Monday, October 19, 2020

Ancestors Across the Heartland - A Family History Road Trip: Part I

"Hello, Ancestors," I said aloud as I stepped into each cemetery.

Clutching bouquets of artificial flowers like dousing rods, I channeled great-grandparents of varying generations to guide me to their graves. 

At every forebear's resting place, I plunged the plastic floral offering into the earth, laid my hand on their stone, and quietly pondered their life and the American history they helped shape. 

The visits were a spiritual communion. I kept vigil for the faintest acknowledgement of my presence. Amid my contemplations, my skin would tingle with goosebumps at a sudden shift in the wind rustling the leaves or the sun cutting through clouds to cast poignant rays on cue. Broken stillness felt intentional and imbued with significance as though my presence was a touchstone conjuring the ghosts of my predecessors.

Road Tripping During The Pandemic

A cross country road trip to visit family in Colorado - who I haven't seen in over a year due to the pandemic - afforded me a rare opportunity to visit my ancestors' graves. 

Typically, I fly home to visit family. The last - and only - time I drove the 1,665 miles between my parents' Rocky Mountain home and Washington, DC was in 2004 when I embarked on my two-year east coast plan (16 years ago!).

Mapping out my route, I decided to stop at a handful of cemeteries scattershot across the United States where my kinfolk rested eternally. As a moderately tech-savvy genealogist, I pinpointed their burials on Google Maps.   

Family Sleuther's ancestors' graves

Next, I plotted a circular path that allowed me to visit different sites on my way to and from Colorado (note: the yellow flower icons are graves I've not visited and purple flowers are graves that, as of this journey, I have visited).

Journeying Through Family History

The three-week trip was a dizzying whirlwind that traced my family's history across both paternal and maternal lines not to mention time zones. Thank goodness for mobile apps like Find A Grave and Ancestry that allowed me to find everyone and reacquaint myself with their life stories on the ground and in real-time.

The numbers alone underscore the sheer magnitude of the trip.

My journey began with a visit to the Beard-Green Cemetery in Licking County, Ohio. Although I've visited before, it still holds special meaning to me as the final resting place for my fifth great-grandparents Thomas and Sarah (Bonar) Kirk and their son, my fourth great-grandfather, Vachel Kirk. 

For me, the Kirks have favored research status (yes, genealogists get to have favorite ancestors!). My fondness stems from the fact that ten years ago I didn't even know that I was a Kirk. But I did the hard work to find the connection. Confronted with whispered family rumors, I sought out DNA tests that ultimately confirmed a non-paternity event. The years of dogged research that ensued carved my path directly to these people. I worked hard to surface this family history and I gladly honor it.

All three are buried in the northwest corner of the cemetery near the edge of a dense forest. A towering walnut tree juts out from the middle of the burials - a totem that beckons me to the epicenter (and brickwall) of my Kirk paternal ancestry. After paying my respects, I turned to leave just as the sun sliced through the early morning fog and cut a path directly to the northwest corner like the dawning summer solstice sunlight finding perfect alignment among the sarsens at Stonehenge. 

Beard-Green Cemetery. Licking County, Ohio.
Thomas & Sarah Kirk and their son Vachel Kirk

As I put the car into drive, I glanced back just in time to see a fox emerge and watch me make my departure. I next drove 170 miles west to Dunreith Cemetery in rural Indiana where two sets of fifth great-grandparents are buried: Thomas and Frances (Boatright) Johnson and Philip and Sylvia (maiden name unknown) Hall. Their children, Francis Johnson and Temperance Hall, would marry and become my fourth great-grandparents. Hint: they also scored a stop on the road trip (stay tuned)!

A strong wind propelled ominously dark clouds overhead and whipped a nearby cornfield into a fury. The unyielding gusts pushed me into the cemetery grounds, firmly guiding me to their graves. They were nicely situated together. I would soon learn to appreciate the convenience of quickly locating burials in these quaintly-sized cemeteries.

Dunreith Cemetery: Thomas and Frances Johnson (foreground)
and Philip and Sylvia Hall (background), marked with flowers

My next stop was the only point where I visited non-direct ancestors. The aforementioned Thomas and Sarah Kirk had 11 children who lived to adulthood. At least seven of them settled in Crawford County, Illinois. Five of those seven - all sons - were buried in the Kirk Cemetery just north of the town of Robinson and one, a daughter, in the nearby Oblong Cemetery.

