Thanks to my friend and ProGen peer Shelley for passing the Ancestor Approved blog award baton from her blog, A Sense of Family, to Family Epic. And thanks to Leslie Ann of Ancestors Live Here who created the award early in 2010.
Recipients are asked to post a list of ten things learned about their ancestors that have been humbling, surprising or enlightening. It’s a great mental organizing task, one that genealogists embrace – this time of year especially. I’m posting this as I begin a week of study and research at the Salt Lake Institute of Genealogical Research (Course 1) so it’s especially nice to look back on what we’ve learned about our family before (hopefully) a wave of new information is uncovered.
Most of the items on my list are “humbling, surprising and enlightening” all at the same time. It’s difficult to differentiate because true discoveries have all three elements. They are surprising and thrilling, they explain something about your family that you didn’t know (but may have sensed), and they have to humble you. What our ancestors took for granted as a way of life can be nothing but humbling to our 21st century selves. Perhaps our descendants will say the same about us, but I doubt it.
Some of these topics I’ve already written about – others are still undeveloped subjects. One can only do so much at a time. In no particular order, except I saved the biggest for last, are my ten:
1) Our ancestors walked the streets of Baltimore – my home for the last 30+ years and about 280 miles from where we were raised. I’m particularly intrigued by my great great grandfather, Levin Dukes, who was a tugboat captain in Fells Point, and his daughter, Sarah, who was born in Baltimore in 1852 and married here in 1877. Here’s Sarah; this portrait was made on Gay Street.
2) Like most families, ours was deeply affected by the Civil War with service proffered on both sides, even a father-son combination on the Yankee side. Most significant was the ultimate sacrifice made by Jesse G. Williams on the Confederate side – a young man, father of four – lost on a chaotic cavalry battlefield in Kansas.
3) I made a cousin connection that allowed me to identify unlabelled pictures (we all have them) in my possession. Joseph Wright was a very interesting man – surveyor, doctor, and early resident of Austin, Texas.
4) Three of our great grandmothers lost eight children among them. Our grandmothers both lost their mothers when they were very young. When I let myself ponder the horror of losing a child or a mother out of the natural order, I can only be humbled.
5) Our mother told us that both of our grandfathers were self-made men and I’ve been uncovering the evidence of that. Perhaps on the surprising side of this one is that our grandfather (whom I never met), known within the family as “The Boss” was, for many years, literally the town boss in the steel community where we were raised. According to some union activity researchers, he was an unsympathetic character – regularly publishing inflammatory propaganda and quashing legitimate rights of expression. There’s a lot of work to do on this one.
6) The Offutt family property that we visited in April of 2010 was, in fact, not owned by the family for most of the 1800s although they occupied it continuously from 1841. It was the subject of litigation from the 1850s until 1880, when great great Uncle James H. Offutt was forced to buy it at public auction. Our great grandfather, Lemuel Offutt, who was by then practicing medicine in Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania, provided half the funds for the purchase. And it wasn’t until 1919 that our grandmother and her siblings (and their respective spouses) sold their inherited interest back to Uncle James. I love this story of family sticking together on issues of importance — like land.
7) Our mother’s paternal line, members of the Williams family, just kept moving — from Arkansas to Water Valley, Texas, to Sierra Blanca, Texas, in their efforts to make a better life. And they succeeded! Patriarch Jesse D. lost his father in the Civil War and was on his own early, but he spawned entrepreneurial sons and grandsons only partially documented to date.
8) This was a dead end I wasn’t expecting. Our father was born in 1916 after what we were told was the loss of three baby girls. I wasn’t sure whether they were stillborn or lived a short time but we were very clearly told they were buried in a cemetery in our hometown. I never went there, and as far as I know, neither did any of my family.An aside, sort of: It wasn’t until about ten years ago that our parents discussed this topic themselves. Mom had been told by her mother-in-law about the baby girls and Dad had been told by a cousin. That was quite a moment — when the two of them, who had been married for nearly sixty years, realized that they both knew “the secret.”
I called the cemetery last September, fully expecting a routine and successful inquiry. Not only do they not have anyone with our last name buried there, the first burial wasn’t until 1916, the year Dad was born.
Add that to the list of things I’ll never get to ask about.
(9) and (10) I have taken the liberty of lumping one event and its aftershocks into the last two slots. That’s because it’s a jaw-dropper.
Portraits of our paternal great grandfather and great grandmother hung near each other on the upstairs hall wall. We knew he was a Civil War soldier and a lawyer — and she was wearing an impressive ruffled blouse. But what we didn’t know that was that in 1906 he shot her multiple times (and their daughter as she attempted to protect her mother), while police officers waited in another room to remove him to an asylum. The women both survived.
I first discovered this in his pension file at the National Archives in Washington, D.C., but, as it turned out, it’s a secret in public view. Google his name now and you will find a New York Times page one report among the top ten results.
This episode has just about everything in it that you can imagine and was a tabloid story in its day. There were several subsequent confinements at Dixmont Hospital, the insane asylum in nearby Pittsburgh, and a dramatic release on a technicality, all of which received significant local and regional press attention. The couple had twelve children, the youngest of whom was 11 at the time, and they were forced to take sides over an extended period of time. Not only that, but our maternal great grandfather who lived in the same community, testified as a medical expert at the criminal trial on the issue of my paternal great grandfather’s sanity.
And we don’t think that our parents knew any of this. Or maybe they both knew but thought the other one didn’t!
For the last year, I have struggled with writing about this bombshell. It did, at first, generate a humor-laden response in the family. I mean, come on! I was dialing my sisters’ phone numbers as I walked out of NARA. But, for the intensely private people who lived through the ordeal and dealt with the personal and public repercussions, it was nothing like humorous.
I’m still working on it. In the meantime, both parties are hanging on my wall — albeit at different ends. And, in fact, they are buried together in Pennsylvania.
Part of the receiving the Ancestor Approved Award is passing it to ten worthy recipients. While I’m sure there are ten or more such worthy recipients, for the moment, I’m just going to pass along one award to Lorlee Bartos at Dear Annie because I love postcards. If I may, I reserve the right to distribute nine more at a later date.