Many of my Harburn relatives got married in Angola, Indiana, in the early 1900s. As life-long residents of Flint, Michigan, I always wondered why my grandparents and their siblings drove the two hours through southern Michigan, crossed the border, and got hitched in the furthest northeastern corner of Indiana.
It was especially bewildering because my grandparents, according to all sources, were not travelers. They moved exactly twice while they were married: from a farm into town, then down the street. They liked their town, church, neighbors, and home just fine. Thank you very much.
I’m sure I’m behind the times here, but I just learned about Gretna Green marriages, also known as marriage mills. Named after a town just over the English border in Scotland, Gretna Green became a haven for young English couples who did not want to jump through the hoops the English parliament made young couples jump through, including waiting x amount of time and spending x amount of money at the church for the ceremony. Scotland, on the other hand, allowed simple ceremonies with little political bureaucracy to hinder young lovers.
After I learned the term, I looked up “Gretna Green locations in the United States” and discovered that Angola was a common marriage location for people in southern Michigan. In fact, by the 1950s, Steuben County, where Angola is located, was issuing 1,000 more marriage licenses a year than Marion County, where Indianapolis is located.
Now my grandfather was 33-years-old when he married it 1934, working in his parents’ florist shops. My grandmother was a school teacher. I don’t think they were hurting for cash so much as wanting a quiet and simple ceremony. They had a huge family. Having known them personally, I can’t imagine they’d have wanted a big fuss.
Sources: 1. HistoricUK.com. [https://www.historic-uk.com/HistoryUK/HistoryofScotland/Gretna-Green/: Accessed on 15 Jul 2020. 2. Indiana Genealogy Society, Publications. [http://www.indgensoc.org/publications/email_alerts/2018/2018_02.pdf: Accessed on 15 Jul 2020] 3. Nelson Harburn and Bernice Wilson marriage certificate. Indiana, Marriages, 1811-1959, Steuben: 1934-1934, Volume23, Image 78 of 324. Accessed on FamilySearch.org 19 Jul 2020.
When I started my family research in 2009, it was all lopsided. My mother’s family had annual reunions and shared churches and a huge piece of paper with all of our names on it in trim little boxes. I remember one year at the family reunion someone had tacked up the family tree on a wall of the church’s banquet room. Photos of most of the family were taped up next to their entry on the tree. I watched as my relatives would bring their son or granddaughter to the chart and show them the box in which their name was written and then trace their branch up the chart. Inevitably, they would turn to the room, and the older person would point at various people the child knew and tell them their relationship.
“That’s your great-aunt Margaret, Nicky. She’s your papa’s sister. See her over in the flowered dress talking to daddy?”
It was nice. If anyone felt insecure about their place in the family, they could look to the large tree drawn on the wall and know that they belong. It felt as if the ties between us were tangled beneath the grid of tables filling the room.
My favorite photos of them are of when they were young. Seeing my grandparents, my aunt and uncle, my parents before kids and divorces and funerals. All of the lifetimes they had before I knew them.
That was my mother’s side. The known side. My father’s side was hazier.
Dad grew up in foster care from age 8. He knew his brother, sister, half-sisters and half-brother, parents, aunts, and uncles lived in town, but he also knew he barely spoke to any of them, let alone lived with them. He knew his mother’s last name because it was written on his birth certificate. (We would later discover that last name was incorrect.) There were no photographs of these people, no stories. Occasionally Dad would mention something about his childhood—how his mom made the best blackberry cobbler or how the horses at the job he held in high school always seemed to buck when it was his turn to clean their stables, but he never lingered long in those memories.
I started researching his family with very little to go on. The first names of his mother and siblings. Found out dad had close family members living all around where he grew up. Found out I had deep roots in two unfamiliar states: Iowa and Missouri. I was lucky there was a huge network of researchers on that side of my family who posted to Ancestry. It didn’t take long for me to discover photos of my grandparents.
That first glimpse was a lightning strike. There was no doubt they were family. Seeing their familiar faces was like meeting ghosts who had haunted my childhood home. I even found a photograph of my dad as a boy. In all the shuffling around of his childhood, he hadn’t held onto his keepsakes.
These are my favorite photos of my dad’s side. The unknown side. That light I’d felt when I’d seen my grandparents’ faces and recognized my dad, my brothers, myself in them is what keeps me researching my family tree.
(The featured photo of this post is my maternal grandfather (in the hat) with his younger brothers, c. 1918.)
It seems like at the end of every episode of Finding Your Roots or Who Do You Think You Are? each guest tells the host or the person holding the camera that they have a different sense of themselves after finding out they are Arcadian or they are related to William the Conqueror. It’s my favorite part of the show because I came to those same conclusions, although there were no cameras to capture it. I felt that same inner light when I learned who my people were and how I got here. A certain kind of relief comes with the knowledge that who you are isn’t entirely your responsibility, that the chapter you are writing of your life isn’t the first in the book.
