My family and me on a post vacation field trip to the Maryland Historical Society in Baltimore.
This year, as in years past, we had a five generation vacation on Hilton Head island. I’ve been taking this trip to the Low Country with my family for the past decade, the generations growing over the years.
My husband and I tend to drive because flights are expensive and we have a lot of accoutrements like boogie boards, shovels for the sand and this year, lacrosse sticks since my daughter is learning this game invented by Native Americans. On the way down, we’re too excited for our vacation to get started to make any stops, but on the way back, we like to break up the sadness of our vacation’s end and the monotony of driving home by a post vaca field trip. In the past, we’ve stopped at the Smithsonian, the Lincoln Monument and the National Archives. But this year, we stopped at the Maryland Historical Society to do a little family digging.
My fifth cousin alerted me to the fact that extracts from a Stuart family bible, my paternal ancestors, were in the historical society’s library. So, after driving eight hours up route 95, we stopped in Baltimore. I sifted through ancient wooden boxes with peeling parchment inside trying to find the family Bible extracts while my husband and daughters walked through the museum. In one of the exhibits, they ran into John Wilkes Booth, whose family was from Maryland and a man who had fought in the War of 1812. The veteran said something like 20 percent of the combatants of that war were Africans. Never learned that (or about the War of 1812 for that matter) in my history class. The 200 year-olds wandering around the exhibits were actually the Maryland Historical Society Players who act out and interpret parts of Maryland History. My own family’s history seemed to be coming to life in the reading room, albeit not so dramatically, rather with serendipity.
As I leafed through the papers of Sarah Elizabeth Stuart, I discovered that this woman was a genealogist. She didn’t seem much interested in my family’s history – after about a half hour of searching, I realized the family Bible extracts were submitted by someone else – a female family member with a different surname. But Sarah’s meticulous records of other family’s lineages were arranged in neat piles and stuffed into thin brown envelopes with typed written requests for her services attached. One such request was from an officer of the Daughters of the American Revolution who had used her services to track people’s Revolutionary War ancestors several times before. I wonder if Sarah and I are actually related and what the going rate was for a genealogist back then.
It’s nice to be back from a great vacation where I unplugged from my computer and soaked up the surf and sun.
Even though I wasn’t blogging or researching, genealogy was never too far from me. As we made our way down to Hilton Head, South Carolina, we passed a town named Burtonville (Burton is my great, great-grandmother’s surname) and saw a sign for Nash County, NC where many of my ancestor’s slave owners were from. If there is one thing I’ve learned on this journey, it’s that the genealogy world is small, and all relative. And my ancestors’ world was just as small if not smaller and it seems their owners really were related.
A few months back when I realized that one of the women who owned my great, great-grandmother, Tempy was Judith Boddie, I started searching for information about the prominent North Carolina Boddie family and found a Google book with extensive information about their lineage. The book, Lineage and Tradition of the Herring, Conyers, Hendrick, Boddie, Perry, Crudup, Denson and Hilliard Families shows the interconnection of all these families through marriage. When I found it, I didn’t know that another family listed in this book also owned my ancestors. While Tempy was owned by the Boddies, her sisters, Polly and Liberia were owned by Dr. Robert Hilliard. Hilliard settled in Louisiana but was originally from Nash, NC. The Google book shows generations of intermarriage between the Boddies and Hilliards. There is even one family member named Tempe Boddie Hilliard! (Tempe was a popular name among both families).
Six degrees of separation? I think a lot less.
Can you connect yourself to the president through six people or less? A woman at my gym works for him. Your turn.
My Grandma Louise told me her stories while we swam on Hilton Head Island
When I read the New York Times article last week about Michelle Obama’s ancestry, the fact that her family lore had suspected a white relative for years underscored the importance of gathering oral history. For blacks, the paper trail often runs cold since many slave births and deaths weren’t documented. Even my grandmother, born in 1910 never had a birth certificate. This was the case for many poor people (not just blacks) as well as those born in very rural areas around the turn of the century.
It’s easy for family history in general, but the history of African Americans in particular to die with our ancestors. That’s why I’m so grateful for all the story tellers in my life like my grandfather Martin Ford, and my grandmothers, Lillie Mae Ford and Louise Coleman Walton. When Martin and Lillie Mae were alive, they were generous with their stories of their lives in segregated Mississippi and Louisiana, and Louise at 93 continues to regale me with her tales of picking cotton and potatoes as a sharecropper, first in Oklahoma and then in California often with my mother, then just a baby in tow.
I’ve inherited my grandparents’ storytelling genes and for the next two weeks, I have the privilege of spending uninterrupted time spinning tales at a beautiful hilltop artist’s colony in Amherst Virginia. While I’m here at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, I hope to work on a fictionalized version of my maternal grandparents’ adventures. (No one would believe the true stories). So, I’ll turn this story over to my fourth cousin, Monique and let her tell you how we found each other in our parallel quests for our family’s history.