"Writing and talk do not prove me"

The other day--for the first time ever, apparently--we celebrated two very American traditions on the same date: Groundhog Day and the Super Bowl. And by "we," I do not mean me. So while most eyes were on one of those events or other, I was thinking about other things, hovering around the concepts of family and identity.

Of course, those national obsessions are not unlike some aspects of genealogy. If Family-History Phil sees his document, it means one thing; if he doesn't, it means another six weeks of research. Super-Fan Fran roots for "her" team, a grouping of people she's never met to whom she feels a strong connection, who in reality may not be very different than that other group; occasionally a person might even leave one to join the other.

Perhaps the only other simultaneous occurrence of  Groundhogs and football;
Rudy Vallee and Robert Morse cheering on "Grand Old Ivy" from the film
How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, 1967. 

Part of the reason I was thinking about all this was because recently I received an email from someone hoping I could help them provide some proof to accompany a lineage society membership request. So although descendants of John Wallace Cherry (27 May 1788 - 10 Feb 1857), a maternal fourth great-grandfather, are already eligible to join the Sons of the American Revolution (John Wallace being a son of Capt Samuel Cherry), it seems those D A R gals don't mess around. They want proof, and very specific proof at that.

It seems too facile, somehow, that a single piece of paper could carry such weight. Marriage certificates, adoption papers... do they make a family? Is someone "less related" by the absence of a document? What if proof--in the form of a document or some other tangible evidence--cannot be provided for something that is otherwise demonstrably true? (And somehow, this post is shifting into territory I absolutely wish to avoid concerning this month's other news-ready--I was going to say "newsworthy" but thought better of it--event, the Bible v Science debate held just across the river.)

Anyway. It is interesting in genealogy (and elsewhere) how one's perspective can shift with a single piece of information; things you think you know suddenly become different.

I am reminded of Walker Percy's Lost in the Cosmos, in which he writes:

You are an Aries. You open your newspaper to the astrology column and read an analysis of the Aries personality. It says, among other things:

You have the knack of creating an atmosphere of thought and movement, unhampered by petty jealousies. But you have the tendency to scatter your talents to the four winds.

Hm, you say, quite true. I'm like that.

Suddenly you realize you've made a mistake. You've read the Gemini column. So you go back to Aries:

Nothing hurts you more than to be unjustly mistreated or suspected. But you have a way about you, a gift for seeing things through despite all obstacles and distractions. You also have a desperate need to be liked. So you have been wounded more often than you admit.

Hm, you say, quite true. I'm like that.

One of my ancestors, a son of the aforementioned John Wallace Cherry, had a son of his own whose birthplace and age did not make sense in the context of the family. Researching the Cherrys, I found by chance the explanation, a single mention in one obituary: "during his middle life Mr Cherry adopted a son." None of the other obituaries or documents mentioned that. Here was a shift, brought about by one piece of paper, one fact. The son was this, now he is that.

I have found myself caught up in the minutiae of my family's histories, or the thrill of discovering a famous or noted ancestor, or the excitement of seeing a photograph or locale connected with someone in my family...! And then I realize there was an error, a flaw in logic, a mistake. The thrill is substituted (after a suitable period of adjustment) by apathy. This occurred to me again the other day as I went trampling over and across other people's gravesites looking for the important ones: my family. This plot brings tears, this one is just in the way. "I, me, mine" indeed.

Percy's astutely astrological observation further reminds me of another bit: Laurie Anderson's recurring theme of being in the wrong house, used in several of her performance pieces. Here it is from "Talk Normal":

I came home today and both our cars were gone. And there were all these new pink flamingos arranged in star patterns all over the lawn. Then I went into the kitchen and it looked like a tornado had hit. And then I realized I was in the wrong house.

The piece ends with the repeated plea "Look at me! Look at me!"

We all want to be seen, to be known for who we are. A larger context, like a family, can often help. Who is Clarissa Adams (31 Jan 1791 - 7 Feb 1872)? She is a maternal fourth great grandmother. She is the wife of John Wallace Cherry. She is the mother and adoptive grandmother of the fellas mentioned above. She is also one of my most vexing brick walls. By chance, I discovered a single document the other day, a query on a genealogy website, that opened up more of her identity. I now know she was a sister as well, to Betsey Adams (10 Oct 1788 - 25 Oct 1869), Sarah "Sally" Adams (31 Dec 1795 - ?), and James A Adams (abt 1800 - 9 Sep 1865). Might I be able to find out more, including who her parents were? With glee, I noted the name of the person who submitted the query, Naomi C Dryden, to contact her. Another document, another fact, another emotion: an online obituary from 2012. R I P Mrs Dryden, and thank you for the lead.

