Saturday, January 25, 2014

More about Charles Henry Gamble: USCT Freedom Fighter, Family Man

Image courtesy of

A few weeks ago I received from the National Archives the Civil War pension file I had requested for Charles Henry Gamble, my godfather's maternal grandfather, who I first wrote about last month.  Since then I have been thinking a lot about Henry, as he was known, and of all the soldiers who served in the United States Colored Troops. As Henry Louis Gates wrote in a post on, it was the pressure brought to bear by people like Frederic Douglas and Lincoln's own generals that led to the decision to authorize Black soldiers to serve in the Union Army and to bear arms. The recent vandalism at  the African American Civil War Memorial in Washington DC suggests that even now, 150 years later, some people are still uncomfortable with the USCT.

These Black soldiers were fighting for the Union, yes, but theirs was truly a fight for freedom, and for the people who would come after them.  They fought on two fronts: against the Rebel forces, but also against their own government that wanted to pay them less than White soldiers, as well as those who bitterly opposed their service, sometimes including their own officers. And then, too, they had to contend with the horrors of war.  I am grateful for their service and especially Henry's service.  Like all soldiers, he sacrificed much in serving in the USCT.

Henry was 17 when he enlisted in the 42nd regiment of the United States Colored Infantry (USCI) in October 1864.  One of the soldiers who served with Henry, James Norwood of Loudon, Tennessee, testified that just a few months after he enlisted, Henry became sick as the soldiers slogged through water on a march to defend the garrison in Chattanooga against guerrilla raids during the winter of 1865.   Chattanooga is subject to "wet and frigid conditions" during winter, and Henry's illness was compounded by having a tooth extracted and the nerve exposed to extreme cold.  He was treated in camp, but never sent to a hospital. In its informational series on Black Soldiers in the Civil War, the National Park Service notes that medical care is one area where African American soldiers fared much worse than their White counterparts, so Henry's experiences were not atypical.

Later, all three doctors who examined  Henry as part of his Civil War pension claim agreed that his exposure during the war led to disabling rheumatism, and the poorly executed tooth extraction appears to have caused neuralgia of the face, head, and neck and possibly contributed to his becoming completely deaf in his right ear.  James Norwood reported that Henry was in such extreme pain during the war that he was sometimes unable to perform guard duty.

No mention is made in the pension file of the fact that Charles Henry spent all of the fall of 1865 "in arrest" for "mutinous conduct."  I wonder if his mutinous conduct was simply being in too much pain to perform as a soldier?

The pain that began during his Civil War service haunted Henry for the next 30 years and occasionally made it difficult for him to work as a farmer or as a carpenter. Carpentry is a skill that he may well have developed while in the Army--one of the chief tasks of the 42nd USCI was building a bridge in Chattanooga.

Two of the three men who testified on  behalf of Henry's pension claim served in the USCT as well though they served in the 1st Heavy Artillery regiment (USCHA) out of Knoxville. Beginning in the summer of 1865, this regiment was  based in Chattanooga along with Henry's regiment.   Thomas Lillard and Allen Garner of the USCHA were from Maryville in Blount County, Tennessee, and I have wondered if they might have met Henry while he was in the service and encouraged him to settle in their hometown.

Among the documents in Henry's pension file was an affidavit attesting to his marriage in 1868 to Mary Lucinda Wilson. Another USCHA soldier from Maryville, Alexander Wilson, was the same age as Henry, and may have been kin to Mary Lucinda.  Allen Garner testified that he knew Mary Lucinda before the war. Perhaps Alexander or Allen introduced Henry to Mary?

I had hoped to learn something about the early lives of Henry and Mary from the pension file. Only two things were said about  Henry's life before the war: that he had been a farmer, and that he was physically healthy when he enlisted.  As I reported in my first post on Charles Henry,  the 42nd was known as an "invalid" regiment.  While none of the medical affidavits offered  on Henry's behalf in his application for a pension in 1890 and again in 1894 suggested any health problems other than his service related maladies, a military physician examining him in 1894 indicated that he had a heart murmur, which if detected in his initial military screening might have consigned him to the 42nd.  Or perhaps it was his youth.

