Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Family History Fair

On November 16th the Brevard Genealogical Society and the Central Brevard Library in Cocoa hosted our first ever Family History Fair. Our theme was, "Solve Your Family Mystery, Explore Your Family History." This free event was attended by over 200 people of all ages, and lots of volunteers in teal shirts, who all appeared to be having a good time!
Georgia and Dee at the entrance to the meeting room.
 We literally took over the library for the day! The main hall was filled with tables where we offered demonstrations of four different genealogical software programs, an Ask-An-Expert area and various informational tables from the DAR, SAR, Scottish Society, French-Canadian Society, and many more. Another meeting room was turned into a speaker's hall where we offered visitors the opportunity to attend four different lectures during the day on subjects as wide-ranging as beginning your genealogy, to learning more about the use of DNA in genealogical research. Our staff computer training lab was also put into use offering popular classes on using Family Search and Ancestry.com. Even the library's children's area was decorated for the day and staffed with volunteers who assisted our young attendees with completing artistic family trees, locating ancestor's home countries on maps and globes, and giving tips on interviewing family members.
David and grandchildren in the foreground with Mary and an SAR member.
Obviously an event like this takes a lot of planning and we have Georgia and David Ralston and their wonderful committee to thank for pulling this all together! I would also like to thank all those companies  and groups who provided goodies for our gift bags such as Community Educators Credit Union, Tourist Development Council, Cocoa Village Association and the Brevard County Historical Commission.
Hope to see even more of you next year!!

Thursday, October 3, 2013

My Visit With Ponce De Leon

Historic Street View of San Juan
This is a big year for Florida, in fact the party has been going all year. Why you ask? This year marks the 500th anniversary of the arrival of Juan Ponce de Leon on Florida's east coast and his naming of our state.  On April 2, 1513, Juan Ponce de León landed on the east coast of Florida and became the first recorded European to set foot on the continental United States of America, predating European settlement in Jamestown, VA and Plymouth Rock, MA by 94 years and 107 years, respectively. Florida has the longest recorded history of any state in the nation. The Florida Department of State created the VIVA Florida 500 initiative to highlight the 500 years of historic people, places and events in present day Florida. The Viva Florida 500 commemoration is ongoing throughout 2013, and includes hundreds of events statewide, including many in Brevard County. One of these events is the creation and dedication of a time capsule that was given to the library system, and will be dedicated on October 22.

Me at Ponce's tomb in the Cathedral of San Juan Bautista

In the continuing spirit of cooperation and exploration, I embarked on my own voyage of discovery to Puerto Rico, originally called Boriken by the indigenous Tainos,  a few weeks ago. Fortunately for me I only had to drive to Orlando to catch a quick non-stop flight to San Juan on Jet Blue rather than to brave the dangerous Florida Straits during the peak of hurricane season. Actually I didn't even drive, thanks Chad!
And while poor old Ponce was met with hostile natives on his second visit to Florida in 1521 and was mortally wounded by a poisoned arrow, we were met by the one of the friendliest people you could ever meet, law student by day and Puerto Rican Don Juan by night, Saul Diaz. Saul is the brother of my amigo Dr. Emanuel "Manny" Diaz of Rockledge, who accompanied Alex and I on our trip. Saul drove us all over the island and gave us a good overview of its history. By the way, click on Dr. Manny's name above to view his interesting and helpful health/fitness related Facebook page!  
We met many friendly natives, unlike poor Ponce, and sampled way too much of the island's wonderful cuisine. The island itself is a wonderful mix of culture and nature as you can go from hiking in the beautiful rainforest of El Yunque, the only tropical rain forest that belongs to the U.S. Forest Service, to eating at a tapas restaurant in Old San Juan, all within the space of an hour. Old San Juan is a vibrant mix of locals, tourists, inns, restaurants, shops etc. all guarded by the ancient forts. While I had heard of the famous El Morro, the fort that guarded the entrance into the harbor at San Juan, I also came to learn that there is an even more impressive second fort, San Cristobal, that covers 27 acres and basically wraps around the old city. Having been to our own Spanish fort at St. Augustine many times, I was taken aback by the much grander scale of these two forts. You truly do feel like an ant while standing on their walls, and the builders deserve major props for accomplishing such an immense construction project with the limited technology available in their day. It is also clear why these forts were never taken by invaders. I wonder why upon seeing them they just didn't turn around and sail back home! I of course have to mention that my people, the Dutch, came the closest when in 1625 they captured the city but not the fort. Close but no cigar, guys!
El Morro In Old San Juan

