In family history research, and in life in general, I’ve always believed in the magic of serendipity aided by a good helping of paying attention. And always gratitude.
When Ancestry started waving its little green hint leaves at me about my mother’s first cousin, Bobby Oliver, I took a peek at a recommended tree and smiled to find a few photos of him. I remembered meeting Bobby once at my grandparents’ when I was a child. He was about my mother’s age and died in his forties.
As I explored the tree, I realized that it belonged to a relative of Bobby’s mother, a connection by marriage, and not a direct relative of mine. And yet…my attention was caught by the photo of a lady in round spectacles and a white-haired wig attached to the tree. It was my great grandmother, Emily (Wright) Oliver, but it was listed as someone else! Someone I wasn’t related to! I know this particular photo well. I have a copy of it. And the very Victorian brooch she’s wearing is in my jewelry box. It was definitely Emily and most definitely not this Anna person.
Misattributed portraits come up often on Ancestry trees. Oh, look! Ancestry waved it’s little hint leaf at me! Somebody posted a photo of great, great aunt Mary Sue! I’ll add it to my tree! And once a mistake is made, it can spread like wildfire. If dozens of other people have that photo in their family tree and they all say it’s Mary Sue, then it must be true. Ack!
But before harumphing too much about Emily being mislabeled as Anna, I wrote the person in whose tree I’d found it. To thank her for the wonderful pictures of Bobby. What a pleasure to find them! And, by the way, about that photo you’ve labeled as Anna…
As usual, courtesy (and persistence) is the best approach. It took two messages (not everyone checks Ancestry as obsessively often as I do), but when I heard back from Mary happy things followed. She corrected the misidentification. We shared family info relating to Bobby, who was also her mother’s first cousin. And, best of all, she had a family album with more pictures of my side of the family. Wonderful pictures of my grandfather and his brothers as children, of my great grandparents. I’m thrilled and grateful. And it turns out that Mary’s son lives in the same Pennsylvania town my daughter and her family just moved to. We’re going to meet up sometime and look at pictures together. Hooray!
So when the serendipity gods drop something into your lap, be sure you’re paying attention, and don’t forget to say a heartfelt thank you.
Daniel (1870-1952) and Emily (Wright) Oliver (1865-1954), my great grandparents
Kenneth Stuart Oliver (1898-1975) my grandfather
Alan Douglas (Doug) Oliver (1896-1983) Daniel and Emily’s son, my great uncle
Robert Hugh Henderson (Hugh) Oliver (1903-1979) Daniel and Emily’s son, Bobby’s father, my great uncle
Robert Hugh (Bobby) Oliver, Jr. (1930-1976) Hugh’s son, my first cousin once removed
Special thanks to Mary Witaconis for the use of these photographs. They make me happy.
My devout Granny always said she wasn’t interested in heaven unless her dogs would be there. I feel the same way about family history. It’s not complete without the ancestral dogs. I come from a long line of dog people. In the great nature versus nurture debate, I’m not sure where the trait for being an obsessed dog lover comes in, but I believe I got it from both sides. It’s considered normal in my family to stop the car to get out, cross oncoming traffic and introduce oneself to a random dog (or at least to fight the urge). So here’s a quick chronicle of some of the beloved canines.
As a teenager, my mother had a formal portrait taken with Tess, the family boxer (thank you, cousin Diana, for unearthing it!). My grandmother, Elsie (Mills) Oliver, adored her grandfather, Nicholas Snowden Hill, in part because of the time he arrived and told the grandchildren to choose between the two deep pockets of his overcoat, only to find that there was a puppy in each pocket. He also made her a gift of Mars, the circus pony she admired.
Mum’s paternal grandparents, Daniel and Emily Oliver, ran an orphanage and school in Ras el Met’n, in the mountains outside Beirut. Daniel always had several dogs, and the annual large group photographs of the students, faculty and staff, all feature him, front and center, with a couple of dogs at his feet. My mother would add that she remembers him being harsh with the dogs, but he certainly appeared attentive in the photos, often looking fondly at the dogs and not the camera.
My Oliver grandparents had many beloved dogs living in Beirut when Mum was a child. I remember tales of Alsatians, (as they were known to them, German Shepherds to us in the U.S.)–Lorna, Ronnie, Topsy. More on their adventures in another post. Later there were boxers, starting with Pronto. And when my grandparents settled in New England there were came Tess and my childhood friends, Judy, Penny, and Jenny.
