I’ve written about my cousin, Mark, in previous posts. Mark is technically my 2nd cousin, once removed. Or my father’s second cousin. His grandmother, Ruth Dunn Bondy, was the baby of her family and the 6th daughter born to William Henry Harrison Dunn and Martha Eleanor Wilson. My great grandfather, George Oliver Dunn, was the 2nd boy, and the only male to live to adulthood. There was 14 years between them.
With a large family spanning more than a decade, it isn’t surprising that the ages of the cousins varies greatly. Although Mark is my father’s 2nd cousin, he is a year and a half older than I am. We did not grow up knowing each other; in fact, we never knew ABOUT each other either. That was apparently a well known secret of our parents and grandparents. He spent some of his childhood in Bethesda, and I never once met him. That day finally happened last weekend. Cue: the Hallelujah Chorus.
We’ve been writing each other consistently for almost 2 years. We’ve spoken on the phone as well. So it was a foregone conclusion that one day we would have the chance to meet in person. An open weekend on both our calendars and Frontier Airlines made that possible!
The timing of our correspondence naturally has people assuming we met inside Ancestry.com through our mutual family tree. We did not meet that way at all. It was because of our mutual family tree that we did meet, but for an entirely different reason. I had written a message on his mother’s obituary wall and he responded to my message. We quickly developed a friendship and that was that. THEN we collaborated on our tree.
I wrote a blog post earlier about making time for the living. It was that post that clinched my airline reservation to Santa Barbara. I promised myself to walk the talk. It’s a good reminder to make these kind of things happen. But because of that trip, I didn’t blog last week and I was not sure what topic I would discuss this week either. In the end, I felt it right and appropriate to bring life back to the forefront. Because it matters greatly when you go down rabbit holes of vital records, land deeds and wills.
I won’t regale you of our daily activities, but you can assume I had a great view of the Pacific ocean, ate super good food, went to some wineries and imbibed in a slew of different wines, and most of all, enjoyed the company of my hosts–Mark and his husband, J. There are no words that could actually come close to describe their graciousness and generosity. Or my gratitude for rolling out the red carpet for someone who was unknown to them personally before last Thursday. In short, I had a wonderful trip. And they are THE.BEST. I feel like I’ve known them for a really long time.
While J. was golfing with friends, Mark and I were able to do some work on our tree. It wasn’t weekend completely void of genealogy! I came home with a case of wine, some olive oil, a Lionel Richie CD, and some items inherited from his grandmother and mother that were from the household of Martha Wilson Dunn. I was touched. And yes, you may also assume that my crybaby ways were in full force. I never imagined having a piece of my family history in my possession. I was touched by his kindness and thoughtfulness.
Mark’s sister, Gaye, was supposed to come up from Los Angeles to spend the day with us, but she wasn’t feeling well. That was a bummer, for sure. It just means that I will need to make another trip to make sure I can meet her too.
As we hugged goodbye at the airport on Sunday night, we could only thank our late loved ones for this boon. We both know that my grandfather, his mother and grandmother were smiling down on us and could take credit for a meeting that was long overdue. I’m also sure they were having their own happy hour and toasting the family. After all, these persistent Dunns were a big part of the reason we met.
As humans, we tend to look back on the past with a lot of nostalgia. We are wired to let the ugly parts of our lives go and hold on dearly to the bits and pieces that bring back the joy. I’m no stranger to that tendency.
It might strike you as odd that growing up 10 miles west of Washington, DC, would seem like a suburban town with a small town feel. But it did. My parents moved to our house in Falls Church when I was four and my sister two. My parents still live there. And actually, my dad grew up in a house not far from where they live now.
I am a member of a group on Facebook for those of us who grew up in Falls Church. Those of you who are still there know that the main topic lately is the gentrification and growth that has rendered the little place we knew and loved into something unrecognizable. Falls Church was a colonial village well known to George Washington. It had a quaint downtown with comfortable yet old architecture. Well, that’s my perspective.
To my dad? I’m guessing by 1966 it was a souped up place that had grown up around the land on which my dad and his friends trod. It was still recognizable as his home for most of his life. Until now. In the past ten or so years, his boyhood home has been razed and a new monstrosity in its place. The architecture is not even close to what it used to be. The downtown area is now a mass of tall buildings that might be considered skyscrapers. Burger King is gone. Applebees is on the wrecking block. They don’t fit into the mold the city council wants to project. In fact, the city council has decided that they want to turn Falls Church into something the locals by and large do not want. Their marketing team has pushed a slogan calling it “The Little City”. That makes me want to vomit.
With every passing year, it becomes a place that is disconnected from my heart and soul. I’m not sure I’m happy about it either. I wonder what it will look like 100 years from now. Although I will be buried there, it’s probably best I don’t know. Heck, for that matter, maybe the city council will force everyone to be reinterred from our church cemetery to make way for something else?
On the other hand, this world is constantly evolving, and I wonder if I even have a right to be disgusted with the change? After all, the town in which I grew up hardly resembled the place where my own grandmother grew up. She grew up in Arlington (across the Potomac from DC), and back then, it was a farming community full of country folk. She didn’t especially like being lumped in a category of “country folk” although she enjoyed living where she did. And when she and my grandfather bought their house in Falls Church? That was truly the country. Times have certainly changed.
Which makes me think. Were they really the good old days? Parts of them? Sure! But ask women my mom’s age. They might not wholeheartedly agree. My mother grew up in a world very different than mine. She was encouraged to major in one of two subjects (teaching or nursing) or go to secretarial school. Mom wanted to study archaeology. That was not an option in 1955 because it was a male dominated profession. The good folks at the University of Minnesota told her to consider something else. By 1984, that way of thinking had gone the way of the dodo bird. Thank goodness.
She and her peers were expected to be stay-at-home moms. I’m not denigrating stay-at-home mom’s, so don’t go off on me. My generation grew up with a choice. She lived in a world where there were clearly defined gender roles. Kevin and I swapped those roles when it suited our family’s needs.
Mom might even say that during her tenure as a stay-at-home mom with preteens, she was forced to grow up. Her generation didn’t lock their doors at night. The neighborhood chats did not include topics such as the battered wife down the block or the sexually abused kids on the next street. Their conversations were sanitized and polite for company. Any forays into the seedy side were discouraged or forbidden altogether. I didn’t know anything about those topics for a really long time.
Up until I was 12 and Barb 10, we lived a rather ignorant existence. Mom let us ride our bikes without a whole lot of supervision (at least in the minutia). We had a lot of latitude, even though we lived 10 miles from our nation’s capital. The spring right before our birthdays changed everything in our world. It changed everything in the world of our friends as well. The event? The kidnapping of Sheila and Katherine Lyon from Wheaton Plaza as they were shopping for Easter stuff. The Lyon sisters were the same age as Barb and I were. Their family story had a tragic ending, which wound up being a cold case. The Washington Post called it a “regional unhealed trauma” and it really was. From that day forward, we were no longer allowed the same freedoms because Mom was justifiably terrified. It was really the first news story that I can remember that discussed a side of life we had never known.
And yet my parents were fully aware that it was not an anomaly. Those events happened, but they just didn’t make headlines and they certainly weren’t discussed in polite company. My parents’ peers surely knew about these things, but they had a tendency to pretend they didn’t.
