Tipping My Hat to My Ancestors


Synchronicity led me to write this post.

What other people think of me is none of my business.” I read this statement recently, and it stayed with me as the song heard on the radio in the morning that stays in my head throughout the day.

In the past few months, I immersed myself in the journal of my great grandfather on my father’s side. I’ve wondered about this man whose life story I knew nothing about until I read his account of his days as a Union soldier in the Civil War. As I finished readying the journal for publication, two bloggers I follow (Staci Troilo and Lori Crane) began posting about their ancestors and heritage. All of these events made me think of another of my ancestors, whose story intrigues me.

Emilene Stephens Hooper, my great grandmother on my mother’s side, was born 100 years before me in 1854 somewhere in southern England, most likely Cornwall. Twenty-two years later, she gave birth to my grandfather, Edwin Stephens. A few years before that, she gave birth to another son, Harry Stephens. That’s right—she gave birth to two sons whose surnames were the same as her maiden name.

But here’s where it gets rather fascinating rather than mundane. In the census from 1880, she is listed as the owner of an inn in Cornwall. The two sons are listed, and it’s stated she was pregnant. A roomer at the inn was a Frederick Hooper. By 1881, she was married to Mr. Hooper and gave birth to a daughter named Katie Hooper.

After her marriage to Fred, she gave birth to nine more children, all with the last names of Hooper.

My grandfather, Edwin, left school early to work in the China clay mines of Cornwall. He also became a minister–all before the age of twenty. In 1900, he left England forever and came to the United States where he worked in the copper mines of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Several of his half siblings followed him to the States, and I remember Aunt Katie and her minister husband Uncle Simon. I remember Uncle Charlie Hooper and Aunt Lillian Hooper. My mother and her sisters kept in contact with these relatives, both those in the States and in England. None of us questioned why they didn’t carry the name of Stephens.

My Aunt Nellie, the matriarch of the Stephens side of the family, took an interest in genealogy after her retirement as the school librarian and choir director. When she started the search, she realized something was amiss, and like the good stoic she was, she put away all the papers and told the rest of the family there wasn’t much to research.

Aunt Nellie didn’t want anyone to discover that her father, the beloved Reverend Edwin Stephens had been born to an unmarried woman.

I went to Cornwall fifteen years ago and met my English cousins.

with my English cousins
with my English cousins

Most of my grandfather’s siblings were gone by this time, but the stories remained. After Emilene’s marriage to Fred, she became a pillar of the society in their small town of Roche, Cornwall. How she did that in Victorian England I have no idea, except that she must have followed the adage, “What other people think of me is none of my business.”

The cousins who only remember Emilene in her older years told me stories of her famous hats she wore to church every Sunday. Not only was she respected, but she was a fashionista as well.

Here’s one humanizing story told by one of her grandchildren. In her final years, she would often pass gas at inopportune moments. The grandchildren remember when it happened in church. Their grandmother Emilene would turn around to the children and give them a scowl so everyone in the nearby pews would assume one of the Hooper brood made the offensive sound during the Sunday sermon. I giggle to think of this woman in her wide-brimmed hat all prim and proper letting loose with a big one, yet blaming it on her poor grandchildren.

So who was the father of my grandfather? We’ll never know. A cousin near my age in Cornwall did some research but found that all the birth records in the area where it was suspected Emilene was born had been destroyed by fire. All he found was the census of 1880 and her record of death in 1933. One of the cousins here in the States found the obituary of our grandfather where it lists a Joseph Varcoe as his father. That could have been invented for the sake of propriety as my grandfather died while a minister in a small Michigan town.

The older English cousins told me that Emilene would never say where she came from and she had no contact with her parents. She told one of her children that her father was a very mean and cruel man.

Emilene could have been sent to a large farm to work in the household. That would not have been unusual during that time for poorer farmers to send away their young daughters to work for wealthy landowners. She could have become the mistress of a landowner and perhaps his name was Joseph Varcoe. Then there’s another theory—one that is unsavory to consider. My English cousins told me their parents (children of Emilene) could never get their mother to tell them where she came from or who her parents were.

This woman, my great grandmother, defied the societal rule of Victorian England and raised twelve children. She lived her life in her own way, and obviously not caring a whit what others thought.

Emilene Stephens Hooper
Emilene Stephens Hooper


I tip my wide-brimmed hat in your direction, Emilene Stephens Hooper, and say thank you for teaching me lessons long after your death.



Published by P. C. Zick

I write. It's as simple and as complicated as that. Storytelling creates our cultural legacy.

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