General Information

Nancy Malinda Pool Napier: An Original Gold Star Mother

“No, that’s probably not my Nancy M. Napier!” was my initial thought at an unlikely Ancestry.com “hit” that had popped up on the screen when first I searched her name. The name was the same but why would a 59-year-old Missouri widow be on a passenger list departing from Cherbourg, France for New York City in the middle of the Great Depression?1

Even though I eventually confirmed that the passenger list showed the correct Nancy M. (Pool) Napier, I believed from the outset that her 1932 voyage was unlikely to have been a vacation for pleasure — few people in my Pool family of origin could afford or be tempted by such an extravagance. Nancy Malinda was my grandfather’s first cousin once removed, and her father, Stephen P. Pool of Christian County Kentucky, has proved to be yet another member of this sprawling Kentucky clan whose final fate has been difficult to pin down.

I did know that Stephen and his much younger wife, Ellen Steele, had left Kentucky in the late 19th century, moving westward and settling in Hamilton County, Illinois although leaving behind few traces in their new Illinois home.2 Apparently without their parents, Stephen’s five children, including Nancy Malinda, the eldest, had migrated south from Illinois before 1900 and landed in Pemiscot County, Missouri, not far from where my own mother’s Pool family spent a portion of the early 20th century.

On the surface, Nancy Malinda’s life was not easy. She had married (and presumably been widowed) three times by 1909 when she entered into her fourth and final marriage to Robert Reeves Napier at the age of 37.3 Napier was some 23 years her senior. She had at least one child by each of her four husbands, including Alva Levi Mead, the son of her first husband, Oscar F. Mead.

Digging deeper into Alva Levi’s story provided the explanation for Nancy Malinda’s unusual voyage. Alva Levi was born on January 8, 1893, the timing of his birth making him of highly eligible age to serve in World War I. He had appeared in Pemiscot County on June 5, 1917 to register for the draft associated with that war. He was 24 years old, single and without dependents or exemptions.4 Subsequently he apparently either was drafted or decided to enlist in order to serve in that war.

When the war was officially ended with the armistice of November 11, 1918, Alva Levi would not be one of lucky ones to make it home. He had been killed, in action, on September 28, 1918.5 The Hayti Herald, quoting another local newspaper story, reported on January 23, 1919:

R. Napier of Dry Bayou was a caller at our office Friday. He told us that he and his wife had received Sunday the sad news that their son, Alva Mead, had been killed September 28 in action in France. They had known for some time that he was missing, but had been hoping still that he would show up safely, but this official message brought their sorrow home to them. We extend to them our sincere sympathy for their loss and rejoice with them that he gave his life for his country.
The Caruthersville Argus6

Alva Levi was a member of the 140th Infantry Regiment, 35th Infantry Division, a division that had been raised from National Guard units in Kansas and Missouri.7 Beginning on September 26, 1918 the 35th Division participated in the first phase of the 47-day Meuse-Argonne Offensive, the final Allied offensive of World War I that involved 1.2 million American soldiers and finally brought the war to an end. It was the largest and bloodiest operation of World War I for the American Expeditionary Force.8

Sadly, according to military historians, the 35th Division was decimated early in the Offensive, not due to its soldiers’ lack of skill or bravery but because it was so poorly led that “most of its key leaders were replaced shortly before the attack.”9 Alva Levi died at age 25, two days after the deadly battle had begun. As was the fate of many casualties during the Offensive, his body eventually was interred at the Meuse-Argonne Cemetery near Romange-sous-Montfaucon, Meuse, Lorraine, France.10

It would be twelve years later, in September of 1932, that Alva Levi’s mother, as a member of the Gold Star Mother Pilgrimages program, would visit his grave in France and thus cause the records to be created that I had stumbled on in researching her life on Ancestry.com.11

The story of the choice of the gold star as a symbol for fallen soldiers is interesting in itself. As early as 1917, display of a gold star had apparently spontaneously replaced dark memorial clothing as a way to honor American armed forces members who had died in the war. It was displayed on armbands worn by mothers and on service flags hung in the windows of their houses.

