News from Norfolk

Tag: Family history

About the Wheelers: in search of my father’s family

[The following is yet another family history essay. It has no connection with Norfolk, although it does contain a story about a witch. I doubt it will interest anyone other than my close relatives, but I am posting it here in case it might be of use to someone who shares some of my father’s lineage.]

My parents divorced when I was in my early teens. Far from being saddened by this, I was delighted. There must have been a point where the two of them enjoyed each other’s company, but if so, it had taken place long prior to my birth. Trapped in a conflict where neutrality wasn’t an option, I sided with my mother, although we later fell out very badly indeed. 

This is why most of what I ever knew about my father — about his earlier life, his family background, about the sort of person he was — came to me by way of my mother, who by that point was consistently negative about him. 

My mother had previously parted company with the rest of her family, comprising her brother and half-sister, as well as their offspring, over the terms of my maternal grandmother’s will. As this happened when I was still very young, almost everything that I knew about her side of the family also came to me via her own narrative framing. And then when she duly fell out with me, when I was in my 20s, she made it clear that I was no longer a member of the family — that I was not only a disappointment to her, but also to the many generations of my forebears, too.

So it was that when I first dipped a tentative toe into genealogical research last year, the whole project felt disloyal, transgressive — taboo. It has taken me months to get remotely comfortable with it. At times, the emotions it threw up were surprisingly raw. 

Yet at other times, the longer perspectives of historical time brought seemed to encourage a strange sort of healing. If those around me didn’t always understand the value of collecting long and gappy lists of largely unremarkable dead relatives, it’s probably because this healing process wasn’t something they themselves wanted or needed. 

Of all the challenging moments of this journey, though, perhaps the most difficult were those involving my father, who died in 2006. Here was a man I’d last seen at some long-forgotten court hearing over visitation rights and child-support payments — the almost mythical antihero of my early life. I’d tried to banish him from my memory, and had almost succeeded. Now I was going in search of him. 

This is his family story, which is also my family story. 

* * *

My father, Charles Lovelace Wheeler, was born in 1925 in rural Kentucky. “Lovelace” is, by the way, pronounced “Loveless” — in the late nineteenth century, even literate Wheelers were quite capable of spelling it “Lovlis” in family Bibles. He was the eldest of eight children — seven brothers and one sister. His parents were farming people, although I’ve been told that in the depths of the Great Depression, his father also ran the backwoods equivalent of a corner shop. 

His childhood was, I think, spent at Talley’s farm, Hammonville, Hart County. Even now, judging from a cursory visit via Google Maps, the area is very rural — flat land, not all of which has even now been cleared, cut through by meandering streams — “creeks”, I guess — and studded with Baptist churches. To this day, Hart County is a “dry” county. There are places with barely-credible names like “Barefoot Hollow”, “International Harvester Road” and “Lion’s Den”. Fort Knox, next to which the US gold reserves used to be housed, is nearby — a testament to the remoteness of the place. 

While naturally very beautiful, it would be fair to say that Hart County is neither a very wealthy area, nor a very ethnically diverse one. Yet it’s a place in which my father had deep roots. He must have grown up knowing that one local road, “Wheeler Road”, was named after his father’s family, while two others were named for his mother’s Talley lineage. He must have known that his family, both material and paternal, had been amongst the earliest founders of this little community. 

For the sake of simplicity, though, at least for the moment, let us pursue only my father’s direct patrilineal ancestry. First, how did the Wheelers end up in Hart County, Kentucky? 

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On William Gale Breene

What follows is unlikely to be of interest to anyone who isn’t at the very least a cousin of mine, and indeed might not be very fascinating in that case, either. 

This has nothing to do with Norfolk, nor is it a ghost story. It’s family history, and not very good family history at that, because it’s more about what I couldn’t find than what I could. To the extent it posits any conclusions, these are entirely speculative and quite possibly incorrect. 

I should add, in case it isn’t obvious, that I’m not an expert on Irish or US history, that this is a casual blog post rather than a substantial and serious piece of research, that I can and will alter it without notice or compunction if new facts come to light, and that while I’m hugely grateful for the generous help and advice I received in the course of putting this all together, the mistakes — and I’m sure there are plenty — remain entirely my own.

The only reason, then, that I’m posting any of this here at all is that, having done the research that underpins what I’ve written, it seemed a bit wasteful not to make this material available in the unlikely event that someone, somewhere, might perhaps be able to derive some benefit from it. 

Finally, I am aware that I have not supplied footnotes. In truth, I do have these, in a working draft, but it is so hard to make them work on WordPress that I gave up. If, for some reason, you’re desperate for a reference, track me down and I’ll do the best I can to help.

Finding William Gale Breene

This is the story of my thrice great grandfather, William Gale Breene (1820-1896).

William Gale Breene’s life was not, as far as I know, any more remarkable than most lives are. All the same, he preoccupies me. In part, this is because he’s a problem for my sporadic attempts at cultivating a family tree. 

On more or less every other side of the family, I can trace my origins back into the early eighteenth century — and in many cases, far earlier than that. But with William Gale Breene, the trail stops dead. I have no idea who his parents were. I don’t even know the name of the town or village where his story started. And yet this was a man who was alive within the lifetimes of two of my own grandparents. He’s not some creature of the distant, mythic past — the world in which he died, at least, was not entirely unlike the one into which I was born. There is so much I cannot discover about him. Yet at the same time, there are points at which his life may well parallel my own. 

Anyway, this is my attempt to tell his story, in which there will be more silences than declarations, several strange digressions, many halting suggestions and few definitive answers.

Making a start

Where do we begin? The first piece of evidence that establishes the existence of William Gale Breene is a slightly unexpected one. In 1845, the American Colonisation Society, reporting on progress made on the purchase of land in Liberia, announced that between 22 October and 31 December 1844, they had received a donation from one W.G. Breene of Dayton Ohio to the value of 50 cents. The movement to send free black Americans to Liberia was opposed by abolitionists, by many black Americans, and even at the time was criticised as being possibly fraudulent, probably racist, and certainly supportive of slavery as an institution. By the 1840s it would have been obvious to most that the effect of supporting ‘repatriation’, as it was called, was anti-abolitionist — clearly so in a politically polarised state such as Ohio. So here we find William Gale Breene spending fifty cents on nailing his political colours firmly to a particularly discreditable mast.

More benign is the next record. Five years later, on 3 September 1849, two children were baptised at the Third Street Presbyterian Church in Dayton, Ohio: William Henry Breene and Martha Jane Breene. Martha Jane, known as Jennie, was to become my twice-great grandmother. The children’s parents were listed as W. G. and Margaret Breene. Their older sibling, Francis M. Breene, had been laid to rest at the Woodland Cemetery in Dayton on 20 April 1847, at the age of only three years. 

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