According to a 2005 article by Becky Blankenship Darrell that appeared in the Blount Journal, the men who served in the USCT had a large impact on their community when they returned after the war. Allen Garner and Thomas Lillard were leaders in the African American community in Maryville, the former becoming a lawyer and justice of the peace and the latter leading efforts to create schools for Blacks in Maryville. Darrell, the current editor of the Blount Journal and a historian and officer in the Blount County Genealogical and Historical Society, recently revised the article.  In the revision, she notes that Thomas Lillard, another USCHA veteran named Oscar Wilson,  and Charles Henry Gamble together helped to organize St. Paul AME Zion Church in Maryville which is still an active congregation almost 150 years later. The Sunday School, which Henry was later in charge of, was organized immediately after the war in 1866, and the first church building was erected in 1886. Given his occupation as a carpenter, I  believe Henry was very likely involved in building the church.  A photo of the congregation shortly after the church was opened can be seen here. In a recent email communication, Ms. Darrell tells me that Henry, Mary, and their children would most assuredly have been in the photo. Other USCT veterans are also thought to be in the photo. These men gave much to their community as well as to their country.

On Oct. 10, 1895, the first page of the Maryville Times included this brief announcement:

Henry Gamble, a well-known colored man of our town,  died...[earlier this week].

According to the pension file and the notice in the Times, Henry died from the lingering effects of the war, and complications of exposure to "La Grippe" the previous year, when there was a last outbreak of the influenza epidemic that took the lives of many around the world from 1890 to 1894.

His widow, Mary Lucinda, received a pension  for herself and the 5 children under 16 that Henry left her to raise alone when he died at just 49 years old,  (They had 11 children altogether, one of whom predeceased Henry.)  Initially, Mary's pension was $8. per month for herself, plus  $2. a month for each of the 5 younger children, an amount equivalent to  $440. or more per month in today's dollars according to the website, The pension was critical in enabling Mary to purchase her own home, to send all of her children to school and most to college. Two of her grandsons, including my godfather, lived with Mary in her home in Maryville, also benefiting from the pension.

The pain that Henry endured as a consequence of his service was, to an extent, compensated for by the pension and the support it provided to his children and grandchildren.  But Henry left an even more important, though less tangible, legacy for those who came after him.  Learning about Henry's service in the war and to his community afterwards has helped me to understand where my godfather's great pride in his family and interest in public service came from.

While I learned much about Henry and Mary from the pension file,  I have many more questions still to explore concerning Charles Henry Gamble.  How did he get from his birthplace of Norfolk, VA to Chattanooga?  Had he been a slave (his family oral history says yes), and if so, who held him in bondage?  Who were his parents, and was one of them white (which might account for his grey eyes)?   Finally, a recent thread on Facebook has me curious about Henry's medical conditions, and whether there may be clues about genetic predispositions in descendants.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

DNA and Ancestral Affinities: Is it in the Genes?

Have you ever felt a strong affinity for a culture or nation, and then discovered a possible genetic link?  One of my DNA cousins, Maurice of Geechee Moe's Ancestry, wrote in a recent post about his long time love of all things Jamaican and his delight at discovering a Jamaican cousin. It made me think about my own experiences of ancestral affinities.

When I was a kid, I fell in love with baseball.  My hometown team had several future Hall of Famers: Willie Mays and Willie McCovey. Now I always liked these two, but I was especially drawn to the many Latin players on the San Francisco Giants.  The Alou brothers, Felipe (who would later manage the team), Matty, and Jose, from the Dominican Republic.  Orlando Cepeda, or the Baby Bull, from Puerto Rico.  And my all-time favorite, the Dominican Dandy, Juan Marichal.  
From my DNATribes Admixture Analysis
I felt a kinship with these players because, very simply, they looked like me. And even as a young kid who knew nothing about racial admixtures,  I sensed that we probably shared a similar mix of bloodlines, African, European and a bit of Native American. 
Sure enough, a DNATribes analysis of my admixture shows that the country where I would likely find the most genetic matches is the Dominican Republic.  So perhaps my affinity was in my genes!  

As a young teen, I discovered the work of Chaim Potok, who wrote The Chosen and The Promise about  two young men growing up within the confines of  a very conservative branch of Judaism.  I didn't know why I was so powerfully drawn to these stories, or the  similar books I read, but I was not surprised to learn that  I have Jewish heritage.  My maternal grandfather's paternal grandparents were Jews whose lineage goes back to Lithuania.  My great great grandfather Zorach Hirshson had a brother who became a Rabbi, while he was the first to leave to come to America.  I wonder if Zorach's experiences could have been somewhat similar to those of the men I read about; did he leave to break away from a conservative branch of Judaism?  His older children, the ones born in Latvia, remained observant, but my great grandfather, William Hirshson, married outside the faith, and his son, my grandfather Louis, never mentioned his Jewish heritage.

