When you need a break from crawling up your own tree and venture out into the forest seeking others’ trees to climb, you know you’re an addict. And that’s not always a bad thing!
Several years ago, a friend of mine (knowing I was a genealogy nut) shared with me a family rumor of her paternal side and she had a name. I tried convincing her to climb her tree, but she wanted no part of it. She wasn’t ready. After several years passed, and being bored with my own tree and looking for something I could sink my teeth into, I started a tree for her with her help. I shared with her all information gathered, and even at times talked her into joining in on the search. She is also aware that I am writing this. I give you her story:
My friend’s grandmother “R” had married a man, we’ll call him “O,” and had 10 children, all claiming O’s last name. My friend supplied the names of her aunts and uncles, the parents of her grandmother and several others on the matrilineal line. There was, however, a problem.
R’s ten children were born between the years of 1923 – 1946. “O” died in 1935. Enter rumored name.
I plugged in the rumored name. We’ll call him “L.” My friend’s aunt remembered her father, L. Three other children, born after O’s 1935 death, are the assumed children of L, according to family lore. While searching census records, I found Grandma R living a street over from L, backyards touching. Their backyards touched for 20 years.
When my friend asked her grandmother R about said rumored man, all Grandma R would say is that, “he sure was a nice man.” She went to her grave never revealing to her granddaughter anything more about this man. My friend, being a sleuth, began to quietly talk to different members of her father’s family. She began piecing together stories of recent history.
Another family story is that my friend’s dad went up to L one day and asked if L was his father. The young boy was told “no.” My friend asked how a parent could deny themselves to their child.
And here, dear reader, is where things get touchy. L is a black man. R is a white woman. The year is 1938. My friend’s father is born to a city known for its racist views. You see, in August 1930, a lynching was held in this place we call home. Two black youth were beaten and dragged from the county jail – accused of murdering a white man and raping his white girlfriend – and hung from a tree on the courthouse square. The city has, to this day, never fully recovered.
One must understand the historical events leading up to this time. It is my guess, obviously not knowing the man personally, that L’s response to this young boy was one of safety. Safety for R, safety for L, and safety for this young little boy. It may have been one of the biggest acts of love L could have bestowed on his children.
The genealogy search continued for L’s family. Within a few days’ time, his mother, Ruth, was found in the Wayne County, Indiana census. She eventually found herself in Grant County, living in Weaver, a noted early black community in Indiana. All of the dots were connecting. Ruth’s father, according to the 1850 census was William Bush, a blacksmith born about 1804 in North Carolina. 1850 is the first record I find of him being in Indiana. I was finding nothing else until…
I went to work the following day. We had just received a new edition of Outdoor Indiana magazine. Having a strong interest in history, I turned to the featured story on the Levi Coffin Historical Site.
I opened the magazine and read the article’s first line, “William Bush arrived in Indiana in a wooden box shipped from North Carolina. That’s one version of his escape from slavery…the story goes that abolitionist Levi Coffin received the box at his Wayne County home and gave its cargo the surname ‘Bush’ because of the beard that grew on William’s face during transit.” My eyes bulged. In somewhat disbelief, I reread the opening paragraph. The story goes on to tell of him being a successful blacksmith; that he arrived in Newport, Indiana (Now known as Fountain City) sometime between 1840 – 1850. All of this matched what I had found on my friend’s William Bush. Included in the article is a photo of his great-great-granddaughter, a volunteer at the Levi Coffin House, holding a pair of wooden shoes – shoes William Bush wore while blacksmithing so not to burn his feet. Those shoes, we later learned, were donated to the Levi Coffin House by the volunteer’s great-aunt.
I called my friend, and texted her a photo of the article. Some weeks before she had submitted her DNA sample to Ancestry.com, seeking ethnicity information. We continued to make visits to the local library gathering any and all information we could on the family. We visited local burial sites, walking row after row of graves.
My friend’s grandfather, L.
We visited and interviewed her family members (with the exception of her father; it seems he wants nothing to do with this family for reasons of his own). Her aunt shared a photograph. My friend’s sister found a photo album at their dad’s that had originally belonged to Grandma R. In it… a different photo of the same man, L.
One evening as we left the library, we sat in the parking lot going over the day’s findings. She decided to check her email and in came the results of her DNA test, as if on cue. Fully expecting the results she received, it did nothing but confirm the family rumors – a genetic link to the Ivory Coast.
A phone call was placed to the Levi Coffin House with a message for William Bush’s great-great-granddaughter, Eileen. After making contact with her, a meeting was planned for the two great-great-granddaughters at the Levi Coffin House.
The two great-great-granddaughters of William Bush meet for the first time. In the case are William’s wooden shoes.
I was privileged to be invited to this mini-reunion of family. Eileen was a gracious hostess. We received a tour of the Levi Coffin House and grounds. We visited with Eileen at her home until the wee hours of the night going over family tree information and family photos.
The next morning, we toured several cemeteries, one being where William Bush is buried. So far, we have been unable to locate the burial place of his wife, Charlotte. According to census information, she was a free black woman who came to Indiana around the same time as William. We traveled to several Quaker cemeteries, searching for my own family who moved through Wayne County, and who most likely knew William Bush and his family. Odd that my friend and I, the descendants of these folks in Wayne County, would end up friends in another county, all these decades later.
In what started as a family hushed-truth, new beginnings emerge. The descendants of William and Charlotte Bush have gathered for a family reunion. They share family photos, stories, and the desire to know their roots.
I must say it’s been a pleasure to have been a part of this story, watching it unfold, dots connecting to dots, people of seemingly different races coming together, ultimately as one. All because of a little family rumor.