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.

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.

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

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.



Ryland Drennan and the siren song of the sea

For many years, my grandparents dedicated a wall in their Santa Cruz home to old family photos.  They were mostly run-of-the-mill portraits and snapshots of aunts and uncles, with the notable exception of a blurry image of a dapper man in a white uniform, standing on the deck of a ship, circa 1920.  With a waxed moustache and beard, he looked like a cross between Archduke Ferdinand and King Oscar of canned sardine fame.  This regal-looking gentleman was identified as Uncle Ryland — long since passed away, and little spoken of by his nephew, my typically reticent grandfather.  In 1999, following the death of my grandmother, the home was sold, and the photo disappeared in the disbursement of possessions, either lost in a box in a garage somewhere, recycled, or resting peacefully in a landfill.

That would have been the end of it, had I not been regularly reminded of the photo, with memories triggered by everything from reruns of Love Boat to local hipsters sporting waxed moustaches.  I decided to track down Uncle Ryland’s history, and learn more about the man behind the beard.

Ryland Drennan passport photo

Ryland Drennan’s passport photo, circa 1920

Ryland Drennan was born August 28, 1877 in Santa Cruz, California, to Samuel Drennan and Louisa Fernald Drennan.  The youngest of four surviving children, he was the only son of a moderately successful entrepreneur and real estate agent, and one Santa Cruz’ earliest school teachers.  While there’s little biographical material on Ryland as a youth, his 15th year, 1891, was surely one of the most difficult of his life.  Two days after Christmas, 1890, Ryland and a friend were playing with a shot gun.  For reasons that can only be explained by youthful stupidity, Ryland’s friend aimed the gun at him, and accidentally shot him in the face, tearing away the right side of his jaw.  While there were initial fears he might die, Ryland slowly recovered, permanently disfigured by a huge scar on the right side of his face.  Compounding Ryland’s woes, his father was sick and dying, spending the year settling his affairs before passing away in September, leaving behind a widow and three daughters still in high school.

By 1900, Ryland was on his way to a life spent at sea.  Though listed in the 1900 Census as living with his mother and youngest sister, Dora, at 45 Church Street in Santa Cruz, he was noted as being “aboard ship.”  In fact he was far across the ocean, aboard the Shenandoah, where he was soon promoted to second mate, one of several for the crew following the unfortunate drowning of the captain (Ryland otherwise described the trip as quite pleasant).  In 1904, he joined the Pacific Mail Steamship Company, where he rose through the ranks.

For the next 28 years, Ryland Drennan spent most of his life on the seas and abroad, living in Mexico, Australia, and Calcutta, while also keeping homes in Santa Cruz and San Francisco.  In 1910 he married a childhood sweetheart, Lois Nichols, who traveled with him on many occasions, but largely stayed at their home on Union Street in Santa Cruz, living across the street from Ryland’s sister Mabel, and husband Walter Byrne.   The few scraps remaining from Ryland’s life give evidence of a man who took pleasure in his exotic life, and enjoyed sharing novelties from his worldly travels with family members.

SS Mongolia

The SS Mongolia

In 1915, Ryland was embroiled in a human trafficking scandal involving 86 Chinese laborers hidden aboard the SS Mongolia on its final Pacific voyage to San Francisco.  The incident was front page news for weeks in all the San Francisco papers, and was amplified in part by ongoing turf wars between several government agencies over responsibilities for controlling the port.   At one point during the investigation, Ryland, who had just been promoted to Captain, was taken by officials from the bridge of the USS China just as the ship was preparing to set sail.    After a long investigation, the story faded from the headlines, and no charges were ever filed.

On January 19, 1928, Ryland died of a massive heart attack in San Francisco while preparing for a weekday golf outing.  His body was returned to Santa Cruz, where he was buried beside his parents in the Oddfellows Cemetery.  He was only 50, but had lived a rich, colorful life, full of adventure, pleasure, and occasional hardship and tragedy.

