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Genealogy Treasure: How Found Items Helped Me Discover My Ancestor

By RachelF

A few years ago, my grandmother asked me for a very strange favor. I was a college student at the time, and apparently someone in my college town has discovered some of my great-great grandfather’s belongings in their attic and wanted to return them to our family. My grandma wondered if I could go pick up the found items and bring them home next time I visited.

I said “Of course, grandma, no problem!” and didn’t give it a second thought. At the time, I didn’t have much interest in family history. Learning more about my ancestors had simply never occurred to me.

And so, I approached this errand with the same enthusiasm as I would grocery shopping or going to the post office. It was a sunny day and a friend and I drove to the stranger’s house to pick up said “belongings.”

When we arrived at the house, there was a lady smiling and waving from the driveway. We made our introductions and talked for a bit (she was very nice) before she disappeared into her garage to get my great-great grandfather’s things.

Now, when my grandma said “belongings” I was expecting some files and maybe a dusty lamp or two, so you can imagine my shock when the lady reemerged from her garage with what appeared to be a painting,  three antique frames of some sort and…a sword. A sword! I honestly couldn’t believe it.

I thanked the lady and took all the objects home a few days later, where my brother and I mutually freaked out over all the found treasures. The frames turned out to be doctor’s licenses from three different states. The painting remained mysterious, but what honestly got the most of our attention was the sword.

It wasn’t a “real” sword, not the kind meant for fighting anyways. We learned it was a masonic “society sword” used for ceremonial purposes. It came with a leather case and a beautiful, ornate sheath. The blade itself was decorated and engraved with my great great grandfather’s name: William Turner.


Leather case, fabric sleeve, and sheathed sword.
Detail of sheath and hilt.
Detail of sheath.
Sword engraved with “William E. Turner.”


After an abundance of Pirates of the Caribbean references, and lots of marveling over the awesome *shhhhink* sound it made when you pulled the sword out of the sheath, we gave everything to my grandma and that was that.

It was a fun adventure, but it wasn’t until much later that I stopped thinking about the objects and started thinking about the man behind them. Before this, I didn’t know anything about any of my ancestors past my grandparents, not even their names. It took me a while to realize that these were more than just cool objects, they were artifacts of a man who played a huge role in my existence!

And so, last time I visited my grandma over Christmas, I asked her – who was William Turner? We went upstairs and spent an afternoon talking and looking through old newspaper clippings and such, and I learned more about the man behind the sword. Turns out, the treasures we found were artifacts of a man with a fascinating life.


Here’s a snippet of our conversation:


Yes William Turner was a Freemason, but he was also orphaned at the age of seven, a well-respected doctor, and a long-standing member of the board of education where he lived. He lost not one, but BOTH of his legs in a train accident in his 60s then lived to the ripe old age of 75. The more I learned about him, the more fascinating he became.

I realize that this story provides more questions than answers and more curiosity than closure. Namely, what on earth were these objects doing in a stranger’s attic? How did this woman find them and then how did she find my grandmother?

As of now, I don’t have the answers. And so, in an effort to offer something of value in this post, I encourage genealogists to perform random acts of kindness. The woman who found all these things in her attic could have easily just given them away, but she put in the effort to find the family that they belonged to. If it weren’t for her, I confess I probably would have never asked about my great-great grandfather and would have never known his story.