A favorite relative

Dale Wharton BrownWe all have one – the favorite relative. And after all this time as a genealogist, I would love to talk to a sociologist or psychiatrist about our inclination towards a certain person. Does it tell us something about ourselves? Do we see ourselves in one ancestor and not another? For me, I often obsessively research those ancestors I have deemed great, resilient people. I often wonder how my ancestors survived – how could someone raise 15 children in the eighteenth century? How could someone forgive their mother after abandoning them in Ireland to move to New York City? How do parents go on after losing a child?

“Generosity, honesty, fair dealings and clean thinking [were] ingrained into his very soul.”

My favorite (historic) relative is my great-uncle, Dale Brown. I never knew him. I never heard my (paternal) grandmother talk about him. All I know about him is from family papers and the public record. That said: What I have been able to uncover about my Uncle Dale’s incredibly short and tragic life has continued to fascinate me. Here is what I have been able to gather:

Dale Wharton Brown was born 21 September 1911 near Edgewood, Illinois to Chester Burr Brown and Clara Belle Wharton. He was talented young man, according to his obituary, one who excelled in singing, declamation (he was to give a public reading the week he was buried), and track (he would have earned his varsity letter after one more race). He was also dedicated to the Methodist Episcopal Church; his Uncle Frank, a Methodist minister who wrote his obituary, affectionately wrote that Dale had “Generosity, honesty, fair dealings and clean thinking [were] ingrained into his very soul. He pressed forward toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus.”

From letters that Dale wrote to his parents, and letters written to Chester and Clara Brown after the death of their son, anyone can tell that Dale was kind, wholesome, and agreeable. He had many friends, and worked hard to be a good son and good Christian. In the final year of his life, he attended Southern Illinois Normal School (a teachers’ college) in Carbondale, Illinois. Overall, he was the kind of kid that any parent/family would be proud of – and they were: My father was given the middle name Dale, after his deceased uncle, and my brother also carries the same middle name. Dale was obviously important to my grandmother; however, she never spoke about losing her brother.

How do parents go on after losing a child?

The stories that I do have are from my father and aunt, who tell me that Dale died after diving into a lake/pond/stream (no one knows the body of water) and broke his neck. In fact, when I was younger I was often told of the dangers of diving in shallow water – and was reminded that Dale died that very way. And when I found his death record, “21 year old male, death caused by accidentally breaking his neck while diving in the water,” all I could think about was my great-grandparents and my grandmother. My grammy was eighteen years old when her older (and only) brother died; my great-grandparents lost their first child when he was only 21 years old. That must have been so devastating. How do parents go on after losing a child?

I never saw a picture of my great-uncle Dale as a grown man, only pictures of him as a young child. In these young photos, he reminded me of my brother Cameron (which could also explain why I had such an inclination towards Dale). I had such an overwhelming desire to know what he looked like as an adult that I called the Southern Illinois University archives to find a photo of Dale, maybe on the track team, as well as the local newspaper. Nothing. No photos. That was until my aunt came over with the “last box” of family memorabilia. Inside was a framed photo of my Uncle Dale.

I remember the photo from my grandmother’s nightstand, I just never knew who the man in the photo was. I guess that is how parents and siblings move on after the loss of a child/brother – they keep them close and their memory alive. Maybe that is why he is my favorite – maybe it is my attempt to keep his memory alive just a little while longer…

Adorable, wasn’t he?

Do you have a favorite ancestor/relative?

About Lindsay Fulton

Lindsay Fulton joined the Society in 2012, first a member of the Research Services team, and then a Genealogist in the Library. She has been the Director of Research Services since 2016. In addition to helping constituents with their research, Lindsay has also authored a Portable Genealogists on the topics of Applying to Lineage Societies, the United States Federal Census, 1790-1840 and the United States Federal Census, 1850-1940. She is a frequent contributor to the NEHGS blog, Vita-Brevis, and has appeared as a guest on the Extreme Genes radio program. Before, NEHGS, Lindsay worked at the National Archives and Records Administration in Waltham, Massachusetts, where she designed and implemented an original curriculum program exploring the Chinese Exclusion Era for elementary school students. She holds a B.A. from Merrimack College and M.A. from the University of Massachusetts-Boston.

