Do you remember having to write a story in school about “Your most interesting character”? When my cousins on my mother’s side of the family received this assignment back in the 1940s, there was no doubt who to write about. It was our grandfather, Edwin Dexter Whitmore Reed Brown.
After all, he used to be a U. S. Marshall in all the territory west of the Mississippi where he fought oriental dope rings on the Canadian border, became acquainted with “Buffalo Bill” Cody in their Masonic Lodge in Denver, and won several shooting contests.
He also was a nephew of John Brown, the abolitionist. He graduated from the University of Michigan and the Michigan Agricultural College (now known as Michigan State University). He worked on building the canal at Houghton, Michigan and the locks at Sault Ste. Marie.
His first wife died in the Johnstown flood. He was employed in a war plant during World War II despite the fact that he was 86 years old. He attributed his health and longevity to never “chewing, smoking, or drinking” and to eating a bowl of oatmeal for breakfast every morning.
According to his obituary and his death certificate, he died in Jackson, Michigan at age 97 having been born on February 15, 1858.
How did I know all of this? My grandfather told his family. He also told the Jackson newspapers which published the stories. I have at least eight different newspaper clippings about grandfather that my mother had saved.
When I started genealogy research, long after my grandfather and all of his children were gone, I learned several important lessons.
LESSON ONE: Do not believe everything your grandfather tells you. After 15 years of research, the only proven facts in all of the above are: He did have a first wife who died before he met my grandmother. He did eat a bowl of oatmeal for breakfast every morning and never chewed, smoked or drank. He was born on February 15th. And, he did die on December 10, 1955.
LESSON TWO: Do not believe everything you read in the newspaper. Someone from Michigan State University read in the paper that grandfather had graduated from MSU and sent him an invitation to attend the Patriarchs alumni banquet in East Lansing. He accepted and I have a fine picture of him from the alumni magazine shaking hands with Dr. Hannah. He and another man were the oldest graduates present. Upon further investigation, the college archives sent me a very diplomatic letter explaining that they could find no record of him ever attending MSU.
LESSON THREE: Do not believe all the courthouse documents you find. The first birth certificate I found for grandfather was a delayed birth certificate that he applied for in 1945. Then I found his real certificate in the next county. The two certificates vary in his year of birth by fourteen years and neither of them are correct.
LESSON FOUR: Be prepared to uncover some surprises—not all pleasant. The bad surprise was finding grandfather serving a prison term for burglary during the time he was supposedly a U.S. Marshall. The good surprise was being able to prove my descent from the Mayflower through my grandfather’s ancestors.
P.S. He is still one of my most interesting characters.
I originally published the above in the March issue of "Vintage Views", the quarterly newspaper of the Older Persons Commission in Rochester Michigan.