Who Do You Think You Are?

Who Do You Think You Are?

The first time I remember actively hunting around to find information about my ancestry, I was in sixth grade, and a school project demanded it.

When I asked my mom’s side of the family, the response was Scottish, German, and English. When I asked my dad’s, it was Scottish and Welsh.

I’ve spent the last month or so paging through the painstakingly researched information that two great aunts (one on either side of my family) sent me long ago. I got a two week free trial to Ancestry.com a couple months ago and forgot to cancel before it charged me, so now I have a year to use their resources to further that information. In some cases I have more than Ancestry does — for instance, that one of my ancestors, farmer called Oliver Mears, named his son George Washington Mears. This son was born just after the Revolutionary War. An act of pure pride? One of my ancestors fought with Washington at Valley Forge — could it have been Oliver Mears, inspiring him to beget our nation’s first president a namesake?

I spent a long while last night researching my mother’s side of the family, tracing back the Mears name as far as my great aunt Dottie had gone and then some. There have been some funny little discoveries, some almost creepy, others mystifying. Aunt Dottie traced the Mears line back to Caledonia County, Vermont in the early to mid eighteenth century, to the same Oliver Mears. She scribbled notes on the page indicating that the land had been deeded to him possibly by a Boston Mears.

My research on Ancestry.com confirmed that — imagine my surprise when I stumbled across not one or two, but ten family trees that share that common ancestor, and the name Robert Mears which repeated every other generation for about a hundred years. Several generations of my family lived in Boston as far back as the early 1600s, which is astonishing to me. Could they have taken part in the infamous tea party? Who were these people, and when did they arrive?

I nearly moved to Boston five years ago with a friend. I’ve always wanted to go there, and though I’ve never been, I’ve always been a Red Sox and a Patriots fan — finding out my family lived there for over a hundred years made prickles raise on my arms.

My family has always been quite adamant that we were Scottish. On both sides. The Mears name was supposedly the Scottish branch of our lineage, but the Mearses that extended backward from Boston came from London. Of course, it’s possible the family originally came from Scotland, but I don’t know how much farther back I’ll be able to follow them without an extended sojourn in the UK. Scotland in the 1500s and 1600s was very different from London.

Through this research, I wonder. The oral traditions of a family are strong. My German ancestors came over a mere two hundred years ago, but my purported Scottish and English ancestors arrived long, long before.

Some of them seem to have been among the very first settlers of America — Boston in the early 17th century wasn’t exactly a blazing metropolis. If the family has maintained their insistence on their Scottishness for that many centuries, they must have come from Scotland at some point — and that kind of dogged ethnic stubbornness hints that perhaps leaving wasn’t their idea. Any number of reasons could have pushed them from home. Famine, sickness, economics, even the Highland Clearances (though timing-wise, the latter is unlikely).

Even in this dark picture, if you look at the center-left, you can see her name.

Even more eerie is the ghosts of the women who cling to the branches of my family tree. One name stands out among the lines of Mears, Layton, Hurst, Bennett, Spanagel, and Schweinfurth, Unterwagner. Her name was Inez Viroqua Bennett, and all her siblings were called George, Ann, James, Robert, Thomas, and Frank. It’s likely that no one ever will know how a distinctly Spanish name wound up in a sea of Celts, Anglo-Saxons, and Germans. Her name draws my eye over and over when I look at the lists of my ancestors. There’s a direct line between us, and yet I know nothing about her or what caused Robert Bennett and Eleanor Milner to name their daughter so differently than the rest of their children.

When I search through the records in Ancestry’s databases, it’s harder to find women. It is a reminder that they were not as valued. Their names would not show up on deeds for land, and often not in wills. They are even less likely to appear on death records — the only death records I’ve found for my family’s women have been from the last hundred years. So Inez Viroqua Bennett will remain a mystery to me, her name a reminder of stories lost to time.

I’m not done searching yet, on either side of the family. The Taylors on my dad’s side who settled in the Scottish-populated mountains of North Carolina are a mystery as well — people who share my common ancestor Moses Taylor have said they were English, but a many times removed cousin I met several years ago at the Grandfather Mountain Highland Games — a Taylor from the same region who is also descended from Pvt. Moses Taylor — has been raised knowing he was Scottish.

John Swilly Camp and his favorite horse — thankful to my Great Aunt Doris for this one.

It’s tough to track people into the past, to follow the footsteps of bloodlines and names and hope to strike family among thousands of faces. In many cases, you can never know for sure when you get back far enough that Social Security numbers were nonexistent and almost all countries had kings in lieu of prime ministers and president, parliaments and congresses.

And yet the drive to find them is still strong. On my father’s side, it’s the Powells I want to find the most. We know they came from Wales, but that’s all. They are, like the ghostly Scots, but ghosts in a murky and distant past who sought a new life in a new world. They say a Scot is a Scot even unto a hundred generations. I haven’t had to go back a hundred yet, and I know who I am.

Great Aunt Doris herself is in the top picture with Uncle Dickie, Uncle Rip and Bops, my grandfather who passed in 2001.

I want to know who they were. I want to know where they came from and why they came here. I’m an historian, after all. And history is all about the people and the why — it’s how the psychology of a human being becomes the psychology of nations. So I’ll keep reaching my fingers back into the folds of time before this country was a country. I’ll see if I can find the people who helped birth it, and who birthed me hundreds of years after their struggles.

Wish me luck.

Have you ever tried to track down your ancestry? What oral traditions have your families left you about your history? 

