All our ancestors are in us. Who can feel himself alone?
In May 2003, my sisters and I returned to Lansing, Michigan to be with our grandmother Gene (Hayes) Merchant during her heart surgery and subsequent recovery. Facing the illness and major surgery of a beloved quickly puts the value of life, family, and knowing one’s roots into new perspective.
Over the next few weeks, Tamara, Atia, and I sifted through several boxes of photographs on a mission to label, organize, and preserve these aging, delicate treasures. We were fascinated by the stories Gramma told us, bringing hundreds of captured memories—smiling faces with familiar features who gathered to share joyous occasions, milestones, or simply everyday wonders—back to life. We had also come across birth certificates and other documents, which provided some vital information and offered us a clearer picture into the past. From that moment, I was inspired to renew the vow I had made when I was 12 years old to research and document our family legacy.
After attending my first Rhodes Family Reunion in Hamilton, Canada the summer of 1989, I was excited to explore our German heritage. But books on German genealogy indicated that most records had been destroyed in World War I. A little discouraged that I could not immediately begin my search, I remained determined to someday have the means to put together the story of how we came to be.
The opportunity finally arrived soon after I had returned to my home in Brooklyn, New York in July 2003. The journey began in the Milstein Division of U.S. History, Local History and Genealogy at the world-renowned New York Public Library (the one with the lion statues featured in dozens of movies) in Manhattan where I discovered that Wesley Rhodes had served in the Civil War. Along with viewing census records of my great-grandparents, Sylvia (Rhodes) Hayes & James Hayes, I obtained a copy of Wesley’s file card from the Civil War Pension Index.
I immediately enlisted the help of Tamara, who lives in Maryland, to visit the U.S. National Archives and Record Administration in Washington, D.C. and copy Wesley’s file. I was amazed when she excitedly called some weeks later that August to tell me that there were actually two huge folders of documents. (It was the best birthday gift I could have asked for!) Neither of us expected there would be so much information! But, as you well know when the government is giving you money, war veteran or not, it doesn’t come easy: they want proof of the proof! As thrilling as it was to hear my sister read the documents to me, I was eager to touch this history myself and visited the N.A.R.A. in October 2003 to collect additional information.
Family, please know how blessed we are to have access to such valuable information. Many people cannot begin to piece together their genealogy, to verify stories that have been passed down orally for generations, or to come upon surprises such as Tamara and I did! Contained within those files are birth, marriage and death certificates, letters written by Mary (or perhaps her daughter Annie on her behalf) to the U.S. Pension Bureau, depositions and affidavits from friends corroborating Mary’s and Wesley’s history, and even a document of Wesley’s health examination, recording his height at 5 feet, 8 ½ inches, weight at 185 pounds and his various ailments.
This booklet is my first endeavor to encapsulate the remarkable legacy of Mary Roth and Wesley Rhodes. For me, it is one of love against odds, courage, determination and the quest for freedom.
Continue reading “how we came to be: the legacy of mary roth + wesley rhodes”