My Ancestors: Highlights

Except for one line, all of my father’s ancestors that I can document can be traced back to the northern colonies and end up in Rock Island/Davenport area. My mother’s ancestors, except for one line, all trace back to the southern colonies, mostly South Carolina, and in one case, 12th century Scotland, and end up in Falls County, Texas. And the two non-colonial lines come more recently from Prussia and Germany. This post is a preview of some of the highlights of my family’s history.

My Father’s Ancestors

My father’s ancestors include early Quakers in Massachusetts in the 1600s (Gifford), pioneers in Virginia and Kentucky (Renfros), a possible personal guard to George Washington (Roundy), an imminent German biologist (Bonorden) and others fleeing the Revolution of 1848 in Prussia (Döllinger and Meyer). They primarily lived in the north, except for the Renfros, who migrated north from Virginia and Kentucky in the early 19thcentury. Their descendants eventually settled in Rock Island/Davenport.

Despite decades of genealogy research, my father was unable to find the father of his great grandfather,Edmond J. Gifford. It was only after my father’s death that a fellow genealogist took up the challenge that I had posted and found Edmond’s father in two days. With that I could then trace the Gifford line back to the “first” Gifford, who was born in England and arrived in the American Colonies around 1643. Most Giffords in America can trace their lines back to this William Gifford, who had many children himself. So that’s not a very big deal.

Edmond’s grandfather, William Gifford, was born in 1741 and served in the Revolutionary War, enlisting in Rhode Island in 1776 and joining Washington’s army at the Battle of White Plains. In his pension application he describes his service in a somewhat lighthearted manner. He traipsed along with Washington down through New Jersey to the Delaware River, after which time his enlistment ended. Then he signed up for three more, serving as substitutes for draftees who paid him for his service. On one campaign his unit was ordered to clean a house that had been used by the army as a small pox hospital.“I remember they gave it a thorough cleaning for they set fire to it and burnt it down”.

William’s son, Hicks Gifford, took his family west to land he purchased on the Embarrass River in 1839 in Coles County, Illinois. However, except for a daughter, his entire family disappeared from the records after the 1840 census. Hicks’ son, Edmond J. Gifford, after serving in the Civil War, was a successful businessman in Petosky, Michigan. He ended his days as a watchman on the Northern Pacific Railroad bridge over the Missouri River in Bismarck, North Dakota. His son Edmond H. Gifford would build railroads, as would his son, Porter William Gifford.

Legend has it that the farm of William and Elizabeth Rentfro was located next to that of the Washington family across the Rappahonock River from Fredericksburg, Virginia. Young George Washington and young William Rentfro, the 6th child of William and Elizabeth, played together as children; fishing and hunting over the fields. Both wanted to become land surveyors and learned the trade from William’s older brother, James. Young George was trained by James Renfro Sr. to be a surveyor at Ferry Farm along the Rapphannock River. However, this is probably fantasy. But there is documentary evidence that James was a surveyor with Daniel Boone in 1783.

James Renfro Jr. took his pregnant wife Margaret Jackson and fourteen children from Lincoln County, Kentucky to Madison County, Illinois, a short distance from Downing’s station, a fort erected for the protection of the settlers against the Indians. Then James died, leaving poor Margaret with fifteen children. Their granddaughter would marry Edmond J. Gifford in Rock Island, Illinois.

The Roundy family has been extensively research all the way back to Salem, Massachusetts in the 1600s. According to his widow’s application for a widow’s pension, Uriah Roundy was a member of General Washington’s “Life Guards” and he fought in some of the battles that William Gifford and William Reuben Briant fought in. Uriah’s son Shadrach was instrumental in the establishment of the Mormon Church.

Another of Uriah’s sons, Daniel Roundy married Ruth Beard, the daughter of another Revolutionary veteran, in 1821. They were first cousins. Daniel served in the war of 1812. Although the lawyer for her application was a former pension examiner himself, her application was rejected numerous times for various reasons. She died in 1894, at the age of 94. 

