Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Creating a Christmas Legend

My 33rd great-grandfather was personally responsible for creating one of the great Christmas legends and traditions -- a legend that has been passed down for over 1,000 years and commemorated in the popular Christmas carol, "Good King Wenceslas" since about 1850. It is likely that no one today would know the name and legend of Good King Wenceslas had it not been for the efforts of my 33rd great-grandfather, Duke Boleslav I z Czechy of Bohemia.

You see, "King" Wenceslas was never actually a king. His name was Vaclav z Czechy and he was merely a duke. And even his claim to that title was not entirely legitimate. In order to seize control of the Duchy of Bohemia, he had his own mother, who had been serving as regent following the death of his father, exiled. After usurping control of Bohemia, Vaclav then entered into an alliance with the Slavs and Magyars that resulted in Bohemia being invaded by -- and becoming a vassal state of -- the Saxons and Bavarians into whose lands the Slavs and Magyars had been encroaching and raiding for centuries.

So, to restore the independence of his beloved homeland, Boleslav invited his older brother Vaclav to the feast of Saints Cosmas and Damian at the church in Stara Boleslav on 28 September 935. While Vaclav was enroute to the feast, three of Boleslav's retainers ambushed and murdered him, so Boleslav was elevated to Duke of Bohemia. Almost immediately, he reversed the policy of support for the Slavs and Magyars and began fighting for independence from Bavaria and Saxony. He expanded Bohemian territories by crushing the Magyar army, and arranged for his daughter to marry the Duke of Poland to strengthen Bohemia against continued attempts at domination by Bavaria and Saxony. For all of his patriotic efforts, however, my 33rd great-grandfather was given the epithet, "Boleslav Ukrutny" ("Boleslaus the Cruel").

Adding further insult, Vaclav was cannonized as a saint shortly after his death and was posthumously declared "king" by Emperor Otto "the Great" to whom he had been a loyal vassal. To justify this outrage, a fictional account was created of Vaclav's piety and generosity in which he is said to have walked a league (about three miles) barefoot through the snow to bring food and firewood to a destitute peasant on whom he had taken pity. This baseless legend has persisted for over 1,000 years. To heap further abuse on the memory of Duke Boleslav, Vaclav is considered the patron saint of the Czech Republic and the Czech people.

So this Christmas, when you hear carolers cheerfully extolling the virtues of "Good King Wenceslas" just remember that you have the courage and patriotism of my 33rd great-grandfather, "Cruel" Duke Boleslav, to thank for the merriment that charlatan's song brings to your heart!

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Branded a Coward

"Branded, cursed with a coward's shame

What will you do if you're branded?

Will you fight for your name?"

-- Theme song from the TV series, Branded

Ivo de Grandmesnil was one of my 26th great-grandfathers. He fought in the First Crusade in the army of Robert II "Curthose", Duke of Normandie (my 27th great-grand uncle and son of my 28th great-grandfather, Guillaume "le Conquerant"). After distinguishing himself several times in battle, he was selected for a special mission at the Siege of Antioch. Together with his uncles, Guillaume and Aubrey de Grandmesnil and Stephen II, Comte de Blois (father of future King of England, Stephen), and several other knights Ivo rappelled down the walls of Antioch under cover of night carrying treasure, maps, and architectural drawings that the Crusaders could not allow to fall into enemy hands if the city was lost to the Seljuk Turks. Like modern-day covert operatives, the group had to make their way on foot -- and chiefly by stealth, as they were vastly outnumbered in the surrounding countryside -- to the port of St. Simeon, where they were met and assisted by the Knights Hospitaller and spirited off to France by ship.

Eventually, they made their way to the city of Chartres, where they turned over their treasures to the Church for safe-keeping. Among the documents they bore were building designs that were later used in the reconstruction of Glastonbury Abbey, Winchester Cathedral, Salisbury Cathedral, Amiens Cathedral, and Chartres Cathedral, as well as many lesser-known Norman Gothic structures of the 12th through 15th centuries.

Because their mission had been carried out in utter secrecy, the entire group were derided as cowards for "fleeing" the Siege of Antioch and publicly scorned by the Pope. Although he was made Sheriff of Leicester upon his father's death in 1098, Ivo's reputation as a knight was severely damaged and he enjoyed little success. He and Stephen de Blois sought the counsel of their cousin, Hugh, Comte de Beaumont, who arranged for them to join the Crusade of 1101 in hopes that their reputations for bravery and adherence to duty could be restored. Both were killed in battle in 1102.

In 1103, another cousin of theirs, Hugues de Payens, gathered eight other knights -- most or all of them also relatives -- and formed a group to protect pilgrims to the Holy Land that would eventually be formalized as the the Knights Templar.

No records have survived that give the full reasons for the founding of the Knights Templar, but I would like to think that among them was the desire of Hugues de Payens to ensure that his cousins' deaths while trying to restore their unjustly sullied reputations had not been in vain.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Giving Thanks

Thanksgiving 2009 was one of my most enjoyable ever. It truly reminded me how much I have to be thankful for! It was the first time in five years that all of "my kids" -- a term I now use to encompass my children, daughter-in-law, and grandson -- were together for the holiday.

The highlight for me was Sunday brunch yesterday (pictured), when we all gathered for a final meal together before each group went their separate ways -- back to work, back to college, and back to school. Naturally, I took the opportunity to remind my daughter-in-law that I was waiting for her to supply some needed "seed material" so I could begin researching her side of the family. I want my grandson to know about his entire family; not just my side.

And in the process of issuing that reminder, I was reminded of something myself ... what genealogy is all about. Here I was in the middle of a family gathering, surrounded by the people I love most dearly, and I was carping about some factoids for my research! Genealogy is about family and people. Although we spend a lot of time cataloguing data about those people -- dates and places of birth, marriage, and death, occupations, and the like -- what we are really doing is trying to better understand and appreciate the people who were our ancestors and relatives.

In the end, aren't we doing this so we can better understand ourselves and our place in our families, so that we can make our relationships that much richer?

Monday, August 31, 2009

The Thrill of Genealogy!

I can almost hear some of you gasping right now. “The thrill of genealogy?!” you are crying out in disbelief, “Genealogy has to be about as exciting as watching paint dry!”

If you feel that way, I would guess that you’ve never actually done much genealogical research – at least not to the point of making any meaningful discovery. Frankly, until I became an “accidental genealogist” I felt exactly the same way. I really couldn’t understand what my cousin, Al Hadad, or other genealogy-bugs I knew saw in tracking down the names of their dead ancestors. And I certainly couldn't picture myself devoting several hours a week to ancestral research.

It took a couple of months of research before my excitement began to develop, but now I have experienced three distinct kinds of excitement in genealogy. And it was these experiences that led me to blog about it, hoping that others would catch my enthusiasm and enjoy similar experiences themselves.

The first type of excitement I experienced was what I will call “the excitement of accomplishment.” This occurred a couple of months into my research the first time I found – and conclusively confirmed – a “missing link” in my ancestry. When weeks of hitting dead-ends or erroneous information are finally redeemed by learning the identity of a previously unknown ancestor, there is a rush of excitement equivalent to scoring a touchdown or winning a race – the joy of effort duly rewarded. As time has passed I’ve found that the greater the effort and the more time invested in the search, the greater the feeling when it is finally rewarded.

The next form of excitement I experienced is what I now call “the thrill of discovery.” For me, it has been a distinctly different feeling than the excitement of accomplishment. Perhaps the best way of describing it is through example. My first experience of this emotion was at the discovery that my 5th great-grandfather, Stephen Jenner, had served in the American Revolution after his family had been forced to flee the approaching British Army in the dead of night. As I read of their experience in The History of Pittsford, Vt. I could almost feel the fear and grief Stephen must have felt as he led his family in the darkness of a July night in 1777 and it brought me to tears. But it was also a moment of exhilaration in the discovery that my own ancestors had actively participated in the creation of our nation -- for me the equivalent of digging up an artifact on an expedition with Indiana Jones! Now I experience a similar excitement each time I discover a significant accomplishment or travail of one of my ancestors.

The third type of excitement came much later in my genealogical journey and, although it is the least important and meaningful of the three, it is still an excitement I do feel and enjoy. I call it the “excitement of celebrity” and it comes from discovering that you are descended from someone truly famous. As I have previously blogged, I had been told since childhood that I was a descendant of Dr. Edward Jenner, the creator of smallpox vaccine. So it was no small disappointment when my own research proved this tale to be false. It was at least a year later before I discovered that I had ancestors of equal or greater fame and accomplishment. The first of these I found while tracing my Jenner (maternal grandmother’s) line back seven generations to the Baldwin line, then another seven generations to Dormer, three more generations to fitzAlan, the Earls of Arundel, six additional generations to de Mortimer, and three more generations to Gwladus Ddu ferch Llywelyn, whose mother was Joan Plantagenet, Lady of Wales, an illegitimate daughter of John “Lackland” Plantagenet, King of England and Lord of Ireland [pictured at top], better known as “Wicked King John” the arch-enemy (in fiction only) of beloved Robin Hood and much-despised rival of his brother, Richard the Lionheart.

