Genealogy from the Heart
By: Sandy Garcia
When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.
ndra’s Net, of Hindu mythology extends infinitely in all directions. At each node of the net where threads cross, there is a perfectly clear gem that reflects all the other gems in the net. As each gem reflects every other one, so are you affected by every other system in the universe.
Why, What, and How to Begin?
My family’s history had interested me for decades, but aside from periodic conversations with relatives, I didn’t do much to learn about my ancestors. Then in 2005, I decided to look at the contents of 35 scrapbooks and photo albums that my beloved, pack rat father left when he died in 1988.
Little did I know that genealogical research would result in my experiencing a range of emotions—curiosity, sadness, joy, pride, disappointment, gratitude, surprise, and discouragement, among others. Shortly after I began what turned out to be a difficult but wonderful treasure hunt, it became clear that I needed to ask (and try to answer) questions related to my motivation, and about my point of view on people in general and our histories in particular.
Originally, my motivation was to learn more about my ancestors, who had lived primarily in New York, Missouri, Iowa, Alabama, Germany, and Canada. My point of view was that most peoples’ lives are interesting journeys that I’d like to learn more about. As the work on my project progressed, I came to believe that genealogical research can reveal many similarities and interconnections. Therefore, it was beneficial for me to simultaneously look into my own family history and to ask other people about theirs, in order to discover and celebrate aspects of this interconnectedness.
It was difficult to imagine where to begin, where to focus, and what “product” would result. I considered several approaches: heroes, heroines, and benefactors; civic and academic achievements; and triumphs and tragedies per generation. A large viewable family tree, an article, a lecture tour, and a book were all considered. It was clear that I needed help.
That I didn’t know how to conduct genealogical research and hadn’t subscribed to Ancestry.com or any similar websites were no small deterrents. However, I had four invaluable resources. The first was the rich contents of my Dad’s books that included everything from the parking ticket that my mother got on September 14, 1935, the day before her wedding, to my great, great grandparents’ obituaries.
My second resource was discussions with my brother James, about his research and our shared experiences, which added valuable information and deep meaning to this project.
The third resource was the in-depth discussions I had with, and materials I received from Estelle Anderson, the wife of my uncle Arthur, my father’s last living sibling. The fourth gift from the genealogy gods was meeting Jim Smith , expert genealogist, when I dropped by Tampa’s Latter Day Saints LDS Library, and receiving his invaluable and ongoing help.
These resources helped me to begin. I also realized that I needed to have reasonable aspirations and the wisdom to accept insurmountable roadblocks. In August 2010, my guests and I celebrated the opening of “Ben’s Place,” the Museum/Family center that I established in Asheville, North Carolina.
After I began to look at the contents of my Dad’s books and decided to create a museum/family center, the next step was to select items to be framed and put on display. I hoped that things like the 1896 report card, 1858 Bible, and great-great-granddad’s Civil War record would be triggers for others to share their family’s stories. It was my good fortune that many of them did, making them one of my richest resources.
Who? A Dozen of My Heroes, Heroines, and Benefactors
Benjamin Taylor (1816-1900) and Catherine Ghering (1828-1921) NY/Germany, Paternal Great-Great-Grandparents
Catherine Ghering, a German immigrant, married Benjamin C. Taylor, a black man, in 1846 at Michigan Street Baptist Church. This was the church of my youth, as well as being a former stop on the Underground Railroad. Their marriage certificate is one of the treasures on display at the center.
It has been hard to separate fact from family lore regarding Benjamin Taylor, after whom the family center is named. I’ve always had many questions about the life of this pre-Civil War interracial couple and their eleven children, one of whom was my great-grandmother, Elnora Elizabeth.
Listed as “cook” in an earlier census, Ben’s occupation was “doctor” in the 1860 census. I wondered how and when he became a doctor and if, according to family lore, he had actually gone on the 1849 California Gold Rush and returned to Buffalo very well off.
My brother said that he’d once been told by our grandmother that Ben was South American and copies of both his US passport application and his actual passport are in the museum. I’ve been told that free Blacks needed to carry US passports in order to move freely from the South to the North. This is an area of research that greatly interests me.
Ben and Catherine, two of the most intriguing of my ancestors, taught me to accept the unknown, and possibly unknowable. I think about their lives with admiration and gratitude.
