Author: Nancy Wade
I will perpetuate your memory through all generations; therefore the nations will praise you for ever and ever. Psalm 45:17
Family stories I heard as a child have stayed with me. My Dad’s family in particular experienced both joy and hardship, hope and tragedy. One story that has achieved mythic status is the story of my great-grandfather, William, a Colorado pioneer and businessman who died at age 65 at the hands of a burglar who broke into his garage repeatedly to steal tools, auto parts, and even chickens from their coops. William is shown in the photo above on the left, next to his brother Arthur, who at the time of the shooting in May 1924, happened to be a Pinkerton detective who was then put in charge of the investigation to find William’s killer. Regrettably, the crime was never solved.
My brother and I are now the oldest generation still alive to tell family stories and when I sat down to write about William’s untimely death, I found myself wanting to know more about the times in which he lived. Genealogy has never seemed interesting to me; I understood it to be about constructing family trees and tracing one’s ancestors back to the Mayflower. I am now – and have always been – much more interested in stories: what were my ancestors’ daily lives like? How did they earn their livings? How did they raise their children? How did they develop resiliency when faced with sudden deaths?
I began familiarizing myself with my family tree. I learned about William’s father, Aaron, a Civil War veteran who homesteaded in Elbert County, Colorado, in 1877, but died only two years later of consumption (tuberculosis), leaving behind a widow and five children. By searching not only on ancestry.com, but on a site that includes digitized Colorado newspapers, I have learned a great deal about my family’s history.
One story from the Castle Rock Journal in May 1887 paints an idyllic picture of life in nearby Greenland: “Fine showers and good planting. The hills are all green and cattle are improving. Every farmer is busy planting his crop. Several “prairie schooners” [covered wagons] have been passing here this week.”
Family tragedies I remember hearing about from my Dad have come to life on old newspaper pages: the sudden death of William’s first wife, Kate, during childbirth on Christmas Day, 1893; the tragic story of two little boy cousins, ages 9 and 8, who were killed by falling timbers while playing in a Steamboat Springs lumberyard in 1922; another little boy cousin killed by a shotgun accidentally fired by a young friend; the failure of a car dealership business my grandfather owned in Boulder shortly before the Great Depression; and finally, the death of that grandfather from a sudden heart attack only four years later.
It all seems like too much for one family to bear. And yet I am sure there were many happy times over their several decades of living in Colorado. There are newspaper accounts of family camping trips, snow shoe expeditions, and tea parties in Steamboat Springs hosted by my grandmother. There are stories of weddings and evenings at the opera in Denver as well as hopeful letters written home by a soldier serving our country in World War I. There are several photos of family members on wooden skis in Steamboat, the women dressed in long woolen skirts and the men sporting head-to-toe wool jackets and pants with warm knit hats and mittens.
Through these newspaper stories, I am becoming acquainted with my ancestors, with those who came before me, who had the strength and resilience to cope with difficult times and to emerge triumphant. I feel fortunate to have easy access to so much family information; it seems that these old newspapers served as the social media of the day.
My plan is to write these stories in order to preserve them for my grown children and for my grandchildren. For there will come a time when they will develop a strong curiosity about those who came before. And I will also continue writing the stories of my own life so that, 100 years from now, those who wonder what life was like in 2021 will be able to read, and learn from, what I write today.