Monday, February 27, 2017

Genealogy Story – James Pierpont

I’ve mentioned in several blogs over the past few years the name of James Pierpont, my great*7 grandfather. But I’d like to pull together in one place a number of things about this remarkable man and his influence on American history.

James was born in 1659 in Roxbury, MA, the sixth child of John and Thankful Pierrepont. John had come to America in 1640 as part of the Puritan migration and purchased land in Roxbury in 1648. He was the first of the family line to drop the “-re-“ which was part of the original family name in French. Thankful’s parents, John and Elizabeth Stow had settled in Roxbury in 1634 with their nine children.

James received his education at Roxbury Latin School, graduating in 1677, and then his college degree from Harvard in 1681. Harvard at the time was a school for training pastors. He took his church orders from the church in Roxbury in 1683, moved to New Haven, CT in 1684, and was ordained there in 1685.

Over the next several years he married and was widowed twice before marrying a third time:

His first marriage was in 1691 (at age 32) to Abigail Davenport. Abigail was the 19yo granddaughter of John Davenport, the leader of the Puritan group who settled New Haven in 1638, and one of James’ predecessors as the pastor of the Congregational Church in New Haven. As was the custom of the day, Abigail attended church on the first Sunday after their wedding in her wedding dress. However, it was a cold late fall day and as a result she became sick, leading to her death that winter from consumption.

Two years later, James (at age 35) married a second time to Sarah Haynes, the 21yo daughter of Rev. Joseph Haynes from Hartford, and the granddaughter of John Haynes. John Haynes had been a one-time governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, then one of the two founders of the Connecticut Colony in Hartford (which was named after his former town of Hertford, England). He then served as the eight-term governor of the Connecticut Colony. However, like James’ first wife, Sarah died only two years later, apparently as a result of complication from the birth of their first child.

For his third and final marriage, James (now age 39), married Mary Hooker, the 25yo daughter of Rev. Samuel Hooker of Farmington and the granddaughter of Rev. Thomas Hooker, the other co-founder of the Connecticut Colony, and the first pastor of the Hartford church.

What remarkable political savvy in these three marriages – bringing together not only the founding family of the New Haven Colony (Davenport), but both of the founding families of the Connecticut Colony (Haynes and Hooker). Thus it is no wonder that in 1701 New Haven (of which he was the chief pastor) became the co-capital of the Connecticut Colony and that later that year when the legislature met in New Haven he was the principal founder of the Collegiate School of Connecticut (later renamed Yale). See more about this below.

But James influence did not stop with himself. He had a total of nine children, one with Sarah and the other eight with Mary. These were:

Abigail married Rev. Joseph Noyes, the son of one of the other Yale founders, the Rev. James Noyes II. James was then the Senior Fellow (Chair) of the Board of Trustees of Yale as well as the pastor of the church in Stonington, CT.

James was a graduate of Yale but he became a business man in Boston. One of his pursuits was the [unsuccessful] attempt to regain the various British titles and estates that the Pierrepont family had had over the years.

Rev. Samuel was also educated at Yale, but drowned in the Connecticut River at the age of 23 while pastoring the church at Lyme, CT.

Mary married Rev. William H Russell, pastor of the church in Middletown, CT and the son of Rev. Nodiah Russell, one of the other founders of Yale. [Note, there are two Rev. Russells who were among the founders of Yale – Nodiah (also sometimes spelled as Noahdiah) who was the father of William and Hannah, and Samuel Russell at whose house the founders met in 1701. See below for my connections to these two men.]

Joseph became a farmer. He married Hannah Russell, the youngest daughter of Rev. Nodiah Russell. Joseph was my great*6 grandfather. Joseph’s great-grandson, Austin Pierpont, married Sally Beecher whose Beecher relatives figured prominently in the American Civil War – you can read more about that here

Benjamin died at the age of 5 months

Benjamin (it was not uncommon for parents to give a subsequent child the same name as an earlier child who had died young) was educated at Yale, but died at the age of 28

Sarah married Rev. Jonathan Edwards who became one of America’s most famous preachers. I’ll not try to repeat all his accomplishments, you can read them here But Jonathan and Sarah’s grandson, Timothy Dwight was a later president of Yale and also figured in the story of the US Civil War. You can read some of those details in the above mentioned article about the Beecher family. Also, as I noted in an earlier blog ( ) Jonathan Edwards once visited my hometown of Wolcott (at the time still called Farmingbury) where he was involved in making the decision to dismiss the first pastor of the church there.

Hezekiah died at the age of 29, but not before marrying and starting a family. I have written about his grandson, also named Hezekiah, here

Again, what a remarkable man James Pierpont was, not only on the shaping of Connecticut through his connections to other founding families of the state, but through his children!

James died in 1714 at the age of 55, so he did not live long enough to see some of the ways in which his influence had been felt. The Collegiate School of Connecticut had initially been located along the Connecticut River in Killingworth (now Clinton), CT, then it moved to Saybrook and then Wethersfield. Two years after James’ death it made its final move to New Haven, right down the street from James’ grave. It was renamed as Yale College in 1718.

Update - According to my preliminary research, Nodiah Russell is my 8th cousin, 10 times removed with our common ancestor being Sir John Russell (1340). Samuel Russell is my 10th cousin, 8 times removed with the same common ancestor.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Wolcott History – The Polish Connection

Wolcott History

Unlike many of my previous blogs, this one is not about the early English settlers, rather it is about a few decidedly non-English families that may also be found in Wolcott history. In the website there are a series of articles about the major farms in the various parts of town. I’d like to look specifically at two of these articles. (If you want to read the rest of the article, please go directly to the website.)