25 thoughts on “A favorite relative

  1. One of my favorite relatives is an uncle who died in World War II. Mom often spoke of him but it was always the same few facts. Not until Mom died and I was able to go through some of her things did I start to get a sense of her brother, and of the soldier he became. Through books I’ve been able to follow his unit and have sobbed as i reached the date of his death. Ray Holbrook, and tens of thousands like him, should never be forgotten. Our lives would have been different had they lived.

  2. I know what u mean. I ‘ve had similiar thoughts about how does one go on after losing children or a close sibling. But they did. Both of my grandparents lost children aND siblings. Today is my brother in laws memorial. I didn’t know him because he was sort of secretive. We only got together once a year 4 Christmas and today is the first time I will be meeting his son & wife. They live in the same small local town as my husband and I do. They moved here 10 yrs ago after the military. I feel sick to my stomach, not sure why. However, I feel it could be me or my husband.

  3. I have two – my maternal grandfather who was the leader of a dance band and bigger than life. He died when I was 8 and I remember him fondly.Then also a great aunt on my dad’s side who died when I was a year old. She had been a magician’s assistant and had a vaudeville act when she was younger. I used to play with some of the trimmings from her hats and costumes when I was a child. It wasn’t until just a few years ago that my mother and I found more photos of her in some of those actual outfits. Unfortunately I am not sure what her stage name was.

  4. I have chased information on my 3rd great-grandfather, Charles Falvey (1803-1883), since my mother gave me his family Bible where he tells us the name of the doctor who attended his wife’s deathbed but doesn’t give his own birth date. He and his wife were both in their early 30’s when they married in Illinois about 1834 and had one child. We know he spent the rest of his life as a farmer and lawyer in Bureau County, Illinois. He was an active Democrat and respected speaker. I even have a photograph of him – he looks a bit like an Irish leprechaun. But I can find no information about him before his marriage – there don’t seem to have been any family with him in Illinois, his purported Black Hawk War service cannot be verified, and if family legend which says he immigrated in 1820 is correct – where is he for the missing10+ years. He’s my mystery and favorite ancestor.

  5. Lindsay, he is a beautiful soul and you are so lucky to know him now. Your post has brought tears to my eyes. How poignant family research can indeed be.

  6. For some time my favorite ancestor has been my three great grandfather, Henry Taber (1795-1892). I’ve been fascinated that he saw the spread of the 19th c when so much was discovered and invented (Lascaux caves, telegraph, the steam boat, the railroad) and so much pain and suffering came from the American Civil War. His town of New Bedford and his life’s work in the whaling industry were seriously affected by the war. A Quaker, he was a man of high integrity and married two Methodist sisters (the second a year after the first died), for which he was read out of Meeting but continued to go to Meeting and attended Methodist services with his wife and gave money throughout his life to both religions. Near my desk, I have a photo of a wonderful portrait of him and routinely wish I could travel back in time and talk with him.

  7. I find many favorites, usually all from the eighteenth and nineteenth century and I gravitate toward the women. It is harder to find information about them but trying keeps me digging. Recently, I connected with a 2 great grandmother who had ten children over two marriages, but only two made it to adult. Most died between birth and three years of age. The last one died the day he was born and was buried with no name. How does anyone do that?

  8. What an interesting question: Why DO we gravitate towards a particular person in our research quests? I have to admit my fascination with the ancestors who took the hard road and survived well. A GG-Grandfather who left security in Indiana for a challenging area of Kansas in 1870 where he raised bees, planted apple trees, dealt with dust storms and grasshoppers. Or, one of my favorites – a bit of a black sheep in the family – my Great Uncle Milo Pierce. He and his four brothers survived being captured by the Confederates in the Civil War. After the war Milo took off for the southeast corner of New Mexico in 1870 to raise cattle and got involved in the Lincoln County War. He was a good friend of Sheriff Pat Garrett, who shot Billy the Kid. Milo was more interesting than his brother, my G-Grandfather, Sherman Pierce, who was a very upstanding member of a small community in Kansas, but his early life was probably pretty challenging too. I have one story about the family cutting wood shingles in 1837 in southwestern New York State and floating them down the Allegheny River on rafts to markets in Ohio and beyond. I have more much earlier stories, but we all have these stories – including their terrible personal losses and difficulties they overcame. Our ancestors keep us intrigued, and obsessed with tracking them down. What amazing lives they had.

