Since forever I can remember my grandmothers telling stories about their families. As a child I was fascinated, as an adult I acquired a thirst for truth. Mainly because one of my grandmother’s stories seemed totally off the wall. Like our connection to Sir Winston Churchill. I mean seriously, how many people claim a connection to the Marlborough House? Just in case you don’t know, there are a lot of people. A lot.
So, I started digging. Researching, really. I started off with high hopes, and as I found pictures of Jennie Jerome, Churchill’s mother, and Celia Sandys, Churchill’s granddaughter, my hopes soared. There was a very strong resemblance between my aunt and Jennie and my mother and Celia. But as hard as I tried I couldn’t find the connection.
There were other stories. Like the one where my great great grandfather spent most of his adult life in an asylum because he was the son of a white man and an Indian princess. Or what about the one where my 3rd great grandfather killed King Strang, the one and only professed king in America. Strang actually believed he was to be Joseph Smith’s successor of the Mormon church, when Brigham Young won out, Strang broke from the church and set up a colony on Beaver Island, Michigan.
Harrison ‘Tip’ Miller and grandson
From all of my research, Strang was killed, supposedly because he had two young girls horsewhipped for wearing their skirts too long, now was it my great, great, great grandfather? Who knows, but I can tell you that he, a Mormon, married my Irish Catholic 3rd great grandmother. Their marriage caused her to disowned, so it makes one wonder if those rumors are true.
There was another story of my great great grandfather being killed by the mayor because he called the good man out for cheating at a game of cards. My grandmother told this story with such vehemence that it was hard not to believe. And if you ask my mother and her siblings they’ll all probably tell you that most likely the story is true, especially given a deck of cards weren’t allowed. Period!
After connecting with a distant cousin, she was able to send my a slew of newspaper articles from 1925 concerning the investigation. Seth Coleman Gates was a prominent figure in Ludington, Michigan. His parents, yes even his mother, had been sheriffs up in Benzie County, so to have their son involved with nefarious deeds had to have been an embarrassment, but I’m sure they wanted to know the truth, which I don’t think anyone ever truly discovered. According to the articles, my great great grandfather died of an accident, but there were too many fishy things left unresolved, and parts of the investigation had been tampered with and eventually disappeared.
The neatest stories, which my grandmother did not tell, were the ones of my great, great grandmother’s tales of being the first female sheriff in Michigan as well as in Oklahoma. I was able to find articles on Google about some of her feats, even taking down a few river rats.
I’m sure you’re wondering how all this relates to writing and research. Well, I’ve discovered a lot of things while researching my ancestry. Like the occupations of my ancestors in certain western towns, the number of people living in their household or if they were boarders. When researching the Jeromes out of New York, I discovered a lifestyle of the rich and famous of the mid 1800s. When researching Harrison Miller, I discovered much about Irish immigrants in Michigan, as well as the first life saving station there in the mid 1800s, as well as lighthouse life, since Harrison was a lighthouse keeper. Outside of the stories I’ve found war records, death pensions, Civil War diaries from both the North and the South.
The in depth research gives me a very rich and colorful insight into another life, one that I can use when it comes to writing historical fiction. You don’t have to research your own ancestors to discover a treasure trove, you can just do random searches on Ancestry.com or Familysearch.org
But I’ll warn you, it’s addicting. 😉
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