Maybe it’s because the internet didn’t become part of my life until I was well into adulthood, but I still believe it’s magical. And that’s been proven again and again in my family history research. Sometimes the magic is random, and sometimes it’s been the result of methodical research, but either way, the information and contacts that have come to light feel like a gift that has fallen from the sky.
My grandfather, William Edward Stephenson (1910-2004), was born and raised in Augusta, Kansas. His dad, Richard W. Stephenson (1874-1960), started a men’s clothing store in town around the 1910s, and Bill’s older brother Paul Noble Stephenson (1902-1972) and his wife Dorothy continued the business until about the 1960s. I wrote a post about Grandpa Bill and his younger brother, Clark (1911-1994), and their high school and college yearbooks here.
On a whim this week, I did a search on WordPress for Augusta, Kansas. No particular reason. And what popped up was a bunch of blog posts by crittersandcats/Dave, who shares stories for his kids and grandchildren about growing up in Augusta in the ’40s and ’50s.
As if it wasn’t enough for me to get some local flavor for a place I’d only visited a couple of times, Dave answered my comment by sharing that he’d known my family and had written a story including Uncle Paul, Aunt Do, and their son, my dad’s cousin Dick!
Back in the 1950’s, we had a men’s clothing store in Augusta, Kansas. It was owned and operated by Paul Stephenson as Stephenson’s Men’s Clothing. The store was located on the east side of the 500 block of State Street, nestled up against the Prairie State Bank, on its north and Mamie Hall’s book store on the south. Paul and his wife (only 60 years and I’ve forgotten her name) were in the store every day, well dressed and professional but friendly in demeanor. Their son, Dick, was a classmate of mine. Dick and I graduated in 1954 and I went to work and I think Dick headed for the University of Kansas. The following year, I was going to attend a wedding and needed a new suit. I went down to Stephenson’s and Paul fitted me with a new outfit and his wife set me up with a lay-away plan to pay for it. Those were the last dealings I had with the Stephenson family.
Dave goes on to write about an unplanned landing in Guam in 1959, where he bumped into Dick, who was by then an ensign in the Navy. Small world!
The moral of the story is: Methodical research is all well and good, but don’t forget that serendipity also plays a part. Indulge yourself in the obscure Google search. See if somebody has written a blog post about your grandfather’s small home town, or the tiny school your great grandmother attended, or the newspaper your great great grandfather published. Surprise connections sometimes fall from the sky. There IS magic. (And thank you, Dave!)
P.S. Dick had won my heart as a five year old (just a few years after Dave’s story) when he came to visit, looking quite dashing in his Navy uniform. He pulled out a guitar and sang to me. “The Fox Went Out on a Chilly Night” has been a favorite folk song of mine ever since…
I managed to spend more time than usual frolicking in my family research this year, including a trip to England in August and a road trip through family-related places in Pennsylvania, Virginia and North Carolina in March. The research was a refuge and escape from other worries at times, and the travel and people I connected with were pure magic. Genealogy was definitely a highlight of my 2019, with a few particularly special discoveries and experiences.
A brick wall came tumbling down; never seen photos emerged; I visited a cousin in England and made contact with several cousins I hadn’t known about; I walked in places where my ancestors spent their days. My plan was to blog about each of these, but most of those posts are still drafts… Goals for 2020!
OliversandOliphants – Finding the father of my born-out-of-wedlock 2nd great grandfather, David Oliver (my mother’s family name), has long been a challenge, and the discovery of DNA matches named Oliphant helped redirect my search. Thanks to the help of a great new online community, Walk My Past (see below), the mystery has been solved. David Oliver’s father, my 3rd great grandfather, was George Oliphant (1827-1904) from Bower, Caithness, Scotland. And… I found a photograph of the place he was living at the end of his life!
James Mills and Maria Milnes Photos – I’ve always had a fair amount of information on Granny’s (Elsie Mills, 1899-1993) maternal family, but not much on her father’s side. So far I’ve only turned up one blurry passport photograph of her father, James Mills (1863-1925). And then this unexpected gift! An Ancestry member posted a pair of photos from a family album–Granny’s grandparents, James Mills (1824-1904) and Maria Milnes (1825-1892). It was remarkable to see their faces and especially to discover how much my Granny looked like her grandmother.
