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Genealogy Puts a Human Face on History

Letheby, Pete. "Genealogy Puts a Human Face on History." Grand Island Independent, 6 June 2003.


Maybe it's just me, but almost all town and country cemeteries lie in picturesque, idyllic settings. Whether or not they were planned that way, they strengthen the faith that our ancestors are resting in peace.

One of the four cemeteries I visited on Memorial Day was not unlike that. It was located on top of a hill, which captured the renewing, spring winds and added a nostalgic wisp to the air. Below, a few blocks away and partially cloaked by trees, was the small community.

It is cemeteries like this one in Newman Grove, located about 15 miles northeast of Albion, where history lies. We think of it mostly as family history, but it is the history of our state and country, too.

All historical chronicles are written by the separate and unique lives of people and families of yesteryear. The exploration of these accounts has made genealogy one of the top four American pastimes (along with birdwatching, gardening and golf).

We traveled to the small-town cemetery on top of the hill to revisit the place where two of my great-grandparents are buried. Charles was born in Barnstable, England, in 1849. His wife Sarah, a native of Ontario, Canada, was born three years later.

Some in our family have tried to unearth more about Sarah, with minimal success. I remember hearing from relatives that she was a Native Canadian Indian, and the old photos I have seen of her would give credence to that belief.

Buried alongside Charles and Sarah is their only daughter, Nanna, who perished in a fire at age 40.

Every family's history is dotted with tragedy.

My dad's mother died from complications after a fall down the stairs. My mom's father was shot to death in Long Beach shortly after World War II and, ironically, her only brother was killed the same way, also in Long Beach, two decades later.

One of my grandmothers lost a sibling during the worldwide flu epidemic of 1918-19. About the same time, one of my wife's grandfathers, a German-Russian, barely avoided tragedy. He was nearly killed in the turmoil after the Communists took over in Russia. Like other Germans from
Russia, he survived and made his way over to the United States -- many settled in Nebraska.

My great Uncle Nick fought in World War I, when the United States helped turn back German aggression for the first of two times in the 20th century. Although he left few war stories behind, it was a triumph for his unit and the nation.

Every family history has its share of triumph, too.

A Henry Letheby -- we haven't connected to him yet -- was the medical officer of health for London in the mid-1800s.

A trio of my uncles can relate some harrowing stories from the European and Pacific fronts in World War II, when our country again prevailed over evil-doers. The six close relatives of mine who served their country overseas were fortunate to come back home after World War I, World War II and Vietnam. We have some of their old ribbons and medals in an old storage chest in Mom's basement.

Every family history has an abundance of tragic and triumphant stories, of wars, of sailing overseas, of settling a new country. They were composed by soldiers, builders, writers, doctors, entrepreneurs and pioneers.

In my wife's and my family histories, the composers of these annals came from Germany, Russia, Prussia, England, Denmark and Canada. Many more, maybe yours, came from other countries.

World, national and state history has been recorded in books and is taught to students of all ages.

But it is the family histories, yours and mine, that puts a human face on our larger history.

Reprinted with permission of Pete Letheby an associate editor for The Grand Island Independent.

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