Our Family History

The Families of Dale Lee Durnell and Donna Eileen Hammer


Welcome dear family!!

          When Eugene Peterson begins to chronicle the life of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ in “The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language,” he paraphrases the first three verses of the gospel of Luke with these words.

“So many others have tried their hand at putting together a story of the wonderful harvest of Scripture and history that took place among us, using reports handed down by the original eyewitnesses who served this Word with their very lives. Since I have investigated all the reports in close detail, starting from the story’s beginning, I decided to write it all out for you, most honorable Theophilus, so you can know beyond the shadow of a doubt the reliability of what you were taught.” (Luke 1:1-3, The Message)

          Those words pretty much sum up what I am trying to pass on to you: specifically, my attempt to write down, record for and your descendants, information that I have researched, gleaned, conjectured, and construed about our (your) family. Maybe you don't care about it right now, but that's not saying that 20, 30, 40, or even 50 years from now someone in your line might want to know from whence them came. In preparing this work, I have tried to present more than just the dates and places of birth (and death) of our ancestors. What I hope you find (as I have) is that within our family, we are fuller, much richer, and more diverse than just a collection of dates and places. I have found and want to share the microcosm of American history contained in the journey our ancestors made and the footprints they left on the landscape of our land (and abroad).

          My own fascination, infatuation, my labor of love, and my passion (call it what you will) for genealogy (and our family history) was kindled some 60 plus years ago. I was in about the 8th grade at the newly built and recently opened Christopher Columbus Junior High School (a part of the Los Angeles Unified School District) in Canoga Park, California where I was among the first graduating class (class of 1960). We had a class project to prepare a chart of our family (a "Family Tree") and to trace it back at least two generations from us (to our grandparents). And if possible, we were to gather information about their parents also. It was nothing elaborate, just a simple “Pedigree Chart” like I had seen when Mimi and grandfather Durnell recorded their AKC registered Boxers. My chart included the names (with maiden names for my mom and my grandmothers) and their date and place of birth. Oh, and for those who had already died, the date and place of their death (ancestors like my grandfather DURNELL (d. 1954), and great-grandpa WILKINSON (d. 1951).

          Three score plus years later, that simple 24" x 30" poster board chart has, for me, become a link with the past, present, and future. I kept the chart for years, as your mom and I moved across the county and around the world. Eventually, I let it go. It had gotten more than a little dog-eared, and on one move, the chart didn’t come with us. It seems strange that all this grew out of a classroom project one of my teachers assigned to a class of 8th graders in a new school.

          Growing up in Southern California, we were close to both my mom’s mother and her dad and although I personally knew great-grandpa WILKINSON (my mother's grandfather), I was too way too young to think about asking questions when he was alive. If you click the 3rd link at the top of the page, it will take to to a page on the FamilySearch website where you can read an amazing family story surrounding my mother's paternal great-grandfather Elijah E WILKINSON (b. April 17, 1838 - d. March 13, 1864).

          One of the biggest regrets in my life (and believe me, for your father {grandfather, brother, uncle}, there have been more than a few) is that I did not have the foresight to dig a little deeper, and probe, and record what would have been first, and at worst only second, hand information. Dad’s mother, Mimi, lived with us in the same house, for several years. And while mon petite mémère Canadienne-Française shared many things that I stored away in my memory banks, I did not take the opportunity it presented to learn more, and to be more efficient and thorough in recording what I learned.

          I love the search, the hunt; I love digging around, and chasing document trails. Nevertheless, I simply haven't found any royalty in our background; I haven't found any Kings or Queens, there are no Princes or Princesses, no Dukes, or Earls, or Counts or Viscounts. Still, that doesn't mean they aren't there; it just means that if they are there, I haven't found them (yet). At the same time, I do wonder if there isn't some German aristocracy into which one of the Hammer lines married. {1}

          There are certainly some gems in our family history. And, while my brothers and I are 5th cousins twice removed from an actor and singer (Robert Goulet), and your mom and her sister are a 6th cousin to the movie star (Téa Leoni), we're too distant to be included in their wills. They and their families are probably not going to hang out with us, nor is it likely they will be attending any of our family reunions; we probably won't be invited to theirs either.

          What I can say, with some authority, is that you do descend from immigrants to America (the northern hemisphere, sometimes called "The New World") who spoke a variety of languages (French, German, English, Gaelic, and Scottish) or dialects of those languages with differing accents. You generally come from hard working men and women of stout stock (for the most part, they were what today we might call "blue collar workers"). They had to be hale and hearty to have survived not only the daily rigors of life but also epidemics, floods, famines, heat, cold, wars, privation: those things we would consider abysmal living and working conditions. Mortality rates were high in the lifetime of our ancestors; let's face it, we (you) are the descendants of survivors.

