Fremont Landing California

Levi Austin’s fleeting wealth quickly washed away

Dead and long forgotten. I have a soft spot for those who led interesting, meaningful lives, but for one reason or another never got much attention from other researchers. Often it’s because they fall into the category of d.s.p. (descessit sine prole; died without issue). With no descendants to carry their stories, they are the cul de sacs in the family neighborhood.

Levi Brown Austin has always been one of my favorite lone twigs on the Austin branch of my tree. And if it wasn’t for him, who knows when or if the rest of my Austin line would have ever made it to California.

Levi Austin circa 1880

Levi Brown Austin

Born in Rochester Vermont in 1819, Levi Austin was the eldest of 13 children in a family that never managed to settle down. The Austins were constantly on the move, relocating from Vermont to New York, Indiana, Ohio, and Iowa, where Levi stayed and worked in the furniture business from 1842-1849. Times were never good for the family, so when news of the California Gold Rush came in 1849, Levi and his brother, Freeman, were quick to pick up and head west along with thousands of other Forty-Niners. Their journey went without incident, and Levi and Freeman arrived in California on August 16, 1849 via the Donner Pass.

Once in California, Levi surprisingly didn’t head straight for the gold fields. Instead, perhaps thinking there were easier ways to get rich than panning for gold, he headed across the Sierra to the town of Fremont. The Fremont in this case was not today’s Bay Area city, but an earlier settlement called Fremont in Yolo County, situated on the west shore of the Sacramento River at the mouth of the Feather River (the photo above is of the former site of the town) . At the time, it was the closest point to the gold fields that could be reached by large boats, and as such was briefly one of the most important ports in California. In Fremont, Levi worked as a carpenter, deputy Sheriff, and recorded the 1850 US Census for the town. In it, he claimed to be one the wealthiest land owners in town, listing property valued at $5000.

Fremont Landing California

What’s left of Fremont, California.

Unfortunately, the good fortunes of Fremont and Levi Austin were short-lived. The winter of 1849-50 washed away most of the town, as well as a sandbar that had once stopped ships from navigating further upriver. The town rebuilt, but having lost its strategic importance to commerce, disappeared in a matter of a few years, with many of the buildings moved to other towns, such as Knight’s Landing. Levi’s land was now all but worthless.

Jane Martin Austin

Jane Martin Austin

In 1851, Levi returned to the gold country, settling near Nevada City, where he tried his hand at strip mining, inn-keeping, and carpentry. There he met and married Jane Martin, a native of Missouri. The couple had at least four children, only one of whom, Annie, survived to adulthood. In 1869, the family packed up and moved to Hollister, CA, where Levi again ran a hotel and worked as a carpenter. His move to Hollister also brought about the migration of my gr-gr-grandparents, George and Annie (Rue) Austin, to California, and their first property in Hollister was purchased from Levi.

Annie Austin

Annie Austin

Levi’s later years were not kind, and he Jane, and Annie lived a hand to mouth existence, living variously in San Juan Batista, Monterey, and finally, Santa Cruz. His occupations included stationer, grocer, and carpentry, but increasingly the family relied on Annie’s income as a school teacher to keep the family afloat. He died in 1897 at age 77, followed in 1904 by Jane, and in 1916 by Annie, who succumbed to cancer at age 56. The family were all buried at the I.O.O.F. cemetery in Hollister, and all must have had wooden or no headstones, as they have not survived to the present.

With no descendants, Levi and his family’s story, though rich and colorful, was largely forgotten. But as a Gold Rush pioneer, and the earliest member of my family to venture to California, he deserves better than to be relegated to the d.s.p. dust bin.

Sally's Valentine

A Valentine’s Day card to my mother-in-law

Sally Byrne had been my mother-in-law for less than three years when she died suddenly and too soon on April 18, 2006 at age 68.

But in the seven years we’d known each other, we spent many pleasant hours chatting in her Palo Alto living room over cookies and coffee. We’d shared a table at family weddings and at Thanksgivings, taken walks beside tidepools, listened to Joan Baez albums and tried our hand at the sing-it-yourself Messiah in San Francisco, where we sang it, very quietly, to ourselves.

I am a newspaper reporter with the San Francisco Chronicle, who has written about education news for many years. My mother-in-law loved to read, preferring a quiet day at home to most other activities.

