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Episode 4: A Tumbleweed with Roots

Updated: Aug 17, 2021

Episode 4 - A Tumbleweed with Roots

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KAEL: In episode 1, I set up for the listener why I am doing genealogy. I want to give you a little more detail at this point to set-up this episode. I started out researching my family stories out of personal interest. Once I started to gather a few interesting stories and meet a few interesting people, I noticed how it made me feel. I don’t want to start spouting out cliches at this point but let me say this – knowing some details about my ancestors just made my past real to me. At about the same time that I started to research my own family, I was sitting on a few committees. In every one of these committees we had all started the practice of doing land acknowledgments. In theory, I love this idea, but in practice I must admit it felt shallow to me. In the context of so much blatant racism I wanted to share what was happening to me personally. I have this idea that genealogy could be a means to understand ourselves in a larger context, it could result in healing at a personal, social and maybe even national level. I am doing some very personal work here, out in the open, in the hopes that listeners might be inspired to do the same. The genealogical work is, in many ways, the easy part, the challenge comes in consciously contextualizing family stories to larger narratives that do not traditionally have a voice.

KAEL: As passionate as I am about the potential of genealogical work, Theo is not convinced. Theo is the person in the intro clips who states “a family tree is just a bunch of names and dates” and part of why she feels that way is because of her initial experience with genealogy. Can you tell us about that experience? And--what do you know already of your family’s story?

THEO: When I was in elementary school, my father’s mother got interested in genealogy. She wanted to join the Daughters of the American Revolution, a lineage-based non-profit that promotes historic preservation, education, and patriotism, so she had to demonstrate that she was descended from people who fought for American independence in the eighteenth century. It didn’t take her long to do that, but by then, she was hooked; for the next thirty years, genealogy would be her passion project. It was the reason why she had a computer before my mom did, why she was on email for years before most people a generation younger than her—she used these tools in her genealogical research.

I knew genealogy meant a lot to my grandmother, so I tried to take an interest, but it didn’t spark my imagination much. For the relatives she’d known personally, my grandmother had photographs and other memorabilia and—most importantly to me—stories. But when it came to her research, she would just tell me things like, “Did you know you had a great-great . . . four greats . . . grandmother named Eliza Cousins Kille? And she married a Davidson . . .” The narrative for each of these people was the same: they were born on a date, they married someone and had children, and then on another date they died. In only a few cases did I even know where they lived. I didn’t know anything about their personalities, their dreams, the ways they spent their days. Their names populated charts that fascinated my grandmother and put me right to sleep.

So from my grandmother’s research, I know that at least some of my family has been in the United States since at least the late eighteenth century. My grandmother was born and raised in southern Louisiana, so a lot of them must come from that heady New Orleans stew of Spanish, English, and French people. I always imagined that with such an origin, it would make sense for some African or Native American blood to be mixed in there too, but my Ancestry DNA results don’t support that idea. Apparently, I take more closely after other branches of my grandmother’s family, who had the Scotch-Irish-English names typical of the non-Louisiana South. The Davidsons I mentioned before, for example, are the same family who founded Davidson College in North Carolina; the charts were also full of Woodwards and Slocums and Greenes.

So my grandmother, a Slocum, married my grandfather, a Hummer. The Hummers had a dairy and a queen bee exporting business in Mississippi, but they’d only been there a couple generations; they’d migrated down after the Civil War from someplace farther North. And although Hummer is a German name, most of my grandfather’s ancestors were English, too—most notably, the Jacksons. I’m not a direct descendent of President Andrew Jackson, but he is a close relative, albeit not one I’m especially proud of.

So that’s my father’s family. On my mother’s side, things are a little murkier. My mother’s mother was a Smith—I don’t guess it gets much more English than that—who grew up the little town of Utica, right outside Jackson, Mississippi. The house she grew up in, and that my mother grew up in too, was the only surviving antebellum structure in town. Don’t imagine the mansion from Gone with the Wind, though. There were no white columns or sweeping staircases or servants’ quarters. It was a funny, ramshackle little farmhouse. It really was from before the Civil War, though, unlike the grand plantation house down the street that was actually built as an exercise in Lost Cause nostalgia at the beginning of the twentieth century.

After my Smith grandmother died, the rumor circulated in our family that her grandmother, Valery Hornsby, was a full-blooded Cherokee. Again, my DNA results don’t bear this story out, and I know that every white Southern family claims to be descended from Cherokees—it’s part of a colonial romance that, in my experience, really irks actual Native American people. But my mother one hundred percent believes it.

My mother’s father is a Hine from Forrest City, Arkansas. His middle name is Rice, and I always wondered whether that meant he was related to the founders of Rice University in Houston. I’m told that Hine is a Welsh name, and I know my grandfather was one of thirteen red-haired children. He was handsome, a wonderful singer, dancer, athlete, and storyteller, with penchants for cards, melancholy, and liquor. These qualities always made him seem to me as if he must not be far removed from the old country, though in truth I have no idea.

KAEL: So maybe I can lure you into doing genealogy work by looking into that murkier side of your family tree. Let us take a break here. I am going to do some sleuthing around with you and we will come back and report what we find about the Smith branch of your tree.

