Shirt-tail cousins and El Paso, Illinois

About 40 years ago I made contact with a Growden cousin in New Orleans, USA, who was also interested in family history, and we corresponded  fairly regularly until she died in 1993. She wrote to people with the Growden or Growdon surname all over the world, and one of them was my uncle Stanley Growdon, who told me about her.

Louise Deragowski with her great grand-niece Kristin Marie Siegrist (now Kristin Hammock) , Christmas 1981.

Louise Deragowski with her great grand-niece Kristin Marie Siegrist (now Kristin Hammock) , Christmas 1981.

She was Monica Louise Deragowski, born Growden, and eventually, after some research, we found out that we were 4th cousins, and though she died more than 20 years ago, I’m still in touch with some of her nephews and nieces in Louisiana and Texas (she had no children of her own).

In our correspondence she sometimes used expressions that were unfamiliar to me. One that she repeated several times, that she had heard from someone else, was that in their native Cornwall the Growden families “lived so close that they traded roosters”. I should have asked my mother about that — she was a Growdon, and had at one time kept a poultry farm, and even went on a poultry management course at Potchefstroom University. But I forgot to ask her, and now it’s too late.

One of the other expressions Louise Deragowski used was “shirt-tail cousin”. In one of her letters she mentioned speaking to such a cousin. I’d only just made contact with her, and was a bit too shy to ask. But I’ve wondered on and off what it meant, and whether I have any cousins that I could speak of as “shirt-0tail cousins”

At one point an English usage forum in the Internet was discussing cousins, and I thought that might be the place to ask, so I did. One of the American participants said he had no knowledge of the term and said it must be South African. I said Louise Deragowski lived in New Orleans and was from El Paso, Illinois, and had never been to South Africa in her life. I thought that someone from those two dialect areas might be able to explain the expression. But the same participant then accused me of inventing a place with a Spanish name in Illinois, so I’ve given up that as a source for learning anything about English usage. Like many other Internet forums, it seems to be increasingly populated with people spoiling for a fight, and I’m not really any the wiser about the meaning of “shirt-tail cousi9n”.

But that has now set me off wondering a bit about El Paso, Illinois.

Louise Deragowski was born there, and it was her mother’s side of the family who lived there. Her mother, Izetta Louise Porter, was born there in 1890, and she somehow met Arthur Franklin (Frank) Growden, who was born in Franklin Country, Tennessee, in 1887. So perhaps Tennessee is another place one can look to for the origin and meaning of “shirt-tail cousin”. I also wonder whether he was named after the place he was born in. But I doubt that that had much influence on Louise Deragowski’s family, as her father and mother did not get along, and he left them during the First World War, so she never knew him when growing up, and only made contact with him again as an adult. After Frank and Izetta split up he married Flora Myers Butler and went back to Tennessee.

And then at some point Izetta Louise Growden and her children moved from El Paso, Illinois to New Orleans, Louisiana (why?), where most of that branch of the family still live, except for some who moved to Texas after hurricane Katrina (I think).

Louise Deragowski’s grandfather, Arthur Matthew Growden, was born in Dunedin, New Zealand in 1861. He went to America to study at the Sewanee Institute in Tennessee. Afterwards became a travelling preacher and evangelist. He went to be a missionary in Papua and Samoa in about 1910, and returned to Tennessee for the last year of his life. His grandson Jim Growden (Louise Deragowski’s half brother) is a Baptist minister in Tennessee.

Anyway, Louise Deragowski, though she had no children herself, was one who, through her interest in family history, drew and held together several of the far-flung branches of the Growden family. The family scattered from Cornwall, and she linked cousins (with or without shirt-tails) from Alaska to New Zealand, from Australia to South Africa. And having a photo of her taken on Christmas day, I thought Christmas day was a good time to post it.

 

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2 Responses

  1. My mother-in-law Donna is from Illinois; and she remembers something about shirttail cousins. She says it’s like a tagalong, a cousin from another branch of the family that might not be directly related to you, or might be so distant that you are not close blood. I hope that helps, I wish I knew what aunt Louise meant when she said it. I’ll have to add it to the pile of questions to ask her. And thank you for this, it was a lonely surprise to see her smiling face, and my grumpy one.

    • I think Art Growden nailed it when he found this on the web: World Wide Words: Shirttail relative: It’s usually said to refer to somebody who is a relative by marriage or is only distantly related, such as a fourth cousin, or is a family friend with honorary status as a relative. It’s fairly common in the USA and has been since the 1950s or thereabouts.

      That fits with what your mother-in-law said, and also with what Louise wrote in her letter all those years ago. I thought it might mean something like that, but wasn’t sure.

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