To my amazement, Sally seemed to consider my articles – many of them on topics of educational policy, like testing and bilingual instruction – to be material worth reading. I know this because she talked about the stories when we got together. She commented on them, asked questions and generally left no doubt that when she picked up her morning Chronicle, she’d not only start reading a story with my name on it, but she’d finish it.

On June 17, 2006, I sat beside my husband, Sally’s younger son, Hugh, in the chapel of the Holy Trinity Episcopal Church in Menlo Park, which my mother-in-law had attended for more than 40 years. We were still stunned at her loss. Then the minister asked each of us if we wanted to stand and say anything about Sally.

Nearly eight years have passed since that day, and I remain painfully aware of how unable I was, at that moment of possibility, to say what was in my heart. I hadn’t expected to be asked to speak, so that was part of it. Another part was that, as a late addition to the Byrne family, I felt intimidated – an unfortunate feeling that rose to the surface at just the wrong time.

I recently found a Valentine’s Day card that I bought for Sally in 2006 that I never mailed and which led me to think of all that had been left unsaid for so long. If I’d found the courage to stand up that day in church I would have said thank you, Sally. Thank you for spending time with me, for talking with me, for accepting and loving me. And thank-you, Sally, for reading my stories. I felt honored then, and I continue to feel so now, that you did that.

And I would say one more thing to my mother-in-law. I’d say, I love you, Sally Byrne.

Henry Felix Kloman — to have known good people

Reverend Henry Felix KlomanGathering data online is my primary research activity these days, but there’s something special about holding a historic book, letter or photograph in your hands. This was brought home to me recently when I revisited a stash of letters from my grandparents and great grandparents.  I had glanced at them several years ago, but never read through them, let alone transcribed any.

Among the various old professional and personal letters was a manila envelope with a short note on it, written in my great-grandmother Edna Valentine’s handwriting. It said simply, “I have known good people.” Inside was a collection of letters from family and friends, stretching from 1900 into the 1960s, covering a wide variety of topics.  Reading through them, it was easy to understand why they were special to Edna, for each letter had some unique element that communicated the writer’s humanity and connection with her.  They made for several hours of fascinating reading.

While nearly all of these letters might warrant it’s own essay, one that stands out is from Edna’s brother in-law, Henry “Harry” Felix Kloman, written from the front lines of World War I in November, 1918.  The Reverend Henry Kloman was born in Warrenton, VA, in 1870.  In 1895 he was ordained by the Episcopal church, and in 1900 married Eleanor “Nell” Marshall Trapnell of Charles Town, WV.

By the time the US entered World War I in 1917, Kloman had risen to become dean of the Cathedral in Fargo, ND.  Having also become a military chaplain in 1912, he was called into service in 1918, and was shipped over to France as a major to become chaplain of Mobile Hospital #1.  It’s from here that he wrote to Edna on December 10, 1918, describing what must have been a distressing and horrific scene:

The last month of the war we operated on 1077 cases & I had 227 burials… We were & are yet constantly in wind & rain. We wade in mud, sleep in mud, eat in mud. There is no escape. We were always within range of the enemy guns & frequently shelled & bombed…as I went over the battlefield we saw most awful sights, many of our own boys…were lying unburied where they had fallen two & three weeks before, some bodies only in part & no possible way of identification. I buried all we found.

While Kloman goes on to describe further scenes of battle and death, he does so with no comment about what, if any, emotional toll this is taking on him.  At one point he does say that if he’s going to be in this war, he’s glad to be at the front lines, indicating he was rather alright with the whole thing, or at least wanting to be in a place where he could be of greatest service.

After the war, Kloman returned to Fargo, and then to a number of parishes in the mid-Atlantic region.  He died of a stroke in 1942 at the age of 72, a year after his wife.

You can read the full text of the letter here.



Keziah Whitson Coles’ 1870 photo album brought back to life

There’s a long tradition of crappy photographers in my family. Great grandmother Edna was a pioneer of bad photography with her 1900 box camera mirror photo, presaging the Myspace photo by over a century. Her son, Valentine (Coles), inherited the bad photographer gene, and proceeded to marry my grandmother, who was possibly the worst of the bunch. All three loved to take loads of bad photos, had multiple copies produced to ensure posterity, and never discarded a single image, no matter how bad. My mother had the great sense to break this cycle by marrying my father, who clearly had both talent and enthusiasm for photography. Dad went so far as to set up a dark room in our home, where he produced terrific images from the early 1960s until 1974, when my mother’s blossoming schizophrenia drove him to abandon it, along with many of his other ambitions in life.

