Returning Elijah

Elijah Burson (1807-1886)

A year ago last summer I was contacted by a gentleman from Zeeland, Michigan. While out weekend bargain hunting, he had come across an antique photograph for sale at a local flea market. The gentleman wrote with empathy about family history, and he seemed to have at least a hobbyist’s eye for old pictures. His curiosity was piqued by this one particular picture, so he purchased it, no doubt saving it from the fate of some Michigan land fill.  He said that the only identifier as to who the person in the photo might be were the words “Grandpa Burson” written on its back.

From what I could gather, the man from Zeeland enjoys following where the clues in any old pictures might take him. In this case, from the photographer’s location (255 miles away in Carey, Ohio) to the inscription on the reverse, in an attempt to reunite lost pictures with family. Somehow in the confluence of all things “Burson,” he located my email address (presumably through After emailing me a copy of the picture, “Mr. Z.” asked if I might know who the man in the picture was. (I had to wonder if Mr. Z’s contacting me wasn’t influenced by the auspices of my great-grandmother’s ghost – as she was a Burson.)[1]

I did not know who the man in the old photograph was. However, my gut told me that there was a good chance that if he was a member of the Burson clan I might have a shot in figuring it out. I let Mr. Z. know that I would work on it, and I went to the only source I had for such things, that being History of the Burson Family by John Charles Burson.[2] What a long shot!

A detail from p. 56.

Compiled in 1932, J.C. Burson’s book remains one of the best histories for this family. It is replete with half-finished family lines (my own included) and is bereft of good source information, but John Burson did one really great thing in his book: he included photographs, as many as he could cram in. They are at once grainy, sandy, and small, but they are there nonetheless. Fortunately, the genealogical gods were smiling down on me that day as I was able to match the picture Mr. Z.’s flea market photograph to a picture in History of the Burson Family. The man in the picture was Elijah Burson.[3]

It turns out that Elijah Burson is my great-great-great-great-uncle, the brother of my great-great-great-grandfather Thomas Burson. Okay – that’s great – but not so fast … Elijah Burson is also the father of John Charles Burson – the author of History of the Burson Family? Wait – what!?

So I wrote back to the gentleman from Zeeland and let him know the identity of the man in his photograph. Mr. Z., ever cool and kind, and asked me if I wanted the picture. How could I say no? I was happy to have a picture of my great-great-great-great-uncle. So Elijah Burson’s original photograph had (sort of) come home to me, his brother’s great-great-great-grandson.

A young John C. Burson and family. Courtesy of contributor Linda Sanders #48652993

This just doesn’t seem to be enough somehow. In reading a few of the Vita Brevis posts by Pamela Athearn Filbert[4] and Chris Child,[5] I’m thinking that my work isn’t done here. Elijah’s photograph doesn’t belong with me. Sure, the picture is in better hands than at a Michigan flea market, but Elijah Burson, “father of the father” of my Burson family history, belongs with his own family. So I have resolved to return Elijah’s picture to his direct descendants – and specifically to those of his son, the book’s author John Charles Burson.

I know Elijah has many other descendants who no doubt are as worthy as those of John Burson. Heck, in the end it may be a random chance that returns the old photo of Elijah to any one of them. Yet if possible, I want to try and send Elijah back to the family of one of his son John’s sons (or daughters) instead. It seems a better place to me – perhaps a more fitting one for this wayward picture.

In light of this, I have researched and mailed out a letter of inquiry to a fellow I believe is Elijah’s great-great-grandson. I am hopeful I can get Elijah’s picture back to his direct line descendants through his son John. It’s hard to say what interest any “new” generations might have in these “old things.” What I do know with some certainty is that, like the gentleman from Zeeland, I have to try.


[1] Gertrude Ann (Burson) Record (1888–1965).

[2] John Charles [Fremont] Burson (1862–1951), History of the Burson Family (Acampo, Calif., 1932).

[3] Burson, History of the Burson Family, p. 56.

