My Favorite Ancestor: The Reverend Levi Van Slyke
For a man who influenced our family as much as this ancestor did I think he takes the prize for having spent the least amount of time in it!
My great aunt, my mother, and now myself, and other members of our family are doing work on this man and strangely enough finding more information about this era and his role in it. I could write a book about him and I have compiled booklets, stories, pictures and biographies of many of his descendants, including a talk to a Historical Society about his life.
He was Reverend Levi Van Slyke and since there is so much material I will try to limit this to an outline form so that readers can get the general idea without being overwhelmed, I hope.
Levi Van Slyke was born December 5, 1823, in Remson, New York, one of several children born to Jessie Van Slyke and Polly Mitchell. He was my grandmother, Lucy Van Slyke Kelsey’s paternal grandfather and his fourth great grandfather was Cornelius Anronisson Van Slyck of Holland — the original immigrant who married Ots Tock, an Indian princess. Levi’s mother was a descendant of the founders of Meridien, Connecticut.
Levi must have heard rumors about the gold that the adventurers were finding in California and in early 1849 decided to go to a seaport in Massachusetts to see what was going on. He would have been 25 years old when he arrived in New Bedford, Massachusetts, famous for its whaling.
About this same time a young girl who lived on the island of Martha’s Vineyard in a converted one-room schoolhouse with her family decided that she would like to go over to the mainland and have an adventure! Some adventure! Her name was Azubah Cummings, born on the Vineyard March 16, 1829, daughter of William Cummings of New Hampshire and his wife, Lucy Clifton, now found to be the descendant of three of the Pilgrims. I see in some more records that Azubah lists her residence as Martha’s Vineyard and that they were married in same by a minister. So this is what is so intriguing about genealogy. William Cummings was known for his candy-making skills and made that treat for all the Island. Their lives were tied very much to whaling and the surrounding sea and two of her brothers died at sea while a third decided to live in South America. So at this point we are not sure just where Azubah and Levi met.
Well now, being two displaced persons in that really lively Massachusetts seaport Levi and Azubah had something in common and somehow met up with one another. It seems as if the ties to the Vineyard were strong and they married there on April 1, 1849, and by June Levi was on his way to the gold fields. The earliest picture I have of Azubah shows her to be a fairly attractive woman with jet black hair and piercing dark eyes. She had excellent posture and an austere expression. These people could not smile in front of the camera as dentists were not in existence then and who knows what condition their teeth were in anyhow as we never saw them. We do not have a picture of Levi but there is one of Clarissa, his sister, who has a pleasant, open face and thin sloping shoulders. I see that shoulder trait in Levi’s son George and in some of the descendants so I wouldn’t wonder if Levi possessed it too.
Genealogists mostly think that Levi chose the overland route to California, primarily because there are not records of his name on any boat lists. So he probably decided to join a wagon train out of New England and head West. We catch up with him as he is entering the Southern Methodist ministry, having taken a correspondence course under the tutorage of a minister. We have a copy of his course of study and the books he read. He didn’t seem to have much luck with panning for gold and must have become intrigued with preaching. There is no reason to believe that he didn’t do well in the courses that featured Bible study in particular.
In the meantime, Azubah is back in New Bedford and pregnant. What did she do? Did she go home to wait for the birth of the baby or did she stay on the mainland? The only hint we have is that her son, George Cummings Van Slyke was born in New Bedford on March 14, 1850. We are not sure just what she did as there was a seven year waiting period before remarrying. She finally did marry David Gaines and had a daughter Annie and many years later married a man named Henry Barrows. She died in December 1936 and is buried in East Haven, Connecticut.
Finally some word came from the West. Levi’s belongings including a Bible were sent to his New York home with the information that he died in 1853! So that was all the information that the boy George had about this father all his life. Too bad.
Why did Levi want his family to think that he had died? One theory is that he wanted to start another family in Oregon. Chances are that he didn’t even know about his son in the East. Azubah had no address to notify him. Maybe it was about this time he started to work on getting ordained and didn’t want any family responsibilities. We just don’t know.
Lev surfaces again when he is on the circuit and there are reports of him at the yearly meeting of the Southern Methodist Church. We also now have the information that he was in Nevada for a while too. We know that he was assigned a mission in Oakland, California, in 1866 and was admitted on a trial basis. Then he was transferred to Lafayette Mission the net year and the Albany Circuit in 1869 and he died of typhoid fever in August 1870 during one of the hottest summers ever out there. He met a doctor in Lafayette, Doctor Goucher, who seems to have become one of his best friends and this is the one who finally nursed him in his last illness. He died on his route and there was no way to get him back to his home territory in all that heat and so he was buried there too in Lafayette, high on a bluff overlooking the Willamette Valley. The Southern Methodists suppled a white marble stone for his marker with the words, “Tell my brethren that I died triumphant.”
That stone stood there for many years and was even beginning to slant a little. I wonder if anyone ever questioned what that stone was doing located in Dr. Goucher’s plot? After a while no one knew anything about this man from the East, the Forty-niner turned Circuit Rider.
Even though my mother looked for years and with the help of a fellow genealogist she never saw the stone herself but she knew it was there and that Levi had been found. It was my daughter and I who finally got to see the stone and to see the burial place of this lost ancestor.
Imagine our shock after many years of visiting it, we climbed the hill to the burial place one spring day only to find the cemetery vandalized and the stone kicked or hit several times and lying on the ground in pieces. It was then and there we decided that Levi’s tomb was just not safe anymore in a little-used cemetery in Oregon and we went to great lengths to move it East to the Center Cemetery in Portland, Connecticut, where his son, George, and family are buried.
We all wanted to do something special to recognize this occasion, especially after my daughter and a friend drove it across the country to make sure it was delivered safely! So we gathered together about 35 of us and had a ceremony led by Dr. Lavius Robinson of Killingly, Connecticut, a cousin of some of the family. We also had a family get-together at the home of Donald Kelsey afterwards. We felt we had done the right thing to preserve this stone and the memory of the man whose remains are still in Oregon under a new stone.
We feel very privileged to have such a close tie with an important era of this country’s past. Even though Levi wasn’t a part of this family for very long when he was alive, he certainly had a huge influence on us all after he died. So even though I could have picked some other fine people and family lines to lift up, I feel that this one of the three “Is” — important, intriguing, and eternally interesting to the life of our family.