Following Ghosts for Three Thousand Miles

Family_Hx_Road_TripIts 5:27am. As soon as I post this I will climb into Dingleberry, my trusty brown 2007 Prius, point her westward, and take off into the heartland of America. Brilliant leaves, pumpkins, fields of golden wheat, and the deep blue skies of autumn await me.

Heading out on an open ended three thousand mile solo road trip feels incredibly exciting. I’m imagining myself starring in a great road trip movie–shot in Wes Anderson colors with a cool indie music score and witty honest dialog. The screenplay pitch for this movie would go something like:  middle aged genealogy-obsessed lady heads off on a road trip following her ancestors’ westward migration. In the car she interrogates their ghosts, trying to solve their mysteries and bring their stories to life. She meets odd but endearing characters in small rural towns and learns deep life lessons about family and journeys and what America is all about.

Meh.  Unless we could get David Lynch involved…

I have become one of those women who is obsessed with tracing family history–pouring over census documents and old wills, visiting abandoned cemeteries. Its hard to explain the fascination. A book about my mother’s side of the family that was originally going to take a few months has grown into a monster project that already passed its second birthday. This is my third trip following the trail left by long dead people who are connected to me in a pretty abstract way. But piecing together the shards of their lives is strangely compelling.

My ancestors were a restless bunch. So far I’ve traced them through the Virginia, the Carolinas, Tennessee, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma and Texas. On this trip they are taking me to West Virginia, Illinois, Kansas, and possibly back through Pennsylvania. Throw in stops in Omaha, Columbus, maybe Terre Haute along the way–because why not? I’ll be in the neighborhood

Here are a few of questions I’m hoping to answer:

  • Was my 3rd great grandfather, Edward Purcell, a bit of a ne’er do well or just unwise with his money? Court records list him as a defendant in a charge of counterfeiting, and he had multiple debts for bad land deals. Did he take his family to Illinois because he’d burned his bridges in Wheeling?
  • Edward’s mother appears to have been born in Ireland. Who was she? His father, George, was born in PA in 1788–who were his parents? Were they Scotch Irish (I think so), and not English as I first thought. When did they come to the US?
  • Was my 2nd great grandmother, Emaline, a missionary in India? This would have been in the latter part of the 1800s. It seems crazy, but my grandfather mentions it and it appears single women were going to India as early as 1860–so it could be true. Church records or old newspapers in Princeville Illinois might help. Imagine traveling to India in the 1860s.

So I’m resurrecting the blog again and hope some of you might find it a worthy distraction–especially some of my relatives who have probably lost faith that I will ever finish this project. I’ll fill you in on my discoveries, introduce you to some of my ghosts, and post lots of pictures of where I am.

Think I’m ready–my cooler’s packed, 32 hours of The Outlander audiobook is loaded on my iPad, and a kind and distractible friend gifted me a few Adderal for the long hauls.  Quiet on the set, places everyone…cue the soundtrack music….

See you on the road!



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