- It was the first totally new ancestral surname that I encountered - I had never heard of the name before I found it on an 1865 marriage record.
- It was the first time that I met a cousin - 3rd cousin as it turned out - that I did not grow up knowing.
- It led me to the first family reunion where I knew only one person - my newly found Pippen third cousin.
The picnic area was in a setting that could only be labeled as picturesque -surrounded by 100 foot pines and overlooking a beautiful lily pad pond that had grassy banks on one end and a large stand of venerable old cypress trees on the other. The pavilion itself was a roofed structure with a sunken area full of picnic tables and a fireplace at one end that was large enough for me to easily stand up in it. The roof itself extended to cover a wide concrete apron surrounding the pavilion that could be used for additional seating should the crowd overflow the sunken area. Today, though, one side of the apron would be taken up with my home-made easels and the extensive family history data that they would display. I was the after-lunch entertainment.
Call it dumb luck or an overabundance of enthusiasm combined with a bit of beginner's ignorance, but I had used a wide-ranging research style - my wife called it octopus research in which I just sent arms out in every direction and dragged in virtually every mention of Pippen in the records from areas where my known Pippen/Pippins had lived. I had then built huge spreadsheets with each event recorded with names, dates and locations, etc. When carefully sorted, this mass of records pointed up patterns in family growth and movement, in family growth, and interactions and connections between various Pippen families. Looking back, it was clearly an inefficient way to approach the research - but I was green in my genealogy in those days and didn't know any better. And while it undoubtedly wasted time, it also proved to be immensely successful. And when I shared my success with several new found Pippen relatives, they took it upon themselves to invite me to the Pippen Family Reunion and to ask me to give a little talk about some of what I had found about our shared ancestors
So, I set up my boards as my new cousins began to arrive, and then helped them unload their additions to the feast that every family reunion eventually becomes. Around a hundred folks showed up, and we had a lovely morning socializing and getting to know one another - followed by an excellent southern lunch.
After lunch, I moved up to the apron surrounding the picnic pavilion and began my talk. I spoke of our common ancestor, Solomon Pippen, who came to Florida early in its Territorial days, and of how we had tracked him back to South Carolina and to birth place in Edgecombe County, North Carolina before that. I had begun to talk about his father Solomon and his grandfather Solomon when a tiny and very senior lady in my audience raised her hand.
"Yes, ma'am?" I asked.
"I am sorry to interrupt, but we have always been told that we descend from kings and queens, and from Charlemagne. Can you tell us anything about that?"
If I had studied the expectant faces of the crowd that I was looking down on, I might have thought of a different approach to my answer. Instead, before I could even stop to think about it, I heard myself saying:
"Well, no ma'am, my evidence has only led me back to the early 1700s, and that is about a thousand years after Charlemagne lived. But I can tell you for a fact that we all descend from a 17 year old English convict who, in 1719, was sentenced to 7 years of hard labor in the American Colonies."
The silence that followed was profound, and it stretched out so long that I could hear the hammering of large woodpecker in the nearby forest as he hunted for his breakfast. I looked out over my audience. The little old lady looked shocked and others sitting around her were frowning - maybe grimacing.
Okay old boy, I thought, your mouth got you into this, and it needs to get you out. So I began talking about that 17 yea old involuntary immigrant; about how he had been ripped away from his home, his family, and everything else that he had ever known and forcibly shipped to America. I asked them to imagine what it must have been like to land on foreign shores in this new Maryland, knowing not only that he would never seen his loved ones again, but that he was facing seven years of indentured servitude.
I suggested that they consider how over the years this boy had worked his way from virtual slavery into being a successful and mildly prosperous farmer and family man. Of how his sons and grandsons had moved south into the Carolinas, Georgia and Florida and west into Alabama, Mississippi and Texas. Consider, I suggested, the strength of spirit required to rise from such harsh beginnings to found a family that had literally expanded across the breadth of a nation.
Hurt feelings assuaged, most of us piled into cars and went off to visit two family cemeteries in the area. During this time, one of the older men came up to me, clapped me on the shoulder and said quietyly into my ear "Boy, you should have been a preacher!"
Later, we sat around listening to the older folks tell stories about earlier generations they had known, and about the old days when the mills the family owned were still operating. I threw in a couple of stories of my own of the family into which my great grandmother, Mary Elizabeth Pippen, married.
But of the story about the 1830s murder that sent our particular branch of the Pippen clan fleeing to Florida from their North Carolina home, I never whispered a single word. Some stories are for another day.