Although representatives of many wealthy families with fallen sons had made the journey to Europe on their own, the impetus for the actual nation-wide Gold Star Mother pilgrimages movement traces to a series of events not culminating until 1928, ten years after war’s end. In that year a group of 25 Washington D. C. area mothers who had lost sons in World War I organized as the American Gold Star Mothers. Their mission was, and remains today, the comfort of its bereaved members combined with service to the community.

Soon after its incorporation in 1928, the Gold Star Mothers organization began to lobby Congress to make good on attempts to provide for all eligible families, poor and rich alike, to make pilgrimages to military graves in Europe. Such legislation had been considered but set aside during every session of Congress since 1924. Approval for the pilgrimages finally came in 1929 when federal money was appropriated to fund free trips to European graves for all mothers and widows who had lost a uniformed family member in the war. The journeys were begun in 1930 and most pilgrims who accepted the offer had been served by 1933. It was determined that 17,389 women were eligible and when the project ended, 6,693 women had made the journey to France, where the majority of their fallen sons had been buried.

The records show that Nancy Malinda had passed on pilgrimage opportunities in 1930, possibly because of feelings of duty to her much older husband.12 Robert R. Napier died in February of 1932, perhaps only at that point freeing her to make the journey.13 However her decision to join the pilgrimage came about, The Southeast Missourian reported on May 24, 1932:

Caruthersville — Mrs. Malinda Napier of Concord has arranged for passport to France in order that she may visit the grave of her son, whose life was lost in the World War. The government will supply the transportation, and Mrs. Napier is to sail early in August.14

I have not been able to find further reports about either Nancy Malinda’s reaction to this experience nor any other pertinent information about her life after the European visit even though she remained alive until July 10, 1945.15 General descriptions of the activities to which the Gold Star mothers were exposed during the group pilgrimages show that the government spared no expense in an attempt to make the women’s overseas sailing experience as comfortable as possible and the visit to France as filled with sight-seeing and ceremony as befit the solemn purpose of their journeys.16

With respect to the primary purpose of the visits, it has been reported that each pilgrim was allowed to visit her son’s cemetery for several days in a row for a minimum of one hour. A photographer was deployed to take photos of each mother at her son’s grave, which was to be decorated by her with fresh flowers provided by the Pilgrimage escort officials.17This last detail has allowed me to hope that a descendant of Nancy Malinda’s might still retain such a photo documenting her Gold Star Mother experience. If such a descendant happens to find his or her way to this blog and cares to send along a scan of the photo, it would be a wonderful addition to this story that I, personally, found both moving and educational.


