Monday, July 8, 2013

Family breach healed

Here's a little essay I wrote for a genealogical writing contest. I didn't win, but I think it's an interesting story:

I only vaguely remember my great-grandfather, Alfred J. Johnson, who died when I was six. I do remember hearing the story, though, of how he came from Arkansas to California by covered wagon. He was ten years old at the time; his father had died on the way home from the Civil War, and his mother died soon thereafter, leaving three sons of whom he was the youngest. An uncle who had gone to California shortly after the gold rush came back to Arkansas about 1869, took custody of the boys, and brought them to his ranch in the Merced area. The uncle, it was said, treated the boys harshly; the oldest one, Will, left as soon as he could. When my great-grandfather was whipped unjustly, the middle brother, Columbus, snuck away at night, went to Will and told him what had happened. They went back to the ranch, got Alfred, and left without saying goodbye—left not just the ranch, but the area. They settled up in Modoc county—about as far away as you could get and still be in California. That was the tradition, though no one seemed to know any more details than that.

            A good bit of genealogical investigation revealed that the uncle who had brought these boys to California was their father’s brother, William T. Barry Johnson (named after his grandmother’s uncle, Kentucky politician William T. Barry). W. T. B. Johnson had settled in Plainsburg, near Merced, around 1852; the 1870 census showed him, with his household including these three nephews from Arkansas. As I pieced the story together, I learned that his wife had died (she is buried in the Plainsburg Cemetery, along with some minor children). When their mother died, the three orphaned boys were taken in by a neighboring family, the Dyers. When W. T. B. Johnson went to Arkansas to take custody of the boys, he returned to California with a new wife—Caroline Dyer, a daughter of the family who had taken the boys in.

I eventually learned also that the boys’ Johnson grandparents had actually come to California in 1852—indeed, most of the family had come; the boys’ father and his wife were the only ones who remained in Arkansas. I established that most of the family had ended up in San Bernardino. Wanting to learn more, I wrote to the San Bernardino Historical Society with an inquiry.

One day, out of the blue, came a letter from a woman named Marguerite Stanley. She had been contacted by one of the staff at the San Bernardino Historical Society, and given my letter. She reported to me that her grandfather was “William Teaberry Johnson” who had lived in Merced. “But who are you?” she asked.

She told a story that was quite different, yet clearly the same. Her grandfather, she said (though she had never known him), was well-known as a kind and generous man. He had married her grandmother and then brought these three orphaned nephews to California; her grandmother, she said, had essentially raised them after their mother had died, and they all came to California together, to her grandfather’s ranch. One night the boys just disappeared, and no one knew what had become of them. “It broke my grandmother’s heart,” she said.

One day, not long after this, Marguerite visited me in my home in the East Bay. She was then in her 80’s (old enough to be my grandmother), and was quite a character. She had been briefly married, but had no children. She lived with “a young man” named Vince who drove her places (he was actually probably in his 60s). She was rather eccentric—a poet, an unconventional person in many respects. When I visited in her home a couple of years later, I saw that she was also a hoarder; her house was crammed with stacks of magazines, books, files, and who know what else.

But at that first meeting, we had such a delightful time sharing family stories! Given the reputation of her grandfather (and she had plenty of stories illustrating his kindness), we decided that perhaps the young boys—who, after all, had been without a father probably since the beginning of the Civil War, when they were 8, 6, and 2 years of age—were likely unaccustomed to what was typical “family discipline” in those days; and that while they may have felt badly treated by their uncle, it may not have been quite as desperate a situation as my later family lore had made it (allowing, of course, for ideas about child discipline in the 19th century very different from those of today).

Be that as it may, both Marguerite and I were thrilled and moved to think that a family breach that had occurred some 125 years ago now had in some sense been healed, as we sat and enjoyed lunch together.

We continued to correspond occasionally; when she died, Vince was thoughtful enough to pack up a box of Johnson family material he thought might interest me and mail it to me. Marguerite remains one of the most interesting and colorful “cousins” I’ve met over the now nearly 50 years of my genealogical research.

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