  9. My favorite ancestor has been a g2grandmother born in 1849, who died in 1949. She’s on every census that lists every person in the household, she was married 4 times, gave at least one child up for adoption, and lost her U.S. citizenship when she married her 4th husband, who was an immigrant. She had to become naturalized, even though she was born in the U.S. She was born in Indiana, migrated to Minnesota as a young bride, having 4 children in less than 5 years. She split up with that husband (no divorce), gave away her youngest child to a neighboring farm family (the next youngest has “disappeared”), and then after she remarried and had two more children, she migrated to Washington when her new baby was just a few weeks old. Twenty years later, she divorced him to marry her 3rd husband, and then after he died, she moved to Arizona to be near her sister after. She finally migrated to east Texas, marrying her 4th husband the day after she stepped off the train. (I have a suspicion that she was a middle-aged, mail-order bride.) The number of documents I have on her, the time period she lived through in her (almost) 100 years, and the things she did to survive give me such mixed feelings about her, but I find her to be the most fascinating of all my ancestors.

  10. My two favorites are my great-great-great grandmother, Sally (Sarah) Marsden Page Cole, and her son, my great-great grandfather, Captain Hiram C. Page. I think part of my affinity for them is that I was the one who uncovered the relationships and background from the records. Sally was born in 1810 and died in 1906. She had two children with her first husband; Hiram was born in November 1841 and his father died the next January. She managed with a 2 year old and a newborn! The one picture I have of her shows a strong woman, and she had to be. Hiram went out on the Great Lakes at 14 and was made a ship captain around 1877. He was a good and careful captain; he served until at least 1906 – almost 30 years! It is interesting that I know as much about his career as I know about my own father’s, who was a real rocket scientist – his work was classified.

  11. The ancestor that has fascinated me is not even my ancestor but my husband’s Great Uncle Pvt. Henry (Harry) B.Jones or Hal as he was known to the family. He was a soldier in WWI and contracted the Spanish flu either here in the US or on board the troop carrier on the way to France. He was so ill he was in the hospital from the time he landed in France until he began to recover. He wrote home that he was getting fat and since the war was coming to an end he would be coming home soon. However he contracted meningitis and died on Feb 28, 1919 the same day that General Pershing was congratulating the troops on their part in winning the War to End All Wars. I have researched both family letters, newspaper reports, vital and military records in order to tell his story. However I have a connection with Uncle Harry that goes beyond genealogy. I don’t know what it is but it is strong and I felt it the first time I heard his story from his sisters.

  12. My favorite ancestor is Abiel Teple LaForge, who was a captain in the 106th regiment of the New York infantry in the Civil War. Because Abiel had prevented Rowland Macy’s son from being court martialed, he became a partner with Macy in the Macy Company and shared the partnership after Macy’s death. He was apparently in ill health because of his service in the war and passed away at age 36 from tuberculosis. The sad part of the story for my family is that when one partner died everything went to the other partner and, of course, my ancestor died first. But his story is very interesting and he left a series of diaries that gives us much information about what day-to-day life was like as a Civil War soldier.

    1. Linda, I don’t know if you’re still monitoring comments on this thread, but I found your comment when searching for references to Abiel. I’m currently working on getting his diaries available on the web (my mother Phyllis Guyre Jones transcribed them and I got a copy of the computer files). I can’t find your name in my mother’s genealogical files and my memory is a sieve for names so I’m not sure exactly how we’re related. If you’d be interested in being in contact, check out my website: http://www.heatherrosejones.com/laforgediary/index.html

  13. What a touching post.

    One of my favorite ancestors is the only great grandparent I knew. Merton Cromwell McGrew was b. in 1862 in Clay Co, IL, where he became a farmer and a school teacher. In 1885, he married Aldorah Susan Yockey; their first child, Grace Elba, my grandmother, was b. in 1886. After the birth of their second child, Nolia Joy, in 1888, Aldorah’s sister Nolia (short for Magnolia) and her husband, who had moved to Idaho, encouraged the family to join them. Merton was a teacher and principal for a while, then bought a mercantile store. Over 18 years they had eight children with double-barreled names; all but Joy were called by the more unusual. When Veva, the most brilliant, entered her teens, the family moved to Walla Walla, Walla Walla Co, WA, because Whitman College there was well-respected. They wanted their children to have access to college. Six graduated from Whitman. Most became teachers. Clyde drowned in an irrigation ditch before his 4th birthday. Aldorah, carrying her final child, Twila Aldorah, grieved mightily. Merton leaned on his Methodist faith, but letters show he still deeply mourned Clyde. Twila, much younger than the rest, went to Washington State College. Merton bought a mercantile store in Walla Walla, where his children, and later grandchildren, worked in the summer. My father was full of such stories, and because his parents both died young, he became especially close to this grandfather. I grew up in Seattle; my parents made sure we spent as much time as possible with Grandpa McGrew. Grandpa McGrew also wrote us many typed letters and postcards, telling us what he was doing and thinking, and giving us age-appropriate advice. I still have some of them. As we learned to write, we sent him letters too. My parents took us out of school each spring to visit him; teachers always objected that we’d miss something important. I loved school. But I truly treasure many incidents from those weekends spent with my great grandfather, even though I was only eight when he died at 92, still sharp.


