Celebrating Family History Month Under a False Bottom Drawer

On June 11, 1837, the ship Charlotte Harper set sail from the United States for the West Coast of Africa where a colony had been established by the American Colonization Society for the purpose of resettling former American slaves. The ship carried supplies for the settlements of Bassa Cove and Monrovia in the colony of Liberia, a handful of ACS agents, a couple of teachers, and one eager twenty-four-year-old Methodist Episcopal missionary physician named Sylvanus Goheen.

Unfortunately, I don’t have a picture of Sylvanus, but this is his good buddy John Seys, superintendent of the Methodist Episcopal mission in Liberia. Smith sc., Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Looking back on history, we might have some strong opinions about colonization, most of them probably negative. At that time, opinions were mixed. But this farm kid from Pennsylvania, youngest of a large brood, and fresh from medical school, such as it was in the 1830s, didn’t question the nobility of his intention to help carry the light of Christ to the new colony. He did, however, fear he might not make it there at all.

Watching the waving handkerchief of the one brother who, with tears in his eyes, had come to send him off, the image slowly fading from view along with the coastline of the United States, Sylvanus began to envision looming tragedy that would send him to the bottom of the Atlantic. The newspaper headlines his mother would read began to drift through his mind: Storm Sunk Vessel and All Aboard Lost or She Went Down in the Night, Cause Unknown or She Happened in with a Pirate who Murdered All Aboard. I think it’s safe to say he was freaking out a little.

And this is where, after hours and hours of puzzling my way through the handwriting of my ancestors, I lament the fact that a lot of school children are no longer learning cursive. Public Domain, via Pixabay

I don’t blame him. I’d have probably been freaking out, too. Sylvanus Goheen was imaginative, charming, and pretty funny. He was also sort of arrogant and sometimes kind of petulant, but we all have our faults and, if I’m being honest, he reminds me a little bit of myself.

That makes sense to me, because he was the younger brother of my grandfather’s great grandfather. I first encountered Sylvanus on the pages of a diary he presented to his sister Ann around the time of his departure for Liberia. This diary, though shorter on details than I’d have liked, turned up beneath the false bottom drawer of a lawyer cabinet among my grandmother’s possessions. That’s where my aunt found it shortly after my grandmother’s death.

Since I’m the writer in the family, she presented it to me and I placed it on the backburner where it simmered for quite a few years while, though I dabbled with it a little, I spent most of my time with mummies, lost manuscripts, and scoundrels. But now finally it’s quite a few years later. It’s also October, which means that if you are in the United States, this is officially Family History Month as declared by Congress in 2001 because, evidently, they had nothing better to do.

It’s the month for interviewing your oldest relatives, for checking out the genealogical tools available at your local library, for sending off for that kit that tells you how closely you’re related to Genghis Kahn, and for searching the false bottom drawers in your heirloom furniture. Because I bet you’ll find interesting people, who did interesting things, and if you can manage to learn about them, you might even discover hints of yourself.

Genghis Kahn, allegedly among the most genetically successful men of all time. Clara-Agathe NARGEOT (1829 – ?), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

And maybe, if you do a little more research, and a little more than that, and a little more than that until you’ve done quite a lot of research about them, you might someday take them off the backburner and write a book. That’s what I finally did.

My newest novel White Man’s Graveyard will be released in just a few weeks. In its pages, you’ll get to meet Sylvanus, his sister Annie, a dog named Hector, an orangutan named Jenny, and a whole lot of other characters, many of whom come from my own family’s past, and a few of whom come from my head. You’ll also get to explore a controversial piece of not always well remembered American and Liberian history.

And you’ll discover whether or not Sylvanus was murdered by a pirate.

15 thoughts on “Celebrating Family History Month Under a False Bottom Drawer

  1. That sounds like a very cool book! My wife is into genealogy and has traced her roots to the Mayflower and one of the signers of the Mayflower Compact.
    Your mention of cursive writing reminded me of this clip by Jeanne Robertson. I hope you don’t mind my sharing. It’s G-rated in case you’ve never heard of her.

    1. Funny! My kids can read cursive, because I absolutely insisted they practice doing that, but beyond their signatures, they don’t write it. And their handwriting is terrible, which I’m hearing is a common problem for their generation. They just don’t do it that much.

      It’s very cool that Mrs. Herb has a connection to the Mayflower Compact!

      1. Thanks. Lol. The days when my dad went to school and the teacher cracked him across the knuckles with a ruler if he didn’t do it correctly or if he used the wrong hand are gone. He had perfect penmanship, though, even into his later years.I never had any of that and you can tell by my handwriting.

  2. Congratulations Sarah! How wonderful to have completed another book and to have it published. It’s almost as wonderful as being related to Sylvanus Goheen and descended from an orangutan named Jenny! In my first full-length play – called “Cloud Mother”- I shoved all my British ancestors that I knew of into the one sailing ship and set sail to New Zealand. I must admit it was a very successful play and I hope that your ancestral fling will have equal success if not more!

    1. Thank you so much! This one has been a challenge for many reasons. I’m relieved it’s finally at this point. I appreciate all the help you and so many others have given to get whipped into shape.

I love comments! Please keep them PG, though. I blush easily.

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