They really weren’t the good old days, because since Pluto was a pup, there have been evil people in the world who prey on others. There have always been adulterers, cheaters, abusers, scammers and charlatans. But for some reason, we looked the other way. We knew the fathers who would go to confession on Saturday and then head out Saturday night to repeat the behavior for which they had just repented. There were wife beaters, sexual abusers, gamblers, alcoholics and drug addicts in the pews around us, but we chose to look the other way because they stood for something we didn’t understand or even comprehend. They weren’t like us, so we had to make it seem as though they were.
If my grandmothers were still alive, I’d ask for their opinion. But given that my Grandma Creech returned a clothes washer my aunt and mother had given her as a gift (it was electronic, with an agitator!) to replace it with one that cost way more and had a manual wringer, I’m not sure I’d give her reply a lot of weight! My Grandmom Dunn left a memoir for us (thank goodness). One of her stories was about her first job working at the Press Corps. She liked her job well enough, but her boss was an alcoholic who would disappear for hours. It was her job and the secretarial staff to make excuses for him and present him in the most esteemed light possible. She didn’t say, but I can’t imagine my honest and hard working grandmother appreciating having to do that. In the end, he was outed somehow and fired.
I think I’m going to give myself an assignment. I’m going to try not to glorify the past at the expense of the present. I’m going to work at seeing the good in where we are right now. One thing for sure: I will never forget the Lyon sisters and how their family probably feels about “the good old days”. I’m pretty sure that Mr. and Mrs. Lyon thought they were awful.
My post yesterday apparently resonated with lots of people. Thank you to those who let me know. I’m glad, because that post was my love letter to my grandparents-all three of them.
I spoke with Dad shortly after the post was published. It brought his feelings to the surface as well. If I were to poll his siblings: David, Terry (who is deceased), John, Patti and Kathy, I’m sure there would be strong feelings as well. (Kathy has since confirmed she felt gypped as well! Misery loves company!) My family abroad missed all of us stateside as much as we missed them. At the very least, I grew up knowing all my aunts and uncles. I love each of them dearly. In fact, my two living uncles-David and John-were my favorite babysitters.
Dad wasn’t happy about being the “left-behind” kid. My entire childhood he would joke that “most people leave home, but my home left me”. It wasn’t until I was in my 30s that I realized 1) he wasn’t joking; and 2) he resented it. That may or may not be a story for another day. He loved his family, and they never returned home to live. It was hard on him. After all, he drove Grandmom to the hospital when she was in labor with Kathy. Kathy’s young years were filled with fond memories of “her Joe-Joe”. I’m glad I wasn’t alive when they left for Bogota.
I also wasn’t exaggerating when I mentioned that I was heartbroken when we took people to the airport. Dad reminded me that I was “prone to waterworks”, and it was not enjoyable to witness the histrionics that followed. I grew up hating airports. Why? Airports inevitably took those I loved away from me.
Evidence of my crying ways: The day I left Sydney in 1985, we made a quick detour to the beach before heading to the airport so I could take some photos and say goodbye to a place I came to love. My dear cousin, Daniel, was in kindergarten and my biggest fan at the age of 5; he accompanied me to the water’s edge and ultimately to the airport. After two months of rehearsing our roles as Danny and Sandy in Grease (I always had to be Danny BTW), I came to adore that kid. I stood on the shore and started to sob. Daniel sobbed after watching me break down; both of us bawling our eyes out as we approached my aunt’s van, Daniel asked, “Grandma, why is Bitsy crying?” I have a photo of us with swollen, red faces as evidence of my sadness that day.
Back to airports. I’m 100% sure that my parents were sick and tired of my caterwauling after family left. Mom reminded me that airports actually brought the people I loved TO me first. I refused to see the glass as half full until I was an adult. Okay, maybe middle aged adulthood. Now airports make me happy. People that matter to me make a point of coming to see me and I get to do the same. How awesome is that?
One of the stories my grandfather told me in 1985 was one I forced him to repeat more than twice. Personally, I think it’s a great idea to find out how your parents met. Sheesh, I knew that. My mom and her roommate had a peeping Tom and called the police. My dad and his partner responded to the call. Their love affair followed quickly. But because I didn’t grow up around my grandparents, I never got to hear how *they* met. I would definitely go back in time to ask my Grandma Creech to tell me her story if I could. I really didn’t think to ask my grandparents. Instead, Granddad surprised me one evening as he pulled a photo out of one of the boxes. And naturally, he reminisced with a twinkle in his eye, an apertif in hand, and my grandmother standing between the dining room and living room grinning from ear to ear as he told me “their story”. My grandmother’s memoir provided her version of their story, which is sweet and ladylike. This is his, as I remember. And now I’ll tell you.
It all started when he pulled out a portrait of my grandmother as a beautiful young woman, wearing a velvet dress. She was lovely. It didn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out how he felt about her as he lovingly gazed at her portrait which exuded her youthful attractiveness. He sighed deeply and commented, “God, Voodie, you were gorgeous.” The man was clearly smitten with his bride of almost 50 years. I was touched. I had never considered my grandparents as a couple in love. Who does? As he ran his fingers across that portrait of my grandmother, he asked me if he had ever told me about how they met. I said no. He grinned.
Granddad had sowed his oats. During the great depression, he left college at Indiana University to help his dad run their grain business, and was none too happy about that. He had been studying accounting in the hopes of having a successful career as an accountant. He had also joined the Merchant Marines to fulfill his dream of getting his seaman’s certification. He had traveled the world during his service. He returned home to Indiana and got a job with the federal government. His job eventually required a lengthy business trip to Washington with a few other fellows.
Grandmom was a DC native and had a job in the typing pool, also working for the federal government. She was called in to work one Saturday and was busy at work when 3 young men appeared at the door looking for some desks. She liked what she saw, but this isn’t her story. As the men gazed upon the loveliness in front of them, one of Granddad’s colleagues leaned over to whisper, “See that one in the back? You should ask her out. She’s a lush and a little loose.” As Granddad headed to the back in my grandmother’s direction, his friend shouted, “Not her!” Granddad turned around with a smile and told him, “I don’t care!”
Grandmom was obviously as interested in him as he was in her. She had a car and offered to drive him back to his boarding house. They dated all summer and figured out before he headed back to Indiana that they were serious about each other. Shortly after his return, my love-struck grandfather bailed on the job that had him moving to Omaha and opted to make long term plans with my grandmother while looking for a better job. My grandmother decided to take a trip to meet his family at their vacation house in Pretty Lake, Indiana, dropping a colleague off on the way. Granddad met her at the Indiana border with a ring and a proposal. His parents and siblings were aware of his plan, and apparently co-conspirators in keeping the secret.
They married in Arlington in the spring of 1936. Her father refused to attend, thinking my grandfather was a player, too worldly, handsome and slick, and figured he would eventually leave his daughter disappointed and heartbroken. Before long, Granddad won his father-in-law over with a bottle of scotch whiskey. Dad was born the following spring, with six more children following over the next 19 years. And as Grandmom said with humor, all of them unreasonable facsimiles of their father.
