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Elementary, my dear… Chasing the begats and finding the renegades

By Sydney Stevens

Observer columnist

Published on November 1, 2017 3:24PM

Following the American Civil War, Capt. Richard Taylor (1834-1880) and his wife Rachael Medora (Pryor) Taylor (1839-1872) fled from the war-torn South and moved to Mexico City with their three teenaged children.

Espy Family Collection

Following the American Civil War, Capt. Richard Taylor (1834-1880) and his wife Rachael Medora (Pryor) Taylor (1839-1872) fled from the war-torn South and moved to Mexico City with their three teenaged children.

For Christmas last year, Santa gave everyone in our household one of those spit-in-the-tube-and-find-your-forebears kits. I think I’m the only one who has done much about it, which is ironic considering I know more about my ancestors than anyone else in our immediate family.

It’s no credit to me that I know as much as I do. It’s because my mother’s brother, my redoubtable Uncle Willard Espy, began investigating our family’s skeletons way back when. That he had read the Bible three times by the time he was eight without once skipping so much as a word — especially not in Genesis — was an oft-told family story.

When asked about his diligence in studying that particular book, he explained that the begats were the foundation of all that came afterwards. He never changed his mind on that score, but on the matter of which begats were included and which were not, he had this to say:

The Bible is very clear about when and how the Lord created Adam, but I cannot find anything about the creation of Espys. We tend to explain away the omission as a bad translation.

Perhaps it was in an effort to correct this oversight that Willard spent much of his life researching, recording, and disseminating the Espy genealogy. He also, of course, pursued the Richardson side of the family and, when his daughters were born, he researched their mother’s heritage as well.

Preoccupied with begats

His preoccupation with “the begats” did not stop with Biblical characters or even with the forebears of his family and in-laws. Willard was genuinely interested in the stories of his friends’ grandparents and great-grandparents. His fascination with the people of the past began long before genealogy became a popular interest in our culture.

His first serious foray into methodically tracing the family lineage began in 1934. The magazine he was working for in New York folded in September and, as he often said, “It was the depths of the Depression and there were no jobs to be had in New York or anywhere else.” So, 24-year-old Willard headed home to Oysterville to work on a novel.

In his spare time, he systematically went through the many boxes of “stuff” stored in the woodshed behind the kitchen. There were old scrapbooks and photograph albums and correspondence that had come into the house since the folks had moved to Oysterville in 1902. He read it all, eagerly looking for information about his forebears.

Meanwhile, he wrote to every relative and extended family member he could locate. Obtaining the necessary three cents for postage was often an impossibility. So, Willard sorted through envelopes from old correspondence and cut away the stamps that had missed being canceled, handily recycling them for his inquiries.

“Most of the relatives who were so helpful in providing names, dates, and places were in their eighties when I began to research the family,” he said. “They also were the ones who could remember their fathers talking about the Revolutionary War. But ten years later they were all gone, and with them went important links in the family chain.”

That was the beginning. As the years went by, he continued his quest and the first of “Willard’s Genealogy Books,” as the family would come to call them, were distributed as Christmas gifts in 1954. Over the remainder of his long and productive life, Willard continued to add snippets of information here and there. Shortly before his death in 1999, he entrusted all of his research to me but, admittedly, I’ve only added to it sporadically.

An urge to eavesdrop

So, when the long-awaited ancestry packet came, I was ready to jump in. It quickly became obvious, though, that it’s not so much who my forebears were that matters to me. I’m much more interested in the times in which they lived and how they adapted to them, for better or for worse. Beyond that, what would they have to say about the world of today? Even more intriguing, what would they have to say to one another? If only I could listen in.

For instance, how would the discussion go if my two-times-great-grandfather on my mother’s side could meet up with my five-times-great-grandfather on my father’s side? Because of Willard, I know a good deal about the former but, so far, through my ancestry program, only a smidge about the latter. But I do know enough about the two of them to be able to state, unequivocally, that they were dissatisfied with the political status of the country and, therefore, took drastic measures to disassociate themselves from a future they considered untenable.

My five times great-grandfather, Mr. Branch — the one I know least about (not even his first name) — was the father of my direct forebear Mary Branch. Mary was born in Kennebec County, Maine, according to my own paternal grandmother, and Mary’s daughter Rebekah Palmer was born in New Brunswick, Canada in 1796.

The fact that young Mary apparently moved from Maine to New Brunswick, in combination with family stories about our Royalist forebears who fled to Canada at the time of the Revolutionary War, make me curious. What were the circumstances of their departure? Why did they cut their ties with Maine so completely that none of them returned to the United States for the next four generations?

Another renegade

Similarly, a hundred years later, Capt. Richard Taylor (on the other side of my family) of the Confederate Army was so upset when the South lost the Civil War that he moved to Mexico City with his wife and teenaged children. Though his daughter and granddaughter (my beloved Oysterville “Granny”) would move, in their turn, to California, Dick and his wife and their two sons lived south of the border without ever a backward glance at their native Kentucky.

So, what would Mr. Branch (c. 1776) and Capt. Taylor (c. 1865) have to say to each other? Would their reasons for abandoning their country be the same? Would they both exhibit satisfaction with what they had done? Or would they have regrets? And what would they think about their descendants who had moved back to the very country each had chosen to abandon?

If I could sit down with them and discuss our present-day political situation, what would they have to say? Would they think that we, too, are approaching a crossroads of history? How might they advise the Americans of today?

I’m sure Willard would say that our ancestors, wherever they are, have already had that discussion and have gone on to more interesting topics. Perhaps. But, even so, I wish I could tune into whatever they are saying. From what I know of them, they were both men of integrity; they didn’t abandon their countrymen before giving their decision a great deal of thought. Were there parallels that we should be considering in these uncertain times?

Notwithstanding how history might judge them, how do they judge themselves? Would they advise us to follow in their footsteps? North to Canada or South to Mexico?


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