Sunday, November 11, 2012

Not Quite Hatfields and McCoys, But Still Pretty Bloody

The New York Times wrote about the Turner-Howard feud in 1889.
Well, I certainly didn't expect to uncover a new piece of family history while reading Malcolm Gladwell's book Outliers, but that's exactly what just happened. Outliers is Gladwell's attempt to explain what makes people successful. As the back cover puts it, "we should look at the world that surrounds the successful—their culture, their family, their generation, and the idiosyncratic experiences of their upbringing." (I'm just halfway through the book, and it's really fascinating. I'd recommend it.)

To illustrate how centuries-old cultural traits shape people to this day, Gladwell talks about one of my favorite subjects, the Scotch-Irish immigrants whose proud, violent culture was shaped by their experience on the border of England and Scotland. A good half of my ancestry is Scotch-Irish, and some of the stories I've told on this blog reflect that culture of feuding hill-country clans. (Remember how Silas Jones fled Arkansas? The story is here, here, and here.) Gladwell uses as an example a feud between the Howard and Turner families in Harlan County, Kentucky, after the Civil War.

The feud he recounts—between the descendants of William Turner and those of Samuel Howard—went on for years and cost at least a dozen lives. (One account is here; you can read Gladwell's summary on Google Books here.) It started with a dispute over a poker game and escalated with each successive insult to Scotch-Irish honor. At one point, the governor sent troops to the area to protect the courthouse in the midst of the feud, and in 1889, the New York Times published an article about the feud, calling it "a faction war that has cost many lives and still disgraces the state of Kentucky." The main characters on the Turner side were grandsons of the patriarch William Turner: Will, George, and "Devil Jim." As Gladwell puts it succinctly, "These were not pleasant people."

When I saw the name Turner and Harlan County, though, I had to reach for my family history files. And sure enough, the same William Turner described as the patriarch of the feuding family was an ancestor. Born in 1770 in Virginia, William married Susannah Bailey and moved to Harlan County, where he owned a tavern and two general stores. Their daughter Mary Turner married Bales Shumate. They had at least one son, William Shumate, before Mary drowned in the Clover Fork River in 1828. (The family story is that she was going to her sister's house to care for someone who was sick.) A few years later, their son William moved to Arkansas with his wife Sarah and her Ball family; Bales moved to Arkansas at about the same time. William and Sarah were the parents of Bennett Shumate, who fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War and was Cal Jones's grandfather. (I wrote about the Joneses and Shumates in the Civil War here.)

So although my direct ancestors had moved west some 30 years before the feud began, they were very closely related to the feuding Turners. I hope to learn more about the particulars of the feud and report in future blog posts.

Monday, June 11, 2012

The Vermont Clarks and the Year Without a Summer

I've talked about this before, but the most common theme in my family history is an insistent westward movement over many generations. I've learned enough by now to understand the macro reasons for such movement: people scraping together an existence from the land had to keep looking for new land, and, being poor people, they had to keep looking for land nobody really wanted.

But in the absence of much detailed written or oral history in my family, I've never known much about the events or decisions that may have led anyone in particular to pick up stakes and move. (There are some exceptions, most notably Silas Jones's perceived need to get out of Arkansas in a hurry.)

So it was exciting for me to hear today about the Year Without a Summer in New England in 1816. I heard about this on an episode of Backstory, a terrific public radio show about American history. As they described it, there was crazy snow, cold temperatures, and frozen ground all summer, leading to crop failures and hunger.

The eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia in 1815 was bad news for farmers, but good news for painters of sunsets. J .M. W. Turner's painting Chichester Canal was inspired by the golden sunsets caused by the ashy sky.
It is now understood that the cold weather was largely due to a huge volcanic eruption in Indonesia the year before, but no one knew that at the time, and, as the Backstory guys explained, the freak winter caused people to leave Vermont and New Hampshire in great numbers for less settled, warmer places like Ohio and Indiana.