Their whimsical post-honeymoon period wouldn’t last. His father died two years later and his mother had to later sell their house at Pretty Lake. His mother (known as Ema to my dad and his siblings) would alternate living with them and his sister’s family in Griffith, Indiana. After they lost a child while living in Puerto Rico, they grew up quickly. It was right before World War II, and my grandmother never returned to see Richard’s grave. They spent most of Dad’s childhood in Falls Church and later Vienna, with stints in Puerto Rico, Chicago and Massachusetts in between. Dad was close to his siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins and his grandparents. Things rarely go the way we want, but it works out in the end. All in all, we are all blessed to have a family we love and who love us in return.
I was fortunate to have three of my grandparents in my life into my so-called adulthood. Widowed in 1948, my Grandma Creech died in 1992 within several months of my 30th birthday. My Dunn grandparents died in 1995 and 2008. All three of them lived to see me get married, and my Dunn grandparents lived to have great grandchildren; Grandmom (affectionally known as Gigi to my kids) died when Victoria was 14. I’m incredibly grateful for it, too. For the record, I always distinguished my grandmothers by Grandma and Grandmom.
Unlike my friends, my grandparents did not live within a day’s drive of my girlhood home in Falls Church. Grandma Creech was a teacher in Minnesota, and after she retired, she spent her winters in the DC area and taking turns staying with us and Aunt Mary Jane’s house. She returned home to Minnesota every March like clock work. She was the only grandparent who had a routine and annual physical presence in my childhood. I have fond memories of her time with us.
My Dunn grandparents–Bill and Elise–were exotic, exciting and jet setters. From the time I was born, they never lived stateside. My grandfather was a comptroller for the State Department, and their travels took them all over the world: Bogota, Tehran and Taipei until they retired to the Sydney area. They became permanent ex-pats when Dad was 20ish. My dad was the “left-behind” kid and we didn’t see them often (enough). I think it was mostly due to the fact that Grandmom was a DC native and missed her family that we saw them as often as we did. They returned stateside every 3 years with my uncles and aunts in tow, and remained committed to the triennial schedule until well after Granddad retired in 1970. As they got older, the trips happened every two years, and after my grandfather died in 1995, my grandmother made the trek every year until the year before she died. I really was blessed. Family was important to them, though I didn’t fully understand that that back then. We had different ideas of that concept.
When I grew up, all my friends saw their grandparents frequently and at holidays. I was jealous of them. Seriously jealous. Bummed. I felt gypped. Those feelings were ever present until their next trip stateside. Only then would I forget about how I felt and opted to enjoy the time I had with them. And when they left again, I would return to my heartbroken state for awhile until things normalized and the pattern repeated itself. They were at my high school graduation, but somehow, that was never enough for me. I was the only person I knew who had never been to their grandparents’ house. Until 1985, I had never, ever set foot in my Dunn grandparents’ house.
For my college graduation in 1984, my grandfather gave me the gift of a lifetime. He paid for half of my airfare to Sydney-which was about $2K at the time-and told me I could stay as long as I liked. Mom was super supportive, but Dad? He was less than thrilled. In fact, he was pretty much against it. He wanted me to find a full time job and grow up. He was 100% in favor of me adulting. Needless to say, we butt heads, Mom’s influence prevailed, and I caught a flight on Pan Am from JFK to Sydney via San Francisco and Honolulu on February 2nd and I didn’t return home to Virginia until the end of March. My careful planning, saving money and “adulting” prior to the trip enabled me to pay off my car loan so that I could be a tourist without any worry whatsoever. It was the best thing I could do for myself: I was foot loose and fancy free.
Although I had never verbalized how I felt up to that point, Mom knew. Moms know these things. She hugged me tight before putting me on the plane to New York and told me to have a wonderful time. I took her advice. I was almost 23 years old, and it was my first visit to see my grandparents on their turf.
Behind the scenes, my grandparents prepared for my arrival. I was the oldest of their grandchildren. My cousins are a lot younger than I am. There is 19 years between Dad and his youngest sister, Kathy. The Sydney grandkids were elementary school age, toddlers and babies. They put an addition on the room that my two aunts shared while growing up and turned it into an en-suite with its own bathroom. The room was directly across from my grandparents’ bedroom. I can’t remember being happier than when I was at their house. I allowed my childhood to take root at their house on Bilgola Plateau, and it was everything I wanted–and needed–this visit to be. We did so many things, traveled to Canberra, made trips to the Blue Mountains to visit my Uncle John and his family, took a ferry to Terrigal to visit with my Aunt Patti and her family. I hung out with Uncle Terry (who lived in the flat below my grandparents) and my Aunt Kathy, who lived close by. I spent a lot of time watching Grease with my 5 year old cousin, Daniel. There were ferries and quadrofoils to take day trips to Sydney, and a night to see La Traviata at the Opera House. I also appreciated them letting me learn how to drive on the other side of the road to go to the beach! I cherish the times I had with them, seeing their city and meeting their friends. I relished meeting my cousins for the first time. But my very favorite memory of all was a whole lot more mundane. It happened most nights–at least 4 times per week–and my grandparents indulged me. I forced them to pull out the photos and home videos, and I made them look through them and watch with me. I did this as often as I could, and I didn’t care if I had seen the same photos the week before. They were all new to me.
To their credit, they never suggested I find something else to do. I think deep down inside, they knew I needed to have a link to the past and they made that possible. Both my Dunn grandparents were marvelous storytellers. They were natural born conversationalists which ultimately presented as being great entertainers. Granddad was George and Grandmom was his Gracie. It was during this trip that I learned about my grandfather’s childhood in Mount Comfort, Indiana. Until then, I had always assumed he didn’t get along very well with his family and moved away to put distance between them. Why did I think that? I really don’t know. Maybe because I just didn’t know the truth. I didn’t understand the choices and consequences, and it just wasn’t true. It became obvious that he loved his parents, siblings and extended family. He just longed for a grand life away from Mount Comfort. He spoke fondly of his people from Indiana, and I learned more about my extended family–most whom I had never met. Would never meet. My dad had certainly met many of them when they traveled back to Indiana. But as I said before, I missed that part of childhood and my dad wasn’t from Indiana. So it was foreign to me. By this time, Dad was already doing family genealogy, but researching them wasn’t my bag at 23. I was, however, desperate to learn about my grandparents’ past.
I carry some of the stories my grandfather told in my heart, and can remember his laughter as he regaled his tales. He had a great sense of humor, which I hope I inherited. I left Australia in 1985 with a heaviness in my heart because my life had been irrevocably changed by my connection to them. The best outcome was that I returned to Virginia with a piece of my heart healed. All those feelings of being gypped disappeared. For the first time in my life, I was thrilled my family was weird and different.
A few years later, my wandering soul took me to Mountain View, California. A day after the green Mayflower truck loaded my stuff on the truck, I caught a flight on United to San Francisco. The next chapter of my life began on my sister’s birthday in 1988. Shortly after I arrived and got settled into my crappy apartment, my grandparents called. They wanted to let me know they were planning their next trip to the US the following summer and assured me that San Francisco was going to be their first stop before venturing east. It was during this call my grandfather said, “I know I told you about my Aunt Ruth. You would have loved her: you have kindred hearts. So I’m giving you the phone number of her daughter, my cousin, because I think the two of you will get on well. Her name is also Ruth, and she lives in Marin County. It’s not far from you.” Grandmom agreed and I called Ruth soon afterward. Ruth Bondy Linvill became my San Francisco mother. Her kids all lived elsewhere, so I adopted her as my own.
