Sunday, June 16, 2019

Sentimental Sunday: Telling Stories

When we tell the story of the ancestors who have gone before, the details we start with are often only traces left behind from the past. It is best to compile evidence from several different sources in order to see the story from a broader perspective and create the clearest picture possible. With the layers of time, sometimes it is hard to decipher and describe the most accurate of tales. Learning the how, when, why and by whom for each record or piece of evidence is also helpful. Without that knowledge, it can be hard to uncover the actual truth. The past is indeed a different country. We are just describing it from our perspective at this point in time, based on what we know or have gathered.

Take the story of little Amasa, for instance:

A modern-day photograph of his tombstone (above) found on the Find-A-Grave website under the Jefferson Street Cemetery in Ellicottville, New York provides us with the barest of details and is hardly legible anymore. The entry lists his name as “Amasa H. Williams” and provides his birth date as 2 August 1871 as well as his death date of 8 February 1872 with the words “aged 6 months” in parathenses. In the photograph, you can just about see the detail of his death and the words “6 months” on the stone. Certainly the name “Amasa” is written clear, the middle initial maybe not so much. A detail from another source notes that his complete age of 6 months and 6 days is actually listed on the stone (see here) which points to why it's best to not rely on just one source for data.

There is more information from the stone to be gleaned. It also states he was the son of A. & J. Williams. Although these details are only slightly legible in this particular photo, the accuracy of it is not disputed because of other known details about little Amasa and his family. Let's look at another source, ironically another stone in another cemetery:

The Sunset Hill Cemetery was established a little later than Jefferson Street Cemetery. Eventually Jefferson Street Cemetery was considered the old cemetery and the townspeople stopped burying folks there, especially as it was getting full. In terms of years, the stone shown in this next photograph is closer to our time than the first one. We can tell by appearance without knowing the complete story of how, when, why and by whom it was erected, that this stone is more modern. We can at least say with some certainty that it was erected after 1913, the latest date listed on it.

Here we have to interpret this is a memorial stone and not necessarily an actual gravestone unless the physical remains were re-interred. Both young Amasa and Cynthia Williams were originally buried in the old Jefferson Street Cemetery as can be seen from the stones left there. The Find-A-Grave entry for Cynthia adds an “i” which is the traditional spelling of the name. Besides the death date, it does not list the rest of the details shown on the stone which include that she was the daughter of A. & J. Williams and she was aged 9 years.

We can be assured that the parents of both children, A. & J. Williams, are more completely identified as Amasa and Joan (or Joanna) from several sources. For one, the memorial stone lists two individuals of the same initials with birth years that would make them the right age to be parents of these two children. Two, we find a 1855 state census entry in the nearby town of Great Valley for the household of Amasa and Joanna (although to add another layer of confusion, her name was indexed as “Loanna”). The ages listed for this Amasa, Joanna and “Cytha” match very closely within a year of what we have from these stones. If Cyntha/Cynthia was 9 at the time of her death, her birth year would have been 1852 and then she very well was 3 years old at the time of the 1855 census. We have no window of time in regards to records to place young Amasa in the household of his parents for he was born and died between any time such record would have been made. Of course, there is much more to the story of this family than I will detail here. Details matter but they can also cloud the point trying to be made. 

I write this post to point out that the process of coming to conclusions on what happened in the past requires looking at all the evidence available from many aspects (records, observations) in order to come to the clearest perspective possible on what really happened. In most of what family historians are describing, we weren't there to be an eyewitness so we can only use what knowledge we are able to find in order to construct the story as accurately as can be ascertained.

Little Amasa's middle initial is the detail that caught my eye in the first place which led me to make this broader point about research and telling stories about the past. If we stopped with the Find-A-Grave entry, we might conclude this child's actual name was Amasa H. Williams. We might also have concluded that the Amasa N. Williams listed on the other stone was a completely different person. Gathering all the data and attempting to resolve the discrepancies, including looking at the photograph and not just relying on the transcription of what it says (another layer in time) leads me to conclude this interpretation of the story is more than likely incorrect. I am satisfied in listing the infant son of Amasa and Joanna Williams as Amasa N. Williams in summarizing this family's story. Minor detail or not, little Amasa N. Williams deserves to be portrayed in the most accurate light possible as I am sure his life had a profound impact on those who knew him, however short-lived it was.