  1. Ancestry.com. New York, Passenger Lists, 1820-1957 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2010, Year: 1932; Arrival: New York, New York; Microfilm Serial: T715, 1897-1957; Microfilm Roll: Roll 5227; Line: 9; Page Number: 31, accessed 8 Jun 2016. 
  2. U. S. Census Bureau, U. S. Federal Census: Hamilton County, Illinois, 1880, population schedule, NA T9_210, Flannigan Prec., p. 10, ED24, dwell 85, fam 85, line 22: Stephen Pool household, accessed 13 Dec 2013. 
  3. Ancestry.com. Missouri Marriage Records, 1805-2002 [database on-line]. Provo, Utah: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2007: Marriage of Malinda Pool – O I Mean [O. F. Mead], 14 Apr 1892, accessed 19 Oct 2014; Ancestry.com. Missouri Marriage Records, 1805-2002 [database on-line]. Provo, Utah: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2007: Marriage of Malinda Pool – Thomas Nicks, 26 Mar 1896, accessed 19 Oct 2014; Ancestry.com. Missouri Marriage Records, 1805-2002 [database on-line]. Provo, Utah: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2007: Marriage of Malinda Nix – Wells Woody, 20 Sep 1903, accessed 19 Oct 2014; U. S. Census Bureau, U.S. Federal Census: Pemiscot County, Missouri, 1910, population schedule, NA T624_803, Hayti Twp., ED146, p. 24A, dwell 387, fam 395, line 41: Robt. Reeves Napier household containing wife Nancy M. Napier, accessed 8 Jun 2016. 
  4. Ancestry.com. U.S., World War I Draft Registration Cards, 1917-1918 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc, 2005: Registration State: Missouri; Registration County: Pemiscot; Roll: 1683496; Alvea Levi Mead registration, 5 Apr 1917, accessed 19 Oct 2014. 
  5. Ancestry.com Operations Inc. WWI, WWII, and Korean War Casualty Listings [database on-line] Provo, Utah, USA: Ancestry.com Operations Inc, 2005: Alva Levi Mead, death date 28 Sep 1918, accessed 19 Oct 2014. 
  6. Library of Congress, “Chronicling America,” digital, Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers 1836-1922 (http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/: accessed 8 June 2016), Confirmation of Alva Mead death in France; citing The Hayti Herald. (Hayti, Mo.), January 23, 1919, Image 3. 
  7. Ancestry.com Operations Inc. WWI, WWII, and Korean War Casualty Listings [database on-line]: Alva Levi Mead, U.S. Army Division: 140th Infantry Regiment, 35th Infantry Division, accessed 19 Oct 2014. 
  8. “Meuse-Argonne Offensive.” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 24 March 2017 (See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Meuse-Argonne_Offensive, accessed 25 Mar 2017.) This interesting article provides a summary review of the objectives and outcomes for this major part of the World War I Allied offensive and served as helpful context for understanding Alva Mead’s death. 
  9. “Meuse-Argonne Offensive.” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc., 24 March 2017, accessed 25 Mar 2017. The quotation derives from the discussion of the failure of the 35th Infantry Division, which is highlighted in the Wikipedia article under the section “Battle — First Phase: September 26 to October 3.” 
  10. Ancestry.com Operations Inc. WWI, WWII, and Korean War Casualty Listings [database on-line]: Alva Levi Mead, U.S. Army Division: 140th Infantry Regiment, 35th Infantry Division, accessed 19 Oct 2014. 
  11. For the following descriptions of the Pilgrimage program’s history and the Gold Star Mother experience, I am grateful to the author, John W. Graham, for his book, The Gold Star Mother Pilgrimages of the 1930s: overseas grave visitations by mothers and widows of fallen U.S. World War I soldiers. (Jefferson, North Carolina: MacFarland & Co., 2005). My descriptions are a summary of material from relevant chapters of that work, particularly Chapter 1, “What Were the Gold Star Pilgrimages” and Chapter 3, “Pilgrimage Legislation: A Decade in the Making.” 
  12. Sewell, Patricia and Cecilia Palin, eds.  U.S. World War I Mother’s Pilgrimage, 1929 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations Inc, 1999, NAI Number: 6161915; Record Group Number: 92; Record Group Title: Records of the Office of the Quartermaster General, 1774-1985: Mother of soldier: Mrs. Nancy M. Napier, accessed 8 Jun 2016. 
  13. Pemiscot County Historical Society, compiler, Pemiscot County, Missouri Cemetery Inscriptions Pemiscot Co. Hist. Soc., 112 Pine St., Caruthersville, MO 63830, Vol. I, p. 18. 
  14. Google News [database on-line], Newspaper: The Southeast Missourian (Cape Girardeau, Mo); Date: Tuesday, May 24, 1932; Page 4: Announcement of Mrs. Malinda Napier visit to French grave of son, accessed 8 Jun 2016. 
  15. Pemiscot County Historical Society, compiler, Pemiscot County, Missouri Cemetery Inscriptions Pemiscot Co. Hist. Soc., 112 Pine St., Caruthersville, MO 63830, Vol. I, p. 18. 
  16. John W. Graham. The Gold Star Mother Pilgrimages of the 1930s: overseas grave visitations by mothers and widows of fallen U.S. World War I soldiers. (Jefferson, North Carolina: MacFarland & Co., 2005), 18. 
  17. John W. Graham. The Gold Star Mother Pilgrimages of the 1930s: overseas grave visitations by mothers and widows of fallen U.S. World War I soldiers, 21. 

Author: Carolyn Hartsough

Administrator of the Pettypool One-Name Study and FTDNA Pettypool DNA Project.