Health Issues And Our Family History

Illnesses and accidents affected our ancestors in many different ways. Often health issues changed the course of their lives and the lives of their families. Without the benefits of modern medicine, what today would be a simple illness became a life or death struggle, often ending in an untimely death.

After being under the weather during May (nothing serious), I thought about the health conditions in my own family history and how those medical problems impacted their lives. There were epidemics, accidents, women who died young after having too many children and those assorted family illnesses your doctor asks about when taking your family medical history.

We rarely hear about epidemics these days due to better sanitation, monitoring and medical treatments. In the past epidemics caused panic and many deaths. In 1873 Asiatic Cholera swept through the small community where my family lived. A father and son who were working on railroad bridges across one of the many creeks, contracted the disease. Both men succumbed, one day apart. First the father, then the son. This son had survived wounds suffered at Malvern Hill where he fought for the Confederacy. He returned from the war, married and fathered two children. His untimely death left his twenty-three-year-old widow to raise their son and daughter alone. That son was my grandfather, the one I never knew. Cholera took his father and his grandfather when he was only four years old and had a lasting effect on his family.

The Spanish flu epidemic of 1918 killed more people worldwide than died in World War I. Some call it a pandemic. Unlike today when the elderly and the very young are considered most at risk from the flu, in 1918 the flu struck healthy, young adults. My grandmother survived a bout of this virulent strain of influenza.  Her mother, my great-grandmother, took primary responsibility for my mother, a baby at the time, so her daughter could recover. My mother always said her grandmother raised her. In her later years my grandmother was susceptible to pneumonia due to the scaring of her lungs caused by the flu.

Accidents also impacted our family. My husband’s grandfather died in an automobile accident coming home to Tennessee from Detroit to visit his family for Thanksgiving. He went to Detroit to earn enough to pay off the mortgage on the family farm. He had paid the debt, purchased a new car and planned to return to farm with his grandsons. The oldest grandchild, my husband was twelve and his brother was eleven. They lost the opportunity to work on the farm with their grandfather. Due to the determination of my husband, his father and siblings much of the place his grandfather worked so hard to keep is still owned by family.

When my grandfather was eighteen and working for the railroad, he caught his arm between the couplings of two cars. His mother recorded both the date his arm was mashed and the day after when it was amputated in the family bible, reflecting the importance of the event. Unable to do physical labor with only one arm, he had to find an occupation suitable for a one-armed man in the 1880’s and 90’s. Medical knowledge at that time ensured that the injury did not threaten his life. Years later his eleven-year-old daughter fell from the porch and sustained internal injuries. These injuries might have been repaired with modern surgery, but in 1914 medicine had not progressed enough to save her. She died of her injuries leaving a grieving family.

Doctors of the past couldn’t always diagnose an illness. One of my great-grand fathers became unable to work on the farm due to an unknown ailment. So he sold the farm sometime after 1900 and moved to another town along the railroad where his wife and daughters ran a boarding house. Had it not been for the illness the family would have remained on the farm and one of the daughters would not have run off and married to a man who lived in the boarding house.

For at least two women in our family, having too many children appears to have contributed to their early demise. My great-aunt married in 1900, had seven children and died in 1911, a month after the birth of her last child. She was only thirty-one years old. In my husband’s family his great-grandmother married at age sixteen, had nine children and died in 1919 at age thirty-nine. Her death certificate gives tuberculosis as cause of death with influenza as a contributing factor, another victim of the influenza epidemic of 1918-19. In the case of my great-aunt, her husband moved his in-laws in with him to help him raise his children. He later married his first wife’s sister, my grandmother. In my husband’s family, his great-grandfather only lived four years after his wife’s death. The older children then took the younger ones, eight and eleven, to raise. We will never know if these women would have lived longer if birth control had been available back then.

Discussions of illness and death can get pretty depressing, yet it can be important to our own health to know about the ailments of our family members. My paternal grandmothers had colon cancer so I have colonoscopies more often than most people. We’ve identified several members of my mother’s family who had Alzheimer’s, including my mother, so the horror of that dreadful disease looms over us. A stroke caused my grandfather’s death in 1955 and 41 years later my father died from a stroke. My aunt said my father’s death was almost identical to the way their father had died years before. So I watch the blood pressure and cholesterol. My husband developed diabetes which affected the lives of several members of his family. So even if it feels uncomfortable, we should all have those family discussions about illness and causes of death. It could save our lives.

No doubt modern medicine would have changed outcomes and changed lives. Some of us might not be here if outcomes had been different. Yet such intimate knowledge gives a humanity to the old family tree and allows us to see them as people, struggling and suffering just as we do. They continue to live through the family stories passed down from one generation to the next. And perhaps we will learn something about ourselves.

