The Family Escutcheon

Today’s Post comes from Occasional Caroline.

My nephew turned 40 over the weekend. He has had challenges throughout many of those years, including struggling with addictions. He has been sober for a number of years and is doing well now, but is ever vigilant not to slip back down that slippery slope. Forty is a milestone and he invited family and friends to a gathering to help him usher in the new decade. The invitation and his situation, brought to mind an episode and an item from the family canon that I thought would be meaningful to him and support both his sobriety and his interest in family history. My problem was that the story really started in the late 1800s and the chain of custody of the actual facts has more missing links than the other kind. Here is the story I was able to cobble together from the collective memories of my mother, brother, sister and me, and present to my nephew:

We thought that you were the perfect person to hand down this family heirloom and story to. Although the people who could give us the most accurate information are no longer available to confirm or refute these “facts”, here is what might have happened that we have pieced together from the memories of those of us were around for parts of this saga. Total historical accuracy is not what you’ll read here, this is the new truth from the 21st century onward…

Long, long ago, when your great grandma, was a young girl, a man in the family (quite possibly her father, but maybe not) regularly drank more than was prudent. Each day (or possibly more or, less often) he would send one of his 3 sons, (if indeed it was Grandma’s father) to a neighborhood bar to have this brown pitcher filled with beer, and returned to quench his thirst. Grandma developed a loathing for what excessive drink could do to a man.

At some point, when he was old enough to know better (in his 40s), her son, your dad’s, aunt’s,  and my father, did one of 2 things. Or, more probably, he did both and one was the straw that broke the camel’s (Grandma’s) back.

Scenario One: He drank too much at his favorite bar, headed home, driving drunk on back roads, and was pulled over by the police and given either a DUI ticket or a warning. Somehow Grandma found out about it (back then all legal infractions were published in the local newspapers, so she may have read it, if indeed he got the ticket). In any case Grandma knew and she was furious with him.

Scenario Two: He arrived at a family gathering in a state of intoxication, which his mother quickly recognized, and she was furious with him.

Whatever the infraction/(s) was/were, at some point, still furious, his mother presented the family symbol of excessive drink, the brown beer pitcher, to her son as a stern reminder of her fury and disapproval of his lack of sobriety. It was also, of course a loving reminder of her parental devotion, and concern for his welfare. We are all quite certain that his mother never, ever saw him drunk again (which is not to say that he was never drunk again, just not in her presence).

So, with pride and recognition of your years of sobriety, and to commemorate your fortieth birthday, we present you with that same little brown jug, which is now the family symbol of keeping the plug in the jug.

You have become the keeper of the story and the jug, and you may use, alter, enhance, embellish, retell, hide, proclaim, ignore, or do anything else with them you wish.

Author’s note: I have thoroughly examined the pitcher for any identifying marks and found nothing etched, stamped or printed anywhere on it to help identify where or when it began. It is fairly small, about 7 inches high. Notice that the handle appears to be a greyhound. What’s up with that? In any case, if the back story is at all accurate, we assume that the pitcher is at least as old as my grandmother would be; she was born in 1890, so nearly 130 years, but it could be older.


What’s in your family canon? How has  your family embellished family “history”? 

61 thoughts on “The Family Escutcheon”

  1. I enjoyed what I assume is an allusion to The Pirates of Penzance in your title: “The Family Escutcheon”. Apparently, dog handled pitchers were a “thing”
    ( ) but I haven’t been able to find out why, except they are sometimes referred to as hunting pitchers or game pitchers.

    Not much embellished oral history in my family and now all those who would contribute that history are gone. There was a persistent claim that we were somehow related to the colonial and presidential Adams family and my great great grandmother’s second marriage was to a man named Adams, whose family claimed that heritage (though I’ve never been able to substantiate it and the Adams lineage is well established). Even if it were true, the relationship to our family would not be a blood one. Such assertions of “noble” lineage are common in families and if you can go back far enough just about everybody is related somehow to everybody else.
    Most of the mysteries and possibly squalid episodes in my family’s history are things I’ve discovered in my research and not things that were talked about.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. We may, or may not be related, Bill. My mother’s side of the family has always been told we were descended from John Adams, but when my cousin tried to document the claim, she couldn’t. I think we all still harbor a secret belief that just because you can’t prove it, doesn’t mean it isn’t true. But it probably isn’t true.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Robin’s family also had a tradition that they were descended from the Adams. In their case, I was able to establish that they and the presidential Adamses had a common ancestor a couple of generations earlier.