Daniel and Ruth’s son Porter Wallace Roundy was born in Spafford, New York in 1829, about 90 miles from Utica, where Edmond J. Gifford was born in 1830. Porter’s daughter Nettie May would marry Edmond’s son Edward in Scot, Iowa, in a double wedding with Edward’s brother William. Like Edmond, Porter enlisted at Lincoln’s first call for volunteers and reenlisted as a hospital orderly on March 30, 1864 into the 37thInfantry Regiment Wisconsin in which his brother Daniel Curtis Roundy served as Regiment Surgeon at City Point, Virginia, near Petersburg, where he was a witness to the siege.

Like his grandfather, Hermann Friedrich Bonorden served as a military surgeon in Prussia but was also a renown medical researcher. Hermann Friedrich studied and published articles on several diseases, including syphilis. His scientific work won him a professorship at the Friedrich Wilhelm Institute in Berlin. He was so highly respected that he is considered one of the most outstanding physicians of all times in all countries. 

Two years after arriving in America from Prussia, Hermann’s son, Herman Frederich Bonorden, was drafted for three years as a bugler in Company E, 2ndIowa Cavalry. But war did not suit Herman. On May 10, 1862, Herman was put on “extra duty clerk in Q.M. Dpt.” This lead to a career as a Pension Examiner after the war. Herman settled in Davenport, Iowa after the war and married Emma Auguste Döllinger, who had also come to America from Prussia with her family, including her brother, Herman Gustav Döllinger, who kept a detailed diary of the many battles he fought in during the American Civil war.

Thus, my father’s grandparents have converged in Iowa.

My Mother’s Ancestors

My mother was ninety-nine proof Southern stock. Except for the Buttes, who are relatively recent arrivals from Germany, all her other ancestors trace back to the southern colonies, mostly South Carolina. Her ancestors include tavern owners, missionaries and ministers, murderers and law professors, witnesses to the intimidation tactics of the early Klan and large land owners who used enslaved people to work their fields. And, of course, Revolutionary War and a couple of Civil War veterans, but this time on the side of the Confederacy. Although the details of many of her female lines are lost to history, others have left colorful stories. And somehow their descendants end up in, or near, Falls County, Texas. Here is a brief account of a few of them.

The son of a German immigrant, George Charles Felix Butte, after accumulating a number of post graduate degrees, ran for governor of Texas on what some called the “Klan Party”. He heard the news of this on his return from Europe. His opponent, “Ma” Ferguson, charged that, failing to find anybody on land, the “Republican – Ku Klux” crowd had “finally jumped on one poor ignorant professor away out in the middle of the ocean and thrust upon the poor devil for the Republican – Ku Klux nomination for Governor.” Ah, Texas politics.

Meanwhile, George’s brother, Charles Felix Butte, bludgeoned his wife to death, but agreed to give her one last wish to “kiss me goodbye-I’m dying”. Although George was Dean of the Law School at the University of Texas by this time, he did not come to his brother’s defense, perhaps because there was none.

George Butte’s wife, Bertha Woodfin Lattimore descended from Davis Stockton, who, with his friend, Michael Woods, set out into the wilderness west of Charlottesville, Virginia in about 1740 to the lands they had obtained from King George. When they had to part company to travel in different directions, Davis literally marked the occasion by carving his initials, D.S., into a tree. The tree became known as the D.S. Tree and was used as a landmark for decades. It even appears in orders from the Goochland County Court for building roads.

Bertha’s grandfather, Samuel Stockton Lattimore, was born in 1811 and married Francis Ann Compere, the daughter of Lee Compere, one of the most eminent and controversial Baptist missionaries. As a member of the Baptist Mission Society, he served as a missionary among the enslaved people in the British colony of Jamaica. Lee and his wife continued their missionary work with the Creek Indians in Alabama, but then became embroiled in the struggles between white and Creek slave owners and the issue of Indian removal. However, when a request was made for funds to support Lee in his old age, the response was feeble, possibly due to his opposition to slavery.

Samuel Stockton Lattimore joined his father-in-law as a Baptist minister, traveling throughout the antebellum South. A favorite of the Choctaw, Samuel was accused of imbibing. But before anything could be done to help or sanction him, S.S. Lattimore “fell dead in the pulpit”. 