Living Cousins – 2019 brought re-connection and first contact with close-ish cousins in England, Scotland, New Mexico, Texas, and New York. Some were through DNA matching and others through more old-fashioned methods. It turns out that a childhood friend is a 10th cousin (thank you, Ancestry DNA) and a friend from college is a 9th cousin. Best of all, I spent a lovely afternoon with my Mum’s first cousin in London. Another goal for 2020 is to be in contact with more cousins.
Ackworth School – Oh, my, what a thrill this was! In August I arranged to spend a day visiting Ackworth School in West Yorkshire, exploring the buildings, and poring through the archival material collected for me by Celia Wolfe, the school’s kind and incredibly knowledgeable archivist. I won’t spoil the post that I really, truly do still plan to write, but the short version is that I strolled the campus where my great grandmother, Emily Wright (1865-1954) was born and spent most of her childhood, where her parents worked, and where her ancestors on both sides and her siblings were students from 1780 through the late 19th century. The original buildings and grounds of this Quaker boarding school are little changed, so it felt like they could have been right there, walking the halls and pathways with me.
And there were photographs of students and teachers, including lots of wonderful images of Emily Wright and her parents, Mary Ann Deane (1841-1884) and Alfred Wright (1831-1901). The Quakers are precise record keepers, so there were documents rich in details about many family members. Proper blog post to follow!
Pennsylvania/Virginia/North Carolina Road Trip – A spur of the moment driving trip in March took me first to Sunbury, Pennsylvania, in the Susquehanna River Valley, north of Harrisburg, where I researched my Miller and Deppen ancestors. Thanks to the helpful folks at the Northumberland County Historical Society, I learned that my 4th great grandfather, John Miller (1774-1821), is said to have drowned in the Susquehanna River while checking his flooded land on the Isle of Que. The tiny island is one half mile wide and 5.5 miles long, part of Selinsgrove, Pennsylvania on the west side of the river. I paid a quiet visit to that shore at dusk.
Next stop was Staunton, Virginia, where James and Maria (Milnes) Mills settled around 1870. I took a whirlwind tour of Trinity Church, where the family worshiped; Thornrose Cemetery, with a sizable Mills family plot beneath a majestic magnolia tree. Census records and city directories provided me with the addresses of several family homes, so I was able to find where James and Maria lived during their later years with some of their children.
The North Carolina leg of my road trip took me to Davidson County in search of late 18th to mid-19th century graves of my Owen, Bodenhamer and Goss ancestors. It was a bit of a wild goose chase. Visits to the Abbott’s Creek Primitive Baptist Church Cemetery, Reeds Baptist Church Cemetery, and Becks Reformed Church Cemetery led me to graves of some collateral ancestors, but no direct ones. But the bonus was some exceptional decorative gravestones–well worth a quick visit!
Walk My Past – A new resource for genealogists appeared on the scene this year when amateur genealogist Abbie Allen decided to create Walk My Past, a website where people could easily offer or request help with their family history. The idea is simple– volunteer “genies” are available to help with requests for information, cemetery photos, or a trip to a nearby archive. With willing helpers scattered across the globe, it gives access to information that can be out of reach otherwise. There are now 187 genies in 14 countries and the numbers are growing. Definitely worth checking it out!
And I’m the happiest of users. A kind-hearted “genie”, Meredith Cane of Revill McKay, Scotland, saw my request for help tracking down the answer to my Oliver/Oliphant mystery. She was already working in Scottish records for that region, and was able to identify my 3rd great grandfather, George Oliphant. Hoorah!
There’s my 2019 in a very large nutshell. Now, onward to 2020 and new adventures.
When Ancestry alerted me of the anniversary of my great great grandmother Mary (Cocke) Hill’s death, I pulled up her obituary from the Baltimore Sun of October 31, 1903. I’d read it before, but imagine my surprise to read down to the list of honorary pallbearers. Out jumped a name I hadn’t noticed before–Major W. Stuart Symington–none other than (bear with me here) my husband’s step-father’s grandfather. OK, so Mary Hill’s husband, Nicholas S. Hill, also served in the Confederate Army, and both were from Baltimore. Not shocking, but fun to find.
I chuckled, texted a couple of family members, and went back to read it again. And noticed that Frank H. Hambleton, my step-father-in-law Fife Symington’s other grandfather, was also listed as an honorary usher! For real.