My fourth birthday present was Jeff, a handsome Great Dane, and a great delight to my dad. Family lore is that I was harassing Jeff one day, when my mother heard me shriek. She came running, only to find that Jeff–so much bigger than I was–had gently pinned me to the wall, head on one side of me and tail on the other. He’d had enough! We lived in an apartment in Baltimore near a reservoir. My parents had a VW beetle and exercised Jeff by holding his leash out the car window and slowly driving the loop road around the reservoir. He must have been quite a sight.
I know less about the dogs on my paternal side, but Bill Stephenson, my paternal grandfather, had a series of beloved dachshunds and shelties–Bosco, Princess, Oscar–and was very clear that he liked them better than most people.
And no history of the family dogs would be complete without the dogs we raised our own children with: Sadie (1997-2009), Cosby (2007-2014), Daisy (2015-2020), and now Ellie (born 2018).
Now we’re blessed with the next dog generation. Our angelic granddog, Coco, who lives in a Hawaiian paradise where she gets to hang out at the beach with her parents and littermates. The dog love continues.
Dearest daughter mine and dearest mother mine, Happy belated International Women’s Day! When I think of extraordinary women, there you both are and as I collect images of the women we came from, it seems only right to put each of us right at the center. Maybe I’ll write more about them individually as this Women’s History Month goes on, but first I just want to gather their wonderful faces around us.
Look at these women. Their lives spanned four centuries. They were born on three continents. A few lived their entire lives close to their birthplaces, but most spent much of their lives in faraway new places like you both have. In all three centuries before your move to Hawai’i you had ancestral women uprooting and moving from one continent to another or across the United States. Elizabeth Goldsberry migrated as a child with her parents from North Carolina to western Missouri by wagon before 1850. When she was 45, Maria (Milnes) Mills and her husband James left Derby, England and moved to Virginia with nine children, ages 4 to 23. And Emily (Wright) Oliver joined her father on his Quaker mission work, traveling to Syria in the 1890s, where she stayed to teach at a Friends school, married Daniel, and spent the rest of her life as his partner and support in the Daniel and Emily Oliver Orphanage in Ras el Met’n, Lebanon. I’ve always loved that in a still patriarchal world, Emily was given equal billing in the naming of the school!
There were talented painters on all sides–Katharine Brengle, Alice Stephenson, and Elsie Oliver. Your Quaker grandmothers, Emily Oliver and her mother Mary Ann Wright, were both teachers. Some came from lives of privilege made possible by slavery. Anne Elizabeth (Snowden) Hill and Eleanor (Carroll) Brent both came from wealthy families with many enslaved workers. (Something I’m working to learn more about). Catherine (Nuth) Johnson was President John Quincy Adams’s mother-in-law.
You know well that all families are complicated, and these women’s families were no exceptions. Some endured hardships, wars, losses of parents, husbands, children. There were divorces and health challenges. Some died quite young, but most lived long lives. I think of them as mothers and grandmothers. I picture them with their little people and know there was so much love and laughter. That comes to us from all sides, so keep loving and laughing! You’re both strong and wise, funny and smart, edgy and opinionated, stubborn as can be and full of love. All these mothers and grandmothers, greats and many, many greats shared those traits and must be so proud of you. I know I am.
A big, fancy-numbered anniversary. Today is the 65th anniversary of my parents’ wedding.
Celia Oliver and Bill Hare (born Stephenson) met in college in Baltimore in the early 1950s. She was a student at Goucher College and he was at Johns Hopkins University. My Mum was a year older than my Dad, graduating from college in 1954. Their wedding took place soon after his 1955 graduation from Hopkins when he was 21 and she was 22.
It was a small, simple wedding at the house my grandparents were renting on the campus of Dana Hall School on Grove Street in Wellesley, Massachusetts. My mother wore a dark suit with white piping around the collar. It’s the same suit she was wearing in photos of my Dad’s graduation from Hopkins earlier that month.
