As I’ve sought to understand myself and heal from the particular broken places within me, I’ve learned that the journey to knowing myself doesn’t stop with me.
Family accounts for far more than our genetic mixture. It also of course establishes the way we perceive ourselves and the world via the environment in which we are raised through childhood into adulthood.
Regarding genetics, we are learning through increased knowledge of epigenetics that our life experiences directly alter the way in which our genes express themselves. In short, that means that what happens to us explicitly changes our DNA, which means in a real way that we are the inheritors in our genes of the life experiences of all our many grandparents through the ages.
As I’ve wrestled with knowing myself better, I’ve found that learning the stories of my grandparents sheds a great deal of light on explaining the context of some of the things I find peculiar about myself and my immediate family.
It’s also an incredibly humbling experience to dig deeper into your family history. As I read the stories of great-grandparents long gone, I realize how crucial they are to my own life and the lives of so many cousins, yet I hold that knowledge alongside the fact that these people have been completely forgotten to history but for my own historical digging.
We truly are like grass in the wind, here today and gone tomorrow, but thank God that we do have a God who knows us and loves us intimately and will never forget us.
The following are the broad stories of my grandparents’ and great-grandparents’ families, which in uncanny ways reflect many aspects of who I am individually. I’ll be sharing in a later post more in-depth stories of individuals within my family but want to begin here with the wider tale of the families as a whole.
This post is to honor their memory by sharing their story so that some aspects are hopefully not forgotten and to appreciate the contributions they made – surely both good and bad – to not only the person I am but all others in my family.
The families of my mom and my dad have quite contrasting experiences while sharing deep similarities in the distant past.
Very generally, my mom’s families have been very metropolitan with deep histories in Jacksonville, New York City and other New England cities. Conversely, my dad’s families have lived in very rural settings, for hundreds of years in the back-country of Indiana and Ohio and in South Carolina and Pennsylvania before that.
The religious convictions of all these families have been similar, though, as there are several lines of Quakers running through my dad’s families and lines of French Hugeunots and Methodists through my mom’s. Extreme versions of Protestantism thus run deep on both sides, which may have a bit to do with my own history of chafing under authority.
The Wisener-Fultons and Nushawg-Shelleys
A map of the Liestal area of Switzerland. The village of Bubendorf is at the top center of the map, where my Wisener family lived for hundreds of years. Basel is the large city of the region that is approximately 20 miles further north and not pictured.
Much of my demeanor is quintessential Wisener: I’m prone to tell you how I feel and what I think whether you’ve asked or not (I write a blog, after all). That seems very much in line with the other Wiseners I know and what I’ve read about those I never met.
Family tradition stemming from my great-grandfather Wisener held that we were German, but digging deeper through family lines reveals that in fact we are likely Swiss. Given that my great-grandfather was the only child of a man who lost his father at age five, it’s possible that the German story was merely an assumption.
My branch of Wiseners likely hails from a couple of small villages near Basel, Switzerland, which was one of the epicenters of the Protestant Reformation – Basel itself is where Calvin wrote his Institutes of the Christian Religion. The family history there dates back hundreds of years until recorded history stops in the late 15th and early 16th Centuries.
As with many poor Swiss peasants in the mid 18th Century, my 7x great-grandfather Jacob Wisener immigrated to America, where he eventually settled as a farmer in present-day Lancaster County, South Carolina. There, he donated land for a church that exists to this day, Flat Creek Baptist Church.
The first plat of land acquired by my 7x great-grandfather Jacob Wisener along Flat Creek in South Carolina.
The timing of his settlement in Lancaster County unfortunately wasn’t ideal, as the area was deeply embroiled in the American Revolution, with frequent raids by British troops and infighting among citizens with conflicting loyalties incredibly common. There is evidence that two of Jacob’s sons fell on opposite sides of the conflict, with one enlisting with a Torry militia and another with an American attachment.
Jacob’s family splintered and left South Carolina after the Revolution, perhaps for this reason. His son Henry settled in Tennessee, while the son of Jacob’s son John – also named Jacob and my 5x great-grandfather – married into a devoutly Quaker family (also perhaps no coincidence owing to the Quaker’s staunch pacifism and the family’s experience from the Revolution) that became pioneer settlers in Western Ohio and Eastern Indiana.
The Wiseners were by all surviving accounts not very good Quakers, though they remained connected and intermarried with several Quaker families for a number of generations. My great-grandfather married a Fulton, another family with numerous Quaker ties that originally hailed from North Carolina.
