Black sheep ancestors – we’ve all got them. If you don’t, it probably means that you haven’t discovered them yet. I find them fascinating. I mean, I enjoy the church-going, god-fearing, alms-giving ancestors as much as the next genealogist, but there’s a certain spark of interest that surges when you come across ancestors who were . . . a bit more colorful in their lives.
When I step back for a moment and take off my genealogist’s cap, I start to think that the non-genealogists who must endure us probably find it charming (or maybe even a bit odd) how we get excited over the discovery of another name on the family tree, another branch a little closer to the top, a link leading us a bit closer to the past. For us, names can mean a key to unlocking another chapter in a family’s story.
In my case, the name of my wife’s third-great-grandfather led me to a man who was quite well-known in 19th-century Henry Township in Fulton County, Indiana. According to Wikipedia, Henry Township’s population in 2000 was just north of 2,800 people; I imagine that it must have been much smaller during his lifetime.
When I first came across Sylvester Nixon, he was just another name to add to the tree. I added him as the father of Rose Savannah Nixon. Rose Savannah was the motherly figure who appeared in lots of our old family photographs – both formal family ones as well as posed photos on the windswept farms in the Indiana winter.
The first facts I learned about Sylvester were rather mundane, interesting enough to genealogists, but not so interesting that they would capture the wandering attentions of his present-day descendants. He was born a long time ago, in 1827, in Ontari0; that much I learned from the US Federal Census records. At some point early in his life, his family has moved to Fulton County, Indiana. His first wife, Elizabeth Haladay, died a few weeks before Christmas Day, 1869, leaving him a widower with a five-year-old daughter, Rose Savannah, who later became the subject of all those treasured family photographs I mentioned above.
Sylvester didn’t stay widowed long. Over the next five years or so, he married two more times, once to Huldah Clementine and later to Sarah Ann Stanton. With them, he had two more daughters and a son. Most of that was learned from census records, some from family bible writings. All in all, pretty vanilla and not very interesting.
Then, there’s the power of a Google Search. One night I typed in “Sylvester Nixon”, “Fulton County” and Indiana into Google’s sparse interface. A handful of results popped up, most from the public library in Fulton County. Apparently, someone had taken the time to transcribe excerpts from the local Rochester newspapers, covering the years 1858-1879. It was quite a find – and provided some insight into a man I had known nothing about.
Some details were rather mundane. In 1874, old Sylvester married a Miami County lady (his third wife) and apparently came to town daily with a load of wood. Sadly, the reasons why he brought a load of wood into town so often or why this was newsworthy have been lost to history.
I kept looking. Three years later, in 1877, a brief clip in the paper carried the report of a Fulton County farmer who had seen old Sylvester beat his horse to death while he was returning to his home, drunk. So, it appeared Sylvester enjoyed his liquor, and apparently was quite determined when he set his mind to something. It’s got to take a lot of effort to beat a horse to death.
One year later, in 1878, a Mrs. Collins, out in her horse and carriage, had the misfortune of meeting old Sylvester along the road. Sylvester, “blind drunk”, failed to give her carriage the half of the road it was entitled to, and soon, their wagons collided. Mrs. Collins found herself without a hind wheel and Sylvester found himself with a reputation as a dangerous driver. The local paper goes on to advise readers to avoid old man Nixon on the road and let him “pass on in his glory”.
The following year, the paper recorded that Sylvester nearly froze to death during a cold snap in January. A kind soul saved him, when he or she found him near death, lying across the town’s railroad track.
The 1870′s were eventual for Sylvester. The earliest entry I found for him recorded that he had, by 1871, acquired a reputation for mischief within the town – in addition to the bad driving, the horse beating, and all that. Apparently, he and “his team” liked to cause havoc on the local merchants and then “run away” before the owner returned to town. On this one occasion, recorded in the paper, he had selected the lumber yard of the unfortunate John Beeber, and “scattered his board piles in every direction.”
I scrolled through the paper’s later editions. The 1880′s were quieter for the aging Nixon – or maybe the newspapers had moved on to covering other topics. He did have one last entry, in an edition published soon after his death in 1893. The account discounted the rumors that he had committed suicide with poison. An autopsy, the paper revealed, had indicated that old Sylvester had died a natural death. Thanks to information posted at Find-a-Grave, I now know that he’s buried nearby, in Mount Hope Athens cemetery.
I’m thankful for Sylvester Nixon and his contributions to the family tree, even if they caused some level of drama in his Indiana town of the 1870′s. Based on the newspaper accounts, I think his contemporaries liked the old man too (or at least found him interesting). Not all of our ancestors can be “saints”. Finding a few “sinners” among the leaves of the family tree adds a layer of humanity and reminds us that people in previous centuries were just as imperfect as people today.