When I was growing up, my “extended family” wasn’t very extensive. My immediate family was Mom, Dad, Ken and me. (My sister, Barbara, died before I was born.) Dad was an only child. Mom’s only sibling (Uncle Sanford) also married an only child; they had three children. My maternal grandmother (Grandma Elsie) was widowed, and my paternal grandmother (Grandma Helen) was long-divorced. One of Mom’s cousins (I called her Auntie Inez) visited us occasionally. There were various other people of increasing familial distance (Nanny and Grampa, for example, who were my Aunt Beryl’s parents – it took me a long time to figure out who they were and where they fit in my family tree), and still others of whom I had heard (Dad’s Uncle Ted; his Aunt Jane; somebody’s Auntie Edith) but never met. But for all practical purposes, my entire “extended family” was 11 people.
I knew something about more-distant relatives, however, because Dad had put together a synopsis of what he knew about our ancestors. Grandma Helen’s grandfather (my great-great-grandfather), for example, was Edward Stuyvesent Bragg, the commander of Wisconsin’s Iron Brigade in the Civil War. (Ken has two of General Bragg’s swords – one that was hit by a bullet, and the one that replaced it.) Two generations further back from there (through the General’s wife, Cornelia Colman) you’ll find Nathaniel Rochester, the founder of Rochester, New York.
Dad didn’t know as much on Mom’s side, although he *did* include one “Baum” who had apparently been killed in the Battle of Bennington (Vermont) during the Revolutionary War. Interestingly, the TIME-LIFE History of the United States includes mention of a Hessian Lt. Col. Friedrich Baum, who was indeed killed in that battle. When I read that particular volume in the ’90s, I wrote to the editors and asked if they had any additional information; they said the research had been done in the ’60s and they didn’t have the original notes any more. But that’s a lead I want to chase down, if I can.
A few weeks ago I became curious about Dad’s military record. I know that he was in the Army during WW II, and that he was stationed in the American Southwest working on tank engines. I also know there’s a Patton Museum on I-10 in California (at the Chiriaco Summit exit), so I have long assumed that Dad was somewhere in that area. So I thought I would go to Ancestry.com to see what I might be able to find out.
As it happens, there isn’t much on Dad. There are some census reports; some Beacon, NY, phone books; a couple of passenger manifests from a trip he took to Europe in 1936; and not much else. But when I started tracing my genealogy, I quickly found people whom I had heard about (Uncle Ted, Auntie Edith), and suddenly knew where they fit in the tree.
I also was able to “steal” work others had done to go back much further than Nathaniel Rochester. It turns out that, through Grandma Helen’s father and his lineage (the Sherman / Shearman family), I can trace ancestry all the way back to two people, Philip Sherman (1610 – 1687) and Sarah Odding (1609 – 1681) who were born in Europe and were married in Roxbury, Massachusetts, in 1633.
So now I know something about 11 generations of ancestors (including Philip’s father, Samuel):
- Francis Howland Sherman Peterson (father – 1915 – 1986) 
- Helen Leslie Sherman Peterson (grandmother – 1885 – 1989) 
- Francis H Sherman (great-grandfather – 1855 – 1911) 
- Henry H Sherman (1820 – 1883) 
- Caleb Sherman (1784 – 1862) 
- Stephen Shearman (1751 – 1834) 
- Jonathan Shearman (1711 – 1785) 
- Joshua Shearman (1678 – 1720) 
- John Shearman (1644 – 1734) 
- Philip Sherman (1610 – 1687) 
- Samuel Sherman (1573 – 1615) 
What I found most interesting about all this wasn’t the 11 generations themselves, but my sense that all these years (441 from Samuel’s birth to today) had suddenly been compressed into something that felt almost manageable. I’m 62; Dad’s centenary is next May – just one generation back, and it’s almost a quarter of the total 441 years. If you just look at generations without overlap, you start with Samuel (1573 – 1615) and move forward through Philip (1610 – 1687); Joshua (1678 – 1720); Jonathan (1711 – 1785); Caleb (1784 – 1862); Francis (1855 – 1911); and Dad (1915 – 1986) – just seven people span more than 400 years!
I was surprised at how long most of them lived, especially the farther back you go. This sort of reinforces the idea that if you could just survive the childhood diseases of the time, you had a good chance of living to a ripe old age!
And, of course, in the process of finding all these ancestors, I also found lots of siblings in each generation. If I followed all those back forward to today, I might find that I’m related to half the people in the US. Talk about an extended family!
As the more-or-less-quasi-official historian of my family, I find ancestry research to be endlessly fascinating. One thing I learned long ago was that there is a branch of my mother’s side of the family called the Burrs. One member of that branch of the family was Aaron Burr: he served as vice president (under Thomas Jefferson), killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel, and was later an infamous American traitor. I don’t list him as a relation when I do my periodic security clearance updates.
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