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Uncovering History

By Linda Ulleseit
February 9, 2021

In my experience, researching the family genealogy is a constant state of uncovering hidden history. My grandfather, for example, was born in Glasgow so I was raised to believe I was Scottish. Through research, I learned that Grandpa’s father was a pastor at MacLeod Parish in Glasgow, assigned there by the Presbyterian Church in England. He and his wife were both born in England, as were all of their parents. How many generations of a family need to be born in a country before you can claim it as heritage? I’m clearly more English than Scottish. 

Julia Morgan (left) and Emily Williams

My first novel about my ancestors, UNDER THE ALMOND TREES, is set in pioneer California. My great aunt, Emily Williams, was an architect in Pacific Grove, near Monterey, in the first decade of the twentieth century. That was the same time Julia Morgan was building Asilomar. They must have known each other. How did Emily feel about the more famous architect? How did Julia feel about Emily? Somewhere in the Pacific Grove archives may well be documentation of the two female architects and their relationship, if any. Until I find it, I’m free to wonder. 

King Kalakaua and Earl Rodrigues (center)

My most recent novel, THE ALOHA SPIRIT, begins in Honolulu in 1922. I was amazed to discover how modern Honolulu was at that time. The last king of Hawaii, David Kalakaua, ruled from 1874 to 1891. He was fascinated by modern technology, and even visited Thomas Edison in the United States. The Iolani Palace in Honolulu actually had electric lights and running water before the White House did. By 1922, Honolulu resembled every major city in the United States. I learned that some of my husband’s ancestors worked on the Gay and Robinson plantation on Kauai, some participated in the overthrow of the monarchy, and one, Earl Rodrigues, was on a ship docked in the harbor during the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor. It’s exciting to connect members of your family to historical events of importance. It makes the history much more interesting.

Sarah Taylor (left) and Emily Miree

My current work in progress is set in pioneer Minnesota. Fort Snelling, in 1835, was part of the Wisconsin Territory. My ancestor was born there at the fort in 1836. When I began researching the book, all I had was her name and birth date. I discovered her mother was a member of the Lockwood family, prominent in the region. Her father was the sutler at the fort, a slave holder. I was surprised how many of the officers had slaves, since Wisconsin was a free territory. The 1830s was a banner decade for the fort. During that time, Zachary Taylor, future U.S. President, was the commandant at the fort. Jefferson Davis, future president of the Confederacy, served under him. Taylor’s daughter, Sarah, was a bridesmaid at the wedding of Samantha Lockwood and Alexander Miree in 1835, shortly before she and Jefferson Davis eloped. Slaves Harriet Robinson and Dred Scott were married at the fort in 1835. They, of course, would go on to launch a landmark court case asserting their freedom since their masters had brought them into free territory. Artists George Catlin and Seth Eastman painted Native Americans around the fort. Abraham Lincoln served nearby in the Black Hawk war in 1832. Later, as president, he would appoint Samantha Lockwood’s second husband ambassador to Chile. Will Clark, of Lewis and Clark fame, was Superintendent of Indian Affairs. Eliza Hamilton traveled west in 1837 to visit her son in Galena, and visited the fort and the Falls of St. Anthony. With all that star power, I have to be careful my novel doesn’t turn into a long list of people that derail the plot.

These discoveries are what makes learning about my family interesting. My ancestors knew future presidents and participated in the shaping of America. Imagining them interacting with famous people and events that I’ve studied makes them real to me. Their courage and perseverance continues to inspire my fiction.

Linda Ulleseit
Written by Linda Ulleseit

Linda Ulleseit writes award-winning heritage fiction set in the United States. She is a member of Historical Novel Society, Women’s Fiction Writers Association, and Women Writing the West as well as a founding member of Paper Lantern Writers. Get in touch with her on Instagram (lulleseit) and Facebook (Linda Ulleseit or SHINE with Paper Lantern Writers).

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