Family Reunion Time

Reunion – 52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks

Wren Reunion, 1969

Summertime seems to be the time for family reunions. For every family that has a reunion, there’s a different look and a different set of traditions. Some are gatherings of a group of siblings and their families for a cookout or a vacation. Others are grand productions of many generations that have been going on for many, many years.

I usually attend a reunion of the Almand family each September. It’s held in Conyers, Georgia and represents the descendants of Thomas and Nancy David Almand. I’m already seven generations separated from them, but it’s a good time. However, over the twenty years I have been attending, so many of the elders have passed on, many of the younger generations have moved or haven’t stuck around, and there’s not as much to keep things going. We’ve dwindled from well over a hundred folks being there and a day-long affair to around thirty and a nice lunch, home before supper.

Likewise for a Hollis reunion I used to attend. I’m even more distant from that line and it was dwindling when I started.

When reunions fade, it makes me sad. Sad that there’s no one to pick things up and keep it going. Sad that those who used to do it either are no longer able or are no longer around.

But there are still lots of reunions that are going strong or are trying to get off the ground.

My Wren family (my mother’s family) first started its reunion in 1949. The descendants of Dr. Alonzo D. Wren and George Lovick Pierce Wren are a great example. These two brothers were sons of George Washington Wren and Sarah Bridges Wren. They were for the most part based in southwest Arkansas (Dr. Wren) or around Minden, Louisiana (GLP Wren).

Starting in 1949, these families began to meet each summer. There was a pretty typical pattern to the reunions. Everyone brings food. People take pictures. There’s lots of visiting going on. People get reacquainted with their cousins. Little kids run around. Teenagers whine about having to come. Everyone goes home at the end of the day so full that they can’t move. And they all look forward to the next time they can get together.

But, there’s more. Whether you realize it or not, at a reunion, there’s a strengthening of the family connections. Stories are shared not only of who’s had babies and who is getting married, but of who is sick and could no longer attend, and who has died since the last time they gathered. People pass around pictures, both of close family and the historical family. For a genealogist, this is a great time to talk to the older folks in the family.

Usually, the head of each family introduces their family. Those who are the oldest and youngest and those who traveled the greatest distance are all recognized.

The folks who have been coming the longest seem to be the ones who have the strongest connection. It’s so nice to be able to sit down together and reconnect and see how the family has grown and grown up.

Wren Reunions have alternated between Minden, Louisiana or Nevada County, Arkansas. Truthfully, living so far away, and never having lived near the rest of this part of the family, I am not even certain that the reunion continues. If you know, please let me know! Last I heard, it was more or less every two years and had gotten a breath of fresh air from some of the younger generations. I hope so.

Reunions are a great time to remember the family history and to recognize the eldest members of the family. When the reunion started in 1949, there were five children (out of 19) children of Dr. A.D. Wren and G.L.P. Wren alive and in attendance. Now, I’m not even sure that there are any grandchildren of those patriarchs still with us.

If you are researching a family, look for newspaper articles about reunions. Even now, these might appear in local newspapers. Often, there will be a list of all of the attendees and maybe even where they came from.

And if you have a chance to attend a reunion, even of a family where you are just a distant cousin, go. Make the family connections. And if your family doesn’t have a reunion, think hard about trying to start one. Start with a Facebook group. Share pictures and stories there. You’ll find some folks who might be your partners in crime to start thinking about getting together. Pick a place and a date. Give people plenty of leadtime, especially if travel is required. It’s not unreasonable to schedule a year out. And then start getting folks excited. You’ll probably start small. Be sure to include both young and old.

Don’t be the one who lets the family connections die out.

Old, Old Photos

Earliest – 52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks

I have many, many family photos. Most have names. Some have dates and places. Some don’t have either. Some of the names and places only exist in memory rather than in labels. Clearly, there’s room for improvement here.

There are many, many pictures of when I was little (I was the eldest). And many, many of when my father was little (so, was he). Fewer of my brother and of my uncle. I think the same thing seems to hold for my mom and her older sister. I actually have photos of all of my grandparents, all of my great-grandparents, and fourteen of my sixteen great-great-grandparents.