[4] Pamela Athearn Filbert, “Stranger than fiction,” Vita Brevis, 25 September 2017.

[5] Christopher C. Child, “In search of family photos: Part Two,” Vita Brevis, 10 July 2015.

About Jeff Record

Jeff Record received a B.A. degree in Philosophy from Santa Clara University, and works as a teaching assistant with special needs children at a local school. He recently co-authored with Christopher C. Child, “William and Lydia (Swift) Young of Windham, Connecticut: A John Howland and Richard Warren Line,” for the Mayflower Descendant. Jeff enjoys helping his ancestors complete their unfinished business, and successfully petitioned the Secretary of the Army to overturn a 150 year old dishonorable Civil War discharge. A former Elder with the Mother Lode Colony of Mayflower Descendants in the State of California, Jeff and his wife currently live with their Golden Retriever near California’s Gold Country where he continues to explore, discover, and research family history.

18 thoughts on “Returning Elijah

  1. I shall keep a positive thought about the success of your attempt to reunite the picture to the descendant. What a great story.

  2. Oh, the interesting hours I have spent looking for descendants of strangers! As the Friends of the Library sort through boxes of donated books, we find (way too often!) family treasures that we try to find homes for. Before the internet, I’m not sure how successful we’d have been. And I’ve been the beneficiary of a very complete and well-labeled photograph album from my great-grandmother’s family, which had been sent to the previous custodian by the first cousin of her adoptive mother, that first cousin having received it in turn from a cousin on the “other side” of THAT family. What a precarious trail it had traveled! It is so satisfying, from both sides of the transaction. Thanks for sharing this one.

    1. If Elijah is the brother to your great great great grandfather, then he is your great great great uncle, or if you prefer, great great great granduncle as they are in the same generation.

  3. On the FB page for a book I published of my g g grandfather’s Civil War letters, there is a photo of him in uniform as it appears on the book’s cover. A couple of years ago I was contacted my someone questioning how I knew the photo was indeed my gg grandfather because the Co. letter on the cap was “A” and his 12th CT company was “K.” After I explained the original photo was owned by my second cousin and was with a few of the letters and had “To Grandmother” written on the bottom indicating it had stayed in the family, he agreed that the men sometimes “borrowed” uniform pieces for spur of the moment photos. This was a CdV and had the inscription “To Olney” written on the bottom. “Did I want the photo?” he asked? “Of course,” I replied. So, for a modest sum, I now have an original of that photo. (I wish I had had it when designing the book cover instead of the copy of a copy that I had to use at the time.) Who was Olney? Good question – the best I could come up with was someone with that name who was also in the 12 CT Vol. Infantry. I am grateful that the man who purchased the photo at a show saw my FB page and cared enough to contact me so that it could be returned to a direct descendant. It meant so much to me. I hope you find your Burson descendant!

  4. Have you thought of sending the image to the historical or genealogical society located where Elijah lived most of his life? Then (if the society survives), it would be accessible to researchers and any descendants who might be interested. The children of the person you give it to today may not want it tomorrow… or may not be the sharing sort. Getting it online, like on FAG or an public tree, would also be a way to share with the greatest number of INTERESTED persons possible, now and into the future.

    1. Forgot to add that putting this up on Vita Brevis is also a great way for search engines to find the photo. Kudos to you and Mr. Z. of Michigan for working to find the best home for this photo!

    2. Yes, putting it on those public sites AND ALSO seeking out a descendant to send the original to are great ideas. Good work, Jeff and “Mr. Z”!

  5. I am a descendant of John Ward, who was this Elijah Burson’s father-in-law. I would love to find out more about Nancy Ward’s ancestry. Is it discussed in the Burson Family History book?

  6. My great grandmother Annabelle Wright was the daughter of Mary Susannah Burson, who was the granddaughter of Elijah Burson, according to mu genealogy research. Would like to have a copy of the picture if possible. I am looking for a copy of the “Burson Family History” as well but it is no long in production. Thank you….

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