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First Person: Charting a family's impact

As we study our large extended family, we understand a region's story

Saturday, July 31, 1999

By Mark A. Miner

The daily flow of traffic past her house never failed to perplex my great-grandmother, Armena (Cain) Miner-Marshall, of Washington, Pa. One day she turned to her daughter and asked, "Where do all these people come from?" to which came the chuckling reply, "Well, Mom, I think you and Dad had something to do with it."

  Mark A. Miner has been president of the Minerd-Miner-Minor Reunion since 1995. He lives in Beaver. 

When Great-Grandma died in 1972, at age 90, she and her first husband, Harry Orlan Miner, had produced seven children, 34 grandchildren and 77 great-grandchildren. Today, their offspring have mushroomed into hundreds.

As the older relatives pass away, the rest of us are losing touch with each other. The youngest may not even be aware that my great-grandparents existed. As someone who prided herself on keeping track of all her "grandbabies," Great-Grandma would be greatly dismayed.

Even more staggering is the size of Great-Grandpa's group of extended aunts, uncles and cousins. His kin have lived in Western Pennsylvania for some eight to 10 generations, spanning two centuries. We trace back to 1791, when pioneers Jacob and Maria (Nein) Minerd settled on the Fayette-Somerset county border. The pioneers had 12 children and at least 67 grandchildren, 310 great-grandchildren and 790 great-great grandchildren (of whom Great-Grandpa was one), virtually all born before 1900.

There's no way that great-grandpa could have known every cousin of his era. Speaking at our clan's first reunion in 1913, one family historian admitted that the enormous size was "a task for the living generation to enumerate."

During the 20th century, the family grew geometrically. I started counting in 1990, and found 2,500 names, past and present. As word spread, and relatives contributed their own research, the numbers swelled. By 1995 we knew of 8,000. Today, we know of an astonishing 12,300, with thousands more waiting to be discovered.

Under 1 percent carry some form of the family name. The rest go by a thousand others, reflecting that in each generation, women marry and change their name. As a result, most cousins don't know they belong to our family.

We hold a reunion every July for the family at large. Each event has a different theme, which is researched deeply. As a critical mass of cousins have been identified, our reunion is becoming more than a social event. It's evolving into a national clearinghouse for networking, information and research.

In the process, we've become fascinated with how a family like ours can have a massive impact on society, over multiple generations, through its collective work.

Together, we've found thousands of newspaper obituaries, censuses, books, court records, letters and photographs. We've tapped memories and used the Internet to learn who's who, how everyone fits and the work each has done.

In essence, the project has evolved from genealogy to a hybrid of biography, sociology and anthropology - a study of how our clan has interacted with and influenced its community. This sum of this knowledge has turned into an archive, where everyone's contribution counts.

Individually, our relatives include an actor who's made films with some of Hollywood's top stars, a writer whose prize-winning fiction has been published nationally, and a Major League Baseball pitcher.

Collectively, the clan has turned out thousands of lesser-known men and women who've made their own mark in education, military service, railroading, farming, manufacturing, the professions and business, symbolizing the muscle that built our region. Cousins have married into families or adopted children of virtually all races and faiths, and collectively serve as a microcosm for our region's diverse society.

At least 330 cousins have labored in coal, coke and steel, amid the building of empires by Andrew Carnegie and Henry Clay Frick. We honored these workers at our reunion this year. Unlike previous gatherings, which focused on education and the military, this subject delved deeper - into the identity and heritage of Western Pennsylvanians.

These cousins have toiled thousands of man-years, and their products have been used to build our nation's great landmarks: Brooklyn Bridge, Empire State Building, Panama Canal and Pennsylvania Railroad.

At least 14 relatives were killed in coal, coke and steel accidents between 1884 and 1941. While gruesome, the upshot is that none has been killed since then, thanks to improved safety measures.

While fewer cousins work in these areas today, reflecting the decline of employment in heavy industry, some will help make steel for the new Pirates and Steelers stadiums and the Lawrence Convention Center expansion.

To record cousins' work for posterity, we published a reunion booklet packed with photos and hundreds of career entries. The data yielded insights about how these industries have provided:

Long-term employment, in some branches over five consecutive generations

Opportunities for industry leadership. Cousins have served as a chief mine inspector of H.C. Frick Coke Co., a leading coal property broker and the president of coal mining institutes.

Opportunities to export talent. Cousins mined ore in Siberia; removed the first slope mine coal in parts of Kansas; and were among the first to use electric coal digging equipment in Eastern Ohio.

An environment in which offspring could pursue alternative careers. Laborers' descendants included a top engineer in the Apollo rocket program and the director of community development for a county near Washington, D.C.

Great-Grandma did not think in such terms. If she knew the vastness of the clan she married into, and what she herself had begotten, she'd shake her head and proclaim that the world had gotten too big.

As we enter a new century, we want to continue building what we hope is a meaningful reunion and repository of information. Our goal is to shed more light on the work force and culture of the region through thousands of related lives.

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