Saturday, October 31, 2020

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

My week-long visit with my parents in Colorado - who I hadn't seen in over a year due to the pandemic - ended too quickly and it was soon time to drive the more than 2,000 miles home.

The westward journey had covered thousands of miles with stops at 12 cemeteries to honor the mortal resting place of dozens of my kinfolk [see A Family History Road Trip Part I and Part II]. For the trip back east, I mapped out a return route that would take me to new territory covering 11 cemeteries in four states where I could pay my respects at the graves of 25 of my direct ancestors - people who, without any one of them, I wouldn't exist. In that regard, I suppose this was my existential road trip. Join me for the concluding chapter of my family history road trip.

Pleading With the Great Beyond

I made an early morning departure and drove into the rising sun, passing into Nebraska. Along the highway, farm fields were being harvested. Enormous machines shucked the grain and corn as a cloud of dust blew across the road kicking my allergies into full throttle. It was a beautiful season to drive across America as leaves burst into autumn's fiery ambers, auburns and torchlight red.   

Lincoln, Nebraska was my stop for the first night. I arrived with plenty of daylight to spare, so continued on to Eagle Cemetery where my fifth great-grandfather Darwin Andrus (1811-1882) is buried. His son, my fourth great-grandfather, Jerome Andrus is a bit of a mystery. He disappeared from the paper trail after the untimely death of his maybe wife and the subsequent adoption of their daughter (my third great-grandmother Mary Jane). I don't know with any certainty where the final chapters of Jerome's life concluded. Naturally, I did what any rational genealogist of sound mind would do and pleaded at Darwin's grave for a divine research assist from the great beyond. I'm still waiting on a response.

Darwin Andrus, Eagle Cemetery, Nebraska

Ping-ponging Across Iowa

I made an early start to get a jump on my ambitious plans for day two. I wanted to visit six cemeteries dotted across Iowa. My first stop was Sunny Hill Cemetery in Grimes - a suburb of Des Moines. My third-great grandparents James and Hester (Griffith) Kirk are buried picturesquely beneath two trees with large mature trunks. A badly weathered obelisk includes their names and biodata, and the site of their individual burials are marked with granite stones, labeled Mother and Father, positioned like a footnote.   

James and Hester (Griffith) Kirk, Sunny Hill Cemetery, Grimes, Iowa

This was my first time to see James' burial. I've been to the graves for all of my other direct paternal line ancestors (through Thomas Kirk, my fifth great-grandfather), so this visit felt like a homecoming long in the making or filling a missing link. During visits to the other Kirk men on this road trip, I collected offerings in anticipation of this stop. In Ohio, I gathered walnut husks that had fallen onto the grave of Vachel Kirk - James' father - and in Colorado, I picked up pinecones that had fallen onto the grave of William Kirk, James' son (and my second great-grandfather). I placed the husks and pinecones like tokens at James' marker - offerings that united the patrilineal line spread across the United States.

James Kirk's grave with walnut husks from his father Vachel's grave in Ohio
and pinecones from his son William's grave in Colorado.

While I would have loved to linger and meditate over James' life, the day's ambitions were at odds with the clock. Jumping in the car, I drove to nearby Saint Ambrose Cemetery in Des Moines. I believe my third great-grandparents John and Margaret (Fahey) Flynn were laid to rest in the Catholic burial grounds. An 1881 Iowa death record states that John was buried in the "Catholic Cemetery," which was, in that year, St. Ambrose. Sadly, no marker survives (if one was ever placed) and the cemetery's burial records are spotty and don't name either one. I did, however, find the grave for John's brother Michael, who, for a period of time, was the guardian for the orphaned Flynn children. In a genealogical boon to the likely origins for my Flynns, Michael's stone states that he was "Born in Co. Clare, Ireland."

The grave of Michael Flynn, brother to my third-great-grandfather John Flynn
St. Ambrose Cemetery, Des Moines, Iowa

Back in the car, I drove 25 miles southwest to Ackworth, Iowa where a small Quaker churchyard is the resting place of four ancestors. The land for the cemetery was gifted from property owned by my fifth great-grandparents Mahlon and Mary (Hockett) Haworth. Their burial on Quaker ground suggests they came full circle from when Mahlon was "disowned" in 1829 by his Quaker brethren in Indiana for "marrying contrary to the faith." Mary was not a member of the Society of Friends and, apparently, unwilling to convert. Mahlon followed his heart and married her anyway. They eventually migrated to Iowa where Mary died in January 1871 and was buried (on Quaker ground strongly suggesting she eventually united with the faith).

