Category Archives: History

Crossing a River

The first time I traveled to a different country I was a junior in high school. Friends had decided they’d rather take the train from Flint, Michigan, to Toronto, Canada, than rent formal wear and a limo and go to prom and invited me to come with.

Being a geography nerd, I fantasized about the trip in the weeks before we left. The only Canadian I’d met before was my grandfather (but he’d been an apple-pie-eating American for decades by the time I came around) so my imagination went wild. I learned from an episode of the Brady Bunch that Hawaiians welcomed travelers with a garland of flowers. So I figured a similar ceremony would greet me when we crossed the border: mounties knighting me with hockey sticks, customs agents anointing me with maple syrup, a dexterous moose pinning a maple leaf brooch on my REM sweat shirt; that sort of thing. I was pretty disappointed when we crossed the St. Clair River and I didn’t even hear a cheer.

grand-trunk-railway-map
(source: wikimedia.org)

The greeting came after we stepped off the train. Hello, strange money. Hello, taxi drivers whipping down Yonge Street using the “wrong” lane. Bonjour French words burbling at the bottoms of signs. When we arrived at the subway station, a man standing on a milk crate was spouting off about the evils of America to anyone who would listen. The Greedy States of America, he’d said, lewdly rubbing his fingers and thumbs together. I pulled my jacket a little tighter as I walked with my friends past the train station pundit, through the crowded platform, and toward the first subway station I’d ever encountered. That was the moment I first realized I had transformed into a capital-F Foreigner. How I had become something so political and mysterious just by sitting on a train playing cards mystified me.

We struggled—my friends and I—to follow the instructions written on the subway fare machine even though they were in English. After a while, a man in a beret approached us: “I can see you are in need of some orientation.” He enunciated each word, then he explained in a very practiced way how to buy a ticket and board the right train.

After a short subway ride, we found our hotel and proceeded to ramble around the city for the next four days completely in awe at the cultural differences we saw. Those differences were, of course, minute—only impressive to a group of 17 year olds who had never known another way of life.

On Sunday we found ourselves stepping into a train on another smoky platform. I felt like I was boarding a spaceship to go home and tell my people all the wonders I’d seen.

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Hensall railway station

I didn’t know it at the time, but my grandfather Nelson Harburn and his large family had made the same journey to Flint on a Grand Trunk train 70-odd years before me. The difference was that they had birdcages and trunks, hat boxes and linens with them. They were crossing the St. Clair River for good.

Up until the day they left, the boys in the family had worked in the fields around their house in Hensall, Ontario, to keep the farm going for the new owners. Meanwhile, the women packed up the house, emptied the cellar, and sold the furniture. I imagine they talked about their new lives in the city as they worked. When the family came together for dinner, the women asked the older brothers, who had visited Flint before, to tell them again about the car traffic, the groceries, the department stores.

George, the oldest Harburn sibling, and his new wife were waiting in a little white house for their arrival. Flint, at the time, was a burgeoning industrial hub thanks to the automobile industry. Factory managers practically hired men off the street. My great-grandfather William was probably the one who’d contacted General Motors. In 1919, the conservation legacy of nature lover Theodore Roosevelt still dominated, and the auto industry was in trouble over air pollution. William Harburn farmed and distributed flowers for a living. He or George negotiated a deal to start a farm across the river from the main factory to prove there was no environmental threat. In addition, the Harburns offered their flower inventory to the company’s many social events and landscaping needs. GM agreed, giving them land and a company house.

The new home had only three bedrooms, but the Harburns didn’t complain. They arrived in Flint excited all the same. Imagine 12 people—two married couples!—crammed into a house in the city. Imagine all of the cultural differences the family would have encountered all at once: Canadian to American, country to city, independent to corporate.

And the Harburns, relatively speaking, had it easy. They arrived with a house and a purpose. They spoke the language. They had the safety of their motherland waiting just across the river with open arms.

Click here to see a copy of the record immigration officials took the day my grandfather arrived in Flint.
All relevant sources can be found here.
A short biography of my grandfather can be found here.

Car Folk

When I first started renting cars to drive back home, my parents and my brothers would scoff at the foreign ones. I quickly became the car rental agent’s worst nightmare because I would only rent during holidays—read in: the busiest times— and I would have to refuse the Jettas and Bugs they offered me. “I’m sorry, sir,” I’d say, “but could you please yank that nice family out of the Buick? You would not believe the amount of grief I will get if I drive this Camry into my parents’ driveway.” It was a pain, but it saved me from a lot of grief.

