Sentimental Sunday: Family History Field Trip

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.

Photo Friday: My ancestors and me at the Maryland Historical Society

My third great-grandfather, William R. Stuart and me at the Maryland Historical Society. Photo by Flannery Silva. Fuzziness courtesy of my iphone.

Yesterday, on my way down to the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts where I’m working on my family history project, I stopped in Baltimore to see some relatives – some living, some dead.  The living one is my niece, Flannery, a student at Maryland Institute College of Art.  She accompanied me to see my ancestors whose portraits are housed at the Maryland Historical Society, just blocks from her school. Funny the way things work.

Flanny was kind enough to take photos of me with the portraits of my second great uncle, Alexander Stuart, his wife, Matilda (who was sporting an amazing ermine robe), my third great uncle, Andrew Stuart, and my third great-grandfather, William R. Stuart pictured above. See any family resemblance?

Treasure Chest Tuesday: 150 year-old Portraits of my Stuart Ancestors

1952-13-4 William Rasin Stuart (1780-1853) Unsigned; attributed to Thomas Sully. Courtesy of the Maryland Historical Society.

1952-13-3 Alexander Stuart (1812-1853). Unsigned, attributed to Thomas Sully. Courtesy of the Maryland Historical Society.

Above are portraits of my third great-grandfather, William Rasin Stuart and his son, my great, great-uncle, Alexander Stuart housed at the Maryland Historical Society.

As remarkable as the paintings themselves is the fact that we’re even aware of their existence.  Here is  how we came to find out about them.

At the beginning of the year, my cousin and I began reading the Stuart papers, a collection of William Rasin Stuart’s letters and spiritual meditations that our genealogy buddy, Antoinette Lee informed us about.  This enormous tome of over 600 pages is a treasure trove of information about Stuart and his family. In letters to his children, most often my great, great-grandfather, Col. W.R. Stuart, the elder Stuart details his time as a whig in the Maryland Senate where he served as president. He later laments his reversal of fortune when ideological differences get him canned from this beloved job. He speaks longingly of a place called Denby in Maryland where his wife Ariana Frazier is buried with their child Charles and other generations of their family and pleads for my great, great-grandfather, Col. W.R. Stuart to buy it for him. William Rasin must have lost or sold Denby during his financial difficulties. In a heartfelt plea, William Rasin writes, ” I desire my body to be placed by the side of your dear mother,” but in later letters its clear that the colonel doesn’t buy Denby for him. As William Rasin ages, his financial situation worsens. He spends the last decade of his life living in other people’s homes, sometimes friend’s or landlord’s, other times his childrens. In 1853 while living in New Orleans with his son, Alexander, William Rasin dies of yellow fever.  Alexander dies of the same disease just a few months later.

With all these compelling hints at hand, my cousin Monique and I tried to find this place, Denby that had once been the Stuart home as well as any other information about this branch of the family.  Monique put “William R. Stuart” (we didn’t know his middle name then) along with his death and birth date into the search engine, and it spit back several entries  at the Maryland Historical Society. Not only did the names and dates match up with the information we’d found in the Stuart papers, but the  donors of the portraits, The Misses Sutro, were familiar as well.  We knew that William Rasin had a  granddaughter named Mrs. Otto Sutro because we’d read about her in a Baltimore Sun newspaper account of her sister’s marriage to a Mexican editor. Her sister, Tilly Handy met her groom at “the house of Col. William R. Stuart, a wealthy broker,” also, Tilly’s uncle, the article explains.

With the help of art historian, Joel Brink and the assistance of the staff at the Historical Society, we now have digital pictures of these amazing portraits, unsigned but attributed to renown American artist, Thomas Sully, painted over 150 years ago.

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