Much like my grandparents did with me on my first trip to Sydney, Ruth taught me more about the city where we both lived. She, too, was a fantastic conversationalist, interesting and funny. She was generous, kind, and my refuge in a place where I knew no one. She also told me stories of her childhood and visits to Mount Comfort. She told me about her mother, Ruth Dunn Bondy, the youngest of the Dunn siblings. I appreciated her letting me adopt her and she was only too happy to oblige. Once I started dating Kevin, my trips to Novato became more sparse and ceased when we got married. I hope she knows that I regret that.
It’s only been since I started working on my ancestral roots that I’ve been able to place people and stories in conjunction with my tree. They came to life and I realized that I knew more about them than I originally thought. But I still had a way to go on that journey. My grandparents laid the ground work for what I’ve discovered since. I appreciate that trip to Sydney back in 1985 more than ever. It gave me a gift I didn’t recognize as such at the age of 23. Now that I’m 57 and have had the chance to expand my Dunn family to include 2nd and 3rd cousins, I fully acknowledge the gift of family as the biggest blessing bestowed on me.
Thankfully, my parents were–and still are–a constant presence in the lives of their granddaughters. Vic and Val have never gone a year without seeing them, either at our house or theirs. When Vic turned 11, she started a trend of heading to Virginia to stay with them for a month. They did all the things with her that I did at the age of 23. Well, except that my folks took her to London one summer for a week and then to Scotland for a month the following year. I don’t regret how it played out, because in the end, the results were identical. We both know/knew our grandparents as adults. With a little luck, my parents will live to meet their great grandchildren too.
In early 2009, shortly after Grandmom died, Mom, Dad, Vic and I were on a group phone call. Vic blurted out, “I’m so surprised that we haven’t been to Ireland yet.” My parents laughed. The next day, they called us and requested a group chat. They announced that they would take her to Ireland on one condition: that I came with them. She agreed and I jumped for joy. I asked Mom and Dad if they were sure. Dad said, “Yes. Your grandmother is making this possible and somehow I know she would want us to make this trip as a tribute to her.” Choked up, I couldn’t argue with that. We traveled together in memory of her.
I never imagined in 1985 that Mount Comfort, Indiana, would mean something to me in 2019. It means even more than it would have in a different set of circumstances. I guess God really knew what He was doing when he gave me the situation I thought was awful and turned it into something wildly wonderful and very special. I only wish they were here so I could tell them how much I love them just one more time.
This post has nothing to do with genealogy, only because I can’t tie it to my people in any fashion. Maybe Kevin’s ancestors in Norway can make this claim, but I sure can’t. It does have a little bit to do with history, though.
It’s a Friday night, Val is with Kevin, and I’m in my recliner with my animals close by (okay, one cat is almost sitting on my head) and I’m watching the Olympic channel. It’s that time where the 2020 Olympic qualifiers are in progress. Tonight’s sports capturing my attention are men’s indoor volleyball (that should come as no surprise to you, right?) and women’s gymnastics. I don’t know about the rest of you, but I absolutely love watching the Olympics: both winter and summer. I become the quintessential couch potato. I also “cheat” to get scores ahead of time when they are available. No, I’m not apologizing for it either.
As I sit here in awe of the athletes who have donned my screen tonight, it made me wonder. How long has the United States participated in the Olympics? That was easy enough to find out: the 1896 Summer Olympics in Athens. We sent 14 athletes and won 12 medals. The events were all in what we know as track and field. The participants were all from New England, and they represented our country well. The 1896 games were considered the first worldwide modern Olympics.
There was obviously no television, and radio didn’t really become a household thing until the 1920s. I’m interested in how the athletes were able to enter the world stage as well as how they knew about the games. Was the rest of the country aware of their efforts? Did they get results? Did they even care? Did my ancestors have any interest in the Olympics?
I did a perfunctory search on Newspapers.com and immediately learned some interesting facts: 1) the “summer” games were actually played in the spring. They closed in mid-April; 2) the most detailed articles seemed to be papers in New England and New York. To be fair, I found other publications that discussed the final results, from San Bernardino, California, to Sydney, Australia; 3) Most of the articles were one paragraph, though the Los Angeles Herald devoted two entire paragraphs to the results!;4) the predecessors to the respective international Olympic federation proposed that the games be open to international competition every four years in during Eastertide, between April 5-15 in Athens, Paris, London and New York, respectively; 5) France apparently was in the forefront to opening the games outside of Greek athletes.
Furthermore, an article appeared in College Life (Emporia, KS) on 13 Apr 1896 discussing the dismal prospects of sending Americans abroad to participate. The authors/editors felt that the distance would be a huge factor, and that we wouldn’t be able to send our best athletes to compete. I wonder if they eat crow on the other side?
Let’s jump to the 1900 Summer Olympics. They were held in Paris as part of the World’s Fair. The US medaled in Athletics (modern day Track and Field), Cycling, Sailing, Tennis and Golf. The articles I found for these games were published nationally, and were no longer concentrated in the Northeast. Though they were more numerous and longer than 1896, they pale in comparison to the news we now see.
In 1896, the games were not designated as the “summer” Olympics. They were THE Olympics. There wasn’t a winter Olympics. I know you’re wondering, so I’ve taken the liberty of doing a little research on them as well.
In 1901, the first winter competition came into existence and was called the Nordic games. The competitors were athletes from Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Iceland and Finland. The competitions were also held every four years in Sweden.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the games were political (Sweden and Norway were at odds) and that the organizers were vehemently opposed to the creation of the winter Olympics. As the objectors died, so did the Nordic games. They only existed until 1926.
The Winter Olympics weren’t originally known or called as such. It was first called International Sports Week, which took place in January and February 1924 in Chamonix, France. If you’re old like I am, you’ll remember that the winter and summer games were long held in the same year, every four years. (The split into every two years happened in 1992.) The Summer Olympics were held in Paris. By 1928, the IOC was in existence, and they officially announced the 1928 games in St. Moritz, Switzerland, as the second Winter Olympics.
I wonder when the idea to compete nationally and internationally took hold in mainstream America? Were the families as supportive and obsessed as we are today? Did they see the Olympics as a source of American pride? Did hearing about them make them want to hear more? We know that athletes of color were denied the opportunity to compete. Were women celebrated or reviled as well? How did these athletes persevere and grow sports into the iconic events we expect?
I don’t have anyone in my family who has competed on the Olympic stage, so I really don’t know.
I can see my friends and family members shaking their heads in disgust. They like listening to books on tape, scuba diving, skiing, doing yoga, playing golf and playing cards. I like doing those things too, but I’m the weirdo in my family who likes reading death certificates and poring through census records. I have a group of friends who enjoy the same pursuits, so I know I’m not alone. This post is not for my friends who do genealogy, but for those of you who don’t.
Some genealogists/wanna-be genealogists hate the census records. Why would someone feel that strongly about data? I’ve been given a few reasons: 1) Census records were never meant to be genealogy tools: they are designed to allocate resources and shuffle the 435 members of the House of Representatives based on population shifts; 2) Some people didn’t or don’t complete them; and 3) Some people lie. Yes, really.
