If you shake your family tree, what falls? Surprisingly, my tree’s fruit formed a rich mosaic of America. Each of the people below provided material for one or more of my newspaper articles.
Rev. Abraham Pierson—A Puritan zealot, he and his religious commune founded both Southampton and Newark, more citadels of secularism than theocracies today. Pierson’s son became the first president (rector) of Yale.
Rev. William Tennent—My family’s minister in Bucks County, Pa., his small church school was ridiculed as “the Log College”—but became the blueprint for sixty colleges, including Princeton. And his charismatic preaching—and four minister sons—helped started the Great Awakening.
Alexander Burns—Shanghaied by the British Navy in Ireland, he jumped ship in America in 1762, fought in the American Revolution, and escaped captivity from the Indians after the war. Alex was an adventurer.
John Hosbrook—Froze to death while bringing salt back from the fort during the blizzard of 1798 in Ohio. Fought for New Jersey in the Revolution.
Hervey Bates—Raised by a storekeeper after his mother died, Hervey became a founding father of Indianapolis and built Bates House, the finest hotel in Indiana and where Lincoln stayed on his way to Washington to be inaugurated president. Yes, Lincoln slept there.
David Acheson and John Burns—Their families were friends and neighbors both in Ireland and Pennsylvania. And David and John were together at Gettysburg, fighting in the Wheatfield—where golden grain ran red with blood. David did not survive.
Mary Hosbrook—An Ohio farm girl who became a master carver, artist, and pioneering businesswoman in Kansas City in the early 1900s. She lived to 101 and left her fortune to charity.
Carroll Hosbrook—My uncle’s wry sense of humor and wonderful set of World War I letters, including one written near the Armistice site in northern France on Nov. 11, 1918, have appeared in over fifty newspapers.
Alex Haley—well, sorta. He and I both have white Irish ancestry and exchanged letters back in the 1980s. His “Roots” docudrama inspired me to trace my 1790s family letters back to Ireland. The family farm was still there two centuries later, was near a border flashpoint (two recent terrorist attacks), and led to my making eight trips to Belfast and writing on terrorism.
Kris and Kayla—Boston’s “K Girls” and family friends, Kris and her handicapped daughter were caught up in the Boston Marathon bombing, Kris’ fiancé sustaining shrapnel to the head from the first blast at the finish line. Their close call jolted me out of retirement and back into writing.
Consider shaking your family tree to see what falls—yes, mine also produced a few bad apples and even a nut case or two, but you will be surprised by what wonderful things some of your ancestors did in building America. My most recent article concerned two teenage boys linked to our family who were on the USS Arizona at Pearl Harbor and also a high school friend who was a Korean War POW for three years—but survived and was invited to the White House to meet President John F. Kennedy. We need to pass such stories on to today’s generation—lest we forget, lest they never know.
James F. Burns is a retired professor at the University of Florida.