Family History Through the Alphabet – U is for Unknowns, Unfortunate Findings, & U Surnames

This week’s Family History Through the Alphabet Challenge features the letter U. The following are a few noteworthy U’s I have run across while researching my ancestry.

U is for Unknowns:

Although no ancestry will ever be 100% complete, everyone that begins researching their ancestry tirelessly seeks to accomplish just this. We search to the point of frustration for that elusive ancestor that we want to uncover. When I began researching my ancestry, I was excited every time I was able find another generation back in my family history. When I ran into brick walls, I would get frustrated, irritated, and discouraged.

Over the years I have learned to be more patient, and have realized that eventually I will uncover the unknowns, if they are possible to uncover. I have my fair share of unknowns in my family tree beginning with the sixth generation back from myself. Through countless hours of searching through records I have been able to find some of them. Although I have many more to uncover, I hope to do so as more and more records become accessible, particularly those in other countries.

U is for Unfortunate Findings:

U is also for unfortunate findings. It has been my experience that many people are unwilling or uneasy to begin searching their ancestry out of fear of discovering something truly unfortunate or unpleasant in their family tree. Here in America, people fear finding slave ownership, support of the Confederacy (if they are in the North), murderers, prison sentences, traitors, thieves, illegitimacy, and inbreeding.

While researching my ancestry, I have come across a number of unfortunate findings, of which the following are the most significant:

  • Harry Carl Hamilton (1891-1960), my maternal great grandfather, served a prison sentence at Missouri State Penitentiary prior to 1933 (the year he married my great grandmother Goldie).
  • Wilhelm Percy Wellin (1895-1977), born Per Vilhelm Ture Stålberg, my 2nd great grandfather, was of illegitimate birth.
  • George Benton Beeney (1890-1970), my 2nd great grandfather, was convicted of larceny following his separation from his wife (Gladys), and putting his daughter (Maxine) up for adoption.
  • Ernest Jacob “Jersey” Worthington (1885-1939), my 2nd great grandfather, was of illegitimate birth.
  • Theodore Frelinghuysen Stearns (1844-1930), my 3rd great grandfather, abandoned his family in Oregon and moved to California.
  • William B. Lapham (1838-1935), my 3rd great grandfather, committed suicide (according to his death certificate) after a long life of debilitating illness following service in the Civil War.
  • Anna Eliza Backer (1854-1919), my 3rd great grandmother, was of illegitimate birth and the only surviving triplet.
  • István “Stephen” Balla (1858-ca. 1930), my 3rd great grandfather, abandoned his family in Hungary when he came to the United States and started a new family (without divorcing his first wife), and then abandoned his second family when one of his sons, my 2nd great grandfather, from his first marriage found him.
  • Robert A. Gifford (1827-1871), my 4th great grandfather, served in the Cavalry on the side of the Confederacy during the Civil War.
  • Isaac Agee (1811-1900), my 5th great grandfather, ran as a Secessionist candidate for Yamhill Co., Oregon Commissioner in 1862.
  • William Thornton (1766-1843), my 7th great grandfather, was a slave holder like his father, Luke Thornton (1743-1801).
  • I also have a distant ancestral connection to Benedict Arnold (1741-1801), whose name is synonymous with being a traitor in America.

Although these are unfortunate findings in my ancestry, I don’t try to hide them (as some do), but rather seek to learn not only more about the individual lives involved, but how I might grow as a person from them. Just as unfortunate situations don’t entirely define our lives in the present, they don’t for our ancestors; nor do they define our heritage, as many other lives play a role in shaping it.

U is for U Surnames

U is also for surnames that start with the letter U, of which I have two: Uzille and Underwood.