        Liked by 3 people

        1. When I was a young married person my father sent me a copy of a family tree that he had sent away for to some company in Virginia that supposedly specialized in that. All the way back to Eleanor of Aquitaine. I don’t believe it for a second but if push ever comes to shove, I will claim her.


  2. My father’s family, whose name is quite Dutch, insists that we are really French Huguenots. There is absolutely no evidence for that. They were just dirt poor Frieslanders in Northern Germany/Holland. DNA testing does not support the Huguenot story.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. A portion of Robin’s family emigrated from Norway and the family naturally considered themselves part Norwegian but a niece visiting distant relatives there learned that, in fact, they were actually “Forest Finns”, a group that came centuries ago from Finland and who had a distinctive style of agriculture that entailed clearing chunks of forest, probably because that was the land that was available.
    DNA results support the Finnish origin.

    Liked by 5 people

    1. When we visited the VolksMuseum in Oslo, we were amazed about the way in which farming methods were highly cultural. As we wandered about the the display province of Lou’s Norwegians, we found the display barn there is just like barns on the farms Lou knew as a child. Some of those barns are still there. The stave churches are also a direct import from Norway.

      Liked by 5 people

      1. Garrison Keillor used to joke that people fled the poverty caused by poor, stony farmland in Norway. When they got to this country, they wandered widely until they found stony fields that looked like those back home. I assume there is some embellishment but also some truth in that.

        Liked by 5 people

        1. My Norwegian farming forbears moved from a dairy farm on a slope of mountain to the flats of Wisconsin. Having visited where the family farm was in Norway, I can tell you the view is gorgeous – but I can’t imagine that farming on the slope would have been easy.

          Liked by 3 people

  4. One of my personal favorites is one we discovered in a newspaper clipping: a founding aunt (I am not a direct descendant) was accused during the Witch Hysteria in Massachusetts (not Salem, she was in Springfield – but same era). There were two bits of damning evidence: her mother (from whom I am descended) was a landowner in her own right (though this may not have been called out directly, because it only need be heavily implied that women with any sort of power or independence were suspect), and – more directly – the neighbor’s pigs were dying. My great-howevermany-great Aunt was able to convince her witchcraft jury that the pigs were none of her doing, her neighbor was just a lousy farmer who needed to tend to his pigs better.

    Could I also be a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution? Sure – the Bliss family would allow me that privilege. But I think the witch story is far more brag-worthy. 🙂

    Liked by 6 people

    1. My great-however many aunt was not so lucky. Elizabeth Howe Jackson was hung at Salem. My great-however many grandfather was her brother-in-law who convinced the community she was a witch. Kirstie Alley launched her career back in the 70’s by playing her on a TV show special about this. Unfortunately, that portrayal was pretty inaccurate. Kirstie Alley was at that time, an early age 20. The real Elizabeth was a dowdy mid-fifty something Puritan Good Wife who crossed her brother-in-law, paying for it with her life.

      Liked by 8 people

        1. There are 2 TV shows about my Puritan ancestors. The other one is about someone named “Deliverance Potter” in Providence, RI, who ran away into a winter night, fleeing from Indians. There she froze to death.

          Those poor women did not have easy lives or deaths.

          Liked by 4 people

        2. I should clarify that in my family there was little embellishment. There was just no information: “We don’t know anything.” On mom’s side it was meant to hide Swiss-Jewish origins. In WWII German and Jewish roots were fraught. By hiding this, what they did not know or discover that those Jews also fought the American Revolution.

          Liked by 4 people

  5. Rise and tell the story Baboons,

    Occasional Caroline, I am glad to hear from you. It has been awhile. I was wondering how your aging relatives are faring?

    My favorite story is about a Norwegian stow-away who carved a rocking chair on the boat to America in 1858. That is the story my dad told us about an old rocking chair that sits in my bedroom. A visit to Antiques Roadshow 14 years ago identified it as a common Midwest-made rocking chair sold in the 1870’s which matches the life of my Great Grandmother, Emma Jackson Hoel perfectly. Nobody carved it on the boat.

