Who do You Think You Are? (And a Tale of Missing Fifes)



When I lived in England there was a popular show on the BBC called Who do You Think You Are? In the show, celebrities searched for their family history, traveling wherever a clue takes them in order to discover his or her past. There is also an American version and it’s just as compelling as the British one.

I have long been fascinated by my family history, and when I was in the 8th grade I made a science project about family trees. I remember sitting on the floor at my grandma’s house listening as my Great Aunt Mary and Great Aunt Elaine told me a little bit about the Medved side, which is on my father’s branch. The Medveds were immigrants from Austro-Hungarian Empire and came through Ellis Island. Even though I was only 12, these people, whom I’d never met, fascinated me. Did I look like them? Did we share some of the same habits? Was there anyone in the past who loved to write and ride horses like I did?

Being a historical novelist, I’m even more fascinated by my past, and my Aunt Shirley (the one I dedicated my novel to) is the family registrar on my mom’s side. She and my mother traced our family line all the way back to England in the 1400s.

One of my many times grandfathers was responsible for bringing British emigrants to Virginia in order to settle it. The more people he arranged passage for, the more land the Crown granted him. Most of his land is now a state park. Another grandfather, Bennett Crafton, fought in the Revolutionary War as a major. Normally this piece of info would be interesting, but nothing I would spend a lot of time pondering. Until I found a letter of his, archived in the Colonial and State Records of North Carolina. Photos of my ancestors always amaze me, but I suppose because I’m a writer, letters and journal entries thrill me more.

Here is what he wrote:

Major Bennett Crafton to Brig. General Sumner
Camp Durham Halls, Febry. 6th 1782
Dr. Sir:
By Col. Sewell’s Express I must beg Leave to inform you of my having One Lewis Gant a man who has been Detected in Aiding & Assisting one of the State Legion to Desert. He has been Condemned to serve during the War by a Board of Justices. I should be glad you will let me know what I am to do with him.
I am Sir with Respt.,
Yr. very Hble. Servt.,
Bennett Crafton

A few weeks later my grandpa was writing again. This time you can really hear the irritation that flowed from his quill.

To Gov. Burke, From Maj. Bennett Crafton; Camp at Dr. Hall’s, February 28th, 1782
On my return to Camp last evening, I found the Camp out of provision. I this morning sent to the Commissioner of Franklin County who was ordered by His Excellency Gov. Martin to furnish me with all necessaries for the men and horses until ordered from this station. He has refused to furnish me with any thing further. I am at a loss what to do on this occasion and would be glad if you would send me some orders and let me know in what manner I am to be supplied with provisions, &c, as I have not one ounce of any kind on hand.
There are, since I was down with you, ten men who have joined the Regiment from New Berne District. When I was at Halifax I did not receive the several articles that I much need that I did not mention in the memorandum I gave you, viz; drums and Colors and Fifes, pots and fifty men.

Bennett Crafton

I think I love this letter the best. No sign off, just his name, dammit. I can understand the need for pots (I’m assuming we’re talking cooking here and not chamber). What I really love is the anger over the missing drums, Colors and Fifes. I mean, grandpa, get a grip. Can’t you live without a few fifes and a drum or two? And a Color (or flag) is probably just for show or tradition. It’s nothing to get upset about. But usually, as with most things, it’s the small things on top of the bigger things that tip the boat over. And so it is, that in this last letter, I found the link between my ancestor and me. Like my many times great grandfather, I’m not easily irritated and I have a long fuse, but when something like a missing fife shows up on a bad day, I’m apt to act like Grandpa Crafton. I first name the culprit (Gov. Martin has refused) jump to sarcasm (I have not one ounce of any kind on hand), and then move on to blatant disregard for niceties (Bennett Crafton).

What about you? Is there something in your family history that you’ve found and can relate to? I’d love to hear it.


About Sharon Biggs Waller

I'm the author of A MAD, WICKED FOLLY (Viking, Penguin Jan 2014) and THE ORIGINAL HORSE BIBLE (i5 Publishing). Visit me at www.sharonbiggswaller.com.