I have had three other experiences that demonstrated not so much cultural affinities, but what I would call deep ancestral memories.  The first occurred when I attended a PowWow while working in Michigan.  When I heard the drumming, I had an immediate experience of remembrance. I knew the sounds, the rhythms, and felt I could have joined the dance.  Though my percentage of Native American ancestry is relatively low, at just 1.5%, it seems as if it still resonates within me.
My second experience of this kind of deep remembering was standing on the Hill at Tara, in County Meath,  Ireland.  Kings were crowned there, but what I remembered were the spiritual rituals. Tara was sacred to the Druids, and that is how deep the memory was.  According to, I am 22% Irish, and I never felt it more than that day.  

My third experience of a deep ancestral memory was watching a performance of Alonzo King's

Lines ballet, The People of the Forest, with Nzamba Lela, a group of dancers and musicians  from the Aka or BaAka (also known as BiAka) people of the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.  Again, as with the drums at the Pow Wow, I recognized the rhythms and the moves as they danced.  And I also immediately understood some of the origins of my own short stature.  The BaAka are a nomadic pygmy group (
see this site for more information). According to one of the admixture tools on (Africa9),  I have about 5% Biaka ancestry.

What experiences of ancestral affinities or deep remembering have you had, if any, and do you believe that they could be because of genetic influences?   

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

During 2014 I Resolve to...

  1. Dig deeper in my research.  It's time to delve into the realities beyond the infamous 1870 divide in African American genealogy.  Who enslaved my kin?  What did my kin experience while enslaved?
  2. Celebrate every new discovery, no matter how small.  Each step takes me closer to knowing  my Ancestors.
  3. Branch out in my search.  I need to know more about the communities that my kin lived in. Thanks Sharon Morgan for posting in Our Black Ancestry the link to Angela Walton-Raji's video, Study Your Ancestors Community which gives great advice on how to do this.
  4. Participate more fully in the genealogy community, including encouraging the efforts of others, learning from those who have wisdom and experience to impart, and sharing what I know as well.  I'll look for opportunities to collaborate in research.
  5. Gather clues about the "Caribbean connection" I have heard about from the Ancestors. Who is the obeah woman, and what island did she live on?  I have seen the island in my "mind's eye,"  and believe I will know it when I step on it.  That is why I am bound and determined to visit as many islands as I can.  Barbados, Eleuthera,  St. John, St. Kitts, St. Lucia, here I come!

Those are my genealogical resolutions for the coming year.  What are yours?

From my last visit to the Bahamas

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Anne Louise Hirshson Shows Up

When I started this blog, it was specifically to explore my paternal ancestry.  To answer the many questions I have about my father's people, and to indulge in my passion for African American genealogy.  It's not that I am uninterested in my maternal ancestry, it's just not where the mystery lies.  And, as I have said before,  I love a good mystery.

But recently, I have been reminded of something Barack Obama wrote in the preface to the second edition of his moving memoir, Dreams from My Father.  Describing the huge void his mother's death left in his life, he said that had he known he was going to lose her he might have written less about the absent parent, his father, and celebrated more the one who was "the single constant in my life."

It is, I suppose, only natural to be curious about the absent parent, to seek to fill in the gaps, to want to discover what is unknown.  But it doesn't mean the known parent is any less loved.

A few days ago, I changed the tag line on my blog so that it no longer calls out solely to my paternal ancestors.  Yesterday, in my Christmas post, I mentioned some of my maternal ancestors.

This, apparently, was not sufficient homage.  The Mother line is NOT to be denied.  

Though I have dedicated my blog to answering the ancestors' call, my mother may have felt that I wasn't listening carefully enough to her, so she called me out, as affronted mothers are prone to do.  

"So, you aren't going to mention me in your blog...I'll just crash your cousin's blog!"  

Now I didn't actually hear this when I woke up this morning, and saw a picture of my mother in a post on Teresa Vega's blog Radiant Roots, Boricua Branches, but I could definitely imagine my mother orchestrating this to get my attention.  

Anne Louise Hirshson wasn't a pushy or particularly bold woman, but she had her pride.  And the thing she was most proud of was her kids.  She would very definitely want me to give credit where credit is due, and in that, she has a point. She and I both loved my father, but he was an occasional visitor in our lives.  She was there, always.

She was a single mother, working two jobs to support her two children. She read to us, took us to the beach for picnics, let us find ourselves in school, played beautiful music, and encouraged our creativity.  Mostly, she loved us, in her own way.  She wasn't much for organized religion after growing up a preacher's kid, but we both knew it was her prayers and her model of sheer obstinacy that got me through graduate school and back home to teach at her alma mater.  It was her scraping together her meager salaries that launched my brother and I, made it possible for us to have homes in one of the most expensive areas in the country.