    I am suspicious that the story about a stow-away has some credibility. I could not find anything about the source of my Norwegian roots. They were “from Norway—they were landowners who owned a beautiful farm in Telemark and had 8 sons.” The Stuvanger, Norway, genealogical center, which I visited in 2014 relayed a different story. They were a family from Hedmark (near Lillehammer) with many children, both boys and girls, all of whom emigrated to the US in the 1850’s. The oldest one did land in Madison, Wisconsin and helped build the first capitol building there. None of that family remains in Norway. Some changed their name from Jorgensen and some kept it. However, the ones who changed it became “Hoel.” Hoel? Really? That is an improvement? The Stuvanger people said that Grubhoel was the name of the farm in Hedmark.

    My aunts were so secretive or confused about their father’s trip here at age 14, that I suspect someone was a stowaway and the family hid their origins to protect someone who did arrive in Story County, Iowa somehow. That person did not carve a rocking chair on the way.

    Liked by 8 people

    1. I could belong to the DAR as well, Jacque. I am not aware of one great aunt on my father’s side who actually did, but it’s said we’re eligible on both sides. If we’re not descended from John Adams, though, the maternal line could be in question.

      My mom is still doing pretty well, considering she’s sneaking up on 95. Even in assisted living, she requires a lot of attention from my sister and me; thank God for my sister!. Mom has been in the hospital twice since Easter. Fortunately, she has no dementia and except for very poor short term memory, is doing remarkably well cognitively. Her husband picked up a plate to answer the phone the other day, but that was a bit worse than his baseline.

      Liked by 5 people

      1. Well, my plates talk to me ad nauseam. Who knows what the phone/plate said to him.

        My mother is a member of the DAR through her mother’s side. She had to establish birth certificates and produce the war record of Peter Nice Gearhart, who was brought here at age 14 years as a mercenary by a Belgian Lord who sold his services to England. He then switched sides for citizenship.

        I need to investigate more about membership and the benefits or reasons to belong. If it is for bragging rights about my pedigree, then no thanks. I think I could easily establish it on my dad’s side as well, thanks to a search done on the author Gene Stratton Porter who was a member. So far I have found a number of direct ancestors who fought in the Revolution, and most lived through it. They are very well documented.

        Liked by 3 people

  6. On my Dad’s side of the family, we have the Uncle who married his Aunt after his best friend, her first husband, died. She was only his Aunt after she married the first time so it’s not as scandalous as it sounds…other than the whole Marrying-best-friends-wife bit.
    And evidently my Grandfather eloped. We’re not sure why.

    Moms side of the family, well, they didn’t get along. Back a couple generations, there was the well-to-do, farming Egglers and the lowly, poor, farming ‘Betz’ family. When those kids got together, Mom Eggler was so mad she threw all the family belongings in a ditch just so Bride Betz wouldn’t get anything.

    Liked by 4 people

  7. I did genealogy research twenty years ago, then lost the data, so I have to rely on memory. The only famous person in my family tree was Daniel Boone, the pioneer woodsman who kept creating new settlements as he kept moving westward. He apparently was a rascal, if not a crook, and those repeated migrations were his way of keeping one jump ahead of the law. He didn’t like paying his taxes. My connection to him is quite direct, but a lot of people could make the same claim. The early Boone women were amazingly durable and fertile, routinely producing families with ten to sixteen kids.

    One of my distant relatives got sucked in by the gold rush fevers that were rampant in the 19th century. He persuaded his reluctant brother to accompany him on a trip seeking gold and silver in Colorado. When his brother was blinded by a mining explosion, he was overcome with remorse. The two of them walked back to Iowa, the sighted brother holding the hand of his blinded sibling.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Robin’s family also claims relation to Daniel Boone. The best I can determine, the connection, if any was through a woman with the surname Morgan, who was DB’s stepmother. A tenuous connection at best.
      Boone’s practice of moving westward frequently was pretty common on what was then the frontier, making him, if a rascal, an unexceptional one. He was actually born in Pennsylvania.

      Liked by 2 people

  8. I am related to the husband of Lawrence Welk’s daughter, Shirley. She married a Fredericks from Jamestown, ND. They were attorneys. They are my paternal grandfather’s uncles and cousins. One was the last to read for the bar in ND.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Welk’s people were Germans from Russia. Lots of them settled in ND. My relatives are what they call Reichsdeutch, or ones who came from directly from Germany.

