Family relic: .41 Colts, patented 1884
My great-grandmother Bertie Olson was a Swede, and all of us Swedes are descended from the Queen of Sweden. I know this for a fact because Mildred Gunkel (née Jenkins), a scion of the line in Coyle Oklahoma (pop. 337), stood on her very own front porch one August afternoon with the dust stirring on the blackjack leaves and told me so.
I was compelled to believe this because, as she informed me, she had a chest dating from about the time of Leviticus which had been handed down from son to son, generation to generation, until it got to her. She was just keeping it until her grandson grew into it. “It’s small,” she said, “about half the size of a cigar box. A little red box, the red chippin off and everything. It's really not very pretty. One leg comes off. But there's not a nail in it." I could take her word for for all of this because the chest was upstairs in the attic at the moment she was speaking, and she told me so herself.
Perhaps its knowing that the purple is already there pumping in my bloodline that makes me so comfortable with the Farmer Principle of Family History which I am just about to spring upon an unsuspecting world. When a man knows he’s descended from the Queen, he doesn’t have to fret about small potatoes like dukes and earls.
The Plowman Principle vs. Coming Over with the Conqueror
When Adam delv'd and Eve span
Who was then the gentleman?
A revolutionary rhyme. John Ball used it in his speech to the rebels in the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 and was later hanged for rousing the rabble. No doubt the couplet's leveling doctrine would get a person hanged in many a genealogical society too, and certainly it would rile many of those who get themselves kinned-up with dukes and kings on genealogical sites, prominently displaying coats of arms. Some of these may have legitimacy, I wouldn’t know, but coats of arms are also for sale and have been for decades--indeed, since “time immemorial.” It’s one of the oldest lines in the buncombe business.
Though professional genealogy has serious functions in forensic medicine and the understanding of inherited disease, at the hobby level it lends itself to the kind of wishful phantasy evident in its origins. Historically, the term “genealogy” often overlapped with “heraldry,” in which the ancestry of nobility was reflected in coats of arms. Modern scholars consider many noble ancestries to be fictions, but the genealogical hobbyist arrives quickly at “the nobility” for the very good reason that most records before the mid-1500s are of the aristocracy. This is true even in England, which as an island un-invaded since the twelfth century has the greatest volume of records from the Middle Ages. Even so, where names from before 1500 have survived, they are of the tiny minority that belonged to a country’s hereditary elite. This fact explains why most people who trace a line back to much before 1600 end up with a coat of arms. The other holders of the name having disappeared, it’d be hard to do otherwise.
As a study, genealogy began with kings hiring scholars to prove that they descended from gods so as to demonstrate the legitimacy of their rule. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle of the ninth century traced the ancestry of several English kings to the god Woden. “Their leaders were two brothers, Hengest and Horsa; who were the sons of Wihtgils; Wihtgils was the son of Witta, Witta of Wecta, Wecta of Woden. From this Woden arose all our royal kindred, and that of the Southumbrians also.” (We’ll run across some of these fairy-tale sets of brothers in the chapters that follow.) Several hundred years later, the Tudor kings from Henry VI to Elizabeth would justify their bloody reigns by having their origins traced back to Brutus of Troy, a legendary descendant of the Trojan hero Aeneas, himself the son of a goddess.
The Good Book supplies some guidelines. The author of the First Epistle to Timothy in the Greek scriptures enjoins us, “Neither give heed to fables and endless genealogies.” Deuteronomy turns this around and commands, “Remember the days of old / Consider the years of many generations.” Do these two injunctions contradict each other? I prefer to see them as complementary, as though the command is to remember the days of old but to pay no heed to genealogies that tell “stretchers.”
I don’t mean to preach. If there is a morality of genealogy, I wouldn’t know what it is. Indeed, I don’t think of myself as a genealogist at all but rather a family historian, and I do know the morality of history, or rather of the historian: he is obligated to tell the truth according to his lights. Genealogy is necessary to history, as a skeleton is to the body, but it is history--the telling of a story-- that puts the flesh on the bones.
Talking to the Queen of Sweden
It is little short of wonderful how in the United States, which originates in a revolt against royalty, equivalent to cutting off the king’s head, the interest in aristocratic antecedents continues to thrive. Even after Mark Twain burlesqued it in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, when Huck and Jim’s quiet life on the raft going down the Mississippi is invaded by the “king” and the “duke,” two rascals of the worse stripe who can only be consoled if Huck and Jim call them by their pretended titles. Even after William Faulkner had John Sartoris lay it out for us:
In the nineteenth century, chortling over genealogy anywhere is poppycock. But particularly so in America, where only what a man takes and keeps has any significance, and where all of us have a common ancestry and the only house from which we can claim descent with any assurance is the Old Bailey.
Even after Stephen Vincent Benet in John Brown's Body assured us that in North America “Thames and all the rivers of the kings / Ran into Mississippi and were drowned.”