Kirk Cemetery north of Robinson, Illinois

After an overnight in Illinois, I crossed the mighty Mississippi River and cruised toward central Missouri with my first stop in Rolla. Unlike the small country cemeteries in Indiana and Ohio where I quickly found my ancestors' graves, the Rolla Cemetery is a large sprawling landscape. There was no manned office and no directory of names to provide directions, so I was forced to drive along the paved paths, back and forth, studying the engraved names. While combing the grounds, three deer nonchalantly followed at a distance and serenely eyed my frantic search. If this was a Disney movie, I would have put them to work and had them help me locate my kinfolk. Alas, they paid me little attention and continued to make salad out of the lawn.

With the afternoon sun fast approaching and encroaching on the day's second cemetery visit, I was beginning to fear that I'd driven all this way and would have to abandon the mission without finding the graves for my second great-grandmother Jelina (Williams) O'Connor Trimble (she was married, a lot!) and her parents, my third great-grandparents, Johnson and Careline (Reed) Williams. My saving grace was finding email correspondence from 2013 with a Find A Grave volunteer who first discovered the graves and took photos. In his message, saint that he is, he provided the section and plot numbers. I quickly found the graves no thanks to my animal friends.

Johnson and Careline Williams, at left, and Jelina at right.

I unexpectedly spent more time in Rolla than I originally planned. Dusk was fast approaching and threatened my chance to visit my next stop - El Dorado Springs Cemetery in Missouri - 150 miles to the west. I generously applied the gas - in the safest measure possible - to ensure a timely arrival that salvaged as much of the day's remaining sunlight as possible. Pulling into the cemetery, my heart sank to discover it was another large sprawling affair. 

Loading up the Find A Grave app, I carefully studied the photographs of the headstone for Francis and Temperance (Hall) Johnson, my fourth great-grandparents (whose parents, mentioned above, are buried in Indiana's Dunreith Cemetery), that were uploaded by a volunteer. Paying close attention to nearby headstones, trees and even a distant house, I was able to pinpoint their marker just as the sun emitted its final rays for the day.

The Johnsons share a single stone with each name carved on either side.

Francis Johnson
Temperance "Tempy" (Hall) Johnson

I made it with the last dregs of light to spare. And what marvelous light it was; a shining capstone to my travels through America's heartland. But hundreds of miles still stood between me and home. 

Stay tuned for part II of my family history road trip as I journey through Kansas' plains to Colorado's mountains. The road and ancestors call me onward! 


  1. What a quest! I knew you were visiting your ancestors' cemeteries through your tweets but didn't realize it was such a huge endeavour. I'm looking forward to the continuation. Your writing gave me goosebumps.

    1. Thanks, Cathy. It really did turn into a quest. A very meaningful one.

  2. Supremely impressed with your blog. You have an amazing gift and willingness to shower so many. Your generosity and enthusiasm in sharing your successes is a blessing. Thank you.
    Aunt Diane

    1. I count myself fortunate to have been able to undertake this adventure.

  3. What an amazing journey! Did you feel safe staying in places along the way? I look forward to Part II.

    1. Thanks, Amy. I had very minimal interactions with people and undertook some serious precautions, including the standard use of a mask and practicing social distance. But I also walked into every hotel room with a can of Lysol disinfectant can and sprayed every surface. I also traveled with a cooler, so I could avoid eating in restaurants and mitigated my need to visit restaurants/shops on the road. It added a lot of extra work to the trip, but was the price of traveling in the age of COVID.

  4. What a fun trip, but like Amy asked - with the pandemic did you feel safe where you stayed on the road?

    1. It was definitely a family historian's dream come true. I did feel safe because of the steps I took to look out for my health and wellbeing while on the road. It definitely wasn't your standard road trip where I would eat in restaurants, visit folks along the way or other curiosities/roadside attractions.

  5. What an exciting trip. I’ve scouted out family cemeteries to visit on vacations... even dragging the kids along, who actually enjoyed. Looking forward to the next installments.

    1. I think it's good to involve them when they're young. I remember my grandmother taking me to the cemetery in the Kansas town where she grew up each year to put flowers on the graves of our ancestors. It leaves an impression and creates a bond with those now gone generations.