Digging Into DNA, Newtown Residents Discover Their Ancestry: Sally (Leety) Stevens

Published: March 23, 2019 at 07:00 am


More than 20 million people throughout the world have begun exploring their genealogy through websites like ancestry.com and 23andme.com.

Whether the person is hoping to gain insight on their family’s past, connect with living relatives, or know their genetic makeup, there is an innate curiosity that has fueled the surge in people participating in DNA-based websites.

Its popularity has even expanded to pet owners seeking knowledge about their dog’s breed and health facts through similar programs.

In this series, The Newtown Bee is inviting residents to share the stories of what they have discovered after participating in these sites and how their findings have affected their lives.

Sally (Leety) Stevens

As a history teacher, Sally (Leety) Stevens spent her 35-year career educating students about America’s history and people. What she did not know at the time was that her family’s stories would bring her lessons to life in a whole new way.

After retiring, Ms Stevens took on a number of personal projects that involved her going through a variety of old family photographs. In doing so, she soon became the self-appointed family historian for both sides of her family.

In 2016, she compiled photos for an album and gifted it to her son when he got married, which was a big hit among relatives. The success of the present led her to create a photo book about the lives of her parents — Charles “Chuck” Leety, 90, and Jean Leety, 93, who have lived in Newtown for more than 60 years.

“It took me three months to do because I scanned over 4,000 photos that I had found and that people had contributed,” Ms Stevens said about her parents’ album.

The 150-page book chronicles her parent’s lives, starting in 1925, when her mother was born, and ending in March 2017 (the cutoff she set in order for the book to be completed in time for Christmas that year).

Her parents were shocked to see some of the images, since there were photos they had not seen in decades.

While collecting photographs of her dad’s side of the family, Ms Stevens came across ones of his older brother, Robert Miller Leety, who was killed in World War II.

Having seen how much the previous photo books had meant to her parents and other family members, she decided to make one specifically on her veteran uncle. She not only was able to put a book together, but she visited Robert Miller Leety’s grave in France, at an American Cemetery, to pay her respects.

Discovering the old photos of her family members inspired her to try out ancestry.com and utilize the free one-month offer to start a family tree.

“Two generations before me had started a skeleton of the family tree, so I had something to start with and put in,” Ms Stevens explained.

In addition to that, her aunt on her father’s side gave her a late-1800s photo album that had more than half of the people labeled.

“All of a sudden, there’s a face and a name, and it just took off from there,” she said. “Then I was obsessed with identifying old photos, and I created a family e-mail, like a newsletter, [sent] three to four times a year with the updates, stories, and discoveries.”

John Miller

One of the first ancestors that Ms Stevens dived into learning about was her paternal great-great-grandfather, John Miller.

Even though she has not located his birth certificate, she believes, based on the information she has found, that he was born August 15, 1824, and immigrated to America from Alsace, France, an area that alternated being a French and German territory.

After taking an online introductory to genealogy course with Boston University in January 2018, Ms Stevens learned how to use the Civil War Pension Files as a resource.

“Once you go in the files, you never know what you are going to get,” she said. “Of course, it is not an easy name to research, because everyone who came from Germany was named John Miller, and they named their son John Miller, and so it goes.”

What Ms Stevens found was church records on John Miller’s marriage to Anna Margaretha Stotz (named Anna Margretta Stotz on her gravestone), which helped her identify John Miller’s wife’s sister, Catherine “Anna” Stotz (later known in files as Mrs George Creed).

John Miller went on to have eight children, work as a laborer making chairs, and enlist in the United States military when he was in his 40s.

Through using newspapers.com, Ms Stevens also was able to uncover that John Miller was a member of Post 128 in the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR), a group she had no idea existed until she began reading articles looking for information on her ancestors.

“[GAR] started after the Civil War for the men that survived and witnessed a very different, horrific kind of war and became brothers on the battlefield…” Ms Stevens said of the United States veterans’ organization.

The goals of the GAR were to honor fraternity, loyalty, and charity. Once its members died out, though, the group ceased to exist.

By looking through GAR meeting reports, Ms Stevens was able to dispel a longstanding family myth that was passed down generations.

Growing up, she was told that shortly after the Civil War, John Miller was kicked by a horse and died. The GAR coverage confirmed that he did die from being kicked by a horse, in Allegheny City (now Pittsburgh), but it was not until September 16, 1895 — 30 years after the war.

Ms Stevens also found that in John Miller’s later years, when he was unable to work, he became destitute and lived with his children.

“The pension file says in the affidavits, ‘We have no money; we have no property; we are dependent on our children for our survival,’” Ms Stevens recalled.

Despite undergoing these circumstances, his life was just the first step in the family’s line of working hard and achieving the American Dream — a subject Ms Stevens is very familiar with from her days teaching students about it in school.

“John and Margaretha set the foundation. They came to America for a better life, and they loved America,” Ms Stevens said.

By following the archived information, it appears their children went on to have successful lives, and their first grandchild even attended college at Penn State.

