Thursday, January 27, 2011

A (Family) Tree Grows In...Somewhere

Nothing says "turn off your tv and go do something constructive" like a Presidential State of the Union Address.  And Tuesday night, we did just that.  This is nothing to make light of - in our house we pray to the gods of network television, so when there's a hiccup in the lineup, such as a political event, we tend to run aimlessly in circles (yes, I'm completely, hopelessly, 100% politically ignorant, and I admit it freely - please don't judge me...). 

And Tuesday night, our substitute activity was definitely constructive.  A few years ago, Steve began to research his family tree.  Being from England, this can be a very interesting endeavor, dating back before we Americans can comprehend.  I remember back when I was in college, my roommate was a girl from Sheffield, in England.  She came home with me for Thanksgiving, and we took a day trip with my parents into Philly.  Walking past a pollution-stained church of towering stone with a big wrought-iron fence and a placard that said something about it being built in the late 1700s or thereabouts, I marvelled at the astounding age, and remarked on it to her.  She laughed, and said, "Oh, this is not old!"  I never forgot that, and continuously kicked myself for my ignorant transgression bred from American self-importance.

But back to Steve's ancestry, he completely floored me by being able to trace back, on one side of the family, to the year 1400-something.  Now this is impressive.  Wow.  There was even a dowery document that noted the exchange of a cow and an iron pot, or something.  This week he began to trace another line of his family and on Tuesday discovered that one of his forefathers had moved to America (Virginia, to be exact) in the mid-1700s and had fought in the Revolutionary War.  Seriously! is a font of amazing information, even including screenshots of the actual documents on which the names of family members appear (military service records, census records, dowery documents, Ellis Island entry books, etc.).  And to think that this me ans we can trace Samantha's ancestry back to such dates and events just makes me feel very proud. 

My side of the family is a bit harder to trace.  And has a slightly more, uh...spotty history.  Tuesday night we got on the phone with my father and began to try to fit bits and pieces together.  We couldn't get past the entry of my great-great grandparents into Ellis Island from Russia, but will be able to build more laterally on the family that settled here.  Our original family name has been a big question mark for a long time, and the fact that it was changed somewhere around the turn of the 20th century to Benson from it's original Russian version makes tracing back pretty tough.  But Tuesday night, with the help of old census records, we found what may have been the original spelling.  We've got some work to do now if we want to move forward (or backward, as the case may be).

Also, a few years ago, my father had sent me an article written in a 1935 newspaper about some rather colorful members of my family.  I had been thrilled to read it at the time, and had nearly forgotten about it, but now that Steve and I are digging a bit deeper into the tree, it's got so much more meaning.  Lo and behold (sorry, Samantha, this part of your family history may not be one to brag about), two of my great, great, great (I think) uncles (that's great, great, great, great to you, Sammi), named Herman and Lew, were the leaders of what was called by the police, "The Benson Gang," a group of rogue liquor distillers with a massive operation tucked away in a South Jersey forest.  The cops had been hunting for the still for some time, and one day followed some members of the gang until they found it.  They took three of the gang members into custody (including Lew, who was the former police chief of the town my father is from and currently lives in), and Herman (the fire chief at the time of the same town), arriving on the scene later and attempting to break his brother and cohorts free, was killed in a shoot-out (the dialogue between Herman and the police that was recounted in the newspaper article was quite laughable - I have to wonder if they really talked like that, or if it was made up just to sound like an old gangster movie -  '"I've got you covered," [the officer] warned,  "Drop your shotgun."  "Oh, you're a wise guy?" Benson is alleged to have answered.  "A tough guy, eh?"')


Yep, pretty colorful, alright.  But these are the things that make family histories so truly amazing.  I love this stuff!  And I'm pretty sure my father's property is the original property settled by my great, great grandfather (gotta check with him about that), and that the stands of trees in the middle of the field where I used to play and find bits of pottery and dishware may have been the locations of the original houses is just so freaking cool.  I wonder if that may have fueled my obsession with becoming an archaeologist when I was a kid.  Well, besides Indiana Jones, of course.

I do regret that my great grandmother and then my grandfather and grandmother passed away before I knew the importance of chronicling family histories.  I just hope it's not too late.


Lacey said...

Thats cool that you found all that great stuff! I am with you on the politics. It goes right over my head!

Stephanie said...

My grandfather was a bootlegger for my great grandfather who was a moonshiner.

JRS said...

I love that stuff. Good for you guys for working on it. I've wanted to do that DNA test where a cheek swab can turn up genetic proof of where your ancestors came from. Very interesting.

Cindy said...

This is so cool! I may go onto the website to check it out.

Ruby's Mom said...

I love that website.My husband and I found out a lot about our family heritage.I enjoyed reading about yours. Maybe I will blog about ours too.