I know it too, but the records are useful in helping me research people. I use them as a tool to supplement my research, not stand alone. When they are available, I like them. Why? 1) The census places people in a location at a specific point in time; 2) I can see the profession and determine if I’ve got the right family. If I know my 2nd great grandfather was a farmer, but I find a William Dunn in Mount Comfort, Indiana, with a different profession, it’s probably not the right guy; and 3) Depending on the decade, they can provide so much more information. Fun fact: I’ve been working on my future son-in-law’s ancestry. His mother’s side is 100% Italian and his father’s is 100% Irish. His mother’s people were primarily bakers; his father’s people ran the gamut. There were a few priests, lots of laborers and one snake keeper at the Bronx zoo! In all the records I’ve seen, the snake keeper was my first and probably my last.
I can’t change the fact that sometimes my wandering ancestors were in between a move. I can’t change the fact that people-especially women-lie about their age (no, I don’t find it amusing to watch a person progressively lop off a few years each decade). I also can’t change the fact that there were several decades where women AND men identified as widows/widowers instead of divorcees (shameful!). I just choose to focus on the stuff I can see and use.
Before I embarked on this hobby, I had never seen a census record before. I’ve completed them personally and for business, but I hadn’t thought about them beyond the mundane task it tends to be.
Before 1850, the federal census only named the head of the household and listed age groups of the members of the household. Researching women prior to 1850 can be very frustrating, if not impossible. The 1850, 1860 and 1870 census records do not identify the relationship of the people living in the household; that didn’t happen until 1880. But they do ask for birthplace and age, so that’s helpful.
In 1880, the federal census became extremely useful in my research. It not only listed the relationship of the members of each household, but also enumerated the birth place of the parents as well as marital status. If a family member is sick, the illness is stated as well. My definition of sick and the instructions for the census taker are different, though. They considered being blind a sickness.
Census records are subject to the 72 year rule per federal law. That is, they are protected from public release for 72 years for privacy reasons. The 1950 census will be released in April 2022. To people who complain about that, I say be happy we aren’t in a country where the 100 year rule is invoked.
The 1890 Federal Census is lost forever: Part 1 and Part 2. It is the bane of my existence and my friends and I periodically lament this huge loss. There was so much that happened between 1880 and 1900 and that demographic record is lost forever. Sigh. The saddest part about it is that most historians feel that had they moved the damaged records to offsite storage and held off on the destruction of the records, technology could probably have saved many of them. Thanks, Congress.
The 1900 census is one of my favorite tools to use. It contains so much useful information, including the birth month and year, how many children the woman has had and how many are still alive, whether or not the person can read, write or speak English, and still states the birthplaces of the parents. Understanding our immigration was important for a long time. Keeping in mind that many states did not issue birth, marriage or death certificates until about 1907ish, this census can be helpful in searching for children who might have come to adulthood (or died) between 1880-1900.
Some things that I didn’t know when I started doing this work, but learned from other people or on my own: In the 1800s, many people (especially women) were illiterate. The Federal census was recorded by census takers, who visited the households. Some of the handwriting is atrocious and difficult to read; some of the records are written in pencil and are faint; and often the census taker phonetically spelled names. You might be surprised at how those names are mangled. Visualize their spelling of Surrepta or Tremilious… and yes, those are names in my extended family tree. Then there are the records that only have initials for the first and middle names.
You just never know what surprises await you. And for some reason, I find this as fun as playing golf or going to the movies.
When I married Kevin back in 1990, I had limited knowledge of his ancestry. What he was told was “Dad was 100% Norwegian and Mom was 50% Russian and 50% German”. His mom’s maiden name is Heckel, so that seemed plausible on the surface. He was told that his maternal grandmother, Caraline, traveled thousands of miles when she was young from Russia to North Dakota. That is true, but it would later be revealed that it was also true for the ancestors of her husband, Freidrich “Fred” Heckel, whose father was also born in Russia and emigrated to North Dakota. Carrie was born in Kassel, as was Fred’s father, Theobald. Coincidence? Yeah, probably not.
I did wonder, “Why were German people living in Russia?”
When I started doing this as a bonafide hobby, Victoria asked me to make sure I included her father’s side in my research. Anyone who knows me knows that I rarely turn down a request made by my daughter. After all, her dad’s side is her legacy as well, and documenting them might be important to any future grandchildren I might have. I asked her dad to bring over all the stuff he had and he complied.
He brought one document I hadn’t seen, which he acquired after we divorced from his now late aunt. She was pretty darn good at recording her mother’s genealogy. Her information was impeccably accurate, and included photos and details. Using Ancestry.com, it didn’t take me very much time to get the Heckel and Pleinis families back to the late 1890s and early 1900s, and the census records provided good information when they emigrated from Russia to the United States. That’s when I realized–I mean it was truly an a-ha moment–that neither of those surnames were Russian. Apparently, I’m not the brightest bulb in the chandelier.
Kevin knew less information than I did, so asking him for more details was a non-issue. He knew what he was told. So I called my dad. My parents are history buffs, so I figured I’d start there. Unfortunately, Dad couldn’t help me, but suggested I pull out an old map and Google. He also suggested I get in touch with a Russian studies professor at one of the universities, which I didn’t do. I didn’t know anyone else in my circle who had a similar circumstance in their past. So this was a search that I had to make on my own. To be honest, I wasn’t confident in my ability to research because this was only a few months after I started working on my own ancestry.
To my surprise and delight, the Google search bore fruit almost immediately. Pulling up the old maps was a great idea. Several months later, I saw my family during the holidays and discovered that my cousin majored in German studies in college before joining the Army. I think it’s weird that Tom would major in such an obscure degree path, but he was stationed in Germany for a tour or two, and his mother was of German descent, so maybe not so strange after all. He later told me that he feels a pull toward Germany that he just can’t ignore and loves everything about German history and culture. Anyway, Tom gave Kevin’s people a name: Volga Germans.
You can read the link on the history of their “invitation” to leave Germany or Prussia as it was called to migrate along the Volga River. I have the ability to look at this from a vantage point of looking back without any skin in the game, but I’m not sure it was as successful an execution as it was in theory. These Germans did not speak Russian as their first language (if they spoke it at all); they established German Lutheran churches, and they basically moved their German culture to their new home. Their culture was kept alive for more than 125 years–intact. They named their children German names, and they named their towns the same names as their familiar homes in Germany. For example, there are places in Germany named Kessel and Hesse; the towns where his people lived in the Ukraine were Kessel and Hesse. When I’m researching sometimes I have to take a break and clear my head so I can stay focused. It’s something I have to do when researching my Buhlers as well. Germans are confusing!
It then became my goal to get them back to Germany. I think I might have been able to trace his Heckel line back to a Gottfried Heckel. When I get my peeps done to the point where they’re settled until the 1950 census is published (2022), I’ll probably devote most of my time to Kevin’s peeps. If I’ve got the right people, Gottfried and his family were in the early waves of migration to the Ukraine. (Does anyone else picture Gilbert Gottfried here like me?)