I think old Ponce would be pretty proud if he could come back and take a look at how Florida and Puerto Rico have grown and developed over the years since his death and the interesting relationship the two places still have with each other. Happy 500th birthday Florida and muchas gracias la isla del encanto!

Friday, August 9, 2013

A Drunken Sheriff and Other Tales of Mayhem

Earlier this week I was interviewed by Greg Pallone of Channel 13 News for a story he was doing on Jesse Doucette a new Brevard County Sheriff's Deputy that is a descendant of one of our county's earliest Sheriffs, Mills O. Burnham. If any readers recognize that name is probably for the fact that he was the Cape Canaveral Lighthouse keeper for most of his life, but he was also the first Sheriff of St. Lucie County from 1845-47, which was renamed Brevard County in 1855. 
Capt. Mills O. Burnham
Courtesy of the Florida Memory Project

As part of the interview Greg asked me what I thought the differences were between crime in Burnham's time and now, and I had to say that, "not much really." Although he had none of the benefits of modern crime fighting, such as state of the art weapons or DNA analysis, he and his fellow nineteenth century sheriffs were faced with some real doozies of crimes. There was cattle rusting, river smugglers, the horrible Packwood murders, train robberies, justifiable homicides, suicides and just about everything else you can think of.

Although Burnham served with distinction and without incident some of his successors did not fare so well. In 1887 Guptill Hoyt of Titusville was shot and killed by Charles R. Cook because someone in Hoyt's house was playing the piano too loudly, really? After a jury indicted Cook the Sheriff E. H. Covar failed to arrest him until he was forced to do so by the citizens, as he was drunk and apparently intimidated by Cook's friends. These friends then tried to break Cook out of jail and with the Sheriff drunk, the deputy scared, the mayor absent and the Town Marshall favoring Cook's side, a posse was formed to defend the jail. In the aftermath of this "hot mess" Sheriff Covar was forced by the governor to resign and in one of those laugh at loud moments Covar acknowledged being drunk but stated that someone had spiked his drink!

Burnham Memorial Window at St. Garbiel's
Episcopal Church in Titusville
Courtesy of Polly Schuster
In something reminiscent of the "Wild West" lack of action on the part of authorities occasionally led to the public taking matters into their own hands, as in the case of a Mr. Weaver who infuriated the good citizens of Titusville in 1892 when after drinking and gambling away all his family's money he tried to get his wife to recoup the family fortune by entering a house of ill repute. Mrs. Weaver refused and upon learning of his actions the town's citizens were so angry that they publicly horsewhipped him at noon on Main street and drove him out of town. Mrs. Weaver, "a widow of some means and excellent standing,"  was grateful for her kind treatment and thought she might stay and make her home in Titusville.
The murder of two women and two children in 1891 at Packwood's place south of New Smyrna in which the victims were shot and had their throats slashed could probably have been solved easily through DNA evidence as one of the ladies fingernails were dark with blood from defending herself. Instead the aimless investigation went on forever and at least one poor African-American was hung by his thumbs in a failed effort to make him confess.
In any case I don't think the crimes of today are too very different from those of the last century, but Sheriff Burnham's progeny will certainly have better technology available with which to solve them.
Good luck Jesse!

