July 17, 2009

Family History

“Oh, we found great-grandpa Sanford,” Mom told me as I scooped up her cat and plopped down on the couch in her living room.

“Was he lost?” I asked. I scratched Lucy’s ears and she chewed on my knuckles.

“Oh, yes, for a long time. We knew he’d come down from Canada and we thought his name was Pierre. Turns out it was Predaux. We didn’t have a lot of information about him because his wife, Catherine, divorced him after Delbert was born and married G.W. Johnson, who basically raised Delbert,” she told me quite cheerfully, happy with herself for having solved the puzzle.

“And Delbert was grandpa Choln’s father, right?” Grandpa Choln being Dad’s father.

“Right. Well, Grandma Elaine said she’d gotten a letter from a lady in Canada trying to trace Predaux after he moved to Cherry County, but nothing had ever come of it. After Elaine died I found a return address among her papers for a lady in Ottawa so I sent her a letter to see if she was the one looking for the Sanfords. She sent me this back,” Mom handed me the neatly typed three page letter. Lucy bit me one last time and jumped down.

Therein was a tale fit for any modern soap opera. Predaux Sanford had married a lady in Ontario and had four children with her. However, after she entered the asylum for the last time, he left his family in Canada and resettled in Cherry County Nebraska under the Homestead Act. Some time later, he married Catherine (without the benefit of a divorce from his first wife, who was still living) and they had Delbert. Catherine left him for being an abusive drunk when Delbert was little. She did get a proper divorce and then married a very nice man, G.W. Johnson. This was all kept very hush, hush, although it is obvious now that Delbert was aware of Predaux’s other family, as they sold his property upon his death and split the proceeds and accounts (rather generous for the time) between the five children. Delbert’s share was still enough to he and his bride, Zoe, to buy a ranch of their own just south of Valentine along the Niobrara River.

I looked up at my mom. “So Great-Grandpa Delbert was a bastard?” I asked with a grin.

She shrugged. “I suppose, since Predaux never properly divorced his first wife, he couldn’t properly marry Catherine, but it didn’t really work that way back then. Anyway, Marian Hofman,” the author of the letter, “and her husband, also Roger, are going to be in Lincoln in June and we’re going to meet them.”

“How are they related to us?”

“Well, Marian would be your father’s half-second cousin.”

“Hoffman? So is she related through Grandma Elaine’s bramble bush of a family, too?” Everyone is, it sometime seems.

“No, it Hofman with one f, not like Grandma’s Hoffmans. Although with that family, you never know.”

Spring rolled into summer and June came around. Mom and Dad drove down to meet Marian and Roger in Lincoln. We all had dinner at our favorite Mexican restaurant two blocks from my house. Marian and her husband are both retired and they were traveling across North America. Roger had driven from Ottawa to Calgary, where Marian had flown out to join him. Then on to Seattle and across the Rocky Mountains, finally to Nebraska and on from here through Iowa and back up to Ottawa by way of the Great Lakes.

They were lovely people. Both Mom and Marian had brought fat file folders full of photographs and family trees. They were like peas in a pod. Marian’s father and Grandpa Choln, both grandsons of Predaux Sanford, had an interesting resemblance and both had been gadget men, loving radio and electronics and cameras. They sounded very much alike. It turned out that Predaux was himself descended from Simon Girty, who fought in the Revolutionary War.

“Well, he and his brother were stolen and raised by Indians when they were little. They Simon worked as an Indian scout and liaison with the British Army. When the revolution broke out, he was on the side of the rebels, but he didn’t like how the American’s were treating the Native tribes. There were some massacres and such. So he decided the Indians would be better off under the British and joined the Torries. Well, after the revolution, he couldn’t stay, so his family emigrated to Canada. He really wasn’t on either the American or British side. He was on the Native’s side,” Marian explained.

Marian even had information on G.W. Johnson and Catherine. One a trip a few years before, they had stopped in Valentine and a nice lady had taken them down into the basement of the courthouse to browse through the old records, which were just moldering away down there, stacked willy-nilly. She had not found much information on Zoe, Delbert’s wife and Choln’s mother. She couldn’t locate her in the Nebraska census records from any period before her marriage to Del.

“Oh, well, she was out in California before that,” Mom told her. “Elaine once told me she was a secretary to Zane Gray. But then, you know how these family legends are.”

Mom told our family stories of the Pocahontas, John Rolfe, and the Mayflower. There were other connections as well. Marian and Roger were somehow related to the Anesleys, a family that had settled in Nebraska from Canada a few generations ago. The Anesleys were known to my Mom’s family, the Oatmans, as their ranches had been in the same area near Ainsworth, Nebraska. And, of course, the Oatmans and their ancestors had also fought in the Revolutionary War, some tracing back to well before that, having come to America in the Seventeenth Century.

I related the story of visiting my friend Eman, who is from Sudan. She had some other Sudanese ladies over to her home and they chattered on about other people from Sudan recently come to the United States. “Where is your family from?” they asked me.

“Well,” I said, ticking off the list on my fingers, “England, Ireland, Scotland, France, Sweden, Norway, Germany, Denmark, at least two Native American tribes, and some of them came by way of Canada. So we're related to everyone.” Although, to be truthful, we are woefully lacking an Eastern European, Mediteranean, African, Asian, or South American ancestry, or at least any we have traced.

They had simply stared at me. “How does that happen?” Eman’s sister asked.

“Well, I guess when you’ve been in this country as long as we have, everyone just sort of mixes together.”

Marian had laughed at the story and Roger, a quiet man with a kind face, had smiled. “Isn’t that the true,” she agreed.

Marian and Roger said their goodbyes after posing for pictures with their new “cousins” from Nebraska. Now we have family to go and visit in Ottawa sometime. Both couples talked about how they would love to vacation in New England in the fall in the next few years, so who knows what will come of it. We didn’t find Great-Grandpa Sanford. After all, he was never really lost. He’s been buried in the Valentine cemetery all this time. We did find an entirely new family who are just as fun and quirky as us. I suspect, if we dig back far enough, everyone is family.

Now, if we could only act like it.

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