This wasn’t one of my Childhood Family Stories

Back when I first started researching my family genealogy, I created a list of the “family stories” I could remember my Mom telling me when I was young. There were items on the list that included :

  • Great Aunt/Uncle that died as a child and buried in the Mediterranean Sea, along with a red ball.
  • Xth Great-grandmother (unknown which one) was supposedly captured by Indians and raised as an Indian princess.
  • Grandma Liz [Christina Elizabeth (Nicolle) Vincent] wanted to live to be 100
  • Cecilia (Still) Vincent’s first husband died on the Titanic – his name was unknown.
  • There was an Irishman who was a horse thief, came across on the Mayflower (or Mayflower II) as a stowaway, changing his name when he arrived in the new world (dropping the Fitz- from FitzGerald)

In my 25+ years of research, some of the stories have been easily proven true. For example, my Great Aunt Florence Vincent, second child of Charles and Christina Elizabeth (Nicolle) Vincent [my Dad’s aunt] died of a fever on board the R.M.S. Crocodile, while her father and his family was traveling from Gibraltar to East India. She was buried at sea in the Mediterranean and her death reported when the ship arrived at port.

Frederick and Cecilia (Still) Ware on their wedding day

Another story I was able prove, was learning the name of Cecilia (Still) Vincent’s first husband – Frederick Ware, who did indeed die while traveling back from England to New York, when the Titanic sank. His body was never found, but evidence of his passage is found on the ship’s manifest.

Grandma Liz probably did want to live to be 100, but actually died at 94, not 97 as my Mom used to say. She lied about her age on every record I have for her, except one – her birth record! She was born in 1855, not 1852-3, as stated on her marriage record, death certificate, headstone, Census forms, etc.

Christina Elizabeth Nicholls (Nicolle)’s Birth Record

Other stories will most likely never be proven, such as the Great-grandmother who was captured and raised by Indians. I do know that no Native American DNA appears in either my AncestryDNA sample or my 23andMe sample, but the story was she was captured, not born, so there wouldn’t be DNA present.

But the one story I have worked on the longest is the Irish stowaway – did he arrive on the Mayflower / Mayflower II?
Maybe, maybe not. One thing is very certain, I have Mayflower ancestors on my Mom’s family tree – in fact, at last count, I have FOUR of them: Elder William Brewster and his wife, Mary Wentworth Brewster and John Alden and his wife, Priscilla Mullins Alden. I am a descendant of the Brewsters via my maternal grandmother (and namesake) Nancy Ella (Gerald) Gardner and a descendant of John and Priscilla Alden via my maternal grandfather, LeRoy George Gardner.

Nancy Ella and LeRoy George Gardner on their wedding anniversary

I’ve known about the first Mayflower Ancestors since August, 2018, when I learned that my newly discovered 4th Great-Grandmother, Lydia (Burrill) Gardner was a descendant of John and Priscilla. The brick wall separating my family tree from the Burrill family took me many, many, many years to break through. I was overjoyed when I learned the connection via Lydia to the Mayflower.

My discovery of my connection with William and Mary Brewster is much more recent – March 28th of this year, when I learned due to a potential ancestor on the new
ThruLines feature on – of my 5th Great-Grandfather Joseph Greenleaf and his wife Dorcas (Gray) Greenleaf. Subsequent research on that line gave me the connection between my Grandma Nancy and the Mayflower.

Since none of these four Mayflower ancestors are of Irish descent, I can’t say that this answers the question about my Irish horse thief. I’m still trying to find the elusive connection between my Gerald Great-grandparents: Rose Ellen (Gerald) Gerald and her husband Orrin Fitz Gerald. I have a new hypothesis that asks if Rose’s Great-Grandfather George (1748-1825) and Orrin’s Great Grandfather David (1740-1820) were brothers, who separately came over the the USA from England in the 1770s and fought in the Revolutionary War? Could one of them be my Irish horse thief, since they both emigrated from the Emerald Isle?

Only Time (and a lot more research) Will Tell.


As I sit here this Memorial Day weekend, I keep thinking back to how I used to spend the weekend with my family: Bar-B-Ques in the back yard, getting our pool ready for the summer season, just enjoying being outside with my family and of course, the annual trip to Lansing to ‘decorate’ the graves of my ancestors.

