Sunday, September 13, 2015

Harry Potter is a wizard and I am not

In Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Hagrid kicks down the door, introduces himself to Harry by giving him a birthday cake, and tells Harry his dad was a wizard.

Our “Hagrid” was my cousin, Daniel Root, who kicked down our door in the spring of 2013 when he shared some family history with the rest of us. He pointed us to a book published in the late 19th century:

Root Genealogical Records 1600 – 1870: Comprising the General History of the Root and Roots Families in America, by James Pierce Root.

Daniel had sketched out a guide to help us trace our family’s specific bloodline, drawing a line through the 500+ pages and thousands of names listed in this 145-year-old book. Our line started with Thomas Root, who came to the colonies in 1637 aboard the ship Increase, through to near-modern day with David Anson Root, born 1849. One of Daniel’s comments caught my eye:


“Ephraim Root, born 1751 in Hebron, Connecticut. He fought in the American Revolutionary War. He was a Corporal in Colonel Jonathan Chase’s Regiment of the New Hampshire Militia. If you want to join the Daughters of the American Revolution or Sons of the American Revolution, Ephraim is your entrée.

Sons of the American Revolution? I’d watched those SAR guys every year at Conner Prairie’s July 4th “Star Spangled Symphony.” They carry their flags up the center aisle, dressed in colonial militia kit or in uniform of the Continental Army, the strains of John William’s theme to “The Patriot” soaring above the crowd. I’d admired the heritage they were part of, and appreciated the history and spirit of independence they represented.



For a former US Marine like me (who might be caught wiping an eye during a well-sung National Anthem), discovering we might be eligible for SAR felt like a Harry Potter moment. Harry’s dad was a wizard; my 5x great-granddad was a Revolutionary War soldier.

I began researching how to apply. I found our local group, the Alexander Hamilton Chapter of Indiana Sons of the American Revolution. I attended some meetings and started talking to men who had already mapped their bloodlines back to 1776. And I listened to how they spoke about it. It didn’t take long to notice something: there didn’t seem to be a lot of ego flying around. Not much of the talk was self-important. No solipsism. Nobody carried himself as if he were descended from wizards. It was clear they carried it like this wasn’t about them.

They had pride, certainly. But it wasn’t self-reflective, not pride for something they’d personally achieved. It seemed to run deeper than that. It was pride for what someone else had done – pride in an ancestor born some 260 years ago. Each sounded proud of saying his patriot ancestor’s name and recognizing what the man risked, what he sacrificed, and what he fought for. Their only personal pride seemed to be in the privilege of keeping the man’s name alive.

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Our patriot ancestor’s name was Ephraim Root, and he was 23 years old in June of 1775 when he signed on with the First Company of Rangers of the New Hampshire militia, under the command of Colonel Timothy Bedel, a 38-year-old veteran of the French and Indian War. Ephraim left his home in Piermont, and went to war along with his neighbors Thomas and Charles Crock, Uriah Stone, Adonijah Holden, David Arwin, Thomas Piper, Jonathan McConnel, and Frances Fenton. Their orders were to guard New Hampshire’s northern frontier.
Don Troiani Historical Art

During his service, Ephraim fought at the Battle of the Cedars along the St. Lawrence River in 1776. He was briefly captured along with the rest of his unit, until a prisoner swap was negotiated between British Captain George Forster and General Benedict Arnold. Later in the fall of 1777 and under Colonel Jonathan Chase’s command, Ephraim was part of the combined force of colonial militia and continental regulars that defeated British General John Burgoyne’s troops at the pivotal Battle of Saratoga.

The more I learned about Ephraim, the exercise became even less about me or about my four brothers and three nephews who would also be included in this SAR application. It became more about trying to understand who Ephraim was; thinking about him and telling his story as I was learning his story. 

It was about saying his name.

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This past Memorial Day, I came across a poster that spoke to this idea. Set against a backdrop of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the words were: “A man cannot die while his name is still spoken.”

