Category Archives: Family Stories

Returning Elijah

Elijah Burson (1807-1886)

A year ago last summer I was contacted by a gentleman from Zeeland, Michigan. While out weekend bargain hunting, he had come across an antique photograph for sale at a local flea market. The gentleman wrote with empathy about family history, and he seemed to have at least a hobbyist’s eye for old pictures. His curiosity was piqued by this one particular picture, so he purchased it, no doubt saving it from the fate of some Michigan land fill.  He said that the only identifier as to who the person in the photo might be were the words “Grandpa Burson” written on its back.

From what I could gather, the man from Zeeland enjoys following where the clues in any old pictures might take him. Continue reading Returning Elijah

Of books and alligator lizards

In my capacity as college and career coordinator at my local high school, I recently attended a breakfast hosted by CalTech, Pomona, Yale, and MIT. I got lots of great information for my students, but I especially enjoyed it because I have connections (however slight) to each of these institutions.

Not long after I arrived in England following my own college graduation, a handsome young man and I exchanged glances on a train between Bath and London. We weren’t able to actually speak until we disembarked from the train, when I discovered that Hugh (the only name I learned) was going to begin doctoral studies at CalTech in two weeks. Who knows? If not for his imminent departure, he might have become my husband and the father of my children. Continue reading Of books and alligator lizards

A circus family, part two

The 1870 census, showing a Caron household in Connecticut.

The weekend after my blog post was published in July, I sat down at my kitchen table and knocked down that brick wall. Welcome to part two of my quest to uncover my ‘circus family.’

I joined a website called Genealogy Quebec (https://www.genealogiequebec.com/en) on the recommendation of a co-worker and dedicated a rainy Saturday to my search. I started with the information about which I was confident: my great-grandmother Nora Caron’s birth and death certificate listed her parents as “Alphonse Caron” and “Mathilda Gauthier.” Continue reading A circus family, part two

Banned in Boston

As genealogists, we can become quite proprietary about our research – there can be a sense that our work on the far-flung branches of our family trees gives us a kind of ownership of the past. Recently, I’ve experienced another sort of ownership, that claimed by the family being studied. I should add that this dynamic – I own the past, not you – is not a new one, but it never fails to surprise me. Continue reading Banned in Boston

War stories

Jerry and Merry Athearn and their friends on board the S.S. President Grant.

A previous Vita Brevis post featured the story of how my grandfather[1] went to sea after college and eventually became a station master for Pan Am’s flying boat operations in the South Pacific. It concluded with my family dropped off in Gladstone, Australia, after being evacuated from Noumea, New Caledonia, shortly after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. At least a couple of folks wondered what happened to them after that, so here’s the rest of the story, plus a contemporary epilogue. Continue reading War stories

A memory bank

Mrs. Alta V. Lee with her daughter and grandson in Long Beach, ca. 1955.

Recently, on a trip to Long Beach, California, I did what most people do when they visit their home town. I did a bit of sightseeing. With my daughter and her fiancé, we hit the urban streets hoping to find the perfect little Italian restaurant. I hadn’t been downtown in literally decades, so it was interesting to see what about my old city had and hadn’t changed.

Naturally, the kids had to listen to me talk about ‘the old days,’ what used to be ‘here or there,’ and of course they had to hear tales of the old roller coaster that went way out over the ocean in a death-defying swirl of creaking bolts and lumber.[1] (I’ve decided it’s sort of fun to watch the kids’ eyes glaze over…) However, a curious thing started to happen to me as we went up and down one of those streets. I became a little boy again. Continue reading A memory bank

Dead Fred

Fred and Nellie Hayward

Many of our long-sought ancestors remain elusive despite our best efforts to find their hiding places, creating those inevitable brick walls. “Usually if the spirits want you to find something, you do. And if they don’t want you to find something, they don’t let you into the secret. Trust me.”[1]

One such “spirit” is my father’s step-grandfather, Fred A. Hayward.

Born in Vassalboro, Maine about 1860, one of six children of William C. and Margaret Fletcher (Lynn) Hayward, Fred in 1903 married my widowed great-grandmother Nellie (Ellen Frances Cony Church) as her second husband. I know little about Fred, and most of what I know I draw from what Fred left behind. Continue reading Dead Fred

Not always what you think

Next weekend, Bill Griffeth and I will be speaking at the Brattleboro Literary Festival on DNA and genealogy, and the surprise results described in his book The Stranger in My Genes. For those who are not are familiar with the book, it all started when DNA results were compared between Bill, his brother, and their first cousin. In their case, Bill’s mother was able to provide additional details explaining the surprise results. (I won’t spoil them.) Continue reading Not always what you think

‘In the dead of night’

Regina Shober Gray by [Edward L.] Allen, ca. 1860. Courtesy of the Maryland Historical Society, Item PP231.236
We tend to think of a bright line dividing North and South during the Civil War, but in families like the Grays of Boston there were a number of living connections between the two regions. Mrs. William Rufus Gray, the diarist’s[1] mother-in-law, was a member of the Clay family of Savannah, and during the war her younger sister and other family members resided in Georgia, near the South Carolina line.

61 Bowdoin Street, Boston, Friday, 3 February 1865: We have had news of the destruction of Aunt Eliza’s[2] plantation and the burning of the homestead by [Major General William Tecumseh] Sherman’s army. We cannot but feel sorry for her – but as a military measure it was perfectly justifiable. The place had a powerful rebel battery planted on a bluff commanding the river – 4 miles below was Fort McAllister, on Matilda Clay’s brother’s[3] place; when that was taken by assault, all the places on the Ogeechee [River] up and down were burned and destroyed. Continue reading ‘In the dead of night’

An ancestral secret

Nancy Dickerson Welch

A recent quiz in The Weekly Genealogist asked readers to share the nature of any secrets they’d uncovered about their ancestors. More than one third of respondents indicated that they had not uncovered any secrets – to which I say, “Hah! You just haven’t discovered them!” Of those who had uncovered ancestral secrets, the greatest number had to do with hidden marriages.

I suspect that most hidden marriages have been contracted by relatives who might be characterized as “the usual suspects”: those folks in every family who provide a long list of colorful anecdotes. Continue reading An ancestral secret