Last year I dipped into genealogy, an interest that for many heralds the beginning of middle age. After we’ve spent half a lifetime proving our individuality, we are ready to look backward and see that we are part of a larger piece that has been knit since the beginning of human history.
When I began tracing my family tree, I had hoped to find the deepest ancestry possible, as if that tree could expose the contents of my subconscious. Indeed, there were moments when I saw pictures of my ancestors that I could have sworn I’d dreamed of them. There were two photos in particular that echoed just as strongly as seeing my daughter’s face for the first time. I cannot be the only one who has had those rare moments when you see someone for the first time yet it seems as if you have always known that person.
The first of these pictures was taken at a family gathering from the 1920’s, before the onslaught of the Depression, and it shows my grandpa Sheets as a toddler with his parents and many of his maternal relatives:
My great grandmother Ethel Mosher Sheets is seated at the far right, and my grandpa Sheets is patting her lap and blurred in the motion of that youthful moment. While I found this picture online, I think that I must have seen a copy of it when I was a child, for I know that I dreamed of Ethel as she is in that picture, maternal, relaxed and smiling in those round glasses, yet I only met her when I was so young that I cannot recall seeing her in person.
The second picture that echoed strongly for me is one I have shared in this blog before, a portrait of my great grandfather Leslie Fairchild:
I stumbled across this photo while trying to break through the brick wall of his origins. All we had was his death portrait, his marriage certificate and my grandma’s childhood memories of her father. He died in a car accident when Grandma was seven years old, and his name was Leslie Kelly. We had no reason to think that Kelly was not his name, and we figured his family tree was hard to trace because Kelly is such a common surname.
I could not find any history for Leslie Kelly that predated his marriage to my great grandmother. To my childhood mind, he had been a golem breathed to life from the rich clay soil around us as a husband for my great grandmother, who had already had the heartbreak of becoming a mother for the first time as a teenager via the exploitation of a middle-aged shopkeeper. As an adult looking at the evidence, I found no proof he existed as my family knew him prior to 1926.
I looked again at his marriage certificate and figured that he must have been honest about the identity of his mother. Really, it’d be very hard to lie outright on this matter. The closest a decent person could come to lying about the name of one’s mother would be to fabricate an adoption or growing up in an orphanage that has since burned down along with its records. I believe that the human heart is such that a person would sooner stay silent altogether on the subject of one’s birth than to give a fake name for one’s mother.
I found that there had been another man who had been born in the same state on the same day to a woman with the same first and maiden name as he listed on his marriage certificate. Then I considered that two people born to the same woman on the same day are necessarily the same person, excluding the possibility of a multiple birth. I found the birth record online and saw that Leslie Fairchild was a single birth.
Next I wondered what became of this Leslie Fairchild. Could I find a burial record or some other evidence to suggest this was just some massive coincidence? I discovered that Leslie Fairchild had went to pick up his paycheck for his work as a janitor at North High School in Minneapolis in April 1923 and then disappeared, leaving his wife, mother and five surviving children, one of whom was a newborn.
The story of his disappearance featured the portrait above. As I looked at it, I felt a deep conviction that I’d found the right person. Since my brain is flooded with a pop or rock song for most any occasion, my mental ear immediately heard the song “Stranger” by Jefferson Starship, “Stranger calling / Eyes that look like mine/ He said you know I’ve called before.”
In the next few months, several of us in Ohio did autosomal DNA testing, along with some of his known descendents from the family he left behind. Our results, especially those of my grandma who gave us a precious gift in volunteering for testing in the last year of her life, showed that Leslie Kelly was indeed Leslie Fairchild.
I learned that Leslie was not the first Fairchild who escaped from his family. His grandfather, the inventor Asahel Fairchild, had also left behind a large family and began anew elsewhere.