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Find Your Family At The Library

While the Brevard County Library system has been at the forefront of genealogy research for many years, with genealogy collections at the Titusville, Cocoa and Melbourne libraries, starting today patrons will be able to access Ancestry Library Edition, free of charge at ALL seventeen library branches. Although this service was offered in the past, it fell victim to budget cuts. Due to the high demand from all of our patrons interested in researching their family history we were determined to bring it back to you as soon as possible, and here it is!!! Ancestry is the world’s most popular consumer genealogy resource and contains over seven thousand databases and 200 billion images. These databases cover individuals from North America, the UK, Europe, Australia and more. Here you can unlock the story of your family with sources like censuses, vital records, immigration records, family histories, military records, court and legal documents, directories, photos and maps, with new content being added daily.

Brevard County Beach Day in the early 1900's
from the collection of the Brevard Historical Commission

There will be no charge to access Ancestry. Patrons will need only a valid library card to logon to the public computers in the library.

For those interested in learning how to research their family further, the Brevard Genealogical Society will be offering a beginning genealogy class on Saturday, July 13 from 9:30am to 3 pm at the Central Brevard Library in Cocoa. There is a $20 materials fee and pre-registration is required. For more information visit the BGS website at http://www.flbgs.org or call 633-1794.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

First Congregational Church of Melbourne to Receive Historical Marker

This Friday beginning at 4pm the First Congregational Church of Melbourne, now known as His Place Ministries, located at the corner of Harbor City Blvd. and Strawbridge will host a program to celebrate the installation of a historic marker naming the church as a Florida Heritage Site.

Although meetings and bible studies had been held since 1887, on December 6, 1889 the five men and seven women listed below became charter members by signing the covenant, which was the first step in creating the church.

Mr. Edward P. Branch            Mrs. John H. Phillips
Mrs. Abbie S. Branch              Mrs. A. O. Phillips
Mr. John R. Lyman                 Mr. Grant Sherbon
Mrs. Harriet M. Lyman           Mrs. Amanda Thomas
Miss Cordelia March              Mrs. Mable Nash Stewart
Dr. A. E. Lyman                      Mr. Louis Lyman

In 1892 the memebers signed a contract with Mr. R. J. Anderson for the construction of the church which ultimately cost $2,442.12. Worship service in the sanctuary began in July of 1893 and by the time the dedication ceremony was held on March 18, 1894 the bills pertaining to the new building had all been paid off! As you can see from this photo from the early 1900s the building that emerged from this construction was a white clapboard structure with a steeply pitched gabled roof with a three story bell tower on the east side.

The church continued to grow over the years attracting local members as well as numerous winter visitors. Its location on a major road and near the tourist hotels and railroad station attracted so many people that the church was sometimes referred to as the "Tourist Church" and "The Wayside Church." New pews were added in 1911 and wiring for electricity was added in 1915.

The Florida land boom of the 1920's added more members and visitors to the church as well as additions to all four sides of the structure in the popular Mediterranean Revival style of the day. This construction was being completed as the economy crashed in 1929. While membership dwindled throughout the depression the church's prospects were brightened with the construction of the Melbourne and  Bananna River Naval Stations in the 1940s and the coming of the Space Program. This increased membersip also led to the last major expansion of the structure with the addition of an education annex of 3,900 square feet, stained glass windows and the installation of air conditioning.

Circa 1930s

An ever growing Congregation led to the purchase of land in Palm Bay for the construction of a new church building and the original building was sold in 2000 to a new and promising congregation called His Place Ministries, thereby solidifying its physical and spiritual use to the present day.
Special Thanks to Brevard Historical Commissioner Ann Downing for her research on the church's history and for putting together the application that made this marker possible.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Thanks Ancestors, You Just Cost Me Two Million Dollars!!!!