Not only had I discovered that I was descended from one of the most (in)famous of all British monarchs, but I made the discovery the same day that I received a complaint from my ex-wife that my daughter was “acting like she thinks she is a princess”! My reply that she is, in fact, a descendant of royalty did not meet with immediate pleasure, but has since (with my daughter’s improved behavior) been accepted with the humour I originally intended.

I have since made many similar discoveries, learning that I am descended also from Eleanor d’Aquitaine, Charlemagne, Charles “le Martel” de Poitiers, and countless others of great fame and accomplishment from medieval times. Each such discovery brings its own unique twinge of excitement, despite my knowing that hundreds of millions of others are also descended from these celebrities.

So, if you have not yet delved into your family history and folklore, I urge you to do so. Otherwise, you will never know what sort of excitement awaits you!

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Move Over, Jerry Springer!

[Guilford Green, burial site of John Parmelee Jr.]

Do you remember those weird guests Jerry Spinger used to have on his show? The ones that married their own cousins and were having an affair with their in-laws? The ones that made everyone ask, "Where does he find those people?!" Well, he could have taped one of his shows in Guilford, Connecticut around 1660, and some of my ancestors would have been on it!

When my daughter and I took our genealogy road-trip this past June, we never dreamed we would stumble onto our own episode of The Jerry Springer Show. We had gathered all the information we could find in Woodbury, Connecticut, and were now working our way backward in time, following the parents and grandparents of our ancestors who had left other Connecticut colonies to found the town of Woodbury. One of these was Hannah Parmelee, my 6th great-grandmother, who had married Samuel Jenner II in Woodbury.

Most online genealogical records list Newtown, Connecticut as her place of birth. So Michaela and I had driven from Woodbury down to Newtown. At the Town Hall, we found that Hannah's father, Stephen Parmelee, is listed in Book 1 of the Newtown land records as one of its earliest settlers and landowners. But he did not arrive in Newtown until 1710, and Hannah was born in 1706. Clearly, she had been born elsewhere. Hannah's mother, Elizabeth Baldwin, had been born in Milford and her father was born in Guilford. Milford was closer to Newtown, so that was our next stop. I had to obtain credentials as a card-carrying genealogist in order to gain access to the town records in Milford -- only to return the next day and learn that Hannah had not been born there, either. So, next it was off to Guilford. And there we hit paydirt!

The people at the Guilford Town Hall directed us to the Edith B. Nettleton Historical Room at the Guilford Free Library, where the extraordinarily helpful staff went out of their way to assist us. We reviewed local and family histories, plat maps of the original township, cemetery records, and more -- including some information we never expected and weren't sure we really wanted to know.

Hannah was indeed born in Guilford in 1706. Her father, Stephen, had also been born there in 1669 -- the first of our Parmelee line born on American soil. The town began in 1639 as a plantation from the New Haven Colony. A plantation was essentially a spin-off of an existing colony. It established a separate charter and became a colony in its own right in the mid-1640s. Among its earliest settlers were John Parmelee Jr. (1612-1688), who arrived in Charlestown, Massachusetts in 1635 and was among the signers of the original Guilford Plantation Covenant on 1st June 1639. John would later marry Hannah Plaine and become the father of Stephen Parmelee, so John and Hannah are my 8th great-grandparents. This is where it starts getting weird.

When Michaela and I arrived in Guilford, we knew we had a mystery to solve about Hannah Plaine. There were several conflicting dates given for her birth and death in online genealogical records. Some showed her birth as 1594; others as 1621. Some had her dying in 1658; others in 1687. So various combinations had her lifespan as being 1594-1658, 1621-1658, and 1621-1687. Only the latter dates seemed plausible, since Stephen was born in 1669. So we had already concluded that there must have been two Hannah Plaines and that records showing John Parmelee's marriage to the older Hannah Plaine were erroneous.

Well, we were wrong!

Yes, there were two Hannah Plaines. And John Parmelee married them both! You see, William Plaine (1590-1649) was also one of the signors of the original Guilford Plantation Covenant. But it is likely that he came to America with his wife, Hannah (1594-1658) and his daughter, Hannah (1621-1687) to escape his past, because he had committed sodomy in England. Perhaps he could have gotten a fresh start in the New World and escaped prosecution for his crime, but he just couldn't keep his hands off young boys. So in 1649 he was tried and convicted of both the sodomy he had committed in England and the "corruption of youth" he had pursued in Guilford. He was hanged for his crimes on 1st June 1649 -- the first and only Guilford citizen ever executed for a crime. Yeah, weird!

John Parmelee's first wife, Rebecca, died in September 1651, when their son was but six years old, so John married the widow, Hannah Plaine later that same year. Hannah died in March 1658. Now here's where it gets really weird -- or "icky", as my daughter calls it. John married his step-daughter, Hannah Plaine, in February 1659. The two had nine children, including my 7th great-grandfather, Stephen.

So my 9th great-grandmother, Hannah (whose maiden name was probably Plum), was also my 8th step-great-grandmother. And my 8th great-grandmother was the step-daughter of my 8th great-greatfather. Can you hear me singing "I'm my own grampa" right now???

Move over, Jerry Springer! My ancestors are just as weird as your guests!

Friday, August 14, 2009

My Umpty-Great Grandparents

Despite my exalted status as a genuine, card-carrying genealogist, there are still many issues I wrestle with that are probably old-hat to more experienced members of the profession. One of these issues is what to call my "umpty-great" grandparents.

This dilemma arose fairly early in my ancestral research. On both my parents' sides of the family, I already knew my ancestors back to my own great-grandparents, so I knew their names and what to call them. As I worked my way backward on the Pellman side, I could get no further than my great-great-grandfather, William Henry Pellman, so again no problem. Thanks to the excellent genealogical work of my late cousin, Al Hadad, I had also compiled the list of Schimmels, Meiers, and Trums back to my great-great-grandparents in each line. The issue arose when I started tracing the Jenner side of the family and got beyond Moses Johnson Jenner, my great-great-great-grandfather. Saying or typing three "greats" wasn't all that problematic, but when trying to describe my Revolutionary War patriot ancestor, Stephen Jenner, I started getting tongue-tied. Stephen was my great-great-great-great-great-grandfather -- that's five "greats" -- and I tended to lose track of where I was, both typing and saying it.

When my daughter and I were preparing for our visit to his burial site, I remember how silly I felt saying, "We're going to try to find the grave of my great-great-great-great-great-grandfather who fought in the American Revolution," as I counted on my fingers. And it got downright ridiculous when I said we were also going to Woodbury "to find the grave of my great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather, Samuel Jenner I." Typing it just now I accidentally put in one too many "greats" and had to go back and delete it! First I tried abbreviating it to "gr-gr-gr-gr-gr-gr-great-grandfather," but that just sounded even siller -- as if I'd suddenly developed a severe stammer. Then I tried "my seven-times-great grandfather," but someone actually asked me, "What makes him seven times as great as your other grandfather?" So, I finally settled on "umpty-great" because more people seemed to understand what I meant, and I don't think they really cared whether he had five, six, or seven "greats" in front of "grandfather". They really only needed to understand it was a direct ancestor several generations before me.

Things reached a surreal level of ridiculousness when I learned that I was descended from Charlemagne and tried to figure out a meaningful way to explain that there should be 38 "greats" in front of grandfather! A single exclamation point seems inadequate to describe how ludicrous that seemed to me, so I actually considered following my previous sentence with 38 exclamation points for appropriate emaphasis. One thing I knew for certain: I wasn't about to say or write "great" 38 times in front of grandfather. No way!

The Internet hasn't been a great deal of help in resolving this problem so far. On various genealogy websites -- and I have visited hundreds of them -- I have encountered numerous forms of short-hand notation for umpty-great grandparents, including (for Charlemagne):
  • "38-times-great-grandfather"

  • "38x-great-grandfather"

  • "38-great-grandfather"

  • "38-g grandfather"

  • "38th generation great-grandfather"

  • "38th great-grandfather"

  • and the extremely succinct "38ggf"
None of these seems entirely satisfactory. Each has pros and cons. 38ggf, for example, is compact and suitable for a short-hand notation while doing research, but seems a disrespectfully brief description to give a man of Charlemagne's importance. 38th great-grandfather is okay, but seems grammatically confusing, as if Charlemagne #38 out of what should be no more than four great-grandfathers. 38th generation great-grandfather is probably the most descriptive of the alternatives, but again seems technically incorrect, since Charlemagne is actually in the 39th generation prior to me. 38-g grandfather only saves four letters, so I would prefer to just type 38-great-grandfather and leave no doubt what that g stands for (I wouldn't want anyone thinking he only weighed 38 grams!). 38x-great-grandfather sounds vaguely like poor Charlemagne might be my ex-38th-great-grandfather -- as if I would kick him out of the family! And, while 38-times-great-grandfather seems to me the most technically correct shorthand, it still leaves the possibility that some of my non-genealogy-buff friends and family would get the impression that Charlemagne had been my great-grandfather 38 times. Would they wonder if he was ever going to try for 39?

