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Mystery of Ellicottville family history solved 170 years later

By Deb Everts

Nearly 170 years after his death, the headstone of little George H. Bryant of Ellicottville now sits alongside that of his parents and siblings in Sugartown Cemetery.

Had it not been for Dawn Westfall, president of the Ellicottville Historical Society, the brief existence of the toddler might have been lost forever.

George’s mysterious headstone came to light about five years ago when Westfall, an experienced genealogist, took the helm at the historical society.

Soon after, town historian Mary Elizabeth Dunbar told her about the grave marker in her garage that was brought to her by a good samaritan some time ago. The inscription clearly reads: “Geo. H. Bryant; Son of Sheldon & Ruth Bryant; Died Nov. 14, 1849; At 2 yrs 8 months.”

According to Westfall, Dunbar told her that she thought somebody found the stone on the side of a hill by a creek on Bryant Hill. When they picked it up and realized it had writing on it, they brought it to the town historian. Dunbar started to research it, but time got away from her and it remained in her garage.

Westfall said to Dunbar, “We need to do something about this.”

Before Westfall began any solid research on George and where his headstone belonged, she continued doing research on an old Victorian album that was part of the museum inventory.

“I was trying to figure out who originally owned the album,” she said. “In the back, I discovered the photo of an older woman named Amanda Beecher who, I concluded, was probably the owner of the album.”

Westfall said she took a break from her computer and went outside to check her mail. When she got to the end of her driveway and started back, it suddenly hit her that Amanda once lived on Sugartown Road.

“When I realized that, I pinpointed her former location on the map. It was kind of a breakthrough for me because I’d been trying to track her down and it’d been hard to figure out what happened to her,” she said. “I found her obituary saying she is buried in Sugartown, too. She just doesn’t have a headstone.”

The pieces of the “headstone puzzle” began to come together when Westfall discovered that Amanda’s maiden name was Bryant and she was little George’s older sister. This inspired her to dig deeper into the family’s history. 

SHE DISCOVERED George’s parents, Sheldon and Ruth Bryant, once lived on Bryant Hill in Ellicottville, but later moved to Great Valley and lived on Sugartown Road. She pinpointed their property and possibly other original family residences along Sugartown Road

“If somebody goes to research the family, it has Sheldon and Ruth and it has the four kids, but it doesn’t include George because he’s been lost,” she said. “Other than the inscription on his headstone, he’s not on any other record, so he’s lucky we found him. Ruth’s obituary says there were five children, but his name wasn’t mentioned. There was no census showing him because he was born in 1847 and died before the 1850 census. The only other place he might possibly be found is a family Bible record, but I’ve found nothing.”

After researching the obituaries of the family members, Westfall concluded that George fits into the family. She said he was likely buried somewhere up on Bryant Hill — maybe in the Bryant Hill Cemetery, but she’s not 100-percent sure. She said the family moved off the hill a few years after George’s death and got farmland on Sugartown Road, so George was kind of forgotten about.

According to paintedhills.org and e-familyhistory.com, Sheldon and Ruth moved to Great Valley in 1852. Westfall said they had four other children, Amanda, Mary, Nancy and Franklin who all lived into adulthood and most are buried Sugartown Cemetery. She said one daughter, Nancy, is buried in the Jefferson Street Cemetery in Ellicottville.

“So, we [Westfall and Dunbar] debated about what to do with George’s stone. Do we take it back up to Bryant Hill? Was it in that cemetery, or was it on their family property?” she said. “We can’t prove that George was ever buried in Bryant Hill.”

According to Westfall, her gut instinct told her to put the headstone in Sugartown Cemetery. Since George’s parents, Sheldon and Ruth, and several of his siblings are buried in that cemetery, it made sense.

“If I had found a cemetery transcription of George’s headstone in Bryant Hill Cemetery confirming that he was buried there I would have put him back there, but I didn’t have anything saying that,” she said. “The fact that there is no record stating that he was buried there made me more comfortable with putting George with the rest of the family. I kind of felt like they [the family] wanted me to put his headstone with the rest of them.” 

Westfall said she was hoping to have the headstone set in the Sugartown Cemetery last year as part of the Town of Great Valley’s Bicentennial Celebration, but she had to first get permission from town supervisor Dan Brown. By the time everything was in place for the stone to be set, it was too late and the work had to be postponed until 2019 Crandall’s Memorial finally set the headstone on June 14.

“I went back to the cemetery that evening to check on the headstone,” she said. “Being sentimental, I picked some wild roses that were in bloom in the back of the cemetery and placed them on George’s grave saying, ‘Here you go. The deed is done.’

“George is finally with his family. I know it’s only a stone because nobody exhumed any bodies, but I feel it was the end of a long-term project that maybe I had some nudging from his deceased family members asking me to get it done for them. Now, when somebody is researching that family, they’ll find George — where he belongs.”

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