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Ever think you missed out on something in grade school history class? Sure, you got the bare facts: the names, the places, the events. What you didn't get was the story of the people who lived through it all.
Behind every pivotal moment in history are ancestors with stories--where they were, what they learned, how they grew. We've taken eight of those moments and paired each with the story of an ancestor who was really there, so you can have a better view of the side of history that school tends to miss--the family side--and the motivation you need to dig even deeper into a history that's truly yours.
1. Landing of the Mayflower
On 6 September 1620, the Mayflower set out due west from Plymouth, England, shunning its usual cargo--wine--for 102 passengers seeking religious freedom in the New World.
Initially, these "Separatists," whom the British Crown felt were intent on destroying the Anglican Church, had left England for the Dutch town of Leiden, lured there by the tolerance in the Netherlands. Unfortunately, the move backfired. Once their children started assimilating into the open-minded Dutch culture, Separatist leaders looked for a place without such tempting influences.
After several years of petitioning the British Crown for a charter, the Separatists agreed to seven years' indentured service in the New World in order to obtain a land patent from the London Virginia Company. Strong winds blew them off course, and their ship landed a bit north--in Massachusetts.
While the Pilgrims, as they've become known in American history, made their transatlantic trip with just a pair of fatalities, only half of the Mayflower's passengers survived the following New England winter. Conditions improved as the weather warmed and crops were planted. The next fall, remaining settlers and the native Wampanoag people celebrated their harvest through a week of successive feasts that eventually became known as the first Thanksgiving.
Your Story--Mayflower Departure
On a cold night in December 1620, a young woman plunged off the Mayflower into the icy waters off Cape Cod. No one knows if she jumped or fell, but our family believes that Dorothy May Bradford took her life because she suspected that her husband, William, was in love with someone else. That someone else was my ancestor.
While in Cape Cod researching our family tree back to 12 passengers on the Mayflower, my mother discovered this sad tale in the book "Early Encounters" by Delores Bird Carpenter, from the papers of W. Sears Nickerson. Of Dorothy May, Carpenter writes, "Family tradition held the opinion that Governor William Bradford's first wife loved him passionately but that her love was never fully reciprocated." Our family agreed. William had married Dorothy May after his first love refused him. Then, leaving behind in Holland the three-year-old son she had with William, Dorothy May endured four miserable months of seasickness and crowded quarters aboard the Mayflower. Her fragile spirit broke, and she leapt into the freezing cold waters of Provincetown Harbor.
Three years later, William Bradford married his first love, my ancestor, Alice Carpenter Southworth, who had recently been widowed. She came to America on a ship called the Anne, "flying as straight to the arms of William Bradford as an arrow to its mark."
2. Signing of the Declaration of Independence
The end of the French and Indian War, known as the Seven Years' War in Europe, left Britain wading in a deep pool of debt. To gain some much-needed cash, Britain, in 1764, began imposing new laws on American colonies and slapping taxes on everything from newspapers to marriage licenses.
Because the colonies were now more self-sufficient and less dependent on Mother England, the laws and the taxes seemed unfair. So in September 1774, delegates from 12 of the colonies formed the Continental Congress to determine how to deal with England's actions. In 1775, when the group met again, they created the Continental Army and issued currency, but members still weren't in agreement on breaking ties with England--that would take another year of negotiations. Soon after, native Virginian Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, which was reviewed and revised by the Continental Congress and officially adopted on 4 July 1776.
Your Story--Declaring Dependence
William Howard is my Name
And England is my Nation
America is my Dwelling Place
and Heaven I hope my Habitation.
William Howard came to the colonies rather late compared to the rest of my Revolutionary ancestors--I have found 12 male relations who served the young country in some capacity during the Revolutionary War. William was born around 1727 in England. His son Peter was born there in 1759. They both came to America and settled in Virginia, but, based on the poem, William wasn't immediately taken by the new land.
It may have been the signing of the Declaration of Independence that triggered the change in the Howard family's loyalties. In March 1778, son Peter "substituted himself" (volunteered) to serve in the 3rd Virginia Regiment. He was wounded at the Battle of Waxhaws (Buford's Defeat) in South Carolina in 1780. It's quite likely that Peter's service changed William's thoughts about America--according to DAR records, William was also a patriot, giving aid to the Revolution.
The above poem, currently in the possession of my first cousin, was brought to a family reunion in 2004, appropriately held on the July 4 holiday.
And as for the reference to Heaven, both William and Peter did their part to secure their places there. William was a Baptist minister in southwestern Virginia, serving three churches. Peter also served as a minister.
3. California Gold Rush
Immigrants who failed to pass the primary inspection would be given a special yellow card labeled "S.I." — Special Inquiry. Special Inquiry cases were handled by boards of three inspectors who listened to the immigrant's story and investigated further. The board had the power to admit an immigrant or to exclude an immigrant and order deportation. Immigrants were, however, permitted to formally appeal exclusion orders.
