Roadside Genealogy

By Eilene Lyon

While touring Decorah, Iowa, I was pleased to see that the town managed to name a one-block-long street after my ancestor, William Painter.  Considering he donated half the land the town is built on, it’s the least they could do.

Taking a road trip to discover family history is really much more than visiting cemeteries and archives.  It’s also about American history and exploring the landscapes and towns that were central to the lives of our ancestors.  In that vein, I made a point of stopping at roadside historical markers.  What I didn’t expect to find was a historical marker about a relative.  When I pulled off the road in Elk Falls, Kansas, I found a pair of markers erected to commemorate Prudence Crandall, a champion of women’s rights and education.  Prudence was a descendant of my ancestor Elder John Crandall of Westerly, Rhode Island.


From another roadside marker I learned about the geography of the Coulee region of Wisconsin.  This area is where the Springer family had their farm before moving to South Dakota.  It’s very scenic.  The sign also mentioned the novelist, Hamlin Garland, who wrote about pioneering in the region – a good source for learning about what life was like for the Springers.

On my way to Hannibal, Missouri, of Mark Twain fame, I passed through the historic town of Keytesville.  There they had a museum dedicated to Sterling Price.  Price was a confederate general and governor of Missouri.  He’s also the namesake of my great-grandfather, Sterling Price Davis, and a reminder of the Davis family’s slaveholding history.

Whenever possible, I tried to find historic buildings that may have existed when our ancestors lived in a particular place.  It doesn’t seem there are many 19th century buildings in the plains states that fit the criteria.  One such building was the old Johnson County courthouse in Warrensburg, Missouri.


This courthouse is unusual for its Federal-style architecture.  It was in use from 1838 to 1871, therefore it’s possible my great-great grandfather, Thomas Reams, may have conducted business there when he lived in Columbus Township, Johnson County.  The “new” courthouse was also impressive, and would have been the place where my great-grandparents, Charles Edward Smith and Mary Lila Reams, obtained their marriage license.

Another 19th century building I visited was part of the Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum in Burr Oak, Iowa.  The Ingalls family history mirrors that of many of my ancestors and there are several museums dedicated to Laura in states where my ancestors also settled.


In Winona, Minnesota, a sign at a hilltop park and viewpoint informed me that Winona was a booming lumber town in the mid-19th century.  Perhaps that was why 4th great-grandpa Jonas Cutting and his sons moved to the area from Vermont.  Might the name “Cutting” even hint that lumber work was a family occupation a long way back?  Certainly the lumber industry in the northeast was not robust at that time.

From the park, I ventured to the History Center in town where I learned more about the lumber industry, about Mississippi river boats, and found a real surprise.  They had some old carriages and coaches, including a hearse that served Winona in the 1860s and 1870s.  Jonas Cutting died in Winona in 1866.  Might this vehicle have been the bearer of his coffin?


When you’re traveling, keep your eyes open for family history on the roadside – it’s fun and rewarding!

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