I definitely started my own research looking for my place, trying to find out where I belonged, and I quickly learned that I owe my entire existence to Henry Ford. Before the auto industry, my foreparents were scattered in Upstate New York, Ontario, the boot-heel of Missouri, and Council Bluffs, Iowa.
My New York relatives, the Wilsons, were the first to settle near Flint. They were farmers who were pushed out of the Rochester, New York, area due to a population boom and a land shortage. Thomas Wilson moved his family to New Lothrop, Michigan, using the money he received fighting and being injured in the Civil War. By 1920, all of his grandsons were employed in the factories or in auto-related businesses in Flint.
The Harburns, my Canadian family, immigrated to Flint in 1919. Having been farmers of flowers in Hensall, Ontario, they moved to Flint to become the official florists of the Ford Motor Company. It was just after Teddy Roosevelt and his conservationist movement took hold in the United States. The auto industry was getting flak from residents of the city for polluting the Flint River. Ford Motor Company hired my family to refute the conservationists’ claims. The Harburns were given a deal on a small white house just a little downriver from a car plant and grew the flowers for the company’s corporate events. The company hoped to prove the purity of the river with my family’s success. Unfortunately, it worked. Growing up, I only associate that river with stink. Swimming there was always considered a feat of daring; eating fish from there was downright nuts.
My Missouri folks, the Romines, had been struggling for decades to make a living by farming near Parma and Malden. It was the Depression when my 2nd great-grandfather moved up to Flint because of Ford’s promise of jobs. Once my 2nd great-grandfather was established, my great-grandfather followed, leaving behind his young family and marrying his second wife. Abandoned by her father, my grandmother left her own family in Missouri to find her dad. This abandonment was the end (thankfully!) of a long pattern in the Romine line.
The Jameses had been living in Council Bluffs, Iowa, since the 1870s. All but two of the eight siblings stayed there. My grandfather followed his older sister to Flint in 1941 after going through a bitter divorce and being fired from his job as county engineer in FDR’s Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). His sister owned several bars in Flint, and he was made a bartender in one of them. That’s how he met my grandmother, who worked as a cook in a restaurant that catered mostly to factory workers.
Henry Ford. As far as I know, I have no relation to him, but he was absolutely responsible for putting my grandparents in the same place at the same time. Before learning this, I’d never thought twice about cars or the role the grubby factories we passed along the highway played in the history of my family and virtually every other family near me.
One of my first memories took place at my Grandma’s funeral. I remember passing a tissue to my mother because she was crying. Her open display of grief was confusing and scary to me. I was 8.
We mourned the woman in the center of this picture that day. This 70-year-old version is the only Bernice Harburn I knew. You can’t see it in the way she slouches on our kitchen cabinet or in the right tilt of head, but she was a schoolteacher before she married. A strict one, apparently. With ruler in hand ready to crack the knuckles of misbehaving students. At that time, Grandma Harburn looked like this:
This is my favorite picture of her, of her 19-year-old version, before Bernice Harburn existed—when people knew her as Bernice Wilson. I see my mom in her face, but mostly I see my niece, which surprises me because I’ve always thought my niece looked exactly like her mother, my sister-in-law.
Grandma’s poise is so youthful, her cheeks so plump, her hair so dark. Her head tilts that same way to the right; it makes me smile. I doubt she knew that was something she did, had done since she was young. Knowing that makes me feel closer to her.
I imagine this picture was taken just before she got into that car and carried her to a significant day in her life. Maybe she was on her way to her teaching school in Indiana. Maybe she was going to teach Sunday school. Maybe she was about to meet my grandfather for the first time. To look at her face and be reminded of my 19-year-old niece is a little shocking. I only bore witness to the last 4 years of Grandma’s life. There were so many revisions between the time this picture was taken and the person I knew. It reminds me that my grandmother had been very much like my niece is now–still figuring things out, still wide to possibilities.
These two pictures of Bernice taken 50 years apart are so similar. It reassures me that we carry who we are from year to year. We have a little at the end that we started with, you know? Our voices, our poise, our head tilts. Aging can only add to our presence, never erase. So I am still that scared little boy handing my mother a tissue at my grandmother’s funeral, even as I shave off the gray whiskers of my beard every morning.
Another reason that memory of the tissue stays with me is that it was the first time I remember making someone laugh. My mother saw a tissue float into her blurred line of vision. She looked over and saw my very concerned and eager-to-help face, and she let out the tiniest of laughs. With that reaction I knew my mother was still beside me; mourning did not cause any quick version-changing as we sat in the church pew. I knew my mother was all right, the loss of her mother would not erase her.
