Travel

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.

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

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.