So I'm hoping that some sagacious member of the genealogical community can give me some suggestions on satisfactorily resolving this nomenclature issue. If you have any suggestions, please leave them as comments to this blog posting.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

A Genuine Card-Carrying Genealogist!

Two years ago I could not spell genealogist. Now I are one!

But it's not really my fault. You see, I never set out to be a genealogist. From my earliest interest to the present moment, genealogy has never been more than a pastime -- a fascinating hobby. It's not my life's work, by any means ... although it has done a lot of work in my life!

Researching my ancestry has changed me in some very fundamental ways these past two years. It has reshaped my thinking about the history of our nation and our world as I have come to see and understand history as a family matter, rather than just a bunch of meaningless names, places, and dates in a history book. It has caused me to re-evaluate my role in society as my understanding of my family's role in shaping society has become clearer to me. And it has redefined my concept of family and familial relationships.

I still don't really consider myself a genealogist. Its my avocation; not my vocation. I still picture myself as a rank amateur, lacking the tools and experience I think a real genealogist should have. But the state of Connecticutt doesn't see me that way. They consider me a licensed, card-carrying genealogist! Here's how it happened:

This past June, my daughter and I set out for New England on our second genealogical road-trip together. It's pretty much like a road-trip straight out of Animal House. We just throw a bunch of random clothes into suitcases, toss them in the back of my car, figure out which way we are heading, and take off down the road with very little idea of where we are going or what we will do when we get there. Having few preconceived expectations pretty much ensures that we won't be disappointed with the results!

All we really depart with is a list of ancestors we want to research further and the names of the towns in which we know they either were born, lived, or died. Then we simply go to those towns and see what we can find out about them. Now, honestly, does that sound professional to you? Me neither! But the results have been two of the most enjoyable and relaxing vacations I've ever taken, some wonderful experiences shared with my daughter, and some spectacularly meaningful discoveries about our family tree.

So, on the second day of our trip we arrived in Woodbury, Connecticut. Woodbury is the final resting place of Samuel Jenner I, who was our immigrant ancestor on my paternal grandmother's side of the family and the person whose mysteries sparked much of my interest in genealogy (see A Tale of Two Samuels). I had alrady read the passages in William Cothren's History of Ancient Woodbury about the Jenner family, so we knew that Samuel Jenner I had acquired land in Woodbury in 1682, married Hannah Hinman in 1684, that the couple had all their children in Woodbury -- beginning with Sarah Jenner in 1685 -- and that Samuel had died in Woodbury in 1738. Or was approach was simple and direct: wander around, visit as many landmarks and resources as possible, and ask endless questions of anyone who would listen. So we visited the library, town hall, historical society, graveyards, historical landmarks, and tried to drive up and down every street in the area. We spoke with librarians, town officials, historical society members, and practically everyone we met. And we were given practically unlimited access to any information we wanted.

When we finished at Woodbury, we next went to Newtown, Connecticutt. Again, we spent hours in the vault at the town clerk's office, in the genealogy section of the library, and pestered everyone who didn't run away from us. But when we got to Milford, Connecticutt it was a very different story!

The town clerk at Milford insisted that I had to be a genuine, authentic, bona fide, card-carrying professional genealogist in order to view the records of my own ancestors or anyone else. She claimed it was state law. When I asked what I had to do to become a licensed genealogist, she told me that all I had to do was join any genealogical society that issued membership cards to its members.

An hour-and-a-half later I was standing in the offices of the Connecticut Society of Genealogists. And what I expected to be a total waste of a half day of our trip turned out to be one of its highlights. The people at the CSG couldn't have been more helpful to us. My membership fee was the best $35.00 I spent on the entire trip! We walked out with more information on our ancestors in one afternoon than I had gathered in months of web-surfing. And most importantly, I walked out with that magical blue card pictured at the top of this post.

I am now -- at least in the eyes of the town clerk of Milford, if not the entire state of Connecticut -- a genuine, authentic, bona fide, fully-licensed, certified, qualified, and ordained professional genealogist!

Ironically, I don't feel the least bit more qualified now that I have that card in my wallet than I did before I received it. But I must be, because the town clerk in Milford gave me the "keys to the kingdom" -- full, unsupervised access to the records vault at Town Hall. I didn't have to pass any test. I wasn't fingerprinted. I didn't even have to show my birth certificate or driver's license to prove that I am really me. All I had to do was plunk down my $35.00. Now, of course, I know exactly what transpired. If I did abscond with the identities of half the residents of Milford and defraud them, the town clerk can glibly claim to have done "due diligence" in requiring me to show my card and point the gnarled finger of blame at the CSG for not having properly vetted me. It's bureaucratic responsibility-shirking, pure and simple! On the other hand, there are only two kinds of people who would make a 3-hour round trip to Hartford and pay a $35.00 fee to obtain a genealogist's identification card: a true genealogist or a crook.

Good thing for the town of Milford that I'm not both!

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The Fountain of Youth

[Vivian Grace (Jenner) Pellman (1887-1973)]

Every so often my genealogical research makes me stop and think. As my family tree began to sprout more branches, I noticed a pattern emerging that gave me one such pause: a lot of my ancestors lived much longer than I would have expected. With all the recent debate and uproar over health care and health care reform, it has made me re-examine not just my thinking, but my lifestyle.

To fully understand how significant this was to me, you have to know that about six years ago I was diagnosed as a Type 2 diabetic. My doctor also informed me that I had numerous risk factors for coronary artery disease and pretty much led me to believe that I might keel over at any moment from a heart attack or stroke -- especially if I didn't choke down about a dozen pills a day and dramatically alter my eating and exercise habits. It was after I had been on this regimen about three years -- off and on, at least -- that I began to notice the longevity of my ancestors.

As I traced the various branches of my family and dutifully recorded their birth and death dates, I saw that my father, John A. Pellman (1920-2001) had lived over 81 years, my grandfather, John Guss Pellman (1891-1970) had lived 79 years, George Frederick Pellman (1868-1943) 75 years, William Henry Pellman (1827-1901) 73 years. And these weren't people who had lived lives of luxury and pampering. My father suffered from tuberculosis as a child, and endured the Great Depression and the Second World War. My grandfather had grown up in a frontier town, served in World War I, and suffered through the Great Depression. His father had been the son of a sharecropper and a frontier lawman. And his father was a tenant farmer who had fought three years of civil warfare in Prussia, another three years in the Civil War (see The Ravages of War), and entered the Oklahoma Land Rush at the age of 68.

At first I was tempted to conclude that the Pellmans were simply hardy stock ... until I noticed that the same was true of the Jenner side of my family. My grandmother, Vivian Grace Jenner (1887-1973), who is pictured above, had lived 86 years. Her father, Almond Lewis Jenner (1863-1946) 83 years. His father, Moses German Jenner (1833-1907) 74 years. And so on, back to Samuel Jenner I (c. 1650-1738) who lived at least 85 years during colonial times!

This just didn't make sense. I had always been told that average life expectancy prior to the 20th century was about 40 years, yet most of my ancestors had lived nearly double that. And the same was true of every other branch of my family. With rare exception, the men were living 75 or more years -- even in the 16th century and earlier. But, I soon noticed the same was not true of the women in my family. True, many lived well into their 70s and 80s, like Hannah Hinman (1666-1743), Hannah Parmelee (1706-1780), and Mercy Lewis (1679-1761). But many others died quite young, like Gabriella Phelps (1870-1927), Elizabeth Wallis (1652-1689), Louisa Wise (1834-1864), and Diantha Cady (1810-1837).

Gradually, the pattern began to reveal itself. The women who survived past the age of 40 tended to live well into their 70s or beyond. There were only a handful who died in their 50s or 60s. It was either young or old, and very little in between.

As I related in Tears in the Graveyard, we have discovered that about one-third of the children born to our pre-20th century ancestors did not survive to reach adulthood. Many died within days of their birth, many others from typhoid or influenza, and a few from drowning or fatal injuries. The males who reached adulthood either lived long, full lives or they were killed in battle or by other injuries. Very few of the men succumbed to disease as adults. The women were less fortunate. Quite a few died of complications from childbirth before the age of 40. Another signifcant cause of death was disease -- expecially typhoid and influenza. But those who reached 40 usually lived at least another 30 years.

So, yes, the average lifespan was indeed about 40 years. But, like so many statistics, the average doesn't reveal the truth. The truth is that the people who survived the dangers of childhood and the women who survived the rigors of childbirth and child-rearing lived just as long -- if not longer -- than people live today. And they did it without regular health care, annual check-ups, health insurance, HMOs, PPOs, and MediCare!