Records are confusing and seemingly contradictory for the Fultons of North Carolina, though it seems they may have hailed from Pennsylvania before likely immigrating from Scotland. It’s likely but thus far inconclusive that Robert Fulton, an engineer from Pennsylvania credited with inventing the first working steamboat, is a very distant cousin.
My grandmother Wisener’s families remain, like the Fultons, more of a mystery than the Wiseners, perhaps owing to the fact that my family has no connections with any other members of her families. Her father, Vernon Luther Nushawg, was the only child of an only child, and thus we’ve never met any other Nushawgs.
My great-great grandfather Nushawg’s farm home in Farmersville, Ohio.
What we do know is that the Nushawgs were deeply German, as German was spoken in the family home for at least four generations after the family immigrated to America. Like any good German, the family was Lutheran. Originally settling in Pennsyvlania, the Nushawgs were pioneers of Western Ohio much like the Wiseners.
The Shelleys, conversely, who are the family of my grandmother’s mother, were comparatively later-comers to Ohio with deep Southern roots in Virginia. Connected through marriage to several Southern aristocratic families, the Shelleys also originally seem to have come from Germany, where the last name was once either Schillig or Schellich. My dad seems to most strongly resemble the facial features of my great-grandmother Shelley.
The Secord-Townsends and Brown-Whitworths
Memorial to the founding families of New Rochelle, New York. My maternal grandfather’s family is here spelled “Sicard.”
My mom’s father’s family was one of the founding families of New Rochelle, New York, not far from New York City. The Secords were one of several families of French Huguenots that fled La Rochelle, France in the 1600s and eventually found safe haven in the religiously tolerant Dutch settlement that was then New Amsterdam.
My branch of the Secords lived in and around New York City for hundreds of years until my great-grandfather Secord moved to Jacksonville. His wife, Martha Abby Townsend, likewise comes from a fairly prominent family that was influential to Long Island and New York City for several hundred years.
John Townsend, my 9x great-grandfather, was an original settler of Oyster Bay, New York on Long Island in the 17th Century. Hailing from England, the Townsends were mostly merchants involved in the shipping industry and continue to have a heavily remembered historical presence in Oyster Bay.
Marker for the grave of my 9x great-grandfather John Townsend in Oyster Bay, Long Island, New York.
Raynham Hall was the home of my 3rd cousin Samuel Townsend and today is a carefully preserved museum. British officers used the home as a military headquarters during the Revolution. Samuel’s son, my 4th cousin Robert, is perhaps my most famous relative, as he was “Culper, Jr.,” an integral part of George Washington’s spy ring that ran through Long Island into New York City providing intelligence on British military actions. The ring was partially responsible for uncovering Benedict Arnold’s treachery and saving the fort at West Point from British capture.
Of all my grandparents, I most closely resemble my grandfather Secord, who in turn favors his mother, Martha Townsend. Pictures of great-grandmother Townsend show my own mom to be her near-clone.
Left to right, my great-grandmother Martha Townsend (clone of my mom), my grandfather and grandmother Guy Secord, Jr. and Violet Brown Secord, and myself, my mom and my daughter in New Rochelle, New York.
My mom’s mother was a Brown whose family lived in Jacksonville since the mid-1800s. My great-great grandfather Brown is somewhat of a mystery, as he moved to Jacksonville with extended family from Rhode Island as a teenager, leaving his early life and parentage somewhat shrouded.
Evidently he kept his mother’s last name of Brown as opposed to his father, who was a Pollard originally from England. The details of why this happened are unclear, though there may have been a divorce between his parents. When his mother remarried, he moved to Jacksonville to establish himself as a farmer.
This branch of the Brown family seems to have lived in Rhode Island for nearly 200 years, and Massachusetts before then. My 10x great-grandfather Charles Browne immigrated from England in the mid-1600s, though there is far less certainty in this family line than my others. An early family letter suggested that our Browns are loosely connected with the family associated with Brown University in Providence.
My great-grandparents George Henry Brown, Sr. and Minnie Whitworth Brown on their wedding day.
My great-grandmother Brown’s maiden name was Whitworth, and along with the Shelleys on my father’s side, are the only branch of my family with extensive Southern connections. Her grandparents were early Florida pioneers who settled there in the 18th Century.
The Whitworths trace their path from Florida to Tennessee, North Carolina before that, and several generations in Virginia before originating in England. They are connected through marriage to several early influential Virginia pioneers, including my 10x great-grandfather William Claiborne, an influential politician in early colonial Virginia and an early settler of Kent Island, Maryland.