Edna Valentine selfie circa 1905

Gr-Grandma Edna invents the selfie

As the self-appointed family chronicler of my generation, the spoils of decades of poor photography have found their way to my garage and home office (my genealogical man-cave). Over the past few years, I’ve culled the herd from well over 2,000 terrible images down to several hundred worthy of digitizing, more for their unique content (i.e. obscure, distant relatives) than their composition or technical quality (usually poor). During this time, I’ve grown wary of unearthing new boxes of old family prints, negatives, or albums of largely crummy photos.

With this long history of horrid family photos, the discovery of another old photo album immediately brought with it the dread of yet another collection of blurred, random, duplicate images unworthy of more than a cursory glance. But a closer look at the tooled red leather cover with brass buckles hinted this was something special, older and more elegant than anything I had seen in the family collection. Inside were 30 pages of carte de vista (CDV) photograph slots, filled with 58 carefully annotated professional portrait CDVs and tintypes.

isabelle and joseph brown on the beach at wading river long island

Tilt camera – check. Out of focus – check. Cut-off subject – check. Another typical family photo.

The album was assembled between 1860 and 1870 by Keziah Whitson Coles Valentine, then in her 50s. It is very much a family photo album of its day, beginning with photos of her husband’s aging parents, uncles and aunts (all born in the late 18th century), her own family, and many nieces, nephews, and cousins, all photographed in New York and Brooklyn studios. The album closes with the newest family member, her first grandson, John Hampton Valentine, who was born in 1867. Most of the subjects lived and/or were born on Long Island, primarily in the Glen Cove, Oyster Bay area. Unlike the many other 19th and 20th century family albums filled with scores of unidentified ancestors, nearly every image had long ago been annotated in pencil by Keziah’s granddaughter, Edna, and any negative judgment I might have had about the album being defaced was outweighed by the gratitude for the information it contained.

Here’s a slideshow of Keziah’s album. As much as photography has changed over the years, it offers a peek into how a grandmother collected and organized family memorabilia in a manner not too different from today. Or if you’d like to know more about the subjects and view the photos individually, skip down below the slideshow and click on the next page for the full-gallery:


Next — View full gallery

Digg icon

A farewell to Digg

I keep this blog focused on personal topics and hobbies, primarily genealogy, with only the occasional mention of matters related to my professional life. But the demise of social media site Digg has me straying off topic a bit, if only because Digg insidiously crept into my personal life during the course of the 2-3 years when I was active on the site (if you never heard of Digg, you’re not alone).

In late 2008, GreenBiz (where I do product and audience development) was on a quest to scale traffic. At that time, Digg was still the Big Daddy of social bookmarking sites, and getting a story promoted to its front page was good for anywhere from 2,000-50,000 visitors, or more. After immersing myself in the basic workflow of Digg, it became clear a relatively small group of folks were submitting a disproportionate share of the popular items on the site, and that by finding a way to join their ranks I could help GreenBiz reach a broader audience.

In order to achieve recurring success on Digg, one had to first join the community of power Diggers. This was something of a mutual aid society, and to join the group required consistent digging and commenting on 100-200 power-user submitted stories every day. Once a pattern of loyalty towards them was established, one would then befriend individuals in the hopes that they in turn would be supportive of your stories. Reliable and consistent behavior was essential for all but the most elite of this group, and this meant ensuring you dugg the vast majority of all your friends new submissions within 24 hours, seven days a week. Apps were developed to track mutual loyalty among friends, and those found slacking were quickly unfriended. Long vacations or even a few days off of Digg could have significant consequences in lost friends.

If all of this sounds a little nuts, it was. But the traffic dividends made it irresistible. Try as Digg might to find ways to thwart this obvious gaming of the system, the power users evolved as well, resulting in an ongoing game of cat and mouse between Digg and its most interested users. And in trying to simultaneously outwit those gaming the site, placate major media outlets who were ambivalent about having their content on the site, and woo advertisers willing to spend higher CPMs for a quality audience, Digg completely failed on all counts. In short, Digg dug its own grave.