What was their secret? What was their "fountain of youth"? Simple: constant activity and good food.

Instead of sitting behind a desk for eight hours, then spending a half-hour in the gym, they worked steadily all day long. Sure, they did hard work, too. But they didn't spend the entire day felling timber and digging up stumps. Most of their work was planting, tilling, weeding, grinding -- moderate work that kept them active the entire day.

And they didn't eat low-fat yogurt, Omega-3 fatty acids, and endive salads with basalmic vinegar dressing. They ate meat, potatoes, bread, and fruits or vegetables when they were in season. Meat could be salted, smoked, or cured; potatoes, turnips, and carrots would keep in the root cellar; and grains could be stored in bins and cannisters, so they could be eaten year-round. But fruits and vegetables were mostly seasonal additions to their diets. They did not follow the "food pyramid". They didn't have vitamins and supplements. And they cooked with plenty of butter, salt, and lard! They broke almost every dietary rule we are told will keep us healthy today. But what they also didn't have were steroids, colorings, flavorings, and chemical additives in their food. It was natural, whole food -- nothing more. Salt, brine, and wood smoke were their primary preservatives; not chemicals.

All of the wonders of science and medicine have not added one day to our lifespan! People are not living longer than they did 200 years ago; just more of them are living as long. That's an important distinction to understand as we look at the issues of health care and retirement in the 21st century world. And the enormous costs of medical care we are burdened with are chiefly the result of excessive leisure in our lives. Our grandparents were right when they told us, "A little hard work never hurt anyone."

As we examine the issues surrounding health care, instead of asking how we can reduce the cost of the healthcare our unhealthy lives require, we should be asking ourselves how much we are willing to pay in added health care costs for our unhealthy lifestyles. That's the message my ancestors sent me this week.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

A Noble Endeavor

As I've mentioned in several previous posts, I had long believed that I was a descendent of Dr. Edward Jenner, the discoverer of smallpox vaccination. I also knew that I was a descendent of a frontier lawman (George Frederick Pellman) and a respected British judge (William Willis, QC), as well as the famous (well, notorious) border reivers of clan Kerr. As a youngster, it was a source of great pride that I was descended from someone famous, and I'm sure I bragged endlessly about my family heritage. When I read Ivanhoe and the tales of King Arthur, I imagined that somewhere in the distant past there had been a Sir Percival Willis (or something of that sort), who had been a gallant medieval knight, rescuing damsels in distress and slaying dragons, who had been one of my ancestors.

As I reached my teenage years that childish pride gave way to something a little more noble -- a sense of purpose and duty stemming from a family legacy of people who, if not really famous, had accomplished things of genuine importance in their lives. I remember approaching adulthood with a strong sense of obligation, if not outright destiny, to accomplish great things. I've certainly fallen well short of those expectations, but my genealogical research has proven to be much more than just another in a long list of life's disappointments and failures.

A few months into my research, I discovered that through the Jenner side of my family (my paternal grandmother's side) I was related to Alec Baldwin and the other Baldwin brothers. In making that discovery, I had traced the Baldwin line back to Richard Baldwin I (1503 - 1552) and Ellen Pooke (1507 - 1565), who were my first common ancestors with the famous acting family. Richard Baldwin's mother was Agnes Dormer, daughter of Lord Geoffrey Dormer, Baron of Wing, whose arms are shown above.

50 years after first imagining that I might be descended from an English knight or noble came the discovery that I actually am! The surprise, however, was that it was not on my English mother's side of the family, as I had so long suspected, but on my very American father's side!

This led to a whole series of discoveries in quick succession. The first of these discoveries is the one that made the rest of the process so quick: every family of European nobility is related to practically every other family of European nobility -- and those relationships are extremely well documented. With hindsight the reason for this seems obvious: the rich and powerful families of Europe used marriages to form alliances and accumulate greater wealth. Since noble birth was the key to a noble marriage, meticulous records have been kept for centuries of most noble births and marriages. Because of this, it has actually been quicker and easier to trace more than a 1,000 years of my noble European ancestry than it was to trace the first 200 years of my American ancestry. Most of it is listed in Wikipedia!

It had taken me well over a year to trace the Jenners back to the 17th century, then the Baldwins back to the early 16th century. In the process, I had accumulated about 150 people in my family tree, but the majority of branches -- dozens of them -- had reached dead-ends around the year 1800. Within just a couple more weeks after discovering my lineage to Geoffery Dormer (my 14th-great-grandfather), my tree had grown to over 1,000 individuals and I had traced one line back more than 1,500 years!

As of today, my known family tree includes nearly 3,500 people, the majority of whom are European nobility -- barons and baronesses, margraves and margravines, counts, countesses, and earls, dukes and duchesses, kings and queens, and even several emperors! They range across most of medieval Europe, from the British Isles to Scandinavia, to continental Europe, and northern Africa. They include some of the most famous names in world history, like Charlemagne and William the Conqueror. They also include people of amazing character and accomplishment, like Eleanor of Aquitaine and Sir William Marshal, 1st Earl of Pembroke, as well as a full compliment of cowards, fiends, and monumental failures. Their lives unfold the entire pageant of medieval history: conquests, plunder, assassinations, truces, alliances, crusades, defeat, and bloody revenge.

Just as American history came alive for me when it became the story of my family, so has European and Middle Eastern history now become personal and vital when viewed for what it really is: centuries of family squabbles. And not just any family, but my family!

In future posts, I will share with you some of the more interesting members of this amazing family.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

What IS a Family? (Part 2)

In my blog, What IS a Family? (Part 1), I wrote about several of my Jenner ancestors who had been raised by step-parents, including Samuel Jenner I (7x-great-grandfather), Moses German Jenner (2x-great-grandfather), and Almond Lewis Jenner (great-grandfather). In each case, one of their parents had died while they were in infancy and they had been raised by a step-parent. In each case, these children had never truly known -- and probably had no memory of -- their deceased biological parent. So the step-parent had been the only father or mother they had known. The inescapable conclusion is that a family is not merely biological, but consists of those people who love and care for each other and invest themselves in nurturing each other.

This lesson was brought home in a remarkable and powerful way just a few days after I posted my Part 1 blog. On Saturday, August 2nd, I was blessed to attend a birthday party for my "sister", Lisa. If you look carefully at her photo, paying close attention to the details, you may notice that there is not a strong family resemblence. This is because we are not biologically brother and sister.

I have known Lisa since around 1965, along with her brothers, Terry and Kevin, and her sisters, Claudia and Shari. I have no biological siblings, so the five of them became the brothers and sisters for which I was desperately longing. They filled a huge void in my life. They provided me with all the joys and heartaches, all the squabbles, the sibling rivalries, the playmates -- everything that was missing in my life as an only child. Lisa's parents, George and Betty, truly adopted me in every way except filing the legal papers. I can't count the number of hours I spent and the meals I ate in their home. For about ten years, I spent more time at their home than with my biological parents! Lisa could not be any more my sister if we had been born of the same parents.

And this fact was driven home at her birthday party last Saturday. At one point, the festivities were quieted and her Mom stepped up to the microphone and said a few words of praise and love for her daughter. Then she invited others to do the same. One after another, about a dozen people came forward and each had a similar tale to tell -- of how Lisa had become a surrogate mother, daughter, or big sister to them, how she had "adopted" each of them and showered them with love and care, even in the midst of her own struggles as a single mother and cancer survivor. What emerged was an amazing portrait of a strong, independent woman of character with a tender heart who became family to almost everyone with whom she has come in contact.

There is no official place in which to put Lisa and her family on my family tree. They don't meet the qualifications for a place in my genealogy. Nevertheless, they are as much family as anyone else in my family tree and one of these days I'm going to figure out how to give them their rightful place in my genealogical records. Until then ...

Happy Birthday, Lisa!

Saturday, August 1, 2009

A True Heroine

July 30th was my Mom’s 90th birthday. You may be surprised to learn that she is part of my family tree, too. She had a lot to do with my interest in genealogy – just not so much with my early research. Until I started researching my family history I thought I knew a lot about her side of the family. While I was growing up, she regaled me with stories of her English and Scottish forebears. We had photos and other memorabilia throughout the house of her parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles, as well as many of the places they had lived and traveled. She took me to the British Isles twice during my childhood to make sure I had met my English and Scottish relatives and visited the homelands of my British ancestors. I still have many of the souvenirs I collected on those journeys: Kerr tartan ties, a Scottish tam, English coins, and vibrant memories.

She was born Violet Joyce Willis in Chepstow, Monmouthshire. Monmouthshire is a sort of no man’s land. Sometimes it’s listed as a county in Wales; other times as a county in England. From what I can gather of its history, it has gone back and forth between England and Wales several times over the centuries, as various medieval kingdoms expanded and contracted by conquest. She was the first of two children of Leonard John Willis, my namesake, and Winnifred Violet Kerr, so culturally she is half English, half Scottish, and a naturalized American.