Sunday, May 12, 2019


Thirty years ago this year, I began pursuing what has developed into a lifelong passion for family history. My paternal grandmother passed away that January. At the funeral, someone pulled out an old family bible and someone else shared old letters that included additional family information. From that point on, I was hooked! Over the years, I have learned many valuable lessons about myself as well as my roots. Family history for me has been almost a spiritual calling.

In September of 2011, I started this family history blog to share what I have gathered and learned on a wider scale. I named it “Wisteria” for the feeling the word evokes in me in terms of wistful longing. I also explained in an early blog post that shortly after launching the blog, I ran across some early writing of mine done in 1995. In that writing, I recounted a dream I had in which I found a book that held the answers to all my genealogy problems (a wish any genealogist can relate to). The book was called Wisteria. So from a dream or certainly a place beyond any power of my own, the name came.

This blog has been a means of further contact with kin distant both in terms of relation and place. In one instance, a cousin residing in the Netherlands found my blog after I wrote about initial contact I had early on with his father. This cousin was able to answer further questions I had about the family since I had been unable to make contact with his father again (who had passed away in the intervening years).

All their lives, my children have had to deal with a mother who has what may be seen as a morbid fascination for dead relatives and dusty old records. They have constantly heard the stories I've discovered and have been dragged to many a cemetery over the years. Fortunate or not, none of them have inherited whatever it is that has caused me to succumb to such behavior. Knowing something of her maternal ancestral roots in the Netherlands, though, played at least a small part in my youngest daughter Leah's choice in attending a semester abroad in Amsterdam at the beginning of this year.

I saw her time over there as an opportunity to travel there myself and just returned last week from my trip. During the planning stages, Leah hopefully asked if I might be able to find living relatives there? I told her about making contact with one living cousin over there a few years ago. I resolved to see if I could reach out to him again. Time flies when you're having fun (and when you are older). It turned out it had been seven years since our last correspondence, but luckily we re-established a connection. He was willing to meet us when I explained via email how much I was looking forward to touching the dirt from which my forefathers had come. His response to what I self-consciously joked as being awfully sentimental made me understand both how well this cousin has a command of the English language and how similar he felt in terms of our ancestors.

My time there (I eventually extended it from one week to two) was magical. It was the most meaningful and relaxing vacation I have ever been on. I was indeed able to touch the dirt where my forefathers lived and visited many of the small villages where they came from. I stood at some of their graves and thanked the one who, over one hundred years ago, urged his children to emigrate to America for a better opportunity in life. If not for that selfless act (I don't believe he ever saw those children again), I would not be here. Not surprisingly many of the photos I took while there were of cemeteries and churches, but as I explained in a Facebook post, “History is the reason I am here.” 

There is a deeper truth to that statement. It is that deeper truth that makes this obsession of mine something of a spiritual quest. Indeed, the connection I made with my cousin and his partner was on a deeper level than I could have imagined as well. Be it having the same voices in our blood or something else, I have never "clicked" with anyone in such a short time in my life. They have both quickly become very dear to me, an unexpected blessing and bonus of my trip.

Things happened to me there that I cannot even explain, including seeing wisteria blooming every day in all the different places I went. Just before I left, never having done so before, I decided to look up the spiritual meaning of wisteria. The meaning is significant on many levels and confirms that, for reasons I may never fully understand, this trip was divinely guided.