Samuel Stockton Lattimore’s son, Rev. John Lee Lattimore, enlisted as a private in the confederate army and was promoted to 2ndSargent of Company B, 37thMississippi Infantry Regiment which was in Vicksburg during the siege by Union forces. The men served continuously in the trenches, exposed to the scorching midsummer sun and often to chilling nights. 

After the surrender of Vicksburg Rev. John Lee Lattimore came home after being exchanged, and was “subjected to scrubbings and hair cutting, all his clothing burned, before he was allowed to come into the house” by his wife, Catherine Obedience Woodfin. Catherine’s roots can be traced back to 12thcentury Scotland. Her great great grandmother, Catherine Kaidyee Blaikley, was an eminant midwife in colonial Williamsburg.

Katherine Obedience Jones married William Hawthorn Kirkpatrick in South Carolina. Her great grandfather Benjamin Jones was a member of the Long Cane Settlement when it was attacked by Cherokees on February 1, 1760. The details of the Long Cane Massacre were recounted by another survivor, Patrick Calhoun, father of the future Congressman and secessionist, John C Calhoun. Benjamin’s son, Adam Crain Jones, was a representative in the South Caroline legislature when the vote to consider the constitution was only 76 “ayes” and 75 “nayes”, which means that the Constitution came close to not even being considered. 

Before the Civil War broke out, William Hawthorn Kirkpatrick took his family from South Carolina to Texas. It was so rainy and wet that the family, with six children and six “Negros” and six mules, was trapped in Arkansas for two years before they could continue the trip to Texas. We know quite a bit about this trip because William’s son Addison wrote a book about it.

William’s son James Richard Kirkpatrick married Elizabeth Eller King in Texas. He was 35, she 17. There are heartbreaking letters between Lizzie and her brother Wilson in which he expressed his fear of never again seeing his “dear sister”. He wished the War of the Rebellion to end so he could come home. There are also a number of equally heartbreaking, if a little comical, letters from Lizzie’s father, Jefferson David King, who asked for money to come to Texas. He wrote wondering “what kind of a place is Texas ant there no money there”.

William Reuben Briant, born in 1741 married Sarah Tolleson 1762 in South Carolina. The Tollesons operated a tavern at Buzzards Roost. The tavern was the place to go for food, voting, getting liquored up, catching the stage coach, cock fighting, horse racing, and boxing. And Sarah’s father Major John Tolleson made sure people could get there, and pay for the pleasure, by improving the roads, naming them after himself and charging tolls to use them.

William Reuben Briant served in the Revolutionary War. According to the pension application submitted by his wife, William served with General Washington’s army at Pennsylvania and was part of the effort to “cross the Delaware River”, but his unit, as well as others did not make it to Trenton. That makes three ancestors who served at the same time and place, including William Gifford and Uriah Roundy.

Many years later two of William Reuben Briant’s twelve children, William and Reuben, testified before the U.S. Congress Joint Select Committee to Inquire Into the Condition of Affairs in the Late Insurrectionary Statesin 1871 about their experience with and observation of the original Ku Klux Klan. The Committee declared the Ku Klux Klan to be a terrorist organization. 

Another son, Joab Bryant and his wife, Mary Stewart, managed to sit out the War of the Rebellion and had twelve children instead. One of them, John Wesley Bryant, took his wife, Sarah Ann Lively, a first cousin, to Texas to raise eleven children. As with the Kirkpatricks and the Lattimores, there was not much left of South Carolina and other confederate states. Sherman drove a wide swath of destruction from Atlanta to Savannah and up through Columbus, South Carolina, which was entirely destroyed. And Texas promised fortunes to be made.


“To be ignorant of what occurred before you were born is to remain always a child. For what is the worth of human life, unless it is woven into the life of our ancestors by the records of history?” — Marcus Tullius Cicero 

Well, Cicero may have gone too far, but it is fun to learn about how you came to be where you are.  So much so, that my father and I became obsessed.  This blog is based on a book that I wrote for my children based on my father’s decades of research and what I was able to add to it. I discovered some fascinating history and wove it into the account of my ancestry. It’s also interesting how it all got started.

