Families are always rising and falling in America.
– Nathanial Hawthorne
On paper at least, my family, the Travers Family, is “old money.” We are a family of means, not aristocratic, but of rugged English stock mixed with Prussian, Austrian, Celtic and other. Affluent, for sure. Land owners. People of some high standing in America. Part East Coast, part West Coast. For the most part, Republican, but we have our liberals. Mostly Christian, but there are some atheists, too. Mostly white, but members of my family have married African-Americans and Pacific Islanders, and some of their off-spring are among our most promising in the 21st Century.
Liberals for the most part look at our family and assume we are rich, conservative, hoard our money, are likely racist, and have had everything handed to us. They assume that because members of our family were successful in the 19th Century we just kept being successful in the 20th. Because we helped found San Francisco, they assume we pretty much own it today; that this has been a continuation over the past two centuries unheeded by outside forces, a kind of manifest family destiny handed down unfairly from generation to generation.
They are wrong.
For instance, I had an uncle who passed away in 2005. I do not know his worth at that time. I have heard rumors that he left $50 million to the University of California, Berkeley, and his heirs now “own” the head coach to the tune of $7.5. Just read Justin Wilcox’s biography at CalBears.com. His title is literally Travers Family Head Football Coach. Therefore it might be assumed I scraped a few million here and there from all this generosity.
They are wrong. I think I saw nine grand.
So let us go back to the Big Inning, as us old ball players like to say. I have done some genealogical studies and I know the Travers Family is from England. We have a family crest somewhere. But the first members of my family to set foot on American shores were the Stevens’s around 1630, which is practically riding the tail winds of the Mayflower. They seem to have prospered and lived in Massachusetts.
But in 1984 I went to buy USC-Ohio State Rose Bowl tickets from a woman in Los Angeles named Bea Travers, a retired professor at my alma mater, the University of Southern California. I did not think much of it at the time except she had a portrait of her deceased husband hanging on the wall.
He was a tall, handsome, blonde admiral in the U.S. Navy. An Annapolis man. He looked just like my father and I. Professor Travers had far more Travers family history at her disposal than I did at the time, and connected the dots between her admiral husband with both my father and uncle.
Apparently, at some point some of the Travers Family split Massachusetts and moved to New York, where they founded the Travers Stakes horse race still held in Saratoga. The Stevens Family and the Travers Family married, I think in colonial America. Members of our family did fight in the Revolutionary War.
So far, so good. We seemed to be prospering, or rising, in America.
Then in 1850, some members of the Travers clan, for whatever reason, joined up with some other intrepid Americans and on covered wagons ventured to the brand new state of California. I know they went overland because my great-grandfather was born at Fresno Crossing in 1850. I was able to verify this at Ancestry.com.
If they had come by ship they likely would have stayed in San Francisco. Fresno Crossing is the gold country in the foothills on the sloping westward side of the Sierra Mountains. This says something else about my family. While apparently some of us were doing quite well, and had a horse race named after them, others were desperate or poor or ambitious or crazy enough to risk everything – if they had anything to risk – to come west for the Gold Rush. My people!
I have no record of us discovering any gold in them thar hills, and soon they moved to San Francisco. Coming from a family that crossed the country by covered wagon and struck out in the gold country, I have no reason to believe they arrived in San Francisco with any sort of promissory note, or any large amount of money, or any real prospects. Maybe somebody knew somebody offering work, or who had some land they could stay on; I do not know. But as best I can tell they had no advantages because somebody named Travers ran a horse race in New York, or somebody named Stevens or Travers had some standing in Massachusetts. They had fought against the British, but so had a lot of people. This afforded no advantage in California whatsoever.
Many would say their biggest advantage was they were white. Maybe so, but I feel pretty confident in saying our biggest advantage was we were smart and willing to work our asses off. That said, so were many blacks, some of whom were still slaves. Our white skin undoubtedly gave us the edge over them, if indeed any of them were “competition” in any way, shape or form.
Did Jason Edgerly win the Civil War?
