walk to the far southeastern edge of the grounds, to a granite monument bearing the surname "Custer." In order to prove the lineage of Reed Custer (1868-1942) I worked backward from his death date. For the sake of clarity in this column, here's a snapshot of my research in chronological order:

April 10, 1868: Oliver Reed Custer is born the ninth child of Samuel Custer and Lyria (Lydia) Durst of Grantsville, Maryland

1870 Federal Census: Allegany County, MD, age 2 years

1880 Federal Census: Grantsville, Garrett County, MD, aged 12 years

1890: Came west to settle in the Preston area where he worked as farm hand

Feb. 23, 1892 : United in marriage by the Rev. Jacob Raveill, Methodist Episcopal minister, to Malinda Colburn at Preston

1895 Minnesota State Census: Living in Carimona Twp. with wife and 2-year-old daughter

1900 Federal Census: Living in Carimona Twp. with wife and three daughters

1907: Moved from farm in Waukokee to Preston where he worked for businessman Alfred Olson, whose interests included the Preston Creamery

1910 Federal Census: Living in Newburg Twp. with wife and daughters

1920 Federal Census: Living in Newburg Twp. with family addition of 8-year-old son, Ira

1928 Newburg Farmer's Directory: Renting 120 acres of land owned by Alfred G. Olson in Section 19

1930 Federal Census: Living in Newburg Twp. as a widower with two adult children

May 17, 1942: County death record states he died at the age of 74 years, 1 month, and 7 days of coronary thrombosis on a Sunday evening

May 29, 1942: Obituary published in the Mabel Record mourns him as "a good neighbor and willing to help wherever he could"- at the time of his passing he served as president of the Prosper Cemetery (always a mark of a good man in my opinion-ed.djr) - he is survived by four children, as well as three sisters living in Maryland

Following up

Reed's grandfather, Emanuel, was the eldest son of Emanuel Custer, Sr. The junior Emanuel's next-born sibling was John Custer. The direct lines of brothers, Emanuel, Jr, and John split off and two generations down, George Armstrong Custer is born in 1839 and Oliver Reed Custer is born in 1868. The Custer boys are second cousins.

The history of United States Army officer and cavalry commander, General George Custer is well documented. People who famously make a mark upon the world are fortunate when it comes to the recording of their family history for posterity. Genealogists are drawn to compiling such pedigrees and feverishly work their research magic to establish ancestry.

In today's web world, clues to a historic family history are only a few clicks away. But, genealogists, take care to drive cautiously down the super information highway.

For instance, I found Internet reference to three different places of birth for Emanuel Custer, Sr. Of those - New Providence Penn.; Trappe, Montgomery, Penn.; and Limerick, Philadelphia, Penn. -only one is cited with a source. "The Descendants of Paulus and Gertrude Kusters of Kaldenkirchen, Germany and Germantown, Penn.," published by Mennonite Press, 1991, records the place of birth as Limerick.

More questions?

There's a great deal of information on the Custer (Kusters) family available to researchers. My chief aim was to determine if Reed Custer of Prosper was a relative of the General's.

Now that's done, do any questions remain unanswered? Always - for one answer leads to another question.

How did it occur that Reed ended up in Fillmore County from his Maryland birthplace? While I cannot say for certain, judging by census records it appears he came alone, not accompanied by, nor settling near, any Custer relative in this area as was often the case with immediate family.

Did Reed realize his cousinly connection to the General? Again, I conjecture that while he may have heard a family story or two, he certainly didn't seem to make a fuss about it during his 52 years in Fillmore County. He lived quietly and is buried under a gray granite monument in a hamlet graveyard. The only bold acknowledgement to his ancestry is his surname elegantly etched in capital letters on the face of a gravestone.

At another rural cemetery in a neighboring county, there could be another Custer cousin resting in peace. Not a direct relative to our Reed, however the person did make claim to be relation on the General's side of the family. Over a period of recent weeks, I've attempted to confirm that connection.

As it stands now, it appears that if a common ancestor indeed exists it may well be on a maternal line rather than the paternal Custer line. I've been communicating with a local historian in New York State and a fellow executive director from the Herkimer County Historical Society. Should I be able to authenticate that connection, I'll share it in a future column.

Until then, let's move on from our fixation with surnames to a fixation with dates. I note that the date of publication for today's "Life in the Past Lane" is one of special significance. On this date 172 years ago, in New Rumley, Harrison County, Ohio, Emanuel Henry Custer and Marie Ward Kirkpatrick welcomed their third-born son.

Happy birthday, George Armstrong Custer.

©2011 by Debra J. Richardson

The Fillmore County History Center and Genealogy Library in Fountain is open Monday - Friday 9 a.m. - 4 p.m. and closed all major holidays. Call 507-268-4449 or check the website,