In search of the family Bible

While researching the Stewart line in the early 2000s, I came across numerous references to a book by Sarah Finch Maiden Rollins called The Maiden Family of Virginia and Allied Families, which other Stewart researchers cited quite often. The book was long out of print, but on the off chance that someone would eventually let go of one, I put in a request over at, a reseller of antique and out of print books.

I had nearly forgotten about the request when one morning I had an email from AbeBooks telling me that one of their merchants had listed the book. I immediately logged onto the site and purchased the book, and within a week it was in my possession.

While poring over the well-researched tome, I discovered that my ggg-grandfather Elijah Stewart was listed as purchasing the family Bible from an estate sale after his father, Revolutionary War soldier William Stewart, had passed. My interest piqued, I delved into the Scott County, Virginia court files to see if Rollins’ research was correct. It was.

So, if Elijah bought the family Bible, what had happened to it? Shortly after the estate was settled, Elijah moved his family from Scott County to Jackson County, Kentucky, and within ten years Elijah would be dead, a victim of illness – along with son David – in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where they had been Union soldiers during the Civil War.

If Elijah had taken the Bible with him to war, it would have probably been sent, along with any other of his personal effects, to widow Sarah. By the 1870 census, Sarah and her retarded eldest son Joseph are living with son Thomas Riley Stewart, my gg-grandfather. I figured that the Bible must have passed to either Tom or youngest son Lexington, but Lex died at nearly the same time as Sarah, so the Bible would surely have passed to Tom.

But then what happened to it? Thomas Riley Stewart had many children. Which one ended up with Stewart family Bible? This was the question that perplexed and nagged. Would it have been the eldest son? Eldest daughter? Was it once again sold at auction when Tom’s estate was settled? Who had it? Did it even still exist?

On May 17, 2013, Mom, her cousin Zella Mae and I went to the Jackson County, KY Public Library in McKee to look through the microfilm of the Jackson County Sun. I had hoped to get obituaries for Thomas Riley Stewart, my great grandfather Jule Lakes, and his wife, my great grandmother Arizona Stewart Lakes. I also wanted to see if I could find a mention of a Stewart estate auction after Thomas Riley Stewart died.

While I delved into the microfilm, mom and Zella Mae sat at a nearby table talking about various ancestors. When Zella Mae learned that we were hoping to find out what happened to Tom Stewart’s Bible, she said she knew where it was and offered to take us to it! We were elated!

It turns out that Tom passed the Bible to eldest daughter Arizona Stewart Lakes, and she in turn passed it to the son with whom she lived at the end of her life – which was Zella Mae’s father!

Stewart bible1

After Arizona died, her brother Hurley asked if he could keep the Bible until he died, and that was the only time the Bible left the house. After Hurley died, one of his children brought the book back to Zella Mae’s parents.

When she was a little girl, Zella Mae said she and her cousin used to sit on the bed and look through the old Bible, marveling at the names written inside. She said they both thought that “Sarah Perlina” was the prettiest name they had ever heard.

Zella Mae told me that she put the Bible into her cedar chest with some of her mother’s clothing after she had died, and she hadn’t looked at it since because of the painful and sad memories associated with her mother’s descent into dementia.

She then said that because none of her children were interested in family history, and because she was afraid that the Bible would get accidentally thrown away after her death, she asked me to be the caretaker of it for future generations. I happily accepted.

I am not 100 percent sure that this Bible is the same one that Elijah Stewart purchased at his father’s estate sale back in 1851, but I believe it might be. There is a date of 1830 listed inside, on the first page of the New Testament. The book is in bad shape and is missing several pages of Genesis and everything after Hebrews, and several of the pages appear to have been gnawed by mice.

The book is a real family treasure though, regardless of its current condition. There are pages where verses are marked with family members’ names. Were they favorite passages? Were they verses spoken at a baptism? Funeral? There is also a page – front and back – listing the birth dates of all Thomas Riley Stewart’s children. Written in sepia-toned ink with a quill. The beauty of the handwriting stands out. The colloquial phrasing (ie. “Bornd” instead of “born on”). The fragile paper, browned and brittle with age.

stewart bible2

It is old. I do not know if it is William and Jemima Stewart old, or even it if is Elijah and Sarah Stewart old. But it is definitely the family Bible of Thomas Riley Stewart. And that is enough.