Grandfather’s Books

My Grandfather

I recently unboxed some of my grandfather’s old books. Since he died years before I was born, these books provide a connection to a man I never knew. They represent a part of my family history and a reason for my lifelong love of books.

Until his death in 1920, my grandfather accumulated books. Inside each cover he either stamped or wrote his name so that everyone would know it belonged in his library. Since the small community had no public library, he would loan out books to students or friends. But he kept track of them and ensured they were returned.

Picture barrister bookshelves with glass doors covering one whole wall, floor to 12-foot ceiling, in my grandmother’s living room. More books filled shelves and cabinets throughout the house. This awe-inspiring world of books impressed upon me the value of the written word.

After her husband’s death, my grandmother meticulously maintained the library. I can see her holding the big, hand-written journal that listed every book and its location on the shelves.

By the time I reached high school, my grandmother deemed me responsible enough to borrow a book, but she always made sure I returned it. As she aged it became harder for her to keep track of the books. Gradually some went missing or were misplaced on the shelves.

Cousins with books

My bachelor uncle lived with my grandmother. As the youngest child, born after his father’s death, he continued to live in the home place after his mother’s passing in 1977 and became the custodian of the library. My uncle was brilliant and yet not quite normal. He lacked his parents’ sense of order and probably had some mental disorder. Over the years we have speculated on his possible diagnosis but, of course, we will never know. His original condition was exacerbated by his stint in the Army during World War II. Drafted, he never made it through basic training. He was hospitalized by the army until war’s end, then given a disability. According to my parents, he was never the same. When I read “To Kill a Mockingbird,” I immediately associated my uncle with Boo Radley. All the kids in town were either afraid of him or made fun of him. To me he was just my uncle, a little different, but part of our family.

Always suspicious of people, my uncle let few people into the house after his mother’s death. He knew more about family and local history than anyone around. He would have loved computers and the internet, if they had been around back then. And he might have had many online friends, instead of the few people in town who would talk to him.  In his latter years, a local man gained his confidence and convinced my uncle to lower the ceilings in the old house to save on his heat bill. To do the work everything had to be moved. Things went missing in the confusion, including some of the books. By the time my uncle figured out that the man was taking advantage of him, the damage was done – to the house, to the antiques and to the books.

After my uncle’s death, my brother and sister-in-law went through the house, inventoried everything and arranged for a sale. (Bless them for their hard work.) As the youngest of nine and with no children, the estate had to be divided up over many nieces and nephews, great-nieces and great-nephews.

The boxes of books I purchased at the sale are the ones I finally unboxed and put on my bookshelves. I have sets of books by Jules Verne, Bret Harte, Victor Hugo (including Les Miserables), Edgar Rice Burroughs (Tarzan),  Winston Churchill (yes he apparently wrote fiction), Rudyard Kipling and other less-familiar authors published around 1900. There are books by James Fenimore Cooper, essays and poems by Ralph Waldo Emerson, a history of the Italian earthquake of 1908 and a history of the Cuban struggle for independence.

Many other authors filled my grandfather’s library.  His interests were diverse and provide some insight into who he was. I remember Edgar Allen Poe, Alexander Dumas, Robert Louis Stevenson, a huge dictionary and a 1903 Encyclopedia Britannica, to name just a few.  In a time with no television or computers, when radio and movies were strange novelties, the library provided entertainment as well as knowledge to my grandparents and their children. For me, his books open a window into the past.

With all the talk today about e-books, e-readers and the demise of books as we know them, I wonder what today’s readers will leave behind. Will they simply delete the electronic files after they read them? Will they even think about transferring the files to someone else? Even paperbacks can be passed on to others. Why not e-books?

Although my old books have been damaged by dust, heat, humidity and the deteriorating acid paper, they can still be read. They have provided a legacy to several generations by inspiring a love of learning and literature. I believe that children who grow up surrounded by books, who are read to and who see their parents and grandparents reading will become readers themselves. Technology is wonderful, but I think books will be around for a long time.

Obituary of Sallie Nesbitt Sizemore

Sometimes when we research our ancestors we find some interesting characters on our family tree – such as my Great-Aunt Sallie Nesbitt Sizemore. Aunt Sallie married my Great-great-grandfather’s brother, Rufus Hicks Sizemore, in 1856, when he was 24 and she was 22. Years ago my mother showed me the faded newspaper which carried Aunt Sallie’s obituary and asked me to make photo-copies. More recently I typed it up before it faded into oblivion. The obituary reads like a tribute to a woman who was both prominent in the community and loved by all who knew her. She’s one of my ancestors I wish I knew more about. I hope everyone enjoys reading her obituary from almost one hundred years ago.

