We have all taken history based trips to important sites and cities where our American forefathers made history. We have been to battlefields and museums, the Statue of Liberty, Washington DC. These are important sites and important events– but the people in most cases are not our direct lineage. It is only our history in a broader sense.
Today, websites like Ancestory.com and DNA spit tests make it is easy to research family heritage. We can create family trees and trace lineage back to discover how our relatives arrived in the United States and where they lived. While some of you are lucky enough to live in the same community and even the homes of your ancestors, for others, family history is only on paper. Families have moved and spread out with family homesteads cities and states away.
Since my father retired, he has followed leads to put together our family history. All of his notes and clippings for what my mother has loving referred to as his “Ancestor Worship,” have been kept in a hardside briefcase (circa 1960). When he got his first computer, he was able to fill in the gaps. His computer hard drive is home to his writing and scanned pictures and family trees. Email has enabled correspondence with distant cousins who have shared stories, pictures and history. My generation is fortunate that he has made all the connections and kept the records for us.
But, my dad takes it a step further. He likes to see and touch our family history. He likes to visit the houses, walk the streets and stand in the churches that molded our family. Dad has made in person visits to small town cemeteries, churches, newspaper archives and city hall record rooms all over the world.
Our busy schedules have allowed my siblings and me to study his written history and charts but his dream was to share the “in person history” with his children, to show us the sites and travel with us back in time, to give us the knowledge to pass the history to the future generations.
Last summer, I had the privilege of joining my parents and my brother to travel to South Carolina and see some family sites. The Conyers family boasts a long line of Presbyterian ministers that can be traced back to a connection with John Witherspoon, a Presbyterian minister and signer of the Declaration of Independence. Dad, at 88 is a gold mine of information and stories. He prepared a notebook of newspaper clippings, plat maps, family trees and his written stories of our family. In my parents Buick with my brother, David, I sat in the back seat like I had so many years ago. The only thing missing was our younger sister, June, who wasn’t able to join us.
The trip included a half dozen small towns over five days. We drove on back roads, visited cemeteries, churches and old homes. We listened to stories and met people in the towns. Dad has no problem asking church staff questions and finding town historians who often opened buildings and directed us to family sites. A stop at the city hall of Timmonsville, produced a visit at the home of an elderly member of the church my grandfather attended as a youth. She gave us a key and we were able to see the Bible my great-uncle signed as a gift to the church and my grandfather’s picture as a seminary student hanging on the wall.
At a visit to another church in Manning, we found a church staff member who let us inside to see the stain glass window donated by our twice great grandfather, born in 1829. She then contacted the city historian who opened up the historic family home of Thorntree and took us to the city museum.
We stood on a bridge overlooking the Black River, where family members had fought with Frances Marion, the Swamp Fox, during the American Revolution. We found the old family property with the spring cursed by the local indians.
We stood in the pulpit of churches where my grandfather had delivered sermons. And we saw the first home my grandparents shared as newly weds.
It was priceless to see the house that my father’s family lived in when he was a child. I was able to see the porch where a family picture was taken. We drove past his elementary school.
Sadly, some homes were no longer standing and church buildings had grown and built new buildings on top of the old. The church manse built on the Indian mound in Fort Mill, the location of many of my dad’s childhood stories, had recently been torn down. The church was selling bricks from the old house as a fundraiser. Dad purchased a few.
I’m glad I had the chance to travel with my dad and stand with him on our families homesites and in the churches. It was an honor to be where my direct ancestors stood, struggled, fought for our country, guided their communities and grew my family. I visited plots where my roots are laid to rest while I, generations later, carry on. No value can be placed on the opportunity to see the location of so many family stories and the sites where my family took the pictures that hang in my house. There are no words I can write to properly describe the emotions of this trip.
We are all bound to our ancestors. Even though we can’t hear their voices, we must tell their stories. Our history is a perishable commodity. As memories fade and loved ones pass away, it is our responsibility to preserve the stories of the past and the present for the future. Listen to your older family members and ask them their stories. Tell stories of your childhood to your children. Write them down. Travel to the cities and see where your family lived. The places will be lost if you don’t locate and visit them.
“If you don’t recount your family history, it will be lost. Honor your own stories and tell them. The tales may not seem very important, but they are what binds families and makes each of us who we are.”
– Madeleine L’Engle
Without the knowledge of our past, we are trees with no roots. In the end, we are our stories.