The article on “Farms in the Northeast District” notes the following:

“At the end of Beecher Road, you came upon Pikiell Brothers Dairy Farm. Harry was born in 1908 and lived in Wolcott most of his life. He and several of his brothers ran the dairy farm as well as a well-drilling company. …”

And in the article on “North District Farms” is written the following:

“The Lone Oak Farm was found in the northern section of town on Woodtick Road and was owned by the Lewandoski family. There were four Lewandoski brothers whose family came from Poland and lived in Waterbury; they were John, Steve, Thomas and Anthony. On November 25, 1913, these brothers purchased farmland in the northern section of Wolcott. …”

This same article also notes:

“Just north of John’s property was a farm owned by the Stryeski family. … but I have no other information about this farm.”

Both of these articles were based on personal interviews with members of the Pikiell and Lewandoski families.

I’d like to explore some of the genealogical information about these three non-English family names – Pikiell, Lewandowski, and Stryeski. While none of them are among the early Wolcott settlers, not being in the town until the early 1900s, between them they owned a considerable amount of property in the northern section of Wolcott where I grew up.

Brief Polish History

Poland was established as a nation-state in the 10th century. But because it included ports on the Baltic Sea, it was the object of much invasion over the centuries – particularly by Russia to the east, Austria to the south, and Prussia/Germany to the west. In particular interest to this story, the country lost its independence in 1795 and was partitioned into areas under the control of the above three countries. They did not regain their independence until after WWI in 1918.

Thus it is that immigrants to the US during this 120+ year period will be found in census records and the like as being not from Poland, but from Russia/Austria/Prussia/Germany. As an example, the census records for the Lewandoski family record them as being variously from Russia, “Russia-Poland”, or Poland, depending on which census you look at. All three of the families in this paper came from the part of Poland that was under control of Russia. They had Polish names, and they spoke Polish, but immigration officials and census takers in the late 1800s and early 1900s did not allow the recording of “Poland” as a valid entry since it was not a recognized country.

The Families

The Lewandoski family (variously spelled as Lewendosky, Lewandowski, Lewindorski, etc. in different documents) were from eastern Poland, just north of Warsaw. The four brothers mentioned in the above article were all born there in the late 1880s or early 1890s. The family did not all come to the US together, but arrived at various dates between 1900 and 1912. This was a common occurrence of the times. One family member would come over, get established, then become the “sponsor” for the next family member, etc. It was not until after the last family member arrived that they purchased their property in Wolcott in 1913.

Harry Pikiell (also recorded as Pykel) was one of 10 children born to Frank Wadyslaw and Constance [Lewandoski] Pikiell. Frank and Constance came to the US separately in the 1890s, were married in 1894 (he being 27 and she being 19) and their children were all born in the US. They originally lived in Windham, CT, before moving to Bristol, then to Wolcott in the late 1920s. I have not been able to determine if Constance was a relative of the Lewandoski family in Wolcott, but it seems quite possible.

The Stryeski family was headed by Anthony and Josephine [Kawalewski] Stryeski. They were from the area near Przasnyz Poland, north of Warsaw. Anthony came to the US in 1895 and Josephine came in 1910. They were married in 1911 and moved to Wolcott sometime in the 1920s. Their five children were all born in the US.


Like the rest of the US, Wolcott is a land of immigrants. As I noted in an earlier blog (, “While the European settlers and the Indians lived peacefully side-by-side, the Indians eventually began to migrate westward to better (and less populated) areas. The Tunxis tribe [which hunted on the land in Farmingbury] was never very large, numbering perhaps only several hundred at its peak. But by the time of the incorporation of Wolcott in 1796, to encounter an Indian in town was quite rare.”

Most of the early settlers in Farmingbury/Wolcott were from England as they were the dominant people-group in this part of America. But later migrations included people from other parts of Europe such as the Polish families above. Other migrations included the Irish (from the potato famine of 1845-1852, nearly half of the immigrants in the 1840s were from Ireland), Germans (mid-late 1800s), Italians (late 1800s to early 1900s fleeing extreme poverty in southern Italy and Sicily), and others.

In more recent years we have seen large numbers of immigrants from places other than Europe, such as China, Mexico, and central/south America. Those living in present-day Wolcott are representatives of all these countries of origin and they contribute to the wonderful “quilt” that makes up this country.

Wolcott History – New England Religious Roots

Many of my genealogy connections to others are through my deep roots in New England. As the name implies, this part of the US was primarily settled by immigrants from England. Even though both my father’s name, Russell, and my mother’s maiden name, Pierpont, had their origins in Normandy, France, both those family lines went through England where the families moved in 1066 until family members came to Massachusetts around 1640.

The time period beginning in 1620 in New England was one of much change as various people groups came from England. Most people are aware of the Pilgrims landing first in Provincetown, then in Plymouth, Massachusetts in 1620. But only a few years later, in 1628, the Puritans established Massachusetts Bay Colony, centered in the Boston area. The charter for this group was in the Cambridge Agreement which was signed in 1629 which guaranteed that Massachusetts would be a self-governing colony, answerable only to the Crown.

The Massachusetts Bay Colony was quite successful, with about 20,000 people migrating to New England during the 1630s – my ancestors among them. But the Puritans were dominated by a small group of leaders and voting rights were limited to freemen who had been examined for their religious views and were formally admitted to the local church. As a consequence, they exhibited intolerance to other religious views. Harvard University was founded in 1636 to educate Puritan religious leaders.

The Plymouth Colony remained small. Unlike the Puritans, who maintained their loyalty to the British Crown, the Pilgrims were separatists who wanted the freedom to practice their own religion without interference from others. They were among the first of a number of such separatist groups who came to America, with many of the later groups settling in Pennsylvania which included in its 1681 charter the freedom of religious practice. These later groups included the Moravians (1740), the Amish (early 1700s), and the Mennonites (1683). The Quakers were also prominent in Pennsylvania, although an earlier group of them settled in Rhode Island in 1657. In 1691, under a revised charter, the Plymouth Colony was absorbed into the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

Meanwhile, the large number of immigrants to the Boston area, coupled with various reactions to the religious views in that colony, spawned a number of groups to move to other parts of southern New England. In 1635, Roger Williams, who was serving as a pastor in the Salem church, was tried and convicted of sedition because of his view that the church was not sufficiently separated from the Church of England. In the spring of 1636, Williams and a number of his followers began a new settlement in Rhode Island, just sufficiently far away that they were outside the boundaries of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. By 1638, he had also come to accept the idea of believer’s baptism. This led to the founding of the First Baptist Church in America.