Wisteria (information taken from several websites including and It's long life bestows the symbolic meaning of immortality and longevity. European families mark the ages of generations passing with the growth of this vine. Love, grace, bliss, honor, memory, patience, endurance, longevity, exploration, creative expansion, releasing burdens, the duality of love, victory over hardship. The blossoms eloquently falling in tapered clusters are considered a visual indication of bowing or kneeling down in honor and respect and as a symbol of prayer or thoughtful reverence. These vine gestures naturally bring to mind our need for peace, quiet and time to honor the divine essences of our own understanding. It's growth patterns run in a spiral motion, also a symbol of wisdom. It expands to take on new wisdom and experience. The long vines are forever extending to seek new knowledge. Perfect symbol of patience, longevity, endurance. It can teach us to make gentle but determined pursuits. Many things take time and are worth the effort. Hard times must be endured in order to reach the beautiful ones. The plant never stops growing and never settles. It encourages us to practice love through generosity and selflessness and knows true beauty takes time. Slow down and take in your surroundings. Strive to be connected to the world around you. Through this practice we can attain a higher sense of inner peace and a better understanding of our higher purpose. A final lesson is one of nostalgia and memory. It is witness to several generations and absorbs lessons from every time period. The plant knows that valuable lessons are hidden away in our past. We can learn from previous mistakes and those of others who came before.

Sunday, March 10, 2019

My Grandma Was Once a Little Girl

The image above is a scan from the heritage album I originally put together to show my sister's grand-kids that their grandmother was once a little girl. For it is true that our grandmas were once little girls. I was lucky to have copies of photographs showing pictures not only of my sister and mother but also my grandmother as a little girl.

This is the only photograph of my grandmother's grandfather (who died about five years after the photo was taken) known to me which makes it even more special. I am excited to note that I will soon have the opportunity to travel to the land of my forefathers' birth for a visit next month.

Martin was born in Niawier in the Friesland province of the Netherlands in 1851. He was married to Tjeerdtje Terpstra in 1872 and together they had eight children, losing four of them in early infancy and childhood. After also losing his wife, Martin took his remaining family to America and settled in Grand Rapids, Kent County, Michigan in 1891. He signed a declaration of intent to become a naturalized citizen on 26 September 1894. He married twice more while here, in May of 1894 to Berdena Ligtenberg Heuwelhos and to Botje (Bessie) Boersma in December of 1901. By 1910, Martin lived in Grant (Newaygo County), Michigan.

I included stories from two of his granddaughters on my Friesland Dutch Heritage page which I originally put together in a booklet about the Katsma family (third draft in 1999). I repeat them here as they connect those little girls with their grandfather all those years ago:

Granddaughter Jessie (Jolman) Potter stated that Martin lived at one time in Grand Rapids above a store on Eastern Avenue and Sherman Street and that he was an elder in the Dennis Avenue Christian Reformed Church. She also remembered Martin's last wife "was not very good to him." Jessie refused to take a cookie from her when she was young. She got scolded by her mother for telling Martin's wife that she did not want the cookie because she was not nice to her grandpa. Jessie said he moved to Grant because of his third wife.

Granddaughter Theresa (Katsma) Timmer told me she remembered visiting him in Grant. She and her siblings loved to take the trip to see him but were bored while there. They always had soup and brie to eat. After his wife Bessie died in November of 1925, Martin went to live with his son Will on a dairy farm in Grandville, Michigan until his own death in April of 1926. Theresa remembered him being there while her oldest sister Gertrude was dating. He slept in the dining room and Gertrude would be in the living room with her date. 

Everyone is gone now; only the family stories remain.

Sunday, January 20, 2019

Sentimental Sunday: Uncle Jim - Found a Century Later

Ah, the wonders of modern DNA testing! With it can be found long-lost kin and surprises along the way. DNA has been key in several discoveries in some of my family lines in recent months. A recent DNA cousin find even led to solving a mystery on a mutual collateral ancestor for which no DNA testing was involved.

After taking a DNA test and enthusiastically adding to her online family tree, my niece connected me to a cousin (one generation removed) who lives out west. His father (who was actually my first cousin) died when he was young and the family drifted apart. Though I had asked kin for more details years ago, I was never able to keep up-to-date with that branch. Now I know his birthday (we were born in the same year) and that of his brother's as well as the names and birth dates of his children. His eldest son is among those of the tenth generation of the Watts family with roots in Halifax County, Virginia and shares a namesake that goes back about eight generations within the wider family tree.