The link explains their arrival in Russia and their exit, but it wasn’t until I listened to this podcast that the story became personal. The story in the podcast takes his family to Canada; Kevin’s people stayed in North Dakota before heading west to Montana. I’ve since found some of his grandmother’s siblings and their descendants in North and South Dakota as well as Montana. These people were hearty stock. I mean REALLY hearty. Caraline “Carrie” Pleinis Heckel was one of 8 children (and a twin); they left Russia in 1911 when she was four. Her father, Martin, died in 1913 as he walked home in a North Dakota blizzard and froze to death. Carrie’s mother, Margaretha, remarried in 1916 to a man who had also been born in the Gluekstal region of the Ukraine. They had a blended family (he was a widower with 5 children), and when it was all said and done, Margaretha and Bernhard had 13 children between them.
There is quite a bit of information out there to those who want to learn more about the Volga Germans. The ones who stayed in Russia were later persecuted and told to go home; they were forbidden to speak in German in public or in their homes. They wound up in German concentration camps post World War I. Their fate was predictably tragic during World War II. If Kevin and his cousins were aware of this today, they would be thankful that their people saw the writing on the wall and got out before World War I.
I’m proud for Victoria to know that her paternal ancestors were such determined and intrepid people. She should be proud too!
Have you ever wondered how deep your religious roots are steeped in your past? Was it a conscious choice or one that was passed down to you through generations of faith? In my case, it was both.
When I was a kid, most everyone around me was Catholic, and I was pretty sure my family had been Catholic for centuries. Yah, no. In fact, it might be a complete accident. My paternal grandmother was half Swedish and half German. Her Buhler German side started out as Lutheran and became Catholic at some point in the mid-1800s. Her Swedish mother, Regina Sandin Buhler, was also Lutheran when she left Sweden but not raised in the faith once she was on US soil. Her older brother married a very Irish Catholic woman and converted. My great grandmother made a decision that was likely influenced by her brother and his wife. So Dad and his siblings were raised Catholic. My heathen mother converted when I was 8.
Dad’s father’s side had Presbyterian roots that went back to Scotland. After moving to Indiana, his people primarily settled in to the Methodist and Baptist faiths, though there are Quakers in my Whitaker line.
My mother was raised in the Congregational faith. Her parents were Congregationalists, and her father’s side were mostly Congregational going way back. My maternal cousins were Methodists. I didn’t know anyone in my childhood who was raised in her faith. They now operate under a big umbrella called the United Church of Christ. I didn’t know squat about the Congregationalists as a young adult. Again, my grandmother was a crappy source for discussing this kind of stuff. It wasn’t until I started traipsing about the country that I discovered that her DNA is steeped in Congregationalism. If you read my post about Thompson and Sibbill Maxwell, they were founding members of the First Congregational Church of Buckland.
Mom’s religious tapestry is woven with a whole lot of conscientious religious objection and rebellion. I think I inherited this from her chromosomes. I seldom see anything–including religion–in terms of black and white. There is a whole lot of gray. Because of that muddled color, I can see things from a whole lot of perspectives and understand them. There are some issues that clearly are black and white for me, but overall, I consider myself gray.
Through my mother’s genealogy, we are both members of the Mayflower Society. The line back to our Massachusetts Pilgrim roots is rather colorful. Mom’s paternal grandmother was Louisa Agnes Hale, daughter of Silas Fowler Hale and Lavinia Maxwell. Louisa’s grandfather, Isaac “Ward” Hale, was the older brother of Emma Hale. Emma Hale was the first wife of Joseph Smith, founder of the Mormon church.
Ward Hale, my 3rd great grandfather, was born in 1802 in the Susquehanna Valley of Pennsylvania to Isaac Hale and Elizabeth Lewis in a Congregational family. His parents eventually became devout Methodists, though at the time they were considered Methodist Episcopal (no wonder we are all confused by these denominations). When Emma became infatuated with Joseph Smith, her parents and most of her siblings disapproved vehemently. He was an uneducated person from upstate New York (an outsider!), and he had religious convictions that were questionable. They considered him a snake oil salesman of sorts. Still, she followed her heart and left home on their fateful journey that ultimately ended in Nauvoo, Illinois, with the execution of her husband. Ward was 2 years older than Emma, and if they had been close as children, they would never speak again after she married Joseph Smith. So I suppose it’s not hard to imagine why my mother’s direct line were not Mormons. Ward was a judge in Polk County, Wisconsin, and I think I can assume that he had clear ideas of right and wrong.
Through Ward’s mother, Elizabeth Lewis, we trace her origins directly back to John and Joan Hurst Tilley through their daughter. Elizabeth Tilley was a 13 year old child when her parents sailed on the Mayflower in 1620 to Plymouth rock to avoid religious persecution. Her future husband, John Howland, was an indentured servant on the ship. Her parents both died within a year after arriving in the Massachusetts Colony, and she married John Howland in 1624 at the age of 17. The Tilleys were documented members of the Dutch Separatists in England, better known as Puritans.
Puritanism isn’t a religious denomination, rather it was a group of a several different religious groups that felt that Reformation had not achieved its purpose; they were also dissatisfied that the Church of England continued to adopt practices of the Roman Catholic faith. They were considered extremists in their day. Imagine that. Many of the Puritans were Congregationalists and Presbyterians. Most notably, the Savoy Declaration, the Congregational profession of faith, has espoused Puritan beliefs.
I was what I can now see a conflicted girl in a Catholic school. I grew up before Vatican II, and the nuns were perfectly clear when they told us that anyone who was not Catholic was going to hell. My grandmother and cousins were not Catholic, and I loved them with all my heart; my mother’s really good friend was Southern Baptist. I spent several summers going to Vacation Bible School with her sons. I loved them as much as my own family. I just couldn’t imagine them in the fires of hell because they attended a different church. I came home from school one day–upset–and wound up telling Mom. She was adamant that our friends and family who were not Catholic were NOT destined for the fiery pits of hell throughout eternity. That instruction became the basis for my own personal conundrum that exists today. I’m perfectly clear in my faith; it’s just the faith vehicle that’s not as clear. I used to consider myself somewhat of a weird type of rebel with an internal war in my soul. I’ve become friends with that rebel person and learned to accept her questions, not as a form of rebellion, but more a conscious reconciliation of black and white inside her head.
Working on my ancestry has given me some peace from the religious conflict in my past. Instead of finding my roots in Catholicism, both my maternal and paternal roots are deeply Protestant. No wonder I relate to this part of my DNA so intimately and personally?
When I started my journey down this rabbit hole back in 2017, I didn’t plan on having a nearly full time hobby. I had enough books to read, furniture to paint and other projects around my house to keep me busy for a long time. I didn’t expect to find working on my roots so… fun.
I enjoy reading, and always have. I used to get my sister and myself in trouble by violating the “lights out” rule ALL.THE.TIME. After getting into bigger trouble than I thought was warranted, I resorted to reading under the covers with a flashlight. That solved the problem of getting in trouble, but my 10 year old self didn’t want to admit that the rules were made for good reasons. Being super tired in school the next day never stopped me.
I also enjoy researching stuff. That’s fun. It’s like I’m David and stuff is the Goliath. Maybe now that school is 35 years in my rear view mirror I’m ready to learn more things? I especially like researching on the internet. I can watch a baseball game and still be successful. I’ve learned how to get very creative with my searches and sometimes pat myself on the back for discovering obscure information.
