Monday, September 12, 2011

Becoming a Frazier

I recently had the opportunity to clear a dense patch of brush hiding my grandfather's grave. He's buried in West Virginia, we live in California, and I've wanted to pay my respects for a long time. Problem is, I heard that his gravesite was covered by a thicket of weeds. One genealogist even reported that the marker was inaccessible. I couldn't believe it. Preston Allen Frazier died less that four decades ago, and his grave had been lost already? I had to see this for myself. So I conducted some research and found him. Along the way, I began learning about a family history that initially stretches back ten generations at first before diving much deeper into the past.

While my last name is Wood, I was raised a Frazier and taught from my earliest years to see Scotland as my ancestral home. I remember my mom telling stories of isolated hamlets on storm-racked coasts, illustrating how members of our family learned self-reliance on those rocky shores. I guess that's one reason why Mom had me read books like My Side of the Mountain and From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, stories of young people facing grownup dangers on their own. Mom also insisted that I read Emerson and Thoreau, but it would take years for me to follow her advice.

Image borrowed from
Mom raised me in Dunedin, Florida, a community that defined itself as a sort of Scottish enclave. I remember seasonal Highland games, and I grew to love the sound of local high schoolers practicing bagpipes in the afternoons. Once, when I was assigned an elementary school assignment to talk about my family history, Mom showed me a picture of a belt and buckle surrounding a buck's head. Upon the belt was a motto that she had to translate for me: Je Suis Prest, which means "I am ready." Pretty cool, I thought, but confusing too: a Scottish family with a French motto, and my grandfather hailed from West Virginia? I had some research to do.

Turns out, the Fraziers trace their roots to an older clan called Fraser, which, according to standard histories, first rose to prominence in the French provinces of Anjou and Normandy (hence the French motto). Some historians tell of Frasers crossing over to England in 1066 as allies of William the Conqueror. Others place them in Scotland about a hundred years later. Either way, the family thrived in their new home, first in the south and later in the highlands.

Over the centuries the Frasers played key roles in Scotland's many political and religious dramas, expanding their influence and building castles that stand to this day. By the seventeenth century, through, widespread poverty in Scotland forced some Frasers to head out in search of better lives. Many fled to King James' plantations in Northern Ireland, only to encounter ruinous rents and religious intolerance. A few, including followers of Protestant Reformer John Knox, pushed further west to America. Around this time, some changed their names to Frazier to denote their Scots-Irish roots (though naming conventions were relatively unfixed back then).

My Aunt Linda tells me that our first American family member was a fellow named Joseph Frazier. Born in 1661, Joseph departed Northern Ireland (his birthplace) between 1720 and 1730. A relatively old man by this time, Joseph brought his wife (Elinor Frazier, née Ewing) and children to America in search of religious freedom in Pennsylvania. They arrived in Philadelphia and settled 70 miles away in Lancaster. The first American Fraziers are buried at Chestnut Level Presbyterian Church. One of their sons who crossed the Atlantic with them, John (born in 1717, though some say 1712), would later marry Isabella Moody (sister of Robert Moody) and purchase a homestead in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley. There, the Fraziers and the Moodys helped found the Tinkling Springs Presbyterian church.

At this point, the history gets a bit murky. Did one generation pass, or two? Regardless of the answer, there is no doubt that one of Joseph and Elinor's descendants, Samuel Craig Frazier (b. 1765 - most likely a great-grandson) settled further inland, traveled down the Kanawha River with three of his sons, and took up farming near Point Pleasant, West Virginia, on the Ohio River. Samuel, whose ancestors supposedly fought with William the Conqueror and toiled for King James, is my great-great-great-great-great grandfather, and he's buried in a place called Fraziers Bottom.