Published in: on June 4, 2013 at 11:39 am  Leave a Comment  
Tags: , ,

Patience pays off

October 2007:

 I wrote a letter to the National Personnel Records Center requesting the military service and/or pension records of my great-grandfather, William Seal, under the Freedom of Information Act. I also filled out and sent in Form 180 (Request pertaining to military records) although I wasn’t sure which form was the correct one to use because the VA website is clear as mud.

My great-grandfather didn’t serve in one of the “big wars” (Civil War, WWI, WWII), he fought in the little known war called The Philippine Insurrection. Because his military service fell between the Civil War and WWI, I couldn’t figure out which agency might hold his records, but I knew that he definitely served, definitely drew a pension, and that his wife drew a widow’s pension until her death in 1952. The only thing I didn’t know was where his records were being held.

 April-May 2008:

I received a rejection letter from the NPRC, telling me that they couldn’t find his records and that I needed to contact the National Archives. I visited the website, found out what forms I needed and filled out NATF Form 85 (Order for copies of federal pension or bounty land warrant applications), ticking the box marked “Full pension application file-Civil War, 1860 and later.”

November 2008:

Another rejection letter, this time from the National Archives. Even though I had located (via’s wonderful military section) both the application number and certificate number of William’s pension request and approval, the National Archives stated that they could not find his records.

April 2009:

After moping for a few months not really knowing what to try next, I happened across a thread on, a site dedicated to cataloging cemeteries and gravesites, which had tips and pointers for requesting military records. One board member told of his own frustrations and hassles with trying to obtain pension files, and suggested a way to do it that would allieviate having to go blindly through myriad agencies.  His suggestion was to write to the Department of Veteran’s Affairs and request that they run a BIRLS search for the file from the Federal Records Center under the Freedom of Information Act. BIRLS is an acronym for Beneficiary Identification and Records Locator Subsystem, which is a database  that contains records of all beneficiaries, including veterans whose survivors applied for death benefits. When a BIRLS request is submitted, every government agency that has anything at all to do with military/pension records will have to run a search for the file.

It sounded worth a shot, so I typed up a letter and sent it off. I got my first rejection card a month after I mailed off the letter, but this time instead of it being a dead end, the card informed me that my request had been forwarded to another agency. Two months later I received another rejection card, and was informed that my request was being forwarded to yet another agency. At least this was promising – I finally felt as though the government was actually responding to my plight.

December 2009:

JACKPOT! After hearing nothing for several months, I received a huge parcel in the mail and in it was the motherlode of information on my great-grandfather’s service during the war and all pension records from the time he applied for it until my great-grandmother’s death. And oh, what a wealth of information it is! Hundreds of pages, including many letters handwritten by my great-grandfather, stories of his illness (malaria) and injury, stories from friends and acquaintances, copies of both great-grandparents’ death certificates, and letters written by their children.

Best of all was the enclosed letter from the government agency that located the records for me. They apologized for the length of time it took to find the records, and they sent them to me free of charge, even though I offered to and expected to pay for them.

If this is part of President Obama’s government restructuring program, I am all for it!


For those wishing to have a BIRLS search done for an ancestor’s military records, here is what you need to do:

1. You must write a letter to the VA Freedom of Information Officer.

2. State that you are requesting access to the pension file under the Freedom of Information Act.

3. Give them the XC pension file number and any other info you have to identify the soldier you are requesting the file on.

4. Be sure to include the following sentence: “I am requesting that you conduct a BIRLS search for the file and retrieve it for my use from the Federal Records Center where it is currently housed.”

The VA requires a FOIA request in writing and signed by the requestor. Your request must reasonably describe the records so that they can be found with a reasonable amount of effort. You must state your willingness to pay any applicable fees or provide a justification for a fee waiver. Also include your daytime phone number in case they need to contact you, and put your address on the letter in case the envelope is misplaced.

