A Great Big Lark

Thursday, May 12, 2016

The AWOL Season

A few years ago, I promised a post talking about why so many people in the 40th Virginia went AWOL in the Fall of 1862.

A lot of time has passed since then, but I've finally gotten around to looking at the service records of some of the men.  I've also done more reading about the war experience for soldiers, and the incidence and manifestations, during and in the years following the Civil War, of what we would now call PTSD.  I'm not saying that these men were suffering from that, but records so far indicate plenty of reasons for particularly high stress at this time.

Here is what happened with my great-great grandfather and his three brothers.

In 1860, in the Stony Hill district of Richmond County, Virginia, there were 15 households headed by Baldersons.  For the most part, they were farmers, but not BIG farmers...the largest Balderson farm having a real and personal value of $10,500, and the next largest, $600.  Most were much, much smaller, averaging out at $806.  By contrast, Robert Wormeley Carter, the largest landowner in the district, had a farm worth $325,000.  This is the same parcel on which Ebenezer Balderson, my many-times-great-grandfather, a Scottish immigrant, had worked as an indentured servant during the first half of the previous century.

It's in the household headed by James Bailey Balderson, age 56, that our great-great-grandfather Presley lived.  In 1860, Presley was the only son living at home, along with a younger sister, Margaret.  The oldest Balderson brother, Charles, was a shoemaker who had been teaching his younger brother, James, the trade.  James lived in the home of Charles and Charles' young family.  Charles and James, 33 and 25 years old, both enlisted in Company B of the 40th Virginia Regiment on May 25, 1861.  Both were musicians, but I have yet to find out what instrument(s) they played.

The second oldest brother, William (29), and Presley, the youngest at 23 (and my great-great-grandfather,) enlisted ten days later, in the Richmond County seat at Warsaw. Both were in Company D, along with some other Balderson cousins who enlisted on the same day.

William was the first casualty among the brothers.
Wounded on June 27 at the battle of Gaines' Mill, he died 2 weeks later, on July 13 at a hospital in Richmond.  For a long time, I was unable to find out where he was buried, but recently I found scanned copies of his service records.  Balderson is misspelled as "Bollison" on the records; interestingly, this is exactly how my father, as a small boy, pronounced his grandmother's last name, and she even signed his birthday card "Grandmother Bollison" when he turned three.   This might be  how everyone pronounced it where they lived.  Anyway, Uncle William is buried in the soldiers' section of Hollywood Cemetery, the famous Confederate cemetery in Richmond City.  Probably in an unmarked grave.

Charles had been ill shortly before William's death, and was sent to Chimborazo Hospital in Richmond. Three days after William's death, possibly even from the same hospital, he was furloughed and then discharged from service. He had a wife and a few children already at home.  He returned to shoe and boot-making, and lived on into the 1890s.

The third brother, James, was a musician like Charles; they had both this and shoemaking in common. In James' records, he is listed as AWOL in the fall of 1862, just a couple of months after William died and Charles subsequently became ill and was discharged home.  We  don't know where James went or what he did in the months he was gone, but his records include a report of him being a prisoner, paroled on November 25, 1862. By January, he and Presley had returned to service, the only two Balderson brothers remaining in the Army after less than two years of service.

The following May, the war became very eventful for the brothers with the battle of Chancellorsville. James found himself so close to an exploding artillery shell that he lost his hearing.   Presley was also seriously wounded during that battle.   During the following 6 months, James was hospitalized more than once, going  AWOL again in July and August of 1863.  He  was contracted in the spring of 64 to make shoes for Walker's Brigade, possibly 'alternative' service, due to loss of hearing or other wounds or illness.

