Sonoma Sun #4: Keeper of the Lines

Why bother? I mean, really. They’re dead. Who cares about the past, and what difference does it make? But you know, there are occasions we do something for its own sake, simply because it’s interesting, or satisfying, or it feels worthwhile.

For a number of years I’ve researched my genealogy, gathering all the historical facts, figures, and tales I could glean about my parents and their kin. Those of us who work on our family lines tend to have an obsessive dedication and curiosity that surprises even us. I didn’t plan on dancing with the dead any more than I planned on having teenagers or going into real estate; sometimes things happen, and suddenly, you are taken over! In the beginning, I knew little beyond my grandparents’ names; then I came across a picture of my Grandma Nellie with her sisters. How could I not know she had sisters? That’s what started me on the hunt. I spent untold hours on the computer (you have no idea) and tracked down others related to me who contributed pictures, records, and letters. I gained insight about my lineage, I came away with a new love of history, and I found I possess many of the same traits and tendencies of those who came before me.

Sonoma Valley Cemetery

But what calls us to find the ancestors? It goes beyond a simple curiosity. We’re compelled, as if possessed by something bigger than us begging to be revealed. There is one of us in almost every family called to be its scribe. I’m one of several in our clan’s long line of storytellers. Like others, I too am called to gather and assemble them; to breathe life into them as far back as I can reach. We take what we find and chronicle the facts of their existence: who they were and what they did, restoring their place in the family line. We search for them in the records of public libraries, county records, and weed-filled or well-kept cemeteries. We comb through yellowed newspapers, old letters, and photo albums. In doing so, we find them! And in finding them, we often find ourselves.

my Clemens line

I’m blessed to be a keeper of the lines. I descend from a long line of dead people who’ve been part of this country for generations, all who contributed to my being. Gathering my kin fulfills a need in me; it’s part of my underlying drive to keep the family together. I do it for my ancestors; I do it for my family still living, and for those yet to come. I do it because it’s important to me. That’s why I bother.

For eight years I’ve been a member of Find A Grave, a website that chronicles cemeteries and headstones. In that time I’ve added nearly a page each for 3,500 kith and kin, and have had that many more pages transferred to me. I’ve also added that many pictures and bios to those pages. It’s a permanent collection of my paternal and maternal family lines extending as far back as George Chatfield, who emigrated from England to Connecticut in 1639. That is a lot of relations who’ve departed. Most of us still alive and kicking are on Facebook, the website that chronicles the living.

There are 154,000,000 grave records worldwide on Find A Grave. That includes nearly every cemetery in every town in the United States, including Sonoma. Mountain Cemetery, established in 1841, is a window to our past, filled with headstones and family crypts. As you wander through our burying grounds you may know, or at least recognize, the names of many of the town’s dead — from ranchers and wine makers to murderers and bootleggers — some nefarious, and more than a few illustrious, who’ve contributed to our history. They are the ones on whose shoulders this town stands, and whom we honor. The two other cemeteries in Sonoma are St. Francis Solano on E. Napa and Valley Cemetery on E. MacArthur. These remnants of our past, tucked in here and there among the living, are not forgotten.

Sonoma Valley Sun VOL. XII, ISSUE 21 (column #4), by Catherine Sevenau

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  1. Jeff Elliot says:

    Thankfully, my oldest brother has done the heavy lifting for the exploration of our family tree. He was inspired when we four Elliot brothers visited the clan manor (Castle Redhugh, Newcastleton, Scotland) in 2009. A workaholic like yourself, Brother Dane has unearthed previously unknown wives and children of our Grandfather, and other tasty tidbits of family history. So far, I have been able to merely sit back and enjoy the tale! He has traced back to the three (four?) brothers who fled Scotland as suspected horse thieves in 1860 and joined the Union Army. Sadly, any traces previous to that went up in courthouse fires in Scotland that destroyed all clan records.

    • I’m glad you enjoyed your family’s tales. You’d be surprised how many don’t even lift an eyebrow to, much less turn a page on their family history. I remember when I was one of those people.

  2. Oh dear, you’re inspiring me again! Maybe it’s not too late to revive some of mine… in my spare time! You’ve done such an amazing job. The indigenous people say we can call on our ancestors for help and they’re very happy to respond, if we’ll listen. They may be closer than we think.

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