As it happens, my only New England ancestors, John and Marcy Clark (who I've talked about a little before), were married in Vermont in 1810. Eight years later, their son Ambrose was born in Ross County, Ohio. I have no record of when they moved (nor do I have birthdates or birthplaces for any children older than Ambrose) but the timing makes me wonder if they were among the people who fled New England when it seemed that summer would never come again.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Lancelot's Round Table

One of the main reasons I started this blog was to put out some information that would attract distant cousins who were Googling family names so that we could find each other and share information. So the main reason for this post is to share some information I've gleaned over the last few years about the family of Lancelot Branch, the progenitor of all our Branch relatives in America. (That's his headstone at left, at the Horatio Cemetery near Punxsutawney, PA.)

As I talked about in this post a few years ago, Lancelot was an English coal miner who left England for Pennsylvania after the Civil War and sent for his wife and young daughter soon after. Unlike a lot of families who immigrated to America, Lancelot wasn't part of a bigger group including siblings and cousins—the rest of his family seems to have stayed behind in England. (The single exception I know about is his cousin Cuthbert Branch, who went to Ontario.) So even though there are a fair number of Branches in the U.S., we're not likely related to most of them.

When i wrote the last post about Lancelot, I knew from census records that he and his wife Elizabeth had three sons and three daughters: John George (my own ancestor), Thomas, Joseph, Sarah Jane, Elizabeth, and Maggie. At that time, though, I had only made contact with people from the family of Thomas. Since then, I have found what became of Joseph (he went to Canton, Ohio, and had three daughters) and Sarah Jane (she married John Commons and raised a large family in Southwest Pennsylvania). While I haven't found any of Joseph's family members, I have been in touch with a descendant of Sarah Jane's. Through online newspaper archives, census records, and even Facebook, I've been able to add dozens more people to my record of Lancelot's descendants.

But I'd like to add more! I don't know what became of Joseph's daughters, and not all of Thomas and Sarah's people are accounted for, and Elizabeth and Maggie are still complete mysteries. To that end, I'm posting this table of Lancelot's descendants—stopping at his great-grandchildren and excluding the names of any people who are likely to be alive (for privacy's sake). It may be of interest to some of you, but the main reason for posting it is essentially as "Google bait." If you've come to this page because you searched on a name and have discovered a connection, e-mail me at

I Lancelot Branch 1836 Staindrop UK–1907 Horatio, PA

m 1866 Tynemouth UK Elizabeth Charlton

II Sarah Jane Branch 9/9/1867 Seghill, UK–1914 PA

m ca. 1884 John Commons 1858–1942

III Maude Commons ca. 1886 TN– July 1961 Meyersdale, PA

III Charles William Commons 2/24/1887 Meyersdale, PA–8/16/1966 Carmichaels, PA

m ca. 1916 Mildred Margaret Crossland 4/28/1893 Glassport, PA–6/7/1966 Carmichaels, PA

IV Charles Howard Commons 3/16/1917 Boswell, PA–7/4/1971 St. Petersburg, FL

m 2 Lydia Lorraine Bryan 7/12/1927 Columbus, OH–5/18/1967 St. Petersburg, FL

IV Marguerite M. Commons 9/28/1918 Boswell, PA–11/9/2001 Bedford, VA

IV George M. Commons 9/2/1920 PA–8/27/1981 PA in Carmichaels in 1966

IV Edith Jane Commons 12/7/1922 PA–9/19/2000 CO?

IV [Daughter]

Virginia Ruth Commons ca. 1929 PA

III Harry Commons 2/26/1889 Meyersdale, PA–2/1960 Detroit, MI

III Raymond L. Commons 8/4/1890 PA–10/29/1963 Ligonier, PA

III Ralph Edward Commons 3/23/1892 Summit Twp., PA–4/25/1961 Miami, FL

m 6/5/1923 Detroit MI Emma Leonora Flach 12/20/1894 Detroit, MI–12/10/1966 Ferndale, MI

IV Ralph Edward Commons 3/20/1924 Detroit MI–12/20/1990 Pinellas Co., FL

IV Lenore Ruth Commons 10/7/1926 Detroit, MI–8/31/1976 MI

m Edward Marckwardt 6/14/1923–5/1/2009 Cadillac, MI

III Ruth J. Commons 9/22/1893 Meyersdale, PA–7/2/1967 Berlin, PA

m 4/22/1933 John Adam Gruber 12/28/1901 Penn, PA–6/9/1999 Topton, PA

III John Roy Commons 1/14/1896 Somerset Co. PA–6/7/1952 Altoona, PA

m ca. 1923 Emma J. Finnegan ca. 1898 PA

IV John Roy Commons Jr. 12/2/1923 PA–1/24/1997 PA

IV [Daughter]