(Poking about, looking for that one piece of paper, that one proof of who Clarissa's parents might be, I discovered that her brother James' son, James Walton Adams [28 Dec 1838 - 18 Jul 1915], married a Eunice Waugh [31 Oct 1841 - 9 Dec 1924]. Waugh! Could this be another favorite author to whom I'm distantly related by marriage? A superficial study suggests so. Why spoil the delightful possibility with proof?]

Cousin Evelyn, as I like to remember him.

Family can help identify us, surely, but only within a group or social structure, not as individuals. Family also helps us form our identity, of course, through some admixture of nature and nurture. But how do we know who we are? Gertrude Stein (to whom it is doubtful I could be related, but...), wrote often about identity, particularly after she achieved widespread fame in 1934 with The Autobiography of Alice B Toklas. She meditated and composed on the theme of the disparity between how one sees oneself versus how one is seen by others. Some of these ruminations appeared in her 1936 The Geographical History of America, or the Relation of Human Nature to the Human Mind, in which she wrote the much-quoted phrase "I am I because my little dog knows me."

Beyond that bit of--dare I say--existential doggerel, though, are deeper concerns. She goes on to wonder who she would be if her dog did not know her, or who she is when her dog is not there to know her, and if either make any difference as to who she is. She concludes: "That does not prove anything about you it only proves something about the dog."

Gertrude Stein and her not-so little dog, Basket,
in a photograph by Man Ray from 1926.

You would think that after an entire book (and many other writings, including the extraordinary Ida: a Novel, which I can highly recommend to anyone interested in beginning with the more accessible--comparatively--Stein) about identity, she would have exhausted the topic, as she perhaps sometimes exhausted her readers. But Gertrude, having taken ahold of an idea, in doglike fashion liked to worry it like a bone, and added this in 1937:

Identity is funny being yourself is funny as you are never yourself to yourself except as you remember yourself and then of course you do not believe yourself.

All this speculation, this circling round family and identity, facts and proof. Have I come to any conclusions? Perhaps. But all that could change with a single piece of paper.

"I do not ask who you are that is not important to me"

From an obituary in the Union County Journal, 29 Apr 1897:

Samuel Alonzo Cherry was born in Oswego, N.Y., Dec. 16, 1811 and came to Marysville [Ohio] in '38. He was therefore Marysville's oldest resident. He was the last surviving charter member of the Delaware Encampment [a branch of the I O O F] and had been a member of the order for over 50 years. He was one of the founders of the Congregational church in this city and in all respects a pillar therein.

It was the New School Presbyterian Church in Samuel A Cherry's time;
 today it is the Congregational United Church of Christ.
Photo by Robert Burnett

Samuel Alonzo Cherry was also an older brother of my maternal third great-grandmother, Mary Ann Cherry (17 Dec 1813 - 11 Nov 1853). His obituary concludes:

In antebellum days his home in this city was a prominent station on the underground railroad, and many a poor slave was housed therein, or rather thereunder, until he could be ticketed through to the next station. He was a grand, good man and citizen, whose long life is an example well worthy of emulation.

Indeed. On the same day that I went up to visit Marysville and see Samuel Alonzo Cherry's old haunts, I read in the newspaper that a predominantly white high school's football team in New Jersey staged a fake lynching as a "joke" for their crosstown rivals, whose student body was primarily black.

The Cherry family, headed by a maternal fourth great-grandfather, John Wallace Cherry (27 May 1788 - 10 May 1857), came to Ohio in the 1830s, first to Huron, and then as early residents of Marysville. They were considered a prominent family, among whose members were a doctor, a clothier, and the third postmaster in town, along with the more prosaic occupation of farmer. As was common in that era, they tended to reuse family names, so there were numerous Samuels and Johns across multiple generations; as a consequence, many of the men went by their middle names. The Samuel Cherry of today's post (not to be confused with his grandfather, uncle, or cousin) was thus also known as Alonzo Cherry. To complicate matters further, three of the Marysville Cherry brothers married women named Mary, also the name of their sister, my direct ancestor.... The Cherrys were a patriotic family as well, with Washington and Jefferson being common middle and first names; where "Alonzo" arose I have no idea. But their patriotism went beyond names: John Wallace Cherry fought in the War of 1812, his father in the Revolutionary War; at least two of his sons served in the Civil War, one losing his life, another suffering wounds that troubled him until his death.

