Family History Treasure Hunt – On The Scene with Bill Wilson

By Bill Wilson
Sentinel Photojournalist
Bill Wilson © 2011

As I flew from San Francisco to Hartford, Connecticut I felt like I was going on a treasure hunt. My uncle, the family historian died several years ago and there were file cabinets full of family history that had to be looked through because my cousins were considering putting the property on the market. Driving up Route 91 to Vermont where my cousins live I wondered what treasures I might find among the letters and photos.

I had heard enough stories at family gatherings to know that there was a rich and varied past to our family. I was the sixth and final generation of Wilson’s to live at Elda Farm since it was built in 1836. It is now a township park with soccer fields, baseball diamonds, football fields, tennis courts, an amphitheater and other recreational facilities.

When my cousins said that there were hundreds of photos I thought they might be exaggerating. I found out that they weren’t. One file cabinet was devoted entirely to photos. So I now know what some of my great grandfathers looked like.

My grandfather’s mother’s father, William West (right) making him my great, great grandfather, and his brothers. Clearly I didn’t inherit my lack of ability to grow a beard from that side of the family.

I consider myself fortunate that I knew all of my Grandfather’s brothers and sisters. As long as my grandfather was alive if it was five o’clock, you could count on his having a bourbon in his hand and usually it was with his brother or sisters. They never got drunk, but there were plenty of good stories.

The Wilsons of Elda Farm. My Grandfather (right) and his brother and sisters in 1958.

Besides the photos and letters that I will be reading forever, there were other mementos that accumulate over several lifetimes. My Grandmother’s Father was a milliner who traveled regularly to Europe to acquire the latest materials and see the latest fashions. It wasn’t surprising to me when I came across and envelope marked “Antique Lace from LaVake family” some of which was used on my Grandmother’s wedding dress. I don’t think there are any photos of my Grandparent’s wedding, which is a shame because my grandmother was so beautiful.

Antique lace which may have been part of my grandmother’s wedding dress.

After my grandparents were married my grandfather’s first job was to go north into Quebec and help build a paper mill. My grandmother went with him. The stories of that first year of marriage in the wilds of Canada have been a great source of amusement in the retelling. Once grandfather had been given a goose for grandmother to cook that still had the feathers on. After trying to pluck it she got frustrated and threw it into the fireplace. Feeling guilty she retrieved it and cleaned it off. She discovered that all the little feathers had burned off. The next day when she mentioned to her friends that she had discovered a new way to get the feathers off a goose by burning them off, they looked at her and said, “How else would you do it? You certainly would not try to pick them off by hand.”

Grandma and Grandpa Wilson and Grandma’s brother Rae LaVake at Jonquieres, Quebec in 1911.

The “Wow!” moment of the week came when I was going through the oversized file boxes that had been on top of the file cabinets. After finding nothing of interest or importance in the first several boxes I wasn’t expecting to find anything when I opened the third box. In the first file of the box were Xerox copies of the Revolutionary War Commission that was given to my great, great, great, great grandfather, David Wilson. So when I saw that the next file was labeled, “Copy 1792 will of John Wilson” I thought it too would be a xerox copy. So I was completely unprepared when opening the file I found it was the original copy that was probated in 1792. I was holding in my hand a multi-page document written in my great, great, great, great, great grandfather describing his property and what he wanted done with it when he died.

The 1792 will of John Wilson, my great, great, great, great, great grandfather.

Other files in the same box contained the deeds from every owner of Elda Farm from its original owner, Eliza and David Wilson (1836) to my grandfather, William West Wilson, who sold it in 1958.

Yes, we did come across some gold in our treasure hunt. In a little box with my grandfather’s initials, WWW among the odd shirt studs and other men’s jewelry was a gold tooth. I gave my cousins permission to have it melted down. My memories, photographs and letters were enough, I didn’t need to keep grandpa’s tooth.

See Related On Scene with Bill Wilson Archive

Sentinel Photojournalist
Bill Wilson is a San Francisco-based veteran photojournalist. Bill embraced photojournalism at the age of eight. In recent years, his photos capture historic record of the San Francisco LGBT community in the Bay Area Reporter (BAR), The New York Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, The San Francisco Examiner, SFist, SFAppeal. Bill has contributed to the Sentinel for the past seven years. Email Bill Wilson at

Comments are closed.