Root Words

April 11, 2011 by Katy Brown
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Uncle Bob?

“Why is your last name different from ours?” my seven-year-old daughter asked.  “Well,” I began carefully, “it’s customary for a woman to change her name when she gets married, but I chose to keep mine because I liked it.”

But what was so special about my name? Why did I insist on remaining Katy Brown? At the time, I was just getting started in a broadcasting career, so I needed to maintain my identity.  But now that I am out of the business more or less, I wanted to provide my daughter with a better answer.

I grew up as the only child to parents who were farther along in life.  By the time our second baby was born, my parents and grandparents had passed away.  With the exception of a few aunts, an uncle and a handful of adult cousins who live elsewhere, my girls don’t have close relationships with anyone on my side of the family.  My last name means nothing to them other than being the color of a crayon.

As if the NBC network understood my concern, the television show “Who Do You Think You Are” motivated me to do some searching for branches on the family tree.  What I discovered was both comical and sad, but every bit intriguing.

During a free 14-day trial (which I promptly upgraded to the World Deluxe Membership), I learned that the Browns were Irish, not German, as I previously thought.  My great-great-GREAT grandfather John U. Brown and his wife, Emily McCartney, traveled from Dundee, Ireland to Ellis Island in the mid-1800s, according to immigration travel lists.  She and her husband settled in Monroe County in 1833, where the next generations of Browns made their home as farmers. While census records were invaluable in adding names and dates, the greatest hints came from newspaper articles and documents.

The historical:

  • My mother’s family (Keeney) was recognized as one of the first pioneers of Greenbrier County.
  • My grandmother’s brother bought a farm in Blue Sulphur Springs, WV, where Robert E. Lee’s beloved horse, Traveller was born and raised.  In 1963, my grandmother donated Traveller’s saddle to the Greenbrier Historical Society, where it’s on display in the North House Museum in Lewisburg.

The quirky:

  • My grandfather’s World War II registration card indicated that he stood 5’11”, weighed 180 pounds, had dark red hair, a medium build, and a “ruddy complexion.”
  • In 1950, The Beckley Post Herald reported that my grandmother’s mynah bird had a 150-word vocabulary, which attracted “callers from all over Greenbrier County and the state.”
  • My mother’s wedding announcement (also in the Beckley newspaper) revealed that she wore an ivory colored sheath of silk faille, complemented by a jacket embellished with pearls.  “The bride’s mother wore black.”

The gloomy:

  • The search for information about my Grandfather Keeney ended in Roane County. After recovering his death certificate dated May 21, 1945,  I learned that he died in  Spencer State Hospital (now a Walmart – go figure), where he was sent after a series of hypertensive strokes led to “psychosis with cerebral arterioschlerosis.”  Perhaps this explains the ruddy complexion.
  • My great uncle Harry (Brown) a Monroe County school teacher who was paralyzed from the chest-down, became a lobbyist for legislation in the 1930s that would have provided financial and legal support for victims of violent crimes.  According to newspaper clippings, his spinal cord was severed by a sheriff’s bullet – a case of mistaken identity.

I have spent hours looking up relatives’ personal histories, timelines and photos.  I now understand where my love of writing and language comes from (no, not the mynah bird!).  I know who’s responsible for giving me auburn hair and hazel eyes.  I have a clearer understanding of who my eldest daughter is most like — a throwback to the grandmother she never had the opportunity to meet, but I feel certain knows her extremely well.

Since revealing my findings, my husband has taken over the computer and started research of his own, which will give our girls a complete snapshot of their heritage. is expensive ($29.99 per month), but it has become an invaluable tool in solving some of our families’ great mysteries. This is one tree that my girls have permission to climb.

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13 Responses to “Root Words”

  1. TriciaNo Gravatar says:

    Very nice article Katy Brown! I too have a different last name than my husband and daughter – and she used to ask me to change it “so we could be a family”. Talk about a crushing blow! Eventually she learned to appreciate it – and enjoys correcting her friends when they call me by her last name. I tell her it’s no big deal, I’m just as happy to be known by her last name too. I kept mine though as a nod to my father, who paid to educate me. Hopefully I continue to make him proud.

    • Katy BrownNo Gravatar says:

      Deep down, I think I kept my name to please my mother. She had such a hard time letting go of her only child that it meant a lot for her to see me remain Kathryn Brown.

      I’m very lucky that I married an understanding man!

  2. bradmcNo Gravatar says:

    My kids have the nerve to tell me that McElhinny is not a beautiful name.

  3. Katy BrownNo Gravatar says:

    There used to be a family in Greenbrier County by the last name of Hogg…and there were two daughters, Ima and Ura.

  4. KaraNo Gravatar says:

    I wanted to have the same last name as my husband and future children, but I couldn’t bear to part with my maiden or given middle names. So I have four names. Technically, my middle name is now two words: my given middle name and maiden name. It was a really stupid idea. I don’t use my maiden name at all, ever, and no one even knows it’s there, hidden behind my middle name.

    • Katy BrownNo Gravatar says:

      Now that I have two school-aged children, I sort of, kind of wish I had changed my name to make life easier — especially since I’m called Mrs. Reed 90% of the time. I’m not Mrs. Brown…because my husband isn’t Mr. Brown…and I’m not really Mrs. Reed because I don’t have that last name. I’m not really a Ms. because I am married….so I’m confused, once more…

    • LaurenNo Gravatar says:

      Kara, I did the same thing, for the same reasons. The woman at the Social Security office chided me, told me I’d have to sign four names to every receipt, check and legal document that would come down the pike. She swore I’d be back to drop my maiden name and I hate to say, almost three years later, she’s about to be right. I somehow became hyphenated on my insurance cards, and on DMV paperwork it was all too long, so my last name just got truncated. It’s a pain.

  5. MichelleNo Gravatar says:

    I love genealogy! At one family Christmas, my grandmother in law started talking about the ancestors and it came to light that one particular great great uncle preferred to live in a cave. She looked at me and said, “much like your husband”.

  6. PamNo Gravatar says:

    Here’s some irony for you..a relative of mine, fathers side, from Summers Co owned the farm where Traveller was born and raised and she had part of the mane and tail.

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