IV [Son]

III Byron Earl Commons 8/19/1898 Meyersdale,PA–1/30/1986 Escondido, CA

m Roseanna McCabe 6/27/1917 Ida Grove, IA–1/8/2000 Rancho Murieta, CA

IV Richard Earl Commons 11/3/1948 CA–12/13/1997 CA

II John George Branch 3/4/1872 Somerset Co., Pa.–3/4/1940 Horatio, Pa.

m 10/1896 Punxatawney, Pa. Margaret Jehu 6/15/1877 Providence Pa.–1/4/1971 Commodore, Pa.

III Clarence Milo Branch 8/6/1897 Horatio, Pa.–4/1968 Bristow, Okla.

m 1928 Okla. City, OK Blanche Idella Vermillion 4/6/1907 Wayne, IT–11/28/2003 Drumright, OK

IV [Son]

IV [Son]

IV [Daughter]

III Richard Branch 12/6/1900 Desire, Pa–1946 Youngstown, OH

m Bessie Elizabeth Johns 2/9/1903 Punxsutawney, PA–8/14/1993 Youngstown, OH

IV [Son]

IV Richard Branch 10/10/1925 Ohio–2/18/1997 Los Angeles, CA

III Ruth Branch 1903 Horatio, Pa.–1903 Horatio, Pa.

III Sarah Jane Branch 1/10/1906 Horatio, Pa.—7/22/2000 Hillsdale, Pa.

m 2/28/1925 Leonard Ball 9/10/1902 Elanora, PA–1/4/1983 Indiana, Pa.

IV [Son

IV Clarence Leroy Ball 1/11/1928 PA–May 15, 2006 Dixonville, PA

m 5/27/1949 Betty Mae Witherite 12/22/1927 Green Twp., PA–10/6/2001 Commodore, PA

IV William Eugene Ball 12/29/1930–7/10/1951 Cincinnati, OH

IV Gerald Wayne Ball 10/31/1935–7/27/2011

III George Branch 7/29/1908 Horatio, Pa.–7/1981 Greenville, Pa.

m 8/3/1929 Ruby Arlene Shovestull 6/14/1910 PA–5/1981 Greenville, Pa.

IV Robert Eugene Branch 7/15/1931 PA–11/8/2000 OH

IV [Daughter]

IV John George Branch 12/30/1934–3/1/2000 Greenville, Pa.

III Esther Branch 4/2/1913 Punxatawney, Pa.–1/1942

m Leroy Jones

III Harry Leeroy Branch 12/24/1916 Punxsutawney, Pa.–11/11/1994 Youngstown, OH

m 7/13/1942 Gladys Johnson 3/20/1923 OH?–8/1/2007 Poland, OH

IV Alice Esther Branch d. bef. 8/1/2007

IV [Daughter]

II Thomas James Branch 10/1874-5, Meyersdale, PA–1933 Arnold City, PA

m Annie Haddick b. Wrekenton, Northumberland Co., UK–1971, PA

III Leonard William Branch 6/4/1895–10/2/1966, Allen Park, MI

m 10/10/1928 Detroit, MI Mary Agnes Walsh 3/22/1902 Montreal, QC–8/31/2006 San Pedro, CA

IV Thomas Martin Branch 8/2/1929 Grosse Pointe, MI–11/1991, Troy, MI

IV [Son]

IV Robert William Branch 12/17/1932 Detroit, MI–11/27/1972 Los Angleles, CA

IV [Son]

III Margaret Branch ca. 1898 PA–aft. 4/1942

m ca. 1916 Frederick Homer Moors 6/26/1893 Butler, PA–10/12/1962 Somerset Co., PA