Like Roger Williams, Pastor Thomas Hooker also was struggling with the concept that only the church member freemen could vote. In 1635, he led a group of 100 settlers in a trek from Newtown (now Cambridge) Massachusetts west to the Connecticut River where they settled. Originally they also called this new settlement Newtown, but changed the name to Hartford in 1637 to honor the English town of Hertford where some of the men came from. In 1638, Hooker and others met to frame a written constitution in order to establish a government for themselves. Hooker preached the opening sermon of that meeting, declaring that “the foundation of authority is laid in the free consent of the people.” The Fundamental Orders of Connecticut were signed and ratified in 1639. This was the first written constitution known to history that created a government. It marked the beginning of American democracy.

But just like those who wanted less influence of the church on society, there were also some who felt that it was not strong enough. In 1637, a small party of Puritans reconnoitered the New Haven harbor and wintered over. In April of 1638, the main party of 500 Puritans, under the leadership of Reverend John Davenport, left the Massachusetts Bay Colony and sailed to New Haven. They were hoping to establish (at least in their minds) a better theological community with the government even more closely linked to the church. The Quinnipiac tribe, under attack from the neighboring Pequots, sold their land to the settlers in return for protection. In 1664 the New Haven Colony, under political pressure from England, was merged into the Connecticut Colony in order to strengthen the case for the takeover of the nearby New Amsterdam from the Dutch (New Amsterdam had been founded in 1624, but they were taken over in 1664 by the British and it was renamed as New York). Some members of the New Haven Colony, seeking to establish a new theocracy elsewhere, went on to establish Newark, New Jersey.

In 1685, one of my mother’s ancestors, James Pierpont, who had been born in Roxbury, Massachusetts and trained at Harvard University, moved from Massachusetts to New Haven where he became the pastor of the Congregational Church. In 1698 he married Mary Hooker, the grand-daughter of Thomas Hooker, thus further cementing the relationship between Hartford and New Haven. This contributed to two events a few years later in 1701. First, James was the leader of a group of men who secured a charter from the Connecticut Colony for the establishment of the Collegiate College of Connecticut, which later became Yale University. That same year, New Haven and Hartford became co-capitals of the Connecticut Colony.

The major population centers in southern New England remained those that had harbors that facilitated travel and trade – Boston, Providence, and New Haven – and to a lesser extent Hartford on the Connecticut River. But these colonies were not as well-defined as we know them today as they encompassed the entire area around the harbor. In particular, the following Connecticut towns were part of the New Haven Colony and were split off prior to the founding of Wolcott in 1796: Wallingford (1670), Branford (1685), Cheshire (1780), Woodbridge (1784), East Haven (1785), Hamden (1786), North Haven (1786). Later splits created Meriden (1806), Orange (1822), North Branford (1831), Bethany (1832), and West Haven (1921).

The original settlers of Farmingbury came from many of the above, especially New Haven, Wallingford, and Branford, although there were also some from Waterbury, Farmington and a few other places. Here are some of the early Farmingbury families and where they lived prior to moving to Farmingbury: Alcox/Alcott (New Haven), Upson (Waterbury), Rogers (Branford), Beecher (Cheshire), Norton (Guilford), Frisbie (Branford).

Thus, even though Wolcott is in a state whose initial government was based on the Fundamental Orders of Connecticut where the power of government is derived from the “free consent of the people,” the initial settlers of the town had their roots from the Puritanism of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, then from the theocracy of the New Haven Colony. So when the early settlers of Farmingbury got together, they formed not a town, but a parish of the “First Ecclesiastical Society.” The minutes of the first meeting (taken from Orcutt’s History of Wolcott) note that after choosing officers, the next vote was “that we will procure preaching the year ensuing.” Orcutt later notes,

“Farmingbury did not become a Town until 1796. Hence many interests were attended to by the Parish Society which belonged properly to township authority, and not to the Church. In those days it was a principle of Christian duty to take special care of political matters and not to leave them in the hands of the neglectors of piety.”

“This is not Church and State united, but church men in the state, acting.”

Once again, a full understanding of things requires a composite view that includes geography, genealogy, history, and, in this case, religion.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Marrying a cousin – Part 3

In a blog from about two years ago, I documented how my wife and I are 10th cousins – having a common ancestor who came to the “New World” on the Mayflower (see Because that connection was through our common Rogers ancestor, I then looked at other Rogers connections and discovered that when my father’s mother remarried that she and her 2nd husband were also cousins (8th cousins twice removed – see I thought that this was all pretty interesting.

But today I was looking at a different part of my family tree and noticed that both of my parents had ancestors with a common name – Beecher. I had already traced each of those connections back several generations, but had never thought to see if the paths overlapped. But I can now confirm that my parents were also cousins. Their family lines both start with Isaac Beecher (1623-1690) who came to this country in 1639 with his father and settled in New Haven, CT. Isaac had two sons and their lines going to my parents look like this:

Isaac Beecher (1623-1690)
Joseph Beecher (1647-1728)
Joseph Beecher (1698-1763)
Titus Beecher (1740-1803)
Joseph Beecher (1779-1840)
Almira Beecher (1803-1858) – married Caleb Barton (1779-1883)
Sally Barton (1835-1922) – married Morgan Cook (1822-1861)
Lois Cook (1855-1883) – married Walter J Russell (1852-1895)
Louis Russell (1871-1946)
Erskine Russell (1894-1970)
Vernon Russell (1920-2006)

Isaac Beecher (1623-1690)
Isaac Beecher (1650-1708)
Samuel Beecher (1687-1756)
Isaac Beecher (1716-1801)
Jesse Beecher (1741-1813)
Enos Beecher (1769-1808)
Sally Beecher (1794-1846) – married Austin Pierpont (1791-1848)
Charles Pierpont (1824-1884)
Wilson Pierpont (1855-1921)
Harold Pierpont (1898-1969)
Sylvia Pierpont (1924-2012) – married Vernon Russell

As an interesting side note, brothers Joseph and Isaac Beecher married sisters Joanna and Lydia Roberts. So in addition to Isaac (1623) and his wife Mary being common ancestors, so were William and Joanna Roberts. 

