My Daniel Webster(s)

Shakespeare wrote, “What’s past is prologue.” The past is also what we take for granted. Maybe that’s why history is often so unexplored and overlooked, even when it’s your own family history.

My first child was born in 1986 and named for my maternal grandfather, a Louisianian and a veteran of the two World Wars, Daniel Webster Spurlock.

We lived in Atlanta then, and I didn’t really know much about the historical Daniel Webster, just that he was not the guy who wrote the dictionary (that was Noah Webster), so when we decided what to christen our son, we looked him up in the Encyclopedia Britannica set that we had purchased from a door-to-door salesman. We were just starting our family and it seemed, at the time, that having the world’s knowledge compressed onto a couple of bookshelves would be a lifelong asset (and we still possess the whole set, plus annual updates through 1989).

We learned that Webster was an agrarian during the onset of the Industrial Revolution and was “pro-choice” for states on the issue of slavery, back when the tide was turning on that formative issue for our country. Not exactly the heroic figure we’d imagined, but my grandfather bore his name and gave it to his first son (my uncle) who gave it to his eldest son as well. It felt a bit like stealing a tradition to offer it to my son, but I admired my grandfather a great deal so we did anyway.

When we moved to New Hampshire, I was genuinely surprised to see the name Daniel Webster on so many things and places. We took family photos in front of  the Daniel Webster Motor Lodge in Boscawen (now closed) holding our smiling toddler high to emphasize the point. And, of course, we took plenty of shots of the little guy in front of the Statehouse, where the statue of his namesake stands guard.

My youngest daughter is visiting us now from her home in Jackson, Mississippi, to be on hand when her big sister gives birth to our second grandchild any day now. Such life events create a desire for some family context, and she just asked me about my mom who died while she was too young to remember much. Fortunately, I had asked my mom to write down some family memories and I had saved them, so we were able to read her reminiscences of childhood and of her beloved father, known to associates as D.W. Spurlock.

That my daughter is in her late 20s and only now seeking out facts about her family history seemed fairly typical of youth, but then I realized something. It was just a few weeks ago, while editing this month’s feature story on Daniel Webster, that I finally investigated something that had puzzled me for years: Why was my grandfather, a Southerner from Texas and Louisiana, named after a New England lawyer and senator?

I’d contacted my cousin, Daniel Webster Spurlock the third, to inquire. Surely he would know as the official torchbearer for the family moniker.

Fortunately, as it turns out, he had asked his dad that question. Here’s what he learned: “When our grandfather Daniel Spurlock enlisted in the army for WWI, they asked for his first, middle and last names. He said, ‘I don’t have a middle name.’  They responded, ‘Give us one!’ so he said ‘Uh, Webster.’ I guess it just sounded good.”

So, back in 1914, Daniel Webster was still enough of a household name to pop into the mind of a young Southerner, signing up for the Great War, as one he would like to take with him into battle. It was not the answer I’d have guessed, but, like so much of history, you never really know until you inquire.

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