The fourth and youngest brother, Presley, was sent to Chimborazo Hospital for the first time beginning a month after the death of William and Charles' illness and discharge.  This was immediately following the regiment's engagement at Cedar Mountain, and he may have been the one casualty listed on the muster list.  The reason for his hospitalization was "debilitas," in other words, weakness or feebleness:  exhaustion.  He remained in the hospital until October 23-- a period of over 2 months, after which he was furloughed and instructed to report back for duty on December 1.  He was absent without leave for the month of December, but returned in January, along with his brother James.   Presley was readmitted to Chimborazo in May of 1863 after receiving a gunshot wound through the left shoulder at Chancellorsville while defending the regimental flag after its bearer became a casualty (this is the story.....) This wound is renowned in family lore because of the harrowing treatment it received from the surgeon:  a red hot poker was driven through it. It's moments like this that can change the trajectory of the future.  The furlough that followed meant that Presley missed the events in Gettysburg, which proved close to disastrous for his regiment.   Fate intervened again at Weldon Railroad near Petersburg in August of 1864. During the dark and confusing violence, in the pouring rain, Presley was wounded through the left hand, an injury that would cause him pain and difficulty for the rest of his life as he supported his family by farming. While at home recovering in the late summer and early fall, he married his second cousin, Mary Ann Coates, who was probably a relative of Charles' wife, Virginia.  Family story says that his old rusty (or bloodstained) bayonet  hung over the fireplace at the home of his grandson, Sherwood (my uncle) in Howard County, MD. One of Sherwood's stepchildren allegedly stole it, and it's no longer in the family.

So, all of the brothers became absent for a period following immediately, or within a few months of their brother William's death.  Charles never returned, and was discharged for reasons unknown. 


During the course of the next twenty four years, Presley and his wife Mary had 5 sons --- Burlington Lafayette, Valverda Manco, Franklin Lesley, Elton Presley, and Wilmore Earle; and 3 daughters --- Dorothy "Dora", Margaret "Maggie", and Emma.

The youngest of Presley's children, born when he was about 50, was my great-grandfather, Wilmore. Wilmore is small and his face is serious in the tintype that was taken of him with his elderly parents in around 1895. His mother appears severe, even a little frightening, dressed in mourning; Presley looks tired, but is smiling broadly as he stands behind his wife and youngest child.  Later, when he was a young teenager, Wilmore was the only witness to his mother's death, after a sudden collapse while she was sweeping.  She never regained consciousness.  At this time his father, who had always been a farmer, was a disabled war veteran, unable to do much work of any kind in his later years. He was finally granted a small pension in 1915, ten years before his death at the age of 89.

When Wilmore grew up, he married Landonia "Tully" Minor, a young woman who had grown up in the same small corner of Virginia.  According to my father, her family felt that they were somehow better than my great-grandfather's family.  Their war hero had been in the cavalry.  Maybe that had something to do with it, but most likely it was for complicated reasons going back a hundred years or more...because they had all been living in the same spot since the first of their families came to Virginia.

Wilmore and Tully's first child, a daughter, was born in January, 1912.  Her mother almost died following the birth, and Aunt Dora, her husband's big sister, came to the rescue.  Aunt Dora took care of the baby for the month or so of my great-grandmother's recovery, and at some point during that time, she named the baby after herself:  "Dorothy."  Not everyone was thrilled that she did this.  Baby Dorothy was my grandmother.

 Aunt Dora had married Robert France, a man whose father had served in the war alongside her father. Their fathers' lives traveled parallel paths and these two must have had some common experiences growing up; they were raised on the same war stories, and probably grew up within each others' sight.  They eventually moved up the peninsula and north to Washington D.C., where they had a son and adopted a daughter by the name of Isabelle Galahan.

A little over a year after the birth of Dorothy the younger, Letitia Countee, the local midwife, came to the farm in Newland to deliver Tully's second baby, a daughter.  Sadly, Mary Althea lived only 6 hours.  She was named after both of her grandmothers.

When Dorothy was very small, her father studied at Lynchburg College to become a minister.  Soon after graduation, he and Tully became the parents of a boy who they named Sherwood. In the years that followed, Wilmore and his young family moved here and there in Virginia, the D.C. suburbs, and  as far southwest as Harlan, Kentucky, on assignments at different churches.  A few years later a third child was born, a second boy named Tennyson Carlyle.

Monday, April 04, 2016

"New" Shuck stories courtesy of the Paranormal Database monthly update.....

Is there anything creepier than an animal spectre?  Particularly when it is seen doing an un-animal-like thing, such as walking on two legs?  I've always been intrigued by ghostly dog/shuck stories, dating back to the first time I read Hans Christian Andersen's 'The Tinderbox.'  See earlier entries 'The Beast of Brymbo' and 'The Black Dogs of South Mountain.'