We spent some time talking on the phone and reminisced about my grandparents' (C.B. and Amy) home in Kentucky. We realized we had been there at the same time at least once, during the celebration of C.B. and Amy's 60th wedding anniversary. We shared the same sandbox. Oh and the memories flooded in from there! I was so nostalgic and longing for a place that now only exists in my head.
C.B. and Amy (Hardy) Watts on the occasion
of their 60th wedding anniversary in 1978

Synchronistically, it is the 30th anniversary of my grandmother's death this month. The whole conversation with my niece and DNA started out with her posting photos she had discovered of my grandmother online. So perhaps with a nudge here and there, Granny has been reaching out to us in some way. Her death was the catalyst for my launch into family history in the first place. It was during the gathering for her funeral that someone pulled out a family bible and some old letters and I was hooked from there.

While talking with my cousin I looked up our branch in my Watts book, noting the kin we had in common back to George Richard Watts. I mentioned the one mystery I had with Uncle Jim. Uncle Jim was my grandfather's uncle; a son of George Richard Watts and his wife Emily J. Chaffin. Their family bible record indicates that James T. Watts was born February 24, 1866. The only other thing that my grandfather could tell me was that Uncle Jim had a hot temper and was killed by a man in self-defense in Missouri. This I also learned thirty years ago as I began my family tree quest by asking Granddaddy for the names and information about everyone he knew.

Thirty years ago we did genealogy the old-fashioned way. It was not until 1991 that the world wide web even became publicly available. Nowadays...well, you know what's it's like now. Back when I first gathered the information on Uncle Jim, though, there was no internet to turn to for quick answers. So what my grandfather told me about him was the only information I could provide in my book.

I am detail-oriented and like to gather complete data on everyone if I can, seeking to fill in the blanks like a crossword puzzle. I knew Uncle Jim's birth date but exactly when did he die? After getting off the phone with my cousin, I decided to jumped online to to see if I could discover more about Uncle Jim.

I started with determining if I could find him first in Kentucky which is where the family settled after leaving Virginia when Jim was around the age of 13. I found him enumerated in Christian County, Kentucky with his parents and siblings in 1880. During the 1910 census, he was still there but living with Rufus B. Hill. Rufus was a brother of James Walter Hill who married Uncle Jim's sister, Mary Elizabeth (called Molly Bet). Jim did not show up in the area during the 1920 census (nor the 1900 census, but I am not sure why). Next I looked for him in the state of Missouri between the years 1900 and 1920.
Rufus B. Hill and Norman Ellis Watts
Norman Ellis was a nephew of James Thomas Watts

I found him. Familysearch directed me to a FindAGrave entry for James Thomas Watts buried in Campbell, Dunklin County, Missouri. Dunklin County is in the southernmost part of Missouri. The birth date on his tombstone matches our James T. and Thomas was actually the name of his grandfather. The grave entry says he was born in Kentucky. (Although we know that he came from Kentucky, he was actually born in Halifax County, Virginia.) Campbell is a little less than 175 miles west from where he lived in Kentucky. The time period fits from what we know of when James T. left there. My grandfather was just 19 when he would have heard about Uncle Jim's demise which happened in August 1919, just about 100 years from when I found my answer.

Tombstone of James Thomas Watts
24 February 1866 - 4 August 1919
Four Mile Cemetery, Campbell, Dunklin County, Missouri

Saturday, January 5, 2019

Music Circles

When visiting my maternal half-sister this past spring, I started a recipe project using her mother-in-law's old handwritten recipes. While there, my sister showed me a large black case and said she believed it was my paternal grandfather's. When I opened it, I discovered an accordion.While my grandfather played the fiddle all his life and at least one of his uncles played the banjo for local dances in Western Kentucky, I did not think an accordion had anything to do with the musical influence on that side of my family. 

I have always correlated accordions with polka music and late-nineteenth or twentieth-century immigrants which does not fit with my paternal family's history whose roots go back to the 1700s in Virginia. I suggested instead that the accordion might have belonged to her husband's family instead as they immigrated much later from Poland. He did not recall it being part of his family either, though. I left the accordion there when I headed back home and put it out of my mind.

