Happy Birthday to my Cousin Rachel Carson

Rachel Carson is my cousin and I’m pleased as punch. Today, May 27, is her birthday so I am finally publishing my little tribute to our family connection.

I’ve spent most of my life having little to no information on the family of my great-grandmother, Jane Rice Remley. Her story was a mystery of half-hidden anecdotes and scores of unnamed, but often cited distant cousins. That damn holding back her life story finally broke when I found the obituary of her father and then her mother (her mother’s story is told in part here in this blog post.)

Among the far-flung unknown family members, I found a familiar name – Rachel Carson. Carson was a noted nature writer, ecologist, and perhaps best known as the author of Silent Spring. Carson was born in 1907 in Springdale, Pennsylvania and died in 1964 in Silver Spring Maryland. She’s a beloved figure in Pittsburgh with a popular homestead erected in her hometown as well as the namesake of one of the “three sister” bridges of Pittsburgh’s Allegheny River, alongside Roberto Clemente and Andy Warhol.

Rachel was my great-grandmother’s second cousin; they shared a set of great-grandparents: Robert Carson (1794-1838) and Mary Warden (1790-1868.) Robert and Mary were both born in County Antrim in Northern Ireland. Robert died there, while Mary emigrated to the Pittsburgh region with her adult children.  They had five children who lived to adulthood; John, Robert, Mary, Anne, and James. I found mother Mary living with John and his family in 1850 in the Lower St. Clair area of Pittsburgh (eventually divided from Upper St Clair and eventually absorbed in to the City of Pittsburgh in 1920.)

John was a carpenter. He died while living in the Bellevue community. Robert was a grocer who lived in Allegheny City on Federal Street.  Mary married and moved to the neighborhoods of Allegheny City.

Anne is my direct ancestor. In 1851, she married John Rice and settled into the Hill District. They had five children who lived to adulthood, including John who was my 2 great grandfather. Anne and John lived what seems to be stressful lives with very little money. John was a laborer. I wrote in more detail about this branch of my family here, but suffice to say that they had a traumatic life.

Rachel Carson Family Tree
Rachel Carson at Pennsylvania College for Women. {Rachel Carson Collection, Chatham College, 1926}

James was Rachel’s direct ancestor. He was also a carpenter. His son Robert Warden Carson became a clerk and moved his family to Springdale which is where Rachel and her siblings grew up.

 

Rachel was the youngest of her parents’ three children – her sister Marian and brother Robert were ten and eight years older than her.

Although the Carson’s home had plenty of land, the family had very little money. Their home had no indoor plumbing and no electricity.

Rachel inherited her love of nature from her mother, and the two spent most of Rachel’s early years together outdoors enjoying the flora and fauna on their homestead.

Rachel fused her love of nature with a love of reading. Her preferred literature usually featured animals.

In contract, Rachel’s second cousin and contemporary my great-grandmother, Jane Marie Rice, was born and raised between the Hill District and Allegheny City (now Northside) neighborhoods. She was 17 years older than Rachel. Her family was often living spread out among various relatives and she, too, frequently had no indoor plumbing or electricity. Her father appears to have been absent quite often without any visible means to support his children. Jane’s mother died by suicide in 1907, the year Rachel was born. I have no idea how much schooling Jane received, but I doubt she finished high school.

There is zero indication that my great-grandmother has any contact with any of her Rice/Carson relatives, including Rachel. When I discovered the connection, none of the oldest living members of my family had any information and given Rachel’s prominence, I think it would have been discussed as a source of pride. Several of our shared relatives are scientists. Jane’s son graduated from Carnegie Tech (now CMU.)

That being said, my father has occasionally spoken about his grandmother (Jane) traveling by ‘streetcar and train’ to the East Coast to visit family, typically referencing Atlantic City. He’s also said that she took him everywhere to visits lots of older women cousins that he cannot remember. Is it possible Rachel was among them? Or her sisters?

Rachel adopted her great-nephew, Roger, after his mother’s death at a young age. So legally, he is my 3x cousin 2x removed and his sons are my 4x cousins 1x removed. But biologically (his mother was my 3x cousin 2x removed), Roger is my 4x cousin 1x removed and his sons are my 5x cousins.

When I think about Rachel, my mind goes in several directions of her legacy – science and writing. Several of our mutual cousins have grown up to be scientists and/or work in the sciences. Others, like me, have grown up to write. And then there is her general commitment to exploring the consequences of human actions. That’s perhaps what resonates with me the most.

This will be the summer that I visit the Rachel Carson Homestead in Springdale. Will I read Silent Spring? I’d like to say an enthusiastic yes, but I have a pile of books still to get through. So I’ll do my best! There’s also the Rachel Carson Institute at nearby Chatham University for me to visit (maybe they’ll invite me to give a lecture!). Here are some other Rachel Carson resources.

It would be interesting to flesh out how many other distant cousins I have through this family tie. And then have a big dance and DNA party on the Rachel Carson Bridge when it reopens! Science!

Happy Birthday, Rachel.