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posted: 7/21/2012 5:30 AM

Forest Lake woman finds famous relatives, including Stephen Douglas

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  • Iona Mathis, 91, of Forest Lake holds a picture of distant relative Stephen A. Douglas with Abraham Lincoln.

      Iona Mathis, 91, of Forest Lake holds a picture of distant relative Stephen A. Douglas with Abraham Lincoln.

  • Forest Lake resident Iona Mathis lays out pictures of relatives found during her genealogy research that she's unveiling during a family reunion Saturday. Her most famous relative is Stephen A. Douglas.

       Forest Lake resident Iona Mathis lays out pictures of relatives found during her genealogy research that she's unveiling during a family reunion Saturday. Her most famous relative is Stephen A. Douglas.
    Bob Chwedyk | Staff Photographer

  • Iona Mathis' family tree includes politician Stephen A. Douglas, who lost the presidential election of Abraham Lincoln.

       Iona Mathis' family tree includes politician Stephen A. Douglas, who lost the presidential election of Abraham Lincoln.
    Bob Chwedyk | Staff Photographer

 
By Jennifer Earl
jearl@dailyherald.com

More than 80 relatives of Iona Mathis' are traveling across the country Saturday for a family reunion to learn about their ancestors' claim to fame.

Mathis, a 91-year-old Forest Lake resident, who has been following leads on the whereabouts of her family for more than a quarter of her life, will finally share the findings with the rest of her family.

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"It takes a lot of studying, you have to keep a lot of notes," she said. "It's not easy, but I don't like easy stuff."

On top of Mathis' kitchen table are two brown cardboard boxes filled with paperwork, crinkled black-and-white photographs, photo albums and history books.

Looking at a picture in one of the books, Mathis points out her most famous relative, eighth-generation cousin Stephen A. Douglas. Douglas, nicknamed "the little giant," lost the presidency to Abraham Lincoln in the 1860 presidential election.

She found other famous relatives who played critical roles in American history.

Descendants from the Salem witch trials, John Proctor and Elizabeth Bassett, are Mathis' ninth-generation grandparents. Proctor was hanged in 1693.

"I feel so proud of all of these people," she said.

Mathis' famous bloodline stems from her mother, Flossie Douglas, who was one of 10 children of Ellery Douglas and Hannah Hewitt.

Growing up in rural Illinois, in between listening to ghost stories and jokes, Mathis started to ask about her family history.

But it took more than 60 years for Mathis to find answers to some of her questions. Reconnecting with old family members, including her mother's sister, Zurah Douglas, Mathis was able to identify pictures and make a family tree.

Mathis is also a frequent visitor of the Ela Area Public Library in Lake Zurich.

Reference librarian Carol Bartlett, who specializes in genealogy, has helped people research their family history for 12 years, using four genealogy databases, an online genealogy center and pedigree charts.

"It's addictive. It's like eating a peanut -- you can't eat just one, you got to keep going," Bartlett said.

Mathis said knowing your family roots is critical, and she's excited to share her research with her relatives. She hopes to someday pass on the original documents and photographs to her family members.

She has shared some copies with museums in New York and Illinois.

One 150-year-old photograph she found of her second uncle, Hezekiah Brink, the first settler in Sterling, Ill., hangs in the Sterling-Rock Falls Historical Society Museum.

Terence Buckaloo, director and museum curator, who compared and identified the pictures, said he could tell Mathis had done her research.

"We didn't tell her much of anything she didn't already know," he said. "You can tell she puts a lot of effort into this."

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