Monthly Archives: June 2014

It’s a family thing…

My mother took over the mantle of family historian back in the early 1970s, and so began pulling together an updated genealogy of her mother’s family. That family had been the subject of a book written back in the 1920s, but hadn’t been updated since.

So, she started writing to relatives near and far, collecting information that she eventually self-published in time for our annual family reunion during the nation’s Bicentennial in 1976.

Her work got me interested in the subject, and since it was about that time I started writing a weekly column on local history, I decided to look into my dad’s family history, and my mom volunteered to help a bit with that.

And since then, the topic of family history has expanded in our household to both my mother’s parents’ families and both my dad’s parents, as well as my wife’s related families.

According to the National Geographic's analysis of my maternal lineage DNA, this was the route my family took out of Africa and into Eastern Europe.

According to the National Geographic’s Genographic Project analysis of my maternal lineage DNA, this was the route my family took out of Africa and into Eastern Europe.

Several years ago, my niece bought a National Geographic Genographic Project DNA test kit for me for Christmas, which I dutifully sent off, because I figured it would open a few more historical doors—which it did.

When the results came back, they showed that my roots are deep indeed, stretching back to some of the earliest folks who were folks some 150,000 years ago on my mom’s side and then to a group of people who lived in the Rift Valley of Africa somewhere around 79,000 years ago on my dad’s side of the ledger. It would be truly interesting if one or two of those sets of early remains the Leakey family discovered in the Rift might belong to one of my ancestors.

So anyway, about 50,000 years ago, the Ice Age then gripping the planet turned Africa’s arid plains into grasslands, at which time my dad’s ancestors followed the game they relied on for sustenance north through the Arabian Peninsula before turning farther east into Eurasia and then circling west. Eventually, they reached Lombardy in northern Italy, where my dad’s earliest recorded ancestors lived before they moved to Switzerland in the 1300s.

According to the National Geographic folks, my mom’s line begins with Mitochondrial Eve, the beginning of the matrilineal line for all modern humans. The family spent some tens of thousands of years moving around central Africa. My mom’s ancestors split off Eve’s line and then split again about 80,000 years ago. And those were the folks who moved out of Africa, spurred on by the same conditions that prompted my dad’s ancestors to leave. That group split yet again, with one wave heading east to settle Australia and Polynesia, and the other moving ever farther north into the Near East—and those were my mom’s ancestors. About 50,000 years ago my mom’s ancestors moved north across the Caucasus Mountains and into the lands around the Black Sea. And that’s where, apparently, we acquired the part of our family that is related to the Ashkenazi Jewish people.

In 1867 my dad's grandparents boarded the bark Harvest Home at Le Harve, France for the voyage to the United States. Harvest Home probably looked a lot like the Harriet McGreggor, above, in this painting done in 1870.

In 1867 my dad’s grandparents boarded the bark Harvest Home at Le Harve, France for the voyage to the United States. Harvest Home probably looked a lot like the bark-rigged Harriet McGreggor, above, in this painting done in 1870.

Finding out that my mom was genetically related to one half of the great Jewish ancestral heritage (the others are the Sephardim of Spain, Portugal, North Africa, and the Middle East) came as no real surprise. My cousin’s granddaughter (related to me through my mother’s line) had then recently died of Tay Sachs disease, which requires a genetic Jewish component from both the mother and the father’s side.

There are, however, no Jews in my family genealogy. That probably means those Ashkenazi ancestors survived the pogroms and other brutal anti-Semitic assaults common in Eastern Europe until relatively modern times by renouncing their heritage and being baptized as Christians.

So anyway, that got my family to Europe. My mom’s family pretty much came from Germany. My maternal grandmother’s family immigrated to Pennsylvania from the German Palatinate in 1750, becoming Pennsylvania Deutsch. My maternal grandfather’s family were relatively late arrivals, coming over from East Prussia in 1885. Thus Pennsylvania Deutsch joined with Deutsch to create…my mom.

My maternal grandfather's parents traveled to the U.S. aboard the German Lloyd Line steamer SS Eider in 1885. This photo of the Eider was taken a year earlier. The family had begun their journey 80,000 years earlier in Africa.

My maternal grandfather’s parents traveled to the U.S. aboard the German Lloyd Line steamer SS Eider in 1885. This photo of the Eider was taken a year earlier. The family had begun their journey 80,000 years earlier in Africa.