My dad and by older brother Chuck, moving the just-removed pool cover from the pool yard.
My dad and I eating watermelon

It wasn’t until I was older that I realized that the true reason for Memorial Day was not to celebrate a day off and the start of summer, but a day to thank those service men and women who made the ultimate sacrifice while on active military duty.

My parents met during World War II – Mom was a WAVE, stationed in Washington D.C, at Naval Headquarters and Dad was drafted into the ARMY and spent his basic training outside of Washington D.C. and ended up being deployed to Saipan, where he managed the supply warehouse. But the story of how they met is for another day, this is to remember my Dad’s 1st cousin – John Vincent Wilkinson, son of Ernest Wilkinson and Kathleen Vincent.

John V. Wilkinson was the oldest son of my Great-Aunt Kathleen (“Kitty”) and her husband Ernest Wilkinson, Sr. Both he and his younger brother, Ernest, Jr. served in the Army. John enlisted on 10 Dec 1944. At his death, he was a 2nd Lieutenant, stationed in Korea with the occupying force. The following newspaper article briefly describes how Lieut. Wilkinson died. It was published in the Lansing State Journal on 18 Dec 1945, pg. 4.

Information regarding the circumstances attending the death of Second Lieut. John V. Wilkinson, 31, husband of Mrs. Margaret King Wilkinson, who died in Korea, November 30, was received here Monday.
Lieut. Robert Fiebig, son of Mr. and Mrs. Henry Fiebig, also stationed in Korea, has written his parents that Lieutenant Wilkinson was killed in an accidental explosion which also killed several other officers, a number of enlisted men and several Koreans. Fiebig wrote that Lieutenant Wilkinson was buried on Korea December 2 following military funeral services.
Lieutenant Wilkinson’s widow and his parents, Mr. and Mrs. Ernest Wilkinson, Sr, were informed by the war department late last week that he had been killed in an explosion. They first received word of his death December 10 in a war department telegram but no details were given as to the cause of death.
Besides the widow and parents, Lieutenant Wilkinson is survived by three children, two brothers, Ernest, Jr., recently discharged from service and Stanley, and a grandmother, Mrs. Elizabeth Vincent, all of Lansing.

In January, 1949, Second Lieut. John V. Wilkinson’s body returned to the city where he was born, Lansing, where he was buried with full military honors, in Chapel Hill Memorial Gardens. Eventually, his parents, his wife and both his brothers and their wives were buried in the same cemetery.

I will still think of my parents and my Aunts and Uncles, who served in WWII, along with all my ancestors who have served in various wars and conflicts, but my main thoughts this holiday weekend will be with my Cousin John, the one who made the ultimate sacrifice, and who we honor on Memorial Day.

The Headstone I remember most

Van Fleet Headstone, Mt. Hope Cemetery, November 2018

There is a headstone that I use as my guide when I head into Mt. Hope Cemetery to visit my parents. It is the “VAN FLEET Headstone.” It is very unique, as it is a stump, with an open Bible on top. The only printing on it is the Family Name of Van Fleet; no other names, no dates. There are two smaller headstones nearby, but they too have limited information on them: Mother 1858-1904 and Father 1860-1926.

This grouping of headstones is in the same section as my family, probably about 50 feet to the west and because I have always walked past them on my way to my family, I have always been a bit curious as to who Van Fleet was and why such an interesting headstone.

So, using my genealogy resources, I started to research Van Fleet in Lansing. Since I had no proper names, I first searched in under just the last name with the dates on the Father Headstone (1860-1926). What came up was a Find-A-Grave listing for Isaac R. Van Fleet. He was born in Ontario, Canada on 14 Mar 1860 and died in Lansing, Michigan on 28 Jun 1926. The accompanying photographs were the familiar headstones: a stump with an open Bible and a plain headstone with the words FATHER and 1860-1926.

I had the name behind the headstones, but this was not enough to satisfy my curiosity. So I did a little more digging and came up with the Obituary for Isaac R. Van Fleet, published in the Lansing State Journal 29 Jun 1926, on page 9.
Isaac R. Van Fleet, 66, for 14 years a cigar manufacturer and a resident of Lansing for 37 years died at the home, 515 Cherry street Monday night, following a year’s illness. Mr. Van Fleet came to Lansing from Brandford, Ont. in 1889. He is survived by the widow, Mrs. Martha Jane Van Fleet and one daughter, Mary E. Foster, and a brother, Joseph F. Van Fleet. The body was removed to Buck’s chapel to await funeral arrangements which will be announced later.