8 thoughts on “Who do You Think You Are? (And a Tale of Missing Fifes)

  1. theofficialstepashkarossiya says:

    Mine traces back to 1587 France.

  2. L. Palmer says:

    My great-great grandfather was in the Utah/Nevada area during the mid-late 1800’s, and held a shotgun on a rival suitor as he said, “You leave her alone you S.O.B.).”
    Considering he was a hunter and known marksman, the rival suitor didn’t come back around again. The lady, of course, is my great-great grandmother.

  3. Morgan says:

    I love this!!! The letters are so great. I’ve done extensive family history research on my mom’s side; my grandma had a couple of great trees to start from and I have a lot of ancestors who fought in the Revolutionary War, including one doctor. Thought about joining DAR but I haven’t quite yet. One of them, Colonel Joseph Mayo, was a juror on the Boston Massacre trial. I also have a couple Southern Confederates in my tree haha. A little bit of everything… I’ve traced a lot of branches back to medieval Europe and found out that John of Gaunt and Katherine Swynford are my 15th great grandparents! My dad’s side is the opposite, all Jewish immigrants and very hard to find info on. But I love searching 🙂 It’s so gratifying to find a missing link you’ve been searching for!

  4. Forget the food, where’s my flag, dammit! This is so great.

    The bit of my family history that thrills me is connected to France and Scotland and their eternal feud with England (oh no! but I love England!). What with France and Scotland being united against their common enemy (think Mary Queen of Scots) and then the fleeing of Catholics from Scotland when the Calvinists got too Calvinist-y, apparently the French family name “Brouse” is the French version of the Scottish royal name “Bruce.” So I have a drop of Scots royalty in me on my dad’s side. How ’bout that?!

  5. Danny L. Crafton says:

    Maj. Bennett was also my Grandfather. Small world. Cool letter, now I know why little things bother. I’m the same way.

  6. I have recently discovered that I am a Crafton. My 3rd ggf always used the name John Russell Crafton, although none of his children went by Crafton, beginning with JRC’s first son, Bennett Russell. Extensive DNA testing has shown a 98% reliability that I am indeed a Crafton and not a Russell, although, JRC’s mother may have been a Russell, thus the middle name for John Russell Crafton. DNA also appears to show that JRC’s father was Bennett Crafton. This would make sense that JRC as was traditionally done in those times, named the first son after one’s own father. JRC lived in what is now Clarke Co., Va since at least 1799 when he married an Ann Wason. He died in 1848 with over 1,900 acres. Bennett Russell had 4 sons who all were in the 6th Va. Cav. during the Civil War. One son, Thomas J. Russell was shot between the eyes at the battle of Brandy Station and left for dead. His mare was shot through the neck and his comrades nursed her back to health. The Union troops found Thomas J. on the field and realized he was not dead and took him to Washington, DC where he recovered and was paroled some months later. The bullet was never removed from his head and later in life the bullet began to move and caused seizures. He eventually died of his wound some 20 years after having been shot. His obituary in the Clarke Courier was quite flattering, but unlike the death of his old mare, it did not make the front page. To this day, Clarke County is known as horse country and I still live here, but have no allusions that my own obituary will make the front page!

    • Jesse, I run the FTDNA Crafton Surname Project, if you’re the Russell on there, we’re assuredly kinfolk 🙂 I’m currently researching our paternal ancestry to learn where it came from – We are an odd subclade of subhaplogroup I-Z63 (part of Nordic I-M253) which looks to be traditionally from Ancient Northeastern Europe.

      • Jesse Russell says:

        Chris! it’s me! Jesse. I never knew you had responded to my post, but since then we have talked on numerous occasions. I think the person on the FTDNA might be my cousin, Michael Russell who did the Y-DNA. I am on GEDMatch and Michael is on that as well. I stay in touch with Ray Crafton nearly everyday as he has done so much to help me find the Russell side, but only mild clues so far and nothing we can hang our hat on. Ray’s Vol. II on the Craftons is getting nearer to publication each day now and look forward to seeing it! Saw that you had to go to the emergency room the other day. All OK? Heart OK? We’ll talk on FB messenger and FB, so take care of yourself.

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