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Genealogy: Search for a grave leads to a family he never knew
By Charles Swenson
Third in a series
Bill Shehan started out looking for his sister. He found a family.
A mourning dove calls as he tells the story, seated on a wicker chair on a porch outside his home on Waverly Road. It isn’t an easy story. Shehan, now 73, was placed in an orphanage with his brother and sister after their parents divorced when he was a year old. His brother, who was older, was adopted. His little sister, Mary Jane, died in 1951 at age 10.
Shehan remembered the open coffin, her pigtails and her blue dress. He remembered the cemetery was on a hill outside the town where his father was from, Erwin, Tenn. Those were memories that didn’t lend themselves to casual conversation. “Sad memories,” he said.
“Every once in a while he would mention it,” said his wife, Lee Brockington. “You could tell he didn’t want to talk about it.” But she took note of what he said.
Shehan picked up a few more details about his life even as he grew up in the Janie Hammit Home in Bristol, Va., about 60 miles from Erwin. His father, who was in the Army, picked him up one time when he was 4 or 5 and they went to stay with an aunt in Erwin. He also spent time with the family that adopted his brother. That’s where he learned his great-grandfather was Cherokee.
Shehan was adopted by his grandmother when he was about 13. She was his mother’s mother. He lived on her farm until he enlisted in the Army at 18. He put as much space as he could between himself and Bristol.
“Those were hard times,” he said. Not just for him, but for everyone in that corner of the Appalachians where Tennessee, Virginia and North Carolina meet.
“I learned one thing in the orphanage,” Brockington recalled her husband telling her. “I learned how important family was.”
But his family stories were something Shehan couldn’t share with his children, three from previous marriages and the son he and Brockington have. “When your parents don’t want you, what are you supposed to do?” he said.
He wanted to return to the mountains and find his sister’s grave. “I planned on going one day. I was thinking about it; what do they call it, a bucket list?” he said.
His wife is a senior interpreter at Hobcaw Barony. On a trip with her son, Brock, to scout out colleges they decided to visit Bristol. A helpful librarian found a 1947 magazine article about the Janie Hammit Home. At the top of the page is a photo of the director with three small children on Christmas Day.
Mary Jane Shehan looks into the camera, a bow in her shoulder-length hair.
They made copies and brought them home to Bill. He asked some questions, but didn’t have too much to say.
Last summer, as the family drove home with a loaded car after Brock’s freshman year at the University of Pittsburgh, Bill said “Why don’t we go through Erwin and find my little sister’s grave.”
They stopped on the way in Jonesborough, where Shehan looked for his great-grandmother’s house. Brock suggested they ask in the county courthouse. Staff were eager to help, and Shehan thinks they found it.
Then they drove into the Cherokee National Forest to Erwin.
The computer has been a boon to interest in genealogy. But Shehan said he gave up using the computer after he retired from Santee Cooper in 1999. The morning after they arrived in Erwin he went down to the McDonald’s and found the table where locals gather for coffee. A retired mail carrier said he thought he knew the place Shehan remembered, the Polly Erwin Cemetery. “Follow me,” the man said.
The only marker they found was for Laddie Shehan. Some of the graves weren’t marked.
They went to the courthouse, this time for Unicoi County. They found three or four cemeteries around Erwin that might be a match. At one, a husband and wife were digging a grave for a burial. They had some leather-bound ledgers that they had saved from a funeral home that was being torn down. Those were in the loft of a shed of another cemetery.
A year later, Shehan’s eyes still get misty at the thought of finding his sister’s name in those ledgers. She was buried in the Polly Erwin Cemetery. He and his wife and son went back, but they still couldn’t find the grave.
It was getting dark. They planned to drive on, but stopped for something to eat. A waiter heard them talking. “There are still some Shehans who live here,” he said.
He pointed them down the road. The first house was owned by a Shehan, but rented. The tenant pointed them to the next house. They found a woman on the porch and told her what they were looking for. She called her husband, Melvin. “Come up on the porch, let’s talk,” he told them.
He listened to the story of three children left at the orphanage in Bristol. “Bill, you have no idea how long we’ve been looking for you,” Melvin said.
He spells his name Sheehan, which is the original Irish, Bill said. He is his father’s half-brother, one of 16 children in that generation. Melvin’s mother, Bill’s grandmother, was Cherokee. Melvin had family records and photos. And he knew where Mary Jane was buried.
The next day, they all went back to the Polly Erwin Cemetery. Mary Jane was buried next to Laddie Shehan. Her grave was unmarked, but it didn’t stay that way.
Bill is on the cemetery committee at Pawleys Island Presbyterian Church. He ordered a marker, listing his sister’s parents and grandparents so there will be a record for future generations. They went back to Erwin on the Fourth of July for a family reunion and a service at the cemetery. The minister delivered a homily about being led by God and about being complete.
“I didn’t even know I had any relatives,” Bill said.
And they weren’t all in the mountains. He learned he had a cousin. In South Carolina. Near Myrtle Beach.
In fact she worked in Litchfield and one day told a customer at the salon where she worked that she just found out she had a cousin named Bill who lived in Pawleys Island. And the customer knew the story because she goes to church with Bill and Lee.
When they finally met, she told Bill she often joked with her husband about taking the street sign Bill put up that said Shehan Lane. She saw it often because until recently she lived just down the street from Bill.
“I went to Erwin for one thing: to find my sister,” Bill said. “I really wasn’t looking for the relatives.”
Read more: In the second article in the series, Claire Fleming overcome “brick walls” in search for ancestors. Click to read.