3. California Gold Rush
John Sutter came to America in 1834, determined to accomplish his dream of building an agricultural empire. Thirteen years and thousands of dollars of debt later, he sent workers to build a sawmill on the section of the American River that ran through his property. In January 1848, one of the workers, John Marshall, noticed a glint in the river. When Marshall pulled the glittering something out of the water, he was shocked to see he was holding gold.
While both Marshall and Sutter agreed to keep the gold discovery a secret, within two months, news of the gold at Sutter's Mill made the press. Shortly thereafter, gold was discovered at other sites in the state. People began to pour into California hoping to strike it rich. Sutter's land was destroyed in a matter of months, and San Francisco quickly became a thriving metropolis averaging 30 new houses and two murders a day.
Your Story--Striking It Rich
Just a few lines in a county history book--History of Watauga County, North Carolina--triggered the search to find my relative who went to the California Gold Rush--and "got rich." Turns out, though, that his riches were not made digging in the mines, but in apple orchards.
A box of apples grown by Jonathan Lewis, near Fresno Flats, were on exhibition at the Grand Central this week and attracted the attention of many strangers who generally have the impression that really fine apples cannot be grown in this portion of California.
-Fresno (California) Republican, 31 October 1885.
Lewis was a very industrious man and intelligent also. His sisters in North Carolina sent him many apple trees from the old plantation. He had considerable knowledge of horticulture, so soon he had a very profitable orchard producing fine apples, which he often hauled to Fresno and sold at a big price. Lewis took an Indian wife of a nearby tribe known as the Fresno Tribe.
-Manzanita (California) District, 1937.
In panning for genealogical gold, I discovered Jonathan Lewis actually had two Indian wives, children by both, and left a rich and unique chapter for our family history.
-Myra Vanderpool Gormley, CG
4. Seneca Falls Convention and Women's Rights
1920 has long been celebrated as the year women finally received the right to vote in America. But the struggle to get there dates all the way back to a London anti-slavery convention in 1840, where Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott first met and discussed the possibility of a similar convention in America to address women's rights.
The Seneca Falls Convention in 1848, where the first talk of women's suffrage surfaced, was received with resounding criticism in the press, something Stanton appreciated--it was, after all, bringing attention to her cause. A few years later, she linked up with Susan B. Anthony to convince women that winning the right to vote should be their priority, since it would lead to additional freedoms.
In 1878, suffragists convinced California congressman A. A. Sargent to introduce a constitutional amendment prohibiting sexual discrimination in voting. The amendment was turned down, suffering the same fate during just about every subsequent session of Congress for the next 41 years.
Once Wyoming, a territory that allowed its women to vote, became a state in 1890, things began to change. By 1900, other western states had also given women the right to vote, and in 1912, Theodore Roosevelt's national political party became the first with a platform supporting women's suffrage. State after state began to grant women the right to vote. Finally, in 1920, a constitutional amendment was ratified, banning gender-based voting discrimination.
Your Story--Girl Power
In 1826, my relative Elizabeth Margaret Chandler wrote, "A Letter to the Ladies of the United States" that was published in Lloyd Garrison's The Liberator. In it, Elizabeth stated that since women manage the household finances, they hold the power to eliminate slavery. She called for a boycott of anything made from slave labor--a bold move for a young Quaker lady in Philadelphia. Elizabeth, incidentally, was also quite famous for bringing her honey cake to abolitionist meetings--she wouldn't use molasses, the accepted sweetener of the time, because it was made with slave labor.
5. Civil War
Shortly after Abraham Lincoln was elected president of the United States, South Carolina seceded, disapproving of his ideas on state's rights and abolition. By inauguration day, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas had followed suit, naming Jefferson Davis president of the newly formed Confederate States of America.
Lincoln's hope to reconcile peacefully died when Confederate troops fired on the federally held Fort Sumter in South Carolina. The attack marked the beginning of a four-year conflict that would eventually cause the death of hundreds of thousands of Americans.
With the surrender of Fort Sumter to the South, four more states--Virginia, Arkansas, Tennessee, and North Carolina--seceded, bringing the number of Confederate states to 11. Initially, determination and strategy favored the Confederates; however, bloody battles, including the pivotal battle at Antietam, Maryland, on 17 September 1862, turned the tide in favor of Union forces. Months later, Lincoln issued his Emancipation Proclamation on 1 January 1863. The war ended with the surrender of Confederate forces, led by General Robert E. Lee, in Appomattox on 9 April 1865; five days later, Lincoln was assassinated.