Gustavus Anderson, Sr. (1815-1886) Virginia/Canada
and his wife, Amelia ( ? – 1896)
Also near the top of my heroes list is Gustavus Anderson, my other paternal great-great-grandfather, and father of Elnora’s husband. In 1861, this white-appearing lawyer from Virginia left for Canada with his wife, Amelia, and five children. I often have wondered how they and their progeny would have fared during and after the Civil War had they not had the courage to leave a tense, pre-war Virginia, and taken their chances in the foreign country that had received so many escaped slaves.
No one in the family knows anything about Amelia. However, looking back on our family’s visit more than six decades ago to the farm that Gus and Amelia bought in London, Ontario, Canada, I experience her presence.
Thanks to Jim’s research, a list of the crops and animals grown on the family farm is on display at the center, along with pictures of our family visit and the 1951 bill of sale. These all evoke deep feelings of family, continuity, and gratitude.
James Taylor Anderson (1979-1941) and Ora Louisa Lewis (1890-1970) NY/Iowa Paternal Grandparents
My grandfather died when I was three, so I hardly remember him. However, the gifts I received from him and my grandmother included a sense of safety and continuity when I visited them in the Anderson/Taylor family home during and after WW II. I remember like it was yesterday—VJ Day was announced and my parents, siblings, and I raced over to their home in the midst of honking horns and folks running into the streets.
The father of Grandma’s husband, Benjamin Lewis, was named Peter Stonewall Jackson Lewis, the slave of a horse trader who migrated from Texas to Glasgow, Missouri. Unable to find census records of him, I was told by some of the Lewis descendants that he hadn’t picked cotton but that he wore a white shirt and advised the master during the selection process. The distinction fascinated me.
Tolbert Turner (?) and Susan Jane Duff (1824 – ?)
There was certainty about my grandmother’s maternal grandfather, Tolbert Turner, of Glasgow, Missouri. I was grateful when I came across a slip of paper with information about him that seemed to connect me with thousands of other Americans—600,000 of whom had died in the Civil War. On the front, in my grandmother’s writing was, “67th Regiment, Tolbert Turner, Sergeant, Company “A” of the 67th Regiment of U. S. Infantry Corps, 1864 was made Sergeant. J.B. Nickerson, Adjunct of the regiment, A.J. Edjistre, Colonel, Commander of the Regiment. Discharged 1865, Glasgow, Mo.” On the back was “Grandpa Turner, My mother’s father.”
I was pleased to have this information about Great-Great-Grandpa Turner’s service—along with the fact that he had been wounded and received a pension, which Jim discovered. Of course I wondered what hardships were experienced by this black Union soldier and his wife, Susan, mother of 13, in a state with half Union and half Confederate soldiers. Strength and resilience were undoubtedly and admirably in abundance for them both.
James Edwards Anderson (1916-1988) and Thelma Harriet Crawford, (1914-1954) New York/Alabama Parents
My mother’s mother died when my mother, Thelma, was eleven days old. Sarah Harris (1898-1977), my maternal grandmother’s sister, raised the baby. Born in rural Alabama, Aunt Sarah, who didn’t graduate from high school, did ironing to get by. Though poor, she was a strong, kind, and generous heroine. When my 40-year-old mother was killed in a family car wreck in 1954, Aunt Sarah never missed a beat in helping my siblings and me.
My mother had been the strong, stabilizing factor in our family of five. She quietly but persistently encouraged my brother, sister, and me to learn all that we could. At the time, I felt that her willingness to give each of us a nickel for every grade of B and a dime for every A on our report cards was an unfair source of stress on me, the youngest. Even a bribe. Looking back, however, I realize that those few dollars were a loving sacrifice for my parents that encouraged me and my siblings to achieve academically.
My father, widowed at thirty-eight, unconscious for three months and severely injured, carried on as the multi-talented musician he was, as soon as he was able. He always had one or two day-jobs, would come home for a nap, routinely misplace his keys (for which we kids had to search high and low), and leave for his nightly music “gig”, tired but resolved. I never heard him complain.
Thelma Dianne Anderson (1937-1983) my sister
My sister Dianne was not an ancestor but is included as a dear friend, heroine, and benefactor because of the way she lived a life that was filled with adversity.