  14. I have three amazing and one really good GGF. 1. Left home at age 12 ended up drilling one of the greatest tunnels up to that time. Stampede Pass, Washington State, 1 mile through the mountain. On budget in time and cost; and paid Chinese workers the same as “white” Americans.
    2. A nationally known Washington D.C., correspondent for the NY Times, Chicago Tribute and Boston Journal among others. One of the founders of the Gridiron Club which still now annually presents the annual roast of the president.
    3. Pastor of the Congregational Church of Fairhaven, CT, founder of its genealogical society and the library and author of 20 books of fiction and non-fiction.
    4. Real estate investor in Massachusetts and South Carolina.

    Each has his own story, books of which I am preparing, editing and will be publishing,

  15. I loved your story! I also have a favorite relative that I never met. HIs name was Willis Henry Jones but he went by Bill. He died in WWII in a landing accident. He was a 1st Lt. co-pilot on a B-24 stationed in Italy and he was my father’s nephew which would make him my first cousin. When I was growing up in the 1950’s I never heard anyone in the family speak of Bill. I barely remember knowing he existed until I reconnected with his brother back in the 1990’s and learned to know Bill through the letters he wrote home during the war that his father (my Uncle Bill) lovingly saved. I learned about the young man who was so loved by his family, and his friends. He could have played it safe during the war – he was asked to be a pilot trainer – but he wanted to do his part, and even though his eyesight was not the best – he worked hard to become a pilot. He was disappointed that he wasn’t assigned as a fighter pilot but he accepted becoming a co-pilot on a great B-24 crew and was ready to help win the war. On their first mission, which was scrubbed due to weather, they crashed on landing and all of the crew were killed. I don’t know why I was so drawn to Bill as I learned all about him – but I even went to 3 of his bomb group reunions to meet some of the men who knew him. I also searched for other crew members families and did find some of them and shared copies of letters that the families wrote to each other after the accident. I have also formed a deep and lasting friendship with the son of the pilot of their doomed plane. A son that the pilot did not even know existed. It has been a wonderful experience and even though in the meantime I have discovered through DNA testing that Bill is not my biological cousin he will always be special to me as are all the men of the greatest generation.
    Thank you for sharing your story.

  16. Lindsay: It appears that you struck a nerve when you wrote about your favorite ancestor. It is wonderful to be able to get to know all these people we never met.

    My favorite ancestor is my 3rd great aunt, Bridget Fitzpatrick Delany. She arrived in Boston in 1851 on a sailing ship with her parents as the oldest of five children. She was 15 and met her husband to be, William Delany, on the ship. They married in 1854. Her first child, Lizzie, was born in 1856. Her second child, Willie, was born and died in 1859 at 3 months from Varioloid (a form of smallpox only affecting someone who has been vaccinated). In 1860 her husband died from a form of TB and in 1863 she died at Mass General Hospital from Typhoid Fever.

    The amazing thing about this family and all their tragedies is that Bridget’s daughter, Lizzie, was on my mother’s wedding guest list in 1946. She died in 1947 a month shy of her 91st birthday.

    Thanks for reminding us of all these wonderful people from which we are descended.

  17. My uncle Gilbert Norman Taylor was KIA in Italy during the second world war. I was told how, as a baby, I knew his step and would immediately begin to cry so he would come and pick me up. Other stories concerning him echo in my memory. My younger brother was named after him and he also died at a tender age, only nine years old. Both Gilbert’s were so dear to our family and when my son was born he too carries the same name. Cherished members of our family all.

