Monday, January 3, 2011


English Showalter Sr, circa 1960

            When I retired in 2001, naively imagining that I would have lots of spare time, I took up as a challenge to sort through a large box bequeathed to me by my father on his death in 1986. It contained papers he had accumulated relating to the Showalter family’s history. My father was not a genealogist, but he was a lawyer, and had a great deal of experience going through small-town courthouse records, in places like Salem, Virginia, county seat of Roanoke County; Fincastle, in Botetourt County; Rocky Mount, in Franklin County; Christiansburg, in Montgomery County; and Pulaski, in the county of the same name, where he was born. It was a brother-in-law, Ralph Stewart, husband of his sister Ernestine Showalter, who undertook to establish the family genealogy, and he enlisted my father’s help in searching for original records of their lives.
            The short history of the Showalters is that they were Mennonites, first appearing in what is now Switzerland, later settled in the Palatinate of the Rhine, but part of a massive emigration to America, by religious minorities fleeing persecution in Europe in the eighteenth century. Jacob, progenitor of most of the American Showalters, landed in Philadelphia in 1750, along with his wife and several children. They went forth and multiplied, and successive generations moved west, or south into Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. I am descended from one of the Virginia lines.
Josiah Thomas Showalter, circa 1906
            From Jacob Showalter to me took seven generations: Jacob begat John, who begat Henry, who begat David, who begat Josiah Thomas, who begat Chester David Michael, who begat English senior, who begat me, English junior. But there’s a problem: Jacob also begat a Jacob junior, who begat a different Henry. Both Henrys moved from Pennsylvania to Botetourt County, Virginia, in the late 1700s, where one died in 1830 and the other in 1842. And it is not certain which Henry begat David, my great-great-grandfather.
            My father was so disenchanted by this weakness in the chain that he lost interest in the entire project and put the papers in a box, which I inherited. As a lawyer, he wanted solid evidence, and there isn’t any on this matter. To me, it doesn’t matter much. Either way, I’m descended from Jacob senior. I found on the web a genealogy of European Showalters, which traces the line back to about 1530. It’s patched together with a fair number of “probably the son of” links, but it must approximate the actual history. That’s fifteen generations, and the number of ancestors everyone in my age cohort had in 1530 is 32,768 (2 to the 15th power).
            Humans, or Showalters anyway, reproduce at a rate about 3.5 generations a century. If you keep going back, doubling the number every 28 years or so, somewhere in the 12th century the number passes a billion—1,073,741,824 to be precise; that’s about triple the estimated human population of the entire earth at the time. Hey, I must be a descendant of, or at least kin to Henry I of England, Philip Augustus of France, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Genghis Khan, St Francis of Assisi, and Peter Abelard! And you must be, too. Furthermore, we’re all descended from everyone who lived before them, William the Conqueror, Charlemagne, Attila the Hun, Julius Caesar, Aristotle, Homer, etc ad infinitum. And I guess we’re all kin to each other, too.
C. D. M. Showalter, holding the blogger, 1936
            For me, it is much more rewarding to study my recent ancestors, who lived in places familiar to me, and who left traces—letters, documents, furniture, artifacts, portraits, houses, gravestones—that I can see or visit. In reading, transcribing and indexing my family’s papers at the Historical Society of Western Virginia, I feel myself plunged into that past. I have learned a lot that I did not know about my forebears, and that knowledge seems to me to solidify my own place in the world.
            My father also told me that he had sixty first cousins. At the time, I hardly paid any attention, but in later years I was both impressed—I have only fourteen and my children have only five—and puzzled, because I do not recall ever meeting any of them. I have tried to identify them and make contact with their families. The actual number is 67, unless I’ve missed someone. They are an impressive and fascinating group. I’ll have more about them in later postings.

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