A few years after our mother was killed and Dianne was injured in the family car wreck (which prevented her from beginning her freshman year at Stanford University), she was diagnosed with a progressive form of multiple sclerosis at age 21. Over the next 25 years, she became a published playwright and acquired a B.A. degree—the latter while in a wheel chair. Even as she lay dying at 46, she never complained.
When I was diagnosed with MS in 1996, I had a template that Dianne’s life had left, on how to live with this disease with grace and dignity. The memory of Dianne’s spirit and undeniable resilience often brings a smile to my face and reminds me of the heroic and beneficent acts of our ancestors.
The offspring of the Andersons, Taylors, and Lewises had many accomplishments and I was proud to frame and display in Ben’s Place report cards, diplomas, degrees, recital programs, marriage licenses, pictures, and all sorts of records across generations. However, when I browse in the academic achievements, civic contributions, and talent sections of the museum, I think most about the individual stories of the lives of my heroes, heroines, and benefactors. Courage, sacrifice, joy, suffering, kindness, struggle, and loving actions typified these people. When I listen to the stories of others, it dawns on me that these characteristics are frequently cited as what are most memorable about their ancestors. This realization is the interconnectedness I’d hoped to find.
What I Have Learned and What I Suggest
The most valuable, and life-affirming thing that I have learned from my genealogy project has been that every person has a story worth telling.
Visitors to Ben’s Place from two groups in particular (adoptees and Holocaust survivors, whose family records were nearly completely destroyed) have expressed sadness and regret because genealogical studies aren’t possible for them. When I reflected on this, I concluded that all people have the power to define the terms and parameters of their projects and that it is their motivation and point of view that count most. The genetic makeup of adoptees’ parents, the sole surviving record of a Holocaust survivor, the prison records of a gangster, moon-shining great grandpa, or anything, can be catalysts for great adventures of learning and discovery.
Thus, I learned that once there is curiosity and interest, and when persons are motivated to learn more about themselves and others, they can begin. Proceeding with no expectations or preconceived notions of success or failure will increase the enjoyment of the journey.
“I have a suitcase full of very old pictures but I haven’t a clue who anybody is,” and “I don’t know where to begin,” are the two most frequent comments I hear from visitors to Ben’s Place. Following are some suggestions that address both.
Get advice that can help you set goals and determine which among many computer programs can best serve you. Staff at a local LDS library, who have access to the enormous database of Ancestry.com, can be particularly helpful.
Look into the material that you have in scrap books, photo albums, and letters. Label everything (old as well as current) with names of everyone in pictures, dates, places, and include as much information as possible.
Scan, digitalize, and make and securely store CDs and DVDs of all pictures and records.
Interview and record elderly relatives and people who have deep roots in your and your ancestors’ communities.
Visit Ben’s Place
Research from the heart has greatly increased my capacity for empathy, admiration, and love. My ancestors formed solid marriages under very difficult circumstances and the husbands and wives were exquisite role models, care-givers, and benefactors. When I review the research on the lives of my female ancestors who bore many children, I feel particularly grateful.
I ask myself who these women were and how they survived the bitterly cold winters in Buffalo and Canada. I wonder how they did laundry, fed and clothed their large families, and how they monitored the children’s progress in school, especially the German-speaking Catherine.
The gifts that I received from my female ancestors and supporting benefactors like security, confidence, and a sense of worth, have been with me throughout life. These women instructed that no matter what others did or said about race, poverty, or anything, I should practice The Golden Rule and strive for excellence. Some of the times that I recall receiving these messages were when I’d ride my Shelby bike to my grandmother’s house in Buffalo and chat with her, when I’d sit with my sister beside our mother and talk while she was ironing, and while eating one of Aunt Sarah’s delicious meals after having walked to her small, second floor flat in Buffalo.
Research from the heart, genetic or otherwise, can shine a bright and warming light on the human experience and our interconnectedness.
Sandy Garcia taught at the University of South Florida in Tampa for thirty-four years. She retired as emeritus professor in 2006 and moved to Asheville, which she loves. She can be reached at the genealogy museum, Ben’s Place, 121 Shadowbrook Dr., 28805, (828) 505-1855, or (813) 857-3910, and firstname.lastname@example.org.
1 See Jim’s most impressive genealogical work at his Blog, A Genealogy Hunt.