My parents and brothers are car folk, and judging by the recurrent theme in these old family photos, they weren’t the only ones in my family. Car folk are pretty common where I’m from. Flint, Michigan, is, after all, the birthplace of General Motors. Every adult I knew growing up was either a “shop rat” or had a job related to the auto industry. Shouting obscenities to the obvious outsiders driving Volkswagens and Subarus was an everyday occurrence. While watching TV once, I remember asking my mom why there wasn’t a cake of Lava soap and a stiff bristled brush next to Roseanne’s kitchen sink. Where did the Connors scrub the oil from their fingernails?

Looking back, it’s obvious that the auto industry was inherent to the economy, the culture, hell, even the religion of Flint, but I didn’t get it when I lived there. To me, cars were like washcloths— just things, identical but for color, that I used when I needed and then immediately forgot.

But I get it now— my ancestors’ desire to be photographed with their cars, my hometown’s fierce loyalty to an industry that took as much as it gave. These pictures of my grandfather, my grandmother, and my great-granduncle were taken at a time when cars were the newest things under the Sun. My family was still basking in the afterglow of the conveniences their automobiles afforded them. No more isolated farm lives for them. New possibilities were springing up like tulips as far as they could see.

Not only that, my relatives knew the people who made their sleek and shiny status symbols. They were family, friends, and neighbors. Cars weren’t just machines; they were products of the community.

My relatives were proud of their beautiful machines and what owning them meant. You can see it in my grandfather’s straight-backed posture as he sits on the hood, in my great-granduncle’s reach toward a fender as if it were his son’s shoulder, and in my grandmother’s cocked hip and tilted gaze.

Being carless in the city these past thirteen years has helped me appreciate them as my relatives did. I love the novelty of driving now. I appreciate having a trunk to put my groceries in when I have one, and the added bonus of being able to drive them home, too. I appreciate being able to have a conversation while traveling without worrying about the thirty sets of strangers’ ears that are listening. Carrying keys in my hand connects me to my family, my past. And now when I walk into the rental agency, I request the American car up front knowing the tremendous role my family and my hometown played in history.

Precious Little Without Them

In the span of a breath, everything changed. The bees chirped. The birds buzzed. And I sat reading a letter next to a gnarled tree. Alone.

I had watched as Eleanor packed our things, only leaving six chickens, the contents of the root cellar, my clothes, and my razor and strop. What precious little I had in my life without them. I held my chin steady as she picked up my youngest, adjusted her bonnet, and walked down the drive. She took my sons and my daughters with her. All ten of them pitied me as they lifted their valises and hefted them onto the stagecoach. I saw a joy inside each of them waiting to be loosed like the voices of a chorus during Easter services. My children were eager to start their adventure.

I picture them as they were in the stagecoach before Charles set the horses in motion. Helen, oblivious, demanded a gum drop and Sarah, my young lady, bent down to Helen’s ear. “Not now,” Sarah whispered. “We’re saying farewell to Papa.” My quiet Aileen held Felix’s hand. Mary Ellen, Langham, and Millicent sat lined up in a row, their legs dangled over the edge of the stagecoach platform. Standing up front, lanky William soothed the horses after the jostling and ruckus of loading their things. I said a silent prayer asking the Lord to watch over each one of them. I knew once they left my sight I was powerless to protect them.

Charles held the reins tightly and gave me his most solemn good-bye. The steeliness in his eyes reassured me that he knew what I expected of him. Man of the house. Settling a family in the frontier wouldn’t be easy, especially without their father; I hoped in that moment that I had sufficiently prepared Charles for the months ahead: the river crossings, the Indians and thieves, the unpredictable weather. All forces set on punishing my loved ones for aspiring to a better life. The thought of it has brought me to my knees more than once these past months.

Eleanor, my faithful wife, was the only one of them that looked peaked. I worried after they departed if I had witnessed the specter of illness on her face. Now, with this first letter, I know what I saw that day wasn’t illness. It was a secret. It was fear.

She had stepped onto the stagecoach that day knowing she was with child. I will meet my new son or daughter when I join them. They arrived the first week of July and I did not lose a one, praise God. Now all that’s left is the selling of the farm,  the wait for warmer weather, and my own journey west.

