Twenty five years ago, I made a pilgrimage to the gold country in California seeking information about my great grandparents and their descendants. My grandfather left home as a young man and never returned home during his short lifetime, so our branch of the family lost contact with the remainder of the clan.
The series of events that led to the discovery of my lost family is too lengthy to include here but it was eventful. Indeed, it was so full of serendipitous events that most folks who hear the story call it fiction.
One of the contacts that came from that journey was of a “cousin” who actually had no blood relationship to me.
My great uncle, Solon Drew, was killed in a mine accident in Copperopolis, California as a young father of four.
No one in our branch of the family knew anything about our grandfathers parents or siblings, so Solon’s story was a new revelation to us. In fact, the story of his life was lost to all living descendants of the family.
When I found the burial location of my great grandparents, I noticed that someone had planted a couple of small bushes on the family plot and was keeping them alive in the hard rock soil by hauling water to them from town. “I must have living cousins nearby” went through my mind when I recognized that the plants couldn’t have survived on their own.
Looking around I found an old rusty coffee can with a quart bottle inside of it tucked down under one of the bushes.
When asking for directions to the cemetery in the tiny old wood frame gas and goodies store in town, I had asked if they knew of anyone in the area with my surname. “No, but you might ask Charlie Stone. He’s the town historian”. Contacting Charlie is one of the serendipitous events during this trip that can be read here.
So, who was the person tending the graves of my ancestors? A friend of the family? A cousin from one of my great aunts? There was no way to know. There isn’t a sexton in the small cemetery to ask.
Taking a business card from my wallet, I sat on the ground and wrote as much text on both sides about myself and my quest as I could using small crisp letters learned from years of engineering work.
“If you find this note, please call me or send me a note. We know nothing about our family in California or any of the other descendants of my great grandparents” concluded the last two lines of text.
I put the card in the bottle, laid it on its side with the can over it closing up the top. A couple of large rocks anchored it against the base of the bush.. Thinking “I doubt that I’ll ever hear anything from that note, but it’s my best shot”, I took a few last photos and left for one last stop to find Charlie Stone and then hit the road for the 800 mile trip home.
Four or five days later, I received a package in the mail from George Rasmussen of Marysville, California. His letter was written so hastily, the letters were tall and sprawling in the first four lines of text.
“Hello Cousin. I never thought I’d ever find one of you boys” it began. We weren’t blood cousins or even related by blood, but his mother had been the wife of great uncle Solon and George felt a great affinity to him.
George’s family life hadn’t been too pleasant. When his mother remarried after Solon’s death, she had moved to San Francisco where George was eventually born. Solon’s boys left home to live their lives, so although George knew of them, he had only seen them a few times in his life. He was not close to his own siblings and had moved much of his family affinity to his rarely seen step-brothers.
His letters gave me the only information we had about uncle Solon and his family. After trading a letter or two, it was easy to tell that George would never have talked to me via email. He even told me that he had a hard time talking and avoided using a telephone.
Letters weren’t dead! We need to remember that in our family quest. Many of the folks who know the most about our ancestors don’t communicate in our digital world. They live in the world of paper and pen.
If we don’t capture their memories and knowledge about our families, it will be lost forever. The story of my great uncles life and family unfolded on the pages of the letters from George:
Excerpts of letters written by George Rasmussen to Lineagekeeper in 1987
- 27 Oct 1987 … As for my mom, her first marriage as a young beautiful lady was to Solon Drew, son of David Drew. She had four sons, Harry 15, William or Bill, which we called him 14, Herb 13, and Edward 8, when Solon was killed in the mine. He was the head engineer for the mine. His college degree paid off.
- As how he was killed, coming up on the elevator shaft, it had a bell you was to ring after you were on the platform. Solon had a habit of pulling the ring cord before jumping onboard. They had a steam donkey engine which are very fast acting when put in gear or feed the steam to it. So Solon rang the bell again before jumping on it, cut him right in half. He never saw his family again.
- That left May Drisdale (Drew) with four boys. She had nowhere to turn. She had a little insurance money, how much I do not know. She bought a candy store right next to a theater in San Francisco.
- Now these are her words as I asked as I grew up what happened to it. She said I was a poor businesswoman, but she came out with a little left.
- Then she met my father. They were married and she had four more babies. 3 boys and 1 girl, so your see, at least four years more elapsed which made her Drew sons each four years older. They didn’t get along with their mother too well or their stepfather, so Mom put them back into friends homes. Split them up. This all happened before I was born as this is hearsay.
- My Mom left Edward, her youngest Drew boy with her grandma Drew for a while then he came and lived with us. He loved his grandma Drew and asked to be buried with her….. He and his wife.
- When my mom died, I had the say as to where she should be buried. My Mom was 14 years younger than my Pop but they both died at 84 years old.
- None of the family stepped forward to help. They said bury her with my Pop. They said their Mom and Pop were always fighting.
- Now here is what I looked at….. My Pop was married before to his first wife. She died with gallstones. I thought and knew it was proper for her to be buried with her first husband and they are all asleep waiting for the Kingdom of God.
- 27 Nov 1987 Now for question #1. I travel 300 miles round trip. I enjoy it in a rather sad but joyful way. As I leave Stockton, I can see my mom and Solon riding up into the hills heading for Copperopolis. The roads at that time must have been rough and twisty, with dust in the summer and mud in the winter.
- Your grandparents lived east of the store on the opposite side of the road, about guessing 2 yards up the road. They call it the tank house. The tank is still on the house. You can’t miss it as the Bobbies in England would say to us G.I.’s when was asked directions.
- Solon: as to where Solon lived, it is south of the store 100 ft past the road that goes to the cemetery on the same side as the store. There is nothing left of it.
George died a long time ago, but his memories about my family didn’t go with him, thanks to our correspondence and serendipitous genealogical events. Trust in them happening in your own quest. Leave business cards in bottles by the graves of your family or in whatever location or situation you discover in your own quest.