Mary Hill was taken ill while entertaining guests at the Washington, D.C. home of her daughter Irene Bolling. And bless the Baltimore Sun’s fuzzy little heart, they even gave Irene’s street address and mentioned that Mary was entertaining in the drawing room when she was stricken. I’ve mentioned in previous posts that Zillow and similar real estate websites are fantastic resources for getting a look at family places.
Here is Aunt Irene’s home at 1808 Riggs Place in the Dupont Circle section of Washington:
City directories list Professor George M. Bolling at this address only from 1904 until 1906, with many other Washington addresses in the years preceding and following, so they must have been renting. Bolling taught Greek and Sanskrit at Catholic University during these years.
Thanks to the magic of Zillow, (oh, how I do love the internet!) I was even able to find interior photographs of this lovely, well-preserved house. This may have been the drawing room mentioned in Mary’s obituary:
A follow-up article appeared the next day, 1 November, 1903, describing the funeral held at the Baltimore Cathedral, where many other Hill family occasions occurred, and the procession to Bonnie Brae Cemetery. I recently visited the Cathedral and the cemetery (now New Cathedral Cemetery), where both my great grandparents are buried, and was touched to find their son-in-law, my great grandfather, James J. Mills with them.
What an unimaginable thing it would have been for the Hills and Symingtons and Hambletons to think of the connection of their respective offspring so many generations later!
Mary Watkins Cocke (Johnson) (1834-1903) and Nicholas Snowden Hill (1839-1912) – 2nd great grandparents (Irene (Johnson) Bolling (1862-1946) was the daughter from Mary’s first marriage.)
Mary Carroll Hill (1876-1937) and James J. Mills (1863-1925) great grandparents
Damdaddy was my Mum’s father. (I couldn’t say Grandaddy. It stuck.) Today would have been his 121st birthday and when this picture was taken, he was a little younger than I am now. He was a quiet, intensely supportive and loving presence in my life for my first eighteen years, and remains with me still.
We’re on the front lawn of my grandparents’ little Cape style house in the outskirts of Boston. You can just make out the roses twined around the split rail fence behind us. Damdaddy became quite the gardener during his twenty years in this house, and much of the front yard was a huge (at least to my small eyes) flower bed. I especially remember bleeding hearts and snap dragons. And the sweet tasting honeysuckle vine.
The whole neighborhood smelled of the pine trees that towered over us and the shrieking of blue jays was constant. The back yard was shaded by the large pines, and in the spring it was sprinkled with lilies of the valley and violets. There was a freestanding garage (my British grandfather always put the emphasis on the first syllable–GAR-age) and I still remember its smell too.
Inside was the smell of his wonderful cooking, the sound of the BBC news on the radio in the morning while the coffee perked in the Pyrex coffee pot. In the evening there was a crackling fire in the living room fireplace. During the weeks before Christmas, he and I would go down to the basement, where we’d brush racks of Granny’s fruitcakes with brandy and port–another smell I remember well.
And a dog. There was always a dog. During my childhood there was a succession of boxers–Judy, Penny, and Jenny. Devoted dog lovers, my grandparents had always been firm training their dogs, but as they aged, the rules relaxed. By the time Jenny came along, there were (heaven forbid!) even tidbits fed from the table!
The Lavins next door had a pasture with sheep and one cranky goat. Willy got loose every now and then and would end up in Damdaddy’s garden, munching on his flowers–never a good thing. I was a big fan.
My most precious childhood memories are of this man in this place, and my sensory memories here are powerful. And yes, he did hang the moon. Happy birthday, Damdaddy.
Kenneth Stuart Oliver (October 28, 1898-January 26, 1975)
For years now I’ve been trying to sort out a line of Olivers from Caithness in the Highlands of Scotland. Oliver is my mother’s maiden name, and this is the branch of my family to which I have the strongest ties.
The mystery includes:
A great great grandfather, David Oliver, who appears to have been born out of wedlock;
Tales of a teenage shepherd from the south fathering a baby and vanishing;
A child raised by his grandparents while his mother started a new family;
And now a DNA connection to a line of Oliphants who moved from Caithness to Australia.