  18. My gggrandmother, Florence Caroline Whitmore Sherwood. Living in Woodstock, Ill in 1860s she lost 2 toddlers in an epidemic, divorced Eben Enos Sherwood (for drunkenness), took her surviving son Frederick Whitmore Sherwood to Boston where she continued to play and teach piano and harp. When her 2nd husband’s business (Hall Carriage Co.) was failing she went on tour with an orchestra to support them. (Rumor: she played with Paderewsky) While she was away he took an overdose of laudanum. That made the papers, but after that she disappears. Fred’s wife, Maggie Theresa Hassett Sherwood, left him and brought her 4 children back to Chicago. Any wonder their daughter, Florence Catherine Sherwood, became a union president, suffragist, speaker ? And after marriage, a newspaper notice tells that she was going to keep using her own name. No one ever shared this story. When pressed, my father said it was because “all those unions were Communists”. I am proud of my tough ladies! And I kept my own name, too.

  19. In doing genealogy, I discovered that my great grandmother’s mother was my brick wall! I only had her name: Ellen O’Brien. No father or mother known. I contacted the Rockefeller Archive Center asking if anything was known as my great grandmother was Almira Goodsell Rockefeller, wife of William Rockefeller. My grandmother, Emma McAlpin, fortunately had questioned a cousin about their grandmother in the early 1930’s before she died in 1934. Ellen has now become a favorite because I discovered she married David Judson Goodsell in NYC at the age of 17. Before she was 46 years old, she had given birth to 11 children and most of the boys died very young. They were buried in Bridgeport, CT and 2 were buried in the Trinity Churchyard (Wall Street) because they died during the winter and the family couldn’t make the trip to Bridgeport. At the time, Trinity Church was the only church still allowing burials. To escape all the “bad luck” they moved west to Elmira, NY then to Cleveland, OH. Ellen’s final child, Amelia Frances, lived only 23 days. Shortly after, Ellen developed diarrhea and six weeks later died, age 45. Her husband, David, took their two surviving sons, David, Jr. And Charles Henry and moved to Tiffin, OH. Almira was left with her three older sisters in Cleveland appearing on the US census at age 11. The beloved first son, David Judson Goodsell, Jr, enlisted for the Civil War. He was wounded on the first day of the Battle of Gettysburg and died of his wounds. I suffer with Ellen as she lost so many babies and moved to escape the sadness, only to find more following her. She didn’t know about the deaths of both surviving sons as they died after she did.

  20. With a grandfather who was a drunk and an adulterer, I have always admired his eldest brother who became a successful businessman. I have often wished I had HIM as a grandfather, rather than the one my folks would never let us meet! Other cousins were admirable too, and many of my women ancestors were quite deserving of more sympathy than they got, my grandmother included. One can also imagine the pain from the death of a toddler – and a possible search for answers, when one sees the family suddenly changing churches afterward around 1810.

  21. Your story sounded interesting and in reading it I saw the name Clara Belle Wharton. I am researching my Wharton relatives from IL. (starting in Mercer co.) and am wondering if you have history on Clara’s parents. I would appreciate more information on Clara.

    One of my favorite relatives was my grandfather’s cousin Mary Fraundorf. I don’t remember any of our conversations but she apparently was slow minded. What I remember was a sweet, frail old lady who had clattering teeth, coffee breath and got down on her knees to say her nightly prayers when she stayed with us. I loved her and still keep her in my prayers

    1. Kathy- Thank you for your comment. Clara Belle Wharton was the daughter of Anna Henrietta Durrie (Durre) and Richard G. Wharton. Anna was born in PA in 1858 (daughter of German immigrants) and Richard was born in Gilmore, Illinois in 1859 (son of Nicholas T. Wharton and Rebecca Kagy/Kagay). Do any of those names sound familiar? Maybe we are cousins!?

      1. No, I don’t believe we have a connection. My line comes down from Robert Wharton and Sarah Farley. Thank you for your reply

  22. You mention you do not know the body of water where your great uncle Dale Brown was diving… That brought out the detective in me, so I turned to Newspapers.com and soon found the answer. According to the 20 June 1932 issue of the Chicago Tribune, page 19, Dale was diving at Cartter (yes, two t’s) Reservoir and struck a snag. The article states the reservoir is 6 miles southeast of Salem, IL. I do not find a Cartter Reservoir, but there is a Cartter Pond.

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