Natural Perspectives: Tracing branches on the family tree

Our stockings aren't hung, our cards are not done, and we haven't done any baking.

The calendar, dear, says Christmas is near, but progress we are not making.

That original little ditty sums up the status of our Christmas preparations, or lack thereof.

Actually, Vic and I are more focused on our wedding anniversary, which arrives five days before Christmas. This year marks 36 years of living together in bliss and happiness, a real accomplishment in this day and age.

Vic and I met in Middletown, Conn. Vic was a California boy, fresh out of the Army, which is where he went after he graduated from Stanford University. He had just begun graduate school at Wesleyan University, working toward his doctorate in biology, when we met. I was a lab technician down the hall.

Vic and I really hit it off, two hippies intent on saving the environment. Shortly after we met, we moved to a seven-acre farm in Higganum, Conn. The house belonged to a faculty member on sabbatical. We took care of the place for nearly a year, growing our first garden together and raising lambs to eat.

The Higganum house was actually two historic houses, moved together and restored.

One house had been built in 1690 and the other was built in 1710. We loved living there, imagining the lives of colonial Americans. The house had a huge fireplace in each section, giant oak beams in the ceiling, and wide hickory boards on the walls.

Our year in the Higganum house was coincidently our nation's bicentennial year, 1976. We often thought of the people who had settled the area and fought in the Revolutionary War. But at the time, we had no inkling of Vic's ancestral connection to the Middletown area.

In the fall of 1976, we moved to a house in Middletown that was near campus and across the street from the town's historic cemetery. At Vic's urging, I entered graduate school the year after we met. We each graduated with doctorates in 1981, moved to Huntington Beach and never looked back at Middletown.

Until now.

I discovered yesterday that some of Vic's ancestors were among the founding families of Middletown, and that another of his ancestors was William Leete, one of the early governors of the Connecticut Colony. You could have knocked me over with a feather.

Yet more of Vic's ancestors were founders of the towns of Guilford and New Haven in the mid-1600s.

Running for political office and serving the community has been a long-standing tradition in Vic's family.

Vic's mother Marguerite, who is the one descended from the Middletown Puritans, was the first mayor of Redwood City. Her grandfather and Vic's great-grandfather, Lawson Garrett Brian, was the treasurer of the state of Nebraska. We just learned that Lawson was descended from the Middletown Hall and New Haven Leete families. One of Vic's great ancestors, John Hall Sr. (born 1584 in England, died 1673 in Middletown) was a house-builder, ship-builder, townsman, and constable in Middletown, and one of the founding fathers of that town in 1650.

One of our favorite finds is that John Hall Jr., son of John Hall Sr. and brother of Vic's ancestor Samuel Hall, ran the first tavern in Middletown.

It so happens that Vic's paternal grandfather, Peter Anthony Leipzig, founded the Leipzig Tavern in East Portland, Ore., which still operates today. It was a source of great amusement to the family to discover that a relative on the Brian side of the family opened the first tavern in Middletown in 1658.

Genealogy was a hobby of my mother's, and she got me interested in it. I sure wish that she were still alive to see all of the progress that I've made on Vic's family tree, a project that she started. I had dead-ended years ago with Vic's ancestor Anna M. Collins and her husband, Seaman Oliver Barnes.

But I kept checking for hints, and recently one popped up. Someone else had been working downward from those early Puritan colonists, and had connected to Anna M. Collins. Once that connection was made, a whole sheaf of ancestors revealed themselves.

I was up until 3 a.m. on Saturday, and up again early on Sunday working on Vic's family tree. I now have Vic's family traced back to King Robert II of France (born 972, died 1031). King Robert II is Vic's 33rd great-grandfather. Wow.

Finding royalty in the family tree isn't exactly like finding gold. You can't spend it, but it's exciting anyway.

In fact, most of us have royalty for ancestors, because there just weren't all that many people on planet Earth during the Middle Ages. If you go back 25 generations, most of us are related, and usually related through some European king or queen.

It's finding the documentation to make those connections that is so hard. Good records were kept for royalty and nobility, but the commoners who make up most of our ancestors are usually not documented.

If you count back generations, you will find that each generation doubles.

For example, we all have two parents, four grandparents, eight great-grandparents, 16 great-great-grandparents, ad infinitum. So if you go back a mere four generations, you have 16 ancestors. But when you go back 10 generations (about 250 years), you have about 1,000 ancestors. Count back another 10 generations, and you have a million ancestors.

Another 10 generations takes you to about the year 1250 A.D., and you now have a billion ancestors. Problem is, that's far more than all of the people on Earth at the time. So if you could trace every one of your ancestors back that far, you would find the same people popping up again and again in those long ago generations.

Genealogy is a fascinating hobby. Learning about your ancestors can help connect you to a simpler time, a time when people lived off the land and made do with what they had.

The Huntington Beach Central Library has a wonderful section on genealogy. And the Orange County California Genealogical Society meets in Huntington Beach. If you have an interest in tracing your family tree, you can start right here at home.

Vic and I wish you all a merry, bright and sustainable Christmas.

VIC LEIPZIG and LOU MURRAY are Huntington Beach residents and environmentalists. They can be reached at

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