On a warm summer day, in about 1984, I set about helping my parents with some yard work. I wasn’t very good at it. There were a number of times that I pulled flowers and left weeds. Differentiating between the two has always been a challenge for me. But, a few days every summer my folks would cajole me into helping them. Looking back, it’s hard to understand why. Certainly, I created more work for them in the end. Never-the-less, I’d gather up a trowel and start in on what I hoped was weeding.
Like most pre-teen girls there were a thousand other things I’d have rather been doing. Swimming at my friend’s house, bike-riding, sun bathing. The thought of so many other ways to occupy my time filled my head.
Digging into the soil there was a hint of something, not quite shiny, but certainly not nature-made. My heart skipped as the shape of a ring became clear. A diamond ring? Did I just find a long-lost diamond ring worth millions of dollars? Well, no. What I did find was a ring of unknown origin. Really, it’s quite simple. But somehow, in it’s simplicity it spoke to me more. Who was the woman who donned this ring? Who gave it to her? Was she frantic when she realized it was lost? What did it symbolize for her? Hope? A future? Love? Remembrance?
So this ring, in it’s humble state, rests in my jewelry box, removed from it’s original owner, holding it’s many secrets and I will continue on as it’s caregiver and reflect on how I came to be such.
And so it goes with looking into one’s family history.
Yesterday, I did a little exploring in a nearby town and looked into my grandfather’s family on my mother’s side. I know a good deal about him, having had the opportunity to interview him a few times before he died. During one of those interviews he made a passing comment about “an uncle or something” who had committed murder and been sent to the penitentiary. Well, I hadn’t expected to hear that!
I probed as best I could to discover who this man was and why he had killed another man. But Grandpa, with a sharp memory, didn’t seem to know much. (I should probably confess at this time that I’m sort of a true-crime buff, so this information was interesting to me on a few fronts.) That interview took place a couple of years ago and I’ve done a bit of research, but without knowing the man’s name or even what state he was in, there’s only so much digging one can do.
Rather by accident yesterday, as I was Googling a family name, I stumbled across a page that I had previously passed by because it didn’t appear to be relevant. But, just to be safe, I clicked on it. And, lo and behold, I was staring at correspondence about this distant relative between his lawyer and the judge and the prison warden. Suddenly, I knew his name: Peter Gabriel Barr. I knew the state: Washington.
Reading the account, there are differing stories about why Peter killed the local bartender named Charles Rasmusson on the 23rd day of June 1914 at the Harding and Hoffman Saloon. One story that Peter gave was, “I went into a saloon in Prosser, Washington and had a few drinks. I had left some money [for the] saloon keeper. I told the bartender that I wanted some whiskey and the proprietor could charge it to the account I had in his care. The bartender took offense at me in some way and he kicked and insulted me. I felt I should kill him so I bought me a gun and after letting him know I was going to kill him I shot him twice.”
Other accounts vary slightly, but in the end one thing remains. One man ended up dead and the other spent his life in prison. And one of those men is my great, great uncle.
This isn’t the kind of thing one expects to find while doing ancestral research. But families, like digging around in the dirt, can be messy. Sometimes you discover Machu Picchu and sometimes all you find is a simple ring. And maybe what you find is something that people have buried for years because of the shame attached to it.
Peter Barr was completely disowned by his family. Everything that connected him to his birth family was destroyed, as if he never existed. Several years before he died, in 1942, he was offered a pardon but refused it simply because he had no family to go back to.
So this isn’t a ‘proud family moment’ but it is a discovery and that’s why I do this work. To find the stories behind the names and dates. To see the people, as they were in the context of their families and in the context of the larger world and historical moment they occupied. There’s so much more yet to be discovered!