I am going to continue to search for my paternal ancestors, but I want the record to show that I know I am who I am because of the Mother line, whether it is my love of a good book or great art (my grandmother, Eda Roscoe Biggs,  was the artist who painted the pictures of Louis Hirshson and Anne Linnehan Hirshson in Teresa's post), or the sea (my great grandmother, Frances Augusta Roscoe grew up in Hall's Harbor, Nova Scotia), or my knowledge that a dutiful daughter best not ever neglect to mention her mother again!   

Hope you're happy now, Mom.  You know that's all I ever wanted for you.

Counting My (Genealogical) Blessings This Christmas

The presents have been cleared away, the holiday meal and movie enjoyed, and now in the last hours of Christmas day I am coming to terms with the fact that the one thing I had been secretly hoping for—a genealogical breakthrough to tie the paper trail on my paternal line to DNA cousins—isn’t going to materialize in time for this year’s celebration.  Instead of becoming discouraged, as I have so many times in my family history quest, I decided to reflect on all the things I have to be grateful for on this journey.  It has been a remarkable year of discoveries, and when I stop to count my blessings, I feel renewed energy for the next steps in my quest.  Here’s a list of some the genealogical gifts of the past year that I am most grateful for:
       1.  The story of Julia Linnehan, my maternal great grandmother’s sister, came to me via a newly discovered 3rd cousin 1x removed, Teresa Vega.  Teresa’s blog, Radiant Roots, Boricua Branches includes a two parter on Julia. Teresa has been my inspiration this year. Her desire to reach out and know the family connected to a painful estrangement made me realize that my insecurity about tracking all of my family lines was silly. Worse, it was blocking the opportunity for re-connection and healing.

      2.  I was able to share with Teresa the discovery of the marriage records for William Linnehan and Ellen Shaunnessy of Buttevant, Cork, Ireland, which helped us learn their father’s names.  William and Ellen are my maternal grandfather’s maternal grandparents.  I also learned the names of his paternal grandparents, Zorach Hirshson and Bertha Harris, who married in Riga, Latvia.
      3.  Knowledge of my connection to several descendants of Melugeon families, another gift that came via Teresa.  In learning more about the Melugeons, and another tri-racial group, the Lumbees, I gained important insight into aspects of my paternal ancestry.  There is a large and growing Facebook group, Primos Geneticos, trying to trace our connections with the help of DNA testing.  We’re all becoming wizards—and this has really opened up my understanding of genetic genealogy, as have the wonderful posts of Roberta Estes on the DNAeXplained-GeneticGenealogy blog.

      4.  My paternal grandfather’s name.  I wrote a post about some of the difficulties in tracking Joseph Cannady in records, but until a wild card search last May (just last names, for all the marriages in Blount County between 1910 and 1920) I had spent untold hours over many years searching in all the wrong places for the wrong name. Now, with the name, and some DNA clues, the search for the needle in the proverbial haystack can at least be narrowed down quite a bit. 

      5.   A new attitude and approach concerning my research.  I had too easily accepted the idea of “brick walls,” until I read the excellent post by Robyn of Reclaiming Kin suggesting that most such walls are artificial.  Her post made me realize that there were many more steps I needed to be taking in my research to address difficult challenges.  They say when the student is ready, the teacher appears, and so it was shortly after reading Robyn’s post that I found myself in the newly formed Facebook group, African American Genealogy and Slave Ancestry Research, with the very stern but loving Principal, Luckie Daniels.  One of AAGSAR's mottoes is " no brick walls permitted" In the few short months of its existence, AAGSAR has been a huge boon to its members, challenging even long-time and savvy family historians to bump up their research and technology skills and to take their knowledge of African American genealogy mainstream.  For relative newbies like myself, it has meant getting out of my comfort zone to take my research to a new level.  I am just one of dozens who have begun to document my research online in blogs.  We’ll have a major roll out of new blogs for our January 5th, 2014 Blogfest (see Diane Haddad’s write-up on Family Tree magazine’ s genealogyinsider here).

      So all in all, I’d say it’s been a good year for gifts.  And now I have the tools, and the communities, to help go after that other gift I was looking for.  That’s my spring 2014 challenge: to connect the dots between DNA and the paper trail.  What’s yours?

Friday, December 20, 2013

Cousins, Community, and So-Called Coincidences

I got a kick out of the post, Everybody cousin, on the Gardener’s Footprint blog, because it described something I believe is true—anywhere you look, anybody could be your cousin.  Perhaps a distant cousin, but a cousin nevertheless.  In fact, my cousin Maurice joked that people are going to have to add DNA tests to their prenup agreements to make sure their future spouse is a distant enough cousin to make it okay to be kissin’ cousins.  (He didn’t say that exactly, but you get my drift). 

