I am always interested in what my ancestors did during their lives. When it comes to making a living, typically men were farming or running a businesses, and women were housewives. So when I find someone who is not doing one of those things, it is a real surprise. That was the case with my great, great uncle, James Willey, at least that was the way he was in the census records when he was a child. In the documents that I have from my great aunt, his name is James Montania Singuior Willey. I always thought that was a pretty unusual name to give a child, particularly since his siblings did not have such long or fancy names.
One of the joys of genealogy is to work with other people who are related to you. In May two of my cousins, Anna and Pam, and I decided it was time to research the men in the Willey family, specifically, James, George, Richard and Samuel. We had no trouble finding documented facts about George, Richard, and Samuel, but James disappeared. There was no information that we could find about him. One of our hypotheses was that he had died or moved to a foreign county. So imagine my delight to get an e-mail from Anna with the Heading “I have found James Willey.” While looking at the census for the nephew of James Willey, listed was the name Sig. Montanio. That sounded rather like our James Willey so Anna checked the person’s birth information and that of the parents and they matched our James Willey exactly. Most interesting was his occupation—he definitely was more than a farmer—his occupation was listed as “farmer and showman.“
So once we had a lead about James Willey new name, we went to work. Collectively, we look at various records on Ancestry and Family Search, searched the newspapers in Chronicling America and newpapers.com, and googled Sig. Montanio.
So what did we find? First of all, he married Josephine Greenwald (aka Greenwalt or Greenwaldt or Grunwald or Greenevault), in Sheridan, Huron, Michigan in May 1877. James and Josephine had four children: Harry (1877-1947), James “Perry” (1880-1952), Minnie E. (1887-1950) and Charlotte M. (1889-1949). Most surprising was his profession listed on their marriage license: “circus performer.”
So we assumed that for performing he changed his name. I do think that Sig. Montanio sounds much more exotic than James Willey. According to the newspaper articles, James or Sig. Montanio performed as an acrobat, trapeze artist and high wire walker. And from looking at the newspaper articles, he was very good. Performing was a family affair. His wife had a musical act and played the banjo while his two sons also performed, sometimes as clowns and other times as acrobats. His two daughter, Minnie and Lottie do not seem to have ever performed in the circus.
Circus History and search under "M." From a timeline that Anna put together from newspaper articles about the shows, it appears that James and his family were involved in the circus world until 1898.
We have not been able to find James “Sig. Montanio” in the 1900 census. However, he does appear in the 1910 census in Crook National Forest, Gila, Arizona. He is listed as a widow and as a rancher. James died on November 8, 1918 in Pinal County, Arizona. According to the local newspaper, he was camping, became sick and froze to death while returning to town, probably to seek treatment for his illness.
While I always have questions, I would like to ask my ancestors, but in this case I would have lots of questions. First, I would like to know when, why and how he joined the circus. Then I would like to find out when and why he left. I also would like some clarification about what he did after he left the circus—did he always ranch or have another occupation.