My paternal grandfather’s family came over from Switzerland in 1867, first setting in Erie, Pennsylvania where he worked as a—and I know this seems a bit hackneyed—Swiss watchmaker. Really. The family then moved to Kansas, for reasons not entirely clear. Although there was a French settlement there at Le Loupe. My paternal grandmother’s family apparently came from Ireland, but when and what those ancestors’ names were I haven’t been able to determine. That’s because their name was Mitchell and they settled in New York City where the name is a dime a dozen. I know they came before the Civil War, because my Great-grandfather Mitchell served in an Ohio 100-day regiment during the war.

During the last several years, both my wife and I became fascinated with TV shows based around genealogy. In particular, we have greatly enjoyed historian Henry Louis Gates’ programs on PBS. For Christmas a couple years ago, I got my wife one of’s DNA tests, which she sent in for analysis. This past winter, I did the same, and so we now have a pretty good handle on our ancestry after Europe’s earliest history.

During one of Dr. Gates’ “Finding Your Roots” episodes, he analyzed the family history of some movie star or another, and determined the guy was “one of the whitest people” he’d ever met. The star’s DNA proved he had virtually pure white, European DNA. And both my wife and I found about the same results.

My wife, it turns out, is descended from ancestors from Great Britain. In fact, the percentage of British ancestry in her DNA is greater than that of the average resident of Great Britain. Her DNA is 79 percent from Great Britain; the average resident of Great Britain only has 60 percent British DNA.

My DNA on the other hand, showed I’m 63 percent Western European, a higher percentage than the average modern Western European, who has just 48 percent Western European DNA.

So no American Indians in our background, not much other than the barest traces of people who aren’t white, including that tiny bit of Ashkenazi from my distant cousins in Eastern Europe. Which is maybe why I’m so fond of kosher corned beef and bagels. Or maybe not.

Whatever, searching for our roots has provided some grounding, some satisfaction for both my wife as we’ve been able to go beyond family tradition and stories to find out where our ancestors really came from. It’s perhaps not all that exciting, but then again we’re not very exciting people. And apparently we come from a long, long line of non-exciting people.




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Sea captains! In Kendall County?

When I was a youngster, I was besotted with sailing ships. I built models of the  Sir Thomas Lipton International Fishing Challenge Cup racer Bluenose, the U.S.S. Constitution, and (my masterpiece) the famed clipper ship Cutty Sark.

My most prized possession, a 1958 Christmas present, was my well-thumbed copy of the National Geographic’s Men Ships and the Sea, a collection of true sea stories, the end papers of which featured a full-rigged clipper ship, with all the sails labeled.

We spent hours virtually every summer day on the river back in those days, polling our scows up and down the Fox’s muddy stream, fishing and landing on and exploring nearby islands. One summer, I saved every penny I could and bought 2” diameter poles at Alexander Lumber that I fashioned into a fore-and-aft sailing rig for my scow. I manufactured leeboards and somehow talked my mother into sewing a sail. My little catboat rig actually worked, though tacking across the shallow main channel of the Fox was a real challenge.

During those years I read everything I could that was sailing-related, including C.S. Forester’s wonderful Hornblower saga. Nowadays, what with arthritic fingers and hands, holding books has become a chore, so I rely more and more using the Kindle apps on both my iPhone and MacBook Pro. And imagine my joy when I discovered electronic versions of the Hornblower books! I’m reading them again, in chronological order, using the uBooks app on my iPhone with its nifty auto scroll feature. Every morning during my 21-minute cardio maintenance Nu-Step routine, I let uBooks scroll as I furiously pedal, which makes the time speed by.

So given my fascination with things nautical, I was not a little surprised to run across accounts of two captains with direct Kendall County connections during my epic transcription project. Back when I was editor of the Ledger-Sentinel here in Oswego, I transcribed interesting news items from the Kendall County Record’s “Oswego” news column for our monthly “Yesteryear” feature. I also relied on a bunch of transcriptions Ford Lippold did during 1976, as he sat down at the Oswego Public Library with his portable typewriter transcribing from their microfilm collection. But those transcriptions were extremely incomplete. So when I retired from the news biz in 2008, I decided to fill in the gaps. Over the next five years, I transcribed thousands of news items, mostly dealing with Oswego, from microfilm in the Little White School Museum’s collections. As of this morning, the 70 or so pages of transcriptions Ford and I did prior to 2008 have ballooned to more than 4,700.

But I digress.

