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My Great Great Granddad Seth’s Epic Life

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I bear the name of my great great grandfather, Seth. As a child, life collapsed around him when his father (also named Seth) died at just 26 years-old.  His devastation was compounded when his mother married a German man named George Beerwin. His stepfather was an abusive man who used to b…
By Seth Barnes

great grandfather

I bear the name of my great great grandfather, Seth. As a child, life collapsed around him when his father (also named Seth) died at just 26 years-old. 

His devastation was compounded when his mother married a German man named George Beerwin. His stepfather was an abusive man who used to beat him severely. They moved to Portsmouth, on the Ohio River west of Cincinnati.

Then, when he was seven, his mother died of tuberculosis.

Now an orphan, Seth was on his own in life. His stepfather made him go to work for a local cobbler. At eight years old, he ran away from home, hopping a river boat and getting off in Cincinnati.

To survive, he began selling newspapers on the street and doing odd chores for people. He lived as a street waif for almost a year, sleeping out of doors in the large barrels that contained merchandise that had been shipped down river from Pittsburgh and other ports.

It was a tumultuous time for the nation. The Civil War was a few years from breaking out. Antebellum Cincinnati was a center for the abolitionist movement. Lincoln was to debate Stephen Douglas there a few years later (1959).

But Seth was oblivious to this. He had to live by his wits just to find food to eat. One day he caught sight of his old German stepdad who had come down river from Portsmouth to look for him. Seth was able to dodge the man, running to the wharf and slipping aboard a boat which headed down the Ohio River to Louisville.

Seth later described what life was like for the next few years.

“I got in with a man by the name of Cooper, who lived in Louisville, Kentucky, and lived with him two or three years going to New Orleans, and afterward back to Louisville. I became familiar with the river and for two or three years I run on the river as knife shiner or deck sweep. I lived from pillar to post.”

After arriving in New Orleans, he would work his way north on steamboats as a cabin boy, cook’s assistant or table waiter. On one such occasion, as the boat was steaming northward, it stopped at the port of Point Pleasant, Missouri to take on fuel wood which was burned to create steam.

Seth used the loading opportunity to go ashore and play with some boys. The boat pulled away from shore without blasting the usual warning whistle, and Seth was left behind, totally on his own again. The young boys realized his predicament and took him home.

Word spread of Seth’s situation and Johnny Martin, a local farmer, invited him to live with his family and work their farm on land near the Mississippi River. As he grew, he began to learn the farming life.  

At 15, eager for action, he enlisted in the Union army and eventually served on the ironclad Chillicothe. He was in one of the first skirmishes of the Civil War. George Washington’s last living male descendent was badly wounded and Seth helped attend him as he died.

After the war, Seth returned to Missouri. He married a local girl name Laura Marston. And soon, Seth’s natural entrepreneurial skills began to manifest. He began to buy land and farm cotton. He became successful, buying and selling more and more cotton.  
Eventually he built a railroad to transport the cotton to the Mississippi River. And over time he diversified, building a stave factory to make barrels.

But as World War I shocked the country, the cotton market collapsed, and with it, Seth’s wealth evaporated.  

He died in 1920 in the town in Missouri that he founded and named after his wife – Marston.

The details of my great great grandfather’s life are sketchy. The unanswered questions travel along after him. What must he have felt when he ran away from home at such a young age? Did he ever see his mother again? How did he stay alive on the streets of Cincinnati?  

My aunt told me that he was not a good father. We know that orphans often spend their lives over-reacting to the hardships they experienced as children. Was my great great grandfather hounded by those demons too? Did the searing experience of having to fend for himself make him a more driven businessman, but an emotionally distant dad?  

My great grandfather, Charles Merlin, was in many ways his opposite, risk-averse and steady. He ran a country store in Marston for much of his life. You have to wonder if he was a disappointment to his father, who had risked so much. What were the family times like? What of value got passed on to the next generation?  

As I look back and look forward, I want to learn from this man I never met and for whom I’m named. My guess is that he lived life trying to outrun the memories of an orphan experience. There are ghosts rattling in closets whose doors will never be opened. He’s become a distant part of my story.

Somewhere there may have been campfires and stories of his exploits shared around them. What parts of his DNA have been passed on to me four generations later and what parts am I passing on to my son, Seth? 

I’m a risk-taker with a taste for adventure, but I also have nothing to prove. As I travel the world I find myself bumping into street urchins like my great great grandfather, Seth. As they scramble to survive, selling trinkets, shining shoes, or begging, I find myself moved by their plight. A compassion I can’t explain wells up in me.  

I wonder how much of what I feel is my spirit inside me recognizing in them a part of my story? It’s a narrative that is still being written, a circle that is waiting to be closed.

We’re born looking for happy endings. Not many of us get to live them or to reach back and rewrite the endings of our family’s story. I think God wants us to. He wrote the original redemptive story. And he’s writing new ones everyday.

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