That means lots of carte de visite, tintypes, photo postcards and the like.

But, the earliest of all of these is an ambrotype. Ambrotypes were positive image photos, taken on glass. Since there was no negative created, each picture was unique. Since they were created on glass, they were fragile. While earlier ambrotypes exist, in the US, these were most popular starting around 1854-1855. And while later examples exist, they were quickly replaced by the less fragile and easier to reproduce tintype by the late 1860s. That means it’s pretty easy to narrow down a time when an ambrotype was made.

Dr. John Washington Tennyson, 15 Jun 1809-1898, The oldest photo I own.

Dr. John W. Tennyson was born in 1809 in Green County, Kentucky. His family first landed in Maryland long before the Revolution. However, by the 1790s, the family seemed to get a bug for moving. First, they moved into North Carolina and then on into Kentucky. (Legend has is that they were neighbors to Daniel Boone’s wife’s family.)

Dr. John married Ann Malinda Biggers in Kentucky in about 1824. Still looking for proof of that marriage. It confuses me since the Biggers arrived in coastal South Carolina and I can’t quite figure out why she would be in Kentucky.

At any rate, the family continued to move. By about 1838, they had moved into Lauderdale County, Alabama. That’s the county along the very north-central border of Alabama, between the Tennessee River and the Tennessee line. (I certainly seem to have a lot of northern Alabama ancestors through this time. Maybe that’s a place I need to study more.)

Probably, after Dr. John’s father, John B. Tennison, died in 1857, Dr. John and his family moved into Mississippi, to Pontotoc County.

Dr. John W. Tennyson’s medical license, 1882

He was a physician and a farmer his whole life. Even late in life, he was licensed as a doctor. On his license application, he says that he was born in Green County, Kentucky and that he has practiced medicine for forty-one years.

Dr. John died in 1898 in Pontotoc County, Mississippi. He was buried in the Salem Independent Methodist Church Cemetery. He left a huge family behind. He and Ann Malinda had a dozen kids, and each of them seemed to have about the same. One of the descendants was the great golfer, Ben Hogan, the grandson of his daughter, Cynthia. But that’s a story for a different day.

Back to the early photo. Look again at that photo. First, like I said, it’s an ambrotype and printed on glass. The glass photo is set into a hinged case. Inside the case is a velvet lining. The photo itself can slip in and out (though I never do this – it’s too fragile).

When you take the picture out of the case, it appears like a negative, since it doesn’t have any kind of background to provide contrast. The picture on the left, above, is the actual glass photo. If you invert it so that it’s a negative, you can begin to see the image. And when you put it in the case, against the dark background, it appears as a normal photo.

So, when was this taken? I don’t know for sure. How old do you think Dr. Tennyson looks in this picture? We know he was born in 1809 and ambrotypes were primarily used from about 1855-1867. That puts him at about 50-55 for this picture. Does that look reasonable to you?

No matter what, being an ambrotype at any age, this is my earliest photo. And as my great-great-great-grandfather, he’s one of the earliest ancestors that I have in a photograph. I’ve only got about ten of my thirty-two great-great-great-grandparents in photos. (Is that humble-bragging?)

Legend of the Rolling Pin

Legend – 52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks

Nearly every family has some sort of legend. There’s the Indian Princess legend. We’ve got that. Busted! There’s the legend of the three immigrant brothers who went north, south, and west. We’ve got that several times. Also busted! There’s the legend of grandpa getting his name changed at Ellis Island. Not so much for us, since my folks all came before that and all came into the southern Colonies.

The Rolling Pin – Carved before 1760 and passed down through the Council family

Some families have legends around food or recipes. Some have legends around things that get passed down. For us, we wrap both of those together. We have “the rolling pin”. This rolling pin has come down through the family for over two hundred fifty years.

My grandmother, Susan Louise Bailey Dickson, told me that it was made before 1760 out of a single piece of apple wood. It’s clearly hand carved, uneven and imperfect. It’s not the sort of rolling pin that has an axle. It’s solid and you roll the whole thing. But it’s also not like some rolling pins used for fancy bread that lack handles.

