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.
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.
My great grandparents, Daniel and Emily, have always been the most colorful and compelling characters in my family history. I am lucky to have grown up on their stories, to have photos of them, and to have found a rich trove of their papers. And yet, there are so many unanswered questions…Today I wish them happy anniversary.
Daniel Oliver (1870-1952), an adventurous young Scotsman, left Thurso in Caithness in the northernmost part of the Scottish Highlands when he was a teenager. He was the youngest of three brothers, and came from a family of farm laborers who moved south to work on the docks in Edinburgh after Daniel left Scotland. He travelled to Morocco, where he did missionary work, and then in the early 1890s to Palestine and Beirut, where he studied Arabic. Soon he made his way to Brummana, Syria (now Lebanon), where he taught at the Quaker mission school that was founded there in the 1870s.
What ever possessed him to leave home so young? How did he become a missionary? His family was not particularly religious. What were those years on the road like? Did he travel alone or with companions? And how did a boy from such a modest family grow into such a commanding figure of a man? He didn’t speak to his children or grandchildren of his background. Did he cut off all ties with his family? Why?
Emily Wright (1865-1954) was born in Ackworth, Yorkshire, and was an adventurous young woman in her own right. She was the daughter of Mary Ann (Deane) and Alfred Wright, a Quaker missionary, and came to Syria with him when she was in her 20s. I don’t know where Alfred went from there, but Emily stayed to teach in Brummana, finding a calling that she would continue for the rest of her long life.
What must it have been like to leave England at 25 and start life on an unfamiliar continent? The school was supported by Quakers from England and the United States. Did she know any of the faculty when she arrived? Were there friends of her father’s? Teachers from home? Did her father stay there with her for long, or did he continue on with his travels soon?
I wish there were letters or clues to Emily and Daniel’s courtship, but I don’t know of any. In my imagination I see two young, idealistic people with a deep commitment to making the world a better place through their faith and their teaching. Daniel was a strong and perhaps blustery man with an iron will and a powerful ambition. Emily was unwavering. She was his partner for sixty years, first at the school in Brummana, where he eventually became principal, and then at the Daniel and Emily Oliver Orphanage and School in nearby Ras el Met’n. There they supported, educated and provided work skills for hundreds of children through two World Wars and beyond.
On September 19, 1895, one hundred twenty-one years ago today, Daniel and Emily were married at the Friends Meetinghouse at Stoke Newington, London. I wish I knew whether they had any family or friends with them that day. With the exception of Emily’s mother, their parents were all still living at the time. Was Alfred Wright there? Emily was close to her sisters and brothers, so I picture them with her at the meetinghouse. David and Esther Oliver, along with Daniel’s older brothers, John and David, were living in Edinburgh. Did they make the trip?
Daniel and Emily had been married for 57 years when Daniel died in 1952. Emily’s death followed in 1954. They had four children, (including my grandfather, Kenneth), seven grandchildren (including my mother, Celia), at least six great grandchildren, and at least twelve great great grandchildren. They also touched the lives of untold numbers of children they taught and cared for during their sixty years in Lebanon.
Daniel’s wedding ring is inscribed D + E 19th Sept. 1895. My husband wears it now with the added inscription KW to LJB 1-2-82.
And a very happy first anniversary today to another Emily–Daniel and Emily’s great great granddaughter–and her husband Matt!
My mum is torturing her big brother (sorry he’s missing from the photo) with my grandmother, Elsie (Mills) Oliver, looking on, and sister, Alison, on the left. A moment of silly, spontaneous kid-ness.
My mother’s British/American family lived in Lebanon for three generations. My great grandmother, Emily Wright, traveled from England to Lebanon with her Quaker missionary father, Alfred, in the early 1890s.There she met and married Daniel Oliver, a strong-willed, stubbornly independent Scotsman from the farthest reaches of the Highlands. They spent the rest of their lives in Lebanon (more in later posts!)
My grandfather, Kenneth Stuart Oliver (I always like the sound of his full name), and his two brothers were sent to Pennsylvania as children to be safe from unrest in the Middle East and be educated. While his brothers, Douglas and Hugh, stayed in the U.S., my grandfather returned to Lebanon in the 1920s after finishing medical school and marrying my Baltimore-born-and-bred grandmother. He was a physician and faculty member at the American University of Beirut.
My mum and her siblings lived in Beirut and spent summers in the mountains of Lebanon until they left for the U.S. in 1945. This photo must have been taken soon before the outbreak of World War II disrupted their lives dramatically, and eventually led them to leave the country.