Present were their parents–Ken and Elsie (Mills) Oliver and Bob and Esther Jane (Miller) Hare from Maryland, with Bob’s mother, Fern, (Bob was actually my Dad’s step-father); Mum’s brother Peter Oliver and soon-to-be sister-in-law, Connie Gibbs; my grandfather’s brother, A. Douglas Oliver from Philadelphia with his wife, Dessa, and two young daughters, Anne and Susan; and finally, my great-uncle, Clark Stephenson, (brother of my dad’s father, Bill Stephenson) with his wife Louise. And must not forget my grandparents’ boxer, Judy, who was an important part of my childhood a few years later!
I love the intimacy of the gathering, the silliness of my Dad hamming it up for the camera while Mum beams, the image of my dignified grandfather being silly. The house isn’t one I ever knew, but everything they’re surrounded by–furniture, hangings, rugs–is embedded in my childhood memories. It was a day filled with joy and promise.
My parents had adventures together during their six short years of marriage before my father’s early death. They drove cross-country to spend a year living in Alaska. They spent a year working in Germany. They had four years as parents together in Baltimore. And a dog. For all that, I celebrate them and look back on that day 65 years ago with gratitude.
UPDATE: Oh, my, did I get this wrong! My next post sorts it all out…
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.
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!
Kenneth Stuart Oliver’s Friends’ Ambulance Unit personnel card (Image from the Library of the Religious Society of Friends, London)
One hundred years ago, when the Armistice agreement was signed on November 11th ending World War I, Kenneth Oliver, my grandfather, was serving as a volunteer ambulance driver for the Friends’ Ambulance Unit, headquartered in Dunkirk. He had arrived in France the previous year, a baby-faced eighteen year old, and had undoubtedly experienced enough of war to last him a lifetime.
When World War I broke out in 1914, Ken and his brothers, Doug and Hugh, were students at the Westtown School, a Quaker boarding school near Philadelphia. They were sons of British Quaker missionaries in Lebanon, raised and educated in a pacifist tradition. Joining the military would not have been an option for them, yet like many young men and women raised in the Society of Friends, they must have felt a strong need to be of service during the terrible war.
In response, the Friends’ Ambulance Unit (FAU) was created by British volunteers in 1914 as a way for Quakers and others to provide medical aid and other assistance to civilians and members of the military during the war without compromising their commitment to non-violence. Over 1000 volunteers served in France, Belgium, and England between 1914 and 1919, driving ambulances, assisting in hospitals and providing aid for civilians evacuating the war zones.
Following his sophomore year at Haverford College, Ken left to join the FAU. He departed New York on the RMS Aurania, arriving in Liverpool on September 2, 1917. (Incidentally, a few months later the ship was torpedoed by a German U-boat off the coast of Northern Ireland on February 3, 1918, heading from Liverpool to New York). It was customary for new volunteers to spend a month at an FAU training camp in Birminghamshire before being assigned to a unit.
Ken’s Friends’ Ambulance Unit personnel card (Image from the Library of the Religious Society of Friends, London)
FAU ambulance convoy (Image from Cadbury Research Library)
Ken arrived at FAU headquarters in Dunkirk on October 10th. His personnel card lists a variety of assignments and job titles—chief orderly, chief clerk, stores buyer, and primarily driver. He served as a driver in an ambulance convoy like the one pictured here, and he was listed as being based in Dunkirk in August 2018, when the FAU headquarters were bombed. Family lore has it that one of my grandfather’s assignments was to inspect the sanitary conditions of French military brothels, but of course this doesn’t appear on his personnel card…
FAU headquarters, Dunkirk, after bombing, August 1918 (Image from Cadbury Research Library)
Alan Douglas Oliver’s FAU personnel card (Image from the Library of the Religious Society of Friends, London)
Uncle Doug, Ken’s elder brother, left Haverford and joined the FAU in May 1918, nearly a year after Ken’s arrival. He sailed to Liverpool on the RMS Carpathia, renowned for having taken on passengers from the sinking Titanic in 1912. Like the Aurania, the Carpathia was torpedoed by a German U-boat, and sunk off the southern coast of Ireland just two months after Doug’s arrival.
Both young men remained in France for several months after the armistice, with Doug departing in January 1919 and Ken following in February. They rejoined their classmates at Haverford for that spring semester and both graduated the following year.
Haverford College Yearbook, 1920
I never heard my grandfather speak of the war, but surely it had to have changed the course of his life. I have to believe it played a role in his choice to become a doctor. He went on to medical school at Johns Hopkins University and then a career practicing and teaching medicine in Lebanon and the U.S.