What is a Shuck?

What is a Padfoot?

These stories have spellbound listeners for centuries, even millennia, but even in our modern, 'enlightened' technological 21st century, new sightings and stories are still being reported.  Here are a few stories that were posted on Paranormal Database just during the last month or so.

Postman's Dog

A postman in Wales reported that every night, at the Ewenny crossroads where one road leads to Ogmore, he would watch as a large phantom black dog appeared, moving purposefully as if it were on a mission.  It made no sound as it passed.  This story may date to the nineteenth century.

 Trotting Dog

Also in Wales, a predictable but elusive Shuck is said to appear every night at midnight at the crossroads between Bridgend and Laleston.  This haunting is ongoing.  People who have attempted to follow the hound-like creature have always lost sight of it, despite their efforts.

 Changing Entity

In Durham, the area of Glassensikes (river) and Harewood Hill was once said to be haunted by a large black dog which could sometimes change into a rabbit, a white cat, a headless woman, or a flaming headless man.  The age of this legend is unknown.


At Horbury in Yorkshire, in the area of Jenkin Road, a man returning home caught a glimpse of a white dog in the hedgerow.  He struck at it with a stick, which passed straight through the dog.  The dog didn't flee, but turned around and stared at the man.  He ran home, where he became sick and later died.  This shuck is said to sometimes run around on two legs.  Catching sight of it is considered to be a portent of death.
This legend dates at least as far back as the nineteenth century.

 White Lass Beck

A stream near Thirsk in Yorkshire has long been said to be haunted by the spirit of a maid who was murdered in the area, in the nineteenth century or earlier.  Her body was found buried in a gravel pit.  White Lass Beck appears as a woman dressed in white, but also has taken the form of a white dog or a white cow.


Thursday, March 31, 2016

The Lawn (draft in progress)

Just a hilltop or two away at Elk Ridge, Colonel Marshall had neighbors in Lawyers’ Hill, an enclave above the Patapsco River where several lawyers, judges, and doctors had their summer homes.

{During and after the war, they gathered socially on the wide lawn of Judge George Washington Dobbin, who hosted a Friday Club at his home, which was aptly named The Lawn. His daughter, Rebecca, noted in her journal that the sound of artillery from Manassas could be heard from this favorite vantage point during the first battle of Bull Run.}

On the wall of the porch near the front door, you can still find a string of wooden beads that Judge Dobbin used to keep track of the laps he walked on the wraparound porch.  There was something odd/special about the knocking, ringing, or locking mechanism on the front door, but I can't remember what it is right now!...  The glowing entrance hall where the smell of oil paints and linseed oil hit you upon entering.  On the right, the dark gallery/studio, and on the left the drawing room....then kitchen and butler's pantry.  Just inside the drawing room door, on the right, a desk with a phone.  Mrs. May Cobb, a family friend from church and my art teacher, had funny stories of things that happened back when phone lines were party lines and you could listen in on other peoples' conversations (or vice versa.)

Art lessons were either on the 'back porch' or in the drawing room.  My sisters had taken these classes too, when they were my age.....I had to bring a quarter with me to each Saturday afternoon lesson, to help defray the cost of supplies.  Sometimes during these sessions, she told me ghost stories about the house.  A vase of flowers on the mantel would float out into the room and dump itself out....and this was the poltergeist, she explained....a 'noisy ghost' that likes to move things, throw things, cause disturbances.  Once, a recently planted flower box was uprooted when her back was turned.  She speculated that this was Judge Dobbin, who had an observatory above the second floor, where the flower boxes were located.  

After Mr. Joe Cobb's death, Mrs. Cobb awoke in the night to hear his circular saw running in the workshop.  I thought it might be lonely and scary for an elderly widow to live alone in a big place like this, back in the woods, with spirits.  Fortunately, she rented out part of the second floor to tenants.  The tenants, a family, loved the house so much that when Mrs. Cobb went to live with family in Pennsylvania near the end of her life, they bought it and lived in it for about a decade.


