ancestors, Battle of Trenton, Crossing the Delaware, Daniel Searing, family history, genealogy, George Washington, journal, legacy, memorial day, New Amsterdam, New York City beginnings, personal history, Revolutionary War
Some of my husband’s ancestors are among the early Dutch settlers of America, arriving in what was known as New Amsterdam (present day New York City) about 1640. I can only imagine how NYC looked as a small farming community. I imagine they raised their own food and made their own clothing and tools. Of course, we can’t be absolutely sure about their lifestyles, because blogging hadn’t been invented yet. Can you imagine what they might have written if they could have broken away from frontiering and surviving long enough to post?
There are few written records to have survived the centuries since the days of our “early” ancestors. Names and birth dates are usually the most that is known of people who lived so long ago. If you’re really lucky you might have the name of a spouse, marriage date, or the location of where they lived, bore their children, and died in order to deduce what might have happened to them. Family history research for written records is a bit like an archaeological dig. Each little tidbit of information must be considered a priceless and relevant piece in the puzzle. You can only hope the most important pieces have survived.
Daniel Searing was born in New York in 1759, the third child of a large family. He married twice; the second time at the age of 38, after apparently being widowed. He had five children with his first wife, and eight with the second. He died at the age of 74–a full life, but there are very few details to tell us specifics about how he lived out his years.
A puzzle piece from his life has been found in Revolutionary War Pension Files, however, that gives us a glimpse of the trustworthiness and loyalty of his character: “Enlisted in the army at 17 and was in the battles of White Plains and Trenton. At the Battle of Trenton, he served as George Washington’s bodyguard and at one time climbed a tree at Washington’s request to report what he could see.”
Trenton! Trenton, New Jersey was the site of the Battle following the famous Christmas night crossing of the Delaware. He would have already survived unthinkable odds prior to the battle at Trenton! He would have volunteered to extend his service to his country another month after his obligation had been met. General Washington’s password for this battle was “Victory or Death.” What I would give to know more of this valiant young man! And how grateful I am that someone took the time to record that precious little tidbit of information!
My dad passed away in March. When you realize you’ve already had your final conversation with someone you love before they passed on (even when you believe you’ll have that opportunity again) it’s natural to think back and wish you’d made each visit more meaningful. I wish I’d asked him more, and listened better. I wish I had enticed him to record his own voice telling his memories and perspective on events throughout his life. When he died, many family stories died with him. There’s no one left on earth with the personal knowledge of certain events that he could have shared. We’re all unique and valuable and our perspective can’t be duplicated–that can be said of every person who has ever lived.
On memorial day, with all my family gathered around Dad’s grave site, Mom presented me with a journal she had found in his things. It was one I had given him about 25 years ago, inscribed with my wishes that he preserve for his children the memories and experiences of his life, with the depth of insight that only he could express. He only wrote in it once–a precious single paragraph expressing love and gratitude for his heritage, family, and faith–for where he came from and what made him who he was.
Of course, there are still photographs and physical written evidence of events in Dad’s life, as well as memories of many people still living who knew him. But as the years go on, there will be fewer people who remember him personally. Eventually all the evidence of his life could dwindle to a few puzzle pieces for my children’s children, too, if we don’t do anything to prevent it.
But our reunion at Dad’s grave on Memorial Day this year was not really new. We have a long standing tradition of gathering at that time of year at the grave- sites of my grandparents and great grandparents. At least once a year we spend a day in caravan with my kids, parents, and my siblings’ families, stopping at several cemeteries in the region. We tell stories about our ancestors, and remember their personalities and contributions to our lives. Passing down the legacy to the next generation is an important and enjoyable tradition. How else do you instill in your children a sense of identity, pride, and belonging in their own place in history?
It can be more interesting to go digging for ancient treasure, but never at the expense of losing those puzzle pieces of family members in my own personal memory–and that includes my own. Deciding what I want to be my legacy, and determining what I consider most valuable to be preserved is not work I want to leave up to someone else to accomplish after I’m gone.