My grandfather was born in 1914, not too far from where Samuel is buried. Preston Allen Frazier was raised in a town called Scott Depot, where he was expected to follow family tradition and become a farmer. He tried his hand raising watermelons one summer in his late teens. He rented land from his father and got credit at the local feed store to purchase seeds. He had two mules and a plow, and he worked that land all summer. The result for all those troubles? $20. Preston decided that farming life was not for him and focused his attentions to schoolwork. He graduated at the top of his high school class and began looking forward to college. He knew that the world beyond tiny Scott Depot would make room for someone with ambition and smarts. Yet when he asked his folks to help him pay for college (as they had for his sisters) he was turned down. Preston surveyed his options and chose the one that would take him farthest away from West Virginia: He joined the Navy.

Preston excelled in the service, rising quickly through the ranks to become the youngest petty officer of that era, just as the United States was gearing up for war. Linda describes the day that Preston was at sea on neutrality patrol. He was set to go on vacation when the Japanese struck Pearl Harbor. On the other side of the world, in the middle of the Atlantic ocean, Preston walked to the fantail of his ship and shredded his leave papers. No one would be taking vacations for a while. My grandfather served four years, sending money home to support his mother (though she saved it for her son, refusing to spend it on herself). After completing his hitch, Preston traveled home - and found a telegram on the table. He didn't have to read past the cheerful "Greetings" to know what happened. The army had drafted him. So he kissed his mother goodbye and headed to Norfolk where he waited ("they hid him out," Linda recalls) until his reenlistment paperwork got squared away. If Preston was going to stay in the fight, he was going to serve as a sailer.

My grandfather served throughout World War II and stayed on through Korea. After his Navy years, Preston studied to be an electrical engineer but left school early. Seeking opportunities in New Jersey and Florida, he settled his family in the Sunshine State and found work as an electronics technician at Sperry. Caught up in the postwar housing boom, he and his wife (Charlene Frazier, née Faught) bought a ranch house in Dunedin and began to raise two girls: Sandra, my mother, and Linda, my aunt. Preston Allen Frazier carried a steel lunchpail every weekday until 1976 when he died of a heart attack - just one day before he was set to retire. He was 61. Mom and I were living with my grandparents back then, so his death struck me as a personal blow.

The Fraziers aren't especially prone to sentimentality, but Granddady's death was a family crisis. Linda stayed awhile and helped us cope. But after a while we just drifted apart. Mom and I eventually found a place of our own, and Linda returned to her home in northern Florida. Nana soldiered on for years, and then one day she was gone. With no direct male relatives, the Preston Allen Frazier line ended. I've adopted the name, but my choice is, perhaps, little more than an affectation [Heck, I was born with "Franklin" as my middle name; my mother simply raised me to use "Frazier" after divorcing my dad]. Still, I figured I should at least see my grandfather's last resting place. You can imagine my distress at learning that his gravesite was lost. It was time to plan a road trip and sort some things out.

Coming Soon[ish]: Part II: West Virginia Digging

[NOTE: I am indebted to Linda Frazier for her painstaking genealogical work on behalf of our family. Much of the history presented here comes directly from her emails to me. In sharing this information I hope to further promulgate what I have learned and inspire future conversations about Preston Allen Frazier's family line. Yet I can add little to what she discovered and passed on; none of this material would exist without her work.]


Oma said...

Andy, this is completely brilliant! What a WONDERFUL legacy your grandfather left--I can't wait for your next installment (you know me and cemeteries! :) Please do let me know when you post the "rest of the story!"

Andrew Wood said...

You're so kind Oma (aka Sue)! I appreciate your thoughts - especially since I know how dedicated you are to genealogy. I'll keep you posted as the next post shapes up.

Michael Anthony said...

What a great story unfolding here, Andy. I'm thankful to have the glimpse into your journey and exploration here. I don't remember sharing a Dunedin connection with you -- we buried my father's mother there last April. She had lived there nearly 60 years. My father grew up there. I spent a lot of childhood in Dunedin (we lived in Odessa until I was 13). I'm anxious for the rest of your story here too!

Lissie said...

I know it's been going on 4 years since you created this post, but did you ever complete "Part II: West Virginia Digging"? I tried to find it, but with no luck...