But from here on out I can write confidently of what we were all about. These are my relatively recent ancestors and I discovered what made them tick. But the California Travers’s were not the only ancestors I learned about. In fact, I discovered a rare, little known piece of American history. It is possible that a member of my family more or less won the Civil War. How could this be, and how could this bit of arcana still be hidden?
This story begins with the 1860 Presidential election. A Massachusetts man named Edgerly, related to the Travers-Stevens clan, was prosperous and important enough to be a valuable supporter of Republican Presidential nominee Abraham Lincoln. The Edgerly’s were Christian Abolitionists. None of my ancestors ever owned slaves or even lived – or visited? – a slaveholding state. That is, not until Mr. Edgerly’s son Jason did so in the service of Lincoln. But I digress.
Exactly what Jason did in 1860 I cannot say for sure, but using my imagination I can see him being the Donald Segretti of his day. Donald Segretti did “dirty tricks” for Richard Nixon’s campaign in 1972, such as planting stories that some such Democrat candidate had a child out of wedlock, or more precisely doing what he did as a member of the so-called “USC mafia,” namely to announce a Democrat rally at a time and place; people would show up, no rally. Typical campaign chicanery, very common in that era. Jason was good enough that he caught the attention of Lincoln, who filed his name away as a young fellow who could help him down the road.
Lincoln of course was elected and in 1861 the Civil War started. Young Jason Edgerly joined the Massachusetts 101st Infantry, presumably as an enlisted man. Back at the White House, Lincoln was hearing all kinds of disturbing reports. Aside from Union forces being rebuffed at Bull Run, Antietam and other battles, Washington is practically a Southern city surrounded by Southern states. Virginia was the capitol of the Confederacy. Maryland harbored Southern sympathies. There were constant threats of attack, of General Robert E. Lee laying siege to the capitol, of assassination plots and various acts of espionage on the part of the South.
Lincoln brought in a man named Allan Pinkerton to start the Secret Service. He had ties in Chicago, which of course is in Illinois, Lincoln’s home state. This will tie in to the Edgerly story later. At some point Lincoln sent word to Jason Edgerly of the 101st Massachusetts Infantry to report to him at 1900 Pennsylvania Avenue.
Whether Edgerly met Frederick Douglass there I can only speculate. I have heard he did, but it is not verified. He did meet Lincoln and Pinkerton, who gave him a mission. That mission was to ride out on horse back to the surrounding countryside of Virginia and Maryland; track Confederate troop movements; go to bars and listen for loose talk about assassinations, coups, and treachery; and generally keep his ear to the ground, personally reporting on what he found out to Lincoln himself.
In the course of doing this, our Mr. Edgerly found himself in Virginia, where he saw the Army of Northern Virginia encamped. Somehow, some way, Jason Edgerly snuck into the tent of General Lee and stole battle plans for an attack at a place called Willow Springs, Virginia.
Willow Springs is about 40 miles from Washington, near where the Federals had created a defensive line that needed to be broken if any kind of attack or siege on the capitol could be executed. Edgerly immediately absconded with the plans, escaped, and delivered them to Lincoln. Lee saw that his plans had been stolen and scuttled his attack at Willow Springs.
What does this mean? Well, the first order of business is to understand why Lee planned to attack Union troops at Willow Springs, apparently not guarded heavily. Lee, and the Confederates, had no plans to “win” the Civil War. After victories, or at least infliction of heavy casualties, at First Mananas and Antietam, the fantasy of a Southern takeover may have seemed imaginable, but Lee and Jefferson Davis were realistic enough to realize they could not “conquer,” and then hold as an invading army, the northern United States, not to mention the West.
Their goal, not unlike the Japanese during World War II, was to inflict heavy casualties on the North, to lay siege to Washington (and therefore surround a paranoid Lincoln, convinced of treachery behind every tree), forcing political pressure to bear on the new President, leading him to end the war on terms favorable to the Confederacy (continued slavery, secession, without economic sanctions or blockades).
Unable to directly attack D.C. because of the intrepid Mr. Edgerly, what did General Lee do? Well, he marched his army north, looking, probing for a place where Washington might be vulnerable to attack. He remained some 40 miles west of the capitol. To his east, close to the capitol, was General George Meade’s Army of the Potomac. In between were inveterate scouts and spies, reporting to each side the number of troops in opposition, where they were, and the like.