IV Arthur Gene Moors 6/26/1917 PA–5/18/1997 MI

m Hilda Blanche Arisman 5/15/1918–1/16/2000 MI

IV Dorothy M. Moors 8/10/1920 Boswell, PA–3/19/1985 Virgilina, VA

m Henderson Loftis 11/11/1919–4/1957

III Elizabeth Branch 2/11/1900 Punxsutawney, PA–2/26/1991 Clarion, PA

m ca. 1923 John Richard Baldwin ca. 1899 PA

IV Gloria Baldwin 12/5/1925 PA–12/17/2003 FL

IV [Son]

III Maude Pearl Branch 4/30/1903 Meyersdale, PA–8/1983 Bellevue, WA

m ca. 1925 Walter M. "Bus" McMillen 10/18/1903 Bridgeville, PA–4/13/1955 Bridgeville, PA

IV [Daughter]

IV Robert Branch McMillen 7/10/1935 PA–10/12/2002 Bellevue, WA

III Leona Louise Branch 11/22/1905–2/23/1997 Pittsburg, PA

m Edward William Schietinger 7/1/1894 Pittsburgh, PA–6/2/1985

IV [Daughter]

IV [Daughter]

IV [Daughter]

III Anna Branch 8/12/1908–4/21/2004

m Raymond S. Call 1901–1946

IV [Son]

IV [Son]

III Ruth Branch ca. 1912

m Robert Schmidt

IV [Son]

III Thomas James Branch 7/9/1915 PA–11/17/1978 CA

m Rose Lillian Caplan 8/29/1915 PA–7/1/1977 CA

IV [Son]

IV [Daughter]

III Irene Branch ca. 1921

m Glenn Wilhelm

IV [Daughter]

IV [Son]

IV [Son]

II Elizabeth Ann Branch ca. 1876

II Maggie Branch ca. 1879

II Joseph William Branch 8/26/1884-5 Meyersdale, PA–1947 OH

m ca. 1912 Mabel/Mable Lenora Burchfield 2/1/1893 PA–1/30/1974 OH

III Mona L. Branch 5/1/1913 PA–4/9/2000

III L. Irene Branch 2/4/1915 PA–1/30/1989 OH

III [Daughter]

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Our Cousin in the White House

I read today that President Obama went to Arlington National Cemetery to pay his respects to Frank Buckles, who was until last week the last surviving veteran of World War I. Somehow that reminded me that Obama's grandfather, Stanley Dunham (that's young Barack and his grandfather in the picture), was a veteran of World War II, and that started me off on one of those long serendipitious internet rambles that led me to a satisfying but not-so-surprising discovery: Barack Obama is a cousin to our Jones family.

Specifically, he's Cal Jones's 9th cousin twice removed, or, put another way, Cal was a straight 9th cousin to Stanley Dunham. The first common ancestor is a man by the name of Benois Brasseur (1620–1663), a French Huguenot who came to Maryland some time before 1635. (Huguenots were French Protestants who were persecuted by the Catholic powers-that-were in France; a number of them settled in Canada, New York, and the mid-South in the 17th and early 18th centuries. The Shumate ancestors on the Jones side were also Huguenots; their original surname was de la Chaumette.) The name was gradually anglicized to Brashears, now a common surname in the south.

Benois Brasseur was an ancestor of Stanley Dunham's on his mother's side, and an ancestor of Cal Jones's on his mother's side. (Specifically the line goes through Cal's mother Nannie Shumate, her father Bennett Shumate, his mother Sarah Ball, her father Bennett Ball, his father Moses Ball, his mother Ann Brashears and then back four more generations to Benois.) And the journey of the future president's family across the continent was not so different from that of Cal's family. Cal's Brasseur/Brashears ancestors moved over several generations from Maryland to Virginia to Kentucky to Arkansas and finally to Oklahoma. Obama's went from Maryland to Kentucky to Missouri and finally to Kansas. The original French Huguenots married into English and Scots-Irish families and assimilated into the backwoods Appalachian culture that they brought with them as they moved west from one scrubby stand of mountains to the next until they ran out of new woodlands.