(The featured photo is yet another version of Bernice (top left). Her 11-year-old self. Those glasses: like if Harry Potter lent Hermione his specs.)
(writing here is the original researcher’s notes, Doris Wilson Gibbs)
State of Kansas
On this 17th day of December AD 1888 personally appears before me a County Clerk in and for said County of Sumner Christianna Chamberlin aged . . . years who is a respectable person and entitled to Credit. Who being duly sworn deposes and says that she is well acquainted with Emily C. Wilson wife of Thomas Wilson a pensioner on the Pension Rolls at Washington D.C. No. of claim No. 78617 Deposer further deposes and says that she was present on the 17th day of June AD 1843 at Mascedonia, Ontario Co. State of N.Y. and saw Mr. Thomas Wilson and Emily C. Wilson and heard the marriage ceremony performed as they were then and there pronounced man and wife by a Justice of the Peace. She further deposes and says that she has no interest direct of indirect to any Pension Claim to which this affidavit may refer and is not concerned in the prosecution of any such Claim And that her Post Office address is Wellington, Sumner County, Kansas.
Sworn and subscribed to before me this 17th day of December 1888
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.
To view the prompts and read other stories, press the badge above.
Whenever my partner enters the room while I’m digging into the past, I’m either bent over the laptop taking notes, furiously typing another search into a search engine, or, and most likely, I’m muttering to myself. I’m sure, to him, I have the same constipated look on my face as Russell Crowe’s characters in 80% of his movie.
But concentration is necessary. I am resurrecting lives after all.
On December 17, 1888, a seventy-year-old woman named Christiana Chamberlain trudged into the office of a county clerk in Wellington, Kansas, and asked him to write an affidavit. She swore an oath to the man that what she was about to say was absolute truth. The lawyer reached for a piece of lined paper and his quill pen and began to write.
The reason she took the trouble to tell a lawyer this was to help a widow reclaim money from her late husband’s Civil War pension. That widow happens to be my 2nd great-grandmother, Emily Chelesta Patterson. I knew very little about Emily’s life before she married, just maiden name (Patterson), the state in which she was born, and a rough birth year. And I knew even less of Emily’s mother or father, nor any siblings she may have.
That’s the trouble with finding our female relatives’ stories: they’re as integral as the men to the plot lines of our families, but their childhoods are hidden behind their husbands’ last names.
Up until scrutinizing this old letter, my family agreed that Emily’s husband, Thomas Wilson, had been married twice. The snippet below from the 1850 Census lists a woman named Anna living with Thomas and his children. Every census after that lists Emily as the woman of the house and mother to George, Mary, Ambrose, Joanna and Emogene. The names Anna and Emily are different enough and different ages and places of birth were listed for them. We had each looked at this record and assumed Anna had passed away, and Thomas had married Emily to help him care for his 5 children. But Christiana’s statement verifies that Emily was Thomas’s wife when the 1850 census was taken. So Anna was Emily, and I had the happy task of erasing a name off my To Research list.
But then it occurred to me that the 45 years between the marriage in 1843, and the affidavit written in 1888 was a mighty long time. Christiana lived in Wellington, Kansas, at the time she gave the affidavit; Emily lived in Shiawassee County, Michigan. They must have been very tight for Emily to have asked such a favor from so far away. Seems like Emily could have asked younger family members to attest to the marriage—siblings or cousins who might have attended. The two women would have to be as close as sisters to maintain such a friendship for so long. Sisters? Wait a minute.
So, I started researching Christiana, tracking her and her family back in time from Kansas and sure enough, I eventually found a marriage record that a Christiana Patterson married a man named Chamberlain in Illinois. After living in Kansas a while, the Chamberlains moved to Orange County, California. When Christiana passed away in her home in 1908, her niece Joanna (Emily’s daughter) lived in a house around the corner. Ha ha, success! I still have to do the work to prove that my theory is correct, but I now had strong clues to follow to research my enigmatic great-grandmother.
(You might be thinking: Why didn’t the affidavit mention their relationship? Well, the statement goes on to attest that Christiana had no personal stakes in Emily receiving her husband’s money. Mentioning their relationship could have marred her integrity.)
That’s what I mean by resurrecting people’s lives. I had to go back into the “fantasyland of the past” to get into the circumstances of the people involved in that affidavit in order to piece together that Emily and Christiana were sisters (allegedly, probably).
And to think if I hadn’t gone through my Fairy Godmother’s papers for the 101st time I might not have ever made that important connection. It really is so gratifying to solve another piece of the family history puzzle, like Sudoku only using people to fill in the boxes instead of numbers!
*This post was inspired by the DPWriting Challenge, whose prompt this week was to teach something.