Recently, I wrote about the search for my great-great-great-aunt Minnie (Hickok) Wilcox, and the rewards and pitfalls of what I like to call those Delayed Messages from “beyond.” While I was happy to put the mystery of Minnie to rest (and to collaborate with my new almost-a cousin-in-law Tom), the rest of my family didn’t seem all that enthused to learn the tale and final resting place of Aunt Minnie. Heck, even my clan’s most ardent family history aficionados seemed numb to the small cache of findings about Minnie. The only thing I can say here is that I’m hopeful that their nonchalance about Minnie was just in deference to (and disapproval of) her curmudgeon of a husband, Horace G. “Billy” Wilcox. My great-great-great-uncle Billy probably should have been a 1920s-style “poster husband” for spousal abuse. This isn’t to say that I didn’t hear from “da folks” with regard to Tom’s and my discoveries about Minnie (or Billy). Only to say that by and large I heard from those polite branches, and they for the most part, are distant from ye olde trunk.
I guess I was a bit surprised at all of this genealogical ennui on the part of the family. I realize, though, that their shuffling boredom may very well be my own fault, as it certainly isn’t Tom’s or Minnie’s. You see, as much as I believe the discovery of Minnie’s final resting place and a review of her life are poignant, I recognize that aside from myself (and co-researcher Tom) any discoveries about Minnie’s life will not enthrall the typical crowd. Truthfully, I’ve started to wonder whether my family’s faltering interest with their own ancestral narratives might be caused by a combination of things. First, my children’s notion of “Dad’s always in there looking for dead people” may have finally caught up with me, and, second, if I haven’t created a Munchausen by proxy syndrome with my research (and results), in that the more discoveries I make, the more the individual result pales against the whole panoply of results. Indeed, I wonder if I haven’t exposed my family to so many instances of “the telling” of it all that they’ve gone dead to my wittering ways. As they say in that old song, perhaps, The Thrill is Gone.
I know that Pamela Athearn Filbert and I have talked about the reactions (for me, those “ice-cream stares”) that we’ve become familiar with when bringing up a discovery, random fact, or anecdotal tale in relation to our family history, and perhaps this is what occurred as I tried to tell the story about Minnie. It’s a disappointing sidebar with regard to our efforts (or results) that can really be discouraging. Yet still we persevere. I guess it’s just who we are.
For me, “the telling” of Minnie’s humble and quiet life brought all their boredom into focus. You see, in bringing together the tale (and hopefully the facts) about Minnie’s life I wasn’t telling them (my kin) about any of their ancestral connections, like those to the Bruens of Bruen-Stapleford, or to Rebecca Towne Nurse, nor was I even speculating on the possibility of one to the indomitable Jethro Tull. I also wasn’t trying to extol any “magical” DNA discoveries, or mentioning some erstwhile cousin who (much like themselves) had been fortunate enough to discover a new ancestor via the Mayflower Descendant.
True enough, too, is that I also wasn’t doing a very good job of interesting them in their own direct relationship to Minnie, or to folks like her. After all, she was “just” the wife of some obscure great-great-great-uncle who didn’t live in Montevideo but, rather, lived in, of all ordinary places, Milwaukee. No, I wasn’t telling them about anyone who was superlative. And, after all, why should family – especially those with only the slightest interest in their own dead people – be interested in “just anybody?” (Yeah, go figure…) I have to believe that we, as the resident family historians in our broods, often juggle tracking and keeping all those pesky vital records straight and in order, all while attempting to remain relevant to the most discerning audience of all – our own family.
Yes, remaining relevant to our families can be a tough thing. Consider this kind response I received from a family member about Minnie. While pleased to know what had happened to Minnie, my cousin was rather disappointed that her fate hadn’t turned out to be something more intrepid or alluring, and suggested that wouldn’t it have been more interesting if, perhaps, Minnie had been a bank robber running from the law. Really? A bank robber? For me, this was yet another example of where I may have failed in relating “the pulp” of my family tree. In other words, I might have gummed them to death with too much Barnum and Bailey in my efforts to foster interest in something in which they might not have a natural interest at all. I’ve perhaps done this so much so that now “the ordinary discoveries of an ordinary life” just don’t cut the mustard anymore. I’m not trying to say that any of my discoveries are “all that and a bag of chips,” only that in a family where its members would be hard pressed to know the names of their own great-grandparents, let alone their agnate relationship to the (very much slave-holding) family of Julia Dent Grant, you sometimes have to over-salt the broth to get them to taste it.
A bit embarrassed by this reply, I figured I’d best come up with some sort of familial relationship to a female bank robber to appease their disappointment. (I mean really, exactly how was I going to pull a bank robber out of the bag?) This begged the question, too, of why do I keep trying to interest people in a subject in which I have to razzle-dazzle them, rather than to just present the facts about a great-great-great-aunt from Milwaukee? (It kinda gives me an ice-cream headache.)
[The] reason I do this (and I suspect the reason all of us here do this…) is in the hope that a small percentage of our heritage will be remembered, and maybe even preserved…
Nevertheless, I figured I’d better get busy and produce some sort of a familial tie to perhaps Ma Barker, or I’d risk losing my family’s interest for sure. Don’t get me wrong; I know I inundate both my close and extended family with relevant and not so relevant discoveries in family history, but the reason I do this (and I suspect the reason all of us here do this…) is in the hope that a small percentage of our heritage will be remembered, and maybe even preserved by those who do not have any true interest in the extended branches of the family tree. Really, though, where was I going to get a dang bank robber?