On January 25 of this year Christie's, the famous New York auction house, auctioned off a Chippendale block & shell bureau table crafted by Jonathan Townsend of Newport, Rhode Island for the remarkable sum of $2,210,500. Yes, you read that right, over two million dollars. Mr. Townsend was a member of a talented eighteenth century furniture making family that is known for creating some of the finest, if not THE finest, examples of furniture in their day. The Townsends catered to Newport's merchant elite and the Bureau, which is signed and dated 1767, was recently discovered in the New York apartment of the Pell family.

Jonathan Townsend Bureau Signed and Dated 1767

While I am sure the Pells are pleased with their recent windfall, the extensive research conducted on such a notable piece prior to the sale shows the family was not descended from any of Newport's old families and that the bureau may have come into their posession upon their 1850's purchase of a house on Mary Street in Newport. The house in question was no ordinary house. Built long before the grand cottages of the summer elite that descended on that town in the nineteenth century, the house represented the best of what was before the American Revolution one of America's wealthiest cities. Built by my ancestor "King" David Chesebrough in 1737, so named for his economic dominance in that city, it was an exact copy of the Hancock mansion in Boston. "King" David, known for his charitable works, also had exceptional taste and the house was famous for its extravagant interior mahogany woodwork, likely executed by Christopher Townsend, Jonathan's father.  The house was filled with luxurious furnishings which included an impressive collection of family portraits, which fortunately have survived the march of time.

Hancock Mansion in Boston copied by David Chesebrough in Newport
David's only child Abigail, who married Alexander Grant Esq. the illegitimate son of a Scottish baronet, moved to London, England. The Chesebrough house was taken and used by British General Clinton as his headquarters during the American Revolution and David was forced to flee to one of his country estates, he had two, and leave many of his things behind. According to a letter from Abigail dated 1783 she also left the furniture given to her upon her wedding "with my venerable parent to save his feelings," when she moved to London. Abigail's heirs sold the house to their cousins the Grant-Champlins in 1795, who sold to the Pells in the 1850s. When the house was demolished  in 1908 by none other than Cornelius Vanderbilt, another "King" of his day, a collection of family papers dating back to the Chesebroughs and Champlins was discovered in the house. This indicates that at least some of the family's possessions were left in the house when the Pells purchased it. While it is impossible to know exactly what happened so long ago Christie's researchers believe the piece they sold at auction was either left by the Chesebroughs or brought to the house by the Champlins. While I understand that my ancestors lived through a very tumultuous period in American history and certainly couldn't keep everything, I rather wished they had hung onto this one little piece!

For more information on the Chesebrough/Grant family and their dramatic lives, see my three part series on the family published in The New England Historical and Genealogical Register in July & October of 2002 and January of 2003.

Friday, February 22, 2013

When Rockledge WASN'T Called Peru

While the internet has allowed us to make great strides in historical research it certainly has its downside in that it also allows false infomation to spread like wildfire. Such is the case with several websites that claim that Rockledge, Brevard's oldest city, incorporated on 7 Aug. 1887, was once called Peru, "after the Peruvian Mining Company" which supposedly had interests in the area and built a small group of houses for its workers in the 1860's. This statement has been picked up and now appears in several places online. While I had seen and heard this myself it wasn't until local historian and Rockledge resident Carole Pope called me this week and asked me if there was proof for this statement that I really thought about it.

Old Postcard of the Rockledge River Bank
Courtsey of Brevard Historial Commission
The source of the misinformation appears to be a travel article, which Carole forwarded to me, published online at  USA Today. This article correctly states that Rockledge got its name from the rock ledges to be found along the banks of the Indian River, but then goes on to mention the Peruvian Mining Company, a Peru Baptist church and some of the names of the early settlers of the area, none of which matches with what we know about the early history of Rockledge, and we know a lot! The article also states that some residents called the town Peru until the 1940s, which was another red flag as the only way Rockledge would ever have been called Peru was if it was long out of the memory of any living residents, as no one alive has ever heard it called by that name.