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Author Stephen King learns about his relatives’ progressive past

 

Finding Your Roots returns this Tuesday night on PBS. I prefer this show over Who Do You Think You Are? Henry Gates, Jr. is a fantastic host: witty, friendly, caring. He makes a point in his research to uncover common themes between two or three different people’s family trees. For instance, Tuesday’s show is called “In Search of Our Fathers,” and focuses on three celebrities (I posted the incredibly moving Gloria Reuben preview on my Facebook page) whose childhoods all lacked fathers. With three different people to cover, FYR doesn’t resort to the filler moments WDYTYA bookends each commercial break with. Henry Gates, as you can tell from the video, checks in with his guests while he tells them their family’s story creating genuine moments between them. Sometimes I feel like WDYTYA tries to force emotional reactions on camera.

Anyway, I’ll be watching. If you catch the episode, leave me a comment. We’ll talk.

Connecting with My Grandfather

I’ve never met my grandfather, Ralph. My father didn’t really know him either. He was an alcoholic and he abandoned my dad at the age of 8. I assumed that was all there was to know.

Dad only told one story about him. The story took place on the roof of what would become my childhood home. After years of repeatedly disappointing my father, he was trying to reestablish a connection. Ralph chose to reconnect by helping my father build our house.

CCC working
CCC men dig a ditch.

It was 1970. Ralph was in his mid-60s. He and my dad were putting the roof on the house. While they were hammering and tarring, Ralph started talking about how the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps) ruined his life. It was the reason he lost his job, and the reason he started drinking. The CCC was part of President Roosevelt’s economic recovery plan for America during the Great Depression. It allowed the government to hire three million men to build roads, plant trees, and dig ditches across the country between 1933 to 1942.

The story has always confused me. How could a program whose sole purpose was to hire millions of people put my grandfather out of work? I had no idea.  I decided to look into it, hoping to understand him a little better.

In the 1930 census, I found him listed along with my great-grandparents. He was working for a county in Iowa as an assistant engineer three years before the CCC began. Mystery solved, I thoughtThe CCC, being a national program, must have made the County guys, like my grandfather, obsolete. Roosevelt formed the CCC; Ralph lost his job.

In the 1940 census, I found this:

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So, my theory was wrong. My grandfather wasn’t let go when the CCC started. He kept his job well into its heyday. Not only that, somewhere along the way he had picked up a wife and 2 daughters I didn’t know about. Holy cow!

Using phone directories (which listed peoples’ professions alongside their addresses back then), I find out that Ralph was let go as an engineer sometime in 1941. With that information, I had to form a new theory: the CCC must have finished all the work a county engineer would be hired to do. When the CCC started to disintegrate, the county probably realized there was no more work for my semi-educated 36-year-old grandfather.

I say semi-educated because the censuses consistently list Ralph’s highest level of education as 8th grade. ‘Engineer’ was just a title; he didn’t have a degree.

In 1942, Ralph was divorced from Gladys, broke, lacking purpose, and living in Flint, Michigan. The directory states that he was running a pool hall there. Before, I would have blamed him for allowing himself to be near the alcohol in the pool halls, accelerating his and his second family’s self-destruction. But I realize now that if I had lost both my job and my family in less than a year, I might start drinking, too.

I don’t like that he took such a long time to get his act together, but I’m grateful that he eventually did it. That he was there in 1970 on that rooftop with my dad. That he tried and succeeded to connect.

(l to r) Bill James, Eva Burns, Ralph James
My grandfather is the man on the right.

The Gene Pool: The Literature Edition

Every now and then I like to sum up a few genealogy-related items I’ve come across in pop culture. I call it The Gene Pool because I’m clever.

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Item #1: The Dead by Billy Collins
via book and the Internet

(I came across this poem recently, and wanted to keep it around to read. It nicely sums up my connection to my ancestors while I’m researching them.)

The dead are always looking down on us, they say.
while we are putting on our shoes or making a sandwich,
they are looking down through the glass bottom boats of heaven
as they row themselves slowly through eternity.

They watch the tops of our heads moving below on earth,
and when we lie down in a field or on a couch,
drugged perhaps by the hum of a long afternoon,
they think we are looking back at them,
which makes them lift their oars and fall silent
and wait, like parents, for us to close our eyes.

