A Woman on the Frontlines of War

A clue about her ancestor’s job continues to inspire new avenues of research for an Ancestry genealogist. What will you learn during Ancestry’s Labor Day free access?

A handwritten “Dr.” scrawled in the margins of a 1918 passenger list led Nicole Kreis Kendall on a journey that ended with an amazing discovery about the career path of her third great-aunt, Maria Belle Coolidge.

“Now, I just want to tell her story and share how awesome and gutsy she was,” Nicole said. “She had so much gumption.”

Nicole’s passion for family history is evident in the enthusiasm she brings to her professional work with AncestryProGenealogists, and in her excitement to share her experiences as a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR).

Six years ago, Nicole was new to genealogy and to Ancestry, working as a content editor in the company’s corporate office. Her team spent an hour every Friday researching their personal family trees—time Nicole used to pursue a long-held interest in the siblings of her great-grandmother, Katharine (Coolidge) Kreis, especially a pair of twin sisters named Anna and Maria.

Maria Belle Coolidge Passenger List

One of the first documents to surface was a passenger list. On 23 November 1918, Maria Belle Coolidge arrived in the Port of New York on board the SS Rochambeau from Bordeaux, France. And next to Maria’s name, someone had written the abbreviation “Dr.”

“I was amazed,” Nicole said. “She’s a doctor? She was coming home from France, and she was a single woman, and it was around the same time as World War I. When I saw that passenger ship record, I got really interested.”

Users of Ancestry.com are well-acquainted with the shaky leaf—hints that often lead to other related documents about a particular ancestor. One of the hints attached to that 1918 passenger list was a passport application. On 6 February 1918, a 43-year-old physician named Maria Belle Coolidge sought permission to go to France with the American Red Cross for the duration of the war. Her birth date and location matched what Nicole knew about her ancestral Maria, as did her father’s name.

Maria Belle Coolidge Passport Application

It was a match, but these fascinating pieces of information about her great aunt were just the beginning. Nicole eventually learned that, like her, Maria had been a member of the DAR, which had records about Maria giving presentations on sanitation and conditions at the front.

“My goal, after I saw that mentioned in the DAR publications, was to find records of her account of the war,” Nicole said. “It was really cool that she went over, and I felt like she was a single woman and there’s no one else to really talk about her. She doesn’t have any descendants, and if no one talks about her, then what she did doesn’t matter.” 

Newspapers, for the win

Nicole’s big break in uncovering the details of Maria’s life came when Newspapers.com added a wealth of new material from newspapers in Michigan. It was here she found Maria’s obituary, which revealed that the government had sent Maria on a tour of the American southern states to sell war bonds.

“So, I did a search and I found a newspaper article that totally answered my prayers and made me so happy,” Nicole said. “Because forever I had wanted to hear about her experiences, her first-hand account.”

The Houston Post, April 28, 1919.

And that’s exactly what she found. In a news article published in The Houston Post on 28 April 1919, an enthusiastic reporter gave a detailed account of a speech given by Lieutenant Maria Belle Coolidge, encouraging people to buy war bonds. In Maria’s own words, Nicole learned about her aunt’s experiences in the trenches, surviving poison gas attacks and close encounters with shells. This is Nicole’s favorite quote from the article: “I am sometimes introduced to an audience as Lieutenant, often as Doctor Castor Oil and Dr. Cootie, and on rare occasions as a Buck Private. That is the best title of all and I feel honored when so called. One day while crossing the Atlantic on a transport a soldier said to me, ‘I don’t know what your uniform will be, but I got this much to say, you are a darn good buck private,’ and I answered, yes I hope to make a darn good buck private.”

Nicole said, “It felt like Maria was speaking to me, and it was just amazing to be able to hear that account. She would have been a hoot to hang out with. And that was the other thing I wanted to see, was her personality. She worked so hard. She made an impact.”

Nicole’s search for more information about her intrepid great aunt is far from over. She plans to visit all the places that Maria has been, to “see what she saw.” In the meantime, she’s sharing Maria’s story with as many people as she can. Her grandpa had only known his aunt Maria as one of the “two crazy ladies my father would talk about.” As a veteran who served in Germany and England during World War II and later become a doctor, he now has a new appreciation for their shared experiences.

Nicole wishes she had known about Maria growing up, and that young girls in general heard more stories about women like her aunt.

“Things were hard for them, but they made it work,” Nicole said. “They fought and they broke through barriers. I feel like my responsibility now is to tell people about her.”

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