Some of the early settlers of Rockledge like the Hardees, Williams, and Macgruder families arrived in the 1870's and purchased or homesteaded their land from the government which shows there were no earlier owners. Eric Caron's Centennial history of Rockledge makes no mention of another name for Rockledge nor does the three volume history of the county published by our very own Historical Commission. A review of the Grantor and Grantee indexes for Brevard County land records, which go back to the County's founding days, show that no Peruvian Mining Company ever owned any land in the area.

An online search for the Peruvian Mining Company also turned up the following Wikipedia article which gives a description of an area called Riverview on the Alafia river in Hillsborough County which has almost the exact same history as that attributed to Rockledge. Since wikipeida is not always a reliable source, Carole found historical documentation in the form of a Historic Resources Survey published by Hillsborough County, which clearly shows the Peruvian Mining company's operations were in fact in Hillsborough County not Brevard County.

So, while it remains a mystery how the writer could confuse two towns on opposite sides of the Florida Coast it can now be clearly shown that the Peruvian Mining Company had nothing to do with the history of Rockledge and we can rest content that there is not some important part of our history floating out there that we had somehow misplaced!

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

The River Monster

Indian River Country Volume 4
The Garmon's Book
 As I was eating my lunch yesterday on the dock at the end of Valencia Road and Rockledge Drive and looking out over the Indian River, I noticed an area out towards the middle that seemed to be very disturbed, although the river was calm everywhere else. While it is common to see schools of fish, dolphins or manatees causing all kinds of hijinks in the water this was a large area that seemed to be slowly moving up the river. I watched the area for a while and never saw anything break the surface, so my imagination naturally turned to a fascinating story that two of our volunteers, Jim and Bonnie Garmon came across in an 1895 issue of the Florida Star and reprinted in their latest volume of published tidbits culled from our archives. The story apparently appeared in several northern newspapers and was sent in by a reader who had seen it and wondered if it was true.

TITUSVILLE, FLA., March 24.--For a month or more there have been reports that there was an immense sea serpent in the Indian river, which showed a a disposition to fight when molested, but these reports, up to yesterday, were regarded as the product of the overwrought imaginations of rivermen. Yesterday, however, the truth of these reports was confirmed by the appearance of the monster off this place.

About 9 o'clock yesterday people on the wharf waiting for the steamer saw a great black object resembling a hogshead floating in the river about seventy-five yards from shore. The object appeared to be lifeless and those who saw it thought it was a piece of wreckage. Capt. Simmonds and Fred White resolved to investigate. They took a boat and rowed toward the object. When within twehty-five feet of the object the men were surprised to see it show signs of life, and a moment later were horrified when a wicked-looking head, with basilisk eyes, was darted at them with a hiss that could be heard half a mile. The men backed water for life, and the monster began to uncoil itself and move. It went through the water like a snake, was about sixty feet in length, and its body in the thickest portion was as large as a barrel. The head of the monster was similar to that of a snake, and for about six feet along its back there appeared to be a row of fins. The body of the reptile tapered gradually to a pointed tail. The monster moved down the river in plain sight of hundreds of people who were on the wharf. As it passed the men who had gunes began shooting at it, and the reptile resented these shots by erecting its head six feet or more and emitting several hisses. Then it sunk below the surface and was seen no more.

Dragon Point at the South End of Merritt Island
 Capt. Simmonds and Fred White, who went out to inspect the object, were so overcome when they reached the shore that restoratives had to be applied. They say that they saw rows of immense teeth in the reptile's mouth, and that its breath was most noxious. About midday a steamer arrived from the south and reported passing the monster thirty miles below Titusville. The appearance of the monster has demoralized tourist travel on the Indian river, and the houseboats of the wealthy northerners have been deserted.

The editor of the Star reprinted the article and then noted that, "The whole story is pure exaggeration emanating from the mind of some egotistical newspaper correspondent."