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TUPPER: Gain perspective, comfort under the shade of your family tree

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opinion Mitchell, 57301
Mitchell South Dakota 120 South Lawler 57301

I was waiting for my wife one day in the foyer of the Mitchell Congregational United Church of Christ when I noticed an old wall plaque engraved with a list of donors. I bent close to peruse the names, and my eyes caught on one: Louisa C. Tupper.

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Must be a relative of mine, I thought. When we got home, I pulled out some family history papers my dad gave me years earlier. Louisa, it turns out, is my great-great grandmother.

She’s only four steps back from me on the family tree, and yet this was the first I’d heard of her or any Tupper with a Mitchell connection. I had ignorantly thought the current generations of Tuppers, whose home turf is Wessington Springs and Kimball, were the first to take up residence in Mitchell.

Luckily for me and my sudden interest in family history, genealogy is undergoing a renaissance. The website Ancestry.com and its trove of archival materials is at the forefront of the movement. During the months after I discovered my great-great grandmother’s name on that church plaque, I built my family tree at Ancestry.com and dabbled in family research. I learned that Louisa Tupper is buried here in Mitchell, and one summer day my wife and children indulged me as we walked through a block of the cemetery looking for and eventually finding the grave.

The headstone of Louisa C. Tupper, the author's great-great grandmother. (Seth Tupper/The Daily Republic)“MOTHER,” the headstone says, along with “Louisa C. Tupper, 1859-1941.”

It was in 1882 that Louisa and husband William Henry Tupper left Illinois and “removed to the northwest, settling on a homestead near Plankinton,” according to Volume IV of “History of Dakota Territory” by George W. Kingsbury.

“Hardships and privations awaited them,” Kingsbury wrote in a short biography of my great-great grandfather, “but with resolute spirit and unfaltering courage they endured hardships and trials and in time their perseverance won them success. …”

The trail goes cold after that. Kingsbury doesn’t say what caused the death of William Henry Tupper in 1897 at the age of 41. Nor does Kingsbury say when or why the widower Louisa Tupper ended up in Mitchell.

I hope to fill in those blanks; meanwhile, I have already learned some important things from my great-great grandmother.

One is that the shade under a large family tree is a good place to pause and gain perspective. Louisa’s story reminds me that I — and all of us, really — stand on the shoulders of giants in the earth, to borrow the title of a novel about Dakota pioneers. I shudder to think of the “hardships and privations” that William and Louisa must have suffered during those early years in what was probably a claim shack on the raw, unbroken prairie, where the specter of death was probably ever near. It makes me appreciate the path they forged for a descendant like me, whose primary stressor is not the prospect of death but mere deadlines.

The other lesson is that many of us will be forgotten after we die. Perhaps there are other Tuppers who’ve kept the flame of Louisa’s memory burning, but among the family members I know, it was blown out and swept away like chaff in the prairie wind.

That’s why, in some small way, I feel like I’ve brought my great-great grandmother back to life. She was a dying branch on my family tree, at least from my perspective, and now she’s sprouting new leaves.

If I keep that branch alive, maybe somebody will do the same for me someday, and like Louisa I’ll spring to life in the mind of a great-great grandchild long after I’m dead. In this uncertain world, that’s at least one small comfort I can take to my grave.

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