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  
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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