Write “Freedom of Information Act Request” on the envelope and mail the request to:

VA FOIA/Privacy Act Officer, VA Central Office
Department of Veterans Affairs
Director, Records Management Service (005E3)
810 Vermont Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20420

Best of luck in your search – and remember, persistence and patience can pay off.

Published in: on December 8, 2009 at 10:31 am  Comments (1)  

Neglected Cemeteries

One of the surest ways to find good genealogical data is to spend some time walking around in cemeteries, taking notes. Be it a large or small cemetery, you can usually bank on family members being buried next to or near each other. Oftentimes it is just a matter of connecting the dots.


I’m fortunate to have several ancestral family cemeteries that I can gather information from, and that most of them are still well kept and maintained – sometimes by a church, sometimes by family members still living in the area, and sometimes by the current landholder.


On a recent expedition I took with my Mom and cousin we decided to try to locate some family graves in southeastern Kentucky. Although we didn’t know exactly where they were buried, we knew the counties they had lived in based on census records, and Mom had written down the names of places she’d heard her parents speak about when she was a child. Armed with that information and a Delorme Topo map, the three of us set off for a weekend of cemetery sleuthing.


Not knowing exactly where we were headed, we stopped at a local general store and spoke to some of the old-timers sitting on benches outside. In a matter of minutes we had the locations of several cemeteries on our list and had made some new acquaintances.


We hit the jackpot in terms of finding the graves of our ancestors, and I took photos of all the headstones to transcribe when I got back home. Most of the cemeteries we visited were well maintained and a joy to walk around in, but one of them was in a serious state of neglect. Rather than try to describe this cemetery, have a look instead at these:

This cemetery is attached to a small church and is located on a hillside. The lower part of the cemetery is still well kept and tended, but the older section is located up the hill and is in an alarming state. I’m guessing that the church maybe doesn’t have the manpower to care for the entire area, so it does what it can to the lower section.


Sadly, our ancestors are all up on the hillside. Five generations.


I’ve written to the pastor of the church to find out what can be done about cleaning the cemetery and resetting the toppled markers. I’d like to make sure the cemetery is still there for future generations.


Published in: on October 6, 2008 at 9:22 am  Leave a Comment  

Decoration Day

When I mentioned to my editor that I was heading to East Tennessee for Decoration Day and hoped to leave early to get a jump on the traffic, she gave me a puzzled look.

“Decoration Day? What’s that?” she asked, knowing that we had just enjoyed a three-day weekend in celebration of Memorial Day.

I explained that Memorial Day used to be celebrated on May 30, and that it had been known as Decoration Day. The name “officially” changed in the 1960’s when President Johnson decreed the last Monday in May to be a federal holiday known as “Memorial Day,” meant to honor and remember the men and women who perished while in service to their country. Tradition is very strong in the mountains and valleys of East Tennessee, and my Clinch Mountain relatives still celebrate Decoration Day on the Sunday following Memorial Day.

Unlike other parts of Tennessee, those from East Tennessee do not celebrate the Confederate Decoration Day, which is held on June 3. East Tennesseans were staunchly Unionist during the Civil War, and did not secede with the rest of the state. I’ve traced many of my East Tennessee ancestors to the Civil War, and not one of them wore the grey.

Most of my ancestors are buried in small family cemeteries. Some are attached to tidy little church houses; some are perched on hillsides within a ring of trees; still others sit tucked away in the corners of farmers’ fields – family land now in the possession of someone else. Regardless of their location, the cemeteries are made to look their very best for Decoration Day – grass is mown, weeds are pulled, and the headstones are cleaned and polished before flowers are placed. Tiny, ancient cemeteries with only a handful of weather-worn stones get the same royal treatment as the church cemeteries. The path to one diminutive family graveyard was fraught with weeds and poison ivy on the trek up the hillside, but inside the worn picket fence the space was clean and tidy.

This year the weather forecast was calling for thunderstorms on Decoration Day, so we went to the cemeteries on Saturday instead, although most still planned to gather on Sunday for the traditional dinner on the ground at the little church next to the largest of the family cemeteries.

I took along an old, framed picture of long dead ancestors that I hoped someone could help me identify. The picture had always hung in my grandparent’s house, and when they passed away the picture went to my Dad. When he died, it became mine, but I didn’t know who they were. I’d already asked Dad’s remaining siblings about it, but the ancestors had died long before any of them were born, and they couldn’t recall their names. All I knew was what Dad had told me, “These men are your grandma’s uncles.”