During my three years using Digg, I spent an average of 90 minutes a day, seven days a week, with rarely a day off. Usually the time was spent multitasking with other matters, such as sitting in meetings, watching the evening news, or talking with others. Digging was akin to needlepoint — an accompaniment to other activities. The ranks of power diggers contained some wonderfully warm people, others who were primarily focused on personal gain, and some who were just downright creeps. The pleasure of crafting a submission well-suited for the Digg community was always challenging, and often amusing (e.g. our original GreenBiz headline “KFC Lands in Hot Water for its Packaging” performed much better on Digg when changed to “KFC Packaging Even Worse than Its Food“). And for those efforts, GreenBiz was rewarded with well over 1 million visitors sent to us by Digg.

When the news broke recently that Digg had been sold for a pittance, few were surprised, as the rise of Facebook and Twitter had already relegated Digg to little more than also-ran. And as nostalgic as I might feel for the pleasure that came from generating popular items on Digg, the site was clearly a (big) novelty that came and went. I’m happy to have those 90 minutes a day to multitask on other things, or to simply enjoy a sunny day.

Arlington Cemetery

Reuniting with Thomas Tidball Trapnell

An afternoon of downtime in Washington DC a few weeks back afforded me an opportunity to visit Arlington Cemetery, and the grave of my great grandfather, Major Thomas Tidball Trapnell. It was a chance to get a few moments of peace in an otherwise hectic week, and to forge a connection with a man I never knew, and who was rarely spoken of in my family.

When I last visited Arlington in 2000, on a side trip during a wonderful vacation with my daughter, Zoë, I had no idea I had a relative buried there, much less someone as close as my great-grandfather. That’s probably because since 1940, when Thomas Trapnell died at age 56, his grave had only been visited once or twice by any of his descendants, and certainly none within the past half-century. It seems great grandfather wasn’t terribly popular among his offspring.

Tom Trapnell, springtime in West Virginia, about 1900

Thomas Tidball Trapnell was the 10th of 11 children born to Joseph Trapnell III and Rebecca Holmes White. He attended Annapolis, joined the Navy (which his father managed to reverse through an action by Theodore Roosevelt), and later attended NYU, where he earned a law degree (following in the footsteps of both his father and brothers).  Tom initially practiced corporate law, but following the outbreak of World War I, joined the military, where he remained the rest of his life.  An attorney in the Judge Advocate General’s Corp, Tom was somewhat unremarkable amongst his accomplished brothers, and unique among his sibling in divorcing his spouse, my great grandmother Edna Valentine. His letters to her while still married are typically aloof, written in an irritated voice, and often complaining about either her, money, or both.

Their divorce was a family affair, with Tom’s brother, Ben, providing counsel to Edna, and everyone apparently trying to make the best of it during a time when getting a divorce was challenging, even in New York state, where Edna resided. Following the divorce, Tom and his son, Coles, didn’t get along so well, and letters from father to son are mainly directive, with little affection or indication he had much insight into my grandfather’s nature. My grandfather grew to be rebellious towards his father, and the two had a volcanic fallout shortly before Tom’s death in 1940.

Family baggage aside, finding Thomas Tidball Trapnell’s grave was important for me. For someone so close in my family tree, I know very little about him, and though he had been dead for twenty years when I was born, his strained relationship with my grandfather had kept him off the radar screen. Learning more about his history has recently become a higher priority research task for me.

Thomas Tidball Trapnell / Winifred Pattishall Trapnell headstone, Arlington Cemetery

The visit to Arlington and Tom’s grave couldn’t have been more poignant. It was a cool March day, with a light rain falling on the cherry blossoms that were just beginning to bloom. As I walked past rows and rows of graves, off in the distance a full military burial was underway, complete with horse-drawn carriage and 3-volley salute. With good directions from the staff at the office, I was able to locate the grave of Tom and Winn (his second wife) without too much wandering, and snapped a couple of photos. It was a small, quiet family reunion, but after more than 50 years without a visitor, at least one of us enjoyed it very much.

Byrne Crest

Where are all the Byrnes?