There were three other articles that came up in my initial search for Isaac R. Van Fleet: – an obituary for a Mrs. Van Fleet, 15 Aug 1911
– an article about a trial for defrauding the State in which Mr. Van Fleet was a juror, 23 Apr 1911
– an article listing candidates for city offices, listing Isaac R. Van Fleet for Constable, 05 Apr 1913
Later, I found the obituary for Mrs. Mary E. Foster, the Van Fleet daughter, 19 May 1976

None of the articles matched the dates on the MOTHER Headstone (1858-1004). When I found the Marriage license listing for Isaac R. Van Fleet and Martha Davis on 04 Jan, 1915, that would match with the name of Isaac’s widow in his obituary. So, it was easy to deduce that “MOTHER” must have been his first wife, but what was her name?

So I went back to and put in the information I did know for the first Mrs. Van Fleet, and came up with Mary J. (Brady) Van Fleet, born on 14 Jun 1860 and died 11 Jun 1904. Unfortunately, searching in the newspaper, I never found an obituary for her. The obituary I did find dated 15 Aug 1911 is not for Mary J., nor is it for Martha Van Fleet, as she was still alive in 1926. This was the obituary for Mr. Van Fleet’s second wife, F. H. (Rich) Van Fleet, who is buried in Greenville, Michigan.

With a little more searching I found that Isaac Van Fleet’s third wife, Martha apparently remarried at least twice more after his death, and died in 1948. She is listed as being buried in Mt. Hope, but an exact location is not given. His daughter Mary is buried in Deepdale Cemetery, next to her husband, Grover Foster.

I still wonder why the family didn’t include the given names of Isaac and Mary on their headstones, but at least I now know who is buried under the headstones I remember most.

My Parent’s Current Neighborhood

Flora Bliven (front) and Ivy DeVaney (back) visiting Mt. Hope Cemetery and the Vincent – DeVaney – Bliven graves

I can remember going with my parents and an occasional Great-Aunt to visit Mt. Hope Cemetery, usually on Memorial Day weekend, or Decoration Day as it was known to my parents. Buried in the 10 grave plot were my paternal Grandmother Peggy (Margaret Vincent Bliven), my Paternal Great Grandparents – Elizabeth and Charles Vincent and my Great-Uncle Mick (Michael J. DeVaney).

All of them had passed away before I was born – Uncle Mick in 1914, Grandma Peggy in 1931, Grandpa Charles in 1934 and Grandma Liz in 1950 – so I didn’t know any of them personally, but I did know a lot of stories about them.

The annual trip to Lansing and Mt. Hope was a definite family ritual, one that I kept up even as an adult. I can remember one Memorial Day weekend in 1986 when my Mom, Dad and I visited not only Mt. Hope, but two other cemeteries in the greater Lansing area: Saint Joseph Catholic Cemetery (where my Aunt Dolly and Uncle Lew are buried) and Chapel Hill Memorial Gardens (where my Aunt Kitty and Uncle Ernie are buried.). Although it was never said out loud, I’ve always been convinced my father asked me to take the trip with my parents in order for one of his children would know where the relatives were buried. I wasn’t into Genealogy and Cemeteries at the time, but I’ve always wondered if my father knew my future even before I did.

I still visit these three cemeteries at least once a year, sometimes just to stop and pay my respects to my parents, who are now buried next to my paternal great-grandparents, or to research other family members who are also buried in them. As expected, I spend the most time in Mt. Hope, In November to decorate the family plot for Christmas and again in March to retrieve the Christmas Decorations.

Because of my many trips to Mt. Hope, many of the headstones in the surrounding plots have become very familiar to me. So over the course of the next few weeks, I’m going to be researching the families behind the headstones that I find in my parent’s current neighborhood.