Once you take a DNA test, you begin to realize just how many people are cousins. I have almost 1000 cousins in my “Extended DNA Family” on
My relative list
And these cousins are literally everywhere, from South Africa to South America to South Carolina.    Well, I don’t have any cousins that I know of in South Dakota, but that may just be because they haven’t tested yet. 

One thing I have cherished in my genealogy journey is getting to know some of my DNA cousins through Facebook.  Even though many of us are pretty distant cousins, and others are actually cousins of cousins, we have joined together to form a community, Primos Geneticos (Cousins Genetic).  Just like the AAGSAR community (which, of course, includes many cousins and cousins of cousins), we support one another, pray for one another, share stories both funny and sad, laugh at each other’s jokes, and importantly, help each other in the never-ending quest to trace our family histories.   

As we trace our histories together in these virtual communities, we have discovered many so-called coincidences.  For example, Andrea, one of the AAGSAR family, writes a post about her Shinault family and happens to mention someone named Gamble who traveled with the family from Virginia to New York. I commented that my godfather's Gamble line has links to Virginia.  Later, when I post about Charles Henry Gamble, who was born in Norfolk, Andrea is sure there is a connection.  I can’t wait to see if we can trace it.  When another member of AAGSAR, Xzanthia, helped me to search for military records for Charles Henry, it led to the discovery that he had ties to her hometown, Chattanooga. (According to,  Xzanthia and I are—you guessed it—distant cousins).   

My cousin Maurice, mentioned above, figures that our family links originate in South Carolina, and indicates the connection may be as long ago as 7 generations back.  But I have closer DNA cousins with links to the Gaddy's of Wadesboro, North Carolina, where Maurice’s great grandmother was born (read all about her in his two-part post).  So our relatives were neighbors in one state not so very long ago while kin in another in the more distant past.   Speaking of neighbors, the wildest so-called coincidence is one I share with my cousin, Teresa.  So far, she’s the only DNA cousin that I have a paper trail connection to as well.  But in turns out we have another connection:  we lived in the very same building in New York City though at different times.  Not just in the same small town, like my relatives and Maurice’s; not in the same neighborhood.  But in the same building, on the same floor! In a city as big as New York, how could that be?  Please, don’t tell me it’s just a coincidence.

I don’t believe in coincidences.  I have no doubt that just as our ancestors moved in circles with one another, finding strength in community, so too are they bringing us together to do this work of telling their stories.  They leave little signposts to help us find one another, and in doing so, help us to find them.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

When the Ancestors Answer Back

Charles H. Gamble military record from
Just a week ago, I wrote my first true genealogy post for this blog, a discussion of the Civil War service of Charles Henry Gamble, my godfather's maternal grandfather.  I was inspired to do so after writing a letter just a couple of days earlier to the Blount County Genealogical and Historical Society (BCGHS), requesting membership.  I felt so full as I typed the names and dates of the folks who represent my godfather's ties to Blount County, it was as if I was making an offering: yes, I will call your names so that you are not forgotten.  It seemed that this is what I am supposed to be doing, and so I jumped into writing the post about Charles Henry even before I had all the puzzle pieces in place for him.

Today, I received an email from someone in the BCGHS who had read my letter.  Years ago, she had discovered Charles' grave in
Old Quaker Cemetery on; picture uploaded by 98percentH2O
the Old Quaker Cemetery in Maryville, Tennessee, and set about gathering information about him and other Black Civil War veterans who were from or settled in Blount County.  Her information was used in a tribute this past summer to commemorate 150 years since Emancipation (here is an article describing the event).  She's offered to share the information.

Her email conveyed information I didn't know and made me realize that some of the information I have collected on my godfather's family is incorrect; and, of course, I was able to pass along some information that I had.  One of the nuggets in the email was the fact that Charles was buried next to Myra, the young daughter he and his wife, Mary, had lost. I also learned where Mary and some of their other offspring are buried.  It means so much to have this information and to know that Charles Henry and his fellow soldiers were honored in their hometown.

I know I am supposed to do the genealogist's happy dance, but I am going to be honest and tell you that my first response was an upwelling of emotion.   This very helpful informant wrote that she had not been able to find any descendants of Charles Henry and Mary Lucinda Gamble. My godfather is no longer alive to claim them.   But that is not the reason for my emotional response. It is because when I received the email, it was as if Charles Henry was reaching out to me more than a century after his passing.  I answered his call, and he answered back.