After a time, Lee’s army was due north, no longer in easy striking distance of Washington (such as Willow Springs had once been, before Edgerly discovered it). You begin to see where this is going. Edgerly’s espionage forced Lee to Gettysburg instead of his more desired attack point. The rest is history.
Forced to fight on unfavorable ground (thanks to the 20th Maine holding at Little Round Top), General Lee lost at Gettysburg. That was the turning point of the war. Two years later the Union won. There were many heroes at Gettysburg, but Jason Edgerly was a forgotten one, not given the recognition he deserved. He is largely unknown by history, although the New York Times did run his obituary in 1931. He was referred to as “the Flea,” a term given him by President Lincoln himself. He is also mentioned in Gore Vidal’s Lincoln and in a book called Lincoln Talks. I find it noteworthy that he died in Chicago, where the Pinkerton Agency originally began. What he did there I cannot say, but I can speculate that he had a patronage job in the “Land of Lincoln” based on his meritorious service as a spy.
San Francisco, open your Golden Gate
I am sorry to say I have little knowledge of my relatives on the East Coast after Edgerly, other than involvement in the Travers Stakes, and Bea Travers’s husband becoming an admiral. So, back to my great-grandfather, born at Fresno Crossing in 1850. One can assume logically that our family made its way to San Francisco with hope but not much else, so at this point, roughly the time of the Civil War, on the West Coast we gained no advantage from whatever the Travers, Stevens or Edgerly clans had once been on the East Coast.
So we started over again. My great-grandfather married and had two boys, Reginald and Charles Stevens Travers (my grandfather, middle named after the Stevens Family). My great-grandfather became an attorney and an officer in the California militia, a wing of the U.S. Army. He prospered.
So did his sons. Reginald became a famous Shakespearean actor, appearing on Broadway and in Europe, eventually helping to found The Mountain Play, a popular event held each summer in Marin County, north of San Francisco.
His younger brother Charles, born in 1880, became a journalist covering the San Francisco Earthquake of 1906, and a businessman, running a successful print company. He married a woman named Estelle Josue, daughter of a strict Prussian military man. Living in San Francisco, they had three children (Charles, Dorothy, and my father Donald, whose middle name was Edgerly in honor of “the Flea”).
So at this point it looks like the Travers Family is just rolling along. It is the Roaring ‘20s, and money was just pouring in, right? Well, not so fast, Johnson. First, my grandparents divorced, leaving my grandmother to raise three kids on her own. At first my grandfather supported them, but then two things hit at once.
My grandfather the writer decided his brother the actor should move to Hollywood and become a movie star. He would write screenplays for Reginald just as the new technology knows as “talkies” hit the industry. Unfortunately, all this happened just as the Great Depression started.
Now it is 1930. My Uncle Charles started at the University of California, where he entered on an ROTC scholarship because he could not afford the $29 tuition. My Aunt Dorothy married to a Cal man named William Friedrichs. Their son Bill earned an MBA from Stanford and was a pillar of his community. But my dad was only 12.
“Families are always rising and falling in America,” wrote Nathaniel Hawthorne. The Travers-Stevens-Edgerly Family had apparently fallen around the time of the Gold Rush, only to rally back in early 20th Century San Francisco, but by 1929-30, they were falling, as in big time.
My dad and grandmother lived in a little apartment in San Francisco. She had no income. Her divorced husband first failed to land screenwriting work for he and his actor brother Reginald in Hollywood. Then he started a newsletter called Out ‘n’ About in Hollywood, but that was no smash hit, either.
It was so bad that the “welcome wagon” would come by the apartment to deliver free food to my destitute family. This was the 1930s version of Meals on Wheels. My father was so embarrassed he vowed, like Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind, to never take charity again.
If indeed such a thing as “white privilege” or any other kind of “privilege” existed at that time, which it did not, it certainly was not offered to my family. We had less than zero money. We were at the bottom of the barrel, practically homeless, living off charity. There were no government programs, no nothin’.
