Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Moving On

Researching your ancestors is always a source of surprises; you’re lucky if it’s not a snake pit. Every family has stories that may be truth or fantasy, or at least embroidery. I was told from youth that we were descended from the illustrious Lees of Virginia. Actually it appears that we are descended from the less illustrious Lees of North Carolina — by way of the hillbilly Lees of Tennessee.

The upside here, for the abolitionist half of my ancestral stream, is that the southern ancestors were too poor to own slaves — although my Sullivan twice-great grandfather is listed in the 1860 census as the employer of three Irish laborers. This sounds odd, because my mother described her Sullivan grandfather as a “little Dutchman” who jumped up and down and shouted in German when excited. Why he would have done this in Golden City, Missouri, is still a mystery to me.

Then there was the three-times great uncle who moved his family from Iowa in 1866. To avoid paying for the ferry across the Missouri River at Westport, he loaded up the covered wagon, yoked the oxen and set out for Kansas in single-digit weather on New Year’s Day, driving the livestock along behind. The family, including the six-week-old baby, slept outside for three weeks and crossed the frozen river at Nebraska City. I can safely say that I come from a long line of cheapskates.

This kind of research rapidly turns into information overload. However, one person stands out, although she is not even technically a relative of mine. Eliza (perfect pioneer name) came from Vermont. She married and moved to Iowa, where her husband died in an epidemic. The next year she remarried a recent widower, my twice-great grandfather Ben. With two children of her own and her father to look after, Eliza became the stepmother of Ben’s six surviving children. The youngest was my two-year-old great grandfather.

Eliza and Ben had three more children in Kansas. They farmed, and Ben tried a brief stint as a frontier sheriff. In 1889 he and Eliza made the first Oklahoma land run, but the southern plains proved too much for them. Ben is buried in an unmarked grave in the Red Hills of Kansas. Eliza kept going west from there, along with her younger daughter. She died at the age of 80 in 1900 in Washington state, having crossed North America in her lifetime.

None of this is what I expected to find. All of us have such high hopes for our children. Evidently we also have high hopes for our ancestors. Sometimes those hopes are fulfilled in unexpected ways. The fabled virtue of pioneer strength has never particularly appealed to me. After learning about Eliza though, I think it might have been less a virtue than a necessity. I can only imagine the courage required to leave everything you know, not once but again and again, moving on into the unknown. Did she spend her life longing for a permanent home? Or was she the one who looked toward the western horizon, wondering what lay beyond, urging her family to move on?

I claim Eliza, whatever her private thoughts and feelings. She was the only mother my great grandfather knew. Her descendants are my unknown cousins. She had adventures, whether or not she went looking for them. She lived close to this land, raising her children, making a living, moving on. I want to live close to my small piece of land, looking toward the horizon for adventures still to come.


  1. Thanks for the story. It is always nice to have a little something from the past to look back on. I; too, have fund nothing but poor farmers in my past but that is ok, I am proud of that heritage, it is what made this country. The hard work of farmers and even Irish slaves. That is the unspoken stories no one ever talks about, white people as slaves, oh my!

    1. Thank you, Sarah. Since you are a descendant of Eliza, this is as much your story as mine. The more research into my ancestry I do, the more I come to believe that these stories belong to us all.