Awakening the Celt Within

Awakening the Celt Within

Happy Thorsday!

There are a couple memories I recall with vivid detail from my middle school years in regards to my personal heritage. So you know, I am Scottish and Welsh on one side of the family (Taylors, Powells, and a smattering of “Mac” names floating around there) and Scottish, German, and a touch of English on the other side (Mearses, Hursts, Schweinfurths, Unterwagners, and Bennetts — believe it or not, I have Elizabeth, Jane, Mary, and a Catherine Bennett in my family tree. Take that Jane Austen; they all lived at the turn of 18th century as well, early 1800s. But I digress).

I remember when I started learning World War 2 history. Among other notable quirks of the American education system, that education began with Pearl Harbor and ended with Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which in hindsight is frankly ridiculous. When I learned what Germany did, what the Nazis did, I freaked. I wanted to slash off the German branches of my family tree, I felt such horrendous guilt. I had much the same reaction when I learned of slavery and what the colonists did to the Native Americans. My dad’s side of the family settled in the South, and I have no illusions that they owned slaves. I was 12, and perhaps the guilt was irrational, as I never sent any Jews to a concentration camp or a gas chamber, and I never owned any slaves or thought it was anything short of repugnant, but it wormed its way in side of me anyway. Maybe that shock-therapy of a history lesson is what made me ultimately pursue a history major, move to Poland, and spend more time at Auschwitz than most people would think sufficient for a lifetime.

Somewhere in that time frame of middle school, I stumbled across what was at the time a rather hefty book called A String in the Harp, by Nancy Bond. The story is about a trio of American children who are plunked into a Welsh village after the death of their mother, only for one of them to discover an ancient harp key that shows him glimpses of the bard Taliesin’s history.

Hook, line, and sinker.

Around that time, I also devoured Lloyd Alexander‘s Chronicles of Prydain. I wanted to be Eilonwy, with her red-gold hair and golden bauble that lit up. I couldn’t get enough of Welsh mythology. Imagine how I felt when I discovered that I was Welsh, that I had a connection to that mythology. Until that point, I hadn’t much cared for genealogy. It’d never crossed my mind. Then it ate me up and spit me out a Celt. I delved into my Scottish heritage after doing a presentation on the ancient Celtic and Pictish warriors of Scotland — probably the sole time in my secondary education when I was able to perform a speech in front of my peers without wanting to vomit or cry. These were warriors. These were people who traced their bloodlines through the women of their clans, which spoke to me. These people had magic and a fierce determination to be free and maintain their culture even when faced with opposition from a much stronger nation (mostly England, but the Picts fought off the Romans and frightened them so much that Emperor Hadrian built a wall to keep those crazy tattooed barbarians out of his empire — or possibly just to say nanny-nanny-boo-boo at them).

After the shocks of learning about mass genocide and my misplaced-but-understandable guilt, my Celtic heritage fused a sense of pride in me, a sense of power and connection. It’s no mystery why my first trip abroad plunked me in Scotland, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t feel a sense of magical belonging the second my feet hit the tarmac at the Glasgow Prestwick airport that June day in 2004. Considering that Scotland has brought me the best and most perfect kind of friendship and sense of self anyone could ever have, I look back to the days of middle school with no little amount of wonder.

It’s a New Year, and I certainly have goals. One thing I’ve come up with and put words to for the first time is a set of rewards to go with my goals, modeled loosely on a Celtic system of rewards. In some clans, the laird or chieftain was merely the holder of wealth — his responsibility was to hold it in trust for the good of his people, and he would use it to reward them for service or to lavish upon the clan on days of celebration or feasting. Prowess in battle and service to the chieftain were rewarded with treasures, a mark of status.

One dream I’ve had for some time is to learn to fight. I want to master — or at least become adept at — sword fighting. Not fencing, broadswords and daggers. My reward for that will be a gold torc, something that shows that I can protect myself and my family from zombies or whatever. I hope to never have to follow in the footsteps of that Maryland person who ran an intruder through with a katana, but you never know.

Something like this... Image via thehistoryblog.com

Another goal I have is to become stronger and more fit. Part of that is losing fat (notice I didn’t say weight), and another part of that is because I have a tendency toward high blood pressure already. I want to be able to do at least 10 — preferably 15 — chin-ups. I say that because I know that is a lofty goal for me. I think I can do two. It requires a lot of upper body and core strength, and it will take a lot of work to get to that level of fitness. But it should help with the sword-y goal as well as endurance. My reward for this would be a tattoo — either one of the ogham bands I want to get around my right ankle or left upper arm — or a claymore.

For smaller goals, I would reward myself with other Celtic trinkets that have meaning for me. Usually reproductions of ancient artifacts, because that’s just how I roll.

What do you use to motivate yourself? Do you draw on your heritage in your daily life for inspiration? Have you ever felt guilt or pride about your ancestry?

I also ought to note, gentle viewers, that I have absolved myself of guilt for the crimes of Hitler and his company — I am unendingly grateful for the opportunities I have had to meet and converse with survivors of that dark and horrible era of human history, and I will ensure to the best of my ability that we do not forget, that we never repeat the scale and scope of murder that occurred between 1939 and 1945. I believe that every human being should one day set foot through those black iron gates at Auschwitz and visit the striking and sober chunk of truncated railroad track at Birkenau that marked the end of the line for so many souls. The images of the crematoria, the piles of human hair and shoes, the massive mound of human ashes at Majdanek — these are pictures seared onto my retinas for the rest of my days.

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