Thus, my parents were 9th cousins (although they never knew it). I guess marrying your cousin must run in my family – my paternal grandmother, my father, and myself. But at least they’re getting a bit more distant – going from 8th cousin to 9th cousin to 10th cousin.

This is why I find genealogy so interesting – one is constantly finding new information and new connections. 

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Reflections on Aging

For the last 15 years I’ve maintained a spreadsheet that I call “Ancestor Ages”. I’ve used it to keep track of my and my wife’s relatives in prior generations, their date of birth, date of death, and the age that they live to. For those who are still living, I track their current age. I update this spreadsheet once or twice a year. For this blog, I’d like to draw some conclusions from all the dates/ages in this spreadsheet, ending with some of my current reflections on my own aging.

The two individuals at the top of the chart are, rather interestingly, not blood relatives. Rather, the oldest person was my father-in-law’s step-grandmother who raised him. She lived to the age of 99. But the second person in the list is my own father’s step-father who helped raise him. He was born shortly after the Civil War and lived to the age of 93. I’ve told his story before here (

Some of the other people right near the top are my wife’s “Aunt Katy” who is still living and who will be 92 in a couple of weeks and her second husband who passed away two years ago at the age of 93. Aunt Katy and her first husband were my wife’s “second parents” who were her employers when she left home after high school and who encouraged her to take some classes at the local community college.

At the other end of the list are a number of cousins and in-laws who have passed away at much younger ages, i.e. younger than my wife and I are now. I don’t keep the people of our current generation on the list as it would be too much work to keep track of all the ever-changing ages. But when they pass away I add them to the list. I’ve written previously about my cousins (see There are also three of my wife’s in-laws (i.e. the spouses of her siblings), who all passed away within about a year of each other.

A large part of the rest of this list are my and my wife’s parents, aunts and uncles, and grandparents. I’ve used this data previously when trying to calculate about how long my life expectancy is (see One interesting item is that my father and both of my mother’s brothers all passed away with only a few months difference in their ages. My mother’s older brother was the same age as my father and they were best friends, beginning in high school, then through the marriage of my father to his best friend’s sister, then through living only a few houses apart for nearly 60 years. When my Uncle Zeke passed away my mother said that affected my father greatly and contributed to his losing the will to live himself so that he passed away just a few months later. A lot of my and my wife’s relatives are clustered in their eventual age in their 80s.

But of primary interest to me in this blog is the position that my wife and I occupy in this long list. We are now reaching the point that we are beginning to “pass” some of our ancestors. In particular, this past fall I became older than my paternal grandmother was when she passed away. (I’ve told her story before here And, in keeping with the great many parallels between my wife and me, in only a year or so she will be passing her paternal grandmother as well. Since both of these ladies were “old” in our estimation when they passed away, does that make us “old” as well?

On the one hand, there are several reasons to answer, “Yes”. My hair, what there is of it, is almost entirely white. And my wife is starting to let her white hair start to show. If you ask our grandchildren if we are old, they answer in the affirmative – mirroring what I thought about my own grandparents for most of their lives. And both my wife and I have our share of sore joints and some of the other afflictions of aging. We have now passed our 45th anniversary and it’s not going to be many years before we’ll be celebrating our golden anniversary.

But on the other hand, there are also several reasons to answer, “No”. While we are beginning to “pass” people in my spreadsheet, the vast majority of our ancestors lived into their 80s. So we have more than a decade to go before we reach that milestone. We also each have a cousin ahead of us in the list who is still very active. Finally, since we are taking care of four of our grandsons on a daily basis, getting down on hands and knees, playing with and picking up toys (mostly the latter), etc., we are having experiences that are shared with many who are younger than we are (although it’s always helpful if the two of us have a nap sometime during the day to keep going!)

So, I’m not ready to declare myself “old” just yet. But I will admit that I am starting to slow down a little.

In the end, it’s all going to be in God’s hands – both how long we live and under what conditions we get there. In the meantime, I’m going to enjoy the ride as well as enjoy the life partner, my wife, whom He has blessed me with!

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Surviving a Heart Attack

Sunday, January 16, 2005, started as a pretty ordinary Sunday. My wife and I had gone to the early service at church, then to Sunday School. Since it was only then 10:30 when we got out, we decided to go shopping for a while before heading home, so we drove the few miles to Trexlertown where there was a shopping center with a Kohl’s in it. I was fortunate to find a parking spot right in the first slot outside the door and eagerly grabbed it.

I initially went in the store with her and accompanied her as she shopped around in several departments. But shopping is not one of my preferred activities, so I told her I was going back to the car to take my typical mid-day Sunday nap. I slept for perhaps a half-hour, but when I awoke I was not feeling rested like I normally would. In fact, as I lay there with my eyes still closed, I was feeling decidedly uncomfortable and as the seconds ticked by even more so.

I was particularly feeling bad around my left upper chest, like someone was pressing on it. And as I waited – perhaps only for an additional minute or so – I remember thinking, “this feels like the symptoms of a heart attack.” I then realized that if it was, that I should take immediate action and not wait for my wife to return to the car. I pulled out my cell phone (ah, the wonders of technology!) and dialed 911.

