The Sullivan Project

I was born a tumbleweed. My aunts and uncles were generally rooted in the South and a few in the Midwest.  Our tight, insular family-of-four, however, rolled westward across America every couple of years, from Florida to Texas, further west to Arizona and Colorado, and then to the Pacific Northwest.  Eventually, we were living on an island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, impossibly isolated from any relations.  I never knew my paternal grandfather.  By the time I was 12 (my brother just 8), both of my grandmothers had passed.  I visited my remaining grandparent every 5 to 7 years.  As for extended family, they were nothing more to me than names on Christmas card envelopes.

I knew some basic family history.  Mom’s mom was a Moore from Georgia; her father a Scots-Irish McDonald from a long line of Iowan pig farmers.  I didn’t know much about Dad’s dad other than he was from Massachusetts. Dad’s mother was an Irish Sullivan – though also an English Peyton with heraldry that was well documented, celebrated, and seemed to overshadow other heritage in her makeup.

I often wondered about ancestral connections beyond those few surnames, so in my 20’s I started to do research and collect as much information as I could.  Pre-Internet, this task required great patience.  I hoped my effort spent writing letters would yield something.  Responses were sparse and a-long-time-coming.

Today, of course, it is the opposite.  Initially, abundant amounts of information come barreling out of nowhere, and the volume can be overwhelming to sift through thanks to ancestry-sharing software, the proliferation of personal genealogy websites, and the digitizing of countless documents by libraries and museum collections.

For as long as I’ve known what it was, I’ve found genealogy fascinating.  Discovering the names and stories of people who gave you and me the basis of our human traits and personality is like putting a unique puzzle together.  Genetically speaking, everyone has 2 parents, 4 grandparents, 8 great grandparents, 16 great-great grandparents, and so on…  Grandparents back to about the 9th generation – about 1000 people before you – gave you some facet of your being.  (Why 9th generation? Learn about the science of ancestral DNA  from The Coop Lab at the University of California, Davis:  https://gcbias.org/2013/11/11/how-does-your-number-of-genetic-ancestors-grow-back-over-time/.)

Genetics are only a part of what makes you, you, and me, me. The historical events, circumstances, and personal choices of ancestors influenced our lives as well.  What if an English ancestor had stayed in London instead of leaving for the American colonies in the 1600s?  What if an Irish ancestor fleeing the potato famine hopped a ship to Australia instead of Canada, as she did?  What if a great-great grandfather decided to leave the family farm as a teenager and move to the city to work in a factory?  We would certainly be different than we are now in some way.

In early 2016, I bought new software to document the information I have been collecting for 20 years.  I also joined ancestry.com.  I built a general base of names and dates to start, and quickly uncovered a strong connection to Louisiana.  My first thought was, “Wait, we’re from Louisiana? No one ever mentioned Louisiana!”  Living in Dallas, I found this news ideal.  I could drive over for long weekends and do research.  The forebear who set me on the road to Louisiana was my father’s mother’s father, John Stephen Sullivan born in Alexandria, Louisiana in 1885.

Excitement at the Louisiana revelation led to a Memorial Weekend trip with Dad and my daughter, in hope of learning about John Stephen Sullivan and his parents, Edward Johnson Sullivan and Alice Wells Calvit. The visit turned out to be an overflowing treasure chest of amazing stories (…and a welcome opportunity to enjoy several meals of crawfish and oysters).  We viewed 150-year-old oil portraits of family members, found ancestors’ headstones in historical cemeteries, and even pinpointed the exact location of our great-great-great-great grandfather’s sugar plantation.  Most all of these finds, however, regarded the Wells family – John Stephen Sullivan’s mother’s side.  We learned very little of the Sullivans.  “Their history needs to be written!” I decided.

Thus…I give you this blog.

Why a blog?  Many genealogists of previous generations, who undertook research projects such as this one, wrote a book.  I decided though, that a blog is the most sensible and appropriate delivery method for this project.  There are several unfortunate truths about genealogy books.  There is a limited audience; generally, no one cares about what you uncover except for your own family.  Because there is a limited audience, books are expensive to publish.  To complete a book properly takes time (in my case it would be years as I work full-time and have children), and it would be a shame to keep interested parties in the dark until the great reveal…if it ever comes.   The most difficult truth for me to reconcile is that there is a finality to publishing a book, as if your work is done.  Genealogy is never done!   There is always more!

I am in the early stages of discovery; I will share with you what I learn, when I learn it.  We can experience the journey together.  Think of this blog as an episodic family mystery.  Every time I post, you will read about another piece of the puzzle of your past.

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