Two captains of Great Lakes ships either lived in or had direct connections to our small northern Illinois farming county of Kendall, Capt. John Raleigh and Capt. Frank Huyck. Capt. Raleigh actually owned a 155-acre farm near Yorkville in southwestern Oswego Township, along what is today Ill. Route 71, just south of Van Emmon Road. Every fall, when shipping on the lakes was interrupted by cold weather, Capt. Raleigh would leave his ship and head to his farm. As the Kendall County Record reported on Nov. 10, 1897: “Captain John Raleigh came home Saturday for the winter.” The following April, the Record noted: “Captain Raleigh is away on the lakes for the summer.”

While skippering the steam propeller passenger and freight ship Iowa, Capt. John Raleigh rammed and sank the yacht schooner Hawthorne in August 1896. Photo courtesy

While skippering the steam propeller passenger and freight ship Iowa, Capt. John Raleigh rammed and sank the yacht schooner Hawthorne in August 1896. Photo courtesy

Capt. Raleigh was apparently not a flawless skipper. August 13, 1896, the Wayne Weekly Breeze reported that “The schooner yacht Hawthorne, owned by McConnell Bros., was sunk off the Government breakwater at the entrance to the Chicago harbor Wednesday night by the single screw propeller [steamer] Iowa of the Goodrich Transportation Line. Capt. Martin Henderson of the yacht and a crew of four were taken off the wreck by the tug Gardner. The big steamer, in charge of Capt. John Raleigh, was on her maiden trip, and proceeded on her way to Grand Haven.” But he must have been good enough, because he enjoyed a long, and relatively successful career.

Capt. Raleigh eventually retired from the lakes, and moved to Yorkville, turning the farm over to his son Ray. He died in 1915 in Chicago at the age of 70 and is buried in the Oswego Township Cemetery beside his wife, Melissa.

Captain Huyck with his cigar (Betty Cornwell collection)

Undated photograph of Capt. Frank Huyck. (Betty Cornwell collection)

Capt. Frank Huyck, on the other hand, apparently never lived in Kendall County, although he visited here frequently after marrying a local girl.

On Feb. 13, 1889, the Kendall County Record reported in its “Oswego” column that “The marriage of Miss Helen Samse to a Mr. Frank Huyck of Sheridan, N.Y. will take place Wednesday at the residence of her parents, Chas. Samse. Helen marries a seafaring man, the mate of a Lake steamer.”

Although busy as first an officer and then as a captain aboard steamers on the lakes, Capt. Huyck managed to get back to visit friends and family once in a while. The Record reported on Sept. 2, 1891 that “Capt. F.B. Huyck came from off the lakes one day to make his wife and baby, who are summering here, a visit.”

By 1903, Capt. Huyck was in command of the Chemung, a passenger and freight steamship owned by the Union Steamship Companies. But in September of that year, the American Association of Masters and Pilots struck against several shipping companies, including the Union Steamship Companies. The companies managed to break the strike a month later and all of the strikers were blackballed from further employment—the captain of the Chemung among them. It would be three years until Huyck would find another job with a Great Lakes shipping company.

In 1906, thanks to his friend, Capt. William Reed, Huyck was offered a job as first mate aboard the steamship Amasa Stone, an ore freighter hauling iron ore from Minnesota’s Messabi Range to steel mills in Ohio. The ore freighter, only a year old, was owned by the newly formed Mesaba Steamship fleet, which was operating under the management of Pickands, Mather & Company. After serving aboard the Stone for a year, Huyck was given command of the brand new freighter Cyprus, whose job it would be to haul coal and iron ore. The 7,400 ton Cyprus, launched on Aug. 17, 1907 at the American Shipbuilding Company, Lorain, Ohio, measured 420 feet in length and was 52 feet wide on the beam.

Louis Pesha photo of the brand new Cyprus, under the command of Capt. Frank Huyck,  in the St. Clair River, upbound for Lake Superior,  on September 22, 1907. (William Forsythe collection)

Louis Pesha photo of the brand new Cyprus, under the command of Capt. Frank Huyck, in the St. Clair River, upbound for Lake Superior, on September 22, 1907. (William Forsythe collection)

One of three sister ships, the Cyprus’s cargo hatches were covered with brand new, recently patented, mechanical covers. Unlike the old wooden hatch covers, the new patent Brousseau telescoping hatch covers could be mechanically retracted using small on-board steam engines much faster and more economically than the old hatch covers. The new hatch covers were considered so superior to the old wooden ones, that the ships with them were not issued canvas tarpaulins used to securely seal the old wooden hatch covers.

But it apparently didn’t take long before the crews of ships with the Brousseau covers became concerned about them. Cyprus made her first voyage on Sept. 7, 1907, up to Lake Superior to load iron ore, and then back down the lakes to Fairport, Ohio. She loaded with coal and headed back upbound to Duluth, Minn., where she delivered the coal before steaming farther north to load with Mesabi iron ore.

