Which of Your Ancestors Would You Invite to Your Family Reunion?

Introduction: Mary Harrell-Sesniak is a genealogist, author and editor with a strong technology background. In this guest blog post, Mary fantasizes about being able to invite some of her famous ancestors—including flight pioneers the Wright brothers—to a family reunion.

I’ve got a number of friends who get excited about fantasy football.

Whereas this is quite a snoozer for me, I see their point. They love to discuss and theorize about favorite football players—which is not unlike family historians when they get together, who assert their knowledge about favorite genealogical finds. And genealogists love to discuss their favorite ancestors!

Nobody can really speak for their ancestors, of course, but you can—in a round-about way—introduce them at your next family reunion. Someone could present a written report on their favorite ancestor, or the more theatrical members at your reunion could re-enact times and events surrounding your more noteworthy (or notorious) ancestors.

So if you could invite any relation (direct or otherwise) to your next family reunion, who would it be?

The Wright Brothers

One of my choices would be my latest cousin discovery: aviation pioneers Wilbur and Orville Wright, who share Edmund Freeman (1737-1813) and Martha Otis (1737-1790) as mutual ancestors.

I’d love to ask the Wright brothers if they were apprehensive about their flying machine when it first took flight. I’ve read the patents and various reports about their incredible aviation invention, but it would be wonderful to get their first-hand accounts.

Patent No. 821, 393 of 2 May 1906 (available for viewing at Google Patents):

To all whom it may concern:

Be it known that we, ORVILLE WRIGHT and WILBUR WRIGHT, citizens of the United States, residing in the city of Dayton, county of Montgomery, and State of Ohio, have invented certain new and useful Improvements, in Flying-Machines, of which the following is a specification.

Our invention relates to that class of flying-machines in which the weight is sustained by the reactions resulting when one or more aeroplanes are moved through the air edgewise at a small angle of incidence, either by the application of mechanical power or by the utilization of the force of gravity.

This old newspaper article from 1903 reports that the Wright brothers’ flying machine flew three miles against the wind.

A Flying Machine Goes Three Miles against the Wind, Fort Worth Star-Telegram newspaper article, 18 December 1903

Fort Worth Star-Telegram (Fort Worth, Texas), 18 December 1903, page 1

If Orville Wright were alive, I’d love to see him fly his hydro-aero-boat invention. This 1913 newspaper article describes him, not as an aviator, but as a “noted birdman,” and reports that Wilbur Wright had been stricken with scarlet fever. What fun that Orville’s flying boat was tested on “Mad River”!

Orville Wright Perfects New Flying Boat, Evening Times newspaper article 5 December 1913

Evening Times (Grand Forks, North Dakota), 5 December 1913, page 10

Accused Witch Lydia Gilbert

Another on my list of ancestors I’d invite to my family reunion would be accused witch Lydia, wife of Thomas Gilbert. This travesty occurred in October of 1651, reportedly in Hartford, Connecticut (not Salem, Massachusetts). At the time, Lydia and her husband were living in the household of Henry Stiles. A neighbor, Thomas Allyn, was present when a gun discharged, slaying Stiles. Allyn was found guilty of “homicide by misadventure” but three years later, Lydia and others were accused at a Court of Oyer and Terminer of having caused the deed by witchcraft.

Poor Lydia. Wouldn’t you love to hear from her and to reassure her that witchcraft trials were finally put to rest when Governor Phils dissolved this particular Court on 29 October 1692. (Note: that didn’t put an end to all Courts of Oyer and Terminer, a term easily searchable in GenealogyBank. Such courts were authorized to oversee certain criminal cases.)

GenealogyBank’s newspaper archives don’t date to 1651 (although they do contain the first newspaper published in America, Publick Occurrences, in 1690), but there are various references to witch trials contained in the old newspapers, including this photo of the Old Witch House taken in 1914.

Oldest Building in Salem, Mass., Anaconda Standard newspaper article 26 June 1914

Anaconda Standard (Anaconda, Montana), 26 June 1914, page 1

Oyster Cracker Inventor Adam Exton and Wife Elizabeth Aspden

Although not household names today, British immigrants Adam Exton (1823-1887) and wife Elizabeth Aspden (1821-1894) were well known in Trenton, New Jersey, during their lifetime. Adam Exton was the inventor of the oyster cracker, a recipe which became immensely popular. I’d love to invite both of them to my family reunion as well.

I’d like to inquire why Adam Exton didn’t patent this particular invention, as it was soon stolen—and to this day some still disclaim him as the inventor of the delicious invention. However, this piece of family provenance is substantiated in a 1917 newspaper article written by his nephew, also named Adam Exton, who worked in the cracker factory and knew his uncle personally.

Life History of Oyster Crackers, Trenton Evening Times newspaper article 31 May 1917

Trenton Evening Times (Trenton, New Jersey), 31 May 1917, page 4

If you’d like to know more about this topic, search the Web for “Adam Exton’s cracker factory.” The factory still exists and has been renovated into condominiums, known as the Trenton Lofts.

So as family reunion season approaches, consider inviting a few “virtual” ancestors to the party, and don’t forget to search GenealogyBank’s historical archives for the family trivia. You might even uncover a news report of a previous family reunion. When I input “family reunion” into GenealogyBank’s search box, almost 100,000 matches return! Many of these old news articles include old family reunion photos that show the whole family the way they were in the past. What great find to share with the rising generation at your next family get-together so that the young ones can see their ancestors’ faces.

GenealogyBank search box for "family reunion"

GenealogyBank search box for “family reunion”

So which ancestors would you place on your “fantasy ancestral team”? Please share your more extraordinary ancestral finds with us!