David Oliver, the son
My 2nd great grandfather, David Oliver, was born in Latheron, Caithness between 1844 and 1848 and died in 1923 in Edinburgh. Although I haven’t found a birth or baptismal certificate for him, his marriage certificate to Esther Henderson (30 Dec 1864, Thurso) listed David’s father as George Oliver, police officer, and his mother as Elizabeth Oliver, maiden surname Sutherland. David’s 1923 death certificate lists his parents as George Oliver (Shepherd) and Betsy Oliver, afterwards Hamilton nee Sutherland.
But…family lore is that George and Elizabeth were never married, that George may have been a young shepherd from the south. There were Olivers who moved to the Highlands from the border counties in the south of Scotland and worked as shepherds. Some may have stayed in the area, while others moved away in a generation or two.
Elizabeth Sutherland, the mother
After giving birth to David about 1848, Elizabeth Sutherland married a James Hamilton in September, 1849, and had eight more children, living in Bower, 20 miles from her parents’ home in Latheron. The 1851 census lists her son, 4 year old David Oliver, living with Elizabeth’s parents (his grandparents), George and Margaret (Sandison) Sutherland in Latheron.
George Oliver, the father?
Meanwhile, the father. There is a George Oliver who fits the general profile. He was born in the south about 1833, and was living in Thurso by 1841. There’s no documented connection I’ve found between this George Oliver and Elizabeth Sutherland other than David’s marriage and death certificates. George married a Johan McKenzie in Thurso in 1853, five to seven years after my David Oliver was born, and four years after Elizabeth married James Hamilton.
George and Johan sailed on the Ship Vocalist to New South Wales, Australia, with their first two children in 1856. I’ve found plenty of information about George in Australia (many children, another marriage), and he could be my guy, but nothing confirms that, and then there are the Oliphants…
Oliphants and DNA
I’ve had quite a few DNA matches who are descendants of an Essie Oliphant, born in Adelaide, South Australia in 1879, daughter of a George Oliphant, born in Wick, Caithness in 1848, son of a William Oliphant, also from Wick, born 1821. I can’t find a George Oliphant the right age, and I can’t figure out any connection beyond the DNA.
If it weren’t for the DNA matches, I’d be fairly comfortable with the assumptions I’ve made about George Oliver, but the Oliphant DNA…
The Brick Wall
The key pieces I’m trying to answer are:
Who was David Oliver’s father?
If it wasn’t George Oliver born 1833, was it an Oliphant?
Which Oliphant? (I’ve been making an Oliphant tree, but just can’t connect it to my people).
And why does David’s 1864 marriage certificate list his mother as Elizabeth Oliver when she’d been married to James Hamilton for over 10 years by then?
I would eagerly welcome any advice or information!
George Sutherland (1791-1873) and Margaret Sandison (1794-1882) – 4th great grandparents
Elizabeth Sutherland (1822-1908) – 3rd great grandmother and George Oliver (abt. 1833-1920) – 3rd great grandfather??
David Oliver (abt. 1848-1923) and Esther Henderson (1833-1906) – 2nd great grandparents
Oh, my! Family History Month is here, and I need to send my intentions out into the universe. I have eleven–count ’em–unfinished drafts of blog posts and lots of other family history projects in mid-stream. I’ve taken several research trips and have information to organize. Lots to do!
I’ve just commited to Janine Adams’s 30 x 30 challenge to spend 30 minutes on genealogy research every day this month. That should help, but I need to focus! I have to confess that I’m a bit of a magpie when it comes to family history projects. Oh, look! A shiny thing! Let me play with Ackworth School, Yorkshire records for awhile. Wait–there’s an Ozarks Genealogical Society?! Or maybe I should do a post about my 3rd great aunt and the Hawaiian Mission in the 19th century. This might be a good time to join the Caithness Family History Society and explore those Oliver family roots. Or maybe I’ll look at family paintings. A blog post about all the dogs in our family would be fun, too!
So how do you stay focused in your family research? And what will you do to celebrate Family History month? So many stories to find; so many stories to share!
My lovely mother-in-law, Natalie (Munson) Brengle, would have been 100 years old today. Here she is as an 18 or 19 year old in a fashion show in Bar Harbor, Maine in 1937 or 1938. She only became more poised and elegant as the years passed. We miss her and raise a glass in her memory today!