Your Story--Fallen Soldier
David Abraham Okes
22 June 1816–4 July 1883
Private, Union Army 2nd Ohio Militia Infantry, 1862
The dates on my great-great-grandfather David Abraham Okes's grave marker were the facts that bracketed his life. Everything else we knew about him was family legend: he came to America from Bavaria in 1838; he and his wife, Mary, lost six children to a diphtheria epidemic in Cincinnati in 1853; he died in a fall from a window while watching a July 4 parade. His 90-year-old granddaughter had added some detail to this portion of David's story--"He was cheering on his regiment as they passed in the parade, which might mean that he was in the Civil War." David Okes was sick that day, or so the legend goes. That's why he wasn't marching.
It was another 30 years before Internet research helped us firm up the details: David Okes had enlisted as a private in the Union Army, 2nd Ohio Militia Infantry, on 3 September 1862 "at the age of 40," according to one online record. He was actually 46, but men over 45 were considered too old to serve. He had already lost enough for one lifetime, and the city of Cincinnati, his home of 25 years, was under threat of attack by Confederate forces; it makes sense that the call of duty was strong enough for this German Jewish immigrant to lie and make himself younger.
According to a history written about his regiment, the 2nd regiment served picket duty—a scattered line "in sight of the enemy" in advance of the rest of the troops. Picket duty was considered one of the most dangerous positions and one of the most likely places a soldier would be killed. But not David. Further research confirmed the family legend. The stark entry on an obscure index card in the University of Cincinnati Archives cites David Okes's cause of death: "Fall. Shock."
6. Completion of the Transcontinental Railroad
It was just a simple golden spike. But on 10 May 1869, the moment that spike was driven and the tracks of the Central Pacific and Union Pacific railroads were connected, America's Wild West grew a little tamer. And the country's vast expanse became a little smaller.
It started like this: after working on competing rail lines, the Union Pacific and the Central Pacific were ordered by Congress to bring their tracks to a single meeting point—following two days of negotiating, the railroads decided on Promontory Summit in Utah territory. Over the course of construction, employees of both railroads--mostly Irish, German, Italian, and Chinese immigrants--faced fierce conditions in a race to lay the most track. But why the rush? For every mile completed, the railroad received land and cash in return.
To mark the completion at Promontory Summit, the Union Pacific sent train No. 119 from Omaha, Nebraska, to face the Jupiter, the wood-burning steamer train of the Central Pacific. Ceremonial spikes, including the famed gold one, were presented by several states, but ultimately an iron spike completed the rail line.
Unfortunately, the line didn't last long. In 1903, it was demoted to a secondary route in favor of a simpler, straight route through Salt Lake City. In 1942, the line was removed for good, and the tracks were given to the U.S. military.
Your Story--The Big House
My ancestor Abraham Hunsaker was a prominent man in Box Elder County, Utah, dry farming, stock ranching, and operating a grist mill at the time the transcontinental railroad was built. He and his sons contracted with Central Pacific Company to construct a mile of roadbed. They also collected wood for a bridge over the Bear River--but the wood was never used for a bridge, and their mile of grade was never used in the actual railroad.
The first office of the Union Pacific Railroad in Brigham City was located in the "Hunsaker Big House"--which was just a big house built by the Hunsakers in the early 1860s when the polygamous family realized it needed more room to grow. At least three of Abraham's wives' families lived there. Abraham wrote mottoes on the window moldings, such as "In God we trust," "God bless our home," and "Honor thy father and thy mother."
A pair of Abraham's sons, Israel and John, had their own railroad stories: John has recalled living in a cave near Little Mountain during construction, and Israel was the oldest living man to have worked on the railroad's construction who was also in attendance at a celebration of the railroad in 1942, just before the old Promontory line was abandoned.
-Thomas L. Packer
7. Stock Market Crash
With the economic boom and national growth of the 1920s, Americans wasted no time reveling in luxury. Speculation at the New York Stock Exchange, the world's largest at the time, increased exponentially, and over $8.5 billion was out on loan by 1929, more than all of the currency circulating in the United States.
The economic bubble this created, however, finally burst on what would come to be known as Black Thursday--24 October 1929. On that day, low share prices sparked a panic resulting in a record 12.9 million shares being traded. Financial giants joined together and bought stock in an attempt to stay the panic, but Americans still wanted out.
On the following Tuesday, 29 October 1929, the New York Stock Exchange experienced trades of 16.4 million shares. The Exchange lost a total of $30 billion in a single week--10 times more than that year's federal budget. Stock prices declined dramatically for the rest of the month, and prices wouldn't meet the 1929 level until almost a quarter of a century later, in 1954.
Following the crash, stock prices continued to fall as America fell into the period known as the Great Depression, when the unemployment rate in the United States rose to 25 percent, and 15 million people roamed the streets of America, hungry and hopeless. However, which--the stock market crash or the Depression--was the cause and which was the effect is still up for debate.