Her earliest memories are not of Chepstow, but of the six-acre farm the family purchased in Laindon, Essex, when she was still quite young. She grew up with few of the amenities we now take for granted. No running water, electricity, or indoor plumbing. Even as a child of 7 or 8, her mornings began shortly after sunrise with chores: feeding chickens, collecting eggs, pumping a bucket of water, and the like. Of course ,there was school and plenty of fun, but she grew up understanding the value and necessity of hard work and priorities. But the farm failed, so the family moved to Sydenham in the late 1920s.

As Britain entered the Great Depression, work was hard to come by, but eventually her father found employment with the Craven A Tobacco Company as a groundskeeper at its employee recreation facilities in Edgware, Middlesex. There, Mum made several lifelong friends and life was happy and stable for awhile … until Hitler began his conquest of Europe in the late 1930s. Once again, her father lost his job, and they moved back to Sydenham. Mum, in her late teens, went to work as a secretary for the London, Midland, and Scottish Railway, then Britain’s largest railway company, commuting daily from Sydenham to the company’s headquarters in Euston.
When the Second World War broke out in late 1939, Mum went to work for the United Glass Bottle Company in London, making “Molotov cocktails” for the war effort. The family could not afford a bomb shelter, so her brother, Ray, dug a 6-by-6-by-6 foot pit in their backyard and covered it with corrugated tin roofing and about two feet of dirt. The family all survived the London Blitz of 1940-41, in which more than 45,000 London civilians were killed and over a million homes destroyed, but a house whose rear garden bordered theirs was demolished by a direct hit from a bomb that killed the entire family. Mum realized that dropped from about 10,000 feet, a mere gust of wind had meant the difference between that bomb striking her neighbors’ house or her own!

Her father died of prostate cancer in July, 1942, which made her eligible for conscription – the British term for being drafted. So, on advice of her employers Mum applied for a secretarial position at the American Embassy. She was hired, but assigned to the Ordnance Division, Transportation Corps of the U.S. Army. Initially, she was assigned to Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, where she met my father. Shortly after D-Day, however, she was read the Articles of War, put in uniform, and shipped off to France to coordinate the movement of ammunition into the European Theatre of Operations (ETO). When she arrived in Paris, German snipers were still active, so the windows were all blacked out in the building in which she worked. She had been working in Paris for several days before the city was officially “liberated” by the triumphant arrival of Generals Montgomery and Patton – and she still has the photographs to prove she was there first.

Of her contribution to the war effort, she has this to say: “Patton ran out of gasoline, but he never ran out of bullets, because that was my job!”

After the German surrender, her offices were relocated to Frankfurt, Germany. Dad returned to the United States and, after a period of pining for her, wrote her a letter proposing marriage. She accepted, and left for America with only £100 and what she could carry in a suitcase. She arrived in New York, cleared Customs and Immigration just in time to catch the last train out of Grand Central Station before the railroads went on strike. When she reached Chicago, she was put off the train by the strike. Traveler’s Aid eventually helped her reach Ogden, Utah, and from there she found her own way to Los Angeles, where she was met by her future husband.

After serving in uniform in a combat zone for nearly two years and making her own way across the North American continent, in a classic example of British understatement she describes herself as “a bit more adventuresome than my mother.” Really?

She was married to my father for 55 years, from 1946 until his passing in 2001. She worked as a secretary for the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company for many years, then helped my father and his business partner run the Miles Motel in La Mesa, California until they sold it in 1957. After that, she was the classic stay-at-home mom of the 1950s and early 1960s, and life really was like Leave It to Beaver and Father Knows Best for us. She was active in Sigma Alpha, a career-women’s sorority that supports disabled children, serving in a variety of local, regional, and national offices for decades. She was also an avid bridge player and golfer all the while she was raising me and serving as den mother to my Scout troop, Little League mom, PTA member, church board member, and all the rest.

She made sure I met people who were different from me, like the kids at the Cerebral Palsy Association, where she frequently volunteered. When I started making friends from different cultural and ethnic groups, she did everything she could to encourage me to experience life from their perspectives and not just my own. As a mother I can’t think of anything she could have done to make my childhood more enjoyable, enriching, or rewarding.

After I went out on my own, she remained active in her sorority and church, playing golf and bridge, and supporting my Dad. My father suffered a debilitating stroke in 1983, and for the next 18 years she served as his care-giver without let-up or complaint. She was once asked why she didn’t institutionalize him so she could get on with her own life, and her reply was direct and a perfect reflection of her character: “When I stood at the altar and said, ‘For better or for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, until death do us part,’ I meant it.”

She’s still active and alert. Although she’s had a few of the health issues that come naturally at her age, she hasn’t let them stop her. She has a computer and stays in touch by email – although she can still use a real typewriter; not just a keyboard. She remains to this day one of the most remarkable people I’ve ever met.

We threw her a surprise party today at her favorite restaurant, the Olive Garden, where she is a regular and an obvious favorite with the staff. About 40 of her closest friends and family came to remind her how much she is loved and appreciated by everyone who knows her. She was showered with affection, cards, and gifts, but the highlight for me was a letter sent from Buckingham Palace by one of Queen Elizabeth’s ladies-in-waiting, which read in part:
The Queen was, however, most interested to hear of your mother’s service during the Second World War, and of the way in which her family has served the United Kingdom for generations. Her Majesty was … [also] pleased to hear about her special birthday. The Queen hopes that Mrs. Pellman will have a very happy day on 30th July.”

So let me add, Happy Birthday, Mom!

Monday, July 27, 2009

What IS a Family? (Part 1)

In tracing the Jenner side of my family back to its immigrant ancestor, I discovered that young Samuel Jenner I arrived in America as an infant around 1650 in the company of his mother, Hannah (Barrett) Jenner. His father, Richard Jenner, had died around the time of his birth. The widow Jenner left her two oldest children in England and ventured off to the New World to live in the care of her brother, Samuel Barrett. While it may seem inconceivable in our time that a women would leave two of her own children behind and cross the Atlantic Ocean to stay with her brother, it must be understood in its historical context.

The newborn Samuel Jenner was probably still nursing at the time Hannah was widowed. She was a Puritan and being persecuted for her faith. She and her children were in constant danger in England. Her brother, Samuel Barrett, on the other hand, appears to have been well established in the New World, where she would be accepted and nurtured along with her newborn son.

Not long after arriving in America, Hannah met and married a John Coe. She had two more children by John: Andrew Coe in 1654, and Hannah Coe in 1655 or 1656. At first, I filed this remarriage away as an interesting factoid. After all, this John Coe and his descendents were not ancestors of mine, so they were merely a footnote at the time I learned about them. It was only later, as I began to prepare and view Hannah's and Samuel's lives in narrative form, that it occurred to me that they were still family.

Although not his biological father, it was clearly John Coe who actually helped raise young Samuel Jenner. It would have been John and Hannah who instilled in Samuel the strength of character that propelled him to be one of the founders of ancient Woodbury township, where he is buried. It would have been John who taught him how to work, and the skills he would need to build a life for his family in the American frontier. It would have been John who served as his model for what a father should be -- and apparently it was a good model, since Samuel sired eight children, six of whom lived long and productive lives, while two died in infancy.

I now doubt that it was merely coincidence that I learned of both Samuel's biological and adoptive parents through personal contact with Carl Robert Coe. Carl was extremely generous with his time and information about the Jenner and Coe families, and even though I'm not actually a descendent of the Coes he has invited me to take part in Coe family reunions and other events. In short, he has treated me like family!

Subsequent research has led me to two more step-parents in the Jenner line. My grandmother's Jenner family Bible lists only Diantha (Carly/Cady) Jenner as the mother of Moses German Jenner and his sister Diantha. But she died in 1837, no more than two years after giving birth to the daughter who received her name. The widower, Moses Johnson Jenner, remarried 11 months later, so it was his second wife, Irena (Osborne) Jenner, who raised little Moses and Diantha. Similarly, Moses German Jenner's first three children, including my great-grandfather, Almond Lewis Jenner, lost their mother less than a year after Almond's birth. So they were raised by their step-mother, Mary (Epp/Upp) Jenner.

As if to underscore the important of step-parents in a family, it was probably Mary -- the step-mother -- who recorded most of the information in my grandmother's Bible. It is not my grandmother's writing, and it couldn't have been written by anyone who predeceased Mary. The handwriting seems too feminine to have been Moses Jenner's, which leaves Mary as the most likely. So most of what I know of my Jenner ancestors was probably passed down to me by the kindness of a woman who was not a biological ancestor.

