A History of the Burns Family
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This online history is dedicated to my grandparents, 
Guy and Ada Burns, whose perseverance, creative spirit, 
and love of family inspire me always.

Katherine Burns Vaughan

On June 22, 2009, the emergency room doctor told us that in the unlikely event my father survived his cardiac arrest, irreversible brain damage was probable. Aside from overwhelming grief, I also felt mad – at myself. I’d been meaning to record my dad's memories, and now it was too late. Then came August, when through some miraculous process my dad’s health returned to normal and the Burns Family History Project rumbled to life.

The result has taken me far beyond what I originally envisioned. As I soon discovered, even Aunt Ebba was unaware of much of the early history. For example, who knew that Guy had an illegitimate half-brother back in Pennsylvania?  It was especially fascinating to learn how the Burns experience dovetailed with contemporaneous historical events – the Civil War, the Homestead Act and settlement of the West, the flu pandemic, World Wars I and II, the development of unions, and so on.

Because dear Aunt Ebba never threw anything away, we were fortunate to have hundreds of letters, photographs, and other documents dating as far back as the 1860s and '70s. Many of these I had seen after Ebba died in 1998, but I now approached them with an interest bordering on obsession. It felt to me like a sacred quest.

I was lucky to have some important memoirs. Ada wrote a one-page summary that made me long for so much more. Guy authored several mini-histories in his tiniest crabbed hand - some on bookmark-sized paper - and these were invaluable (if nearly impossible to read!). Guy's dad, Lorenzo, kept a penciled diary in 1877-1878 that had been preserved for over 130 years. Ebba wrote a memoir for Daniel in 1993, and my father penned 17 pages about the Depression and World War II for one of Elizabeth’s neighborhood friends. Added to this were my own memories, reminiscences from my cousins, and voluminous detailed recollections from my “brain-dead” father. 

Ancestry.com provided access to countless historical documents – U.S. census records from 1790 to 1940, military records, birth and death information, and tidbits from other family histories related to our own. If the 1890 census records hadn’t been destroyed in a fire, I’d probably have learned even more!

Google opened the door to some extraordinary resources that helped fill in the historical blanks. To name just a few:

  • A sample 1890 grocery list from Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio
  • An 1878 map of the Pennsylvania villages where Guy’s father and mother grew up (showing each house with its owner’s name)
  • A 1910 plat map of Cuyahoga Falls showing the exact location of all the houses where Guy and Ada lived
  • A South Dakota train schedule from 1894
  • An hour-by-hour account of the movements of the Pennsylvania 105th Infantry Regiment on May 4, 1864, the day private Liberty Burns -- Guy's grandfather -- was wounded in the Battle of Wilderness.

Other online obsessives were also invaluable. When I couldn’t identify a car in a family photograph from the '30s, I joined an online forum called the Antique Automobile Club of America, and within hours of posting the photo had 25 opinions about the make, model, and year, most of them agreeing with Sven from Sweden that it was a 1933 Continental Ace. Dad then recalled this was Uncle Don’s car. 

More than anything, I came away from this journey into the past with a profound love and admiration for my grandparents, who overcame so many obstacles on their way to a better life here in Seattle, and their four children, who all achieved professional success, found love with a loyal partner, and reared children (and nephews and nieces) who adored them. I feel enormously fortunate to have been born into such a family.

These details will be interesting to only a very few people on this earth. After all, more compact websites cover the entire history of Western civilization!  But that’s okay with me. The process of discovery has been a joy in itself, and I offer up the present “agreed-upon fable” with the hope that you may enjoy it too. 

The first few days he'd been out of his mind with pain, unable to form a coherent thought. Anger, despair, terror took turns occupying his waking moments. But now he's settled, the pain absorbed into his bones and sinews.But the end is not quite here. Stretched out on a blanket in the hospital's shady yard, he lets his mind go where it will...