Grandma had a lot of uncles – which of the twelve were they? As we walked around the cemetery, we chatted with family and strangers alike (for really there were no strangers – a few minutes of talking usually revealed yet another branch in the family tree) and showed the picture to them, to no avail. Most were simply too young to know.

We were close to giving up and I’d already put the picture back into the car when my cousin Bruce said, “Well I believe that old woman over there was married to a Cook. Let’s go see if she knows anything.” We spoke to her and she agreed to have a look at the picture. When I showed it to her she said, “Well they’re definitely Cooks, but I don’t know which ones.” The photo had created quite a bit of interest by this time, and soon a few more had gathered around to have a look. One was a woman about my age who had been cleaning off the picnic tables in preparation for Sunday’s dinner on the ground. (It’s not literally on the ground, it’s on picnic tables – but it is on the church ground, hence the name) She took one look at the picture and excitedly pointed to the man on the left. “That’s grandpa! I’d know that picture anywheres! We’ve got a smaller one like that and he’s with grandma in it! That is Rev. Isaac Cook!”

I was over the moon to finally know who at least one of the uncles was – and we were standing less than 20 feet from his grave at the time. We got to talking excitedly with each other, which piqued the interest of others in the cemetery, who came over to see what the fuss was about. One of those who came over was a 94 year old woman who said she’d like to look at it too. We held up the picture so that she could see it, and she pointed to the man on the right and said, “Well I do believe that is John Cook. Them boys all favored one another, but I am near certain it’s John. He always was a most handsome feller…”

Published in: on June 15, 2008 at 12:56 pm  Leave a Comment  

Hitting the Jackpot With Pension Files

The wealth of information found in old pension records never ceases to amaze me.

I already knew that my great-great-grandfather Thomas Stewart had enlisted as a soldier in the Kentucky Cavalry, along with older brother David and father Elijah, to fight for the Union cause during the Civil War. I also knew that he was the only member of the family to come home. His brother and father died within a week of each other in Barracks Hospital, New Orleans and are buried in Chalmette National Cemetery. Most of this information was gleaned from their military records, which had been ordered from the National Archives.

Because Thomas was the only one to come home, and because he lived a very long life, I had a hunch that he must have received a soldier’s pension somewhere along the way. is an excellent resource for locating soldiers’ pension numbers, so I nosed around in the Civil War section until I found them. Using this information, I filled out Form 85D on the National Archives web site, hit the “send” button, and waited.

Thomas R StewartIn less than one month an oversized parcel arrived via UPS from the National Archives. Inside were the first 100 pages of Thomas Stewart’s pension claim. I was astonished that there were so many pages – most of the other pension files I have for ancestors aren’t nearly so large – and was surprised to find out that there are more pages available if I am interested. The National Archives only sends the first 100 pages (because most pension files are less than that) but if there are more they send along a letter and an order form with a discounted rate for the remaining pages.

I was even more amazed by what the file itself contained. For starters, there were handwritten letters from my great-great grandfather regarding his pension. His daughter, my great-grandmother, was very proud of the fact that “all the Stewarts were educated and knew how to read and write” and here in the file was proof. The correspondence was fairly basic and his handwriting wasn’t as grand as those of the census takers and court workers of the time, but it was physical proof of what my great-grandmother had always proudly proclaimed.

The big shocker, however, was that I never knew that Thomas had been married prior to his marriage to my great-great grandmother Josephine. In the 1860 census he is 16 and living at home, and in 1870 he is married to Josephine. Obviously a lot had happened to Thomas during the ten years in between. As I read, I learned that he had wed a young woman a year after returning home from the war. I learned her father’s name and the names of her many siblings were there too. They were wed in May of 1866 and made their home in Jackson County. She gave birth to a son which they named James, and died at home before the baby was able to walk.