Too old for battle, Samuel Alonzo Cherry chose to serve the cause in another way. In Samuel's own words, in an interview conducted 10 Nov 1894 by Wilbur H Siebert, author of the seminal, if now controversial The Underground Railroad from Slavery to Freedom (1898), Cherry said:

"I was told that the only anti-slavery man in town was Nathaniel Beecher [20 Jun 1879 - 15 Apr 1840]. I was told to look him up. Mr. Beecher talked anti-slavery principles a great deal."

And no wonder. Nathaniel Beecher was from a family of longtime abolitionists that included a distant cousin, Harriet Beecher, who married Calvin Ellis Stowe and was living in Cincinnati about the same time Cherry met Beecher. The Stowes' home was another station on the Underground Railroad. It would be just a few years later that she would write Uncle Tom's Cabin.

Cherry continues:

"A short time after I came back [from briefly living in Huron, Ohio in 1840] I began the work.

The fugitives usually came in groups of twos and threes....They usually came in the latter part of the night and would sleep during the day. Hence they would frequently be kept a day or two. In our house we had a room on the first floor where we usually kept them, and if there was any danger of discovery we would take them through the hall into a cupboard or closet where my wife kept her flour-barrel. Beneath that there was a trap-door, through which they would get into a secluded part of the cellar.

The period of my knowledge of the "road" was from 1840 to 1857. In the latter year I went to Delaware [Ohio] and was there until 1860, and during those three years I knew little or nothing of the operations.

Years later, Cherry was so well-regarded in the community for his abolitionist "work" that even before his death, his house got an obituary, which ran to several columns. It appeared in the Marysville Tribune, 17 May 1893:

The article goes on to say:

The fugitives always knew before reaching Marysville, if they could find Deacon Cherry they would find a friend who would care for them. He invariably took them to his home and provided for their comforts, even to polishing up their usually well worn foot-gear.

Which is not entirely surprising, since for many years Cherry was a tailor. In fact, when he first arrived in Marysville, he took out this ad, which ran in the Marysville Union Star, 6 Jun 1839:

The undersigned has taken the shop immediately opposite the court house where he will at all times be happy to wait on those that may see fit to patronize him. Cutting done on the shortest notice, and warranted to fit if not properly made up.

The article adds:

Almost half a century has elapsed and new generations have been born since those barbaric acts in connection with slavery were enacted.

The same day that I explored Marysville and found this clipping, it was reported the state of Georgia was considering offering the Confederate flag as an image on their license plates.

The domestic obit concludes with this:

An imperishable granite monument ought to be erected in front of the old building to remind coming generations of the place where the poor and friendless refugee always found a welcome stopping-place, and where no withholding hand was known or cold frown ever met the gaze of any of God's lowly and oppressed poor.

261 West Sixth Street today. There is no granite monument,
 nor any other recognition of the site's historical importance.
Photo by Robert Burnett

While there is--as yet--no plaque for Samuel Alonzo Cherry, across the street there is a marker for another Cherry relation: Cyprian Lee (10 Apr 1792 - 24 Sep 1854). Lee was another prominent Marysvillian, whose only child, Mary Lee (10 Oct 1823 - 9 Jul 1897) married George Washington Cherry (10 Sep 1809 - 17 Jan 1890), Samuel Alonzo's older brother and consequently another third great-granduncle.

Photo by Robert Burnett

Although the Cherrys and Lees were all involved in the Underground Railroad to some extant, including George and Mary's son, Jefferson Lee Cherry (3 Sep 1842 - 16 Jan 1907), I expect that Cyprian Lee's plaque derives primarily from the fact that his house is the only one still standing. That, or the fact that it was later occupied by Noah Orr, AKA "The Ohio Giant," who at seven feet plus was a noted circus performer with P T Barnum, and member--as the only non-midget--of The Lilliputian Opera Company.  When I went into the Cyprian Lee house (currently used as an insurance office) to inquire about the house and its history, the receptionist knew nothing about the Cherrys and Lees, but was happy to provide a brochure on The Ohio Giant, which I politely declined.

Noah Orr with Mrs Tom Thumb. Neither are ancestors of mine.

Feeling that I had seen enough of Marysville proper, I drove a few miles to Oakdale Cemetery, among whose inhabitants apparently is Noah Orr. I did not notice (nor seek) his no-doubt gargantuan tomb, but continued my quest for ancestors. I did find some names I recognized, but not from my family tree: there were numerous headstones and memorials with the name Vanatta (and its variants), who are ancestors of my brother-in-law! Unbeknownst to us both, his family and mine were buried a few hundred yards apart, over one hundred years ago.