I thought that it had come down through Grandmother’s Bailey family, but she corrected me and said that it came down through the family of her grandmother Sarah Louise Council. (There’s another story about why Grandmother and her grandmother shared a middle name, but that’s for another day.)

Sarah Louise Council Brewer Bailey (b. 1837, Alabama, d. 1915, Arkansas)

So, could the legend of the rolling pin coming down through this family be true? If it were, where would it have come from? I don’t see any reason to believe it could not be that old. It’s clearly old. And if Grandmother’s grandmother said it came down through her family, then it certainly went at least back 150 years.

Sarah Louise Council was born in 1837 in Alabama, probably in Jackson County, between Huntsville and the Georgia border. She was the daughter of Uriah Allison Council and Louisa Anna Green. Louisa has remained a mystery to me, but I have recently been trying to find out more about Uriah and his family.

Uriah Allison Council was born in 1807 in Knox County, Tennessee. Tracing out the deeds, tax lists, and other court records, we find that he stayed in Knox County until about 1833 when he moved to the next county over, Roane County. By 1840, he is in Jackson County, Alabama and by 1842 is a Justice of the Peace there. By 1850, he had moved to the next county west, Madison, and is a school teacher. FindaGrave says that he died in 1851. I have not found a good record for either his death or Louisa’s death. But by 1860, the three surviving children are all in Sebastian County, Arkansas and there is no sign of Uriah or Louisa. This is another place to go research. My guess is Louisa had family in Arkansas and went to them after her husband died.

We believe, as have many Council researchers, that Uriah Allison Council was the son of Isaac Council and Susan Allison. To date, I have not found any solid documentary evidence. But, there is a lot of circumstantial evidence: Isaac and Uriah lived next door to each other for a lot time. When Uriah moved to Roane, Isaac bought his land. Susan Allison (Uriah’s supposed mother) had a brother named Uriah Allison. Plus a whole lot more. This is something that I need to write up.

Isaac was born in 1785 in North Carolina. That’s not quite 1760 yet, so we really need another generation for this legend to completely ring true. We are not sure where in North Carolina he came from or who his parents were. Digging through the tax lists and deeds of Knox and Roane Counties, my current hypothesis is that Jesse Council is the father of Isaac, John, Matthew, Hodges. I think his father was likely Hodges as well. If this is the case, this Jesse was likely born in Virginia and served in the Revolutionary War. I’m working hard right now to figure out and prove what I can about Jesse and the other Councils in East Tennessee.

But, it seems to me that the legend of the rolling pin has a lot of truth to it.

But that’s not really what I remember about the rolling pin. To me, the legend that I tell about the rolling pin is of having breakfast at my grandparents’ house. We would often have breakfast at the dining room table. There, she could pull the toaster oven right up to the table. As we ate biscuits, Grandmother would roll out a few more with the rolling pin and pop them into the toaster oven. We would eat fresh, hot biscuits with real butter and strawberry freezer preserves until we could hold no more or until she ran out. Grandmother believed that the rolling pin ought to be used. No reason to have a dead legend when it can continue to have a life and a story. (The only reason my wife and I don’t use it is that she’s vegan and it has 250 years of lard rolled into it.)

My big challenge is how to make sure that the legend does not end with me and that it has a story in my Bailey family after me. My cousin, who had it for several years, passed it to me because he had no biological children. But, neither do we. My task is to find the next steward of the rolling pin so its legend continues for another 250 years.

Independence Day

Independent – 52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks

Yesterday, we celebrated the anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence on 4 July 1776. With that, we officially began this experiment called the United States of America. Go take some time to watch the musical “1776“, sort of the “Hamilton” of its day. On July 4, we collectively said “I have crossed the Rubicon. Let the bridge be burned behind me, come what may, come what may! Commitment!” And here we are, more than two hundred years later.

The War for Independence had already been underway for over fourteen months when the Declaration was signed. Men (mostly) across the colonies had been mobilized to join the battle. There were strong mixed feelings. Some were all for tossing the British out. Others were all for reconciliation. And a large number could not be bothered – someone else’s problems, someone else’s battle.