The First of Many Brick Walls …

In 1996, after learning some what I believed about my heritage to be untrue – (What?  I’m Not German?) I decided to start doing some research into my genealogy. I wrote down what (I thought) I knew, based on memories of going through old photo albums with my  mother when I was a teen.

ellen and flora.1jpg
Ellen and Flora (date unknown)

I contacted my mom’s older sister Ellen as well.  Aunt Ellen was considered the Family Historian. She sent me what information she had on the Gardner-Roberts families, but not much about the Gerald family members.

Not much was available online back then and I was still working full time, so I wasn’t able to visit many libraries or archives.  I was limited to the CDs that came with the Family Tree Maker software I purchased. Needless to say, progress was very slow.

In 1999, after my Aunt Ellen passed away, I was contacted by her friend and avid genealogist Jean (Grange) Sawyer, who was able to provide me with a lot of new information and sources of information about both my Gardner and Gerald families.

But, despite all the information I’d been given, one piece remained elusive – Who were the parents of my 3rd Great Grandfather – George Washington Gardner.

He seemed to appear out of thin air – no one knew who his parents were. There were hints, such as on the 1850 Federal census there was a Lydia Humphrey living with the family.  Could she be his mother?  It was known that she wasn’t related to Tabitha, George’s wife, so who was she?

1850 Census

There was no Birth Record to be found and the Death Record was somewhat confusing – what was the name of the town where George was born?  Was it in Maine?  Was it in Massachusetts, as some other family members thought?  Where was he born?

Fast Forward to to 2017.  I’ve now spent close to 25 years researching my family tree.  I’ve retired from my IT job and get to spend my days & nights doing what I love – Genealogy research!  I spend my days still working with computers, but now I do it on a volunteer basis for a Genealogy website –, where I host the State of Michigan web page and 5 county web pages.

Genealogy seems to have become an obsession to many, many people, and there are now vast amounts of information available online (not all valid, however!!) I’ve learned many techniques for interpreting historical records, but still no concrete information about my 4th Great Grandparents, until one day…

While researching data for one of my county web pages, I came across an article that talked about how many times names and places on the Federal Census reports were written phonetically because the census taker didn’t know how to spell the names.  Very interesting information, and something to keep in mind as I transcribed data to my web pages.

In September, 2017, I spent a week in various parts of the Beautiful State of Maine, a retirement gift from my family. While I was there, I was researching my Maine roots, which I do every chance I get. While in the Tobey cemetery in Canaan, Maine, researching Fitzgerald graves and looking for possible ancestors, I came across a Gardner grave.  I didn’t recognize the name and didn’t think much more about it, as I was concentrating on Geralds/Fitzgeralds.

Death Record1After returning home, and I was updating my Gerald family information with what I had found in Canaan, I came across the notes I had made when I again tried to interpret where my 3rd Great Grandfather had been born… Could he have been born in Canaan? At this same time, I received a text message from my cousin Alissa Noble, who is also a descendant of George W. Gardner.  She had just realized that perhaps George W. was born in Canaan and that the name of the town on his Death Record had been written phonetically – Kainon, to mean Canaan, Maine.

gardner burrill marriageExcited that someone else thought that maybe he was from Canaan, I immediately started to search online records for Gardner’s in Canaan, Somerset, Maine. I added to some of the searches the name of Lydia, in case she was perhaps related to George. What I found was a marriage record for a DAVID GARDNER and a LYDIA BURRILL in Canaan, Maine in 1806. The right place, the right names, the right dates.

How do I prove that this marriage is for my 4th Great Grandparents and George Washington Gardner’s parents?

AncestryDNA – both Cousin Alissa and I have taken the AncestryDNA test and both of us have matches to members of the Burrill family through Lydia (Burrill) Gardner Humphrey.

There are still brick walls in this branch of my family.  Who are David Gardner’s parents?  There are three daughters under the age of 10 listed for David Gardner in the 1810 Census.  What are their names?  Did the survive childhood?

I love that genealogy allows me to solve a puzzle and at the same time present a new puzzle to solve.






It has been close to 25 years since I started this journey…  all because of a poster I bought with the history of my Family Name…. Bliven

I learned that everything I thought I knew about my Family ancestry was not quite true and so I decided to try and learn the truth about my family.

It has been a very interesting journey…..


Ellen and Herbert Gardner

Herbert and Ellen Gardner, circa. 1920


….. one that continues to this day!