One of my most treasured possessions is a ratty, tattered copy of my Peters & Baum family tree that my grandmother gave me as a budding tween. On the back of it, my middle school science teacher jotted a hall pass in 1987 and it stands as testament to how long I’ve carried these papers with me through countless moves, two marriages, two children and three Army bases. To say it holds a special place in my heart falls far short of its true value.
Though the paper is now buttery soft, bent, worn and the type is surely fading, when my grandmother gave me these, she couldn’t have possibly known they would be the start of a simple hobby that would grow into a full blown, passionate obsession.
While there are several variations of the story contained on those pages, it recounts the tragic tale of James Peters who left Ireland (or Scotland and even England, in some versions) in 1748 for America and drown two years later in the Susquehanna River (while trying to save a woman who had fallen overboard from a flatboat) totally captivated me. Every time we drive over the Susquehanna now, my thoughts can’t help but drift back to 1750 and to his poor pregnant wife and their son, John, who started our branch of the Peters family… or rather supposedly, as the tale goes.
My tiny tree, started with three meager pages filled with the names of small town Ohio farmers, has grown exponentially to include a famed Revolutionary War spy, countless brave soldiers spanning multiple wars, pious pastors & Reverends, noble Lords & their Ladies, chivalrous knights and even Kings of England. My tree contains heroic tales of Civil War soldiers in the harshest of circumstances, who survived starvation by sneaking food from the mule’s feed boxes on pain of punishment. It mourns the tragic murder of a 37 year old mother at the hands of her suicidal husband and the follows their two children, who also took their own lives in adulthood. It bears witness to the sale of a 5 year old boy during the Great Depression at the Ohio State Fair. It celebrates true love at all costs when a young stable hand ran off with his Lord’s daughter and were forced to leave Great Britain for the colonies in disgrace. My tree is shadowed with slavery and sorrowful death as families fought/died for their beliefs. Yet as much as I’ve learned from my tree’s many branches, it still holds tons of mysteries and wonders yet to be discovered.
I now live in New York’s Hudson Valley near the historic West Point Military Academy, where my family roots are deep, varied and significant. Many of my colonial ancestors fled their homes during the Revolutionary War and ended up in small towns along the banks of the Hudson River near Cornwall, Vails Gate, Washingtonville, Blooming Grove & New Windsor. My ancestors were proudly some of those who conspired to achieve our nation’s freedom, often at great personal cost. I am surrounded by lands where MANY of them walked, fought, lived, died and some are even buried nearby. Nearly every day, I drive through the towns they literally helped build – from wealthy business owners who built up businesses on the Hudson River banks, to busy town clerks, to admired sheriffs and even those not recorded in the history books who were just simple farmers just trying to survive and support their families.
I feel very privileged and extremely fortunate to be able to bring their stories back to life and to share them with my children, my family, distant cousins, future generations and you. Thanks for reading!