Letters from the Past - SMC Magazine profiles women's soccer senior Mary Farnsworth
by Mark Tarnacki
Saint Michael's College Magazine, Fall 2011
A chance discovery led women's soccer senior Mary Farnsworth into a family story that starts at the Revolutionary War
Mary Farnsworth '12 hadn't given much thought to the dusty boxes that John Nathaniel Fray, her grandfather, brought up with him from Virginia when he moved in with her family in Plattsburgh, New York, last winter.
Not, that is, until Fray, an 83-year-old devoted to his deep genealogical roots in Virginia, wanted to track down an old scrapbook while Farnsworth was home last Christmas. To oblige, she and her mom carried up several old boxes from the basement to look through.
"The first thing we opened was a letter written in 1855," says Farnsworth, an education and history major.
"As I was going through the boxes, I was saying, 'Look! These are Civil War letters! These are World War I letters! I was very interested and thought they should be preserved," Farnsworth says.
At the time, Farnsworth was enrolled in professor George Dameron's history course "The Historian's Craft," which teaches the proper way to use and organize such primary historic sources. That class, and her basement discovery, have launched Farnsworth into a project that became a fulltime summer job this past summer.
Funded by a research grant from the Academic Affairs Office and guided by history professor Douglas Slaybaugh, an American history specialist, she organized her archive of letters and created a detailed "Finding Aid" for her family papers that might help future researchers.
Her archive has exposed her to a fascinating world of colorful ancestors descended directly from Benjamin Brown Sr., grandson of a Welshman, who was born in the 17th century and became a town father of Charlottesville, Virginia. Farnsworth found a copy of the land grant that King George gave Benjamin Brown for land in Albemarle County in 1750. This early American ancestor had 12 children, nine of them sons, seven of whom fought in the Revolution. Brown ended up having 50 ancestors who fought for the Confederate Army.
Spurred by these discoveries, in June, Farnsworth and her mother drove to Virginia on a research mission. The two visited old courthouses, libraries, historical societies and family-connected homesteads, meeting or revisiting relatives who told stories and connected them to still more sources. They brought back boxes of written records, photographs and other artifacts, which Farnsworth began cataloging and organizing, along with her grandfather's items. Elizabeth Scott, the Saint Michael's archivist, has guided Farnsworth through the ins and outs of proper archiving.
Intriguing story lines emerged in the letters that helped explain strong feelings her Southern relatives always expressed about past events, much to her bewilderment. "My dad's considered to be the Yankee in the family," she says, even though he went to Virginia Military Institute for college. (That was the only reason he was allowed to marry her mother, her grandmother said.)
For her project, Farnsworth focused chiefly on the family of a man named John Richard Early, an ancestor with Irish roots whose progeny became a fairly prominent land-holding family in the Shenandoah Valley. Ancestors include Confederate General Jubal Early, who succeeded Stonewall Jackson and outfoxed Union commanders in the region for a time.
A visit to a Civil War-era plantation home of John Richard Early, confirmed a long-told family story of General Early visiting cousin John Richard's homestead, Mount Fair, during the war and riding his horse up onto the porch. It sounded apocryphal, but a photo in the home retained by the present owners verified the tale. They also saw swords of Union soldiers who had died there when the home was commandeered as a hospital.
Although the Civil War era history is intriguing, Farnsworth says, "the World War I letters were highlights for me, since they were letters between my grandfather's parents. His father wrote some 360 letters to my great-grandmother Lucille (whom he called 'Peg') between 1915 and the years right after the war."
Sometimes when reading a letter she even sees glimpses of her own personality in the young Lucille. "There's one letter where her twin sister got mad at her because she was smoking cigars and drinking whiskey with her brother and someone else, and her poor sister was left to clean something in the kitchen. And I was always very close to my brother, hanging out with the boys, so it felt like we were making a little connection," she says.
"When I look at these people from the letters and records I have now, I almost don't look at them as being my family members, but almost as characters in a book that's already been written, and I'm piecing together who they are," says Farnsworth. "It's interesting to imagine."
She and Slaybaugh think perhaps her work could end up at the University of Virginia, which has some early Fray papers in its archives already.