Ode Part 2: A Glimpse of Faces Unseen

My last post featured that excellent shot of the headstone of one of my 64 fourth-great-grandparents, one Mister Thomas Bilderback, who lived and died in the rolling and wooded hills bounded on the east by Fort Pitt (Pittsburgh), and on the west by the due-southerly bit of the Ohio River. He was born just before the American Revolution sparked and would live into the winter of 1831; he would have been about 30 when every grown man in the area seemed to be up in arms (literally) against the new US government in what would be called the Whiskey Rebellion (protesting the government demanding a tax on locally produced whiskey; the protestors tarred and feathered a few tax collectors before the situation subsided.)

Thomas holds a special place in my genealogical journey. When I did the obligatory 7th grade family tree assignment I was referred by my mom to a thin manilla folder containing a decent amount of info on her parents, grandparents, and back to their great-grandparents, ie, back to a few folks who were my great-great-great grandparents. I dutifully recapitulated the info for school but what the school assignment didn’t reveal was that I had also fully been bit by the genealogy bug. I was hooked BIG TIME, and thus began my personal, utterly fulfilling and educational journey. Yadda yadda.

Among those 3rd-gr-grandparents were a couple whose names were George Campbell and Rachel Bilderback. And they were, that personally fateful Sunday-afternoon-before-the-assignment-was-due the “Primae Ancestori”, the unwitting recipients of my family-tree hunting engine. They were the ancestors I identified with, were my vicarious guides into the past of my family that was the past of America, too. This trip (and it surely was – and remains – a total trip!) was given through these two a precise physical location on planet Earth; a place from which to embark.

They were born, he two days after Christmas in 1800, she in mid November twelve years later in a place called Washington County, Pennsylvania.

And where the heck was that????!

It was the 80s. I was in Scottsdale, Arizona. Rand McNally helped me see that this hoary old land of my ancestors was about 15 miles due west of Pittsburgh…which was just as without any experiential referent for me at that time as the someone’s birthplace being handed down as a county.

I jest a little, but at the time the place really did take on some almost             mystical depth of meaning for me. It was, for all intents and purposes, “where it all began”, in the personal epic I was discovering/navigating for myself. I, a Campbell, was born in Washington, District of Columbia, and it seemed somehow fitting and just that my furthest-back Campbell ancestor known right off the bat in the genealogy discovery journey was born in the nice and even year of 1800 in a place also named for the Father of Our   Country.

George Campbell and Rachel Bilderback were my talisman.

That very summer after getting the family tree bug I went to spend a few weeks with my aunt and her family who still lived in DC. She’d paved the genealogy road  before me and not without a full understanding of the solemnity due the occasion opened up her work to me. No single, thin, manilla folder, this.

And the first thing I learned was that… I could barely contain my excitement… there were others. She’d discovered further ancestors and pushed the collective knowledge back another generation or more here and there. And the first name I learned, the first “next generation” ancestor was Rachel’s father, Thomas Bilderback. If George and Rachel were the ones who seduced me into the whole new world, then Thomas was the first “elder”, the Obi Wan, the first handhold that would allow going further back, further into the past, mine, his, and others’. I also learned of my aunt’s source, a fellow traveler, as it were, but hardly the novice I was. (And if Thomas was the abstract “elder” in my mind, then Harry Liggett, a 4th cousin, and forty years my senior, was the real world analog. He’d been researching for some time already, back in 1984, and as one does in this endeavor, had shared much with my aunt. And remember, these were the days way before “online”. Harry and I communicated on some topics directly in due time, and it was he who took the photo of our ancestor Thomas Bilderback’s tombstone that appeared on my previous post. Hi, Harry! 🙂

Fast forward.             

I had my actual DNA analyzed last year. The service (23andme.com) facilitates communication between oneself and other people whose DNA has matches; i.e., people to whom one is related. So one of these people with whom I shared a match, well, the match was a little more than infiniesmal (as many such matches are) and we both noted many of the same names in our backgrounds.

After a little poking around in this person’s family tree (they’d posted on Ancestry.com) I found the link. Lo and behold we were both descended from Thomas Bilderback!

Just like when you finish reading a book or suchlike and all the details about the book, story and author take on more significance by dint of each thing having been given context, so after realizing who our common ancestor was I again examined this newfound relative’s family tree and the picture of her great-great gradnmother immediately jumped out at me.

See, in having been into this for so long I’ve spent untold amounts of time staring into pictures of my ancestors and their relations. Those who know genealogy also, of course, know that we will never see photographs of ancestors who died before the 1840s (roughly) because photography was not invented until then. But almost everyone who was alive since then had their picture taken. So even after the great moment when you verifiably push your family tree further into the past, beyond your great-great-grandparents, you have to live with the fact of never ever seeing those ever-so-slightly-more-distant predecessors. For those immersed in this genealogy thing, we can’t help but wonder “what did they look like?” because it’s the counterpart of “who were they?”

Back to our tale of the Unseen Face.

So my newly-found relative had a picture posted of her great-great-grandma, which caught my eye. The woman in question, named Lacy Jane Miller (nee Campbell, which, no relation, oddly) was first cousins to my great-great-grandpa, a guy by the name of George P.B. Campbell, pictured here:

What caught my attention, however, was Lacy Jane’s resemblence to the older brother (Thomas) and younger sister (Amanda) of my gr-gr-grandpa. Here are all three, together. From left, Thomas B. Campbell and his sister Amanda R. Campbell, and then Lacy:

Again, the two on the left are brother and sister. The woman on the right is their first cousin. (Despite the “Campbell” surname — both fathers bore the last name Campbell but were not closely related — the two on the left along with their brother George, my gr-gr-grandpa, and the woman on the right are related through their mothers, Rachel and Margaret Bilderback, daughters of Thomas Bilderback.)

The resemblence is, at least to me, huge. And so the immediate implication is that since these three share the shape (if not the setting as well) of their eyes, that can only be through their mothers, who were sisters, and by extension, from the sisters’ parents.

Was it said, within these people’s families, that they looked like grandma or like grandpa? Either way, they inherited those eyes from their Bilderback grandparents. In all likelihood, 200 years ago, either Thomas Bilderback or his wife Margaret Preston Bilderback, was doing their thing, looking very much like one of these three people, their grandchildren. And their unseen (never to be seen) faces bubble up and back to us…to be seen, through the past dimly.


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