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Abandoned O’Neals mother finally got her due

Madera County Historical Society

In 1911, the year that Ellen White graduated from Spring Valley School, shown here, she learned that she had inherited $100,000 from her father who had been missing for more than a decade. Standinng from left to right are Mr. Copsey, Mrs. Copsey, Minnie Cummings (the teacher) Charles O’Neal, Charles O’Neal Jr., and Calvine Bigelow.


The young woman dressed in black and climbed into the funeral carriage. They handed the baby to her, and then the cortege headed for the cemetery. Just a week before, life had been so full of promise. Now her world was shattered as she prepared to bury her husband. Before the month was out, she was back in Madera County.

Young Ellen McGrogan had lived with her mother in O’Neals in the last decade of the 1800s. Although she was a pretty girl, she didn’t have a heavy social calendar. With no man in the house, it took all that she and her mother could do to make ends meet. That’s one reason J.W. White got such a warm welcome when he came courting.

White’s star was clearly on the rise. He was a successful merchant with big plans. When he finally asked for Ellen’s hand in marriage, the mother consented without hesitation. After the wedding, the couple packed up and left Madera County for Sutter Creek in 1895.

White opened a general merchandise store in Amador County and was doing a land office business. They rented a home and the next year were blessed with the addition of a baby girl, whom they named Stella. They were the picture of happiness until that fateful day in 1897. White never came home from the store.

Ellen alerted the authorities, and a search commenced. A few days later, the young bride was declared a widow, when the sheriff informed her that they had found the badly decomposed body of her missing husband in the nearby creek. He had apparently drowned accidentally.

Although she never saw her husband’s body, he was identified by the clothes he wore. There was no reason to doubt that the man she buried was not her husband, J.W. White. Ellen had no choice. She returned to her mother’s home in O’Neals.

For the next 13 years, Ellen White devoted her life to raising her young daughter. She taught her to sew, to cook, to can, and a thousand other life skills that were essential for young women to know at the turn of the century. Stella attended Spring Valley School, and in 1911 she graduated. That was also the year that she got the surprise of her life. Her father was still alive!

A friend had seen an advertisement in a San Francisco newspaper seeking information as to the whereabouts of Ellen and Stella White. He got in touch with Mrs. White and then informed her husband, who had placed the ad. It seemed a miracle. The husband and father was still alive, and the wife had not remarried. With the consent of both parties, a reunion was planned.

J.W. White had moved to Bend, Oregon, where once again he had put his entrepreneurial skills to work and had become a respected member of the community. He paid for transportation for his family to come to meet with him. Ellen consented; after all, she did have some questions concerning the earlier reports of his demise and his apparent desertion.

The mother and teenage daughter took the stage to Madera and caught the train to San Francisco where they would proceed to Oregon. On the very day they were to leave, however, Ellen was struck low again. A telegram came, informing her of the death of her husband. For the second time, she was told she was a widow. Suspecting that something was amiss, Ellen and Stella caught the next train to Madera and paid a visit to attorney R.E. Rhodes.

Rhodes agreed to go to Oregon and represent Ellen and Stella. He would get to the bottom of all of this. It didn’t take long.

In a few days, Rhodes sent a telegram to his clients in Madera County. Sure enough, J.W. White was dead this time. He had been in ill health for quite a while and had gone into the hospital on the same day that Ellen and Stella had left Madera. He died two days later, but there was more. White had amassed a fortune in Oregon. He had over $100,000 in the bank and owned several tracts of land, all of which he left to his wife and daughter.

No light was ever shed on the mystery of why White left his family in the first place, and Ellen went to her grave wondering what had gone wrong. One thing, however, became very clear. They would never have to scrimp and save again, thanks to the business acumen of J.W. White and the pangs of conscience that he carried to his death bed.

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