The 911 operator answered and I calmly told her, “I think I’m having heart attack.” I then told her that I was parked at the Kohl’s in Trexlertown, gave her instructions where in the parking lot I was parked, and said, “Come and get me.” I also told her that my wife was in the store shopping.

Although the Goodwill Fire Company was only a mile down the road to the west, I knew that most cases like mine would more likely get assigned to the Cetronia Ambulance Company about 4 miles to the east as they have an advanced life support ambulance for cases like this. So I estimated that they would arrive in less than 10 minutes. While I was waiting for them to arrive, my wife came out of the store and I told her what was going on. (I later found out that the 911 operator had called Kohl’s and they had paged my wife in the store, but she was already on her way out when this happened and so didn’t hear the page. But the next time I visited the store I stopped at the customer service desk and thanked them for their efforts.)

By the time the ambulance pulled up, my symptoms had worsened. I was diaphoretic (i.e. perspiring profusely) and was unable to exit the car on my own. (FYI – I had heard this term on a number of occasions on the TV show Emergency, but had never known what it meant. But now it was me being described that way!) The EMTs pulled me from the car and loaded me onto their gurney, then pushed me into the back of the ambulance. They told me wife that they were taking me to the Lehigh Valley Hospital on Cedar Crest Blvd and that she could follow (at a safe speed) and meet me there.

During the relatively short trip to the hospital a number of things happened. In order to relieve any constriction caused by my clothing, they cut off my shirt, my t-shirt, my belt, and my trousers. No time to waste with buttons, etc. – just a sharp pair of shears! They attached a couple of electrical leads to check heart rate, EKG, etc. They also first gave me two baby aspirin to chew, then a couple of nitroglycerin tablets to hold under my tongue. They also asked me a number of questions.

Despite all of this going on, and the increasing pain in my chest/shoulder, I was surprised at how calm I remained. I remember thinking that it was quite possible that I might not survive this, but there was no sense of panic at all. I had given my life to God and trusted Jesus as my Savior a number of years before, so I knew that if I did not survive that I would immediately be taken into His presence. I had always wondered how I would react if I were confronted with a life/death situation, and now actually being in one, I knew!

Meanwhile, there were other things going on in the ambulance that I later found out were relatively new technology at the time. The results of the EKG were being transmitted directly to the ER over the EMT’s cell phone. The ER doctor was looking at the results and could confirm not only that I was having a massive heart attack, but what kind it most likely was. As a result, I was being given priority and things were being prepared for my arrival.

It was now perhaps 30 minutes since I had experienced the initial symptoms and the ambulance was backing up to the ER and I was taken inside. They initially placed me in one of the ER bays, but they told me that I would only be there long enough for them to finish cleaning up the cath lab from the last procedure, then I would be going right in for surgery. They asked me what my level of pain was on a scale of 1-10 and my response was, “I need to tell you that I’ve had a kidney stone, so that’s my basis for comparison. That was a 10, so this is only 8-8.5.” Meanwhile, my wife arrived and was escorted into the bay. They let her know what was going on as well and gave her a paper bag containing my shoes, socks, underwear, and what was left of the rest of my clothes that they had unceremoniously cut off me. Only a few minutes later the gurney arrived to take me into surgery.

Heart attack patients are not allowed to contribute much to avoid any unnecessary movement. So any transfers from one bed/gurney to another are by them rolling you onto your side, putting a board under you and rolling you back onto it, then sliding the board from one bed/gurney to another. After pushing me down a couple of halls, then a trip up the elevator to the surgical floor, then a few more halls, I found myself in the “cath lab” where the operation to unblock the obstructions in my heart would take place.

I need to insert here some specifics on the exact type of heart attack that I had. There are a number of arteries and capillaries that service the heart. The right side of the heart is supplied by the Right Coronary Artery. The left side of the heart is serviced by the Left Coronary Artery which divides part way down that side into the Left Anterior Descending Artery (the LAD) which services the front and bottom part of that side of the heart and the Circumflex Artery which services the left side and back of that side of the heart. Because the left side of the heart is the largest side, the two arteries on this side are responsible for about 2/3 of the heart. A complete blockage near the top of the LAD is called a “widow maker”.

I had two blockages – one was a 100% blockage of the LAD, the other was a 75-80% blockage of the Circumflex Artery. The chances of survival from the first is 5-10%, primarily because without any blood flow that part of the heart muscle begins to die. 25% of those with this type of blockage die almost immediately. So my heart attack was about as serious as they come! (See for details.)

Continuing my story, the operating table in the cath lab has a large x-ray machine positioned directly over your chest. The surgeon is not operating directly on the heart, but through incisions made generally in the vein that is near the surface in your groin and by threading instruments, etc. up that vein, through the left side of your heart and back out the aorta then into the arteries which supply blood to the heart.

You are basically naked on the operating table, then the OR nurse liberally coats the area of your groin with an orange-colored antiseptic (it seemed like about gallon of it), then lays cloths around the area where the incision will be. There are three large monitors for the surgical team. One is a continuous display of the area around your heart, another can be “frozen” with a view of that same area, and the third displays your vital signs (EKG, heart rate, blood pressure, etc.).

I was not aware of much of this that Sunday afternoon, as I was too involved dealing with the pain in my chest. I only am filling in the facts here from the second procedure which I’ll outline further below.

After making an incision in the vein in my groin and clamping off the lower portion (so you don’t bleed to death!) the surgeon can thread his instruments up that vein. When the instruments reach the area of the heart, he can squirt a small amount of dye which can be easily seen on the monitor, then freezes that image so he can see where everything is, including the blockages.

He first verified the location of the two blockages, then directed the instrument, with a small balloon on the end and a stent around the deflated balloon, through the blockage, inflated the balloon which compressed the blockage against the artery wall and expanded the stent to hold the artery permanently open. This all took only a few minutes. The stent was a “drug eluting” stent (see for a better description.)