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Item #2: City of Thieves by David Benioff
via book

In the introCity of Thieves book coverduction of the book, the author (who currently heads the writing team of the Game of Thrones series) explains that he kept asking his immigrant grandfather to tell him what life in Russia was like during the Nazi occupation. His grandfather repeatedly refused to talk about it, but gave him a blessing of using his authorly skills to make a story up. Benioff researched the siege of St. Petersburg and then built a narrative around the historical facts. If you’ve been reading my blog, you’ll know that this technique is exactly what I’m attempting to do with my ancestors’ histories.  The result is an incredibly moving tale of two ‘criminals’ and their odd journey through the battle zones of World War II.

This book will stay in my library as an excellent example of blurring the lines between history and fiction. I think you’ll enjoy it too, although, I will warn you that it does not pull any punches when describing the human condition during wartime. I sobbed through several chapters in this book. I am not much for sobbing generally.

For more on my impressions of this book, read my review on Goodreads. Warning: SPOILERS!

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Item #3: Who Do You Think You Are?
via television

Not quite literature, I know, but the fourth season premieres on TLC this Wednesday night with Cynthia Nixon of Sex and the City fame. Who Do You Think You Are? is a show that researches a celebrity’s ancestors and then recounts an interesting tale from their findings. The first few episodes on NBC were admittedly dry, but the Mormons over at Ancestry.com who produce it have found a way to jazz it up a bit. The episode on Christina Applegate’s father has stuck with me for 2 years.

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Like what I did here? Read other Gene Pool installments: Paul Fronczak & San Miguel and Coincidences!

Do you know about any history, sociology, or genealogy stories  I can use for upcoming Gene Pools? Tell me about it.

Dreams As Big As Canada

When I was 10 years old, I wrote the Canadian Tourism Commission for information to help me research a school report. In return I received an envelope stuffed with brochures and an enormous map of a single province. In order to see all of the map at once, I had to tack it up on the only wall in my bedroom that didn’t have windows or closet doors.

I spent hours imagining floating down the intricate blue lines on the map. I studied the speckles that marbled the top half of the province, picturing raw-knuckled Inuit families coming out of their igloos to grab their fish dinners out of the nearest lake. I practiced pronouncing the names of the towns I saw: Flin Flon, Kindersley, Moosejaw. I quickly adopted a favorite town as an interjection that I used nonstop and for any occasion— the surprise of a stubbed toe, the joy of getting a second helping of dessert, a substitution for the swear words I heard my dad say. After three days, my brother aggressively suggested other words for me to use, but I just loved the way it felt in my mouth: SASS-kuh-TOON suh-SKAT-choo-win. I defied him to think of another place in the world that was more fun to say.

He couldn’t.

My passions followed me to college. Much to my parents’ dismay, I changed my major constantly: English, English As A Foreign Language, Psychology, Spanish, German, Cartography, Geography, Sociology. I was in search of the best combination to prepare me for my destiny of single-handedly running a travel program on TV. The pathway to that lofty goal, however, forsook me. I settled for a Creative Writing degree and, after graduating, quickly realized that the travel show industry was minuscule and difficult to break into. Disheartened, I took a job at a bookstore instead.

So imagine my excitement when I found Amos Burg, Jr. in my family tree recently. An actual National Geographic adventurist in my humble family? Saskatoon, Saskatchewan!

Screen shot 2014-06-04 at 1.52.46 PMAmos grew up along the banks of the Columbia River. He spent nights in his canoe dreaming of meeting exciting new people in far away places. Early on, he decided his life’s goal was to run all of the major rivers of the western U.S. At 19, he launched his boat into the Columbia river’s source lake, high up in the mountains of Alberta. When he wasn’t steering his way through dangerous rapids, he was thoroughly documenting the 1,243-mile trip back home to Portland, Oregon. Upon his success, he made national news and immediately submitted his diaries and photos to National Geographic. They were quick to utilize him.

Canoeist. Essayist. Photographer. Cinematographer. Politician. Spy. I’ll let my research links above list off the details of his many accomplishments, but, suffice it to say, Amos Burg was the epitome of my childhood dreams.

His biographer describes him as a sensitive boy, and a worrying, fastidious adult. A dandy in dress and manner. A writer all his life. An advocate of preserving native cultures and the environment before it was cool. I flatter myself to think we have a lot in common (although we did both write for NG, his effort to do so was more arduous by literal miles). Amos– my grandfather’s first cousin of all people– is who I’m striving to be. He is proof to me that some dreams are genetic (further evidenced by my nephew’s long fascination with international flags and Germany). He is the reason I’ve spent thousands of hours researching my family. He is my uncontainable map of Saskatchewan all over again.

