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There Must Have Been Someone Good | Mary Biever | One Writing Mother

There Must Have Been Someone Good

Why would I want to look at my family tree when I know there are snakes in the branches?

I told my husband that at least 1,000 times in the 25 years I’ve known him.

I spent my teen years trying to establish my own identity despite my family and a scandalous father. A few years ago, when I stopped for gas in the town of my childhood, someone in the store asked me, “Did they ever catch your dad?” I answered yes to a 40 year old sad chapter in my life.

With that background, I had no desire to learn more about that side of the family tree. What other horrible stories were untold? On my mother’s side, there were some Irish roots, and I had visited where the family emigrated from in Ireland.

My husband persisted, “There must have been someone good in your family tree.”

After he pestered me for over a decade, I finally told him, “Fine. You want to dig into my family cemetery. Go for it. But don’t tell me what you find because I don’t want to know.”

So four years ago, he began digging. I didn’t want to know anything he found for a year. He never told me more than I was ready to hear but confirmed to me that there were some good people in that family tree. This year, I agreed to take one of those genealogy DNA tests to find out my ancestry.

I was mentally prepared to get results that I was a blood relative of Hitler or Stalin or Mussolini. Wrong.

For our whole marriage, I have joked that a British Scot Irish crazy woman married a steady, predictable German. The DNA tests showed that I was 70% British/Scot Irish. The other 30% shocked me – 20% Western European, and the final 10% was a mix of Scandinavia, Iceland and Eastern Europe.

I wanted to solve the mystery of my family heritage and started digging. With God’s sense of humor, it turns out the bulk of that Western European heritage is the German for which I have teased my husband.

Those most exciting part was discovering a family tie to the mother of Richard Herbert, Magdalene Newport. She was a lifelong friend of John Donne, who preached her funeral sermon in 1627.

One thing that surprised me is that my roots are so deeply American. The most recent immigrant ancestors I’ve found are one from Ireland in 1830 and one from Scotland in 1794.  The others I have found arrived here in the 1600 and 1700’s.

James Michener could have written of them as a microcosm of pre-revolutionary America. The only distant outlaw I found in my father’s tree was a Hans Mansson who chose in 1640 to go to “New Sweden” instead of being hung for destroying 8 fruit trees in the Crown’s gardens in Sweden. He served as a convict laborer for 5 years and then became a civic leader in what is now New Jersey.

What fascinates me the most are their varied responses to the Revolutionary War.  On one side, there was a Johann Peter Frey who sided with the British Crown and refused to sign the Oath of Allegiance to North Carolina. Then there was a Joseph Whitaker, who was a one of the British 16th Dragoons who captured General Charles Lee in 1776 but deserted in 1777.  Then there were the Germantown Pennsylvania Updegroves who were Quaker Pacifists. Finally, there were more patriots than I can count who fought in the Revolutionary War.

The most disappointing part came when I discovered a family branch that owned slaves – I had always taken pride that none of the family tree I knew about were slaveholders. However, 2 of the 4 signers of the 1688 Germantown Quaker Protest Against Slavery, the first document in the United States to oppose slavery, were Updegroves (or “Up den Graeff”).

So the only thing really left for me to say is my husband was more than right. There are good branches in my family tree.

It makes a difference. Maybe my life is the Michener version of the happy ending where a couple of bad apples don’t spoil the whole tree.


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