Friday, March 21, 2014

The Lost Family

Samuel VanBuren Howell
I never knew my grandfather, Samuel  VanBuren “Vannie” Howell, born in 1874. He died a few years before I was born and I only knew him through the stories about him told by my grandmother, mother and her siblings.

Poppy, as he was called by grandchildren and his older children, outlived his mother by only two years. His wife, my grandmother (Mommie) lived on for more than 30 years as a widow after his death in 1942.

From what I gathered, Poppy wasn't a larger-than-life character. He had a quick temper but was generally a quiet, hard-working man who minded his own business. He was a blacksmith, a farmer, a shopkeeper (more about this in later posts).

His childhood was undoubtedly difficult. His father died when he was a baby - killed with a baseball bat by a man in Elkton, Tenn. This fact raises a plethora of questions, the answers to which no one seems to have.

Was it an accident? Deliberate? We don't even know where he was buried.

When I became interested in learning more, I asked my mother and two of her sisters who were still living at the time about it. They knew absolutely nothing about the death of their grandfather beyond what’s stated above.

Did my grandmother know the details? Did Poppy? Certainly HIS mother knew. Did she share the details? That would have been Great-Grandma Varnell, who remarried after her husband’s death and raised another family. She died in 1940.

My mother and aunts said they never remembered their grandfather’s death being discussed other than how he died.

Over the past forty or so years, a few of our family members attempted to follow this mysterious trail and learn more. They visited Elkton, Tenn., searched county courthouse records, talked to old people who were living at the time. But nothing was unearthed.

In the mid-1990, when I became interested in the subject and vigorously pursued leads, I was able to locate via the Internet a woman in Colorado who provided heretofore unknown information. It seems my great-grandfather was a widower when he married Great-Grandma Varnell (Poppy’s mother). Not only that, he had four or five children (it’s in my records and I have to look before I post next time). After his wife died, one of his brothers took his children to raise.

All were living in Tennessee at the time, but the brother eventually moved to Texas, taking my great-grandfather’s children with him.

Here was the definitive link. The records of the woman in Colorado listed my great-grandfather as having remarried Georgia Ann Stanton (Great-Grandma Varnell) and that’s the last her records show of him. She was unaware of our branch of the family.

Amazing! Poppy had half-brothers and half-sisters! Did he not know about them? I am guessing he did not!

All this makes me feel weird – like I unearthed information that was not mine to know. If Poppy didn’t know, then why should we, more than a hundred years after the fact? 

Through the miracle of technology we are able to communicate and learn things in ways unknown to people of the past.

And something else that strikes me is this: people in olden days didn’t discuss the past if the subject was difficult or painful. Life was hard and they just had to get on with it in order to survive - literally.

I love a mystery and solving one, so learning this heretofore unknown information was quite satisfying.

In future posts I’ll be relating additional details about this “lost family.” The lady in Colorado actually sent me a copy of her family genealogy which documented the existence of my great-grandfather and his “first” family.

While this post is perhaps not so interesting to readers far and wide, I know that my extended family – some of whom are readers here – will enjoy this subject.

Thank you for indulging me to tell this story!


  1. I find the subject interesting Sanda, my family or not. I look forward to future posts on the subject. During the past year my oldest daughter decided to work on the genealogy of her/our family. It has been an interesting experience. Of course it makes me wish I'd asked more questions when there were more of the earlier generations living. Still, I'm happy she is doing the job at this time. Amazing what you can find on records on the internet these days.


    1. Tell your daughter it's easy to become overwhelmed with all the info she will find. Also, that sometimes it's necessary to put it aside for a while. At some points one becomes almost obsessed with the facts and the puzzles which inevitably pop up. Like you, I wish I had asked more questions while the older generations were still around. Funny how we don't care so much about these things when we are younger.

  2. I too find your post interesting. It is a bit like reading a mystery story.
    It is true about people in the olden times not discussing difficult subjects, only occupying themselves in hard work.
    Genealogy as a hobby is popular here in Finland too.
    Waiting to read more Sanda..

    1. I obsessed about the above information for months after I learned it. I was so excited to share it with my mother and her sisters. But they didn't seem very interested at all! I still don't understand why. Perhaps they didn't really believe it. It was like it was too far removed from them. They seemed interested only in the people they knew, the people who had been parts of their lives.

  3. Loved reading this and so glad you understand all these things. I just don't have what it takes to do this but so glad I have you to keep us all straight on these things. Agree it's like reading a mystery and presented in a way easy to follow. Good job Sis! Anxiously waiting for next's new to me every time I hear it!

    1. I know you have heard the story so I'm glad you weren't bored with me telling it again. I have to pull out records to refresh my memory on the details of the lost family. It's been a while since I looked at them.

  4. This is very interesting Sanda, and we have had similar experiences with my family and HB's family. Firstly that both families concealed various information because the facts were 'inconvenient', or they themselves were not told. Now with the ability to research quite easily, much has been learned. Times certainly change, and family 'secrets' were things which hardly raise a little smile today, and make me feel sorry for my mother and mother-in-law who felt compelled to protect themselves by secrecy. We have unearthed possible siblings too, but have not contacted people who may be distressed about things they did not know.

    1. Your story is quite interesting, too, Patricia. In these times, when no secrets are kept, it's rather fascinating that back the people were closed mouth about things. Who knows what other things have been kept hidden from us. It is my belief, just a hunch, that my great grandfather never told his 2nd wife, my great grandmother and their son, my grandfather, that he had another family. But I'm baffled that we don't know any details about his death. Two mysteries!

  5. Genealogy is a fascinating hobby, a bit like detective work! Interesting that you feel that perhaps you shouldn't know things because your ancestor wasn't able to know them. I sometimes feel quite frustrated / sad that I can't talk with ancestors, ones I knew and ones I never did, in part to learn more and in part to tell what I know. It sometimes feels as though they should be alive somewhere, they seem so vivid by the time I've researched their lives. I'd not thought about the habit of not discussing painful things as being a survival mechanism in hard times. Makes a lot of sense. In contrast the way we hash things over and over must mean we live in pretty easy times, eh?

    Bill learned his grandfather had full siblings he never heard about, though he knew his grandfather. There must have been some schism in the family at some point, we don't know what exactly.

    1. I know exactly what you mean, Shelly. Years ago, when I was deep into genealogy, I too felt in a sense I was living their lives. When I visited the cemetery where my great-great grandmother was buried and alongside her were markers for FOUR infants who didn't live past the age of two years, I wept for her. That she lost all those babies and died herself in her late thirties, no doubt worn out from childbearing and caring for the six who survived. I would try to imagine what her life was like.

      Bill's story is pretty amazing! Don't we wish we knew the why to these puzzles?

  6. thx for sharing. i think old family stories are interesting. the older generation in my family didn't share information because they thought nobody would be interested in such things. they were willing to share but quite surprised when asked.

    1. I'm glad the older generation in your family shared the old stories. Everyone has an interesting life and a story to tell. But none of us fully recognize that because it's too familiar to us!

  7. It seems every family has at least one mystery or the proverbial skeleton in the closet. I really think you make a good point in observing the habits of the past generations and how difficult topics were not discussed publicly or at all.
    Thank you for sharing Poppy's story :-)


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