“Why is your last name different from ours?” my seven-year-old daughter asked. “Well,” I began carefully, “it’s customary for a woman to change her name when she gets married, but I chose to keep mine because I liked it.”
But what was so special about my name? Why did I insist on remaining Katy Brown? At the time, I was just getting started in a broadcasting career, so I needed to maintain my identity. But now that I am out of the business more or less, I wanted to provide my daughter with a better answer.
I grew up as the only child to parents who were farther along in life. By the time our second baby was born, my parents and grandparents had passed away. With the exception of a few aunts, an uncle and a handful of adult cousins who live elsewhere, my girls don’t have close relationships with anyone on my side of the family. My last name means nothing to them other than being the color of a crayon.
As if the NBC network understood my concern, the television show “Who Do You Think You Are” motivated me to do some searching for branches on the family tree. What I discovered was both comical and sad, but every bit intriguing.
During a free 14-day trial (which I promptly upgraded to the World Deluxe Membership), I learned that the Browns were Irish, not German, as I previously thought. My great-great-GREAT grandfather John U. Brown and his wife, Emily McCartney, traveled from Dundee, Ireland to Ellis Island in the mid-1800s, according to immigration travel lists. She and her husband settled in Monroe County in 1833, where the next generations of Browns made their home as farmers. While census records were invaluable in adding names and dates, the greatest hints came from newspaper articles and documents.
- My mother’s family (Keeney) was recognized as one of the first pioneers of Greenbrier County.
- My grandmother’s brother bought a farm in Blue Sulphur Springs, WV, where Robert E. Lee’s beloved horse, Traveller was born and raised. In 1963, my grandmother donated Traveller’s saddle to the Greenbrier Historical Society, where it’s on display in the North House Museum in Lewisburg.
- My grandfather’s World War II registration card indicated that he stood 5’11”, weighed 180 pounds, had dark red hair, a medium build, and a “ruddy complexion.”
- In 1950, The Beckley Post Herald reported that my grandmother’s mynah bird had a 150-word vocabulary, which attracted “callers from all over Greenbrier County and the state.”
- My mother’s wedding announcement (also in the Beckley newspaper) revealed that she wore an ivory colored sheath of silk faille, complemented by a jacket embellished with pearls. “The bride’s mother wore black.”
- The search for information about my Grandfather Keeney ended in Roane County. After recovering his death certificate dated May 21, 1945, I learned that he died in Spencer State Hospital (now a Walmart – go figure), where he was sent after a series of hypertensive strokes led to “psychosis with cerebral arterioschlerosis.” Perhaps this explains the ruddy complexion.
- My great uncle Harry (Brown) a Monroe County school teacher who was paralyzed from the chest-down, became a lobbyist for legislation in the 1930s that would have provided financial and legal support for victims of violent crimes. According to newspaper clippings, his spinal cord was severed by a sheriff’s bullet – a case of mistaken identity.
I have spent hours looking up relatives’ personal histories, timelines and photos. I now understand where my love of writing and language comes from (no, not the mynah bird!). I know who’s responsible for giving me auburn hair and hazel eyes. I have a clearer understanding of who my eldest daughter is most like — a throwback to the grandmother she never had the opportunity to meet, but I feel certain knows her extremely well.
Since revealing my findings, my husband has taken over the computer and started research of his own, which will give our girls a complete snapshot of their heritage. Ancestry.com is expensive ($29.99 per month), but it has become an invaluable tool in solving some of our families’ great mysteries. This is one tree that my girls have permission to climb.