Thomas briefly courted Josephine and they were wed in her parent’s house in July of 1868. Josephine’s sisters remembered that the wedding took place much earlier in the day than originally planned, on account of the preacher arriving sooner than they had anticipated. Their brother had walked over to the general store thinking he had plenty of time before the preacher showed up, and ended up missing the entire ceremony. Josephine recalled that her brother had accompanied Thomas and her father to the county courthouse to get the marriage license. The name of the early-bird preacher was also in the pension file, as well as the church where he ministered.

Josephine admitted that she and Thomas married quickly because he needed “someone to attend to the child,” who “was too little to walk” and that they moved into the house he had shared with his former wife. She told of the child dying “about two years of age – just as he was beginning to walk real good” and of how she learned from neighbors that most of the deceased wife’s siblings had also died young: “The family all died of consumption when they got grown or about it.”

All this detail was in the pension file because after Thomas died and Josephine turned in the paperwork for a widow’s pension, the Department of the Interior-Bureau of Pensions tried to deny her claim when she could not produce a marriage license to prove she had married Thomas Stewart. That she had given him eleven children and lived with him for over 55 years wasn’t enough for the Bureau of Pensions in Washington D.C. They wanted proof – and what the pension inspector found while going through the courthouse ledgers was the marriage of Thomas and his deceased wife, rather than the marriage of Thomas and Josephine. Over the course of the next year, correspondence whizzed back and forth between the little hamlet of Duluth, Kentucky and Washington D.C., with inspectors visiting any and all living relatives along the way. They visited Josephine in Duluth; interviewed a sister in Ohio and two more in Illinois. They went to Clover Bottom, Ky. and spoke with the surviving kinfolk of the first wife as well, and scoured the courthouses of three Kentucky counties looking for proof that she had died, and that Josephine and Thomas had married.

By the time Josephine finally began receiving her widow’s pension two years after originally filing, she was 80 years old. She would continue to draw $40 a month until her death five years later.

Published in: on May 28, 2008 at 10:23 pm  Leave a Comment  

In Search of my Great Grandfather

I really hate trying to wade through government bureaucracy, but it is a necessary evil when requesting military files on deceased ancestors. Most government web sites are incredibly bloated, with the pertinent information buried so deep on the site that it takes a lot of patience to weed out the wheat from the chaff.


The National Archives is one of the better governmental web sites, but it is filled with a frustrating nightmare of subcategories. First time users to the site may throw up their hands in defeat, no matter how web savvy they may otherwise be. I know when I first began using their site I would get aggravated quite a lot. Usually this was because after clicking through the links on the site – getting deeper and deeper into the labyrinth – I’d suddenly come out exactly where I’d began, and none the wiser as to how to go about ordering the records I wished to order.


Once I found the correct path, I saved it as a favorite so as not to lose it again. The National Archives is a great resource for requesting pre-WWI military records – once you locate the proper forms and go through the proper channels. I’ve gotten a number of ancestor’s files from the Archives, mostly Revolutionary and Civil War records. Each Military Service Record costs $25.00 and is money well spent since the records give an interesting glimpse into the life of the ancestor.


It took awhile, but I managed to track down the military service records for my great grandfather William Seal. I knew he had been a proud member of the U.S. Military because he had the information inscribed on his tombstone: Private Wm. Seal, Company H, 41st Regiment, US Volunteer Infantry. I also knew that he drew a pension and that my great grandmother continued to draw it after his death, but no one in my family could remember which war William had fought in.

 William & Elizabeth Seal grave marker

A quick look at his birth date clued me in – he wasn’t born at the time of the Civil War, and he would have been too old for service in WWI. That only left the Spanish-American War and the Philippine Insurrection. I filled out Form NATF 86 (Compiled Military Service File) online at the Archives with the information I had on hand, and because my ancestor had been proud enough of his service to have the information forever inscribed where he lay, there was enough information for the researchers at the Archives to locate his service record and copy it for me.


My next task was to obtain a copy of his pension file. I tried to order them through the National Archives Request and Order Records link (which is how I got his military records), but when I finished filling out Form NATF 85D (Federal Military Pension Application – Civil War and Later, Complete File) I was thwarted by a pop-up window that told me that the Archives stopped storing pension records for soldiers who had died after 1929. My great-great grandfather died in 1942, so according to the National Archives web site, I needed to file a request with the Department of Veteran’s Affairs using the Freedom of Information Act.