Uzille (or Usille) is the maiden name of my 9th great grandmother, Marie Uzille (1686-1760), who married Leonard LeRoy (1674-1750). Marie and Leonard are direct ancestors of Gertrude Charity Laraway (ca. 1797-1874), the wife of Ezekiel Cook (ca. 1790-1850), and great grandmother of Gladys M. Cook (1894-1957), the wife of George Benton Beeney (1890-1970) and biological mother of my great grandmother, Maxine Elizabeth Davis (1912-1992), who married Delmar Clair Kernan (1908-1979). The surname, for which there are many variations, appears to be French or Belgian in origins. My Uzille line traces back to Calais, France in 1635. The family left France because of policies against Huguenots (French Protestants), immigrating first to Belgium and then the Palatinate by 1660, living near Mannheim. In 1660, they immigrated to New Netherlands (now New York) aboard the Gilded Otter. They are listed among the Walloons (French speakers from Belgium) in New Netherlands. The meaning of the Uzille surname is not known, though it is speculated that it may be a habitation name, deriving from a place name like Ouville-la-Rivière, with spelling alterations being the result of Belgian or Dutch influence.

Underwood is the maiden name of my 7th great grandmother Hannah Underwood (ca. 1724-1753), who married Benjamin Marshall (1723-?) and was the mother-in-law of Enos Davis (1760-1841), who was the great grandfather of William Phylitis Davis (1876-1960), the adoptive father of my great grandmother, Maxine Elizabeth Davis (1912-1992), who married Delmar Clair Kernan (1908-1979). The Underwood surname is English in origins, though it is also found in Scotland. My Underwood line can be currently traced to Pennsylvania. According to available research, the Underwood surname is a habitation name for someone who either lived near the woods, as the surname derives from the Middle English “under,” meaning “under,” and “wude,” meaning “wood.”

Click here to learn more about Family History Through the Alphabet Challenge (Clicking this link will take you to another site.)

8 thoughts on “Family History Through the Alphabet – U is for Unknowns, Unfortunate Findings, & U Surnames

  1. Pingback: Family History Through the Alphabet - U is for ... | Genealogy & History News

  2. I don’t believe anyone will have a family tree that doesn’t have unknowns in it, to me it seems impossible. But still, we continue working at those we know are unknown and little by little we get some answers. Unfortunate Findings and U Surnames are also great topics for U.

    • I probably will never give up–apart from the frustration, there is a great deal of fun in searching. Recently, I was able to explore some Swedish records, and ended up finding another generation in my tree. That’s where the frustration becomes worth it.

  3. Since we humans are insatiably curious, the unfortunate findings are probably the most interesting ones to read about. However, we need to keep things in context. For example, it is probable that people who lived so long ago could not afford to get married in all cases and therefore left it until they could. Perhaps they never did!
    There are lots of reasons why people did not always conform to what was expected. Each and every one of those tells a story. Isn’t it just fascinating to think and wonder.

    • Very true on all accounts. Some of these unfortunate findings I wish I knew more about–less about the “illegitimate birth” ones since that really doesn’t matter too much (to me). For example, The suicide of William B. Lapham–I would like to know more. Was it over just his long-term illness? Was he in the hospital (where he committed suicide) because of some turn for the worse in his health, and that’s why? Did his relationship with his last wife hit a rocky patch and he felt alone or abandoned and unable to take of himself? I wonder why his last wife was not the informant on his death certificate, and why she seems to disappear for a while? There are lots of unanswered questions with this one, and many of the others. Some I probably will never find an answer to, but you are right it is important and fascinating to think and wonder them.

      • It’s such an interesting topic isn’t it! It’s a bit like on Facebook these days, where people put ambiguous comments like ‘Having a horrible day, black cloud over my head’, but they leave no hint as to why! Like a cry for help almost.
        What we have to try and understand, when looking back, is that times were very hard – much harder than now even. Without birth control, illegitimacy was rife. Ignorance, rape all play their part and for some of the events which we throw up our arms in horror over, then they were every day happenings.
        I expect you watch the programme ‘Who do you think you are?’ I do. I am fascinated by the emotions which come out in today’s programme subjects when they investigate the lives of their ancestors. It’s as if they have inherited some of the anxiety that their ancestors felt. There have been recent studies on this after the 9/11 atrocity. I expect you know about those too.
        You are researching your family history beautifully and I am enjoying reading very much.

      • Thank you. :) I appreciate your insightful comments. I do watch “Who Do You Think You Are?,” at least I did. The American version of the show was not renewed for a new season. I have seen some of the ones for the UK. It is amazing to see people who probably don’t think much about history be moved by the stories of their ancestors. I agree, I think there is probably some sort of inheritance there. :)

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