Looking to pay respects to John Miller, Ms Stevens used findagrave.com to locate where he was buried.

After learning he was buried in a cemetery in Pittsburgh, Penn., she drove there in July 2018 and met with cemetery volunteer George McKee. He helped her find the Miller family headstone, which she discovered had no marker indicating John was a Civil War veteran.

“There was no flag by his grave; that was very sad for me,” Ms Stevens said.

She ordered the proper holder and flag, then had it sent to her son, Eric Hersom, who coincidentally lives in Pittsburgh.

When the materials came in, Ms Stevens and her son became part of their ancestor’s story by honoring and remembering him in a tangible way.

Ms Stevens explained, “John Miller’s three-times great-grandson [Eric Hersom] went to the cemetery and put the flag on his great-great-great-grandfather’s grave.”

Joseph Mercill

Since Ms Stevens began researching her family tree, she has discovered nearly three dozen men, connected to both sides of her family, who fought for the Union during the Civil War; one of whom is her second great-uncle, Joseph Mercill, from her father’s maternal side of the family.

Born on May 3, 1836 in Ontario, Canada, Joseph died February 27, 1863, in Nashville, Tenn., where he was serving in the military.

“According to the letters [in his Civil War Pension File], he volunteered because he felt he was going to be drafted,” Ms Stevens said. “If you volunteered, you’d get a less dangerous assignment.”

It is believed that after traveling through icy rivers, Joseph Mercill caught a cold that turned into pneumonia and died before he could get home.

However, in the files Ms Stevens found, it shows the military originally wrote that his death was caused by “pulmonary tuberculosis,” a preexisting condition.

Though Joseph was unmarried, he provided for his family back home in Canada, who depended on him to send money. Upon his death, Joseph’s mother was denied his pension because the military claimed that his death was unrelated to his military service.

She wrote for justice on behalf of her son, citing his many handwritten letters to home where he wrote, “I am well.”

Joseph’s mother even recruited more people to write affidavits that were later chronicled in his Civil War Pension Files.

Her diligence paid off, and she eventually received his pension for the rest of her life.

Unfortunately, Ms Stevens said, “I have no idea where he is buried. That’s a project for another day.”

Gotlieb Luty

With the many twists and turns of genealogy research, Ms Stevens has uncovered some surprising stories, one involving her second cousin, three times removed, Gotlieb Luty of Emsworth.

After enlisting in the military at the age of 18 and serving in the Civil War, he received the Congressional Medal of Honor for his bravery around 1863.

“He goes to Gettysburg… gets shot in the leg, shot in the mouth — the bullet goes through the jaw. He survives that, but they don’t send him home because his three years aren’t up,” Ms Stevens said.

Instead, after his war trauma, Gotlieb is sent to Washington, DC, where veterans who can no longer fight can work during their enlistment, but he is honorably discharged after being unable to do the tasks.

Gotlieb overcomes his adversities and goes on to have six children, become a machinist, and even grows a beard to skillfully hide the scar on his face.

“All of a sudden, when I get to his death certificate — he got run over by a train,” Ms Stevens said, with shock in her voice.

On July 12, 1904, at the age of 61, Gotlieb Luty (mislabeled in the newspaper as “Gelbert Luty”) lost his footing while boarding a train and was killed.

“Railroads were really very dangerous,” Ms Stevens said. The article Gotlieb’s death was featured in also had an account of another local person killed from a train accident.

As sad as it was that his life ended so abruptly, Ms Stevens said his story was not over then, because in an article she found from 1954, it said a relative discovered Gotlieb’s Congressional Medal of Honor in an attic. The finding allowed for his grave marker to be changed and finally honor him for his military service, as he deserved.

Additional Resources

Throughout the genealogy process, Ms Stevens has discovered a number of resources in addition to ancestry.com, newspapers.com, findagrave.com, and the Civil War Pension Files.

She has also utilized the 1890 Veterans Census File (since the 1980 Veterans Census File was destroyed in a fire); the Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall & Museum, where John Miller’s name is located on the plaque honoring the 204th Regiment Pennsylvania Volunteers, Company A, 5th Heavy Artillery; and fold3.com, a paid subscription service through Ancestry.

“Fold3 provides access to military records, like the Civil War pension file index, that gives the application and file numbers that the researcher needs in order to find the pension files at the National Archives,” Ms Stevens explained.

To date, she has been to the National Archives in Washington, DC, three times and is planning a fourth trip this May.

“You never know what you are going to find in them and every time you look, even at the same file, you’re ready for a different clue,” Ms Stevens said.

Since acquiring all the information on her ancestors, she has created slideshows through Microsoft PowerPoint and converted them to PDFs to help share the stories and photos with her family.

“I think it is important to shine a light on the people who served our country and who have been forgotten in a sense…” Ms Stevens said. “There were men and women who served in these wars that are part of who we are and deserved to be honored.”

If you are a Newtown resident that has used a genealogy site to discover your family (or pet’s) ancestry and would like to be featured in this series, contact Alissa Silber at alissa@thebee.com or 203-426-3141.

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