Over the next several weeks, my thoughts were preoccupied with the recipe project. Awakening early one morning, I wrote down several ideas about it and afterwards went back to sleep for another hour. Just before I woke up the second time, the words “a receipt for salve” bubbled up in my head. I pondered further and remembered I had found this old salve “receipt” (another word for recipe) my second great-grandmother, Martha Sizemore Hardy, had written. It was over twenty-five years ago that I originally found it in a cabinet at my grandfather's house in Kentucky and now have tucked away. While looking for that, I also found something that led me slightly off-kilter from my recipe project.

This something was in the form of song ballads written down by my great-grandmother, Alice Lovelace Hardy, and other family members during the time period of 1898 or so. Alice would have been a teen, just shy of 18 at the time. She was my paternal grandmother's mother who died in 1903 when my grandmother was ten months old. 
From left to right: Ruby Hardy Vaughn, Martha Sizemore Hardy, William Lewis Hardy,
Alice Lovelace Hardy (died April 1903), Amy Hardy Watts (born June 1902).

Having more curating experience than I did twenty-five years ago, I unfolded each page to place in separate page protectors instead of all folded together in one page protector as I had before. Yellow and brittle with age, some were just in pieces. I had kept each scrap because I learned early on that every little clue can be valuable when delving into history. After reassembling those old slips of writing, I discovered that at least two of them had the word “accordion” written at the top near the title of the song. Perhaps that accordion really might be something from my grandfather's.

Synchronicity is finding meaning in coincidences. What are the odds that these things would come together in just the right manner for me to make such a connection?

I looked online and found the website Accordion Americana. An article there entitled “A History of the Accordian in Americana Music” explains the accordion was invented in 1829 and came to North America early on. The article includes a photo of Mother Maybelle and the Carter Sisters with one of them playing an accordion. Also included in the article are early tintype photos from the 1860s and 1870s showing young girls posing with their accordions.

Wikipedia indicates that Maybelle Carter was originally part of the folk music group called The Carter Family who recorded music between 1927 and 1956 including the classic “Can The Circle Be Unbroken?” originally written in 1908. That's only ten years after my great-grandmother was writing down song ballads. The Carters originally hailed from Scott County in southwestern Virginia not too far from where my paternal family came from (in fact some kin settled there many years ago while my line branched over to western Kentucky). Wikipedia states the music from the Carter family had a profound effect on bluegrass, country, southern gospel, pop and rock musicians over the years. This was something I had also learned from a trip to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, Ohio on the way back from visiting my sister (yet another coincidence). 

I thought about how the music from that era impacted the music I heard growing up. I pulled up the song “Jolene” by Dolly Parton on Youtube to listen to again. It is a hauntingly beautiful song reminiscent of these forlorn love ballads I now have in my possession transcribed by women in my family so many years ago. “Blown Away” by Carrie Underwood released in 2012 is another more recent one that comes to mind.

Compare those 120-year-old love ballads to my old notebook of song titles I tape recorded as a teen along with the lyrics to some of them neatly typed up. I imagine I was influenced by my father's early reel-to-reel tapes he had and the notebooks he similarly compiled. “Daddy Don't You Walk So Fast” was one song I remember my father listening to on those tapes. Daniel Boone recorded that in 1971.
Photo of a display at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame
(my brother's image can be seen reflected in the glass)

With that early influence, no wonder I was enamored of the music group Mumford and Sons when my daughters started listening to them when their debut album was released in 2009. Their genre is labeled under folk rock, indie rock and bluegrass. I recall hearing one of their songs for the first time when my middle teen daughter had it playing loudly one day while she was in the shower.

I can also juxtapose those song ballads with the song quotes written on pieces of paper and taped up all over the walls of my youngest daughter's bedroom during her teen years. And she was born one hundred years after some of these old song ballads were written down...

My youngest daughter and I, 2015

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Tombstone Tuesday: Chauncey Vibbard and Mary Grierson Come to Life!

Leah Westfall and Max Paddock, July 2014
Jefferson St. Cemetery, Ellicottville, NY
Above is a photograph taken in July 2014 at the 2nd annual Jefferson Street Cemetery Walking Tour in Ellicottville, NY. Leah Westfall was portraying Mary Grierson buried there. The two are standing near the stone that marks the burial for Mary and her two sisters. You can see this tombstone here.