While loading ore at Superior, Wis., Huyck was overheard to declare to the Cyprus’s first mate, John Smith, that “I’ll never make another trip without tarps!” Huyck reportedly complained the patent hatch covers did not seal completely around the hatch coamings, which could be dangerous during one of Lake Superior’s frequent strong storms.

On Oct. 10 1907, the Cyprus with Capt. Huyck on the bridge, steamed out of Superior on her way downbound to the southern lakes with 7,100 tons of Mesabi iron ore in her holds. By 10 the next morning, the weather was worsening. The Cyprus was sighted 10 miles south of Stannard Light, west northwest of Whitefish Bay, where she was observed to be rolling in the light swells. When the Cyprus passed the steamer George Stephenson towing the barge Magna through worsening weather conditions about noon, the Stephenson’s Capt. Harbottle, noticed the discharge from the Cyprus‘s bilge pumps was stained red, suggesting that by then the increasingly rough seas were washing over the ship’s decks, over the Brousseau hatches’ low 6” coamings, and into the cargo holds, where the water mixed with some of the soft iron ore before being pumped overboard.

The surface conditions continued to deteriorate, with ships seeking shelter wherever they could. Huyck apparently decided to try to get to the shelter of Whitefish Bay. But like another ore freighter some 60 years in the future—named the Edmund Fitzgerald—the Cyprus wasn’t able to “put 15 more miles behind her” to reach the bay’s shelter. At 7 p.m., Huyck ordered the crew to prepare to abandon ship as she continued to take on water as waves crashed across her deck. At 7:45 p.m., the Cyprus slowly rolled over into the cold waters of Lake Superior and sank in 460 feet of water.

Wreckage of the only Cyprus liferaft to reach shore with the ship's sole survivor, Second Mate Charles Pitz. Capt. Huyck and two other crewmen clung to the raft until overcome by hypothermia in Lake Superior's frigid waters.

Wreckage of the only Cyprus liferaft to reach shore with the ship’s sole survivor, Second Mate Charles Pitz. Capt. Huyck and two other crewmen clung to the storm-tossed raft until overcome by hypothermia in Lake Superior’s frigid waters.

By about 2 a.m. on Oct. 12, the Cyprus’s only surviving life raft, carrying Huyck, First Mate John C. Smith, Second Mate Charles Pitz, and Wheelsman George Thorne, was within sight of the rocky Lake Superior shoreline, despite being flipped over four times by the high waves. Each time, the increasingly exhausted men had managed to clamber back aboard the raft, but when it overturned a fifth time, hypothermia and exhaustion took their toll and only Pitz was able to get back aboard and ride the raft to shore near the Deer Park Life Saving Station, located a little over 16 miles east of Grand Marais, Mich., where he was rescued. Pitz was the only survivor of the Cyprus.

Lake Superior kept Capt. Huyck’s body until finally giving it up a day later when it washed up at the Two Hearted River Life Saving Station at the mouth of Michigan’s Two Hearted River.

After the sinking other ships with Brousseau’s patented hatch covers were all issued tarps. The covers were soon replaced by other telescoping hatch covers invented by Capt. Joseph Kidd. Kidd noted that his hatch covers, as opposed to the Brousseau covers, were “practically water-tight or as nearly so as possible when in place.” In contrast to Brousseau’s hatches, which featured only 6” coamings, Kidd’s hatches had 9″ to 12” coamings, another feature designed to keep water from washing into ore ships’ cargo holds. Kidd’s hatches, though somewhat modified, are still in use today.

Capt. Huyck’s body was taken back to his hometown of Sheridan, N.Y. for burial, where his wife, the former Helen Samse, moved with her children, thus ending one of Kendall County’s more colorful encounters with sea stories.

In a fascinating historical sidelight on the wreck of the Cyprus and Capt. Frank Huyck provided by William Forsythe,

“In August 2007, the Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society (GLSHS) sent its research vessel David Boyd to perform a side-scan sonar search near Deer Park, Mich., in Lake Superior. They found a solid target and expected it to be the D. M. Clemson, a mystery ship since her sinking in 1908. Everyone was surprised one week later, on August 18, 2007, when the Shipwreck Society’s Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV) swam down to film the stern and found the words “CYPRUS FAIRPORT.” The ROV’s dive occurred 100 years and one day after the Cyprus’ launching at the American Shipbuilding Company in Lorain, Ohio.”

For more on the story of the Cyprus and her skipper, go to



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