So why didn’t I expect my love of reading and researching to provide an endless source of entertainment? It’s like I’m peanut butter and genealogy is jelly. We were meant to be! And I never knew it.
I’m not posting to sell anyone the value of embarking on this hobby. Really. It’s enough that I have friends who share my obsession and family members who are kind enough to listen to me when I discover something new. I do it for myself, so that makes it a good reason.
But the unexpected side bonus is meeting the living who are indelibly connected to me through DNA and our family tree. These people were not in my life as a child, and I had no idea they existed. My older relatives may or may not have been aware of their ancestors’ existences either. Our American culture has evolved through the years, and our ancestors have migrated. Any connection that might have been possible had we stayed in one place became improbable, if not impossible.
Along came Ancestry.com and Facebook. A dynamic duo for those of us who have moved away from ancestral homes we never knew. In the past 2 years, I’ve added to my Facebook friends and correspondent friends a slew of people I never knew. What a blessing!
One particular relationship didn’t really come from either directly. It developed after one night of doing research on my Dunn line. And this relationship has become one I truly treasure. It came at exactly the right time in my life for the right reason. I’ll tell you a little more about how it began…
After the 2018 New Year, I was down my Dunn rabbit hole when I decided to do a Google search on someone who was my west coast haven after moving to California in 1988. She was my grandfather’s first cousin, and they adored each other. I moved to the Bay Area not knowing anyone, and my wise grandparents thought I would need someone to adopt me while I built a life on my own. Granddad gave me Ruth’s phone number, and I called her. She lived in Marin County, and became someone I could trust and visit when I needed someone who was really and truly family. Her children were grown and living across the country, she was recently widowed and had moved into her townhouse after losing her husband. We were really good for each other. The last time I saw Ruth was when my grandparents were visiting in 1989. I married in 1990 and moved to Colorado in early 1991, and somehow, Ruth and I lost touch. (What is wrong with me?)
So that night, I decided to Google her to see where she was living (with the intent of calling her), only to discover she had recently passed away at the age of 96. My heart sank at the missed opportunity. Instead, I expressed my condolences to her family and hit send.
About a month later, her son reached out to me after reading that note. He had never heard of me and wanted to know more about my time with his mother. Specifically, Mark is my dad’s 2nd cousin though 2 years older than I. We have built our cousin relationship from the obituary and have never looked back. Getting to know him and working on our family history and ancestry has been the biggest gift of all. To say I’m excited about finally meeting him in person soon is a gross understatement.
What I’ve discovered, through the musings of my other cousins, is that descendants of girls usually wind up with the family mementos. Mark’s grandmother was the youngest of 8; her older brother (my great grandfather) was the 2nd oldest. There was 14 years between them. After his mother died, he wound up with old photographs and household items that belonged to his great grandmother and my great-great grandmother. He and his sister worked diligently to make digital backups of photographs when California was on fire last summer. And I’ve been the ecstatic recipient of his digital collection. His generosity is very much appreciated.
In his collection are photographs of other extended family members–people neither one of us have ever known. I’ve located a few of them through Facebook and other means, and the results have been so rewarding. How on earth would I have connected with my 3rd cousin, Karin, in Kansas City?
Through Ancestry, I’ve collaborated with my mother’s maternal 3rd cousin and my father’s paternal 3rd cousins. These folks (Glen, Richard and Elizabeth, thank you!) have been extraordinarily helpful in my research and Val’s DAR application. The gentlemen live in California, far from our mutual roots in Minnesota and Indiana. Elizabeth is my family mentor and Indiana based cousin.
All of these photos are from Mark’s collection. As Mark says, Life is Good!
Sibbill and Thompson Maxwell and their wandering descendants
I hadn’t planned on writing about my Maxwell ancestors so soon after the Nester vs. Wanderer post, but I’m listening to Spotify and Gordon Lightfoot is beckoning me to tell their tales. I think it must be the “wanderlust or trying to get free” thing preventing me from moving to any other topic out there.
These two people are probably the ones in my tree with whom I feel super connected more than most. As I mentioned earlier, this Maxwell line is the one that I researched almost entirely on my own. It’s not that I don’t feel connected to the others (I do), but my journey with them has been incredibly personal and rewarding.
I’m going to start with Sibbill, because there isn’t a whole lot of information to share on my 6th great grandmother. Born Sibbill Wyman on 29 Aug 1735 in Billerica, Massachusetts, to Thomas Wyman and Rachel Crosby, she was the youngest of three children. I truly don’t know much more about her than that. However, Massachusetts has very good town and church records for the time, and through those records, I was quickly able to trace her roots. Her paternal grandmother, Prudence Putnam, was the fourth daughter of Thomas Putnam and Ann Holyoke. The same Putnams who were accusers in the Salem Witch Trials.
Thompson Maxwell was born on 11 September 1742 in Bedford, Massachusetts, to Hugh Maxwell and Sara Corbett. Hugh was an immigrant from Northern Ireland (one of the Scots Irish Maxwells), and Sara was born in Scotland. Thompson was their youngest of seven children: five boys and two girls. His father died after being thrown from a horse in 1759 and his mother died 10 years later.
He said he was very influenced by his siblings and when two of his brothers and brother-in-law signed up for militia duty, he decided to join sign up as a volunteer in the French and Indian War at the age of 15 (1757). I believe his experiences fighting in the French and Indian War provided the seed for any future wanderlust on his part. He left home for New York, Canada and Michigan, and his experiences were published in an a manuscript in The Essex Collection in 1865. The article is an interview with Thompson, entitled “The Narrative of Major Thompson Maxwell”. It starts with a letter from the author, Mr. E. F. Miller, describing his interview conducted years earlier and providing the transcription taken from the interview notes.
The one eerie thing I read in this narrative is that Thompson Maxwell’s travels during this conflict took him to Grand Portage, which he describes geographically as on the northwest corner of Lake Superior what was then called the French Canada Territory. Grand Portage is about 35 miles from where my mother grew up in Minnesota. So very far from Bedford, Massachusetts, geographically and 7 generations away from my mother.
Anyway, he remained in military service for six years, until October 1763:
“We lay at Detroit without interruption until the end of the war and were discharged sometime in October. Thus ended my six years service. I returned home and thought I deserved a wife, so I got one and a good one, whose name was Sibbel Wyman. We settled in Milford, then Amherst, NH. I was in my 22nd year. She was 27. We lived happily together for 38 years, 4 months and 11 days, when she died leaving me with 5 children, four sons and a daughter. I lived in Amherst until 1777 and followed teaming to and from Boston. In 1773, I went with my team to Boston with a load of stores to the poor of the town, which at that time was shut up. I had loaded my team at John Hancock’s warehouse, and was about to return when J. Hancock requested me to drive my team up into his yard, and ordered his servants to take care of it. He requested me to be on Long Wharf at 2 pm and informed me what was to be done. I went accordingly, and joined the band under our Capt. Hughs. We mounted the ships and made tea in a trice. This done, I took my team and went home as an honest man should.”