Your Story--Want Not
I was born near Macon, Missouri, in May 1932, with siblings five and 10 years older. My grandfather owned a farm and a dairy farm; he put a mortgage on these properties so my parents could buy their farm. However, when the crash came, the bank foreclosed on all three properties. My grandfather and parents had to sell all their cows, sometimes for only about $5 or $6 each. They lost their homes plus the one rental home on the dairy farm. And they had to move into someone else's rental house in town.
It's hard to imagine how they managed to pay rent and put food on the table, but they did. My dad found odd jobs like painting and carpentry, sometimes doing well to make $1 a day. He would come home on a Saturday night with groceries and occasionally with a nickel bag of chocolate drops--to this day, those candies are still very special to me.
My mother created dresses for my older sister and me. Since I was the smallest, mine were often sewn from feed sacks, which were made of attractive prints. We kept one cow, renting a pasture nearby, so we always had lots of milk, cream, butter, and cottage cheese. I remember turning the churn crank until the butter came and selling Mom's cottage cheese to the neighbors.
Finally my dad got a job with the fire department. It would last only until politics changed: if a Democrat was elected mayor, Dad, a Democrat, would keep his job another term. But if a Republican was elected, the new mayor would clean house. During those times, Dad would take any job he could find. One time he built barracks at Ft. Leonard Wood; another time he was at the shipyards in Galveston, Texas; another time still, he built bowling alleys in Iowa. During these years my very frugal mother "made ends meet." While we had a lot of meatless meals, we never went hungry.
I have written this story, plus memories of World War II, my grandparents, my parents, and my own childhood so that my children will understand why I've always been frugal. You just grow up that way when you hear and live "Waste not, want not."
8. Pearl Harbor
Three years following the start of a full-scale war between Japan and China, the United States intervened. The first step was to move the U.S. fleet to Pearl Harbor to help deter Japanese aggression. Step two was a trade blockade intended to deny Japan much-needed supplies.
It was already assumed that war in the Pacific was inevitable. What no one in the United States imagined was that it would start on U.S. soil.
Shortly before 8 a.m. on 7 December 1941, an aircraft carrier with greater striking power than had ever been seen, struck the U.S. Navy's fleet of ships anchored in Pearl Harbor. Within a few minutes, ships had sunk, others were damaged, and more than 2,400 Americans were dead. Even before the damage could be assessed, the Japanese had destroyed much of America's air defense stationed in the Philippines, and their army had entered Malaya.
The surprise attack shocked Americans into a unity of purpose that strongly contrasted with the divided state they had been in previously regarding the war in Europe. The United States officially declared war on Japan on 11 December 1941, and thrust itself into the chaos overseas, giving the struggling Allies a firm boost that eventually led to victory four years later.
Your Story--An Awakening
On Sunday, 7 December 1941, my great-grandmother Emily Salm, her mother, and Emily's 10-year-old daughter were awakened by the sound of hundreds of airplanes flying overhead and the echo of distant explosions. Japanese forces were attacking Pearl Harbor, situated very near the Honolulu apartment where the three women were vacationing. My great-grandmother Emily's stories of stray bombs dropping too close to their apartment that December morning stand out in my memory. Emily's husband and my great-grandfather, Navy officer Lieutenant Commander Alma Ernest Salm, arranged passage to California for the three women on a military transport filled with other women and children. Worried about submarine attacks, the transport took precautions: sailing out of Pearl Harbor at night, lights off, in absolute silence. Six months later, on 6 May 1942, American forces on the Philippine island of Corregidor surrendered to the Japanese. Great-grandpa Alma was among the thousands of American servicemen taken as prisoners of war. Emily, notorious for her brave exterior, never showed signs of grief during Alma's 33 months of incarceration. Feeling that he would survive, she wrote him letters and carried on life as usual--even ensuring their daughter, my grandmother, continued piano lessons. On 31 January 1945, U.S. and Filipino troops freed Alma and the remaining 500 American prisoners. When he again reached American shores, Alma dropped to his knees and kissed the ground. I've been lucky--not only have I been able to learn about Emily and Alma from my grandmother and photos and other memories saved through the years, I've also been able to trace their lives through online records at Ancestry.com, including a 1930 census record showing Alma, Emily, and their daughter (my grandmother) living at the Navy Ship Yard in Kitsap, Washington; a 1929 passenger list showing Alma and Emily returning to San Francisco (this one shows Alma's rank, their place of residence as the Naval District in San Francisco, and an eerie fact--that they were returning from Manila in the Philippines, where Alma would be held captive a decade later); and a 1949 passenger list for Emily and her daughter on one of their many trips between the continental United States and Hawaii--on this particular trip her daughter met an enlisted man whom she married the day after she turned 18 the following March. The pair eventually became my grandparents.
-Anastasia Sutherland Tyler
- From Ancestry.comAncestry.com
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