Looking back from the perch of 2022, it is almost impossible to believe where the Travers’s are now compared to where we were then. Again, we are not where we are now because of “white privilege” or government handouts. Neither was available to us. We are where we are because of honest hard work and brains, pure and simple.
My grandfather returned to San Francisco after an unsuccessful decade in Los Angeles with his tale between his legs, like so many before and after having failed in Hollywood, but he landed a position as editor of a veterinarian’s magazine. By the time I knew him he was the distinguished president of the San Francisco Press Club downtown.
My uncle graduated from Cal and was made an officer in the U.S. Army. He served in the active service through World War II, and after the war went to work for Utah Construction in San Francisco. He was one of the early proponents of the use of landfill, which was used all over San Francisco Bay; the Marina district, Alameda, Candlestick Park, Marin County, et al. Frustrated with the politics and bureaucracy of the development business, he decided to run for California Assembly in 1952.
Early on he was approached by a man who told him he could not win the Republican nomination.
“Why not?” asked Uncle Charles.
“Because I was chief of staff to General Douglas MacArthur during the war and he’s gonna come out here to campaign for me. Nobody’s gonna beat me.”
“What’s your name?” inquired my uncle.
“Caspar Weinberger,” the man replied. Weinberger told my uncle if he would not challenge him in the primary he would introduce him to every Republican in California who counted, and he would have friends who could help his business. My uncle agreed and over the next decades became a member of Ronald Reagan’s “kitchen cabinet,” a close advisor to Richard Nixon, to Senator William Knowland, and of course to Weinberger, who became his best friend as well as Secretary of Defense when Reagan won the Cold War in the 1980s.
Aside from being one of the most powerful and politically connected men in the state, as mentioned Charles Travers became one of the leading boosters at the University of California, and a mega-millionaire.
There is zero evidence that he attained this wealth – from $0 in 1930 to multiple millions in the 2000s – through chicanery or dishonesty. It was not ill gotten. He cheated nobody, earned everything honestly. He made smart decisions, invested wisely, lived within his means, ran his company well, and benefited not one iota from “white privilege”; or because he was white, or for any reason other than he worked hard and was in the right country at the right time, post-war America.
My father made it through high school without a dime but somehow got into the University of California, where he was an athlete, but after a couple of years he had to drop out to earn a living. He returned to Cal and graduated in 1944. His first move was to enlist in the Navy. He was made an officer and saw considerable combat in the South Pacific, survived, and returned to San Francisco, where he earned a teacher’s credential and a law degree on the G.I. Bill. After a successful career as a high school track and cross-country coach, he passed the bar and became an attorney.
He asked his brother to help him get a job at Caspar Weinberger’s law firm, but for reasons my father never understood, his brother did not help him. My dad stayed in the Naval Reserves and taught business law at City College of San Francisco, slowly building a successful law practice.
He married my mom, a nurse assigned to a U.S. Army Air Corps hospital during World War II, where she saw as much combat as my dad in the form of Nazi “buzz bombs.” By the time I came along, our little family was prospering, which was certainly a long way from destitution during the Great Depression. As with my uncle, my father achieved success through education, hard work, and I can vouch for him: he was the world’s most honest lawyer. I knew many of his clients who questioned why he never raised his rates. “White privilege” had no role in my dad’s success, either. In fact he coached the first integrated prep track teams in San Francisco, and was beloved by all his athletes, of all colors and persuasions. Capitalism, as with his brother, was his ally.
I had a fine childhood and was an excellent baseball player. I earned a scholarship to play in college, where I was all-conference and set school pitching records. I played several years in the St. Louis Cardinals and Oakland A’s organizations before finishing up college with a degree at the University of Southern California.
I worked on Wall Street and then entered law school through the Army JAG program. I became a “golden boy” in Orange County GOP politics, associating with the likes of President Reagan, Governor George Duekmejian, Senator John Seymour, and other heavyweights, who planned to run me for U.S. Congress in the 52nd Congressional District (Orange County and parts of L.A. County) in 1992. The seat was held by ultra-conservative “B-1 Bob” Dornan, so named because he flew missions in Korea.