He never ever really left the military and fought in numerous wars and conflicts (Bunker Hill, Lexington and the War of 1812) until he was a very old man. In 1812, he would have been 70; his grandson also served in that war in New York, a boon that I wouldn’t realize until I went looking for him. His oldest son, Hugh, is my 5th great grandfather; he, too, was not a young man in 1812 and died in Canandaigua in 1813. Without a will.
Through my genealogy research, I discovered that Thompson’s brother, Benjamin, was a 2nd Lieutenant in the Revolutionary War, serving in the 5th company of the 5th Hampshire County regiment in Massachusetts. His oldest brother, Hugh, also served in the Revolutionary War and went on to be a noteworthy surveyor of the Preemption Line and who died at sea in 1799. Hugh kept field notes of his time as a surveyor, and his manuscript has been transcribed and published; the original manuscript is apparently still in the possession of his descendants. I have read it, and it’s quite the experience.
Back to the interview. My 6th great grandfather detailed his life through those years of war. He continued:
“In 1800, party spirit having risen very high in Massachusetts, I moved with my family [I believe it was with his wife and son, James] to the State of Ohio, on the Big Miami, County of Butler. I remained there quietly and followed farming. In 1802 my first wife died. In 1807, July 6th, I married again to a Mrs. Little, widow of Capt. Little of the Revolution. In May, 1812, Gen’l Hull sent for me to pilot his army through to Detroit. I joined him at Dayton, Ohio, on the 1st day of June–Piloted the army through to Detroit–was made prisoner there–lost my faithful mare, saddle and bridle and remained with the wounded and sick about a month. I then returned home down the lake to Cleaveland and thence by land got to my family October 2nd. Soon after, a mob rose up to attack me. [A mob attacking a 70 year old man?]”
He then described how he had gone to Cincinnati and his wife was visiting her son and his family when his house was burned down. All that was left was his sword, which he had carried safe with him since the Battle of Bunker Hill. By the time he got home, he had received word that his wife had died. When he was 74, he was taken prisoner at Fort Erie. He entered into a conversation with one of his captors, who recalled that his father and uncle had told him that they had served with him [Maxwell] in the Revolutionary War. When Thompson confirmed that he knew both men, he was instantly placed into a private home and given food and clothing before being released.
In the end, Thompson Maxwell moved to the Detroit area and married a third and final time to a woman only known as Eleanor, in 1823. He indicated that he traveled on horseback at least once to visit family in New York and Massachusetts around this time. It’s probable that he met his great grandson (my third great grandfather, who was 5 years old) on that trip. In his later years, he apparently had lost everything and applied for a war pension for his service in the Revolutionary War. His plea was emotional on my end: he described giving his life to his country and not being able to afford food or clothing. He died 24 October 1832 at the age of 90. He’s buried at the Wallaceville Historical Cemetery, Eleanor’s family cemetery, in Dearborn Heights. The Colonial Dames placed and commemorated a burial marker for the plot thought to be his grave. I haven’t visited it yet.
I began researching Thompson Maxwell and his descendants about two years ago with the intention of applying for a supplemental DAR application. Although the information I researched was fairly straightforward, I had to meet genealogy proof standards. My problem started when linking Thompson’s son, Hugh, to his grandson, Erastus. It was a problem because Hugh died suddenly in 1813 without a will. I was still a novice in this genealogy game, became dejected, until I received good advice. I have some really good people in my genealogy group; it finally clicked when my DAR registrar urged me to look for probate and land records for answers. I also lamented how I lost four years of physical time in New York when Victoria went to college there, and wondered how on earth I was going to look through those records in New York from my sofa in Colorado. Fortunately, Family Search resolved that challenge; with some help from a knowledgeable genealogist in Canandaigua, she was able to help me piece together the probate and land records to New York law, establishing Erastus to his father that way. I was so excited, I yelled out a whoop in the library, until I realized…
…that my REAL problem was linking Erastus to his son, William. William was born in 1818 in Albany, New York, and died in 1891 in Osceola, Wisconsin. He actually had a death certificate, but it didn’t name his parents. His obituary was merely a death notice: “William W. Maxwell died yesterday of pneumonia.” Not helpful. His brother, James, died in 1910, and his death notice read, “Full obituary to be printed in the next issue”. Yeah, that never happened either. I found out that newspapers often did that to encourage families to pay for a full blown obituary. If they didn’t pay, it didn’t get published.
It took a trip to western Wisconsin last October to find one cemetery land deed to tie William indirectly but not inconsequentially to his father and brother (whose death certificate DID name his father). Earlier in this post, I referred to Erastus’ service in the War of 1812 as a boon. It was a boon because he, too, died intestate, about 1873. Then I found his pension application, which spelled out specifics, to include his wife’s maiden name and their marriage date and place (Attica, New York). It really was a boon, because without it, I have no other information that provides direct proof of her or their marriage. I don’t think he ever got that pension because the letters abruptly ceased in 1872. If you think that the government didn’t give its citizens trouble back then, think again. Erastus Maxwell made his case to his government for more than two years. I think he died before it was resolved. Which may have been the goal of people in Washington all along?
In another post, I will devote some time to William Maxwell, his wife, Julia, and daughter, Lavinia. If I feel any real, solid direct connection to a specific Maxwell ancestor, it would be William–who is my 3rd great grandfather. Touching his tombstone made me cry. I think Val was really worried about me.
During my trips to Buckland, Massachusetts, and Saint Croix Falls, Wisconsin, I met some beyond wonderful people who really helped me tie this family together. I want to give them the credit that is due them. When I visited Buckland, it was the 3rd of July, and almost everything was closed to prepare for the 4th. I stumbled into their library and told the librarian why I was there. She took me back to a room that contained a very old book that turned out to be the first written record of town history. It was handwritten in colonial script and contained the names of the 16 founding members of the First Congregational Church of Buckland. Two of those names were Thompson and Sibbill Maxwell. She gave me the name and phone number for the town historian, who also edits the newsletter for the Congregational church, and we’ve become friends. One of these days, I’m going to meet her in person.
The folks in Wisconsin put up with me for MONTHS without complaining about me (at least to my face!). One of them is with a local genealogy society; her husband is a distant cousin on my Hale side, and it turned out that she is related to my Maxwell clan through marriage. These women took time out of their personal lives to head to court houses and libraries to help me look for information. In the end, my trip there last fall bore the biggest payoff in a land document that created a cemetery and trustees between my Maxwell family members.
This trip with them has been so incredibly rewarding. I feel like I know each of them personally. It doesn’t hurt that Sibbill and Thompson’s only daughter was named Betsey. I’ve had distant family members tell me that the Maxwell men they know or have known share common traits: tall, lanky, sandy hair and gray eyes. If I close my eyes tightly, I can conjure up an image for each of them. If that weren’t enough, I named my adopted shelter dog Thompson Maxwell and my adopted shelter Siamese cat Sibbill. I hope my ancestors are not insulted and see this as my ultimate tip of the hat for a heartfelt and fun journey with them.
In the end, I decided I didn’t want to use Thompson Maxwell for my supplemental. At least yet. I decided to give him to my sister for her application into the DAR. She graduated from the Naval Academy and enjoys military history. I decided to let her go in under our most decorated ancestor. I consider it a labor of love to her and Thompson and Sibbill Maxwell. In the end, it’s always been about love and family.