Did you happen to find this site while searching for your Byrne ancestors?  I’m glad you visited, but want to warn you up front there are very few Byrnes on  In fact, of the 18,000+ genealogical records on the site, fewer than 100 are Byrnes.

The reason for the dearth of Byrnes on the site is that my line descends from an early American, John Byrne, born in Windham Connecticut in 1760.  Efforts at tracing this Byrne line back to Ireland or otherwise have been fruitless to date.  And there’s a wrinkle to the story in that John Byrne may not have been a Byrne at all.  Genealogical DNA evidence shows the John Byrne line (or possibly his son, George) actually descend from lines tied to the Cole surname, and it’s likely that at some point in 18th century Connecticut a child fathered by a Cole was given the name Byrne.

So where to go if you’re looking for a comprehensive database of Byrnes?  Aside from the usual spots (e.g.,, etc.), Paul Burns has been leading an effort document and publish multiple Byrne/Byrnes/Burn lines via the Byrne DNA project.  While not an uncommon name (Byrne is not even in the top 1000 surnames in the US), it’s extremely popular in Ireland, ranking 7th in popularity, and you’d be well served to check in with the Byrne Clan, which focuses on Irish Byrne descendants.

If you did happen across the site in search of info on John Byrne’s lines, or for that matter some of the other larger branches (Barteau, Rue, Trapnell, Garland, Cosby, etc.), please say hello.  Both myself, and Wayne Garland, who manages the Garland data on the site, are always interested in sharing information with other family researchers.  And for those on the hunt for other Byrnes, best of luck in your search.

Ryland Drennan

Found photos, found cousins

One of the pleasures of hosting a website filled with genealogical records is connecting with family members I might not otherwise know.  Neither of my parents were diligent about maintaining family connections, save for periodic trips to Santa Cruz or Los Angeles to visit my grandparents.  On very rare occasions, we would go on trips that might include a visit to a great uncle or aunt, but these were the exception, once in a lifetime events that were almost never repeated.  Consequently, I grew up able to count the family I knew on my fingers, unaware what I was missing in the common threads I shared with great aunts and uncles, cousins, and their various husbands and wives.

My recent post on Ryland Drennan led to a new connection that reminded me of the value of  shared heritage, and how delightful it can be to reestablish relationships with extended familiy.  A couple of weeks after posting the item, which lamented a lost family photo, my father’s first cousin, Janet Martini, paid one of her occasional visits to the site and spotted the post.  Janet mentioned she had several family photos of Ryland, which she subsequently scanned and sent to me.  In addition to a copy of the lost photo, she included an image I had never seen, featuring Ryland on the deck of a ship with his young nephew, Fernald Byrne.  Fernald died tragically at age 15 on the Giant Dipper roller coaster at the Santa Cruz Boardwalk, and is somewhat of a family legend for that terrible event.

Walter Fernald Byrne and Ryland Drennan

Fernald Byrne on deck with his uncle, Ryland Drennan circa 1920.

Looking at the photo of Ryland, it’s a little less glamorous than I remembered, but still a striking image.  The cigarette in his hand gives evidence of just one vice which may have helped end his life at the ripe young age of 50.  But I’m more enchanted by the image of uncle and nephew sharing a happy moment together on deck, and grateful to have connected with a not-so-distant cousin, who went out of their way to share some materials that can now be seen by other family members.


Renald Fernald: Early Settler of Portsmouth

Abandoned prison at Portsmouth Naval Yard, originally built to house Spanish American War prisoners. Thomas Fernald plot lies directly below the prison.

A highlight from a recent New England trip was getting to spend some time in and around Portsmouth, NH.  The town has a rich history for shipbuilding, fishing, and as an important port for the region.  More recently, Portsmouth has become a popular tourist destination, and like most of coastal Maine, the town feels a bit overrun in the middle of summer.

The reason for our visit to Portsmouth was to establish a connection with one of its earliest settlers, Renald Fernald, my eighth great-grandfather.  Renald (aka Reginald) Fernald came to Portsmouth in 1631 as the surgeon of Captain John Mason’s Company.  He had previously been a surgeon in the English Navy, and resigned his post to come to America.  In Portsmouth, Renald served in a number of official roles, including Clerk of Court, Recorder of Deeds, Commissioner, Surveyor, and was Town Clerk at the time of his death.  Renald lived on his own island in the Piscataqua River, then called “Doctor’s”, and known these days as Peirce Island (also Pierce’s Island).  He died in the spring-summer of 1656, and is believed to be buried at Point of Graves cemetery, just across the river from his home, along with his wife, Joanna.  Their burials at Point of Graves pre-dated its establishment as a cemetery by 10-15 years, and no headstones prior to 1671 survived due to cattle that grazed the area.