Fortunately, there were not enough of the last to go around.

I usually like to have lots of photos of my ancestors for these stories. But, I’m not Maureen Taylor, The Photo Detective, who has collected tons of actual photographs of soldiers of the Revolution. (Unfortunately, she has not yet been able to get any photos of the brave Revolutionary pilots.) Do go take a look at her work.

With or without photos, I have found an awful lot of Revolutionary Patriots within my ancestry. While none of them had quite as critical a role as Russell Casse, all were committed to the cause of the new nation. Or at least to the cause of their family, friends, and neighbors. There are some parts of the county (like parts of North Carolina), where it seems like you really had two choices – serve or leave.

I actually think this list is incomplete. Once I get a bit more research done on some of these lines, I know there will be many more who show up. And unlike the Civil War, where there were people who served on both sides, so far I have not found any Loyalists.

But for this week, I want to just do a “Thank you for your service” and make sure that I list all of those in my family tree that I know served in the American Revolution.

North Carolina

Virginia

South Carolina

Georgia

New Calves, Gardens, Funerals, and Permanents

Diary – 52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks

Not every diary is a record of the monumental things that happen in our lives. Some just keep track of the every day things. But, even the simplest can be amazing windows into people in our family – whether we actually know them nor not.

Of course, not many people just hand over their diaries for others to read. Usually, we only see them after they are gone. So, we have to imagine a lot of the details and things that went on around the notes that are written in the diaries.

A couple of weeks ago, I shared a short diary of my great-grandmother’s trip to California from Texas and back. That one only kept track of a few weeks of her life, but it was a great picture nonetheless.

My great-aunts Norvelle Wren and Mildred Wren Whitten both kept diaries for years and years. Sometimes, they used a desk calendar and sometimes they just made notes on the wall calendars about the events of the day. I have a few of these and my mother has many, many more. I suspect that they go back pretty far since neither Mildred nor Norvelle were ones to throw that sort of thing out.

Mildred always had a lot more to say in her’s than Norvelle did. But, they both talked about the things that mattered in their day to day lives: crops and cows, family and friends, gardens and flowers, trips to church and the beauty parlor.

Norvelle’s Diary – July 1964

Of course, the key events of the day were recorded, like my first birthday. Norvelle also recorded the comings and goings of her family and friends. On my birthday, my aunt, Jennie, headed home to South Carolina from her parents’ house.

Norvelle’s Diary – May 1964

There were lots of notes about their gardens. Both Mildred and Norvelle, who lived immediately across the street from each other, on their respective home places with pastures and fields, had a garden. And from those gardens, some of the very best vegetables ever produced came.

Norvelle’s Diary – April 1964

Their diaries kept track of all of the calves born each year. I think that they shared in which ones belonged to whom so that they could split the income. The cows had names and they knew (mostly) which calves came from which cows.

Norvelle’s Diary – Entry by Grannie (Pearl Hudson Wren) – March 1964

Once in a while, you come across a really amusing entry. Looks like Grannie (Pearl Hudson Wren) would from time to time add things to the record of the day. Like this time in March 1964 when Grannie noted that she and Norvelle drove down to Texarkana to purchase “cosmetics, foundation garments, and shoes.”

Both Mildred and Norvelle noted when friends and family (and they, themselves) were sick, in the hospital or nursing home, or home from the hospital. They marked births, marriages, funerals, and burials.

It’s fun to see how they refer to each other as Sister and both refer to my grandfather as Brother. In 1976, he went to the hospital for surgery and you can find a day by day account of his health in Mildred’s diary.

You can see through the difficult times in their lives, when they took care of each other. Mildred notes that they placed the stone on Henry, her husband’s, grave, the stone that had all but her death date already filled in. She also tells that Norvelle finally felt well enough for Mildred to sleep at her own house rather than with Norvelle. Mildred was skeptical, but Norvelle was (as you would expect if you knew her) insistent.