Care, concern, and love are the building blocks of a true family; not merely biology. One of the many lessons our Jenner ancestors have passed down to our current generation is that our family consists of the people who love and nurture us; not just those who gave birth to us.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Famous Cousin - Alec Baldwin

Yes, Alec Baldwin -- the Alec Baldwin -- is my cousin. I don't think he realizes it, though, because he never calls or invites me over for dinner. Of course, Daniel Baldwin, William Baldwin, and Stephen Baldwin are also my cousins. 11th cousins once removed, to be specific. I know, that's not exactly a close family tie. But it was, in its own way, one of the early landmark discoveries in my genealogical journey.

Alec was the first famous person to whom I found out I'm related. Sure, I understand that we're all part of the greater human family and we're all descendents of Adam and Eve, so anyone reading this is a cousin of one sort or another. But Alec was the first celebrity whose relationship I could actually trace genealogically. We are 11th cousins once removed because the most recent common ancestors we share were Richard Baldwin I (1503 - 1552) and Ellen Pooke (1507 - 1565). Richard and Ellen were my 12th great-grandparents and the Baldwin brothers' 11th great-grandparents, hence the "once removed" in our relationship. I guess that qualifies as a little more than six degrees of separation, but I still found it be be an intriguing discovery.

As I wrote in one of my earliest postings, I had long been told that I was descended from Dr. Edward Jenner, the discoverer of smallpox vaccine. As a child, the idea of being descended from someone really famous seemed especially cool to me. Well before I discovered the Baldwin connection, I had disproven the link to Dr. Edward Jenner. Dr. Jenner lived from 1749 to 1823 in Gloucestershire, England. I had discovered conclusive evidence that our branch of the Jenner family had arrived in America before 1700, so we couldn't possibly be his descendents, and at first that had been a bit of a letdown.

So perhaps it was a form of recompense that it is through the Jenner line that we have a common ancestor with the famous Baldwin brothers. Here's the line: me >> John A. Pellman >> Vivian Grace (Jenner) Pellman >> Almond Lewis Jenner >> Moses German Jenner >> Moses Johnson Jenner >> Timothy Jenner >> Stephen Jenner >> Hannah (Parmelee) Jenner >> Elizabeth (Baldwin) Parmelee >> Nathaniel Baldwin II >> Nathaniel Baldwin I >> Richard Baldwin III >> Richard Baldwin II >> Richard Baldwin I. 14 generations spanning a period of 350 years!

The discovery affected me in several ways. First, it personalized the fact that each of us is related -- and more closely than we might imagine -- to the people around us. For all I know, my next-door neighbor might be a cousin, too! Secondly, it aroused my curiosity about other surnames in my family tree and the possibility of relationships to other famous people -- Phelps (Michael?), Harding (Warren?), Burr (Raymond? Aaron?), etc. And finally, having traced one branch of our family tree back to 1503, I began to appreciate the fact that my ancestors had not merely witnessed history; they had helped shape history!

As I discovered a few months later, the Baldwin brothers were only the beginning. And, as famous as they are today, I would soon learn that I was descended from people of even greater fame and importance in the pageant of human history!

Friday, July 24, 2009

Tears in the Graveyard

My first experience visiting a cemetery for genealogical research came in October, 2008 when my daughter and I traveled to Harmony, New York in search of information about Timothy Jenner, Ruth Hurlbut, Moses Johnson Jenner (son of Timothy and Ruth), and Moses German Jenner (son of Moses J.). We were specifically trying to find ironclad documentation of Moses German Jenner's birth, since all we had at the time were notations in my grandmother's Jenner family Bible.

We were supposed to meet a representative of the Harmony Historical Society at their offices that morning. They were preparing for the annual Harvest Festival in North Harmony and we were told they would be outside getting set up. We arrived about 11:00 AM only to find no one there. It was drizzling at the time and we later learned that they had headed to a nearby coffee shop for shelter and an early lunch, hoping the weather would improve while they were eating. Since it wasn't the nicest weather, my daughter and I decided to drive around the area and get the lay of the land, rather than stand around getting wet.

So we headed south on Open Meadows Road. We had gone no more than a mile or two when we saw a sign identifying the Blockville Union Burying Ground. The sign said it had been established in 1828, so we pulled in on a hunch that we might find some of our ancestors buried there. I pulled our car to what appeared to be the center of the cemetery. My daughter was in the passenger seat so I told her, "You take that [the right] side and I'll take this [the left] side. Yell if you find anything." We opened our doors and stepped out.

"Here they are!" my daughter immediately announced, "You parked right next to them."

I was still gathering up my camera and notepad and bumped my head on the door-frame when I looked up to see where she was pointing. There they were: a half-dozen aged headstones all in a row. My daughter was pointing to one in particular. "Here's Timothy." She moved to the next headstone as I was walking around the car to join her. "And here's Ruth," she announced with growing excitement. She moved to the next headstone while I was still walking toward her. "And here's Alcena." Just as I reached her side, she made a little whimpering sound I will never forget. "Oh my God, Daddy," she said in a quavering voice, "She was only nine years old." Tears were welling up in her eyes. "Daddy that's awful," she said, snuffling back her tears and wiping them from her cheeks.

That was the moment genealogy suddenly became intensely personal for me. As I write this I am fighting back my own tears, as happens every time I recall that moment. The hurt on my daughter's face and in her voice is more than I can bear, even in memory. Michaela has always been sensitive to the suffering of others -- especially children -- and little Alcena Jenner was no exception. We have talked at length about that moment, and it was also the moment that genealogy became personal for her.

It is no longer simply tracking down and recording names, dates, places, and events in a notebook or software application. It is the process of discovering and understanding the lives of those who traveled before us and brought us to this point in time. Through it, we glimpse their hearts and minds, their dreams and ambitions, their hardships and sufferings, and come to appreciate them as members of our own family -- now gone, but not forgotten, and no longer taken for granted.

Like most others of their generation, Timothy and Ruth (Hurlbut) Jenner, ventured out into a vast and dangerous land in search of a dream. It wasn't a dream of conquest and wealth; merely a dream to build a life that was just a little better for themselves and their children than it had been for their parents. They chased that dream by risking their lives for a tract of land just large enough to sustain them, working from dawn to dusk under constant exposure to possible attack by beasts, outlaws, or hostile tribes, while enduring the hardships of a harsh and unforgiving environment. And along the way, they would bury several of their own children before they reached adulthood. Michaela, then 13, began to truly understand their struggles that day.

That was the day that, for both of us, "frontiers people" and "pioneers" ceased being anonymous images in history books and movies and became ancestors we are proud of and grateful for.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

It's CARE Not CUR!

Kerr Clan Badge
Kerr Tartan

As far as I’m concerned, anyone who pronounces Kerr as “cur” is hurling me an insult and just begging for a beat-down! My maternal grandmother was Winnifred Violet Kerr, and as any Scot will tell you, it’s pronounced “CARE” with a considerable trilling of the r. If you pronounce it “car” then I know you’re English, nae a Scot!

The Kerrs originated as one of the border clans. The name most likely originates from the Nordic kjerr which means marsh-dweller, or possibly Scots Gaelic caerr (left-handed). A 1972 study by the British Journal of Medicine found that 30% of Kerrs are left-handed. Ferniehirst Castle and several other Kerr dwellings were built specifically to accommodate left-handed people. The most notable feature at Ferniehirst is that its spiral staircases wind in the opposite direction of most to give an advantage to left-handed defenders. Is it merely coincidence, then, that I was born with a preference for my left hand? My grandfather converted me to right-handedness when I was four or five so I could use his hand-me-down golf clubs. As a result, I am nearly ambidextrous.

Clan Kerr as it’s now known originated with two brothers, Ralph and John Ker, who settled in Jedburgh around 1330 AD. They and their descendents quickly rose to prominence by seizing and controlling, through sheer strength and cunning, two strategically located castles on the English border – Jedburgh and Roxburgh -- and defending them ferociously against any incursion from the south. They also developed a predilection for slipping across the border regularly supplement their diet with some prime English beef or to add a few English horses to their stock, for which they become known (infamous might be the better word) as “border reivers.” By the close of the 14th century Clan Kerr were important vassals of the Scottish Crown. Their loyalty and service was rewarded with the barony of Old Roxburgh, the barony of Cessford, and the barony of Oxnam in rapid succession.

Of the tenacious and warlike nature of Clan Kerr, the Scottish poet, Walter Laidlaw wrote in The Reprisal:

“So well the Kerrs their left hands ply
The dead and dying around them lie
The castle gained, the battle won
The revenge and slaughter now begun”

After the English destroyed Jedburgh Castle, the Kerrs constructed Ferniehirst Castle in 1470, which they have occupied almost continuously to the present time. Ferniehirst is now the official seat of Lord Michael (Ancram) Kerr, 13th Marquess of Lothian.

The Kerrs became so trusted and depended upon that at the Battle of Flodden Field in 1513, Sir Andrew Kerr stood beside King James IV of Scotland directing his troops. In 1526 Sir Andrew Kerr was killed in battle defending King James V when his royal procession was ambushed on its way to Edinburgh. In 1606, Mark Kerr was created Earl of Lothian and several additional titles were bestowed on the Clan throughout the 17th century, including Lord Jedburgh, Earl of Ancram, and Earl of Roxburgh. In 1707, following their support of the Treaty of Union between England and Scotland, the Earls of Lothian were advanced to the rank of Marquess.

