CLIFF’S EDGE: An opportunity to reconnect with my family’s past


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Along with retirement has come the opportunity for me to work with my wife on genealogy research of our respective families. We’ve been pursuing it off and on for several years, but it seems particularly relevant in these later years of our own lives.

As a history buff, I’m intrigued to find that as we connect with preceding family members, so many of them no longer alive, I have an opportunity to reconnect with events and phases of our country’s past in a very personal way.

No, we haven’t identified any relatives who arrived aboard the Mayflower. Nor have we come across any who appear to have been thieves or rustlers.

But we have learned other interesting bits.

For example, both of us have identified members of our respective kin who fought in the Civil War, perhaps having squared off on opposite sides in one notable battle.

She knows that a relative of her paternal great-grandfather served on a Union gunboat on the Mississippi River. I have drawn a link to a relative on my mother’s side who fought with the Confederacy as an artilleryman. It appears they were both present during the battle of Fort Donelson in western Tennessee in 1862.

They both seem to have come out of that battle unscathed.

We traveled to southwest Colorado last summer to the area in which my mother’s family homesteaded in the late 1890s and came away with up an up-close and personal perspective on water disputes of that era.

My mom’s father and others in the family were among early farmers of that time and place and were among those drawing water from the Arkansas River for their irrigation.

Those downstream across the border in Kansas had been tapping into that stream, as well, and did not take kindly to being second in line to a dwindling water source. It’s an interesting dispute that I’m still exploring.

Back with my wife’s family again, we have tracked relatives of both her father and mother who participated in major developments of the Wild West, focusing on Montana.

Her mother’s family can be traced back to mining and farming in Scotland and on the Isle of Man. Immigrating at about the turn of the century to the U.S., they eventually made their way to South-Central Montana, where some became involved with mining in Butte, particularly in the organizing of mining unions and the sometimes violent acitivy that came along with it.

Others in the family took to cattle ranching in the Livingston area on land they still hold.

About that same time a patriarch of her father’s family emigrated from Germany and took up residency in Minnesota where he was a machinist and artist.

One of his sons – my wife’s grandfather – walked in his footsteps as a railroad machinist, and he and his family followed the course of the rails across the nation’s northern tier to the Livingston, Mont. area and then further west into the Pacific Northwest.

Her father took a side trip from Livingston to Butte to graduate from what was then the Montana School of Mines, and that’s where the two family threads were knotted.

Most of you undoubtedly have similar stories in your pasts, but probably more of them need to be resurrected from our collective memories and told or retold for sake of our ongoing education.

Cliff Rowe is a retired journalist and journalism professor. (He practiced both in a time before journalists and what they produced were considered “enemies of the people.”) He and his family have lived in the Shorewood area of White Center (then Burien) since 1969 when they returned to the Northwest after seven years in the Chicago area. There, following graduate school, he wrote and edited with the Chicago Sun-Times and with Paddock Publications in the Chicago suburbs. On moving here, he was with The Seattle Times for 11 years before turning to teaching journalism at Pacific Lutheran University for 35 years, retiring in 2015.

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