My family history search started with a mysterious document written by “M. Brigham” in the 1880’s. It had been typed on an old fashioned typewriter, mimeographed and stapled with a strange shaped staple unlike those we have now. I had reason to believe it was written by an ancestor of mine, but I didn’t recognize the surname and had no idea what the M might stand for.
Grade school report
But let me back up a bit. The seeds of my interest in genealogy go back much further, actually. I was assigned to write about my family history in grade school, and when I went home and asked, my mother had all sorts of information, disjointed and unsubstantiated though it was. Hannas had lived in Scotland in a place called Sorbie Castle. A framed coat of arms on the wall in my parents bedroom confirmed it. I wrote it up for school but didn’t really understand where the information had come from.
Much later, my grandmother Hanna passed away and the family spent some time at her house before it was sold, going through her belongings. I was a young mother at the time and an old wooden toy box looked like a nice keepsake, but first we had to empty it of its contents. Not toys, it was filled with documents and papers pertaining to our family’s history. There was a packet of papers in an old-fashioned script tracing the Hanna’s ancestry back to our immigrant ancestor and beyond, to Ireland and Scotland. I was interested in taking this mysterious document, and my Aunt Judy said I could if I would “so something with it.” Continue the research, that’s what she meant. I didn’t know then where it would lead me.
The search for Mr. Brigham
Which brings me back to the mysterious M. Brigham. It was a couple years after the family reunion and I accidentally acquired Mr. Brigham’s document from my father, in a box of stuff that had been my grandmother’s.
The document was a brief autobiography. Brigham was born in western NY, grew up, got married, had a few kids, and then his first wife died. He spent much of the document discussing his early life and then gave a very quick summary of his later life, much of which was spent as a leading citizen of Toledo, Ohio. The document was addressed to his son, Charles O. Brigham, and didn’t give me a clue to how either man was related to me.
My father confirmed that his mother’s mother’s maiden name was Brigham. I dug out the papers that came out of the old wooden toy box and read through wedding announcements published in the paper telling of my grandparents’ wedding. They listed my grandmother’s maternal grandfather as William Augustus Brigham. No Charles was mentioned, nor anyone whose name started with M.
The Internet did not immediately give me any clues; not having a first name was a big gap. I searched and searched and finally ended up at a website run by the LDS church. Hundreds of Brighams there, of course, despite the fact that my ancestors were not Mormon (the document mentioned a Presbyterian church in Toledo).
Finally, I found the link. Turns out, Mr. Brigham had 2 wives, and a huge number of children. Charles was from the first marriage, but grew up knowing wife number 2, because his own mother died when he was very young. As his father got older, he wanted to know more of his early history and so his father wrote the history for him. My own ancestor (William Augustus Brigham, my grandmother’s grandfather) was a product of the second marriage, but his descendants inherited a copy of the document anyway.
The M. stood for “Mavor”, of all the unlikely names, and the Internet lists him as having been involved in the Underground Railroad, though he doesn’t mention this in the story he wrote. I eventually discovered that another branch of the Brigham descendants had gotten the document published as a little booklet that included several generations of Brighams all the way back to Thomas Brigham, our immigrant Brigham ancestor who arrived in New England in 1635 on a ship called the Susan and Ellen.
I thought I’d discovered something no one in my family had known, but when I told my Aunt, she told me my grandmother had owned a copy of the little booklet and had met some of the Brigham descendants who had compiled and published it. Apparently it was old news.
Following my women ancestors
But I continued to do research. The Hanna and Brigham lines had been traced back through male ancestors with the family name. So, we knew the names of Mavor’s wife, and his father and mother, and other children, Mavor’s siblings. Then we knew Mavor’s father, Sullivan Brigham, and his mother, Amanda Spaulding, and Sullivan’s parents and siblings, but not Amanda’s parents or siblings. Except for the ancestors of my grandmother and her mother, most of the female ancestors were dead ends – we had no information about the family tree extending beyond them.
I was particularly curious about a woman who had a tragic life, a woman who married one of my Hanna ancestors. Hannah Bayless was “of Huguenot descent,” according to the information I inherited. I’m not sure I’ll ever know much more about her, but the facts of her life speak for themselves: She was born on a farm in Havre de Grace, Maryland, in 1761 and married James Hanna in 1782, after James completed his service to our new country in the Revolutionary War. Thus she was blessed, or cursed, depending on how you look at it, with the married name of Hannah Hanna. After their marriage, the couple moved to Scott County, Kentucky, a distance of almost 600 miles, making the trip on the back of a single horse. Their years in Kentucky were fruitful, producing 9 children. Soon after their last child was born, they moved to Dayton, Ohio, and within several months of the move, Hannah died and became the first person buried in the original Dayton cemetery. If the dates I have are correct, she died the day after her 43rd birthday.
An exciting surprise
The name of Hannah Bayless was one of those on that paper we found in the old wooden toy box, but I was to find other female ancestors that would lead me to an exciting genealogical find.
Every genealogist hopes to find some link to a famous ancestor. Some even manufacture such links: an old book I found says that Cynthia Harrison, another of the ancestors I uncovered, was the cousin of William Henry Harrison, governor of Indiana and later U.S. President, but I have not been able to prove this.
However, I did discover even more famous ancestors: Mayflower passengers! The Brigham line had more secrets to reveal and these came through the female ancestors. One of the Brigham’s wives was descended, again through female lines, from little known Mayflower passengers, James Chilton and his wife. The Chiltons were so little-known that Mrs. Chilton’s first name has been lost.
James Chilton also has a tragic history. He and his wife had several children, they lived in England and they were part of a group of separatists who did not want to worship God in the manner prescribed by the Church of England. Mrs. Chilton was actually excommunicated because she attended an illegal funeral, and the family moved to Leiden, Holland with many other families who eventually set sail on the Mayflower. By the time the Mayflower sailed, the Chiltons were grandparents and most of their children had reached the age of maturity. Only Mary, age 12, still lived with them. Mr. Chilton was attacked by a group of Dutch youths, hit on the head by a rock and lost consciousness, the year before they left for America.
After making the long trip across the Atlantic, James died soon after the Mayflower Compact was signed aboard the ship in Cape Cod Bay, before the passengers had settled in Plymouth and built their new settlement. Mrs. Chilton died later that winter and Mary was left alone, presumably living with another family. I am actually descended from Mary’s oldest sister, Isabella, who, with her husband and children, stayed in Leiden when the Mayflower set sail and came to America later, on another boat.
I’ve always been fascinated to discover information about the lives of all of the people who came before me. Getting names and dates on paper is satisfying, filling in the blanks with actual names, but the real fun is finding out more about their lives, and I’m thrilled when I discover information about who they were, what they did, or even pictures.
Recently I found a portrait of James Hanna, husband of the tragic Hannah Bayless Hanna. Amazingly, Google Books was the source. Google Books has information on many, many books, but the real treasure trove for history buffs and genealogists is that old books that are no longer under copyright are often available as scanned text in their entirety. Such a book was a history of the Hanna family which was compiled by another branch of the family from mine. This book contained portraits of lots of Hannas only obliquely related to me, but, upon searching for James Hanna, Google Books was able to give me a portrait of this long-dead ancestor.
How exciting that I am able to sit at my computer in upstate New York and travel back in time to meet pilgrim separatists, puritan immigrants, Revolutionary war heroes, and members of the Underground Railroad. Not to mention busy stay-at-home moms.