Slogging through snow, I finally located a large marker for some of the Cherry family, which included George Washington Cherry, his wife (the former Miss Lee), and another brother (so another third great-granduncle), John Wallace Cherry (26 Apr 1829 - 28 Jan 1887), and his wife, Mary Elizabeth LKU (24 Nov 1833  - 27 Nov 1903).

The Cherry family marker, Oakdale Cemetery.
Marysville, Union, Ohio.
Photo by Robert Burnett

Alongside the quasi-obelisk are two markers inset into the ground, for the aforementioned Jefferson Lee Cherry and his wife--not a Mary!--Josephine C Rakestraw (19 Apr 1843 - 26 May 1929), whose name appeals to me tremendously because it sounds like something from Gilbert & Sullivan, but I digress. While living, Jefferson and Josie resided in the house pictured below, taken from Handsome Homes of Columbus Ohio.

About 1897. The original caption reads, in part :
"This splendid residence... is the home of J. L Cherry.
Mr. Cherry is the well known Electrical Contractor,
who has furnished electrical work to a great many homes...."

Alas, the splendid residence has been replaced by a warehouse in a declining neighborhood, another beautiful old building razed, another Cherry home gone. While at Oakdale Cemetery, I was not able to find a headstone nor any marker, whether vanished or merely covered in snow, for the ostensible subject of this far-wandering post, Samuel Alonzo Cherry. As time goes on, some things change or disappear, while others stay the same. The day after I got back from my outing, the newspaper reported that a fraternity at the University of Mississippi was suspended following its members putting a noose around a statue of James Meredith, the first black student therein enrolled.

One more article, this time in the Marysville Tribune, 27 Apr 1881. It was a profile about "old Uncle Joe Mayo," a free man of color who was another of the principle members of the Underground Railroad in Marysville, in which Mayo praised those who aided the slaves (including S A Cherry), and sadly denounced others, who as the article states, "were the colored man's natural enemy from pure malice and on general principles of devilishness."

It seems that even in 2014 such malice still exists, despite the many advances we have made. I wonder what Deacon S A Cherry would have made of it all.

Samuel Alonzo Cherry
From the Wilbur H Siebert collection,
Ohio Historical Society

"Marysville's chief operator of the Underground Railroad was Samuel A. Cherry, who owned a large plot of ground at the corner of West Sixth and Ash Streets. He had two houses on this lot; a large square two-story frame house at the corner and a one-story brick house, farther east on Sixth Street. Both houses had roomy excavations beneath their floors reached by trap doors and it was in these underground places that the runaways were hidden while waiting to go to the next station. Though Mr Cherry was often suspected by the 'slave powers' as an ardent leader and conductor for the Underground Railroad and had many narrow escapes, he was never betrayed and his house was never searched. All in all he helped about 250 negro men and women to escape north." --Steve Scheiderer, "The Underground Railroad in Union County,"
Union County Community News, 14 Jan 2000

Property in Susan Augusta Cherry's (Samuel's wife) name, located off Cherry Street.
Although other street names in the area are types of trees,
 it is nice to imagine the name was an homage to the family.
From an 1887 map of Marysville, Union, Ohio.

Samuel Alonzo Cherry was born 16 Dec 1811 in Oneida, New York, to John Wallace Cherry (27 May 1788 - 10 Feb 1857) and Clarissa Adams (31 Jan 1791 - 7 Feb 1872). He was the second of eleven children. Sometime in the late 1830s, he married Susan Augusta Goodsell (11 May 1814 - 24 Jan 1885); she was more commonly known as Jane, and was born in Pennsylvania, parents unknown. The Cherrys arrived in Marysville, Union, Ohio in 1839, where he started a tailoring business. The Cherrys had no children of their own, but adopted John A Cherry (actual last name unknown), who had been born in New York in Sep 1854. By 1860 or so, Samuel Alonzo Cherry was no longer a tailor, but owner of the town saw mill; he was also Deacon of the Presbyterian Church. He must have been an active man; after his first wife's death, he remarried--at age 75!--this time to the Welsh-born Madeline Jones (12 Mar 1828 - 22 Mar 1921), herself a widow of a man named Anderson, by whom she had at least three children. Samuel Alonzo Cherry died on 27 Apr 1897, age 85, at his mill. He is buried in Oakdale Cemetery.

My trip to Marysville was in part inspired by this terrific driving tour of central Ohio's Underground Railroad sites, Taking a Stand for Freedom: