Ancestral energy lives in the stars above us, the stones beneath us. Their memory gathers in oceans, rivers and seas. It hums its silent wisdom within the body of every tree.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

My Great Aunts and Uncles

Libby Dutcher, the artist at work.
In my quest for uncovering as many names as I can for our family tree, I applied a focused tunnel-vision to my search. Who is my grandfather? Who were his parents, and their parents, and their parents? I mostly neglect the names of other children who were not my direct ancestors, noting (sometimes) how many children they had total, and maybe a list of names if it’s an easy copy and paste.
Recently, I had a sobering realization that, not having children, I will become that name on someone else’s family tree that I ignore. There will not be anyone who searches for me. I will forever be someone else’s Great Aunt, however many times removed.
Some of my zeal in uncovering our family history is in getting to share it with my nieces and nephew. It’s in anticipating sharing it with my great aunts and uncles as I grow older. In honor of the acknowledgement that I have dismissed some members from my family tree who may have had very fascinating lives themselves, and in gratitude to my father, who didn’t, I want to share the lives of two of my kin, my Great-Aunt Mary Elizabeth Dutcher and my Great-Uncle Frank Wicker.

Great-Aunt Libby
The cottage, prepared for Swami in 1895.
My 3x Great-Aunt Libby was sister to Reuben Feagles Dutcher, my 3x Great-Grandfather. Mary Elizabeth Dutcher, known as Libby, was a respected artist in her lifetime. I have held a couple of her small board paintings in my hands. I have had my eyes on a beautiful watercolor of the Islands themselves. As far as my research shows, she never married. She never had any children.
But she did own a Victorian cottage on the St. Lawrence River, in the 1,000 Islands. The Thousand Island Park was 20 years old when she lived there, built as a place to encourage the exchange of ideas in an atmosphere of relaxation and meditation, attracting speakers like Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglas. There were 600 cottages in the community on June 18, 1895, when Swami Vivekananda arrived at the Park.
In 1893, he traveled from India to the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago, uninvited, encouraged by his fellow monks to represent Hinduism at the event. A Harvard professor asked him to address the crowd and he opened with this prayer: "As different streams, having their sources in different places, all mingle their water in the sea; so, O Lord, the different paths which men take through different tendencies, various though they appear, crooked or straight, all lead to Thee."
His address is credited with changing the tone of the gathering itself. After the Parliament, he traveled for two years on a strenuous lecture tour. What does Swami Vivekananda have to do with my Great-Aunt? During this tour, my Great-Aunt Libby attended his spiritual classes in New York City and invited him to retreat at her cottage in the Islands.
Libby at the cottage.
In preparation for his arrival, she added a wing to her cottage for his initial seven-week stay, coming at the end of a strenuous to years of lecturing. This wing was actually a three-story addition, comprised of a guest room, a classroom, and a private room for Swami, a monk and follower of Sri Ramakrishna. He was 32 years old.
While visiting Libby’s cottage, Swami taught his followers and began compiling his writings. He eventually returned to India. Swami died at the age of 39 but his work served as inspiration for Rabindranath Tagore, Mahatma Gandhi, Ravi Shankar, and, decades later, George Harrison.
The cottage today.
Today, Libby Dutcher’s cottage still stands, bearing the name of Swami Vivekananda. It is a sanctuary and place of pilgrimage for his followers. The cottage itself, beautifully restored, is open to the public for tours during the summer months. Dirt from holy places in India was buried on the land. Water from the Ganges was poured into the St. Lawrence. The room that Libby built as Swami’s living space is a chapel now.
I love knowing that the place where she built her home, where she created an environment of art and thoughtful expression, is now a sacred site. I may not know a lot about her, but being able to learn about someone who inspired her so deeply, allows me to build a connection to her ghost.

Great Uncle Frank

Frank (L), William, and Hiram (R).
My 2x Great-Uncle Frank Newell Wicker was one of three brothers to my 2x Great-Grandfather Hiram King Wicker. The Wickers moved to Lockport, NY in about 1845, but once the Civil War started, Frank’s career kept him in perpetual motion. He enlisted in the 28th Regiment of N.Y. Volunteers in 1861.
His previous position with the Lockport Home Guards earned him a promotion to lieutenant. During his service, he earned a reputation for daring, courage, and a cool head in battle. At some point, a Confederate Force was tasked to capture him, but all their attempts failed. He was promoted to the Signal Corps where he served as an officer for the remainder of the war, seeing battle at Antietam and Georgetown.
Frank was discharged in 1865, but stayed in government service for the rest of his life. In August that year he was second in command of 1,000 men for the Russian-American Telegraph Expedition. He kept a diary of the three months it took to reach their destination (which I am currently transcribing). The men were tasked with laying telegraph line through British Columbia and Alaska, and laying cable across the Bering Straits, through Siberia (eventually scrapped by the construction of the transatlantic cable).
While in Alaska, Frank acted as a surveyor and wrote many documents for the U.S. government about the wealth of the land he saw, including reports on the Alaska seal fisheries. It was my Uncle Frank’s final recommendation that convinced the United States to buy Alaska. In 1869, Frank was assigned there as Special Agent of the Treasury.
Wicker’s next job was as collector of customs at Key West, Florida. He was appointed by President Grant in 1873. Due to a Cuban civil war against Spain, Key West was full of refugees. In 1884, he was dismissed from his position without notice.
Uncle Frank's handwriting.
According to a Cuban newspaper from 1912: “A monster meeting was held at San Carlos hall, patriotic speeches were made, and the audience requested to subscribe funds to aid [Cuban patriot] Aguerro to fit out another expedition. The first to respond was Colonel Frank N. Wicker, the collector of customs at this port; he contributed one hundred dollars. The Spanish consul telegraphed this to Washington and Colonel Wicker was removed from office. Colonel Wicker was probably actuated by a desire to serve his political party. He was the leader of the Republicans in Key West, and knew that this act of friendship to the Cuban cause would be remembered by the impulsive patriotic Cubans, and that they would help his party when he should call on them for support. His name should go down in history as the first American martyr to the cause of Cuban liberty, as well as a martyr to his party.”
He was next, quickly, given an assignment as appraiser at the Port of New Orleans, where he was at the time of his death, in February 1903, of heart disease. He was a member of eight different secret orders during his lifetime, including the Knights Templar and the Mystic Shrine, something his and his siblings had in common. His brother, my 2x Great-Grandpa Hiram, was a Past Eminent Commander of the Masons of New York.

It's about connection. It's about growth. It's about how we are all relations. It's about living. And it's about love. In the words of the spiritual teacher of my 3x Great-Aunt Libby:

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