A family history


A history of a family, written in stone.  Photographed at Sanford Cemetery, Lenawee County, Michigan, December 22, 2009.  In case you can’t read it clearly, it says:

Leonard A. Sanford 1857-1929

Amanda H., his wife 1861-1894

Their Sons

James 1882-1904

Leroy 1881-1881

Baby 1894

I grew up surrounded by what we called “pioneer cemeteries” out here in the old Northwest Territory.  Sanford Cemetery is a cemetery I drove by at least twice almost every week of my life while I was growing up, but I never went inside until last summer.  With just the names and the tragic succession of dates written here, someone with more imagination than I could write a novel.

0 thoughts on “A family history

  1. when I was a kid, we would walk through the old 16th-19th century cemeteries, making up stories about the names on the headstones. possibly a strange amusement for children/teenagers, but it gave us hours of entertainment and a sense of connection with the past.


  2. “Leonard never did really get over Amanda’s death during that last lying-in, and when James was killed–you remember, the scaffolding gave way under him? Toledo, that’s right, he was doing construction work down there–seemed like old Len crawled into his shell and never came out.”

    Over to you.


  3. There was a revolutionary war cemetery down the street from where I grew up. I am ashamed to say that all the many times my teenage friends and I hid out in there drinking beer and etc, none of us ever had the slightest grander thought about it other than that it was a good place to hide from adults.


  4. For which, see also: The Yankee West: community life on the Michigan frontier – by Susan E. Gray – 227 pages [UNC Press, 1996]. “Susan Gray explores community formation among New England migrants…” Set in Kalamazoo County, just west of there.

    But this is set about a generation after that. I kind of like rootlesscosmo’s implied invitation to write a collective novell[a]. But somebody else would have to go second.

    Great, austere picture, though. Grays on grays on grayish whites.


  5. It can be reported that the first woman admitted to and graduated from the University of Michigan Medical “Department,” in 1871, was named Amanda Sanford. But although Dr. Sanford did in fact die in 1894, she was not born in 1861, and she was not married to Leonard. She was a Quaker, born in Rhode Island, and raised (possibly by a single mother) in Auburn, NY, thus following the migration route to the “Yankee West” that Susan Gray documents. She earlier studied for a year at Philadelphia’s pioneering Medical College for Women, married someone named Hickey in 1883, well along in a short practicing career, and as noted, died in 1894.


  6. @Indyanna:

    Hearty agreement about the picture and thanks for the pointer to Gray’s book.

    rootlesscosmo’s implied invitation to write a collective novell[a].

    The story sketched by that headstone reminds me a lot of “My Home is Far Away,” by Dawn Powell (b. 1896 in Mount Gilead, Morrow County, Ohio.) She called it “an autobiographical novel” and it’s one of the most memorable things I’ve read in many years; she rigorously maintains the viewpoint of a young girl (roughly between ages 6 and 15) while conveying to the adult reader her own adult comprehension of events she didn’t understand when they happened. Imagine “What Maisie Knew” written by a grown-up Maisie–absolutely wonderful.


  7. Just two years ago my little town created its own historical society. The first activity was “rescuing” three township cemeteries–documenting each grave, assessing damage, etc., etc. Local genealogists dropped by on the Saturdays we worked, a variety of people volunteered, and even some high schoolers showed up for the work and took it on as a service project. A graduate student from the local university is now writing a thesis on the cemeteries. And we’ve begun to receive emails from folks around the country wanting to know what we know about their ancestors. The stories are harrowing and tragic, comical and romantic. Worth anyone’s while to spend some time.

    I’m surprised to see “Baby” rather than a name. What story is there waiting to be told?


  8. Thanks for the Dawn Powell tip, rootlesscosmo–in a weird coincidence, I had a grandmother who lived in Mount Gilead for a few years in the 1970s, and spent some time there with her myself.

    I think the Sanfords memorialized above were reasonably prominent local yokels–the cemetery is called by the same name, and there’s a Sanford Rd. nearby. I don’t know anything about them–I’m not a local historian, and they’re not related to me in any way. (That I know of, that is–but I’m no genealogist either.) I just found that list of names, relationships, and dates so very sad.

    As for CPP’s and justme’s comments on necropoli as great places for the young to hide from their elders–I’ve heard this from other people before. I think there’s a kind of lovely, sad connection between the dead and the young, in that the world isn’t theirs, and they don’t make the decisions. I like the idea of children and young adults taking refuge in cemeteries and contemplating all of the responsibility and potential for great tragedy that awaits them, by simply reading headstone inscriptions like this one.


  9. As a youth, I spent many a great day in a Catholic cemetery a block from my home in a large midwest city. They had an area set apart for babies and little ones. there were pictures of many of these babes on their tombstones. These pictures fascinated me and I made up stories about them. It seemed so very tragic that they weren’t buried near their families. (Oh, and on the way to school I stole flowers off fresh graves and took them to my teacher and told her my mother had a green house. Don’t judge me.)


  10. HistoryMaven said:

    I’m surprised to see “Baby” rather than a name. What story is there waiting to be told?

