Saturday, July 22, 2017

Ancestor Patronus: Encounters With Spirit Animals

I'm in the midst of a family history road trip in Licking County, Ohio.

My fifth great-grandfather Thomas Kirk settled in the County by 1805. In the years ahead, he farmed and raised a family of 13 children with his wife Sarah Bonar until he was "accidentally killed" in 1846.

My first stop when I arrived in Licking was to the Beard-Green Cemetery to pay my respects at his grave.

Searching for my family, I combed through the headstones - many of them dating to the first half of the 19th century. There were dozens of stones to eyeball. The first burial dated to 1810, and most of the graves are for descendants of Benjamin Green and John Beard, two of the early settlers of the County.

Beard-Green is surrounded by the Dawes Arboretum with a thick growth of trees defining its border. I discovered Thomas and Sarah Kirk on the edge of the cemetery with the remains of their original headstones at the entrance of a trail leading into the dark woods. Both headstones are broken with the top portion - and any inscription - now missing.

Thomas Kirk (left with yellow flowers) and Sarah (Bonar) Kirk (right with purple flowers)

I was excited to finally be able to pay my respects at the grave of the man who has consumed so much of my brain power as I research the identities of his parents and their ancestral origins.

My excitement doubled when I discovered the footstone for their eldest son and my fourth great-grandfather Vachel Kirk. Genealogies indicated he was also buried in Beard-Green, but it was thought that his stone no longer stood.

Just beyond Thomas' grave I found a headstone with its inscription completely weathered away. The grave had a footstone (which is common for many of the burials in the cemetery). I saw that there were two letters inscribed on the stone. I crouched down to better make out the engraving. To my great delight I read aloud: "V. K."

Vachel Kirk. It was him, I was sure of it. I checked the cemetery census and there was no enumeration for any person with those initials. The proximity to Thomas and Sarah made it certain in my mind.

Vachel was a young man when he died in 1832. He was married with three young children. I speculate that when he died, he was buried on the edge of the Beard and Green families' cemetery at the request of Thomas. In 1835, Sarah died and the family buried her near her eldest son. Thomas followed her in 1846 when he was laid to rest next to the mother of his children.

Vachel Kirk's footstone

Following my discoveries on the cemetery's edge, I wandered back into the main grounds to review other headstones. Just minutes after finding Vachel's footstone, something caught my eye at the cemetery's edge where I had just paid my respects to my Kirk ancestors.

A doe emerged from the trees by their graves, delicately stepped past Vachel's stone and made its way into the cemetery.

The doe's presence startled me at first, but then struck me as a sign - perhaps of thanks for discovering Vachel's grave.

Encounters With Spirit Animals
The encounter gave me chills and reminded me of the magic of Harry Potter.

In the Harry Potter novels, one of the most powerful spells in all of wizardom allows the conjurer to create a protective shield called a Patronus.

The Patronus is "...a guardian which acts as a shield...a kind of positive force, a projection of...hope, happiness, the desire to survive..."

They usually take the form of an animal. Harry Potter's Patronus was a stag, and his mentor Dumbledore's was a phoenix.

Was the doe an ancestral guardian?

What Does The Fox Say?
The young doe wasn't my first encounter with a spirit animal guiding me to my ancestors' graves.

In the mountains just west of Denver is the small town of Idaho Springs - once known for its booming mining industry. In the town's cemetery rests my fourth great-grandparents Thomas and Susan Elizabeth (Day) Stevens.

Thomas was killed in a horrific mining explosion in November 1886.

On a trip home to Colorado earlier this spring, I went to see his burial for the first time. Walking along a dirt path searching for his grave, I stopped at the sudden appearance of a fox. It was completely unafraid and alternated between keeping me under a watchful eye and facing in the direction of the Stevens' graves.

Between the doe and fox, I can't help but feel my ancestors are guiding me with spirit animals as though I'm a Disney character whose genealogy is being guided by an unseen hand.

Hey, I can use all the help I can get. Send me a herd of spirit animals! I just wonder how Elizabeth Shown Mills would advise me to cite my animal friends as a source...

Have you had similar goose bump-inducing experiences during your family history research?


  1. Jake, I'll be on the lookout for spirit animals from now on. My Mother is my magic charm. Whenever she visited a cemetery with me, she walked right to the ancestors' graves. Some she remembered visiting as a child and others she had no clue they existed! I call her my grave whisperer.

    1. A grave whisperer is a good sidekick to have on a family history road trip. I spent quite a bit of time wandering a cemetery this morning searching for my ancestors.

  2. Although I didn't see any spirit animals in the many cemeteries we visited in Germany, I definitely can relate to your excitement in finding the stones---even those that were damaged. I hope your trip continues to be rewarding.

    1. It's a special kind of thrill-seeking unique to genealogy. A family historian's high. :)

  3. Way cool - "Deer medicine teaches us to use the power of gentleness to touch the hearts and minds of wounded beings who are trying to keep us at bay."

    She is also there to help you see your magick.


    1. My mother mentioned that there are those who believe different animals have specific symbolic importance. I wondered about deer and foxes.

    2. Yes, animals do have symbolic significance. When I speak of their "medicine" I'm talking about their essential, true nature.

      Fox Meaning: Cleaver
      Alert, Adaptable