Since mid-July I have been experiencing something that must be quite rare in marriages: a growing fascination with the genealogy of my ancestral in-laws. Before she died in 2010, my mother had compiled a detailed family tree of her Wheeler and Glass lines. My half-brother, Carl Stewart, Jr., is now the official keeper of the family stories from the Stewarts and Wilsons on my father’s side. We even have photographs, letters and other memorabilia for the most recent generations. But most of the information prior to 1900 consists only of names, dates of births and deaths, marriages and the like. There’s little detail left to flesh out the actual lives of anyone before my grandparents. So it has been a remarkable revelation for this wannabe antiquarian and genealogist to discover the rich details of my wife Lida’s family history. Lida Davenport Beaumont Stewart to be precise, with the emphasis on the Davenport. Let me explain.
On July 10 Lida and I attended the opening reception for AHF’s SUPER institute at Spring Hill College in Mobile on “The Alabama Coast: A Sense of Place.” We decided to take a few days to explore areas of Louisiana and Mississippi that we had never visited together, including the charming antebellum Mississippi River towns of St. Francisville, Louisiana, and Natchez, Mississippi. But our ultimate destination was to be the tiny northeast Louisiana community of Mer Rouge. On the first leg we visited historic Oakley Plantation outside St. Francisville, where John James Audubon spent several months working on his “Birds of America” masterpieces. (Oakley is an impeccably restored and interpreted Federal-style home and outbuildings deep in semi-tropical forest. I highly recommend it.) From there we drove along famed Highway 61 to Natchez, where we toured magnificent Stanton Hall (1858) and, from our hotel room at night, watched tugs push long barges up the river.
After 24 hours in such stereotypical Southern splendor, our expectations for the farming town of Mer Rouge — the ancestral home of one side of Lida’s family — were admittedly tempered. No one from the family had been to Mer Rouge in 60 years, when someone took a black-and-white snapshot of trees partially blocking the view of a nondescript farmhouse in the distance. That was our only real image of the town, and it didn’t suggest much to compete with the charming areas we had just left. Moreover, what could we expect to find in a Louisiana burg named for a body of water in the Middle East — the Red Sea?
Still, what Mer Rouge had going for itself, as far as we were concerned, was an authentic connection to us, especially in the person of Eliza Davenport, Lida’s great-grandmother and namesake. Eliza’s hand-painted photographic portrait hangs in our dining room, and Lida has her schoolgirl songbook. Frances Robb, Alabama’s expert on historic photographs, had dated Eliza’s portrait to ca. 1858-60, when we knew she was in college in Cincinnati, Ohio. (Click here to view the portrait.) We also knew that somehow she had made it to Birmingham in the late 19th century. But it took our visit to her hometown in Morehouse Parish to put her and all the Davenports into a more vivid picture than just an image in a frame or names on a family tree.
Coming Soon: Part II of From the “Red Sea” to the Red Mountain