Can I just say that the Department of Veteran’s Affairs is the most unfriendly web site I have ever encountered? Links go round and round in circles, giving precious little information and a whole lot of broken links and pages saying “We Are Experiencing Technical Difficulties.” It’s truly unbelievable that ANYONE could ever find what they are seeking on this site.


Using information provided by the National Archives pop-up window, I learned which form was needed and where to send it, and I filled out and faxed Form NARA SF 180 to the processing center in St. Louis, Missouri. Unfortunately the processing center experienced a devastating fire in 1973 and lost more than 16 million Army and Air Force personnel records. Over 80% of the records for Army personnel discharged between November 1912 and January 1960 were lost in the fire, as well as 75% of Air Force records from 1947-1964.


William was discharged in 1901, but his pension claim continued until the death of his wife in the 1950’s, so chances are likely that his pension file was in the building destroyed by the fire. Still I wait and hope, and out of desperation I printed and filled out Form NATF 85D (Federal Military Pension Application – Civil War and Later, Complete File) and mailed it in to the National Archives, just in case the pension record of a young volunteer serviceman from Tennessee, discharged in 1901, is there.

Published in: on May 1, 2008 at 10:02 am  Comments (2)  
Tags: – For Better or Worse

I began adding my family tree history to around 10 years ago and up until a year or so ago I had it set to “public.” What that means is that anyone could look at my family tree, and anyone searching someone in my tree could look at all the many links and branches.


It wasn’t until I discovered that several members had usurped my research, notes and stories and appropriated it as if it was their own that I decided to switch my data to private. I do not mind sharing my research with other like-minded individuals, but it appeared that those who had “stolen” my data – especially stories I had written about my grandfather – were only interested in collecting names so that they could brag about having the largest family tree on the site, which is not in the true spirit of genealogy research in my opinion.


Besides, anyone could do that. There is a wealth of data stored on and anyone can go in and add names to their tree. The thing is, these dumbasses (for that is what they are) have “collected” and added other people’s research willy-nilly, and now much of the public member trees (called One World Trees on the site) are corrupted beyond belief. The dumbasses don’t seem to care that they’ve added the wrong spouse, or added the same spouse several times, or that the time span of ages between a parent and child is simply impossible A woman born in 1817 giving birth to a child whose birth date is 1890?! I don’t think so. I swear it drives me crazy and makes me incredibly angry that people could be so stupid and careless with the research.


Thing is, now that I’ve taken my research out of the public domain and switched it to private, I receive search/help requests nearly every single day via email. The way Ancestry has it set up is that if you are researching a certain person, say John Doe, when you type the name into their search engine it pulls up everyone who has John Doe in their file. Some are open to view (the One World Tree files) but many are set to private, as mine is. So what the researcher can do is send an email via Ancestry, asking for more information on the person in question. I get dozens of these every week. I do not mind assisting someone in their quest, but I resent those who ask me for stuff that is readily available on (and free rootsweb sites) for anyone who cares to do some digging.


Personally I have always enjoyed rooting around the dusty archives in old courthouses, and I love traipsing around in ancient cemeteries scouring the stones for names and dates, but I realize that not everyone shares that enthusiasm (my husband, for instance). has made it easier to research census records without having to visit the courthouses or spend afternoons in a library going through reels of microfilm, and the site’s ease of use has certainly helped me locate a few elusive relatives, even if that ease of use comes with a shocking annual fee. I imagine that many of the people contacting me via Ancestry’s email service are resistant to coughing up the annual fee for all the census data and are only using the free areas – and I don’t blame them, as I felt the same way for a long time. But since becoming a paid member and having access to a world of information in the comfort of my own home, I can’t imagine living without it.  


What bothers me most with the requests I receive is that after several emails back and forth to pinpoint exactly what information they need on one of our common ancestors, and providing them with said information (or pointing them in the direction they need to look), I very rarely receive a “thank you.”


It seems to me that many requesters want the information handed to them on a platter without exerting any effort or time of their own, and they lack the common decency to shoot a quick “thank you” email to me after I’ve aided them in some way. I wish it didn’t have to be this way, but I’m through empathizing. This lack of common etiquette has happened so many times now that I have begun to simply ignore or delete the many emails that fill my inbox without even reading them.

