Friday, June 10, 2011

“His Mark”

Ah, Summer...

When life is oriented around a school schedule, there are precious few moments for hobbies and other fun items. That’s why I make as much progress as possible on genealogy research in the summertime. Face it: beaches and barbecues are fun, but when the heat gets the best of us, a nice afternoon in an air conditioned Family History Center provides just the right break.

Summer is also the time when many people travel. While our family’s trips aren’t extravagant by any stretch of the imagination, they provide plenty of genealogical detour opportunities between Point A and Point B.

This summer, it looks like we will be headed back east. I’m hoping our tracks will put us within range of driving by Lafayette, Indiana. I want to rendezvous with the final destination of the Stevens family since their emigration from Ireland sometime around 1850.

Lafayette isn’t exactly a name that stirs memories, unless you are thinking about the name of the French general who saved the day for rebelling American colonists.

Not that Lafayette.

This Lafayette, though named for the General, was probably never on the map of the Frenchman’s tour of duty. It does link to a battlefield, though, which happens to provide the name for its county: Tippecanoe. If you’ve ever heard the slogan, “Tippecanoe and Tyler too,” you are hearing buzz words instigated by this region’s history.

Our family history didn’t provide quite that kind of headline grabber, though. I would never have known of the arrival of John Stevens, coming up the Wabash River in Indiana, from the other end of the Mississippi where his trans-Atlantic vessel docked in New Orleans, if it weren’t for the archives kept by the local historical society.

We happened to stop by one afternoon years ago, on our way from Columbus to Chicago. We had only an hour to spare, but wanted to go both to the cemetery and into town to look up family documentation.

As luck would have it, a thunderstorm was brewing, and broke loose just as we exited the freeway. That nixed the trip to the cemetery.

We located the historical society’s museum, parked, and bolted inside. We were captives for the hour—until the storm subsided or the facility closed.

This was one of those trips for which I wasn’t yet prepared. I had a few names, a few dates, and scant additional information. Regardless. Our family was about to start on the great search.

An archive assistant helped us maneuver through index files and pulled out some documents from the closed stacks.

Opening one old file for my husband, the assistant pointed to the writing on a certificate in which a certain John Stevens of County Mayo renounced allegiance to Queen Victoria of the British Empire, and declared his intent to settle in Lafayette. At the bottom of this form, completed up to this point in an exquisite flowery hand, was an “x” and the annotation: “his mark.”

Once again, I cannot explain the sense of awe that swept over us as we stared at this piece of history. Though not for a famous leader, that page left us a trace of the significant head of our own family, the patriarch of Chris’s line. Chris stood there, looking not at a photocopy of a document, but touching the actual page that his great-great-grandfather had signed upon his arrival in this country.

At the point at which John Stevens affixed his mark, I am sure he was not thinking of any of his descendants—especially not any extended to the fifth generation. But here we stood, handling the very paper he had signed, trying to imagine what times were like when he made his decision to secure passage on a small vessel that would cross the Atlantic, or what would impel him to not consider the port of arrival—New Orleans—as his final destination.

Each of those decision points made the difference echo down through generations, though they were made, likely, without any thought to their impact on those others he would never meet. It reminds me that, like John Stevens, we stand as the nexus between multiple families’ histories and the destiny of people yet to be born.

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