Monday, March 11, 2013

Finding Benjamin – Connecting Past and Present at the Genealogy Center

Today's blog comes from Carmen Hamilton, a history major at IPFW. 

 by Carmen Hamilton

History at its finest is a good story, the kind you stay up all night reading. A story is only as good as its ability to reach the listener on a personal level, and to fall in love with history is to make a connection that transcends time and geography.  I’ll explain how I found that connection, right here in Fort Wayne, and why I feel so many young people haven’t been able to do the same.

Benjamin F. Wallace is my answer when anyone asks where my interest in history came from. He was born in Vermont in 1834, and died there in 1853, just eighteen years old.  I was born in Indiana, in 1991. Our lives are separated by nearly 140 years and 800 miles, give or take, but they overlapped in a unique way during my sixth-grade year.  I remember stumbling upon his tombstone in the woods near my house in rural Noble Country, clearing away creeping vines to read the words, tracing the letters with my fingers to decipher them:

son of
Seth and Desire
Died Jan. 3, 1853
Aged 18 yrs. 2 mon.

For me and my friends, the finding provided ample fodder for our active imaginations. We formulated dozens of scenarios surrounding Benjamin and what might have caused him to die so young. He could have been ill, or he could have been killed in a duel – slain by a rival while fighting for his sweetheart’s hand. There were whispers of murder, but this version was a little too scary to imagine further. We felt sorry for the stone, alone in the woods with no visitors. One day, we left flowers. A week later, they were gone…replaced by a folded sheet paper, which turned out be a photocopied newspaper article, headlined: 

Monolith Haunts I&M Basement

The article revealed that the tombstone had been discovered in the basement of the since closed I&M building, located on the Main Street of Kendallville (about 30 minutes north of Fort Wayne).  According to the article, the tombstone was not made of mineral located in the area, nor had anyone of that name died in Kendallville. Instead, the stone had been transported all the way from Vermont, presumably by horse-drawn-cart. How and why these events took place were lost to history, or at least not mentioned in the newspaper.  Weeks after the building’s closure, the stone had appeared mysteriously in my neighbor’s yard, who guessed it had been left as a prank. He, too, felt sorry for Benjamin, and decided to place the stone in a peaceful spot in the woods. 

For me, this development stirred up more questions than answers. I felt like Nancy Drew with a mystery to solve, unsure of where to look for clues. A few weeks later, I came across a brochure for The Genealogy Center in the Allen Country Public Library. The center boasts one of the largest genealogical research collections in the nation, and offers access to the records of

On my first of many visits, I found out that numerous people named Benjamin Wallace had lived in Vermont, but only one had been born to Seth and Desire, and had died in 1853 at age eighteen. This was my Benjamin – no longer a name carved on a cold slab of stone, but a real person. I learned that he was one of seven brothers, all of whom had died before the age of twenty-five. He was descended on his mother’s side from English immigrants who arrived to Connecticut in the 1640’s.

Unfortunately, this little information was all I could unearth, and much of Benjamin’s story – such as how and why his headstone came to be in Indiana – remains a mystery. However, the investigation itself had opened my eyes to world of genealogy. If I could research the life of someone I’d never met, why not research my own relatives? With the help of older family members and the staff of the Genealogy Center, I began to piece together my own family history.

Centuries ago, my ancestors were scattered across Europe, North America, and even Africa. They were among the first immigrants to settle in colonial America, and also among the natives, waiting on the shore of that new world. In the American Revolution, one fought for independence of a new nation, while another defended ties to his home country – both died for their cause, never knowing which side would win, or that they would one day share a descendent. In the Civil War, my ancestors wore both blue and grey: one was a plantation owner, another, his slave, and yet another, an abolitionist who assisted the efforts of the Underground Railroad. 

As I learned their stories, my ancestors, like Benjamin, became more that names on paper. Some of their stories made me happy, while others brought tears to my eyes; some made me proud, and others made me wonder.  I felt I had met not only my ancestors, but myself in a new and deeper way. I am more than a small-town, Indiana girl: I am a dreamer and a sailor, an explorer and a native, a redcoat and a patriot, a slave and a captor, a Yankee and a rebel, with the blood of three continents and many nationalities running through my veins.  It wasn’t until I learned where I came from that I truly appreciated who I was, or knew where I wanted to go.

For me, the vital connection between past and present had been made at the Genealogy Center, sparking a lifelong passion for history. Unfortunately, numerous young people have been unable to make this connection, and therefore feel less than enthusiastic about the subject. For most, the aversion can be traced to high school, where students were expected to memorize key dates, names, and facts, but never learned how the events of the past relate to their lives and the world they live in.

While passion for his subject is desirable in an educator, many teachers are so in love with history that they forget they’re addressing people who are not. The best way to hold an audience’s interest in history is to present it in the form of a story. When properly framed, there is potential for action, horror, mystery, and drama. Historical figures are recognized as individuals with genuine emotions, strengths, and weaknesses. Their lives and their challenges were real, and the impact of their decisions ripples into the world today. Students will begin to care when they can trace causes and effects over several generations. And once they care, the memorization of important dates, names, and events will no longer seem a burden.

I would also encourage educators to introduce their classes to the Fort Wayne History Center and the ACPL Genealogy Center. Both are treasure troves of local and family history that can make the subject instantly more relateable to students. This was the case, at least for me. My ancestors may not have been kings, or inventors, or military heroes, but as I study the times in which they lived, I hear their names echoed in a professor’s lecture, their stories whispered in a textbook’s pages, their strangely familiar voices, calling from the past.

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