From what I have gathered online with the assistance of my Fairchild relatives, Asahel Fairchild was an inventor who owned a carpenter’s shop in Ashland, Ohio. By 1856, he had eight children with my 3rd great grandmother Elizabeth Lockhart, and he claimed that he needed to visit the patent office in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Since he had successfully filed a patent in the previous year, this was not an outlandish reason for a trip out of state. He did not return from this trip, leaving his family bankrupt and their assets auctioned off in his absence:
We have determined that Asahel remade his life in Iowa, married twice more, passed away in Iowa in late 1887 and left his assets to his children from this second two marriages.
I am left to wonder what cataclysms could have happened to compel Leslie and Asahel to take to the open road as if they had nothing to tie them to their previous lives. Was it something inside that made them commit what was in effect a living suicide that severs all prior commitments?
Recently I heard a song on the radio that reminds me how someone can make a break from the past that is so radical as to feel apocalyptic:
As both of these Fairchild men walked away from their lives, I wonder if the sky indeed felt like it was falling around them, that to their minds the places from whence they came no longer existed. Things did change quickly after their escapes. If Leslie had knocked on the door to his home in Minneapolis a year after he left, he’d have been a stranger to the new family dwelling inside it. His mother, wife, and children had moved to another state, closer to their extended family.
While the shape of Leslie’s life from beginning to end is known (aside from his period of “wandering in the desert” from 1923 to 1926), there remains a part of Asahel’s life that is unknown. Nowhere in surviving documents or in family lore did Asahel identify his parents.
I have scoured online databases to find documents that show his parentage, to no avail. Periodically I check for new leads, as more historical documents are added online all the time. I have guessed by proximity that his parents could have been Daniel and Betsy Fairchild who eventually settled in the Cleveland area, but I can’t find proof of this connection. One thing that makes me think I’m circling the proverbial airport is that if this is true, then Levi Fairchild born 1749 was his grandfather, who also may have been a disappearing artist because no one has a date of death for him in any family tree online.
DNA testing has not been helpful in identifying a specific Fairchild line. My grandmother, whose autosomal DNA is our strongest connection to the past, has genetic ties to several Fairchild lines. All this has shown for sure is that Asahel did not fake his surname because he was an inventor and many inventors have been named Fairchild. He was indeed a Fairchild by birth. Grandma’s DNA has ties to another Fairchild clan from Ohio, those who were abolitionists and helped found Oberlin College. I have looked at all of the branches of that Fairchild line and can find no room for Asa in it.
There is the option of Y-DNA testing, but I don’t have strong hope that this could help us pin down who exactly who his father was. I have looked at the Y-DNA surname project for Fairchild and saw such a similarity in the results of the participants that it suggests that it is probably true that all of the Fairchilds in American did descend from Thomas Fairchild (1610-1670) who settled in Connecticut from England.
Asahel Fairchild is not the only brick wall in my family tree. Like most of the others I cannot trace, he was born in the first part of the 19th century, that “dark ages” of genealogy between colonial records and the start of modern vital records in the late 19th to early 20th century.
Sometimes I am inclined to speculate that these gaps in information are what some of my ancestors intended. Maybe it is not a matter that the records of their births are collecting dust in some as-yet-unknown church, family Bible or courthouse. It is possible that this information was never recorded or was blotted out due to illegitimacy or disinheritance. While such matters seem easily if not painlessly overcome given time in our era, they could be great impediments even in 19th America.
I saw evidence of this in looking at records related to one one of my second great aunts, who was adopted by my Sheets great-great grandparents from an orphanage in Cleveland in the 1880’s. Her birth grandmother had an illegitimate child and was able to raise that child herself into her teenage years because she was still living with her married parents. That daughter had no marriage prospects and went into domestic service, where she herself had an illegitimate daughter she could not keep and had to put up for adoption. Marriage mattered in ways inconceivable to us nowadays. A lack of family records for an ancestor could signal that he or she successfully evaded their illegitimacy.
Asahel Fairchild could have been a black sheep, a bastard . . . or someone whose sense of self was so large he figured he needed no origin story. Such a gift could have eased his way as he remade himself all the way to Olewein, Iowa, to a 50 acre farm where he designed patent-worthy tools as he raised his two youngest daughters after the death of his last young wife.