A couple of years ago, a friend asked me if I had vacation plans. Yeah, I said. In July, I'm going to Missouri. That, he said, is no vacation.
And in a way that has nothing to do with the staggering heat or the withering humidity, he was right. It wasn't a vacation. It was a trip back in time to discover roots I hadn't even known existed for most of my life.
My maternal grandfather, Finley Beckham, was a man proud of his ancestry, and it was likely he who sparked my interest in family history.
Whenever Granddad would visit any of his many children, he would peruse the phone books looking for Beckhams. Sometimes, much to my grandmother's consternation, he would call them up. He was convinced all the Beckhams of the world were related, and you know, it might be true. Granddad's father married three times, having six children with each wife. His father had married four times and was even more vigorous in efforts to populate the world with Beckhams.
The Beckham tree is traceable all the way back to England and a town named for the family. The Beckham history merely sharpened my appetite for more. I was especially interested in learning about my maternal great-great-grandfather, who died in the Civil War, and my paternal grandmother, who is supposed to have been American Indian.
As I researched them exclusively, the genealogy bug bit me hard and sent me scurrying for any and all information I could find about my ancestors. It was as if finding them helped define who I am. Strengths and weaknesses, quirks and dislikes became explainable and understandable with each new leaf I uncovered.
It hasn't been easy. I've encountered dead ends and perplexing mysteries. Looking for proof of my Indian blood, I took Ancestry.com's DNA test and became even more confused. My DNA contains 2 percent "other," but all the rest of me is European and Scandinavian.
Because my grandmothers' roots were the most interesting to me, it took a while for me to turn my attention to the other male component of my tree, my paternal grandfather, Morgan Morris. I was pleased to find his lineage, like that of my maternal grandfather's, had been well-documented among my relatives. My Uncle T.D. provided me with a wealth of information.
One day, he sent me an email containing a newspaper article about the dedication of a statue in Boonville, Mo., honoring Hannah Cole, a pioneer woman who had helped establish the town.
I wondered why T.D. had sent it. My relatives, knowing I'm a writer, sometimes send me things they think will interest me. And Hannah was an interesting story, all right.
In 1809, Hannah, her husband, William Temple Cole, and their nine children left Virginia and headed west. They made it as far as Loutre Island, Mo., where they homesteaded with a small group of others, including Hannah's sister and her husband, Stephen Cole, brother to William.
The following year, a raiding party of Sac and Potawatomi Indians crept into the encampment and took some horses. The Cole brothers led a recovery party that ended with William being killed and Stephen being seriously wounded.
Hannah, now widowed with a family to raise, had a choice: return to her family in Virginia or move on. She chose the latter, traveling to a bluff overlooking the Missouri River, where she and her children built a home and later, a fort. Hannah set up a business ferrying westward bound pilgrims across the river.
Hannah's home served as the first school, the first seat of government in the town, and even though she wasn't permitted to vote, the first polling place.
I wrote back to T.D., thanking him for the interesting story, saying she was certainly a woman to admire and emulate. He wrote back and told me to check my family tree. I was a direct descendant.
Turns out that Hannah is my seven-times great-grandmother. I had filled in her name, birth and death dates on to the branch that would eventually grow to include my grandfather, father and me, but I had never known her amazing story.
I rechecked the article T.D. had sent me, studying the picture of the statue. It is of a woman, weary from work, looking toward the West and to the future.
So one hot July week, I made the trip to Boonville in time for the annual Cole family reunion. My sister and I visited the statue and Hannah's grave and tried to absorb the reverence that Hannah still holds in that area. In addition to her statue, her name graces a park, the local chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution and more recently, an elementary school.
All that history, and I had never known. It was a thrilling reminder that to know who we are, we must know the people who came before us. Not just their dates of birth and death, but how they lived. Hannah, who always has been part of my DNA, is now a part of my heart.