When my grandmother, Eveline Victoria Bonorden Gifford, died in 1971, we found a hand-drawn family tree in one of her closets along with numerous old photographs.  I made a new hand-drawn copy of the tree and put it and all the photos in an album for my father’s birthday.  When he retired a few years later he decided to try to fill in some of the missing information.  This was at a time when you had to ask for information through the U.S. Postal Service, which you may have heard of.  Some archived information could be obtained only by visiting far-flung towns and going through the library stacks by hand, which he did.  

Despite these difficulties, my father managed to acquire a lot if information this way.  However, he ran into a brick wall on the one line that should be the easiest to follow, the Gifford line.  At least all these men would have the same last name.  But the line ends with his great grandfather Edmond J. Gifford, who claimed on various census records  to be born in 1830 in Utica, Oneida County, New York.  Edmond’s parents were not found in my grandmother’s records.  

Although my father was able to gather a copious amount of information on Edmond’s life after 1850, he found very little about his birth or his parents.  Edmond’s name first appeared in 1850, but he was living on his own by then.  And to make matters impossible, before 1850 the U. S. Census only lists the name of the head of household, so there is no way to use census records to link Edmond to his parents.  The information that he did get was self reported on Edmond’s later census records.  On one census he claimed that his parents were from Vermont and on another, they were from Massachusetts.  My father decided that Edmond must have cut all ties to his family.  My husband started  referring to Edmond as “the horse thief”.

The title, “Speculations”, refers to the inevitability of having to make them in writing any history, even if it is just a family history.  It’s like working a jigsaw puzzle with missing pieces.  You can still lay out the remaining pieces so the picture makes some sense, using your imagination to fill in the blanks.  And then there is always the possibility that one more search under the sofa will turn up a useful morsel that will help connect the disparate pieces.  Kind of like a treasure hunt.    

I will try to keep my focus on the interesting stories that I found, and not get too bogged down in the dates and other minutia.  One thing I have noticed is that my ancestors (mostly the men, because women’s lives were not well documented unless they did so themselves, and most didn’t have the time) where seldom the most notable members of their families.  Often their brothers had more impact on recorded history and therefore more was written about them.  However, one of these brothers was notable only because he bludgeoned his wife to death.  

I do have a few ancestors who left their mark around the country and even around the world. Some came over on the Mayflower. One was a surveyor in Kentucky with Daniel Boone, another was the Personal Guard to General Washington (well, maybe). Several have rivers, roads and valleys named after them, especially in the south.  One was a Dean of the University of Texas Law School and Vice Governor of the Philippines and of Puerto Rico.  One was a world renown botanist.  Several were highly regarded ministers and missionaries.   

The stories I can tell about their lives depend on what I can find.  For some, there are historical records but little about their personal lives.  For others, there are letters and personal accounts that provide details to give a sense of their lives, but only mysteries about how the family came to be where it was.  For some there are photographs that go back to the 19th century.  For others there are none at all.  Some lived during exciting times and I can tell you about these, giving some context to their lives.  So the chapters are inevitably uneven.  And there are several mysteries about how some ancestors ended up where they did in 1900 because the entire 1890 US Census records were burned in a fire in the warehouse in Washington, DC where they were stored.

I have learned that my ancestors come from four of the five main groups of immigrants (the fifth being Africans, none found yet among my ancestors, except in bondage, and possible siblings) whose traditions and language affected the communities where they settled to such a degree that it is hard to imagine how these new Americans could unite to share a common identity as Americans.  I came to wonder about this from reading books on the American Revolution, especially Freedom Just Around the Corner, by Walter A. McDougall.  As McDougall points out, in thinking about these immigrant groups, that it is important to keep in mind the historical context in the 1600-1700s.  Most large immigrant groups were fleeing oppression and/or starvation.  And they all had very distinct habits of family, community, education, work and religion.  I’ll just highlight a few of the most delightful things he says.