I said the discovery was not so suprising, and that's because I've spent enough time looking at American family trees to know that if a piece of your family has been here for 300 years or so, there's a pretty good chance you're related to another American who can say the same. Without trying very hard, I've already discovered that Cal was a 9th cousin to Richard Nixon (through Cal's Quaker great-grandmother) and an 8th cousin once removed to George W. Bush (through his New England great-great-grandparents), and that his great-great-great-great grandfather was a second cousin to James Madison. And if one unconfirmed lineage is to be believed, Cal was a sixth cousin once removed to his own wife Clara. (They both had Quaker ancestors named Mills.)

The ironic thing for me is that while a lot of people spend a lot of time trying to show how foreign Obama is, we forget that half his lineage—and that of the people that raised him—is from that same Scots-Irish Protestant Appalachian culture that has produced the strongest and most vociferous opposition to his presidency. I'll bet his grandfather and mine would have had a lot to talk about.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Young Burton

To make up for rudely fact-checking William McClung Paxton's book, I should give him posthumous thanks for gathering and documenting hundreds of Paxton cousins—including the Confederate general and Yale graduate Elisha Franklin Paxton and the Texas pioneer Sam Houston (both cousins of our Paxton forebears). Also, he published this nice picture of Burton Paxton and one of George that I blogged here.

Another family myth shot to hell

Before I learned almost anything else about my family history, I knew -- or thought I knew -- one juicy fact: that one of Clara Paxton's ancestors had officiated at the beheading of Charles I during the English Civil War. This nugget came from a 1903 genealogy called The Paxtons: We Are One by William McClung Paxton. The book outlines the genealogy of a Paxton family that immigrated from Northern Ireland to Pennsylvania and then to Virginia in the 18th century. (Clara, her brother Burton, and their parents George and Grace are actually listed in the book, which also includes photos of George and Burton.) Here's how the Charles I story is reported in the book:
Several centuries of Scottish life had endured [sic] the Paxtons with love of liberty, and with the heroic faith, and piety of John Knox. Of course, they cast their lives and fortune to Cromwell. One of the family officiated at the execution of King Charles I. This may have been James, our ancestor. After the restoration, in 1603, James Paxton fled to County Antrim, in the north of Ireland, and found friends in the Scotch-Irish inhabitants."
The wording "officiated" had always puzzled me. Did it mean he was the executioner? The master of ceremonies? After living in Connecticut for a while and reading more history, I learned more about what happened to Charles I -- and what happened to the men who signed his death warrant after his son, Charles II, was restored to the throne. (Three of those men, known as the regicides, escaped to America and hid out among their Puritan friends in Connecticut. There are three streets in New Haven named for them: Whalley, Dixwell, and Goffe.) In my armchair historian kind of way, I searched in vain for any mention of a Paxton in connection with the story of the execution. Over time, I also learned that a lot of William McClung Paxton's scholarship has been found to be erroneous, if not fanciful, during the century since his book was written.

But my occasional Google searches recently led me to one woman's theory about the Paxton-Charles connection -- that it was just a case of mistaken identity because of vaguely similar names. On a genealogy listserv, Joanne writes:
[N]o Paxton was recorded as being present at the time of the execution of King Charles I. It was Dr. William JUXON -- not Paxton -- who was present and officiated at Charles' execution in in January 1649. Juxon was a well-know clergyman, the Bishop of London, and appointed as Lord Treasurer of England.
But wait a minute. The Bishop of London and Lord Treasurer of England would have been an ally of the king's. So maybe "officiate" means something different in this case. Off to Wikipedia's entry on William Juxon (that's their picture of him above):

During the Civil War, the bishop, against whom no charges were brought in parliament, lived undisturbed at Fulham Palace. His advice was often sought by the king, who had a very high opinion of him. The king selected Juxon to be with him on the scaffold and to offer him the last rites before his execution.
So he was that kind of officiant, acting in a priestly capacity. If this is in fact the story, it's hard to see how William McClung Paxton could have gotten it more wrong. Too bad. I liked having a bad-ass regicide in the family.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Putting a Face With the Name

I've written a few times before about Levi Overholser, my pioneering, railroad-promoting, gun-toting, alleged-bankruptcy-fraud-committing ancestor. But I don't ever remember seeing a picture of him. Now, from an Overholser cousin, here he is.

Said cousin also sent this photo of Levi and Mary Overholser's graves at Fairlawn Cemetery in Oklahoma City. Thanks, Cousin!