The Family Tree: Putnam County’s ‘Cemetery Cousins’
For these three individuals the common denominator is a pair of forebears, Zebulon (1747-1833) and Phebe (1747- 1827) Washburn, whose aging gravestone sits in Carmel’s Gilead Cemetery.
Brian approached the paper recently with what he described as “sort of a human interest story, in a geeky kind of way… Through the pursuit of on-line genealogy, three of us—as it turns out, all fifth cousins—became acquainted and were able to trace our common ancestors.”
The three are also distantly related to the Ludington family (of Sybil Ludington fame) and Brian and Mary were headed to several Ludington family lectures in mid-July when we met with them.
Each of these individuals is an expert on his or her own history, and spends a significant amount of time researching and recording it.
Brian said he keeps at least four large plastic bins with information on his relatives, who include two sets of Turner families as well as the Pendleys and the Washburns.
Mary, who grew up in the Westchester city of Port Chester, relocated to Arizona fairly recently but makes at least one trip a year to the East Coast to continue her research. Wherever she travels, the first stop in town for her is often the cemetery.
Richard, recently widowed with a college-age daughter, is a cemetery buff who works full time as a social worker in Rockland County, and spends a significant amount of time researching cemeteries and gravestones. In fact, he is a member of the Kent Historical Society, is involved with the Association for Gravestone Studies, and serves on the Historic Cemetery Committee of Putnam County (www.putnamgraveyards.com),
There is certainly no lack of historic cemeteries in Putnam: there are 16 in Putnam Valley alone.
With the advent of websites like ancestry.com, findagrave.com, and dozens of others, there is also no shortage of amateur genealogists in the United States today, and it was through online research that these three met.
Given that Putnam County has just turned 200, and their genealogical research goes back to pre-Revolutionary times both Brian and Mary have spent a fair amount of time in the basement of the Dutchess County Courthouse, in Poughkeepsie. Putnam was a “spinoff” county from Dutchess, so any records more than 200 years old are still there.
There’s not much there in the way of electronic records, Mary lamented (Putnam County seems to be much better organized and up-todate, she said), but what it lacks in convenience, the Dutchess archive makes up for in hands-on charm. Both Mary and Brian talked about the excitement of opening up a storage drawer and gently untying the ribbon that binds a 200-plus-year-old will.
Brian described himself as the last of his line, but Mary, who has two young adult sons, is hopeful that they might continue the family tradition. Interestingly, her husband, who was born in Japan, is a descendent of the Samurai warrior class, and therefore has a long and accurate written genealogy that is preserved and protected by each new generation. Today’s descendants of Japanese peasants have comparatively little to go on.
Richard, whose late mother was born in 1919 above the Tompkins Corners General Store in Putnam Valley, said that at first his daughter Michaela was not particularly keen on his genealogical activity. However, since she’s an equestrian, she found it intriguing to be distantly related to Sybil Ludington, the “female Paul Revere.”
Like many other bits of information found on the Internet, some genealogical references are based on hearsay that can’t be confirmed, but Mary prides herself on the accuracy of her genealogic records: “I always have a piece of paper to back it up,” she said.
Church records, census rolls, birth and death notices, newspaper articles, ship passenger lists, family Bibles, school reports, military rosters, wills, letters, tax records, deeds and more—all can provide clues to who is connected to whom. But the trick is finding the record you need.
There’s also a challenge with names. Once you go back far enough, Brian said, theres actually a finite number of surnames available in a given locale such as Putnam, and there’s also a time-honored family tradition of bestowing the same name on successive generations. An example he shared was a string of men with the first name of Comfort, which allowed him to “do something I’ve always wanted to do, which was give this subject line to an email: ‘All the Comforts of Holmes.’”
Richard is part of the Association for Gravestone Studies, and participates in cemetery preservation projects throughout the county. Working with a variety of municipalities, churches, service organizations, and individuals, the group lovingly cares for Putnam’s cemeteries, making sure their historic and personal legacies remain intact.
And what is the great remaining mystery to be solved at the moment? The name of Zebulon’s father. Both Mary and Brian have looked high and low and have been unable to confirm who that pater familias might be, or even where Zebulon’s family was living when he was born.
Genealogy is a science of persistence: the farther back you go, there’s always the possibility that one or more relatives were unable to read or write, never kept any records, or that records were destroyed in a fire or some other disaster. But that seems to be part of the charm that these “cemetery cousins” embrace.
Editor’s Note: Cold Spring’s own Putnam History Museum offers genealogical resources for Putnam families. For more information, visit http://www.pchs-fsm.org/pchsGenealogy. html.