Straight from the Diary of Candi Partridge

Dear Diary,

Why does everyone like that Cosby show so much? I think it’s bogus. Last night there was a rerun of the one where Vanessa tries to sneak away from home to see her boyfriend. He’s all sticky sweet with her and then he tells her that they need to spend every moment they can with each other. Please. Get me a hose with some strong water pressure to spray them both off my tv. Teenagers just don’t date like that. I know. I’ve been dating my boyfriend Patrick for 4 whole months.

First of all, boyfriends don’t say all that lovey crap–all those beautifuls and need yous. We don’t need them to. It’s almost the 90s, people. (!!!) Women have evolved. Geraldine Ferraro was this close to being Vice President of the United States! My mom always says that when there are other adults in the room that aren’t my dad, but it’s true.

My boyfriend Patrick and I don’t need to talk. He shows that he loves me by picking me up after I’m done babysitting and walking me to the arcade. That’s what we do on Friday nights. He’ll buy me a pack of strawberry watermelon Hubba Bubba and I’ll give him the money Mrs. Davis gave me for watching Jennifer. Then he’ll play Galaga for hours. We’ll be together all night without ever needing to say a word because our love transcends using voice boxes!

What do I do while he plays games? Well, I mostly sit on the floor and lean against the side of the game and chew my gum. Sometimes I’ll trace the circles of acid marks in my jeans. Sometimes I’ll watch the arcade owner stomp around trying to catch people tipping the pinball machines. When he does he screams “TILT! TILT! You brats!” and two or three kids will start running to the front door. It’s pretty funny. Patrick just keeps feeding the machine more quarters and staring at the electronic insects that are swooping down on his battleship. Galaga screen shotHe’s not much of a talker. He started buying me gum at the arcade so I wouldn’t try to talk to him and break his concentration. That’s how I show him my love. I don’t break his concentration.  .  . and I let him pay for gum.

Second of all, a healthy adult relationship means we’re fine doing stuff apart. Vanessa Huxtable needs Jeremy to feel special. She’s completely dependent on him. Grown up relationships are about sharing lives, not living the same life. Friday night is the only time Patrick and I spend time together. He likes to hang out with his friend on the football team– Brian. And Brian has his games on Friday nights. I think Patrick’s spending every day with Brian because he feels bad about the screamfest they had in the cafeteria a while back. It was bad. They fought until Patrick finally punched Brian in the jaw and Brian stormed off with his teammates.* I tried to get Patrick to talk about it, but he just said it was no big deal and clammed up. I tried to get him to go see Rain Man with me. I said it doesn’t require conversation to sit and watch a movie together, but he just started to cry. So then I tried to show I understood about fighting with friends by telling him about the fight I’m in with Whisky.

Whisky’s my best friend. Or was. She bought this new jean jacket that looks like an old dress my grandma has in the back of her closet. The jacket and the dress are the same shade of blue and have this freakazoid fringe all over them. Mom called the dress a flapper or something when I pulled it out of the closet and asked her about it.

Anyway, after I said that about Whisky’s jacket she called me Sarcastro, which is our way of telling each other we’re being mean, and she told me to leave her room in that voice that’s all flat and cold-like. I don’t care. Her jacket did look like that dress. Denial is such a strong force in some people.

But I do miss talking to her. She and I love each other, but not like Patrick and I do, thank God, because Whisky and I talk ALL THE TIME when we’re together. And when we’re not together we’re talking on the phone. We’ll talk until Mom trips on the phone cord and yells at me to get off the line. It’s not my fault that I have to pull it so tight so it will reach into my bedroom. That’s the only way I can get any privacy in my stupid house.

Usually I’d be at Whisky’s house right now. I like it there because her mom is always baking something. Last week, it was peach cobbler. My favorite. What was I talking about? Oh yeah, Patrick.

I think he looks like a taller, buffer Doogie Howser. (Future self: he’s a dorky doctor on a tv show.) But, Whisky says he looks more like that superhunk from Growing Pains. She says Pat couldn’t be Doogie because Doogie is totally innocent. I think she’s right. Like, last Friday, Patrick had Brian meet him at the arcade so they could play Mario and Luigi together. For some reason, Brian didn’t have a ball game. I’m not sure why Patrick and I have never thought to play a video game together like that. Anyway, when I told him I had to go, he just told me I knew my way back home. So I had to walk all by myself like in that weird song where the guy sings about a girl having different colored eyes. (Future self: it’s the one that goes “Tonight I think I’ll walk alone, I’ll find myself as I go home. Woo! Oo-oo-oo-oo-oo!”)

