Tag Archives: Indiana

Embrace your black sheep ancestors!

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.

Rose Savannah (Nixon) Deardorff stands second to the right on the day of her son's wedding in November 1910. Farmlands in Indiana pretty much look just as desolate today, in winter.

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 NIxon, with his third wife, Sarah Ann Staton, and younger children, ca. 1880

Sylvester NIxon, with his third wife, Sarah Ann Staton, and younger children, ca. 1880

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.


A Window into the Past: Ancestors’ Letters as Genealogical Records

So, say you’ve inherited a large stack of family photographs showing ancestors who are far up your family tree – such as great-grandparents, or their siblings, cousins, or close family friends.  As you stare into the moment in time captured in that cabinet card or tin type photograph, do you ever wonder what their voices sounded like, or what sort of accent they spoke with?  Do you wonder what words they chose when they spoke?  Or what perspective they brought to their life experiences?  Or even what activities filled a day in their lives?

In some very rare cases, a home movie might surface, allowing you a glimpse of your ancestors (or someone else’s) living through some long-ago day.  For most of us, though, home movies from that far back just don’t exist (and likely never existed).  But, if we’re looking to learn more about the faces in our old photographs, we might be able to rely on letters that have survived through the decades.  Letters provide a sense of immediacy, a glimpse into a moment or day otherwise completely lost to living memory – and it’s all captured in the yellowed pages that you hold in your hands.

I was fortunate to marry into a family who saved . . . everything – photographs, family bibles, letters, journals, Christmas cards, insurance bills . . . and, yes, even old tissues – you know, the ones from long ago that came in shades of hot pink and cool blue.  I’m not sure when those came off the market, but it’s been some time.  I view these as a testament to how dedicated they were in saving just about everything for posterity.

The photographs and family bibles are great, but the letters really go the furthest when I try to flesh out the names, dates, faces, and personalities that have emerged on that side of the family.  Letters can tell you a lot about what words and expressions ancestors used when they spoke, how they pronounced them, what an average day was like for them, and what perspective they brought to their everyday lives.

A Page from the 1900 US Federal Census

In this page from the 1900 US Federal Census, the Hamlett Family appears in Lines 30-35

The Hamlett Family posed for this photograph several years after the 1899 letter was written. Frank is the older man standing in back, at left. Mae stands to the immediate left of her brother, in the photograph's center.

Among the many letters I’ve come across in my in-laws’ collection of family artifacts, was the one below, written in the first days of 1899, by an 11-year-old girl to her father, who was, quite literally, a traveling preacher.  Tessie Mae Hamlett (‘Mae’ to the family) was the second-oldest daughter of the four children of William Franklin Hamlett and his wife, Samantha Ann (Peck) Hamlett.  When the letter was written, the family lived in Americus, Indiana, a small town near Lafayette, Indiana.  The attached page from the 1900 US Federal Census shows the family, just 17 months later, in June 1900.

Frank Hamlett, as he’s come to be known by his descendants, was a preacher in his mid-40′s at the time of the letter.  Mae, just a few days past her 11th birthday, wrote the letter below that reached him at some location whose name has been lost to history.

Below, I’ve attached the front and back of the letter, as well as a transcription.

The Front Page of the Jan. 3, 1899 Letter

From Americus, Indiana – Jan. 3, 1899

Dear papa:

I thought I would write to you this evening to let you know that we are as well as usual and hope this may find you the same.  George and Ann was up to day.  Aunt Susie is sick.  She has got a swelling on her hip.  They butchered to day that little pig. It weighed 125 pounds when it was dressed.

Bessie got a letter from Bennie Pepper to day.  He got home all right.  George said to tell you that he got a letter from worth judgement to day.  Bessie is making her a apron and manson is fixing her shoes.  Manson got mad at Bessie on Saturday but he wasn’t mad long.

We was at Kurkehains saturday night.  We popped pop corn, had lots of fun.  Well, papa, when are you coming home?

We have not heard from Jessie Emmons since they went home.   They left here friday morning about 6 o’clock in the morning and it was 10 o’clock before they got to go

Tessie Mae closes the January 1899 letter on Page 2.

away.

Well, I guess this is all for this time so good night, answer soon, good by.

Tessie Mae to papa

As I typed up the transcription, I kept the original word choice, but not the misspellings, since they appeared to be more the product of an 11-year-old girl learning her spelling than that of a true guide to her pronunciation.  This isn’t always the case, though, especially with letters written by adults.  It’s interesting to see how much contact Mae had with her family.  She makes mention to Bessie, her older sister, an Aunt Susie, and Jesse Emmons, an uncle, who lived with them at the time of the 1900 census, several months later.  There’s a bit of a rural feel to the letter too, encouraged by the talk of the butchered pig.  There’s also talk of clothing made at home – an apron, by her sister, Bessie.  And, perhaps most interesting, there are hints at the way Mae talked, when she notes “we was up at Kurkehains saturday night.”

Letters, sometimes tucked in with stacks of photographs inherited from older family members, or pressed within the pages of yellowed family bibles, provide valuable insight into the lives of ancestors and help us understand them as whole people, and not just sets of names and dates.  After reading some of our Hamlett family letters, I began to get a sense of what their voices sounded like, the accent they might have spoken with, and what words they used when they spoke.  It’s not as telling as a video or a face-to-face interview, but with the upper branches of a family tree, letters may be one of the best available and sometimes most overlooked resources.

Readers, have you come across some interesting family letters from long ago?  Did they help you learn some interesting facts about your ancestors?