Obituary of Sallie Nesbitt Sizemore published in the Dickson County Herald

April 19, 1912

In Memoriam

Mrs. Sallie Nesbitt Sizemore was born in Dickson County, Tennessee, and died at the home of her son Claude H. Sizemore, in Dickson, Tenn. April 1, 1912, aged 78 years.

Mrs. Sizemore was a great-niece of the sainted Samuel McAdoo, one of the pioneers in establishing the Cumberland Presbyterian Church in this country. She became a member of the Cumberland Church when just a child and was a faithful and loyal Christian all her life. She was married to Dr. R. H. Sizemore and was a faithful and devoted wife for him to his death.  He died at Erin, Tenn., July 14, 1879.

Three sons blessed the united life of Mrs. Sizemore, vis.: Eugene A., who died in infancy; Clarence R., now living in St. Louis, Mo., and Claude H., a resident of Dickson, Tenn. The deceased has also left one brother and one sister to mourn their loss.  Mrs. Sizemore had every attention in her last sickness that loving hands and tender hearts could render. It was not until the inevitable came upon her that she would allow special attention.

She was a woman of great willpower and never wanted anyone to attend to her so long as she could wait on herself.  She was cheerful and hopeful in all her sickness up to only a short time before the end came. Her faith in God was fixed to the end. Almost with her latest breath she whispered, “It is well.” She knew no fear of any thing, or any body. She fully believed her life was safe anywhere. Day or night, if she felt duty called, she did not hesitate, but, at once, would go out in the darkness of the night that she might be a help somewhere. Her husband was a surgeon in the army during the war between the States, and this good woman soon felt that loyalty to her husband demanded her presence with him in his delicate work, and she went to him and for two years, or longer, she was right by his side assisting him in his work.  Many of the old soldiers yet living say she was God’s angel among the wounded and dying.  At her funeral veterans of the gray were her pall-bearers. Many of them as they looked upon her cold form for the last time could not refrain from weeping. It was by their hands her body was consigned to its last resting place.

Her patriotism is no less spoken of than that of many of the illustrious dead who fell in line of battle. Many of her courageous and daring deeds are recalled by those who were with her and knew her army record. I only mention a few here. At one time she passed between the Union and Confederate lines while under fire with a looking-glass under her arm, playing the citizen of the neighborhood. At another time, on hearing of the hunger of an almost starving rebel, she determined to get some potatoes nearby, and though the army on both sides were in battle array she passed somehow the pickets, got the potatoes and returned and was reprimanded by her husband for taking such risks. Her simple reply was, “I got the potatoes.” Another time, at the point of a pistol she forced a horse thief to put back her horse in the stable, warning him that to carry out his orders would result in his death. She was taken to Atlanta while the city was being shelled, but made her escape in a meat car. In a difficulty between a Federal officer and her husband she threw herself between them to save her husband from the drawn sword in the officer’s hand. She defied the officer and called him a coward. She often went among the sick and dying administering medicine and giving such other help as she knew how to give in their troubles. She assisted her husband in dissecting, often standing in heaps of limbs all around her, she holding the tallow candle, the only light available, while her husband was amputating and otherwise attending the soldiers.

Mrs. Sizemore was indeed a remarkable woman and her long life of heroism and Christian labor is an inheritance for her grown sons that they will ever enjoy. The older people feel the loss of a comrade. The younger ones feel the loss of a loving and congenial mother, who was ever ready with a rich story to rehearse that would thrill and make them love her memory. She sleeps the sleep of the good and brave. Some sweet day we shall meet her again.

Her funeral was conducted from the M. E. Church, South, in Dickson,Tenn., before a large audience of sorrowing friends, April 3, 1912.

Gold Coin – 160 Years Old

With gold at record high prices, like many others, I started looking at my jewelry to see if there were any odds & ends I could sell. Broken chains, single earrings, and other such pieces. This got me to thinking about what I have, where they came from and what the items mean to me. Some pieces hold such sentimental value that I would never sell them.

One of my treasures is the gold coin necklace my mother gave me years ago. Along with the gift came the story, the family history tied to the coins. This piece of family lore makes the coin necklace a treasure beyond price.

My great-grandmother, Theodosia, was born in Mississippi in 1858. According to family stories she received my coin, a 2 1/2 dollar gold piece dated 1851, as a birthday gift. Dosia lived most of her life in Tennessee where she died at the age of 82. She gave two coins, mine and another dated 1850, to my grandmother who in turn passed them on to my mother. After having the coins set in bezels so they could be worn as necklaces, my mother gave them to my sister and me.