Norvelle’s Diary – May 1983

In spite of everything, through good times and bad, both Norvelle and Mildred are just so matter-of-fact about everything. Take a look at Norvelle’s account of May 1982. Went to church. Made tea. Got a permanent. Cloudy, rainy, colder, rainy. Taken to the hospital and had to say for four days. Came home to bees inside the house around the chimney. Could not make it to church, but Horace came to see me.

Norvelle’s Diary – November 1982

And through thick and thin, while feeling well or sick, in hot weather or cold, very little could keep them from their hair appointments. Permanents apparently were a real thing for these ladies. November 1982 clearly started out with a bang. Permanents all around – Norvelle, Mildred, and their cousin Julia all got permanents the same week. I mean, it’s one thing to keep track of your own hair, but to keep track of you cousin’s hair is real devotion.

I love the fact that we have these diaries, even if they don’t provide new “genealogical” facts. They help us to remember these people that were so special to us. They help us to see how they went through their lives, day by day, especially when we only got to see them occasionally. So, scour the house. Look in all the drawers. If there’s a little pad of paper, read through it. Don’t just assume an appointment book isn’t filled with life and love. You never know what you’re going to find or to find out.

Five Generations of Betties

Namesake – 52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks

Seems like just last week that I was talking about old J.H. Cason and here we go again. I keep track of these stories and really do try to keep from repeating, but there are just so many times that the Casons and their kin are just exactly the right people with the best stories.

The Reverend Jeremiah H. Cason could be a tough old bird. My grandmother said that when her grandfather came to visit, the whole house was turned upside down. Everything was his way, with no discussion or dissension. He had gone to Africa as a missionary in the 1850s and to war in the 1860s and had preached his way across the south ever since then and knew how to be tough. Discipline and rules were important to who he was, to his view of the world, and to his faith. But, he also knew how to be tender and clearly had a soft side that came out from time to time.

Interestingly, he was named for his father, Jeremiah Cason, born in 1800. (We visited his grave last week.) And he has generations of men named for him, all called Jere in one form or fashion, some of whom you have already met. But that’s not the namesake I want to tell you about today.

Little Bettie Higgs was born on the 24th of November, 1903 to Lida Cason Higgs and J.W. “Will” Higgs. She was their fourth child and second daughter.

On the day that her grandfather heard of her birth, J.H. Cason, that crusty old guy, sat down and wrote a tender letter to her to welcome her to the world and to the family, to tell her about those who went before her, and to share some wishes for her future. It’s an amazingly touching letter for someone who could be so gruff and crusty.


My dear little darling, I have this morning heard of your safe arrival on Nov 26th, 1903. Upon our National Thanksgiving Day. Your coming among us makes the Thankgiving Day more sacred and fixes it upon the tablet of our hearts and fixes it upon the register of our memories. We are glad to welcome you to a share in our cares and burdens and to a place in our hearts and to the joys of our holy religion.

Then, he goes on to explain to Bettie how important her name is. He tells her about her grandmother

You may be curious to know why the name of Bettie was given to you. Your grand mother Cason was named before her marriage Elizabeth (Bettie) Cooper. The name Elizabeth (Bettie) has long been a family name in the Cooper and Cason families.

Grandpa Cason goes on, then to spend two pages mapping out her parents, grandparents, and ancestors for five or six generations! For the most part, these would have been people that Jere Cason would have known or would have well known about. What a gift! On top of that, since this was a letter to an infant, Bettie’s mother, Lida Cason Higgs, annotated the letter over the years. And she added a touching postscript:

My precious child, God was good to you in giving you these two noble people as grand parents. May you be worthy of them. Mother.

Bettie isn’t a rare or uncommon name. Certainly not in those days. But, it’s interesting that in every generation going back, Bettie Higgs had a grandmother or aunt with whom she shared a name, going back at least 150 years in both directions.

Grandpa Cason finishes his letter encouraging Bettie in her faith. He assures her that, since he is already getting old, that they may not have a chance to know each other well. But they will certainly meet again in heaven if she embraces her faith. He clearly misses and grieves for his wife, Bettie Cooper Cason, who died just two years before. The old preacher makes sure that Bettie knows not only that he loves her, but that Jesus does as well.

No precious darling, if you never see or remember your grand papa you must know that he loves you and has prayed to the Lord for you. It was easy for the Lord to take care of me seventy one years, infancy, childhood, youth, and manhood down to old age. He can take care of you, as easy as he has your grand papa. Only love Him and trust Him and you will meet all the good people where Jesus lives.

What a wonderful was to greet a baby, even though it may be years and years before they grow to appreciate it. J.H. Cason probably greeted all of his grandchildren with a letter. I have seen several and can only assume that he made a point of doing this for all of them.

But, only in this one, did he lay out the history of the infant’s name. You can feel how much he misses his Bettie and how much he hopes and prays for the future for this Bettie. I am sure that she did not disappoint him. She was something special.

Nature vs. Nurture

Nature – 52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks

There is an age old debate about what forms a person – nature or nurture. Are there some people who are just born with a nature that leads them to be good, wholesome, helpful, virtuous citizens and others who are born to be criminal, reprobate, and generally just bad people? Or is the way a person turns out the product of their upbringing and life circumstances?

I guess all of this is a way to as who is to blame or who can take credit for someone else’s lot in life, as if you could fully do either.

I suspect that there is some middle ground in all of this. Some folks seem to have a temperament independent of any of the things that have gone on in their life and independent of the people around them. Likewise, there seem to be people who are genuinely trapped by circumstances.

Which was it for the Billington family?

As a native of the south shore of Boston, it’s not surprising that my wife has ancestors who arrived on the Mayflower. What is surprising is the people that she descends from. John Billington, his wife Elinor, and their children, John Jr. and Francis, were among the passengers on the Mayflower. I have read that William Bradford considered them more trouble than the other 98 passengers, combined!

Reading their history feels like walking into a broken down trailer park behind a run-down Walmart somewhere in the middle of nowhere on the wrong side of the tracks.

Francis, the son, apparently made the equivalent of cherry-bombs and set them off in the ship, as well as firing his father’s musket while inside the ship.

John Sr. routinely challenged the orders of Myles Standish, railed against the leaders of the party, and was implicated in a revolt against the Plymouth Church.

Elinor was sentenced to be whipped and to sit in the stocks after she was convicted of slander of another settler.

John Jr. got lost in the woods and was captured, later to be returned, by Native Americans on Cape Cod. It was also widely thought, though never proved, that John Jr. burned down several of his neighbors houses.

The ultimate, however, was when John Sr. happened upon John Newcomen, a man with whom he had a long-running feud while out hunting. John Billington took matters into his own hands and shot John Newcomen, dead. Thus happened the first murder in Plymouth Colony. As a consequence, my wife’s 11-times-great-grandfather became both the first murderer and the first person hanged in the Colonies.

You can read all about this lots of places. The New England Historical and Genealogical Society, FindAGrave, Wikipedia have great articles.

Two last curious facts I noticed about the Billingtons: First, among the families that arrived on the Mayflower, virtually no other families survived the first couple of years unscathed by deaths in the family. People died of starvation, Indian attacks, accidents, sickness, etc. But, the Billingtons prospered through the first couple of winters. John Jr. died first not long after his father’s hanging (I am not counting that one) in 1630, but they all made it through the really rough years. Bad or not, they seemed to be strong and resilient. Such is nature.

Second, if you research Mayflower families, they pretty much marry into each other’s families. There is a close association between them right from the outset. John Jr never married, even though by the age of 24 (when he died), you might have expected him to be married. Francis was 28 when he married Christian (Penn) Eaton, a widow. She had arrived later on, aboard the Anne. It wasn’t until several generations later that any of Francis’ descendants married descendants of the other Mayflower passengers. Seems like the families of the original Pilgrims continued to stay away from “those Billingtons.” I guess other folks assumed something about their nature, even generations later.

So, what was it, Nature or Nurture, that made the Billingtons just a bad bunch? Clearly, they were not among the Pilgrims who came to America for religious freedom. I wonder if they were escaping a situation in England that they had made for themselves. Were the children just bad, too? Or did they turn out that way as a consequence of how they were raised? Who knows. But, I am sure the debate will go on for years. For now, we look back and shake our heads and just wonder.