Published in: on April 22, 2008 at 2:47 pm  Comments (1)  

The Secrets Buried Under a Family Tree

Boston Globe columnist Ellen Goodman wrote a column recently about family trees and the secrets you can unearth when you begin tracing your roots, and I felt it was worthy of reprinting here.


The secrets buried under a family tree

I ALWAYS thought that genealogy was for people whose blood ran blue. It was for folks who traced their ancestry to the Mayflower or the American Revolution, not those who came over in steerage one step ahead of the Cossacks.

So when the New England Historic Genealogical Society published the family connections between presidential candidates and celebrities, I was an amused bystander. John McCain is the sixth cousin of Laura Bush? Hillary Clinton is the ninth cousin twice removed of Angelina Jolie? Barrack Obama is related to everyone from the Bushes to Brad Pitt? How American, I thought, to search an entire family tree to connect with the rich and famous who live, twice removed, on some distant branch.

On a lark, I went to visit D. Brenton Simons, the genial head of NEHGS, the society founded in 1845. Simons has so many American presidents in his own ancestry that he stops counting after Washington, Adams, Van Buren and FDR. But what he finds most fascinating are the everyday searches through the 200,000 books and the 28 million manuscripts, papers, and diaries that fill the building in Boston’s Back Bay.

“You can be related to a king or a horse thief,” says Simons, who shows no favoritism for either lineage. “We all make discoveries that surprise and enlighten us.”

So it is that I casually handed over a few names and dates from my own memory bank. I didn’t find a king or horse thief or Hollywood star, but I found a family secret. A garden-variety secret, I am sure, but a secret nonetheless.

My grandparents were married on Feb. 3, 1914. Five months before my mother was born on July 7, 1914.

Funny how data can set your head spinning. What did this say about my grandparents and the origin of their long, loving, imperfect marriage? About their passion or imprudence or the world they lived in 95 years ago?

Suddenly, my grandmother, whom I remember with great fondness as a cleanliness freak, the subject of much family humor, comes alive as a young woman. Suddenly, my grandfather, who led me by the hand into Red Sox Nation, is a young man. Were they lovers whose affection culminated happily in marriage? Or was this a shotgun wedding? What was it like in 1913 for a young couple to find that she’s pregnant? What happened if and when they told their parents?

And what of my mother, who never, at least consciously, knew this? My aunt cannot remember hearing the story of her parents’ courtship. There is no wedding photo. While we celebrated their 40th anniversary, none of us can even remember what time of year that party was held.

Did this secret infiltrate all their, our, lives? A lot or a little? There is, for example, my great-grandmother, who regularly warned her beautiful granddaughter – my mother – that she would come to no good. Am I required now to rewrite that old woman’s malevolence differently, as colored by her own daughter’s experience? Am I required to rethink the legacy my grandparents left me, beyond the soup pot that I cherish? Too soon old, too late . . . curious.

There are other bits of paper in my genealogical binder. It’s moving to see the name of the actual ship that brought my family to America and the naturalization papers that required them to “renounce forever all allegiance and fidelity” to Czar Nicholas II – which they must have done with pleasure.

But what we really want from the generations past are not just the facts or the DNA. We want the stories. Love, passion, success, disappointment, humanity. There may be no way to know – really know – their interior life. But how many of us would trade in the data for one good diary? Will we remember that in our own “estate planning”?

“We all have tens of thousands of cousins,” says Simons, whose researchers connected Clinton with Jolie, Obama with Bush. “You can walk down the street right past a third or fourth cousin and not know it.”

But how I wish I could stop one couple on the street for a just a question or two. The couple who were married on Feb. 3, 1914.

Published in: on April 21, 2008 at 7:00 pm  Comments (2)  

Living in the past

I’ve been digging around in my family’s roots for over 20 years and feel as though I am only scratching the surface of those who lie beneath the soil. Hopefully I’ll be able to bring them back to life a little by retelling their stories.

Published in: on April 15, 2008 at 5:11 pm  Leave a Comment