The Next Page / Climbing on the family tree: the joys of searching for your roots
Tom McMillan vaguely wanted to know 'where I came from.' Then he began to dig around. What he found was 'riveting, fascinating, head-slapping and jaw-dropping.'
August 21, 2011 4:00 AM
McMillan's great-great-grandfather, the Rev. William McMillan.
by Tom McMillan
William Webster "Webb" Murray
was county commissioner of Allegheny County from 1897 to 1903, a fact that probably escaped you even if you are an ardent student of local government. It escaped me, too, which is a bit more surprising. He was my great-grandfather.
For a history buff with an almost unhealthy interest in the Civil War, I knew astonishingly little about my own family's history. The only thing my dad ever told me about his World War II military service was that he was "in the Navy, on a ship." I once asked my mom what her father did for a living and she looked at me with a very straight face and replied that he was "in business."
They were lovely people, but they were decidedly uncurious; Thomas McMillan Sr. and Jeannette Murray McMillan lived in the here-and-now and certainly did not share their son's interest in the study of past mistakes, so I trudged on for more than 50 years without knowing where I came from and who came before me.
Photo illustration by Ben Howard
I would tramp across Civil War battlefields over the years, examining troop locations and monuments, paging through books and maps and charts, and someone would invariably ask me, "Where did your relatives fight?" It began to strike me as odd that I didn't know where they fought, or if they fought at all, or even who they were -- soldiers or not -- and yet I always promised myself that some day, some time in the near future, I would begin to research family history.
Some day was last October.
With the help and encouragement of a local genealogist, Elissa Scalise Powell, and the extensive online resources of the website ancestry.com, I started down a path that has been equal parts riveting, fascinating, head-slapping, jaw-dropping, exhilarating and, at times, emotionally exhausting.
I learned how to find census reports online. I visited county courthouses to copy wills and research land deeds. I sent away to the National Archives for military service records and Civil War pension applications, and I can tell you that even though I slammed into a few brick walls along the way, the discovery of even a single stray clue often unearthed a previously undetected pathway to the past.
The cogent point for anyone with even a spark of curiosity about their family's history is that you do not have to be an expert -- or anything close to an expert -- to attempt this.
And I'd recommend it to anyone who's ever wondered about their genealogical past, because it is a uniquely fulfilling quest that helps explain not just how you got here and what your ancestors did but why you are who you are -- with the added benefit of creating a valuable living record for future generations.
I distinctly remember eyeing a 1900 census report that identified William W. Murray as a county commissioner, which led me to a book on county political history, which led me to an online photo of the old geezer.
One thing leads to another which leads to another. I found little booklets about neighborhood history at a local bookstore, and the edition about Bridgeville contained a photo of the house he built in the 1890s on Washington Avenue -- with my great-grandmother sitting in the front yard.
Dad's side: a fighting bunch
When I first embarked on this unforeseen odyssey in October, Elissa Powell asked me to define my goals. One, of course, was to generally find "where I came from." The other was to learn if any of my ancestors fought in the Civil War.
Turns out that was the easy part.
Pleased to meet you: My great-great-grandfather William Searls and his wife, Electa Walburn Searls.
It took only a matter of weeks to determine that two great-great grandfathers on my father's side had enlisted and done battle in the Great War of the Rebellion. William Searls of Meigs County, Ohio, was a private in the 92nd Ohio regiment, fighting in the famous Battle of Chickamauga and taking part in Sherman's March to the Sea. William McMillan of Richland County, Wisc. -- the Reverend William McMillan -- was a private in the 44th Wisconsin and, according to one of the contemporary Wisconsin county histories, "did much spiritual good among his fellow soldiers."
My great-great-grandmother Phebe Harlan McMillan, wife of the Rev. McMillan.
Over a period of months I then began to paste together the generations on my dad's side -- extending back to the early colonies, to the point that I now have reasonable evidence to claim among my distant ancestors John North of England, who first sailed into Boston harbor in 1635; John Searle of England, the first constable of Springfield, Mass., in 1636; and Alphonsus Kirk of Ireland, who landed in Jamestown, Va., in 1689 and later married Abigail Sharpley, "who came from England on a ship with William Penn." Yikes.
Mom's side: talk about local
Untangling the web on my mother's side of the family -- right here in Western Pennsylvania -- proved enormously more challenging. For months, I could find little beyond the county commissioner. I was certain from census reports that my great-great grandfather was Henry H. Murray, but I couldn't find where he was born, who his parents were, who he married or where he was buried. I was at a dead end.
Then -- and this is the fascinating part about family research -- one day, taking another crack at a Google search, typing in a few different words and phrases next to "Henry H. Murray," I found, to my utter shock, a photo of his tombstone.
In St. Clair Cemetery.