Well, the truth is, I didn’t. I don’t have any bank robbers in my family tree. There aren’t any. (My regrets to the lovely and larcenous-ly talented Mrs. Barker…) Among all my crazy Quakers, Puritans, witches, and even an “extended” relationship to a pirate or two – I’m coming up empty. Believe me, it isn’t because I come from a family of do-gooders or Robin Hoods, or even (wait for it…) especially honest people. Oh, heck no. Most of my folks are what we used to call mutts. You know, those old hard working farmer folks who pay (and occasionally don’t pay) their taxes. We do have our reasonable mix of respectable insanity and rare genius moments, interspersed with a few of what I like to call “frequent delinquents,” and the usual admixture of the very patriotic sorts (Yankee and Loyalists alike…) and yes, even more than the occasional nut-job (or six) in the mix. However, I’m sorry (???) to say, not one dang bank robber. My friends, what more can one do? Oh, Lady Whistledown, for the terrible shame and embarrassment of it all!
 Minnie (Hickok) Wilcox (1861-1942) and her husband Horace G. Wilcox (1860-1930) are buried in unmarked graves at Highland Memorial Park in New Berlin, Waukesha County, Wisconsin.
 “Munchausen by proxy,” where the caregiver (or in this case the family historian) helps to cause or exacerbate an illness.
 Any familial connection to the historic Jethro Tull (1674-1741) or to the present day rock stars of the same name is merely conjecture and wishful thinking on my part.
 “Ma Barker”: Kate (Clark) Barker (1873-1935), a notorious bank robber.
 A character found the novels of Julia Quinn.
18 thoughts on “Not a gangster in the bunch”
I guess for most of who are reading this great blog, we just have to accept that we continue to be “dead serious.” We find our thrills in figuring out complicated relationships, and think slogging through old land records is satisfying. Occasionally we run across a pirate, a bastard child (whose mother got whipped for it), or even a back robber! Thankfully, Jeff always lightens it up for us! Yes, I, too, have been the recipient of those ice-cream stares.
I think God that my family takes a serious although not as enthusiastic interest in Family History. They are the ones who don’t want to do the work but are excited when somebody else finds something. It has been a long-standing family tradition on my father side that we are royally descended and it took me several hundred years later proving our ancestral connections to kings of England Scotland and France. When I told him my findings, they said oh we had known that for years, it is a family tradition. What they aren’t realizing is that without facts it’s just a family tradition. Now it’s a family tradition that is factual
Hi Michael, Thank-you, and yes!!! I know just what you mean. Tradition is wonderful, but when we are able to back it up with facts – it truly brings it all “home.”
Stay safe and well my friend!
I know the feeling, trying to keep my husband engaged. I can tell when he’s drifted off. When I say “You’re not listening to me” and get/maintain eye contact, I know I’ve gotten his attention. Just like back in the days when I taught 7th graders!
Oh, my Linda, 7th graders? You are truly a brave soul. 🙂 Many kudos to you for this!
Always good to hear from you.
I think you are dead on about needing something to get people interested. During CoVid time, I have made a number of discoveries that did not get most of the family interested. But I recently added an ancestor who was beheaded post Coulloden for his support of Bonnie Prince Charlie and that perked them up!
Alan, what an utterly awesome discovery!
Oh, my, my, my, Jeff. Not a gangster in the crowd? You have my sympathies. I don’t have one either, just the Napa California town blacksmith who had a short fuse and it didn’t take much to light it and whose misadventures were dutifully chronicled by the local newspaper and a book by my grandfather’s sister whom we call “Nutty Nellie.” I get amused by dragging family skeletons out of the closet.
Paul, thanks for this! Did Nellie make the Napa Register? My wife is from Napa and I really enjoy looking through their on-line (and free) newspaper resources. What a great tale. I am going to have to check Nellie out. Like you, I love bringing out a good skeleton if only just because!
I can send you a copy of her book. It was self published in 1913 so I presume it’s in the public domain by now.
Your style of writing is delightful. I really enjoy it even if there is no bank robber to report!! I also totally understand the “eyes glazed over” expression whenever I talk about ancestral information EXCEPT for the one time many years ago when I shared that my 5 x great grandfather was kicked out of Harvard, along with two others, for keeping a woman in their room! Now, that factoid surely raised an eyebrow or two with a few follow-up questions. Sadly, there then was a slow return to the “ice cream stare” subsequently!!
Jeff, interesting that you connect to Julia Dent Grant. Some years ago I typed up a family history for Margaret Sharp Angus who was, as I recall, a great-niece to Julia Dent Grant and lived here in Kingston, Ontario. I don’t know if that gives me permission to share it with you if you want, or if copyright would stay with her family. Margaret died about 10 years ago. You probably know the info anyway.
Hi Nancy! Do you refer to the Margaret Sharp Angus who lived to be nearly 100 years old? My what an interesting and fulfilling life she led. My paternal grandmother was connected to the Missouri Dents, albeit remotely, but still the “Dent” name persisted for years. Good stuff!
Maybe your uninterested relatives are like my mother, who used to say to me, “Why do you want to know about those old dead people for, anyway?”
My line in response to a request for infamous ancestors is “No horse thieves, but a horse trader.” In that Kentucky county the courthouse burned three times (Union, Confederate, and lightning) and the only records left are taxes. The value of his horse drops each year, and then he gets a different one and the cycle starts again. he also had a mule named Davy Crockett!
That blank stare from someone as I begin taking them into the story of a new discovery is all too familiar. It is especially magnified when it is done over Zoom and you can see multiple people reaching for their drinks. Nevertheless, when you find a ne’er-do-well among the ancestors, there are multiple “Well, that explains it” amongst the group.
A wonderful post, Jeff, and excellent writing.
See Tom! I knew you’d get it! I have to say though that you are brave to introduce them to any of your genealogical discoveries over Zoom. (I vote that we cut them all off from their Keurigs!)
Thanks Tom – and especially for your kind words.