Renald Fernald's original home on Peirce Island, Portsmouth NH

Peirce Island, Portsmouth, NH, site of Renald Fernald’s homestead, now a public park (sewage plant behind the trees)!

Today Peirce island is reached by a short bridge from Point of Graves, and is home to a city park, popular with dog walkers, as well as a large municipal pool.  It’s also the site of a semi-camoflauged sewage treatment plant, surely one of the worst uses of picturesque public open space a city has ever conceived.

Living across the Piscataqua in Kittery, Maine, Renald’s son, Thomas was an early shipbuilder.  In 1645, what were then known as Puddington’s Islands were leased to Thomas by the agent of Sir Ferdinando Gorges for almost no cost (perhaps a related grant to his father, Renald).  In 1671, Thomas deeded one of them to his brother William, “for the fulfilling of the last Will of our Dere father, Renald Fernald.”  Known also as Lay-Claim and Seavey’s Island, Fernald’s Island later conjoined into Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, and a naval prison. It was the subject of a border dispute between Maine and New Hampshire in 2001, and is currently considered part of Maine.

Renald Fernald's burial site, Point of Graves, Portsmouth, NH.

Point of Graves, Portsmouth, NH. Renald Fernald and wife Joanna’s burials (in 1656 and 1660, respectively) predate the site officially becoming a cemetery.

Access to the shipyard, an active military facility, required some advanced planning.  Nanette contacted the base’s Public Information Officer, Gary Hildreth, who generously arranged to give us a personal tour.  In addition to being a PIO, Gary is also a historian, with a wealth of knowledge on the Navy Yard’s past, including some of the early land-flipping deals that brought the islands into the government’s hands.  He was familiar with the Fernald history on the island, and augmented the standard highlights of the base with information specific to the Fernald history, including a visit to the Fernald family graveyard, a small, well-tended plot, with a handful of graves dating from the early 1700s.

Fernald cemetery, Portsmouth Navy Yard

Fernald Plot Portsmouth Navy Yard, accessible only by appointment.

Wrapping up our Portsmouth/Kittery visit, we trooped over to East Berwick, where my particular branch of the Fernald’s lived as farmers in the 18th and 19th centuries, before coming to California in the early 1860s.  There we braved poison ivy and hungry mosquitoes in order to visit another family graveyard on private land.  After foraging through the woods and ringing doorbells, we were about to give up when we discovered the plot, which included the flag-adorned grave of my 4th gr-grandfather, Hercules Fernald, a veteran of the American Revolution.

Hercules Fernald grave site, North Berwick, Maine

Hercules Fernald Family Plot, North Berwick, Maine

Start/end of SR 33, just south of Tracy, CA

How fear and loathing of I5 led to a San Francisco Chronicle travel piece

There are uglier and more boring roads in California than Interstate 5, but none that I travel on a regular basis.  So the prospect this past summer of another jaunt to LA via that well-traveled corridor populated by truck convoys and manic Lincoln Navigators was more than I could bear.

It was at this point that Nanette challenged me to find a new north-south alternative, well aware she was in for a better trip if I was in a more pleasant state of mind behind the wheel.  We’d long since worn through the coast-hugging novelty of Hwys 1 and 101, even going out of our way to explore older side roads that provided a glimpse into life in early-mid 20th century California.  It was time to find something new further inland.

Pine Mountain Summit, CA SR 33

Coming down from Pine Mountain Summit

I had only known about SR 33 as a freeway out of Ventura towards Ojai, and was under the mistaken impression it petered out somewhere in the mountains before reaching the San Joaquin Valley.  Actually, SR 33 peters out just south of Tracy, which was good enough for us to give it a go.

We ended up having a great adventure, and cataloged some of the high points for a piece that appeared in the Travel section of the San Francisco Chronicle.  I’ve included some photos from the trip in this post, and you can read the full article at SF Gate.