As soon as that artery was opened up and blood could once again flow to that side of my heart muscle, the pain that I had been experiencing just vanished. It was an amazing feeling of relief! The surgeon made the decision to only place the one stent during that procedure and to schedule the placement of the second stent in the circumflex artery a few days later – after all that one was only 75-80% blocked!

They then extracted the instruments, stitched the end of the cut vein together, released the clamp on the lower part of that vein, and sewed the incision back up. The emergency surgery having been successful, I was moved to a room in the coronary ICU for observation for the next few days.

The coronary ICU is a pretty interesting place too. The ratio of nurses to patients is pretty high. Each patient is connected to a continuous heart monitor – initially to one plugged in the wall, then later to a wireless unit so you can have a limited amount of mobility. There are monitors in the hall outside your room as well as at the nurse’s station. Any significant variation or measurements result in alarms going off and immediate visits to your room by the staff.

I only had one incident while I was there. Occasionally the incision in the vein in your groin will “leak” and blood begin pooling under the skin in the area. This can be particularly problem some with men as if the blood gets into the scrotum (which is only a few inches away), it can cause painful swelling. Mine never made it that far, but the treatment is to “express” the area to spread out the pooled blood (which eventually gets reabsorbed into the body) and to put heavy sand bags over the area of the incision to prevent further leakage (meaning that you also have to lie very still and on your back until the leakage stops). It’s a little embarrassing to have a nurse massaging this private area, but better than the alternative of having “black balls”. Instead I just had what looked like very bad bruising for several days until the excess blood got reabsorbed.

By the following morning, all was under control and I was converted to a mobile monitor so that I could slowly shuffle around the ICU with my monitor and other various items on a wheeled pole. I was the only mobile patient in the ICU for those few days. I also received a visit from one of the nurses in the administrative area who asked if I would sign a release so they could use my case as an example of how the technology in the ambulance transmitting my EKG to the ER was so helpful.

On Wednesday I made another trip back down to the cath lab for a second procedure, this time going in through the other side of my groin and getting another stent inserted in the circumflex artery. But this time I was not in pain at all and very much aware of all that was going on. By craning my head to the side I could see around the unit positioned over my chest and observe the three monitors which were guiding the surgical team. It was an interesting exercise in geometry, translating what I could see on the monitors to what was happening inside my chest. While I don’t recommend anyone having to go through this, this second operation was actually somewhat enjoyable in adding to my education.

The following morning, with no additional leakage on that side of my groin, I was able to be released from the hospital and driven home (I had one of our pastors pick me up as my wife was busy teaching preschool that day). I had significant restrictions – no driving for six weeks, no returning to work until I was cleared to do so, and nine weeks of visits to the coronary rehab unit for monitored exercises. What was also interesting was that I was back in church the following Sunday, with most people never even having missed me.

I saved all the medical bills that I received for that week – ambulance, hospital, two surgical procedures, etc. In total that week of care cost nearly $120,000! Not a small amount to be sure, but one that was totally covered by my medical policy at work.

But the best news of all is that I could call myself a survivor. Since over 90% of those who have this type of heart attack do not live to tell about it, I feel very fortunate indeed. I attribute my survival to three things. First, and most important, I recognized what was happening and almost immediately called 911 on myself. Quick response is critical to survival. Second, I was fortunate to live in an area where there is a hospital only a few miles away. And third, not only is this hospital a regional hospital with a full-equipped cath lab, and a heart care group onsite, but they were already experimenting with the latest in technology and procedures so that my EKG was being transmitted to the ER before I arrived, saving precious minutes in diagnosis.

Because of my quick response, I have ZERO long-term effects from this incident. That is just one of the blessings. But I also feel quite blessed to have the certainty that my faith in God and my Jesus is so real to me that I know that He will be with me no matter the circumstances I might find myself in in the future! To HIM be the glory!

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Genealogy Story – Building a Tree out of Twigs

Although I have been interested in genealogy for a long time it was not something that I had done much research on, especially the process of constructing a family tree. That changed in a big way about 8 years ago.

When my father-in-law passed away in 2006, we thought it would be good to take some of my mother-in-law’s inheritance and finally complete the house that they had been living in for 35 years. We put up a pole barn behind the house and moved the house contents into it while the construction was going on. Then in the fall of 2008, my mother-in-law fell several times and ended up in the hospital so my wife and I decided that it would be a proper decision for her to temporarily move to Michigan and help oversee her mother’s caregiving. That meant that I would be home in PA without her for an extended period.

When I dropped my wife off, I noticed that in the pole barn there were several (perhaps 7 or 8) large boxes (the size of banana boxes) of “genealogy” material. So I thought that something that I could do for my mother-in-law would be to organize them. I packed them in the back of our van and brought them back to PA. But when I started going through them a few days later I realized that this was not going to be a simple task.

The boxes were crammed full of small pieces of paper and letters. Evidently her take on “genealogy” was to simply save everything related to that topic. If one of her relatives sent her a letter that had in it something like “my daughter Olivia’s 16th birthday is tomorrow,” she would circle that phrase, mark the envelope as “genealogy” and toss it in the box. If she received an announcement of a high school graduation, she would save those as well. And if someone told her something, then she would record it on a scrap of paper and save it (she did not believe in using full sheets of paper, so this would be something like the back of an envelope). If someone asked her about some genealogy item, she would write it out (again on a scrap of paper), but would also use carbon paper to make copies of it. She would send the original to the person and keep all the carbon copies.

So, how was I to make sense of all of this? I decided to use my computer to help. In the above example about Olivia, I would type in:
            Jean Smith [Getting the name from the bottom of the letter]
                 Olivia Smith (2/3/1954) [basing the date on the date of the letter and the “16th”]
Then I would throw the letter into a discard pile (unless it was a historic document like an obituary). So instead of a full letter and envelope, I would have just two lines in an ever-growing computer document.

