History/Genealogy

Time Machine Thursday: Skeletons In The Closet


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Today is Time Machine Thursday, where we talk about history and genealogy. I have always been interested in history. Genealogy is one of my newer obsessions.

Every family has stories. Some are interesting, some are unusual, and some are just plain hard to believe. Many families proudly trace their American origins back to the days of the Revolution or the Mayflower, some can trace their American beginnings to the revolutions of other nations that drove them to find refuge here. Our family had a few stories that were just too intriguing not to investigate.

Benjamin Franklin 'Smitty' Highsmith and wife Elizabeth, after 1900

I remember as a child hearing the story of ‘Smitty’ Highsmith, an ancestor of ours who was at the Alamo. Supposedly he outran the Mexican army for six days trying to get to General Sam Houston and made it. As a child I imagined Smitty riding his horse with an entire army wearing sombreros hot on his tail. My child’s mind always wondered, how did they keep their sombreros on for six days?  It was an exciting story but there was never any evidence that this story was true, because ‘Smitty’ was a nickname and not a given name. Later research revealed that Benjamin Franklin ‘Smitty’ Highsmith, age 15, was one of six messengers sent out of the Alamo and the last to reach General Houston before the Alamo fell. He also fought in the Battle of San Jacinto. A real thrill was confirming this in person when my husband and I took our three children on a vacation to San Antonio and a docent at the Alamo showed us his name listed in a book of those who had fought there.

A less heroic story I discovered as I began to research my paternal ancestors. I knew nothing except they were of German origin. Through the help of Ancestry.com, which you can access for free at your public library or by paid subscription, I was introduced to my great-great uncle. Alexander Zesch was convicted of fraud in 1893 and sentenced to 10 years in the Colorado State Penitentiary. He had a wife and four children at the time. A Google search took me to the Colorado State Archives and the prison mugshot of Mr. Zesch:

What type of fraud did he commit? Was he a career criminal or did his circumstances force him to commit crimes? What type of personality did he have? What happened to his family? These questions gave me the idea for one of the characters in my historical fiction WIP.

A story my husband’s family tells is of three Hungarian brothers who owned an inn in France in WWII. They had sisters and wives, and daily had to fight off the Vichy French soldiers who would harass them and try to kidnap the women. The brothers had to patrol with guns to protect their female kin. This is a story we are still working to verify.

Other ancestors I have discovered include Civil War vets who both Union and Confederate, saloon keepers and an Olympic competitor who became a private detective. Ooh, that sounds like a good story.

Family legends can be fun and challenging to assemble. If you want to write about your family legends a great resource is M. Carolyn Steele’s book Preserving Family Legends For Future Generations. She gives good ideas about researching your family, whether you should keep to the facts or fictionalize your stories, and some wonderful example stories from her own family tree.

Check out M. Carolyn Steele’s website here.

I hope finding more ancestor facts will lead to fun legends to write. Maybe someday my ancestors will be researching me. Uh-oh, better make sure all my skeletons are well-hidden!

Question: Do you have any family legends? Have you or do you plan on writing about them? Share a bit about them with us!

2 replies »

  1. There are a few legends in my family:
    1. My great-great grandmother Anna escaped from Russia with her three children in a covered wagon. They crossed the border while being shot at by the Red Army. Her husband and two oldest boys had already been killed by the communists.
    2. My grandfather may have had a sister. He’s not sure. She would have been born when he was about 2-years-old, but he doesn’t know what happened to her. His mother denied her existance later in life.
    3.My great grandmother’s father disappeared. She didn’t know why and never saw him again. Years later she heard he’d died in a hospital. Her mother refused to talk about him.

    I enjoyed reading about your legends.

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  2. Thanks for stopping by, Joanna. Those are fascinating family legends. Have you ever thought about researching them to find out all the facts? I have a couple of other legends I didn’t list, as some family members associated with them are still alive and don’t want to talk about the stories. It’s hard because you want to know what happened but at the same time you want to respect people’s feelings.

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