As I continued to write down the stories of our ancestors and continued to say their names – Thomas Root and Ephraim Root, in particular – some interesting things started to happen:

  • From the local SAR chapter, Kevin Waldroup stepped up to help with the process of pulling together our eight applications. As Kevin and I looked at each other’s genealogies, we discovered that we each had ancestors who had lived as close together in 1637 as the two of us were living now. His Thomas Spencer and my Thomas Root were both listed on the rolls as “Founding Settlers of Hartford, Connecticut,” were both noted as having fought in the Pequot War in 1637, and were both recorded as living on “the road to the cow pasture (present day Main St”) in Hartford. And they both lived on the east side of the road to the cow pasture, if that makes it any more interesting.
  • A few months later, as part of unrelated historical research I’d been doing in Vincennes (on the life of gunsmith and Indiana’s first sheriff, John Small), I learned that a man named Simeon Root had moved to Vincennes during John Small’s later years, and his descendants were living around Vincennes today. The Vincennes Roots and my family turned out to have descended from different branches of the same Root family. And guess who was that one earliest ancestor in common?
Thomas Root. This would be the same Hartford, Connecticut / Pequot War / neighbor of Thomas Spencer / east-side-of-Main-Street Thomas Root that had shown up in coincidental circumstances a few months earlier with my friend Kevin.

  • During a visit to New England this past summer, we made the rounds to visit some of the sites where Thomas Root and Ephraim Root had lived their days. Ephraim had been born in 1751 in Hebron, Connecticut, and this was our first stop. We got into town with no other plan than “to look around.” Since it was lunchtime, we searched out a place to eat. Yelp had good ratings for every option in this community of 9,500 people, and we passed by several respectable-looking, modern restaurants because the “Something Simple Café” just seemed to “sound good.” 
We seated ourselves and found a written history of the building. We learned that the place had been originally constructed in 1750 – right around the time Ephraim had been born. It occurred to us that in the 20-some years Ephraim lived in Hebron, it would be reasonable to think he’d spent some time within these same four walls where we now sat.
A couple weeks later, I spoke with the café’s owner, Jessica Dapsis, about our visit and our quest to connect with ancestors past. Jessica mentioned, "In a building this old, you see some strange things."
"Like what?" I asked.

"Things sometimes go flying off the shelves when nobody’s around but me,” she said. “One time, I had an espresso cup go whizzing right past my head. Two apartments are on the second floor, and they tell me that sometimes they can smell eggs cooking in the middle of the night – even when the cafe has been closed for hours."
  • We left Hebron and went north to visit the “Ancient Burying Ground” in the center of the Hartford. Thomas Root’s name is inscribed there on a monument to the “First Settlers of Hartford,” and we wanted to see it.
Cheryl Thomas is a volunteer guide who greeted us. As we talked, I told her about being descended from Thomas Root and about how Thomas had shown himself twice recently, in odd and coincidental circumstances. These stories prompted Cheryl to tell one of her own:
"A couple months ago, I was helping a family named Porter locate the gravestone for their ancestor, a Captain Richard Olmstead,” she said. “They told me they were from Oklahoma and they’d been planning their trip here for months. I pointed them to Capt. Olmstead’s headstone and they walked over to spend their time and take some photos."
"Not five minutes after that, an older fellow showed up and asked for help finding the grave of his 7x great-grandfather who died in 1684. The man said he lived not far away in Rocky Hill, had always wanted to visit, but had never got around to it."
"I asked him his ancestor's name. ‘Captain Richard Olmstead,' he said. I got a chill as I looked across the Burying Ground to the Porter family from Oklahoma, gathered around Capt. Olmstead’s stone."
"The fellow said he woke up that morning and just had a strong feeling that after all these years, today was the day he should go find his Richard Olmstead's gravestone. I walked him over and introduced him to his relations."

"I don't think that kind of thing just 'happens,'" Cheryl said.


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Is it true, that “A man cannot die while his name is still spoken”?

I don’t know, but I’d like to think so. The things we've seen happen in this process make it feel true: that holding Thomas and Ephraim in thought, that saying their names, somehow animates their spirits. Does it have anything to do with four-hundred-year-old Thomas showing up twice in unlikely and coincidental circumstances? Maybe.

When you’re looking for lunch and end up being drawn to a building constructed the same year Ephraim was born, one of the few buildings in town that you could say with some confidence he may have stepped foot in the 1760s, a building with anecdotal reports of spirit moving things around… is there anything to the idea that Ephraim is somehow awakened by hearing his name spoken? Hard to say.

What of the relatives of Captain Richard Olmstead, coming from different sides of the country, one group through months of planning, and the other with sudden spontaneity, showing up to visit him within five minutes of each other? How does that happen?

If it’s true that “they cannot die as long as we say their names,” maybe this is the simple and real importance of groups like SAR and the ladies’ counterpart, Daughters of the American Revolution: we say their names and help keep them alive. 

I’m not a wizard and I don’t know what magic is. Maybe it’s the spirit of those people gone before us, responding to us, pulling strings and moving pieces around the board down here. If I see Harry Potter, I’ll ask him.





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