After a couple of weeks doing this, I had a large discard pile, a much smaller “keep” pile, and a LOOONG computer document of twigs (relationships such as Jean being the mother of Olivia) and facts (primarily dates, but other interesting things as well). Now I just had to make sense of all of it.

Fortunately, the cut/paste function of the computer is a pretty powerful tool for doing this. I started another series of documents, one for my wife’s grandparents on her mother’s side, one for her grandparents on her father’s side, and a few others for great-grandparents, etc. I would scan the base document and when I saw something that fit into one of these other documents, I would cut it out and paste it into the spot where it belonged – slowly connecting twigs to other twigs and building up the branches of the descendant trees in the final documents.

I won’t lie – this was a pretty daunting task, one that took several months. But slowly emerging from the long list of twigs and facts, a series of descendant trees took shape. To give you an idea of scale, in the end I had 11 documents totaling 40 pages of single-spaced descendant trees.

But I also had a couple of pages of “facts” that did not seem to connect. Fortunately, my mother-in-law was still living, so I could ask her about them. For the most part they were items that ended up getting discarded. Some were graduation cards from children that she had baby-sat for over the years. Some were things like the wife of their landlord who had been given the honorary title of “aunt” even though she was not related at all. But a few I was able to find “homes” for in the trees once I knew the rest of the story.

My mother-in-law passed away in early 2010. But by then I had reduced the huge pile of “twigs” and “facts” that she had accumulated into a manageable set of computer documents.

This is the raw material of genealogy research. Trying to make sense out of a bunch of disconnected items so that you can “tell the story” of a person. And as I eventually connected this detailed work with my membership and researched back through the generations, I was able to see the smile on my mother-in-law’s face when I could tell her about her ancestors that came over on the Mayflower!

And my work has had other benefits as well. I was recently contacted by someone who had found a picture of “Lucile Bartlette” and wanted to give it to her family. By going into my descendant trees, I had the name of a living grandson who I then contacted. So he will now have a picture of his grandmother from the early 1900s.

Saturday, February 4, 2017

What’s in a Name?

Last/Family Names

In genealogy research, one often is reliant on consistency (at least relative consistency) in last (family) names. In many current cultures, there is a patronymic naming convention, i.e. the last name of the father in the family is the one that’s passed down from generation to generation (see In current US culture, when two individuals get married, the wife typically takes the last name of her new husband (which is why tracing back through the female side of the family is a bit harder). And the children are given the same last name when they are born. But if you are tracing your family back far enough, you will reach the point where this convention was adopted in a particular country/culture and before which there may not have been traditional family names. Thus William the Conqueror had that name to distinguish him from others named William.

This is not a “law”, although it may have been in some countries in the past, but is a convention. And recently we see more individuals preferring to keep their “born as” last name, so instead of Mary Smith changing her name to Mary Brown when she marries William Brown, she keeps the name of Mary Smith. This also applies to children, who may sometimes now be given the name of Samuel Smith-Brown (not unlike what the Spanish culture has been doing all along). It’s also entirely legal for Mary or even William to change their last name to Smith-Brown, Brown-Smith or any other name of their choosing. But the patronymic convention is still the predominant one.

There are, of course, exceptions to this patronymic naming convention. In most Asian cultures, females keep their name when they marry, although children are still given the family name of the father. And Icelandic culture passes along names through the first name of the father (although sometimes the first name of the mother), the children of Jon Einarsson getting the last name of Jonsson (Jon’s son) or Jonsdottir (Jon’s dottir) depending on the gender of the child. (see

First/Middle Names

But this blog is not about family names, as interesting as they may also be, but about the choosing of first/middle names (or what are sometimes called the “given name” as it is the name that is given to a child).

The three-name structure used today began in the Middle Ages when Europeans were torn between giving their child a saint’s name or a common family name. The practice of giving three names eventually resolved the problem with a formula: given name first, baptismal name second, surname third. However, over the centuries this formula has become less common, with families now often just using middle names as yet another expression of that person’s given name (see and, although it may still be used for things like maiden names (such as Hillary Rodham Clinton) or other uses.

There are several aspects of first/middle names that bear some discussion. These include family/historical significance, gender aspects, common/popular names, and current trends. I’d like to address these aspects individually before discussing my own name as an example.

I’m also going to primarily confine this discussion to recent US culture, as that the one that I have the most familiarity with, but I will insert a few examples from other cultures.

Family/Historic Significance

Sometimes, names are chosen because (a) they are ones that are commonly used in that family’s history, e.g. the first son is given the same first name as the father, (b) the parents want to honor a particular relative, e.g. great-uncle David passed away recently so a newborn is given the name David in his memory, or (c) there is a particular combination of first/last name that just seems to go together.

In looking back over my Russell ancestry, and ignoring the last several generations where this convention seemed to fall into disuse, there are nine instance of Robert Russell, six instances of John Russell, and three instances of Thomas Russell. So out of 24 generations between the origin of the family name 1000 years ago until 1780, all but six of my 24 great grandfathers had just one of three different first names. I’m not sure which of the above reasons were predominant, but there was obviously not much originality.

In more recent years, the Russell family has used the middle name as the way to pass along this heritage, but I’ll discuss that below.

Gender Aspects

You may not have thought about this, but for many names there is a pattern that distinguishes male/masculine names from female/feminine ones. Look at the following list where I have listed a male name, the common nickname(s) associated with this name, and the corresponding female name.

-          Alan (Al), Alana
-          Robert (Rob/Bob), Roberta
-          Donald (Don), Donna
-          Charles (Chuck), Charlotte
-          Frederick (Fred), Frederica
-          Michael (Mike), Michelle
-          Edward/Edwin (Ed), Edwina
-          Paul, Paulette/Paula/Pauline
-          Christopher (Chris), Christine/Christina (Tina)
-          Joseph (Joe), Josephine
-          Louis (Lou), Louise
-          Stephen (Steve), Stephanie (Steph)

Note some common features here. First, nearly all the male names end in a consonant where the female names end in a vowel. Secondly, if the male name is not already a single syllable, there is a nickname that is only one syllable, but the female equivalents do not generally have such a nickname.

