finding your roots

The Publc Library Validates A Family’s Oral History

Renee Barnett Webster July 19, 2013

Maisonette Barnett Walton, born December 8, 1886, was our family’s matriarch. With dark gray hair and standing six foot tall and wearing size 13 ladies shoes, her appearance suited her role within the family . Maizie did not marry until she was over 40 years and did not have children of her own, therefore, her nephews and their families became her surrogate children and grandchildren. Despite her formidable appearance Maizie had an amazing sense of humor and enjoyed hearing or telling a good joke. She was an excellent story teller. As a result she would tell tales of the family and their history dating back to the 19th century . As a Barnett by marriage and a lover of history, my mother would try to capture Maizie’s family histories and develop a family tree, long before it became in vogue.
Maizie owned an old pitcher with a picture of a ship on it, masonic symbols and the initials “LDR” and MDR. She said the pitcher belonged to my seventh great grandfather a shipbuilder who had built the USS Constellation. The pitcher also contained newspaper articles about a family shipwrecked off the Outer Banks and an article about a grandfather who had been a Baltimore City police officer. My mother would have Maizie tell her about the family and mom would jot down notes and facts about the people she described – the shipbuilder, Lewis de Rochbrune, who owned the pitcher, my great grandfather who had a commercial painting business in Baltimore and other family members. Despite Maizie’s sharp mind at even at an advanced age, some details of the family tree remained confusing and elusive. In January 1983, Maizie passed away just weeks after my first child was born.

Maizie passed on to my parents the Liverpool pitcher, the newspaper articles and the Bible before she passed. As the years passed, my mother and I both remained interested in history especially family history but did little to increase what knowledge Maizie gave us until one remarkable day when I took my children to the local library which happened to be across the street from my childhood home. That day I began a journey that I continue twenty years later.
While my children looked for books in the adjacent Biography section of the non fiction books in the library I browsed the books on local and Maryland History. A book on the history of Fell’s Point a colonial maritime neighborhood in Baltimore where Frederick Douglas had resided, caught my eye. As I paged through the book there was a listing of Fell’s Point shipbuilders. I could not believe my eyes when I noted the location of the ship yard of Lewis De Rochbrune, my ancestral grandfather, listed on the page. Another page provided narration of his coming to Baltimore and of the ship he built for the US government which was to be used as a privateer in the Quasi War against France. How could this man that Maizie spoke of be in a book! I grabbed other Baltimore history books spread them out on a table and began scrolling through their indexes for more information. Before my children had made the selections for reading I had amassed three books all containing information on Lewis . I could barely stand the excitement until I could tell my parents what I had found. How could this been available just a few small steps from my childhood home and within our families grasp for years .
That began my quest ! One book I accessed was one containing an index of Baltimore County wills. I quickly sent off the request to the state archives and within days the will was received. It took some skill to decifer the colonial handwriting and language but I learned much from the document: some good, some not. As many Caucasians particularly of Northern descent , I believed that there was no one in my family’s history who was a slave owner . Yet this document spoke of not just the disposition and care of his child but also of his property including his slaves. It was harsh and soul searching reality check that shifted my paradigms. Despite Fells Point being the home of Frederick Douglas I never considered that Lewis may have had slaves build his ships.

My journey continued, almost too easy at times, as if Maizie was guiding me through the acquisition of knowledge. A few months after my library excursion I contacted a member of the Maryland Historical Society when the society announced the building of the opening of a Maritime museum in Fells Point. She provided me with the contact information for an expert in local shipbuilding history. Geoffrey Footner was delightful character who looked like an old ship captain with a gray scruffy beard. I shared with him our verbal history about the Lewis and the Constellation. He shared with me a list of ships built by Lewis from 1790 – 1802. In 1796 the year the Constellation was built there were no ships built. Geoffrey speculated that this may have meant that he did in fact assist with the building. He connected me with another man who had written a book and articles with information about my grandfather.
Each new bit of information led me to new information. The family home from the 1740 that still stands on Maryland’s eastern shore, the naturalization information on Lewis’s great grandfather, the painter of city firehouses, the ship’s captain that lost in his family in a shipwreck off Hatteras, the soldier who died of complication after spending time in a confederate prison, and a great grandfather who not only was a bricklayer but policed Baltimore in the days when the police worked other jobs as well. Because most of my roots are truly Maryland local libraries and the historical society have proven to be an unexpected source of volumes of information.

The seeds of my journey into genealogy were sowed by Maize’s stories and I never fail to speak with her when that one connection or link has me stuck and sometimes she answers putting the answer right before my eyes.

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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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