Mary (Hockett) Haworth, Ackworth Cemetery, Iowa

The graves for Mary (Hockett) Haworth's daughter-in-law (my fourth great-grandmother), Mary Emily (Hadley) Haworth and her parents (my fifth great-grandparents) Abel and Jane (Cox) Hadley are also in the churchyard. I paid my respects under the curious glances of the teenaged crew mowing the lawn around me.

Mary Emily (Hadley) Haworth

Abel Hadley, father to Mary Emily (Hadley) Haworth

Jane (Cox) Hadley, wife of Abel and mother of Mary Emily (Hadley) Haworth

Wasting no time, I drove the 90 miles northeast to Ohio Cemetery just south of Ladora, Iowa. Surrounded on all sides by farmland and towering modern-day windmills, the cemetery is the final resting place for my fourth great-grandparents John and Nancy (Rosenberger) Bair and Nancy's parents John and Catherine (Schall) Rosenberger (who were donors of the land for the cemetery). 

According to a family history, John Bair died in 1857 at the age of 33 after he "fell from a hay stack and broke his spine while making hay on the Old State Road." I cannot even begin to fathom the horror of enduring a spinal cord injury in the mid-19th century. John's name is inscribed on a single headstone with his wife and her second husband John Clyde.

John Bair's grave (marked with the smaller marker at far left) and his wife
Nancy Catherine (Rosenberger) Bair Clyde buried at the large marker at center.

John and Catherine (Schall) Rosenberger

With 75 miles between me and my next step, I raced the afternoon sun south to Heidlebaugh Cemetery. Located on private land, this was one of the more challenging cemeteries to get to. After I crossed the Des Moines River, the road became a bumpy gravel road kicking up swirling clouds of dust in my wake. Ten miles later, I pulled into a densely tree-covered graveyard as the last dregs of afternoon light cast paltry shadows on the aged stones. My fifth great-grandmother, Abigail (Gould) Rogers, died in 1882. Just like the headstone for her daughter Sophronia, whose grave I saw earlier in the road trip (see Part II), Abigail's headstone is broken in two. Someone gently leaned the marker against its fractured base.

Abigail (Gould) Rogers

The sun was now setting and my stop for the evening was still 70 miles to the west in Burlington, Iowa - nestled along the Mississippi River. As I sped along country roads praying no deer decided to jump on the hood of my car, I conceded defeat - my last Iowa cemetery stop would have to wait until the morning. 

I believe Concord Cemetery in Louisa County, Iowa is the likely burial place for my fourth great-grandmother Jane (Delzell) Kirk who died in 1886. Her son, who she lived with in Iowa, was buried in the cemetery according to his obituary. Although there's no marker for his grave and no sign of a burial for Jane, I made it my last stop before leaving Iowa (see the video tour below). As I left the cemetery, driving down the grassy road, three deer jumped in front of my car and darted into the hedges. Jane sending me a sign, no doubt, that she appreciated my visit. 

Kentucky Kinfolk

After my morning tour of the Concord Cemetery, I spent the rest of the day driving across Illinois, Indiana and stopping for the night in Lexington, Kentucky. I was getting road weary. The following morning, I dipped into Kentucky coal country to visit my ancestors in Morgan County.

Southfork Cemetery is the burial place for six of my ancestors although headstones survive for only three of them, including fifth great-grandparents John and Jane (Porter) Barker and Revolutionary War veteran Ambrose Jones (another fifth great-grandfather). Unmarked are the graves for Ambrose's wife Martha (Craig) Jones, and Joseph and Priscilla (Barker) Lumpkins. Priscilla was the daughter of John and Jane Barker. Sadly, many of the stones - including John Barker's - are toppled over and most of their inscriptions have worn away. The wind was vicious, ripping tiny acorns from the branches overhead. The tiny nuts kept lashing against my face in their violent plummets to the ground. Note to self, I thought, bring a helmet next time.

John Barker (left) and his wife Jane (Porter) Barker (right)

Ambrose Jones

My last stop in Kentucky was the Howerton Cemetery, located on private land, and the final resting place of my fourth great-grandparents John and Barberry (Jones) Howerton. Barberry was the daughter of Ambrose. 

