When History Gets Personal

Celia Garth coverAs a teenager, one of my favorite books was Gwen Bristow’s Celia Garth. It is the story of a young women living in Charleston, South Carolina, during the American Revolution. It has romance, adventure, history and, best of all, a character with common sense.

I didn’t know at the time that I had ancestors who lived in Charleston during the Revolution. My 5th great grandfather was John Lewis Gervais, a French Huguenot who came to Charleston in 1764 and quickly became involved in politics, serving in the Provincial Congress in 1775, as a member of the Continental Congress in 1782 and 1783, and in the State Senate beginning in 1784. After that discovery, I wanted to go back and take another look at Celia Garth but unfortunately it was out of print and my local library didn’t have a copy.

Just recently, however, all of Gwen Bristow’s books have been released as ebooks. Not only that, but at Amazon they are available as part of their Kindle Unlimited subscription service. Reading Celia Garth again was even more interesting. I found myself much more focused on the “background color” that added to the plot line. It made it easier to build a picture of Charleston at that point in time with my ancestors walking the same streets as Celia.

I’ve always been a fan of historical novels, but I wonder what might have happened if there had been a genealogist in the family who could have made books like Celia Garth a more personal experience for a youngster like me . . .

Charleston Connections


Tot and Joe Killebrew

Tot and Joe Killebrew

During World War II, Marjorie Barker left her home in Tennessee and traveled alone to Mexico City to marry her fiancee, Capt. Joseph P. Killebrew, an Army Air Corps bomber pilot. After several days of bureaucratic red tape, they were finally married on May 7, 1943. Their days together in Mexico were few. Joe had to return to duty in the Panama Canal Zone.

Shortly after they were married, Joe was assigned to Hayes, Kansas, for training on the new B-29 bombers. Marjorie joined Joe in Kansas for the few weeks of training before he was reassigned to China.┬áDuring their time in Kansas, Marjorie met Lois, another pilot’s wife from Charleston, South Carolina. They became close friends – a bond that became even stronger after both husbands were killed. That friendship continued throughout their lives. Marjorie moved to St. Augustine, Florida, after the war – making it easier for the two women to keep in touch. Even after each remarried, it was not unusual for the two families to visit back and forth.

Our casual Florida lifestyle was very different from the structured society of Charleston, but it was fun to visit. I have many fond memories of casual visits and special events like debutante balls and weddings and still stay in touch with Lois’ children.

Little did we know back then that we had a family connection to Charleston that pre-dated the American Revolution.

In June of 1764, John Lewis Gervais arrived in Charleston with a letter of introduction by Richard Oswald, a wealthy Scotsman, to Henry Laurens. Gervais and Laurens already had something in common – both were Huguenots. Gervais was acting as an agent for Oswald to obtain farmland in South Carolina.

Gervais not only served Oswald’s interests, but also obtained his own grant of 5,000 acres in 1768 which he successfully developed and expanded over the years. In 1773 he married Mary Sinclair of Charleston. As was usual in those days, the Gervais family also kept a house in Charleston. John and Mary had nine children but only three lived to marry and have their own children.

Gervais was also involved in politics during the Revolution and as a Colonel in the Continental army he helped organize the defense of Charleston in 1780. Later he served in the Continental Congress and in the South Carolina legislature. He died in 1798 at the age of 57.

Bill and Marjorie BarrettOf the three surviving children, two remained in Charleston. Claudia Butler Gervais married Robert J. Turnbull, the son of Dr. Andrew Turnbull who had built the New Symrna colony in Florida [see related articles below] and had moved to Charleston from St. Augustine. Paul Trapier Gervais married Martha Perry Jenkins and became an Episcopal minister in Charleston. Sinclair David Gervais married Katherine Olivia O’Keefe and moved the family – first to Mississippi and later to Texas. His descendants returned to Mississippi then on to Savannah, Georgia, and now down to St. Augustine.

One of those descendants, William Henry Barrett, Jr., married Marjorie Barker Killebrew and brought our Charleston connections together.