Looking forward to the 1990 census, the local Republicans knew the 52nd District would be more Latino and felt Dornan’s hardline stance on immigration might make him vulnerable, so the plan was for him to replace Caspar Weinberger as Secretary of Defense after George H.W. Bush’s 1992 re-election. I would succeed him.
Bush was not re-elected, and I never ran for Congress. A “golden boy” in 1987-88, over the next seven years I failed at every singe thing I tried to do! My marriage? Failed. Lawyer? Failed. Politics? Failed. My uncle, best friends with the owner of the Oakland A’s, refused to help me get hired by the club I once played for. He also refused to help me when I wanted to work for his pal Weinberger and the Reagan Administration. Just as he never helped my dad, there was no explanation.
It got so bad I moved to Europe for a year. I was the Lost Generation. I returned and started a sports agency. The baseball players went on strike. Our one client, a Pittsburgh Pirates outfielder named Al Martin, was not offered the arbitration deal we sought and the agency folded. Jerry Maguire without the happy ending.
I was in my 30s; divorced, broke, no prospects, a daughter I could not support. A loser. But by accident I discovered my second talent after playing baseball, which was writing. I wrote a screenplay which by miracle was bought by a group headed by Frank Capra, Jr. the son of the It’s a Wonderful Life director. That was not made but it led to steady work writing another four or five scripts for Capra in the 1990s. I did not make much but had a little house in Hermosa Beach and got by.
I finally “sold” a script, The Lost Battalion, to a big producer named Edgar Scherick, but was aced out of the deal by agents and litigators. Scherick and his director, James Woods, dropped out of the project, too. I never made a dime off it.
I eventually started covering prep sports for the Los Angeles Times, which lead to lucrative work as a columnist in L.A. then with the San Francisco Examiner. This led to a series of successful books; a Barry Bonds biography, some best-sellers about USC football during the height of the Pete Carroll era.
I paid off my debts and earned an excellent living. None of it was through luck or “white privilege” or from contacts or networking. My rich uncle never lifted his finger for me, other than $9,000 I received in increments of $3,000 each Christmas the last years of his life. Why he never helped my dad or me was never explained. I got along with him. He was a nice man. He seemed to like me, but any success I achieved was not through him, or anybody. I entered fields of endeavor such as professional baseball and writing in which nobody could lift me off the ground other than my talent and desire to work hard, never quit, and always having faith in God above, which I did.
My daughter entered the University of Oregon, but quickly realized that was little more than “hook-up culture’”and left-wing politics at a steep tuition. She made the best decision of her life, which was to study pastry-making at a top culinary academy, learning skills she could use in her professional career.
Today she and her husband own a successful bed-and-breakfast in Vermont. People come from surrounding states for her marvelous cakes and breads. After years bumping heads, through the mediation of her magnificent husband Jason, she and I are closer and love each other more than ever. I visit once a year and take it as an excuse to visit Fenway Park with their new neighbor, Red Sox legend Bill “Spaceman” Lee. Life is good.
I have nobody to apologize too. No black person or Latino person or woman or minority lost an opportunity because I forged mine. America and capitalism were my allies, as they were my father’s, my uncles, and the rest of my family.
We rose and fell and rose and fell and rose and fell over and over again. I rose and fell at least twice in my lifetime. Today I stand on a personal mountain top. God bless America.
Steven Travers is a former Hollywood screenwriter who has authored over 30 books including the brand new Best Sports Writing Ever and Coppola’s Monster Film: The Making of Apocalypse Now (2016). One Night, Two Teams: Alabama vs. USC and the Game That Changed a Nation (2007) is currently under film development. He is a USC graduate and attorney with a Ph.D who taught at USC and attended the UCLA Writers’ Program. He played professional baseball, served in the Army JAG corps in D.C., was in investment banking on Wall Street, worked in politics, lived in Europe, and was a sports agent before finding his calling as a writer. He has written for the San Francisco Examiner, L.A. Times, StreetZebra, Gentry magazine, Newsmax and MichaelSavage.com. He lives in California and has one daughter, Elizabeth. He can be reached at USCSTEVE1@aol.com or on Twitter @STWRITES.