I'll admit in brief passing that a wrong turn down a narrow single-lane country road proved a sweat-inducing stressful delay as I valiantly tried to turn my car around. Like steering the Titanic, I inched backwards and forwards in a series of maneuvers as I slowly made a 180 degree about-face on a steep road and came perilously close to plunging over the hillside. Disaster averted, I found my Howerton grandparents and thanked them for the otherworldly assist I'm sure they provided.

In a beautifully well-kept cemetery, John Howerton's headstone was recently cleaned and brought to its original gleaming white. Beside him, in a grave marked with a jagged headstone and footstone, is the likely grave for his wife Barberry.

John Howerton, left, and likely his wife, Barberry (Jones) Howerton at right

Ohio Conclusion

The homestretch saw me swing up through Ohio for two final cemeteries. First was the Miller Cemetery located in southern Ohio near the Ohio River. 

Ohio River near Gallipolis, Ohio

I pulled into the Miller Cemetery and drove past the many recent graves to the tree-lined boundary where I could see older headstones. My fourth great-grandfather, John Benedick, was buried in the cemetery after his death in 1863 at the age of 57. When I found his stone, I texted a photo to my aunt in Kansas. She immediately noted a similarity between John's stone and that of his widow, Mary Ann (Miser) Benedick, who is buried in Plainville, Kansas. Both markers feature a symbolic hand with a single finger gesturing heavenward. Perhaps it was something Mary desired that both of their headstones share in common when she died 38 years later.

John Benedick, Miller Cemetery, Ohio

Mary Ann (Miser) Benedick, widow of John Benedick, buried in Plainville, Kansas

The final stop for the road trip was Zion Cemetery in Hopedale, Ohio. I had a heck of a time locating the cemetery. I was so deep in the country that my cell phone kept losing its signal and the GPS would stall. Finally, as I crested a hill, just enough of a signal hit the device and directed me to graveyard. I pulled into a gravel path and trudged across the lawn strewn with fallen leaves. 

My fifth great-grandparents Andrew and Elizabeth (Sailor) Miser - parents to the abovementioned Mary Ann (Miser) Benedick - are buried here. Their stones are wide and tower over many of the other markers. I stood next to Elizabeth's headstone, which sadly has lost much of its inscription to the stone's fa├žade shedding away, and marked its high point at my shoulder. Someone has placed a newer granite slab at the base of the stones with their biodata more legible. 

I sank my artificial floral offering into the earth as gusts of wind blew through the trees creating a wonderful autumn percussion and sending whirls of leaves tumbling around me. If I wasn't a family historian with an affinity for traipsing through graveyards, I might have called it a haunting scene just in time for Halloween. 

Andrew, at right, and Elizabeth (Sailor) Miser, at left

The solitude and opportunity to commune with each of my ancestors at their graves - scattered across the country - was the journey of a lifetime. I count myself fortunate that I was able to make the trip and do it safely amid the pandemic. 

But it was definitely a long time to be on the road alone. I was grateful when I arrived home later that afternoon and was able to finally sleep in my own bed and dream of the many lives that came before my own.


  1. Thank you! Sharing your "trip of a lifetime" allowed me to have my own trip of a lifetime. Having researched for 40 years and wept tears over elusive ancestors and shouting for joy for the ones I "found" I am filled with gratitude. Love you Mike!
    Aunt Diane

    1. I have you to thank for inspiring and encouraging my passion for family history and showing how it's done.

  2. I must admit a great deal of envy, thinking of the fact that you can trace so many ancestors back across the US since mine were for the most part not here that early. My earliest ancestor to be born in America was probably my great-great-grandmother Frances Nusbaum, who was born in Pennsylvania in 1845. So the idea of sixth and fifth and fourth great-grandparents born and buried here amazes me!

    You must have been exhausted. When we were in Germany and visited cemeteries there, one or two cemeteries a day was all we could handle!

    1. There was definitely no shortage of stops along the way that kept me very busy. Let's just say I slept very well when I got home. :)

      Many of my family lines were already in North America before 1776 and I have yet to trace or pinpoint their immigration/origins. Which means I likely have even more distant ancestors (7th, 8th,?) buried across the country who I drove right on by.

  3. I really enjoyed reading about your trip out to your parents' and back with all the stops along the way.

    1. Thanks for joining me for the road trip recap, Cathy. It was a real marathon!