To be sure, in my story there are a few detours in which we stop to see how the gentry live. We wouldn’t be democratic if we didn’t. We’ve already bowed to the Queen of Sweden. In Chapter 3 we’ll salute the Lacys in early Virginia, but that’s a small collateral line, hardly more than a hiccup, and I hurry past it because the Lacys are well able to take care of their own. And I fully acknowledge one of the Williamses of North Carolina, a line of educated professionals, some of them having risen to the rank of mayors and such like potentates of regional history, but my tribe is not related to the powerful Williams clans of the planter elite like Joseph Williams, called the Duke of Surry.
In my researches in Granville County North Carolina I wasted a lot of time eliminating Joseph Williams, the "Duke" of Surry County. I wish I had concentrated instead on a figure in my father’s maternal tree who lived in the Duke’s county: David Stidham, born there about 1785, who died in Wise County, Virginia, one of the murder capitals of North America. Fittingly, his grandson William Floyd Stidham, who moved to Lincoln County Oklahoma in 1912, is said to have left eastern Kentucky (close to Wise County VA) with the sheriff not far behind him. Something about a dogfight that left seven men dead. This fact I also know to be true because a second cousin of mine in Chandler Oklahoma has the .41 Colts revolver Great Grandpa Stidham carried with him in Kentucky, and my brother in Tulsa has the .22 “Crackshot” his wife used to keep the squirrels out of her pecan trees and inside her stew pot. We are still trying to locate the old man’s double-barreled twelve-gauge shotgun, but I have no doubt that it too will turn out to be an authentic relic. Surely it’s just a question of taste, but I can’t help preferring shotguns and dogfights to ruffles and lace.
Surely it’s the knowledge of my descent from the Queen of Sweden that makes me comfortable with the Plowman Principle of family history. As I said, when you know you’re descended from the Royal House of Bernadotte, you don’t have to fret about small potatoes like dukes and earls.The rest of my story, the main plot line, is farmers all the way, from the first John Pound raising tobacco in Virginia to my own grandfather raising cotton in central Oklahoma. Because my own father was a farmer (at least until about his 30th year), I have taken John’s occupation to heart, and upon it I’ve constructed what I call “The Plowman Principle” of family history. It states that anyone not a farmer is probably not part of the main plot of my story. This is an eminently plausible theory, considering that down to the end of the nineteenth century 90% of Americans were engaged in agriculture. The cotton economy in central Oklahoma ended with the second world war, and in the book called North of Deep Fork where I tell the Oklahoma phase of the family story, that’s where I stop, 1939 (North of Deep Fork: An Oklahoma Farm Family in Hard Times, 1997; rev. ed. 2011). The book you hold in your hand is its long-delayed prequel.
If much of the genealogical enterprise seems fueled by a craving to attach the researcher to the great and famous, I make no protest against this state of affairs but merely state that such an enterprise does not interest me. “Let us now praise famous men,” says Ecclesiasticus--a beautiful phrase not in the Protestant Bible--but they have been praised so many times, why should I waste my breathe in “vain repetition”? What I want, rather, is to let the forgotten be remembered, if only for a moment, and to find a way to let the forgotten speak. Rather than pull myself up to the height of the great and noble at the risk of offending truth, I am content to wait the universal leveling. In the end, the aristocrats will come down to my level. When the farmer dies, he sleeps with kings and counselors.
It may be a piece of folly to try to make a book out of the lives of the poor--unless, of course, one is a novelist. At the end of his life, Albert Camus was working on a novel that would include a history of his family, the little that he could know of it growing up in a ghetto in Algiers with no father and a mother and grandmother who were illiterate. In his notes to the work-in-progress he speaks of his father, whom he never knew (he died on the battlefields of World War I before his son was born): “The truly poor speak little of the past--they are too obsessively concerned with surviving in the present.” Then he states his motivation as a writer: “What I must do is tear this impoverished family from the destiny of the poor, which is to disappear from history without a trace.”
In the American context, Abraham Lincoln had made the point a century earlier. “It is a great piece of folly to attempt to make anything out of my early life,” he advised someone who wanted to publish a campaign biography in 1860. “It can all be condensed into a single sentence, and that sentence you will find in Gray’s ‘Elegy’: ‘The short and simple annals of the poor.’” Lincoln was a complicated man, and it may be that he was being less than Honest Abe here--but it may also well be that he didn’t know that Thomas Lincoln was not his father. Still, his identifying his history with that of the poor who figure in Thomas Grey’s “Elegy in a Country Churchyard,” seems like a good precedent to invoke here.
It would be vanity for me to say that all my paternal ancestors were poor, but a great number surely were. In pursuing them I have visited many country churchyards, some times finding only smooth fragments of sandstone or a featureless fieldstone, and sometimes not even that.