That’s what I was singing to myself all the way home. I can’t believe he made me do that. There I was walking down the street alone like a hooker. As if. So maybe I should break up with him. Seems a waste to throw away such a long relationship! But I’ve been thinking I miss Mickey, my first love. He wasn’t so into his friends like Pat is. And Mickey’s mom always made us chicken alfredo dinners and this really mature dessert with Italian cookies and whipped cream. I know it’s weird to call a food mature, but it has fancy coffee in it– not the powdered kind– so how else would you describe it? Besides, Mickey is really fun. We have a lot more in common. And he showed me how to hide the creases under my eyes using some concealer. Maybe he can help me figure out how to make up with Whisky, too.

Anyway, that’s what’s up with me. Oh, Cosby show’s on! Gotta go.

Chow!

Candi signature

 

 

*taken from Stephen Chbosky fantastic novel, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, that very much influenced Candi’s character

The Gene Pool: Coincidences

Every now and then I like to sum up a few genealogy-related items I’ve come across in pop culture. I call it The Gene Pool because I’m clever.

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Item #1: Oh my god, you’re European!
via the Internet

Samantha logged onto Facebook one day and read a message from a woman in England telling her that she had a doppelganger. She clicked a link to the woman’s Facebook profile and couldn’t believe what she saw. A year and a half later they’re documenting their story. I love this kind of stuff.


Read more here.

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Item #2: No Coincidence, No Story
via radio and the Internet

Family researchers often find themselves in situations where they have to decide whether a coincidence is happenstance or a pattern taking shape. So, when I heard the first story about coincidences on an NPR broadcast, I was hooked!

After hearing the hour long broadcast, I couldn’t stop telling everyone I saw about the significance of a man giving his girlfriend a dollar with her name written on it (minute 22 in the podcast below), or the odd story of a man being given a picture of a toddler in a stroller taken 18 years ago and noticing his own grandmother perfectly framed in the background (minute 9:14 in the podcast below). And the other 13 stories gave me goose pimples, too.

Listen to the broadcast here. This one is a bit of a time commitment, come back to it when you’re washing dishes or cleaning house this weekend. I promise you won’t be sorry.

 

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Item # 3: History Detectives
via television

I’m really late to this party,  but I figure if I wasn’t aware of PBS’s History Detectives even after 10 seasons of being on the air, then others might not know about it either. It is exactly the kind of tv program someone who knew me pretty well would tell me about!

It’s similar to Antiques Roadshow, only instead of appraising objects from the past, the detectives research the story behind the objects. In a recent episode, a woman inherited a beautiful electric guitar from her father who had worked in the music business. Her father told her it was the very guitar Bob Dylan played at his infamous Newport Folk Festival performance. So the detective went out to verify the story.

That example is a little less genealogy oriented, than others. They’ve also investigated the story behind two stolen Civil War derringers (I had to look up the word) and the validity of a woman’s claim that she inherited royal jewels. My point is that this show covers the whole gamut of people’s interests — music, art, culture, writing, architecture, sports, military– not to mention my three blogging loves: history, sociology, and genealogy.

Check out their website or watch a segment about a book of African American spirituals:

 

Like what I did here? Read my first Gene Pool installment!

Do you know about any history, sociology, or genealogy stories  I can use for upcoming Gene Pools? Tell me about it.

Have any interesting coincidences happen to you lately? I’d love to hear it. Or just tell me what you thought of my finds.

 

Shot By the Enemy

One of many forms detailing Thomas' injury in the war.
One of many forms detailing my forefather’s injury in the war.

My third great grandfather, Thomas Wilson, was about 46 years old when he enlisted in the 24th Regiment of the New York Cavalry. The document above is a form the doctor had to fill out in order for Thomas to receive government money. In my possession, I have a dozen more of his claims for an Invalid Pension spanning from 1864 to 1875. Each one has a mannequin-like diagram of a man (think Da Vinci’s Vetruvian Man) with an arrow pointing to the upper right leg indicating the source of Thomas’s complaint year after year. It seems the government required him to get a physical regularly to keep his soldier’s pension.