The German immigrants included Prussians, Dutch, Swiss and Palatines, as Queen Ann of England labeled them before expelling them.  They brought with them sausage, pretzels, pickles, rye breads, cheeses, wines, beer, cakes and pastries.  Some settled in New Amsterdam, later known as New York (mostly in “Kleindeutschland” in what is now the East Village). Some came to be known as the “Pennsylvania Dutch”, not because they were Dutch, but because they were from Deutschland. In a small town of Conestogoe, in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, they began a road heading southwest.  This was the beginning of the Great Wagon Road that ran down the valleys of the Appalachian Mountains to Virginia and the Carolinas.  Thousands of settlers who used this road modeled their wagons on the “Conestogoe” wagons of the Germans. 

One group of immigrants that made good use of this road was the Scotch-Irish, Protestant Scots who had migrated to Ireland.  This was one of four distinct groups of English speaking immigrants, the Scotch-Irish being the most numerous one.  And with the least means.  They were fleeing border wars between Protestant and Catholic in Ireland (the border eventually became the one between the Irish Republic and Northern Island and the “troubles” did not cease until recently).  Passing down the Great Wagon Road they named towns like Cumberland, Gallway, Derry and Durham. Their dialects were the foundations of the country and western speech of hillbillies ( “git offa mah prah-pitty”), including subject-verb mismatches (“Them gals is buck nekkid”), double negatives (“I ain’t fixin’ ta rassle no critters”) and double positives “He done did it, jedge, Ah seen him mah own self”).  And they brought their music and their dance, the Irish jig which morphed into the tap dance of Africans held in bondage.  Their experience taught them to be always on guard, fiercely protective of family, loyal to friends and ruthless to enemies.  The communities along the Atlantic seaboard were relieved when these newcomers moved on to the frontier where they could be of no danger to anyone but the Indians.

The Puritans who settled in New England were fleeing religious persecution in eastern England.  They were primarily tradesmen and craftsmen, rather than farmers, and so they did not need to migrate any further in search of more fertile land.  The East Anglicans had a twangy “Down East” accent that tends to add an “r” onto words ending in a vowel (“Ameriker”), soften long vowels (“Aah pahkt mah cah in Havahd Yahd”).  They valued individuality, marriage and family, and believed that sin, temptation and sudden death were everywhere.  They believed in witches and acted on those beliefs. They were stoic, repressed their emotions and shunned proud clothing.  They ate pease porridge (“pease porridge hot, pease porridge cold,…”), pumpkins, cornmeal with pork, beef or fish (Boston clam chowder).  They did not celebrate traditional Christmas holidays.

The Society of Friends, or “Quakers” (meaning “to tremble in the way of the Lord”), considered Puritan New England to be oppressive and set out with William Penn to create a “holy experiment” in New England, Pennsylvania and West Jersey.  The Quakers eliminated all traces of formal religion from their lives, believing that all men and women are imbued with a divine inner light.  They were very egalitarian, focusing more on the community than the individual or family.  They brought with them a dialect rich with slang (by golly, bamboozle, chock-full, flabergasted, thingamagig, wallup) but short on grammar.  Children’s education was a family decision, not a community one.

The English royalists uprooted by Cromwell’s takeover of the British government were enticed by the governor of Virginia to immigrate to Virginia by bestowing on them large estates and high offices.  These impoverished noblemen needed cheap labor to work their lands and so held slaves and hired indentured servants to run their large land holdings.  This setting lead to a community that was Anglican, aristocratic, hierarchical, almost entirely rural, enamored of horses and gambling and deeply in debt.  They tended to come from London and Bristol and spoke in languid rhythms, softened consonants and elongated syllables (“taahmaraah is anutha dai”).  They used non-grammatical expression, such as “I be”, “ain’t”, and tended to drop the “g” in “-ing” (“I be bringin’ thah puddin’”).  They enriched the English language with terms like chomp, flapjack, grit, yonder, book-learnin’ and, of course, “tump”.  They smoked “tobacca”, drank wine, valued a dancing master over a tutor, and adorned themselves with elegant clothes.  Unlike Puritans, Virginians wore their coats of arms, not their religion, on their sleeves.

My ancestors can be traced back to the Puritans, Quakers, Germans, the Scotch-Irish of South Carolina and the hills of Kentucky, all on their way to Davenport, Iowa or Falls County, Texas. My ancestors were more adventurous than their parents or siblings or cousins.  They continued to move west as the frontier receded, settling down only when the frontier disappeared or they just got tired.