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Mapping family ties to William Clark

Posted on October 16, 2016 at 8:02 pm

By Emily Case

From the time I was little, Grandma Helen has insisted that we’re related to William Clark— yes, one of the explorers of the Lewis and Clark expedition.

Helen Case lives in Minden, Nebraska, a small town in the south central part of the state. It’s close to my hometown in Gibbon. She lives alone in the farmhouse where my dad grew up, continuing to run an antiques business she’s had for years. Treasures and trinkets fill the sheds flanking her large white house and expansive cornfields surround the property.

Image by Chastity Blair

First-year graduate student Emily Case explores the University of Nebraska-Lincoln campus. / Photo by Chasity Blair

When she tells me stories about Clark, the phrase she always uses is “direct blood descendant.” She says it slowly, deliberately, like the words carry a sort of weight.

My ancestors on this side of my family came from Ireland, England, Scotland, Wales, Scandinavia, Germany and France. Clark’s family was from Britain and Scotland, the latter evidenced by his red hair.

The rest of my family isn’t so sure— even though we have a lot of redheaded predecessors, including my dad. (I must admit that my hair isn’t naturally red.) But Grandma Helen had to get this idea from somewhere, so I decided to do some digging.

I started by asking for documentation, and she said her aunt Mary had proof. Mary was able to become a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR), which requires proof of a lineal bloodline to a prominent figure in American history. When Mary died she passed the documents on to her daughter, Jill, my grandma’s cousin whom she hasn’t talked to for years.

gma-helen-1

Helen Case shares stories at her home in Minden, Nebraska. / Photo by Emily Case

But my grandma doesn’t need a document to know she’s right. She’s researched Clark a lot and sees a lot of similarities between him and our family.

“One of them is fearlessness. I know that for sure!” she said, laughing. “My mom would say to me, ‘Oh Helen, you are absolutely fearless, you must have gotten it from Clark.’”

He was also resourceful and generous, she said. These are attributes I’ve seen in my grandma since childhood. She always impresses new guests and old friends alike with her loving hospitality.

In addition to his other qualities, Clark was artistic, drawing the flora and fauna the explorers encountered with accuracy and detail. This was very different from my notion of him as only an outdoorsy frontiersman. In addition to his art skills, he also valued education and was influenced by Enlightenment ideals.

Realizing I had more in common with him than I first thought, I contacted Jill, who sent Mary’s documents. I excitedly opened the PDF, expecting a number of documents and even photos detailing our family’s genealogy.

My excitement was quickly squelched by the first page, though. It was a scanned note on lined paper in her loopy cursive writing: “No family tree. She was a member of DAR in Gibbon, maybe you could get it from them. . . . Sorry no tree. I know that’s what you really needed.”

Context sparks self-discovery

It’s a strange feeling to brush up against the possibility of this truth when it’s only existed in the ephemeral realm of family lore.

Seeing that truth evade my grasp is disappointing, but I feel like this story has just begun. I have a lead on another source to check, as well as my grandma’s encouragement to record and preserve our lineage.

Even though I don’t have the proof I wanted yet, my creative proclivities make more sense to me now. I learned that my ancestors are a mix of musicians, professors, artists, pioneers, entrepreneurs and farmers, and I feel like I fit in with them. Studying genealogy helps us put ourselves into context.

I also have an intrepid side that I sometimes find myself attributing to Clark. At this time, I can’t say whether that’s truly accurate, but Grandma Helen’s stories carry a little more weight to me now.

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