KAEL: So we are back. . We found your Maternal Great Grandparents 6 generations back. John Smith and Hannah Edgeler both lived in a small parish in Surrey England called GODalming. When John was 22 years old and Hannah was just 18, they got married. They had 8 children together, one of those children was your 3-greats grandfather Henry Smith. Both John and Hannah's families had been in Surrey for a few generations at least. A cursory search for relatives of John and Hannah brought me to a man by the name of Isaac Outrim, The Elder, yes that is his formal title, :The Elder” he lived in the early 1700s. So for well over a century Surrey had been home to this group of your ancestors.

But something changes for John and Hannah and they break with tradition. For some reason, when John and Hannah were both in their 40s, they decided to immigrate to America in 1835 on the ship Eliza going to New York.

So here is John and Hannah with their 8 children—including 13-year-old Henry—boarding the Eliza for a 25 day voyage to America with everything they own. I think they led a pretty simple life. John listed his occupation as general labourer. So with much extended family still in Surrey, perhaps it is as easy as bringing clothes, whatever you need for the trip and money to get set up on arrival.

THEO: In the larger context, they were taking part in the first big wave of immigration to the United States after its founding. Up until the 1820s, not many people migrated to the fledgling States; a trickle began in the 1820s; and in the 1830s the floodgates opened. People poured in from England, Ireland, and Germany for the next several decades, attracted both by land grants as new white governments pushed Native Americans westward and by an explosion of industrial jobs.

The Smiths’ ship landed in New York City; what the family did next isn’t completely clear. John and Hannah were both eventually buried in Illinois. And by 1853, when his son Samuel was born, a now 31-year-old Henry was living in Mississippi. The dispossession of the Choctaw and Chickasaw nations had produced a boom for white settlers there in the 1830s, and cotton prices were soaring. There was plenty to attract a young white family like Henry and his wife Martha, who was born in South Carolina and had roots in Ireland and Scotland. Henry and Martha—my 3-greats grandparents—were the first in the Smith line to be buried in my mother’s hometown of Utica, Mississippi.

KAEL: Henry and Martha’s son Samuel A. Smith – your Great-great Grandfather— grew up in Mississippi and met and married Amanda Hartzog. They raised their family in Utica. Their son—David S. Smith – was your great-grandfather.

He married Stella McGraw from Louisiana—the one whose mother was supposedly Cherokee—and they were parents to your grandma Mary Olivia Smith – or Big Mary as I have heard her called. Mary and Clarence Hine Jr. are the parents of your mama, my mother-in-law – Lowell Hummer.

KAEL: My hope is that Theo continues the work we started. And that if she wants to share any interesting family stories, she has an open invitation to host Maple Family Treehouse episodes in the future.

So Theo - did this research research lure you in?

THEO: I think the part I found most interesting was trying to fit my family’s decision to migrate into a larger historical narrative—

KAEL: That is exactly the personal experience I was referring to in the beginning of the show.

THEO: —so, when you told me that John and Hannah got on that ship in 1835, we went looking for “push and pull” factors: What was happening in Surrey, in Godalming, in the first half of that decade? And when that was kind of a dead end—it sounds like Godalming is a pretty nice place and things were looking up there in the early 1830s—What was happening in the U.S. to attract immigrants in that decade? Ultimately, I think I’d need to do some traveling, some nosing around in archives, to fill in more of those personal details that I crave. Genealogy websites still aren’t telling me the things I really want to know: which of these ancestors were tall or short? Lazy or hardworking? Dreamers and creatives or hard-nosed practical types? What did they do for fun? What did they think about the political conflicts of their day?

KAEL: John and Hannah took 8 children on a 25 day voyage across the Atlantic. I think that it’s safe to say that they were hard working and both had the patience of saints.

THEO: Either that or they really didn’t like the way England was going!

KAEL: But this is fun. And I want to give you an open invitation in the future to report back on your research and hopefully you will find some of the personal details you are looking for. I know you will soon be getting your paternal grandmother’s genealogical archive, and no pressure here, but i think she would like you to take the torch. Oh, hey, before we go Theo wants you to meet her grandmama.

THEO: Meet Marion Kate Slocum Hummer… My Grandmama Marion spent the bulk of her hours in the company of children and farm dogs. I think this company must have both appreciated and reinforced the two key elements of her character: a calm, kind firmness and an abiding dedication to silliness and fun.

To children my grandmother raised, rhymes, puns, and spoonerisms are among the most salient features of the English language. They’d slip out in every sentence, as natural to her as breath. As she went about her chores, she’d sing 1940s novelty songs like “Marizy Doats” and “Swinging on a Star.” Her voice was soft, her expression invariably wry: she sang not because she imagined herself a singer, but because she loved the humor of the songs. She danced the same way, her eyebrows quirked, her wrists turning at funny angles. My dad has a passion for “dad jokes” and I do too, but she was the queen of them. She’d repeat ones she’d heard or just make them up. If she hadn’t been so self-deprecating, I think she could have been Lucille Ball.

I’ll leave you with her favorite joke, one I must have heard her tell a hundred times over the four-and-a-bit decades I had with her. Two old men were sitting in rocking chairs out front of the retirement home when a woman who lived there too went streaking by. The first man asked the second, “What was that?” The second shook his head. “I don’t know,” he said, “but it sure needed ironing.”

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