This document says that he was wounded on July 9th, 1864. He was shot in the right thigh “splintering the bone.” On top of that it describes an exit wound just left of the pubis. Youch! The wound was “received in the trenches before Petersburg from a shot by the enemy.” I will leave you to read the rest of the gory details in the document, if you so choose. The initialism GSW, by the way, stands for “gun shot wound.” That tripped me up.

Thomas received $4 a month because he suffered from “too much lameness to allow work of more than half a day.” I’ll say. Good thing he had his wife, Emily Patterson Wilson, and his sons and daughters to help him with the farm work. His oldest son, George, also fought in the war. Mary Jane, his oldest daughter, and Ambrose, his second son, were in their late teens and unmarried at the time. His youngest children, Joanna and Emogene, were still in school.* Ambrose, by the way, is the father of Fred Wilson in the fictional story I’m writing about my family.

 

From the Library of Congress archives
“In the trenches before Petersburg, Virginia, 1865” from the Library of Congress archives

The Battle of Petersburg, Virginia, or the Petersburg Campaign, was an especially gruesome one and significant to the outcome of the war. Petersburg was the seventh largest city in the Confederacy at the time and a center of transportation. A third of the soldiers involved perished during the 292 days it rumbled the country. Thomas probably fought in the initial battle. I say probably because the government website lists June 15-18, 1864 as the dates of the first battle. Thomas’s record states that he received his wound 21 days later. Considering those dates, the word before in “received in the trenches before Petersburg” probably refers to geography and not time. In other words, my man suffered his wounds in the trenches that are located in the ground before one enters the city, not before the Battle of Petersburg itself.

I found a genealogy website that lists an article where Thomas is reported to have been slightly wounded on June 29th. So, that seems to suggest that Thomas was in the trenches as the initial battle raged. Given the details I’ve read of the campaign, he is lucky to have survived it.

Whether he fought in Petersburg or not, Thomas’s story is fascinating to me. If I had known when I was in school that I had a direct ancestor who had participated in the Civil War (now I know of several),  I surely would have invested in the topics I was being taught. How could I not? In my family tree alone, I have probable ties to most of the major wars, Jesse James, Eli Whitney, the Quakers, and Susannah Martin, one of the first women accused in the Salem Witch trials.  And those are just the ancestors I know about now! But now I’m getting ahead of myself; those are subjects for future posts.

I’ve often thought it would be wise to teach a little genealogy in junior high school so students could discover how their family was impacted by the historical events they learn about in class. It would help students recognize that history isn’t just about memorizing random dates and places. It would also help teachers maintain their students’ interest . . . or maybe not everyone would be as geeky about it as I am.

Not long after he was mustered out (which is olde timey military-talk for ‘released from duty’), Thomas moved his family to eastern Michigan. He lived about halfway between the towns of Flushing and New Lothrop until his death in 1883. Thankfully, despite his wounds, he lived to the ripe age of 65.*

This isn’t the last you’ll hear of Thomas Wilson. I have more documentation to share. I actually edited out three more documents that directly relate to what I’ve told you so far about him. Plus I have war documents that helped me find his wife’s family, not to mention the story of how these documents landed in my hands in the first place! I just don’t want to smother you with everything I know.

I will, however, smother you with what these forms neglected to mention: Thomas’ parent’s names. In genealogical terms, that means Thomas is one of my brick walls. A brick wall in a family tree is a person whose paper trail ends abruptly. It’s frustrating to have his childhood be a dead end for me considering how much paperwork I have on his life as an adult. Other documents suggest he may have been born in 1817 in Morristown, New Jersey.* Other Wilsons and Willsons can be found living near Manchester, New York, where Thomas and his family lived before the war, but Wilson is such a common surname. I couldn’t find data on common surnames from back then, but Census.gov lists it as the eighth most common last name in the country in 1990. Therefore, I don’t think I can safely assume that all of the Wilson/Willsons in the area are Thomas’s relatives. I have looked for other Wilson/Willsons in the area that were also born in New Jersey about the time Thomas was. I came up with one person: a man named Stephen Willson. Stephen was only in the area for one census and I have no idea where he moved after that. If anyone has suggestions of where I can look, please share!

Recently, I sent a friend who lives in nearby Rochester, New York, to the Genealogical Society near Manchester to look up Thomas and Emily’s marriage announcements. I was hoping there’d be something there listing his parents or his family. But no dice. (Thanks again, Kristy!)

*documentation of these facts available, just ask.