    The age at which children get their names has varied over time in North America. In the 17th century among Anglo-Americans, children often didn’t get distinct names until several weeks or months after birth; most historians I’ve read trace this to high rates of infant mortality and families not wanting to attach themselves too deeply to an individual child until s/he’d lived through the (very statistically dangerous) first few months.

    Infant mortality rates as we know them— number of children per 1000 live births who die before the age of 1 year— were impossible to calculate accurately in most US jurisdictions until the early 20th century. (Officials had to have an accurate count of births in their jurisdictions to do a modern-style IMR calculation, and compulsory birth registration systems were hard to get right.) That said, it was common in many 19th-century cities for 30 to 50 percent of all deaths in a year to be children under 5, particularly infants. So it doesn’t surprise me at all to see unnamed “Baby” inscriptions on headstones.

    Historiann, you’re right— there’s a whole story to be built on terse family histories like this. I do a lot with family Bible records in my dissertation, and one of the things that becomes apparent after you’ve read enough of those is how many of them were probably written by women, recording the deaths of their own family members— particularly children.


  11. I thought of the same thing as Shane Landrum, except that I was given pause by the fact that “Leroy” seems to have lasted less than a year, but was in fact named. The past is pretty unyielding of some of its secrets. My mother once lost a child in stillbirth, basically a botched ob-gyn episode, which was of course devastating to her. In the very early trauma and chaos, the maternity nurse, probably a nun, took over and arranged a very quick baptism-like ceremony (I don’t know the theology of this). She took the liberty of naming the child after her own late brother; or rather, a female analogue of her brother’s name. As far as I know, that’s the way it went into the bureaucratic record book, for future historians or genealogists to puzzle over, or not.


  12. In the early sixties, in a children’s hospital I “baptised” one ,possibly two newborns who were in critical condition. As nurses we were advised to do what we could. It was a very Catholic community.I never met the parents but if it became necessary the “ceremony” was documented in the nurses’ notes.I gave the child no name, just a few words from the Anglican book of prayer.


  13. Thanks, all–about “Baby”: I just assume that Amanda and the child died in childbirth in 1894, and so baby remained “Baby,” whereas Leroy died after birth but before age 1. (Either that, or Amanda named Leroy but perhaps was too ill or dead already, and so Baby didn’t get a name.)

    In a way, I think it’s more poignant that baby is Baby. Even in death, a motherless child isn’t looked after the way a surviving mother would have looked after him.

    I don’t know if it’s sadder to have been Amanda, who died so young after such vexed efforts to become a mother, or if it was worse to have been Leonard, who lived to bury not just his wife but all of his children.


  14. On parental attachment to newborns: I never bought the argument that a high rate of infant mortality was a reason for delayed naming. One could easily assume the opposite, especially for those Christians who believed in infant baptism. Some denominations mandated public, minister-administered baptism, rather than private. So the delay in naming may have been tied to officiating schedules, especially in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. (Martha Ballard certainly delivered many, many healthy babies, but the minister could take his time.) The newborn child could have been addressed by the chosen name, informally (unrecorded officially), or could have been affectionately called “the baby” or “Baby.” But here we’ve a more modern record (and the stone is a twentieth-century design, so questions of authorship also pertain–Leonard? an extended family member?), and the possible stories about “Baby” within this family and as historical evidence are, as Historiann writes, poignant.

    I always felt that mothers (and women in general) were demeaned when social historians made arguments such as large families were created for labor in agricultural communities and that parental love was extensive and distance due to family size and infant mortality rates. Social historians got illiteracy rates for women so totally wrong when wills were analyzed for signatures; E. Jennifer Monaghan’s pathbreaking work overrode those studies. We need to know more about processes and assumptions behind the formalities; accounting rather than just counting.


  15. The “Their” Sons part is rhetorically interesting, regarding the “authorship” of the stone. There could have been girls who outlived their brothers but then scattered before 1929, when neighbors or friends laid the stone. If James was the eldest child, as seems plausible from the mother’s birthdate, any surviving siblings would have been no more than in their late 40s when Leonard died. There’s also the question of when the stone was in fact set. I buried one parent with the other standing there looking at hir own name already engraved on the stone, with birth date and room left for another date. I thought that was a fairly weird economy of chiselling. When did that funerary custom begin?


  16. Fretful Porpentine wrote, [W]hy is everyone assuming that Leonard and Amanda had only three children? The twelve-year gap suggests to me that there were probably several children in between who survived.”

    Because it’s more poignant to tell the story that way!

    Seriously–we don’t know, of course. But there are no other Sanford children buried near the family stone, as seems to be the case with many families in this rural cemetery. (Many central family stones are surrounded by the graves of children, boys and girls, who were buried with their natal families rather than their husbands & wives.) There are some markers and graves that were filled over the course of two or even three generations. But, I wouldn’t assume that Amanda had several surviving children–in fact, the fact that two children died in infancy or in childbirth may indicate a history of miscarriages and/or birth defects, which might also explain the 12-year gap between James and Baby.


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