Monday, March 26, 2007

Lancelot Branch, 1836-1907

Having a name like Branch in your family tree—well, I've made my point already. There are only so many "tree-branch" jokes you can handle. Anyway, for this second blog piece, I'm going to talk about what I know about Lancelot Branch, the immigrant ancestor of the Branch line of our ancestors.

I was told about Lancelot years ago, but didn't have anything on paper about his existence. I had begun to despair when I discovered online, at about the same time, a relative who had information from his death certificate in Pennsylvania and a baptism record from an English church that appeared to be the same person. Since then, largely thanks to the efforts of more diligent relatives in the U.S. and England who have tracked down old documents, I've learned enough to make the barest sketch of Lancelot's life.

The story starts in the village of Staindrop, County Durham, in the north of England, where Lancelot Branch was born to George and Sarah Branch on March 22, 1836. He was baptized on April 17 of that year, according to parish records. (At left is the parish church in Staindrop.) We as yet know little about his parents. His father was listed in parish records as a "husbandman" and sometimes as a "laborer." George Branch's family appears to have come from nearby Yorkshire, and there are other Lancelot Branches in previous generations that we might assume are relatives.

For some reason, Lancelot doesn't show up with his parents and siblings in the 1841 census, when he would have been five years old. Nor does he ten years later, but the 1851 census also tells us why: at the age of 15, Lancelot was working as a farm laborer in Morton Palms, some 20 miles away. This confirms something his granddaughter Sarah Ball once told me—that Lancelot had a "falling out" with his father and left home at an early age.

The next we know of Lancelot is not until December 1866, when his marriage to Elizabeth Charlton—a coal miner's daughter—was recorded in Tynemouth, near Newcastle. Lancelot's occupation is also listed as coal miner, the job that would soon take him and his family to America.

Lancelot and Elizabeth's first child, Sarah Jane, was born just under nine months later and recorded in Tynemouth. She may have been named for Lancelot's mother. We know he was fond of the name—when his eldest son John George Branch had a daughter many years later, Lancelot came to the house, put a five-dollar bill in the infant's hand, and told her parents "Her name is going to be Sarah Jane." (And it was—the aforementioned Sarah Ball.)

Two years later, in 1869, Lancelot arrived in the United States without his wife and child, according to a ship manifest. In the 1870 census, he was found in Beaver County, Pennsylvania, living in what must have been a rooming house for coal miners.

In my experience, most such migrations in families in the 19th-century were part of larger family moves, accompanied by parents, siblings, and/or in-laws. But Lancelot seems to have moved on his own; none of his siblings or their familes moved to America. So although the name Branch is not all that uncommon in the U.S., it is not likely that most Branches you meet are closely related to our line.

In March, 1871, the same year that Lancelot filed his request for U.S. citizenship, Elizabeth and Sarah Jane arrived at the Port of New York aboard the S.S. Minnesota. (This was before Ellis Island, so they would have been processed at Castle Garden at the tip of Manhattan.) A year later, Lancelot and Sarah had their second child, John George Branch. He was presumably named for his two grandfathers, John Charlton and George Branch, but he was always known as George.

It would appear that Lancelot and Elizabeth spent all of their American years in Pennsylvania, except for one quirky fact: in four successive censuses (1900—1930), John George Branch's state of birth is listed as Indiana. Other sources, including his death certificate, say he was born in Pennsylvania, but someone in his household insisted otherwise. So it's possible that the family moved briefly to Indiana after Elizabeth and Sarah arrived in America. (There was coal mining in that state by the 1870s.)

[UPDATE 11/16/07: By the way, I have considered the possibility that George was in fact born in the town or county of Indiana, Pennsylvania, which is in the coal mining region, but it's hard to imagine the same misunderstanding happening between householder and census taker four decades in a row.]

Lancelot became an American citizen in Somerset Co., Pennsylvania in the centennial year of 1876.

Lancelot and Elizabeth had at least four more children: Thomas James, born in 1875, Elizabeth, born about 1876, Maggie, born about 1879, and Joseph, born about 1883.

By 1880, the family was living in Jefferson County, Pennsylvania, where Lancelot bought a farm in an area called Horatio, not far from Punxsutawney. Elizabeth died some time in the 1880s, and Lancelot married again, to a woman named Rachel, in about 1887.

Lancelot died of pneumonia on December 7, 1907 at the age of 71. He was buried on his farm.

About Lancelot's children: I know that John George Branch—possessed of none of his father's wanderlust—stayed on in Horatio, took over his father's farm, and lived there until he died in 1940. He and his wife, the former Margaret Jehu, had seven children and fourteen grandchildren. Thomas James Branch married Annie Haddick; they had 12 children. Thomas was a mining superintendent in southwest Pennsylvania. I am in contact with some of Thomas's descendants, but I have yet to find out any more about the three daughters or about Joseph. (If you know something, contact me via the comments.)

I don't know much about England in Lancelot's time, but it strikes me that he achieved the American Dream that many immigrants sought at the time. He did not become rich, but after years in the mines, he was able to get a piece of property for himself and his family—something that perhaps wouldn't have been possible in England for the uneducated son of a farm laborer. With so little to go on in terms of information about Lancelot, it's kind of touching that after so many years of hard work, the occupation on his death certificate said "farmer."

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