Consonant/Vowel endings originated in Latin/Greek culture a few millennia ago. Latin male nouns ended in “us” and female nouns ended in “a”. Thus there were names such as “Paulus” and “Paula”, both of which meant “little” or “humble” (see and This consonant/vowel ending convention has carried forward to today, although we have generally dropped the “-us” from the male version of the name. The vowel ending of the female version is similarly no longer just “-a” but can be things like “-ette”, or “-ine” as well.

In recent US culture there has been a practice of men wanting to have a short, usually single-syllable nickname – one that has a certain “maleness” about it. That’s the case with all the above examples, but people have often done so with other names – such as my uncle whose given name was “Clarence” but whose nickname was “Zeke”. Females, on the other hand, often wanted a more “flowery” name, so the longer multi-syllabic version of their name was preferred. Individuals who had shorter names, such as “Mary”, would often instead use both their first and middle names (e.g. “Mary Ann” or “Mary Louise”) to make their name longer.

Common/Popular Names

For this topic I’m going to use as a reference site. There are other sites like this to help you explore names, but this has several features that will help illustrate my points.

First, look at the graph before entering any names/genders. In order to normalize for the different population across the various census years, all figures are given relative to a population of 1MM. In this particular graph, the names of the top 1000 names (by count) in each census year are ordered alphabetically from top to bottom. Each stripe has one name associated with it (blue for boys, pink for girls) as well as the relative rank within that gender. So on the left hand side, the widest blue stripe (near the middle) is for John who has rank 1 (among boys) in the 1880’s. Similarly, the widest pink stripe is for Mary who has rank 1 (among girls) in the 1880’s. If you hover over any stripe it will tell you the name and rank for that name.

There are two conclusions I draw from this chart. One, the width of each stripe changes over time. For example, the width of Mary’s stripe gets progressively narrower as the years go by, and nearly disappears by 1990. So the popularity of names changes over time.

Two, these are the most popular 1000 names, but the sum of the widths does not ever reach the 1MM line as the remaining less popular names are not shown. But look at the top of the striped area. The total of the top 1000 names is above the 900,000 line, and even above 950,000 until the 1960’s. Then it starts a downward slope so that by the end of the graph the most popular 1000 names only account for 75% of the total. So while historically many people used a fairly limited number of names (like John and Mary), there are an increasing number of less-common names being used today. I’ll say more on this below under current trends.

Now, let’s examine the trends for some example names. Just enter the name in the box on the top of the graph.

John – in the 1880s there were about 40,000 babies given the name John out of every 1MM births, nearly 4% of the population. This has trended steadily downward until today when it’s less than .4% of the population.

Mary – started trending downward, then a large revival in the 1910-1930 timeframe before trending downward even steeper, going from 33,000/million to fewer than 1000. The revival in 1910 was because of the ascension to the throne of King George V of England and his wife who became Queen Mary. This popularized the name for a time, but when George died in 1936 and Mary was no longer queen, it fell out of popularity (see

Vernon – (my father’s name), peaked in the 1920’s when he was born, then began a steep decline until it has essentially disappeared today.

Alan – (my name), peaked in the 1940’s when I was born, has declined since then but still about 1/3 as popular these days. Matched in popularity these days by Alana, Alanna, and Alannah, three female derivatives. Allen was equally popular in the 1940’s, but has declined ever farther than Alan. Allan also peaked at the same time. Another variation, Allyn, briefly appeared in the 1940s in the top 1000, but then disappeared again the following decade.

Kimberly – (my daughter), first appeared in the 1940s, peaked in the 1960s and 1970s, then fell off again.

X – (this gives all names starting with that letter), non-existent in the early years, but becoming more popular in the last few decades, with Xavier now ranked in the top 100 and Ximena growing quickly in the last 15 years.

This is a fun tool – play around with your name of your family members’ names.

Current Trends

As noted previously, there is now a trend away from using “popular” names and toward ones that are more unique. There are several ways that people are doing this. One is to adapt variant spelling of the name by changing/adding vowels, etc, e.g. Allyson instead of Allison. A second way that is popular in the African-American community is to use “African” names that have historically not been used in the US, e.g. Jamal/Jamaal (the trend in the past was to want to blend in and so people used typically European names). A third is to simply make up a new name (one of my grandson’s classmates is named Nevaeh, that’s heaven spelled backwards – a name that came out of nowhere and now ranks in the top 50).

My children have followed this trend. My son and daughter-in-law used “elvish” names and my daughter and son-in-law used biblical names for first names and British Isles names for middle names (see

My Name

So, with all this background, where did my name come from? I’m the oldest of five children and was the first grandchild (of what would eventually be 18) on my mother’s side of the family. So my parents wanted to honor their heritage, but not in a way that would “choose sides”.

Thus, my middle name is “Harold”. This is not only the first name of my mother’s father (and thus recognition of her roots), but it is also the middle name of both my father and his father (thus recognizing his roots). The NameVoyager chart shows that this was a much more popular name a few decades before I was born, but its popularity had declined significantly. But because of its significance in my parent’s family trees, they decided to use it.

For my first name, Alan, they wanted something that was unique and did not appear in either of their family lines. Since there were no Alans in either of their families, and because Alan was just becoming popular, they chose it. [Note that I also suspect that they were still subconsciously thinking of the names of their fictitious children from when they were corresponding during WWII, so chose a name beginning with the letter “A”. (see

Interestingly, both of my brothers (Charles and Edward) were given names that were on the decline, with both of my sisters (Beth and Dawn) were given names that were just becoming popular. And neither of my sisters have names that follow the gender aspect of ending in a vowel that was mentioned earlier in this blog.

This has been a pretty long blog, but I hope that you’ve enjoyed it!