Max portrayed Chauncey Vibbard who was buried there in 1882 at the age of 17. Chauncey was the son of Chester E. Vibbard and his wife Sarah Raynor. Chester and Sarah are also buried in the cemetery as well as another son William Raynor Vibbard who died in 1873 when he was about 11 years old. You can see the Vibbard tombstone here. Both Westfall and Paddock were on hand to read a narrative of the life of their respective cemetery residents, making them come alive to the participants of the tour.

Chauncey's narrative told about how he and his older brother were baptized in St. John's Church in Ellicottville when Chauncey was two, that his mother was born in England and his father was a drayman. He also mentioned that his sister Flossie (Florence) was just a baby when he died and talked of how Mark Twain's book, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, was published after his brother had died (also buried in the cemetery). The writer of the narrative (the same writer of this blog) imagined that Chauncey might have read Twain's book. Other details of his life was taken from census and church records and newspaper accounts.

In September of this year, Bill Robison donated digital copies of a photograph of the Chester and Sarah Raynor Vibbard family to the Ellicottville Historical Society. Taken in Carrolltown in about 1898, it shows Chauncey's parents and surviving siblings. Bill's grandmother was the infant Helen shown in the photo.

From left to right is: Florence Vibbard, Sarah Vibbard Carl, her infant daughter Helen, Chester E. Vibbard (seated), Charles Chester Vibbard, Sarah Raynor Vibbard (seated) and William Shepard Vibbard.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Sentimental Sunday: It Will All Be History One Day

I recently unearthed some old photographs showing my father-in-law as a child with his family around the table at a Thanksgiving dinner in 1950. I believe it was taken that year judging from his apparent age and that of his siblings.

I posted a digital copy of one of the photos to Facebook to share with him, his other brothers and other members of the family. It generated a lot of reminiscing and discussion. I checked in with the brothers and wrote down any recollections they had of the time. We recently buried the youngest member of the family, Tom Westfall, just last month. He is pictured in those Thanksgiving photos at about the age of 3.

Marie G. Westfall about 1927
daughter of Lawrence L. and Mabel L. (Smith) Westfall
There were ten children altogether, but two died in infancy. (Plus from his first marriage, their father Lawrence had an infant daughter who died). The photo on the left, taken around 1947, is a snapshot of the surviving eight. Tom, in Marie's arms, is about a year old.

The oldest child of Lawrence and Mabel and their only surviving daughter was Marie Geraldine Westfall, born in May of 1926.

Aunt Marie at the 2007 Westfall Reunion

I can remember Aunt Marie coming down to visit while we lived in Florida. I was pregnant with my second child at the time. We had decided on Megan as the first name for a girl but were still debating on the middle name. Standing in the dinner line with Aunt Marie at the local Moose club, I remember her asking me about baby names. I told her Megan and shared one of the ideas we had for the middle name (but I cannot recall now what it was.) Aunt Marie laughed good-naturedly and said that name was too long. I agreed, saying we had not made a final decision yet. Later I was telling my husband about the conversation. It dawned on me then that Marie would be an ideal middle name and that is what we did! The beauty is that Marie was also the name of one of Aunt Marie's aunts on her mother's side as well as the name of a great grandmother on Aunt Marie's paternal side. (Also, Meg can be a nickname for Margaret which was Aunt Marie's paternal grandmother.)
Marie (Kelzer or Kilger) Pfeffer (1852-1931)
great-grandmother of Marie G. Westfall
3rd great grandmother of  Megan Marie Westfall

Megan Marie Westfall

I can remember being thrilled to finally discover that my mother named me after Dawn Wells, the actress who played Mary Ann on the television series Gilligan's Island. For years when I would ask, my mom said she could not remember where she got the name Dawn from. One day about three years ago, her and I sat watching television together. An old rerun from Gilligan's Island was on and my mother exclaimed, "That's who I named you for!"

So dear Megan, while it would surprise me if I have never told you this story, you may not remember and I may forget. It will all be history one day and so I'm passing down the story now here to you.