The Treasure in the Field: Ordinary People
Part of the problem of making a book from the lives of farmers, many of them illiterate or almost so, is that the lack of written documents makes it hard to produce a story, and without narrative to connect events we are reduced to dusty lists. One device I have used is the journey--that is, the story of my search as I traveled from place looking for ancestors. I have written travelogues for the counties I was actually able to drive to and spend some days in the courthouse records, but a third of what follows below was written in a foreign country using books and databases, so the journey has some long stretches in it in which nothing much happens.
Another device, which some family histories have used successfully, is the mystery. An unsolved murder, or a missing fortune, is ideal. I have located a murder, but the perpetrator was known from the outset, and the only mystery is how he put up with his over-bearing wife as long as he did before reaching for the hammer. As for the lost fortune, I am still waiting to hear of it.
The best I can produce on the side of mystery is the three graves that have haunted me for two decades now. The first, that of the Revolutionary War soldier William Pound, I believe that my sister and I have recently located. The second, that of Samuel Pounds, born in Chatham County North Carolina in 1778 and said to have died at the age of 100 years and six months in Hancock County Illinois, remains a mystery. We’ve got the grave but we can’t be sure who’s in it. The large stone stands engraved “Samuel Pounds,” but it’s in the wrong county and bears the wrong dates. The third grave, that of the Civil War veteran Thomas Pounds, may be less a mystery than a blank, but it’s a blank with a lot of energy in it. A phone call which I received from a distant Kansas cousin in 1988 inquiring about him was what got me started doing family history.
The fate of the bones of Thomas Pounds is exemplary and makes him our Representative Man: he disappeared from history without a trace. People like Thomas Pounds are the center of the story that I mean to tell in what follows: the story of the westward movement across North America as exemplified in a family which have no distinction but their ordinariness.
Preview of the Journey
The trek begins in Richmond County in Virginia’s northern neck about 1663. Then begin a series of moves in search of Eden, the earthly Paradise promised by land agents. By 1770 it moves to the backlands of the south, first to the Virginia side of the border in Pittsylvania, Halifax, and Mecklenburg Counties, and then to the North Carolina side in Granville County. In 1803 we go south a couple counties to Chatham and there the family stays for several decades (and some descendants to the present). The younger members, however, are heading west after 1800, soon turning up in the Ohio country (present day Ohio, Indiana, Illinois). Some decades are spent in Guernsey County in southeastern Ohio and then we move across Indiana to western Illinois (Mason and Hancock Counties). Again decades pass before we move into Ray, Caldwell, and Dekalb Counties in west-central Missouri, where we are joined by some immigrant Swedes. The family leaves Missouri to go to the final Eden of Oklahoma for the land run of 1891, but we don’t follow them there because, as I have said, that phase belongs to an earlier book.
A Note on Form and Documentation, and a Word of Thanks
This book was started twenty years ago and is a record of struggle. As a result, it falls into three parts. The first three chapters and the last two chapters were written in 1993 after road trips to collect records in the counties where my ancestors had lived and get a feel for the places. The fourth chapter, on North Carolina, and the fifth, on Ohio, were written in 2011 and 2012 sitting at my computer in Tokyo. The early and late chapters use my journeys as narratives to hold the research together, or at least relieve the tedium of reciting records. The middle chapters have no such device at their disposal, and consequently lack the salt of local cuisine. I have patched the parts together as best I could but I have not hidden the seams. I want the book to reveal the process by which it was written. It want it to be a record of struggle.
I have to apologize to those rare individuals who will read the whole book consecutively, as they will find a degree of repetition that may be annoying. The book is designed for average readers, whom I imagine as genealogists and family historians, who rather than read consecutively use the Table of Contents and the Index to find the parts that interest them. I have left guideposts for them, even when it means a partial repetition of something said earlier.
I have tried to keep documentation to a minimum and at the same time to supply the essentials of what a reader might like to know about the book’s sources. At the end of each chapter is a short list of print sources, giving author, title, and date of publication. Throughout this book, all references to censuses, tax records, and legal transactions are based on documents I have copied or downloaded. As most of this sort of information is now findable through internet databases, it seemed to me a pointless pedantry to give the physical location, volume, and page number of the original documents. Most researchers do not drive to the county to examine the old records in the courthouse. They sit at a computer and go to the databases. I have supplied the terms needed to run searches.
It has been said that genealogy is the science of correcting other genealogists’ errors. I have no doubt that the genealogical side of the present work leaves plenty for later researchers to correct. For readers with questions, corrections, or additions, I can be found online at www.ueno-wayne.org.
In the North Carolina and Ohio parts of this book, I have received immeasurable help from my sister Gerry Robideaux, who picked up the mantle of family historian when I dropped it in the late 1990s. Without her encouragement and prodding, I would never have gone back to those early chapters to complete this work. I mention her research several times, but the debt is larger than my references convey.
at 3:47 PM