My family history passion starts with a document

I like to ask people the question, “if you didn’t have to work for money, what would you do?” My answer? Genealogy and family history research, all the time. My passion for genealogy and family history originates with a document distributed at a family reunion in April 1973, when I was three-and-a-half years old. At Easter time of that year, I went with my family from Dallas to a gathering of the Hawthorne family in East Texas, a reunion of my grandmother Cora, her siblings, and their children (my mom’s cousins).

Hawthorne Family Reunion, Easter 1973, Jefferson, Texas. Photo by Bill Dews, from the collection of Fred Dews

Of the event itself, I remember little (I wasn’t even four, after all). A white, clapboard meeting house with a screen door. Warm country air. Elderly (to me) great aunts and great uncles. My mom’s cousins, and one of her brothers sitting on the hood of the car in the picture above. I remember playing with my older sister and pair of our second cousins who popped into my life a couple of times when I was young. Their mom was my mom’s first cousin, and they were the only cousins of that degree I knew, but there must have been other second cousins there as well. (I’ve since learned I have at least forty second cousins on this side of the family.) We kids wandered away from the community center to play along a railroad track, where we pulled up iron tie spikes (sorry). That seemed like a fun thing to do at the time. Weeds grew between the rails. Rust-colored rocks littered the ground of red, iron-rich clay.

The family tree document prepared for the occasion was titled “THE HAWTHORNES” and was dedicated to Georgie J. Hawthorne (1889–1994)—aka “Granny Georgie”—who had just turned 84. Its cover page called her “Our Beloved 84 Year Old Step-Matriarch.”

Cover page of “THE HAWTHORNES” document, personal library of Fred Dews.

Georgia Etta Josey (1889-1984) married my great-grandfather James F. Hawthorne (1874-1951) in October 1927, a little over a year after his wife and the mother of his 11 living children—Sallie Annie Pharris—died of tuberculosis in June 1926, aged 46. This thin document is the foundational text of my own journey into family history, though I did not encounter it again until I was a teenager in high school, at my grandmother’s house in Longview, Texas; and I knew somewhere in my own house another copy rested in a drawer.

My mother intently reading “THE HAWTHORNES,” Easter 1973. Photo by Bill Dews, from the collection of Fred Dews.

After college, I started thinking about the Hawthorne document again, and also the family lore my grandmother and others had shared. Her family, she had explained on the few occasions when it came up, were “Scotch-Irish.” There was also supposedly a connection to the famous 19th-century New England novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne. A family named McBride was also a branch of the Hawthorne tree. And, according to an older cousin, the ghost of a Confederate Civil War soldier who had some connection to our ancestors haunted my grandmother’s house, but I never encountered this spirt.

Of all of these tales, I was most interested in the Scots-Irish (to use the more proper term) connection and hoped to discover the “clan” the Hawthornes derived from so that I could purchase a kilt in the correct clan tartan. This was the “Scottish Phase” of my early twenties, which took me to the Scottish Games and the Scottish store in Alexandria, Virginia, and to a few ceilidh dances. For a hot minute, I started to learn how to play the bagpipes. The phase didn’t last long, because as I dived into family history in a more rigorous way—researching documents, contemporary records, and other history—I soon discovered that while some of what I had learned in family lore had a basis in history, much did not. The Hawthorne family document prepared decades earlier proved to be filled with erroneous, but well-intentioned information. So, the Scottish Phase passed. But through research at the U.S. National Archives and online (this was before, I began to learn more of the true story of the Hawthornes, associated families, and my entire family tree through both my parents.

Page from “THE HAWTHORNES,” personal library of Fred Dews.

The Hawthorne manuscript is typed in blue ink, one-side per page, 11 pieces of paper total—though only seven pages after the cover contain information. The first two-and-a-quarter pages offer a history of the idealized Hawthorne Family. “The Hawthornes were Puritans,” the text begins, “men for the most part of a strong physique, and robust health, impatient of all central authority; but rigidly obedient to their self imposed laws and regulations.”

“In the early stages of New England the Hawthornes were prosperous, but their property gradually declined,” the document adds. “Many of the family wandered away from the ancestral homeland at Salem [Massachusetts], and went to other parts of the country.”

The document names a few notable ancestors, including Daniel, “who commanded a privateer in the Revolution”; then a sea captain and father of the author Nathaniel, who engaged in “combat on the high seas in which he came to the aid of an English vessel against the French, and beat the latter off”; and then, of course, the illustrious author himself who (it is true) added a “w” to his surname to distinguish himself from his forebears.

The mimeograph continues:

Possibly some of the Hawthorns who “wandered away from the ancestrial [sic] homeland at Salem,” as the writer from Salem said, went to Virginia; for in Virginia, which is now West Virginia, Joseph Frederick was born. This was in the late 1700s. Joseph Frederick grew up there and married a woman whose maiden name was Bolden.

The document added an air of authority for this history in a source note: “The above was taken from a very old book on the Hawthorne family; given to Bonnie Boland in 1962 by Mrs W.T. Sims, of Jefferson, Texas, who said her father’s mother was a Hawthorne.” Bonnie Lee (Hawthorne) Boland (1912-2006) was one of my grandmother’s sisters and, I believe, author of the document.

The word “possibly” in the passage above reveals the speculative nature of the document, especially about how the step-children of Granny Georgie were related to Nathaniel and the Hawthornes of Salem. It was an article of faith repeated throughout my childhood that, somehow, we were related to, if not descended from, Nathaniel Hawthorne himself. However, my Hawthorne relatives were not direct descendants of Daniel or the sea caption or Nathaniel or anyone in the Salem branch. As it turns out, my grandmother and her siblings were 5th cousins 4 times removed from the famous author through their shared lineage back to Berkshire, England, a connection I documented here, but also a fact which my older relatives could not have known. (Also, to characterize my lineage of Hawthornes as “Puritans” is ahistorical, as the immigrant ancestor arrived in Virginia in the late 17th century, after the Puritans had established their New England colonies.)

But still, the document introduced me to a man named Joseph Frederick Hawthorne, a real person who lived in Virginia, dying in Lunenburg County in 1850. Of his seven children, only one—Frederick—left the Old Dominion and headed west as a young man, first to Georgia, then later to Louisiana, where his grandson, James Frederick Hawthorne, was born in 1874.

Over the past 30 years, my family research has taken me far beyond the Hawthorne tree and into scores of other family stories, from other pre-Revolutionary War Southern American families (including the McBrides, who were the Scots-Irish), to post-Civil War European immigrants in the Midwest, to a wide field of cousins beyond the second degree. And the seed of this journey, of this lifelong passion for family history, was a document about a family named, appropriately I suppose, for a tree.

— Fred Dews

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