That explains how I came to own the coin, but it doesn’t tell the whole story. I can only speculate on the origin of the coins. Did they come from Dosia’s father or, perhaps, her grand-father? Was it a family custom to give the children gold coins on their birthdays? Did her mother put the coins away so that Dosia and her siblings would have them when they grew older?  Whatever the plans for the coins, the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861 changed everything.

Dosia’s father, R. B. Sizemore, enlisted in the 26th Mississippi Infantry, C.S.A. Her mother, Elvira, remained behind to tend the farm and their four children. Late in 1864 R. B. Sizemore died a result of some unknown disease, rather from battle wounds. From the history of the 26th, the date he enlisted and his death, we can surmise that he participated in the Battle of Ft. Donelson  (Feb. 1862) where he was taken prisoner and exchanged six months later at Vicksburg. During the following year the regiment defended Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama against Grant and Sherman. Then in May, 1864, they journeyed east to Virginia where they fought in the Wilderness Campaign, the Seven-Days battles around Richmond and finally to Petersburg. There is no way for us to know when R.B. became ill. We only know he died in Mississippi in December, 1864.

Sometime during the war, either before or after R.B.’s death, Elvira hid the gold coins in a stump for safekeeping. She probably stashed more than the two coins, but we will never know what treasures she hid away so that they would not be stolen in those uncertain times.

My great-great-grandmother remained on the farm in Mississippi until 1867 when she took her children north to her mother-in-law’s home in Tennessee. Theodosia was nine years old.

After her mother remarried in 1870, to her father’s brother, Dosia went to live with another of her father’s brothers, R. H. Sizemore. This uncle was a doctor who had served as a surgeon in the Confederate Army with his wife, Sallie, by his side as his nurse.

During the time Dosia lived with her aunt and uncle, she must have met her future husband, John Uffleman. He was the oldest son of German immigrants who came to America in 1850 and settled in Beaver County, Pennsylvania. John’s family did not participate in the Civil War. In 1867 his entire family left Pennsylvania, came down the Ohio River, then up the Cumberland River. They bought enough cheap land in western middle Tennessee along Wells Creek to divide into separate farms for each son.

Dosia and John married in 1879. My grandmother, Elvira, born in 1893, was the fourth of five children to survive to adulthood. The family lived on the farm on Wells Creek until John became unable to work. Sometime around 1905 they sold the farm and moved to McKenzie, Tennessee, where they ran a boarding house near Bethel College. My grandmother told me that they left the farm when she was 12 so I’ve calculated the date based on that.  During their time in McKenzie, my grandmother attended Bethel College. After their oldest daughter, Lois, died in 1911, John, Dosia and their two younger daughters returned to Houston County, near their former home, to help raise the grandchildren.

Theodosia Sizemore Uffleman led a fascinating life spanning the years from before the Civil War until the beginning of World War II. That’s a big chunk of American history. The coin pendant gives me a tangible connection to the places she lived, to the events of her personal life and to the historical events of the time.  When I pass it on to one of my grandchildren, I also hope to pass along the story of Dosia’s coins.

Research Using USGenNet Sites

Whether researching your family history or a specific area for a novel setting, the USGenNet group of webpages is a great resource.  Quoting from their site at “USGenNet is the first and only nonprofit historical-genealogical web hosting service on the Internet.” Many states, county and local genealogical and/or historical groups have websites using this hosting service. When you go to one of these websites, such as the one for Dickson County, Tennessee, you will find a wealth of information about the area. There are family histories, obituaries, maps, cemetary information, newspapers, pictures, etc. Links to other sites of interest, like state archives, are often provided.

Keep in mind that these are websites maintained by individuals so the exact information posted and how often the information is updated depends on the individuals maintaining the site. Some allow contributors to submit items to be posted on the site. Most rely on volunteers to keep the sites going.

I have spent hours exploring the TNGenWeb site – since Tennessee is my home state. The County Pages offers easy access to every county that has an individual site and offers additional information about each county.  It  includes a clickable map of the counties which is very helpful if you need to research a region but you aren’t sure which counties to search. And if you are looking at a county, like my home county (Houston), which was formed from sections of several different counties, you can dig deeper by going to those original counties. Another map evolves over time with the creation of the counties starting before statehood when Tennessee was a part of North Carolina. It even includes the State of Franklin, the first attempt at adding a new state to the original thirteen states. The State of Franklin is another whole topic for a later day – but a very interesting episode in the history of our country. My adopted home state of Florida‘s site includes lots of information that I have only just begun to explore.

Although I started using these pages for genealogy research, I found some truly fascinating stories. For a historical novelist, the details provide not only story ideas but authentic background, events, dates, and locations.