Lost generations

John Henry Beeckman’s nephew, Robert Livingston Beeckman (1866-1935).

One of the trends in my ancestry is the curious one whereby, when given the choice between staying in a locale or moving on, my nineteenth-century forebears often remained behind as other relatives ventured further west. One of the sadder family stories is covered in the 1999 book Intimate Frontiers: Sex, Gender, and Culture in Old California, by Albert L. Hurtado, and concerns my great-great-great-uncle John Henry Beeckman (1818–1850).

Uncle John was the eldest son of Henry Beeckman and Catherine McPhaedris Livingston, and the family was a prosperous one in the days before the Civil War. That they were socially acceptable to New Yorkers and Virginians alike is suggested by the fact that John H. Beeckman married Margaret Gardiner in 1848 at the Virginia plantation of the bride’s brother-in-law, former President John Tyler. Still, John Beeckman was a young man, fired up by the discovery of gold in California, and in 1849 he left bride and newborn son to travel west.

Actually, though, the route to California went through Brazil, a long and eye-opening trek for gold-seekers. When his ship finally reached Rio de Janeiro, Uncle John admired the landscape but found the Brazilians “poor [and] miserable.” In his correspondence, he himself displayed some unattractive qualities: as Hurtado notes, “Beeckman’s ethnocentric pride, religious bigotry, and racial prejudice made it impossible for him to sympathetically observe the people of Rio.”[1]

When he finally reached California, his connections back east were of little use. Instead of prospecting for gold, he opened a store in Sacramento, hoping to profit from the prospectors. This venture failed, and during a hunting trip in 1850 he accidentally shot himself: “My God, I am shot,” he exclaimed, and died moments later. Hurtado quotes an Indian witness to Uncle John’s burial who called out “Adios, hombre”[2] – rather an unsatisfactory end to his western adventure!

Family legend adds the sad end of Aunt Margaret (Gardiner) Beeckman,[3] who took poison by mistake, and the early death of their son, Henry, who was killed in a riding accident.

Compare this to my great-great-grandfather, Gilbert Livingston Beeckman (1824–1874), who married Margaret Atherton Foster in 1851: they stayed in Manhattan, with sojourns in Dutchess County, New York, and Newport, Rhode Island. It took another generation – their children Helen Lyman, Mattie French, and Livy Beeckman – to venture out to California, but only seasonally, going and returning by a fast train.

This trend is repeated in other branches, and greatly eases my genealogical research for this period. On the other hand, there is something rather glamorous about my German-American great-great-great-uncle Edward L. Boucher (1843?–after 1920), a jeweler and watchmaker who was living in Nephi, Juab County, Utah, in 1920,[4] far indeed from his sister-in-law, my great-great-grandmother Mary Frances (Giles) Boucher, in Baltimore, Maryland. I’m quite sure my mother, who grew up in Baltimore, was unaware of her Boucher cousins in Iowa and Utah, some of whom were alive in her childhood.

One of the fascinations of genealogical research is this sort of reclamation, of collateral relatives whose stories were hinted at (Uncle John Beeckman) or simply forgotten (Uncle Edward Boucher). No doubt my paternal grandfather and maternal grandmother knew something of their Victorian relations; only now – with all the resources available via the internet – can we fill in some of the family detail inevitably lost between generations.


[1] Quoting from “Crossing the Borders: Sex, Gender and the Journey to California,” in Albert L. Hurtado, Intimate Frontiers: Sex, Gender, and Culture in Old California (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1999).

[2] Ibid.

[3] She is buried at South End Cemetery in East Hampton, New York (http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GSln=beeckman&GSfn=margaret&GSbyrel=all&GSdyrel=all&GSob=n&GRid=17199478&df=all&).

[4] 1920 Federal Census, T625_1863, p. 175A.