The Kerr clan motto, “Sero Sed Serio” (“Late, but in Earnest”) originated at the Battle of Ancrum Moor, near Jedburgh, in 1545. The clan had been hired as mercenaries by the English in a campaign against the Scots that King Henry VIII was using to force a marriage between the infant Mary Queen of Scots and his son, Edward. The English held the Kerr cavalrymen in reserve, behind their encampment, waiting to deploy them where their battle lines seemed to weaken or when an opportunity to overwhelm the Scots presented itself. At one point in the battle, a small Scottish force attacked the main English line, then retreated in the face of overwhelming numbers. The English forces pursued the fleeing Scots over Palace Hill and down the far side, where the entire remainder of the Scottish army was waiting in ambush. As the English ranks began to break and commanders attempted to rally them, clan Kerr tore off the red crosses that identified them as English allies and attacked from the rear, ensuring the Scottish victory. Thus, they engaged the battle late, but in earnest.

I’ve made two trips to Scotland and met several of my Scottish kinfolk, most of whom have since passed on. I’m extremely proud of my Scottish heritage, and I am determined to discover how my grandmother, Winnifred Violet Kerr, great-grandfather, the Rev. John Kerr, and great-great-grandfather, David Kerr are related to the rest of Clan Kerr. Because records of common births, marriages, and deaths are so difficult to locate, it is proving to be a long and arduous task, but one well worth pursuing.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Granddad and Moonwalking

(15 August 1891 - 30 November 1970)

Apollo 11 Lunar Landing
(20 July 1969)

Today marks the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, and the media are inundating us with images, reflections, and analysis of the historic event. Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldren, Michael Collins, Walter Cronkite, and John F. Kennedy are being celebrated for their roles in this world-changing event -- as they should be. But my most vivid recollections of the Apollo landing will always be of my grandfather, John Guss Pellman.

My parents traveled a lot when I was young, so I spent a lot of time at my grandparents' house at 4204 Ingalls Street in the Mission Hills district of San Diego. If I remember correctly, the house was actually ordered from the Sears & Roebuck catalog and built in 1924. It's been almost 40 years since I was last in that house, but I can vividly recall every detail of it, down to the pictures on the walls, the curtains, the nick-nacks, and even the smells. That's where I was on July 20, 1969 when Apollo 11 touched down -- sitting on my grandparents' brown hide-a-bed sofa watching it all unfold on TV with Walter Cronkite providing the commentary.

It was probably soon after Neil Armstrong uttered his immortal statement, "That's one small step for a man; one giant leap for mankind," that I turned away from the TV and exclaimed, "Isn't that cool, Granddad?"

To this day, I remember the sensation I felt. It was like a mild electric shock that ran down both of my arms. There were tears in my grandfather's eyes. It was the first and only time I had ever seen him cry! And I couldn't understand why he would be crying when the whole world around him was rejoicing.

"What's wrong, Granddad?" I asked.

"Now I've seen it all," he said softly, gazing in awe at the TV. I must have looked puzzled by his remark, because he explained it something like this: "When your Grandma and I were married, most people were still using horse-and-buggies. There was no radio or TV, and airplanes were still experimental. Not many people had telephones, so we heard about most things from newspapers, letters, or over the neighbor's fence. And now -- in my lifetime -- they've sent a man to the moon with a TV camera so I can actually watch it happen. I've seen everything!"

I didn't truly understand the import of his remarks then. It was only after I began studying technology and social change during my PhD program that I began to sense the enormity of the change he had experienced and why it had affected him so deeply that day.

Granddad was born on August 15, 1891 in Farley, Missouri. Farley was nicknamed "Schimmel Town" because the Schimmels were such a large proportion of the town's population, which is still only about 250 people. His parents were George Frederick Pellman and Mary Victoria Schimmel. His childhood home had no running water or indoor plumbing, no electricity or gas, no furnace or air conditioning, no refrigerator -- not even a fan! Other than the house being a little more weather-tight and having a cast-iron stove for cooking, and buggies and wagons having improved seats and suspensions, most technologies used in his everyday life were not that much different that those of the Middle Ages! The major technological advances at the time of his birth -- railroads, steamships, mechanized harvesting equipment, and the telegraph -- were not a part of his daily life.

After spending his first ten years in Farley, the family moved to Kaw City, Oklahoma Territory, where his grandfather had settled after trying to stake a claim during the Cherokee Strip Land Run of 1893. While his father was sheriff of Kay County, young John and his brothers spent much of their time on the Kaw Reservation, playing with the children of the Kansa tribe. He once remarked, "When we played cowboys and Injuns, we had real Injuns. The only problem was the Injuns always won!" Washungah, the last chief of the Kansa Nation, appears to have been like an uncle to Granddad and he always spoke of him with great respect and affection.

When Oklahoma achieved statehood in 1907, the family moved to Leavenworth, Kansas, where Granddad remained until the outbreak of World War I. He spent those years working a variety of trades including barber and blacksmith. As automobiles grew in popularity, Granddad made the transition from blacksmith to automotive mechanic. He returned from serving in the War, married Vivian Grace Jenner in 1919 and moved to San Diego, California shortly after the birth of my father, John A. Pellman, to take a job as service manager for the Paige (a brand that later became part of General Motors) Agency in San Diego. He showed up for work with just a screwdriver and pliers in his hip pocket. "If you can repair cars with just a screwdriver and pair of pliers," the owner remarked, "You must be one heck of a mechanic!"

Paige was acquired by the Graham brothers in 1927, but the company did not survive the Great Depression and Granddad found himself unemployed in the early 1930s. Nevertheless, he continued to hone his skills as a mechanic and adapt to new technologies. When the government began rationing gasoline during the Second World War, his son Robert C. Pellman converted the family car to run on butane, so they could trade their rationing coupons for other essentials. Granddad continued to do the majority of his own mechanical work on increasingly complex automobiles until quite late in his life.

So, he was no stranger to technological change, nor was it something that intimidated him, as we sat there together watching the moon landing 40 years ago. His tears were simply tears of awe, as he reflected upon all that he had witnessed during his life.

I will see nothing of that magnitude in my lifetime unless we invent teleportation, fully functioning androids, or break the light-speed barrier in the next 20 years or so. I've seen computers become smaller and more powerful, airplanes become faster, appliances become more energy-efficient, phones become smaller and portable, and dozens of other adaptations and improvements of technologies that existed when I was born. But there have not been, and probably will not be, the revolutionary and life-altering technological advances that occurred during Granddad's life, which literally spanned the Horse-and-Buggy Era to the Space Age!

Friday, July 17, 2009

Creating Harmony

The town of Harmony is located in Chautauqua County in the southwestern corner of New York state (see red dot on the map at left). It is a tranquil rural community of about 2,000 people with a growing reputation for producing some of the finest maple syrup in the country. The earliest settlers began arriving in 1809, and the town was incorporated in 1816, at which time it was on the western frontier of the newly created United States of America.

I first learned of the town during a Google search for information on my 4x-great-grandfather, Timothy Jenner, son of Revolutionary War veteran, Stephen Jenner. By this time in our research, my daughter and I had decided that she would join the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) when she turned 18 and I would join the Sons of the American Revolution (SAR) now. By doing so, all my daughter would have to prove for her DAR application is her descendency from me, so by gathering all the documentation for my SAR application now, we would be killing two birds with one stone. As a result, the Jenner portion of our genealogical quest had shifted from merely knowing who our ancestors were to proving who they were -- a significantly more difficult task. We were looking for original documents, like birth certificates, marriage licenses, death certificates, or official town records that listed the parents of each of our Jenner ancestors. It only took a couple of days to learn that such records are sparse prior to 1900 and all but non-existent prior to 1850.

By this time, we had backtracked from my grandmother, Vivian Grace Jenner (born 1887 in Pleasonton, KS), to her father, Almond Lewis Jenner (born 1863 in Anderson, IN), to his father, Moses German Jenner (born 1833, location unknown). We had copies of their birth certificates or US Census records establishing their relationships, but we had not yet located any record acceptable to the SAR or DAR of the relationship of Moses G. Jenner to his father, Moses Johnson Jenner, or of Moses J. Jenner to his father, Timothy Jenner. So these were the focus of our research. And it was during this period of our research that we learned the history of American civil record-keeping.

Prior to the Revolutionary War, there was no federal or state government; only colonies and townships. Colonies were continually changing in size, name, and character during the period of colonial expansion from 1620 to 1750. For example, New Haven Colony in Connecticut started several "plantations" at nearby West Haven, East Haven, Guilford, etc. Initially, these plantations were subordinate to, and subject to the charters of, their sponsoring colonies. But, if they were successful and grew, they eventually separated into distinct colonies and were granted their own charters. With colonies being in flux, townships were the most stable level of governance, so the majority of civil record-keeping was handled by town clerks or, more often, by church clerks.