        Liked by 1 person

  9. The Ostfriesland motto is “Better Dead than Slaves”. They are a historically difficult, stubborn people, and were the last people evangelized in Europe. My father’s family are difficult, stubborn people, although the local assessment also includes “Oh, those Boomgaardens are musical”.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. There is quite a story related to that relative of Welk’s. I had a friend who loved pheasants. He was a black man from Mississippi (right near where the civil rights workers were killed). Black men with shotguns are an EXTREMELY rare sight in ND. My friend knocked at a random door to ask permission to hunt. The farmer hesitated, then said, “You can hunt my land if I can come stay at your house sometime.” My friend agreed. That turned into a remarkable friendship between the two of them.

      Liked by 4 people

      1. The German from Russia were unusually accepting of their Native American neighbors in south central ND. They weren’t so friendly with their Czech and German Hungarian felliw immigrants however.

        Liked by 2 people

  10. I remember hearing suggestions that there was some native american in the background of my mother’s side of the family and that side tends to have rather olive skin and prominent noses but their heritage is Swiss and Bohemian, and I’ve accounted for all the generations in this country. DNA doesn’t support the rumor.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Bill, a common YouTube video these days is people opening and reading their reports from DNA testing. Two common themes are people being disappointed that they do not have Native American genes, in spite of family legends that claim they might. And people are often surprised to learn they have some Jewish ancestry, particularly Ashkenazi Jewish blood.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. I think I’ve mentioned this on here before. The adult daughter of some Danish friends of mine was given a 23and Me DNA test as a gift for Christmas last year by her father-in-law. Maria was surprised to discover that she had a big chunk of Ashkenazi Jewish ancestry. Neither of her parents could explain this, but both decided to submit to the same DNA testing. Turns out Jytte, Maria’s mother, is 99% Danish, while Erik, her dad, has lots of Ashkenazi blood.

        Erik has a brother who still lives in Denmark, so Erik gifted him with the same DNA test. Erik’s brother has no Ashkenazi blood. They knew beforehand that Erik and his brother didn’t have the same father, but it was news to them both that Erik’s dad had Ashkenazi ancestors. It does help explain that Erik is much darker complected than most Danes, and Maria has inherited that beautiful bronze complexion.

        Liked by 3 people

  11. My great great grandfather’s brother, who emigrated from Norway, reported in a Steele County, Minnesota history that he and his wife had emigrated in 1872 to Owatonna and married there. Except that their oldest son, Soren, was born in Chicago in 1870. This great great great uncle and his wife were half cousins, with the same grandfather but different grandmothers and they didn’t actually show up in Owatonna until 1872, after the Chicago fire. I haven’t been able to determine why they lied about that.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I wonder if, as half cousins, they weren’t allowed to marry back in Norway and they came to America in part to escape the public knowledge of that family connection.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Wasband’s parents, Asunta and Enrico Mazzaferro, were first cousins. Apparently that was fairly common in Sicily at the beginning of the last century. For all I know, it may still be.

        Liked by 1 person

  12. One of my father’s relatives who was the first to emigrate to Wisconsin (I believe) was named Rose Marx — related to Karl Marx. I’m not sure if this is substantiated, but it is a consistent rumor in the family.

    The family joke is that we’re like hot dogs — 98% German and 2% unknown. However, one or two of my sisters have had the 23andMe DNA analysis done and it seems like we’re just a mutt mix of many things. So yeah, slightly disappointing.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I get what you’re saying, Joanne, but on the whole I’m happy to see people doing those DNA tests. Two points come through, over and over. One: families lie about family history. Two: most of us are mutts. I think it is good for people to confront both 1 and 2.

      Liked by 4 people

  13. I don’t know a lot about family history. There is supposed to be some Roma, or gypsy, blood on my mother’s side, but no stories have been handed down that I know of.

    Mostly my ancestors were people of little means. They struggled for survival and squeaked by, leaving little for future generations.

    I do think it’s cool that dog-handled pitchers were once a thing.

    Liked by 3 people

  14. Perhaps because my two grandmothers each came in their teens by boat (from Norway and Sweden) to the US, on their own, there just aren’t many stories that go way back. My maternal grandfather’s family was from Wales via Connecticut, and there is apparently a Sterling house still in the family in Hamburg, CT.

    However, my dad’s aunt that they called “grandma Duea” had been married to a Civil War veteran 40 years older than she was – Jonas Duea.


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