On Scott Road in Mt. Lebanon.
In a matter of minutes, I was standing next to his grave. In addition to getting an overwhelmingly emotional jolt from uncovering another layer of family history, I also learned his birth date, his death date and the name of his wife -- Sarah Hultz Murray, buried beside him.
Those clues -- innocuous as they may seem -- led to an absolute avalanche of connections on my mother's side.
Home base: my great-grandmother Isabel Espy Murray (far left) at her home in Bridgeville in 1898.
Sarah Hultz was a descendant of Henry Huls (they weren't exactly passionate about spelling in Colonial days), who came to Pennsylvania from Virginia in the 1760s. He is buried in Peter's Creek Cemetery in Library, with a newly minted Revolutionary War veteran's marker at his grave. One thing led to another which led to another, and I found I had ties to a number of prominent South Hills families from the 1700s and 1800s -- Fife and Espy in addition to Hultz and Murray.
After locating just one ancestral tombstone, an amateur researcher such as me -- with a little effort, determination and luck -- was able to learn that:
• My fifth-great grandfather, John Fife Sr., was one of the first settlers of Upper St. Clair and a Revolutionary War vet.
• Fourth-great grandfather Richard Hultz and his brother bought a 300-acre plot of land in 1786 between what is now Bethel Church Road and South Park.
• Third-great grandfather William Murray, Henry's dad, acquired a 200-acre farm in 1830 in Bethel Township (now Bethel Park), and four generations of my family lived there for almost 100 years.
• Second-great grandfather William Espy was a successful businessman and landowner in what is now Dormont, and his brother, Thomas, was a captain in the 62nd Pennsylvania regiment in the Civil War. The recently restored GAR Civil War Post at the Carnegie Library in Carnegie, is, in fact, named in honor of Capt. Thomas Espy.
What's more, I was mesmerized by the sudden realization that I had 12 direct ancestors buried in either St. Clair Cemetery or Mt. Lebanon Cemetery. I used to live in an apartment a stone's throw from there, and I must have passed those places hundreds if not thousands of times without ever knowing the connection.
Of course, it's a big family ...
You share some of these stories with your friends and, inevitably, the question arises: "Are there any skeletons?"
My fifth-great grandfathers were brothers. My third-great grandmothers were sisters. Cousins married cousins (which is a bit unsettling but apparently not uncommon back in the day, given small and distant rural populations).
But I digress. My continued research on the Murray family uncovered a connection to a James Gailey Murray, Henry's brother, who is profiled in the "Genealogical and Personal History of Allegheny County (Volume 2)." In it, he is described as a "staunch Abolitionist" and "one of the organizers of the Republican Party in Allegheny County in 1856."
James Murray and his wife Elizabeth had a son, born in October 1865, mere months after the Union won the Civil War, and named him "Ulysses S. Grant Murray" -- although young Ulysses apparently was so embarrassed by the historic designation that he later identified himself in census reports and business records as "Grant S. Murray."
'Can you hear us now?'
I was telling parts of this unlikely tale one day to my friend, Paul Steigerwald, the Pittsburgh Penguins' TV announcer, and when I got to that most recent passage about James G. Murray he shook his head, held up his hand and stopped me in mid-sentence. "There's a reason why you're interested in this stuff, why you go to all these battlefields, why you study the Civil War and Lincoln," he said. "It's part of your past. I mean that. Your ancestors are talking to you."
Look, I don't know whether my ancestors are talking to me or not. I do know, however, that this family research project has enabled me to connect with cousins and second cousins I never knew existed, and we have talked and exchanged information that has added to the burgeoning family narrative. A cousin in Wisconsin even sent me a yellowed newspaper clipping she dug out from the bottom of a bin, saying, "I think this might be your dad."
It was a story from a newspaper in Beloit, Wisc., in the late 1940s that announced he had been elected commander of his local VFW post. Among the information reported was that "Commander McMillan served for 20 months in the U.S. Navy in the Asiatic-Pacific and North Atlantic theatres as an armed guard on convoy duty." He really was in the Navy, on a ship. The story also included the only photo I ever have seen of my dad with hair on his head.
So it has been an amazing, rewarding, surprising, revealing and totally addictive experience. I'll admit that at many times I've been awed by the accomplishments of my ancestors -- regular people, yes, but also trailblazers, colonists, pioneers, farmers, lawyers, businessmen, Civil War vets, and (gulp) politicians and reverends. I've been humbled. I've felt "not worthy."
And yet, it is because of that -- because I've flung open these unexpected windows to my past -- that I find myself yearning to learn even more.
vice president of communications of the Pittsburgh Penguins (
), lives in Ross. A former Post-Gazette sports writer, he grew up in Bellevue and graduated from Point Park University.