A few years ago I finally started delving deeper into my family tree. I was lucky to have the work of several cousins and other distant relatives to piggyback on, so I just started filling in the gaps I wanted for myself and trying to get a better picture of some of my more interesting ancestors.
There are parts of my family tree that are well documented and other branches that are frustratingly slim on information. One realization that I continue to have over and over again as I search for the more interesting tidbits of my family’s story is this one — we’re all lucky just to be here.
Every one of us relies entirely on the decisions, actions, health, environment and sometimes pure luck of our ancestors to have ever even existed. That’s pretty heavy when you think about it.
To begin with, so I didn’t get overwhelmed, I only let myself learn about my paternal namesake line as far back as the internet would take me.
I’m always particularly interested in the individuals in my upper branches who immigrated to the United States and then those with a military service record.
It’s usually when deep down into those two holes I am overcome with the feeling that I am so small and my mere existence has been extremely volatile for centuries before I was even born.
I’ll share with you here just a few of near misses in one of my ancestral lines that could have spelled the end of me and hundreds upon thousands of other relatives.
In the fall of 1749, my 5th great-grandfather arrived at the Port of Philadelphia after a long journey on the ship Speedwell. Born in what is now Denkendorf, Germany, Georg Wendel Silber was just 18 when he left home and set sail from Rotterdam, Holland with around 240 total souls aboard. It’s the next stopover that could have ended my family tree before it even made it to this side of the globe. The port at Cowes in what is now the United Kingdom was a place where many hopes and dreams of a life in the Americas quite literally went to die.
The last jumping off point for many ships before their passage to the colonies, conditions at Cowes would be considered pretty horrible by today’s standards. For passengers there wasn’t much food or water to be had and sanitation was basically non-existent. Many people didn’t live through their stay in the port with moldy food and tainted water and all the desirable rations being sold to supply the ships. Young Georg survived.
The next common possible encumbrance was also somehow avoided. Sometimes ships were blown hundreds of miles off course in those days, some landing as far south as Brazil. The Speedwell, which was a sister ship to the older Mayflower, kept a true bearing and Georg disembarked a free man in Pennsylvania. Had he not had the funds to cover his final passage fees at Philadelphia, he would have been auctioned off as an indentured servant, even if the money had been lost or stolen along the way.
Fast forward four years and Georg is married and has a brand new set of twins. The boy, Johan Jurg Silber, my 4th great-grandfather, and his sister Elizabeth survived as their mother’s first born … and the complications that can surround giving birth to twins can be considered a couple more bullets dodged in my family tree.
To keep things interesting, Jurg went off to fight in the American Revolution right about the time independence was declared. He was around 23 years old and would be in the Army for the better part of the next five years, even past the close of the war.
Jurg served six months with the Maryland troops at Annapolis and soon after did another 18 months in the “Flying Camp” and fought at the Battle of Germantown in 1777 where he was grazed in the neck by a bullet. This was yet another occasion that almost ended my family tree. Silber then served a three year enlistment in the German regiment where he battled British Dragoons at West Point and it was there he was present under arms and witnessed the execution of British spy Major Andre in 1780. In 1781 Jurg survived the end of the war, taking part in the besieging of General Cornwallis’ troops at Yorktown where he was again present for history, witnessing the British Army’s surrender to George Washington.
After the war, Jurg at some point decided to call himself George Silver, which I suspect was a tribute to his commander and eventual president. He stayed in the Army and was sent as far south as Charleston to serve under General Nathanael Greene to keep order along the coast.
Eventually George moved his whole family in the middle of winter to Western North Carolina and built a large mountain cabin that still exists today and has never been mortgaged or owned by anyone outside the family. That trip from Maryland through the mountains alone could have claimed the life of my 3rd great-grandfather John Jackson Silver.
Years later, John’s son Levi — my 2nd great-grandfather — survived the Civil War, having joined at Dalton already in his 30s, but around two decades before my great-grandfather George was born. Luck would have it that my grandfather Lummie was a bit too old for World War II and my dad didn’t come of age until near the end of Vietnam.
Somehow I survived a combat deployment to Iraq in 2005 and 2006 and the memories of many a close call still follow me around years later.
I’m sure all of us have had a brush with eternity or two in our ancestry, or in our own lives.
Give it a thought sometime … just how many things had to go right for you to simply be.