        There were Protestants and Catholics, high church and low church members in our background. And in the westward migration of our land, our ancestors migrated right along with them; some across the northern states, some across the southern states. A great many were farmers, but you’ll also find blacksmiths, butchers, teamsters, or cartwrights. A few were preachers. We have veterans of the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812 in our background; in the early to mid 1860's "some wore blue, and some wore gray." Some were pacifists, some served in the armed forces; some were fairly well educated, some never made it to high school. I've found that some of those who came before us could neither read or write, even here in America.

          There seem to have been successes as well as failures, and there were celebrations and painful experiences. Our ancestors and relatives weren't perfect people by any stretch of the imagination -- but they seem to have done their best to raise their families the best they could under whatever circumstances they found themselves. For many of our ancestors, (to paraphrase Charles Dickens' opening dialog in "A Tale of Two Cities") "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. They had everything before them, they had nothing before them. In short, it was very much like our own present period"

          One of your direct ancestors in your dad’s tree (on his mother's side) was Alexander MACK, a German miller who was the founder of what has become known as The Church of the Brethren. He came to North America in the early 1700, landing in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. There have been a couple of books written about him {2} {3}. The first (and oldest) of these books was about his early life and family, his descendants, their marriages, and their children from back in the late 1600’s in Germany down to my mother’s generation in 1943. It's not without its faults (it says my grandfather's surname was Wilkerson), but it has still been an invaluable resource.

          One of your direct descendants on your mom’s side of the family was Thomas MAXWELL, a Scotsman who also came to North America in the early 1700’s, except he arrived in the Virginia colony. I found a book about him which documents descendants down to your mother’s grandfather on her mother’s side of the family (down to Daddy Clyde) {4}. It too is not without flaws. Fortunately it lists Clyde OLIVER, which gives us a frame of reference, and a focal point. However, it fails to mention his twin brother Claude (how can you list only one of a pair of twins when both were still alive?). It makes you wonder who or what else might have been omitted.

          With these and other resources (including hand scribed notes from our ancestors themselves and digital records on the internet) in hand, I have worked hard to connect the dots to bring the line down to you. Those books and other family trees have made part of the journey a little less challenging but still haven’t answered all the questions, and occasionally have caused more than a little confusion because the research of others has not always been that sterling.

          Over the years, there have been other hurdles to overcome. I suppose Mimi never wanted anyone to find out that she was 5 months pregnant when she and my grandfather were married. So, before she died, she destroyed all the records which would have pointed to that fact including her marriage license, and even my grandfather's military records (because those records would show when he came to Vermont). Daddy Don was always very closed mouth about his roots. He finally opened up, very late in life, but even then all he would say is that they were run out of Oklahoma because they were "bootleggers and pimps." Yes, some of them were in Oklahoma, even before statehood. Yes, they moved around a lot. And yes, eventually those living in Oklahoma moved to New Mexico. But, I've never found anything associated with them being "bootleggers and pimps."

Love y'all, so very much
Dad (Papa)

{1}      Frederick Wilhelm "William" Hammer b. 1823 - d. 1891 was born in Prussia; he was Daddy Don's Great-Grandfather. His eldest daughter Emilia "Melia" Christina married a man whose name has been listed as Christian Henry William Graf. However, in Germany (or Prussia, or even Austria) "Graf" is a title (it is the German equivalent of the title "Count"), it is not a name.
Consider if you will, "Ferdinand Adolf Heinrich August Graf von Zeppelin" or "Claus Philipp Maria Justinian Graf von Stauffenberg."
I am quite skeptical, in fact I seriously doubt, that Graf was really his family surname because it is so very unlikely any Prussian could (or even would have been allowed to) bear a surname which could have been so easily confused with an aristocratic title. I suspect his original surname was lost (by accident, or by design) when his family emigrated.
{2}      Alexander Mack, The Tunker and Descendants. Rev Freeman Ankrum, Herald Press, Scottdale, Pennsylvania, © 1943
{3}      Counting The Cost: The Life Of Alexander Mack, 1679-1735. William G Willoughby, Brethren Press, Elgin, Illinois © 1979
{4}      Thomas Maxwell Of Virginia And Georgia And His Descendants. Annie Norman, Press of the J.W. Burke Co., Macon, Georgia ©1956

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