USS Mongolia postcard from Pacific Mail Steamship Co

A postcard from the Pacific Mail Steamship Mongolia




The many CMS platforms I have known and loved

Choosing a new CMS

One of the main barriers to revamping this website was the challenge of integrating my genealogy data, which is powered by The Next Generation (TNG), with a proper content management system (CMS).  TNG is the most robust platform for presenting genealogical data, and is well supported by both its author, Darrin Lythgoe, and an active community of users who help drive new feature development, or create their own add-ons and enhancements for others to use.   In addition to doing a fine job of presenting family tree data in a flexible and reasonably intuitive format, TNG has valuable security and privacy features, which ensure sensitive and personal data is only visible to those whom the site owner chooses to make it available.

The Next Generation in genealogy site buildingShortly after launching the site, I set up an integration with TNG in a relatively obscure CMS called e107.  The reason for choosing e107 was pretty simple:  It was the only CMS that was supported by the TNG developer ecosystem with anything close to a native look and feel, and which also integrated the user roles and permissions so important to maintaining a safe and secure environment for publishing sensitive data. While TNG is best of breed for publishing genealogical data, it’s limited in functionality that supports other ancillary features (i.e. anything deviating from presenting your family tree research, such as a personal blog, media gallery, or other related applications).  Design templates available for standalone TNG sites are also lacking, and had a decidedly retro look even in 2006, when I first launched the site.

But relying on a CMS with only a small group of volunteers supporting the development of the basic codebase had significant downsides, which became painfully apparent when the lead architect for e107 left the project in early 2011.  This loss coincided with hackers identifying and exploiting serious security holes in the platform, taking down sites right and left.  It did’t take long before was targeted, and the ensuing hijinks prompted me to ditch e107 and revert to a bare-bones site.

The holidays, with a slower pace at work, gave me an opening to rebuild the site.  I’d been wanting to take a fresh look at the various open-source CMS platforms in use, and which might be the best fit for the genealogy applications.

I didn’t have to look far.  While Joomla, Drupal, and Media Wiki were all possibilities, WordPress was the obvious choice.  The ease of setup and administration, huge WordPress user/developer community, and existing integration plugins for TNG made the process nearly painless.  In fact, the main issues in migration and setup were primarily due to idiosyncrasies I’d created in the database and page templates during my e107 era.  Once those had been eliminated through a fresh install of TNG, the WordPress installation and integration was completed in short order, with no downtime, and only a few glitches and theming issues, some of which I’m still resolving.

The new features and functionality of having ByrneFamily running with WordPress have given me a new enthusiasm for adding to the site.  While many of my original uses for the site circa 2005-2006 (personal photos, family news, etc.) now have a wider audience on Facebook, Flickr/Instagram, I still enjoy the power and flexibility of publishing on a dedicated blog/website.


Photo by Sean MacEnteeRelaunching this site on New Year’s Day was more coincidence than by design, but the timing is a good excuse for a little self-reflection on why exists.  And while there is still a tremendous amount of work to do in the way of content, functionality, and design, having a stable site built on a popular blogging platform has given me new enthusiasm for the project.

This site started out as an offshoot of a project to digitize genealogical materials compiled by my great-grandmother, Edna Valentine.  Edna started researching her genealogical lines and collecting family artifacts around 1910, and continued until the early 1960s, when her eyesight and health began to fail.  Her early work, while largely accurate, neglected to cite sources for her data, and converting it to digital was not only valuable from a preservation standpoint, but also prompted me to double-check some of her data on individuals and lines.   She also had a treasure-trove of 100s of 19th and early 20th century family photographs, most of which were well-labeled.

Over the past few years, I’ve converted most of Edna’s charts and ‘hard data’, namely the facts, notes and photos from her collection.  I’ve also done a good amount of research of my own, and will continue to do so, although it feels as though the 80-20 rule is in force, with a large body of work collected early on, and new incremental data requiring a good amount of time and energy.

Not yet addressed are the hundreds of letters and other ephemera, some dating back to the late 18th century.  These require more study and interpretation, as their contents cover the spectrum from banal to historic.

I’m looking forward to expanding from a ‘just the facts’ set of data to material which provides a broader spectrum of color on the lives involved.   What form this will take is still an open question, and that’s another reason why revamping the site has taken on greater urgency.