Not every family has a historian, but mine has had many.
As I’m sure you know by now, I enjoy doing family history and have been doing it for some time–two and a half decades. I started when my grandfather (my mom’s dad) got interested in it as something to do in his retirement years (for more on this, see my first post “My Grandfather, Genealogy and Me”). At the time I had no idea that I was one in a line of many to pursue our family’s past.
On my father’s side, I am a sixth-generation keeper of the family history.
My great-great-great grandfather, Edward Shaw, was born in 1815. He grew up on a farm in southwestern Ohio. His father worked for the federal government as an Indian Agent during the days of Tecumseh and was supposedly a personal friend of William Henry Harrison. Edward drove wagons for the Underground Railroad as a young man. Then he inherited a recipe for liniment from his father, who was also a tanner, and turned it into a business he pursued his whole life. When Edward died at age 93, he had witnessed a lot of changes in our nation.
Edward Shaw had a taste for history. He published at least one article about his ancestors’ migration westward in the early 1800s; you can read it at Western Pioneers. He seems to have written down stories from his own life and those of his family, although it’s hard to tell because the papers that survive are undated and unsigned. His obituary of April 9, 1909 says “he was careful to preserve the family history and had written several accounts of it. He was possessed of a wonderful memory and often recalled incidents of the early history of the United States, which are not of historical record.” I wish I knew where all his writings were.
Edward’s daughter Mary Elizabeth married Lewis K. Harris, my great-great grandfather who served in the Civil War and experienced a huge piece of American history himself. I’m not sure whether L.K. or anyone else in that generation showed an interest in being family historian. Edward’s long life (he almost outlived his daughter and son-in-law) made it unnecessary for anyone to step into the role immediately. And in the next generation, a new historian arose.
Dorothy Harris was the great-granddaughter of Edward Shaw. She was born in 1902 to L.K. and Mary’s son Roswell. She was only seven when Edward Shaw died, which may explain the loss and confusion of some of his papers. I don’t know when Dorothy fell in love with history, but at some point she did. She spent her life as a librarian and archivist at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania. In addition to her professional work in Quaker history, she maintained and advanced the family history too. As a result, some of our family papers are held at the Friends Historical Library at Swarthmore. (See Dorothy G. Harris Papers and Shaw Family Papers, 1737-1890).
The generation after Dorothy had a person who had the interest but not the time for family history. My grandfather, Edward H. Harris, Jr., was Dorothy’s cousin. He ran the local newspaper, participated in national publishing-industry organizations and served on many community boards. In a letter to Dorothy written on March 26, 1963, he wrote: “Thanks so much for the papers of Grandfather Harris that you sent to me. I am really glad to receive them. Just a short while ago Eddie and I were doing some investigating about the Harris side of the family…Eddie is a History major and expressed some interest in our family background. As you know, I have been interested also in this subject from time to time but have not been able to do much with it because of time limitations. Perhaps there will be a time when more effort can be devoted to it.”
Every time I read that last sentence, I get a chill. Perhaps there will be a time when more effort can be devoted to it. How many times have I said that?
Six years after writing the letter, my grandfather died suddenly at the age of 52. I don’t know how much time he was able to spend doing family history in those last years, but I’m sure it wasn’t much.
His son Eddie (my Uncle Ed) took over the mantle and preserved the family history. But he too had a newspaper to run.
When my grandfather (from my mom’s side of the family) and I started doing genealogy, my Uncle Ed gave me access to all the collected notes of four generations of family historians. He’s also been a constant source of support and encouragement. I like to think that over the last 25 years I have organized and added to this great collection, but it still has a long way to go.
Perhaps there will be a time when more effort can be devoted to it.