finding your roots

“Around the World for Love”

Priestley Coker May 14, 2012

Dear Dr. Gates,
My recent ancestors offer some interesting insights into the early women’s movement and the religious diversity of the USA of a century ago. My grandmother was reared in an old Quaker family from Lancaster County Pennsylvania and my grandfather was brought up in a military/banker family in small town North Carolina. While I knew my grandfather’s family and his siblings and off-spring, I had absolutely no contact with my grandmother’s family due to her untimely death in 1920 from Hodgkins Disease.

From a religious perspective our current generation and the preceding one looked at the Gibbons’ from literally another world. They were Quakers, from the North, and freely carried political banners to extreme and were leaders in the abolition movement prior to 1860. My mother was largely reared in North Carolina in a protestant Episcopal family of conservative background. My sister and I followed similar upbringings in Charleston. Our Colorado cousins were Navy juniors and probably had a more relaxed but rootless upbringing.
William Gibbons died a few weeks prior to my grandmother’s birth in October 1886. His widow, Caroline Gibbons, died in 1900 when my grandmother was 13. She spent the next few years with her mother’s maiden sister who suddenly at the age of 56 in 1902 married a widower with eight children who was 14 years her junior. By 1905 my grandmother was at Wellesley College where she graduated in 1909. That summer she met and fell in love with my grandfather who had graduated from the Naval Academy in 1909. My grandmother’s aunt and guardian refused to sanction marriage to the grandson of a slave owner and a military man, both anathema to the Quaker faith. Evidently my grandfather’s family was against the marriage and through political influence my great grandfather had him transferred to the China Station. My grandmother was not deterred and as the wedding announcement relates with
determination she traveled with an escort across Europe and Russia on the trans-Siberian Railroad in 1912 to Shanghai where they were married in the Episcopal Cathedral in September 1912. Interestingly enough my grandmother had an interest in photography and carried a camera on the trip across Siberia photographing the peasants and landscape along the way–a unique record of Czarist Russia.
My grandmother maintained contact with her aunt but I have the feeling that the relationship was strained as I think that her aunt had expected my grandmother to marry one of her stepsons. My mother’s brother was born in China and the family retured home to duty in New York around 1914/15. I have the portrait of my grandmother that was painted in New York at this time. During the war my grandfather was on a destroyer in the North Atlantic and afterwards on the battleship South Carolina out of Norfolk. While on this station my grandmother took up residence in his home town of Oxford, NC where sometime in 1919 or early 1920 she was diagnosed with Hodgkins Disease and removed herself to Johns Hopkins where she died at the age of 34 in 1920 when my mother was three.
So in a nutshell this gives a run down of what I know of William Gibbons and his daughter and how because of untimely and early deaths through two generations we have no contact with or personal remembrance of them other than these papers and the verbal stories handed down through my mother. Perhaps you will find this story interesting enough to pursue as we would like to learn more about what happened to the Gibbons papers and possessions that passed into the hands of step-children.
Below are photos of the portrait of my grandmother that was painted in New York around 1915 and a photo of my grandmother, mother, and uncle taken in Oxford, NC around 1920 shortly before my grandmother’s death.

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The basic drive to discover who we are and where we come from is at the core of the new 10-part PBS series Finding Your Roots with Henry Louis Gates, Jr., the 12th series from Professor Gates, the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor at Harvard University and director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research. Filmed on location across the United States, the series premieres nationally Sundays, March 25 – May 20 at 8 pm ET on PBS (check local listings).

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