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Life With My Ancestors

July 2024
3min read

Walter Cronkite , news commentator: Shortly after the turn of this century a woman who represented herself as a genealogist advertised for anyone bearing the name Cronk, Kronk, Kronkhite, Cronkhite, or several other variations to get in touch with her immediately. She claimed to have knowledge of a longlost will in the Netherlands leaving a considerable estate to the seventh son of the seventh son of one of the original Krankheidt settlers of Manhattan. The ensuing excitement culminated in my grandfather calling a meeting of something he formed called the “Krankheidt Heirs Association.” The convention was held in St. Joseph, Missouri, and, as family lore has it, was a rousing conclave of misfits until it disbanded in confusion when the “genealogist” skipped town with the accumulated registration fees.

Don E. Fehrenbacher , historian, Stanford University: Genealogy is primarily a matter of written records, but it can be enriched by memory and oral tradition if we only take some trouble at the right time. I spent many boyhood hours in the company of my maternal grandmother. As we sat in the shade of an old box elder tree, she sometimes talked about her childhood in southern Illinois. About her father, who left his farming and school-teaching and family of four to enlist in the 73rd Regiment of Illinois Volunteers and was killed at the Battle of Stones River in 1862. About her mother, who, after the war, tried to homestead in Kansas with her children and died there within a year. Grandmother remembered most vividly the orphans’ sad trip back to Illinois by covered wagon.

I listened politely enough but not with the passionate attention that I gave to the daily baseball broadcasts. I seldom asked questions; I made no notes. It was not until much later, when I began to teach college courses about the Civil War and the westward movement, that I fully realized how poignantly my own ancestry personified those two great chapters of nineteenth-century history and how much opportunity had slipped by me under the box elder tree.


William Manchester , author: My mother belonged to one of the First Families of Virginia; my father was a New England Yankee. Late in life his last surviving brother became interested in genealogy, digging in the records of, among other places, Little Compton, Rhode Island. He found that Thomas Manchester, the first of our small but plucky clan, arrived from Yorkshire, England, in 1638, and three generations later, on August 16, 1723, in Little Compton, Benjamin Manchester married Martha Seabury, a great-granddaughter of John Alden and Priscilla Mullens. That put my father’s family’s roots in Plymouth, where, I had believed, the colonies had started. I mentioned it to my mother. In a voice like a bearing about to go, she replied, “That was in 1620 . We were in Jamestown in 1608 .”

Wallace Stegner , novelist: In my life I have met only six people, outside my immediate family, who answered to the name Stegner. We are not a clan that knows its origins or keeps in touch. It took a letter from a cousin I had never heard of to inform me that my father had two brothers and two sisters, who begot a flock of cousins as unknown to me as their parents.

But lately this family as random as mongrel dogs has begun to develop individuals curious about the family tree. Chief among these was Virgil F. Stegner of Holton, Indiana, who died in 1968 at the age of ninety-nine.

He began writing me in 1958, when he was already eighty-nine, addressing me as “Dear Cousin” and inquiring about my parentage, which I was able—barely—to supply. He located me at once, corroborated those unknown uncles and aunts, and gave me the names of half a hundred relatives to look up. Somehow I never did.

Virgil derived me from one of five brothers who came to America from the Palatinate about 1820. He sent me charts ramifying off into the tiniest twigs of the tree. He chatted with me by mail—told me his son’s salary at Wright Field, explained (he was a retired math teacher) his new way of squaring a binomial, and invited me over and over again to attend the annual Stegner family reunion in Indiana. When I wrote that I would not be able to make it, he responded with a chiding poem:

Of all sad words, to those who care, The saddest are these, “We won’t be there.” Though far apart we’ve always been, Let’s not forget that we are kin. The Stegner blood, through heart and vein Will course its way while we remain. I’m growing old, I’ll say good-bye, And Cousin, you will also die. And then, perhaps, we’ll chance to meet While strolling down the golden street. How will I know that you are he Who I have longed so much to see?

Good question. Perhaps he will ask me the name of my grandfather, and when I confess that I either never knew or have forgotten, he will know me for a member of the family.

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