About Scott C. Steward

Scott C. Steward was the founding editor at Vita Brevis; he served as NEHGS Editor-in-Chief 2013-2022. He is the author, co-author, or editor of genealogies of the Ayer, Le Roy, Lowell, Saltonstall, Thorndike, and Winthrop families. His articles have appeared in The New England Historical and Genealogical Register, NEXUS, New England Ancestors, American Ancestors, and The Pennsylvania Genealogical Magazine, and he has written book reviews for the Register, The New York Genealogical and Biographical Record, and the National Genealogical Society Quarterly.

14 thoughts on “Lost generations

  1. May I correctly assume these “great great great uncles” were siblings to great great great grandparents?

    1. Dear Ross: No, there is a shift in nomenclature once you get past parents. Grandparents’ siblings are great-uncles or -aunts; great-grandparents’ siblings are great-great-uncles and -aunts, and so on!

      1. This shift kept confusing me, so I changed to “grand uncle” and “grand aunt”, which was actually in use in part of my family a few generations ago. I (and my family) easily adapted to the change, and it eliminated the occasional generational mixups. Especially useful in my family because of our persistent name recycling!

  2. I have decided to unsubscribe from Vita Brevis. Although we see very nice and interesting comments about the articles that are written, I have never seen a response to a number of questions covering several areas asked re: improving our genealogical skills. They are completely ignored. I have also asked on numerous occasions to see an article which delves into records using dual dates i.e., Julian vs Gregorian calendar. It can be very confusing and I cannot believe there isn’t a lot to learn about this subject that someone could have address by now….at least a year later after two requests.

      1. Scott, Can you tell me when you replied to my inquiry re: Julian vs Gregorian calendars and double dating etc.,? if you did and I missed it I offer my apologies. I have read and researched extensively about this subject because it comes up very often in my early 1537-1790 research. However, the subject begs an expert to write about it in this forum. And NEGHS has those experts. Just a personal feeling about the value of this forum.

        1. Donna, I did so here: http://vita-brevis.org/2016/08/a-mappa-mundi/. The general rule for Vita Brevis bloggers is that they write about topics that interest them (or which come up in their work), so it is not always possible — or desirable — to direct them in the content of their posts. (NEHGS has other outlets for direct questions, such as our Research Services team.) Over time, I think Vita Brevis posts will get around to reviewing lots of “how-to” topics, but that is not the driving focus of the blog.

          1. Donna, The link to Zach’s piece on double-dating will be found following your comment, requesting it. I cannot link to the correspondence, but if you look through the comments for your entry, you will find my answer immediately following.

          2. Thank you. On my Vita Brevis list of “New Comments” for that article, this comment by you and several others that I see now, did not and have not ever appeared. I have had that happen in the past several times.
            This article is a good example of what this subject needs. For beginners as well as those of us who have worked in/with these dates for years.

    1. There are many different kinds of genealogical resources. I love Vita Brevis because it is a chronicle of how experienced people have sought answers to sometimes baffling questions, or to share ongoing research, or tell about a new resource. I love the discussions that result. To my eyes, Vita Brevis is not a resource for learning the basics of genealogical research (though I am often prodded to go look something up). There are many online sites that include that information at no cost, easily findable using a browser’s search function. Early on, I also invested in several books on specific aspects of conducting genealogical research. I find them invaluable. There are also online research “support groups online” that help each other learn how to interpret research findings or even help answer research questions. Facebook and other social media are excellent for that kind of help. Perhaps I’ll see you there one of these days.

      1. Agree with everything you say…..but….Vita Brevis should also be about responding to readers’ needs/requests. And in my experience in general it has not. The expertise that is available from NEGHS should be shared both ways…what their work can teach us AND what they can share when requests have been made. Although I missed a post that responded to my request, in my readings of this blog over time there have been a number of comments in which requests have been ignored. We will also learn from your writings, but you are the experts, help us when we ask a question.

  3. I find this article quite intriguing, for some reason I simply assumed that relatives comforth in a somewhat straight direction. Where in your family they zigzagged around. Food 4 thought!

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.