Churches were the center of social, civil, and economic life in the colonies. Most of the town charters that I have read include provisions that membership -- and regular attendance -- in the local church was mandatory for property ownership and citizenship in the town. This only makes sense. Colonial towns were often first settled by fewer than 50 people. Each new town was a dangerous excursion into the wilderness and its inhabitants were utterly dependent upon one another for their survival. It was absolutely essential that the settlers of each town be completely of like mind and harmonious in their relationships or the town would fail and its residents would die. All residents being members of the same church, sharing the same fundamental beliefs and values, was the best way of ensuring the harmony necessary for survival in a harsh and unforgiving environment. So, in addition to being houses of worship and centers of social life in the colonies, the churches also served as the centers of local government prior to the Revolutionary War -- and it was the job of the church clerks to record the births, marriages, deaths, and even deeds and other financial transactions of the towns.

Following the American Revolution and the establishment of state and federal governments, responsibility for civil record-keeping began to shift to agencies and offices of the government. Starting around 1790, when the first federal census was taken, church clerks turned their records over to town or county clerks, who became responsible for their maintenance thereafter. Until around 1850 the process was fairly haphazard, with no consistent methodology for maintaining and indexing previous information and no uniform method of recording new data. Some town clerks were much better than others at cataloging the information that was turned over to them, so many local records are woefully incomplete until late in the 19th century. Such was the case, it appears, with the birth records for Moses Johnson Jenner and Moses German Jenner.

Then, "once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary, over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore, while I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly ..." from my tapping a Google search returned a hit on the History of Chautauqua County, New York, From Its First Settlement to the Present Time With Numerous Biographical and Family Sketches, by Andrew W. Young (1875). It was another Google Book, like the History of Ancient Woodbury, and it contained several paragraphs about Timothy Jenner and Moses Johnson Jenner!

Timothy Jenner and his wife, Ruth Hurlbut (Jenner), together with their son, Moses Johnson Jenner, were among the earliest settlers in Harmony, NY. They arrived in 1815, the year before the town was formally chartered, along with Samuel, Zaccheus, and Nathaniel Hurlbut. The Jenners and Hurlbuts had all come from Pittsford, Vermont (see black dot on the map at the top of this page). They bought lots in 1816 and 1817 and built homes on the south side of the town, not far from the settlement of Blockville. In 1817 Timothy, Ruth, and Moses were among the dozen founders of the Panama Baptist Church. Both Timothy and Moses went on to serve as the clerk of the church, keeping records of the births, marriages, and deaths of its members and the minutes of its earliest meetings. The Jenners and Hurlbuts were prominent throughout the early history of Harmony township, nearby Busti and Blockville, and other parts of Chautauqua County. Descendents of the original Jenner and Hurlbut families are still living in the area, and Michaela and I had the pleasure of meeting some of them when we visited the town (the subject of a future blog entry) in October 2008.

We are still searching for records to confirm that Moses German Jenner is the son of Moses Johnson Jenner. It appears that Moses J. left Chautauqua County in the mid-1820s, probably shortly after his first marriage (4 August 1825). He is not listed there on the 1830 US Census. In 1826, his parents were expelled from Panama Baptist Church for supporting women's suffrage. Perhaps Moses left in protest, so that his children's births were recorded in another township, if they were officially recorded at all. The earliest document we've found listing Moses G. Jenner is the 1860 US Census (his first as an adult) which places him in Indiana, but shows his birthplace as New York. There is some evidence that Moses Johnson Jenner was living with or near his daughter, Diantha, in Indiana at the time of his death in 1852. We know we are close to a breakthrough on our two Moses's. The records we are slowly collecting are being to "harmonize" with each other to form an increasingly clear and complete picture of the lives of these two generation of Jenner ancestors.

And my daughter and I have found that, as we discover more about the lives of our ancestors and begin to understand the sacrifices they made and the risks they took to create a new nation and lay the groundwork for freedom and prosperity for their descendents, the closer we grown in harmony with each other.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

What'chu Talkin' 'Bout, Willis?

My mother was born Violet Joyce Willis in Chepstow, Monmouthshire. There is a long-standing controversy over whether Monmouthshire is truly part of England or Wales -- the joke being that the Welsh claim it is English and the English claim it is Welsh! She was conscripted (what Americans call "drafted") into the British Army shortly after the outbreak of the Second World War and assigned to duty with the American Army, Ordnance Division, in Ammunition Supply. That is where she met my father. Following the War she immigrated to the United States in 1946 and married my father, making her my immigrant ancestor on my maternal side.

For purposes of Michaela's school project on immigrant ancestors, that was the end of our research on the Willis side of the family. Of course, growing up I had heard stories about my English and Scottish ancestors, so I knew that her father was my namesake, Leonard John Willis, and her mother was Winnifred Violet Kerr of Clan Kerr in Midlothian, Scotland. I had also been told that my great-grandfather, William Willis, had been a barrister (we call them lawyers in the U.S.) and that William's father had been a Queens Counsel judge. On two trips to England, I had met quite a few of my Willis and Kerr aunts and uncles, as well, but for the first 57 years of my life that was all I knew of my Willis ancestry. But once aroused, my curiosity was no longer satisfied with that mere smattering of information.

When my daughter and I started our ancestral research, I was certain that tracing our British ancestry would be easy. After all, the British had been keeping meticulous records since the Norman Conquest of 1066 and the Domesday Book. And to govern an empire that had spanned the entire globe since the 16th century, surely the British maintained birth, marriage, property, and death records second to none. Well, once I turned my attention to my mother's side of the family I was again reminded of what happens when you assume ...

As it turns out, the British do have meticulous records of births, marriages, property transactions, and deaths. Unfortunately, they have no workable system for searching and locating those records! None of those functions were centralized until the 20th century. So, if you want to locate the birth record of someone born before 1900, you must not only know what county and city or town they were born in, you must also know which parish it was. That's roughly equivalent to knowing the Zip Code of someone's birthplace!

When you've waited until everyone who might have remembered what parish your great-great-grandfather was born in has died, the task takes an ugly twist! If I had had the sense to ask these questions while my grandparents and great-aunts and uncles were still alive my research might have been made vastly easier. Let that be a lesson to you younger readers!

Once again, I was spending two or three hours a night a couple of nights a week, and months went by without a breakthrough in researching my Willis ancestors. It was then that my mother came to the rescue! Knowing of the new found interest my daughter and I had developed in genealogy, my mother decided that one of the best gifts she could give her son and grandchildren was her memoirs. So, she prepared a book for each of us containing the story of her life and all that she could recall of her family. And in those memoirs I found a vital clue.

As had been the case with the Jenner side of my family (see "A Tale of Two Samuels"), one of the keys to unraveling the Willis line was realizing that there had been two William Willises: William Willis the barrister, and Judge William Willis, QC. In all the years my mother had talked about her grandfather and great-grandfather I had never realized they were both William Willis. It wasn't until I saw the information written down in her memoirs that I understood this. Still, I had googled "William Willis" and "William Willis QC" countless times and never found anything helpful. But, as I read Mum's spare recollections of the two men's lives a thought occurred to me: there might be an obituary on a Queen's Counsel judge, since he would have been a man of considerable prominence. And I was right! But it was not to be found in the London Times archives or somewhere you would ordinarily expect.

When I googled "William Willis obituary" in April 2009 the first UK result that Google returned was a PDF document posted on the website of Toddington Baptist Church. I clicked it and there it was: my great-great-grandfather's obituary! Of course, I wasn't certain of it at first, but once I read the entire article and compared it to Mum's memoirs there was no doubt. The funeral notice mentioned F. H. Willis ("Uncle Frank" in Mum's memoirs) and a son-in-law named H. S. Saunders, who had married my mother's "Aunt Trissie." All of the pieces fit the puzzle perfectly! And by visiting other pages on the Toddington Baptist site I was able to trace back three more generations! A page entitled "Roots" listed Judge William's father and grandfather: another William Willis and Thomas Willis. The obituary and funeral notice also provided several other bits of information we had not previously known, including the maiden names of both Judge William's and Barrister William's wives and the fact that Judge Willis was elected to Parliament in 1880 representing Colchester.

Every bit of additional information -- dates and places of birth, names of spouses and children, vocations, titles, achievements, etc. -- allows a researcher to refine searches in the various online databases. Names like William Willis are commonplace, but there are far fewer Judge William Willises who were born in Toddington, Bedfordshire, the son of a strawhat maker named William, and married first to Annie Outhwaite, then subsequently to Marie Elizabeth Moody, served as a Queens Counsel judge under Queen Victoria and a King's Counsel judge under Edward VII, and even served as a Member of Parliament. In fact, only one that I've found so far!