When I was older, she found some of my old paintings from class and had them matted for me.  I still have a fabric wall hanging that I made at her house, and I remember doing ink drawings over watercolor wash, and learning the principles of Japanese flower arranging...odd numbers always, earth, sky and water.  She let slip to friends that I had a fascination with buttons, and one of them brought me a small collection at church one morning.

My elementary school friend Alan Talbot lived in the gatehouse (one of the original tenant cottages) with his mother, and I remember attending one of his birthday parties there.

An oil painting in/near the front hall of a man with a floppy hat

It was here that I first heard the word 'Europe' as a small child, and conceived of a place far away, that was different from where I lived.

The two tenant cottages had to be moved when Rt. 895, the Harbor Tunnel Throughway, went through in the early 1970s.

In the mid-2000s, the family who loved the house so much sold it, and shortly thereafter it was chosen to be the Howard County decorator's showhouse for 2007.  The home underwent restoration and refurbishment, and vendors and designers showcased their work all through the property in the fall of 2007.  The photos below were taken when my mother, sister, and I visited the showhouse on my mother's birthday in September of that year.

Sadly, about a year later, the then-owner of the property died by his own hand in the historic barn.  I don't believe the property has changed ownership since that time.

                                           Judge George Washington Dobbin, builder of The Lawn.

                                                                      Fairy swings

                                         Above, a view of the barn, to the west of the main house.

                   The main house with the original 'cottage' wing in the foreground, the two story 
                   double-parlor wing further back, with the observatory poking out above the second floor.

                                                         View from an outbuilding

                                              Here you can see the two extra extensions added
                                                 to the rear of the main wings of the house.

                                                                         The beads!!

                                      Part of the porch on the cottage/library/studio wing.

Colonel Marshall's House

On a high hill through the woods and far beyond the back of the house in Marshallee lay the isolated foundations of the home of Colonel Charles Marshall, Robert E. Lee’s traveling secretary throughout the Civil War. Or at least they did, until relatively recently.
This landmark was a favorite destination of my sisters and me, where we collected evergreens at Christmastime and daffodils in the spring, in the buried remnants of the old formal gardens, nearly a mile from the nearest house but close to the noise of traffic from Interstate 95. The house remained standing, minus windows and other important parts, until I was about 10 years old. I remember visiting, looking through an open doorway, and seeing a path in the dust where someone had dragged away a heavy mantelpiece…..or maybe this memory is just a picture I made in my head, after hearing an adult talk about it. It’s impossible to remember which, now.
The house mysteriously burned one summer night in 1978, while I was sleeping in my room which looked out on the beech tree and the woods beyond, toward the hill where the ‘mansion’ stood….the mansion called Markham, and later Marshallee, after Colonel Marshall and General Lee. From that night on, we had to be especially careful when visiting the wooded hill, lest we should step into some innocent-looking greenery only to find ourselves plummeting injured into a hidden cellar or some other part of the home’s concealed foundation. We just avoided the green, tangled rectangle in the clearing in the bend of the encompassing dirt driveway.
Marshallee was a reminder of the Elkridge of the nineteenth century. It was built before the Civil War, but Colonel Marshall bought it in the years immediately following the War, after returning to his civilian profession as a Baltimore lawyer. Marshallee was his home “in the country,” Baltimore being only seven miles from Elk Ridge, as the crow flies. I imagine that seven miles was a good bit further then than it is now, when we have motorized vehicles, highways and interstates to speed us from place to place.
It is said that Colonel and Mrs. Marshall held lavish parties at the house, and that part of the rear wing was devoted to dressing rooms for the fine ladies who attended. In his later years, the Colonel loved to walk the front porch with his granddaughter, looking out over the southwest lawn, toward  the place where my sisters and I found daffodils still growing every year, in the 1970s and 80s…almost a hundred years later.
In our house in Marshallee, less than a mile away in distance, my mother often looked out at the woods through the window over the kitchen sink in the same direction, southwest. It was perfect for catching the low rays of sun in fall and winter, and she knew that when a cold draft made its way through this window, it meant snow. She was always right. I wonder what Colonel Marshall thought about as he gazed to the southwest from his porch. No doubt, he observed the weather and the changing seasons. No doubt, he also remembered some of the things he had seen and experienced on the battlefields of Virginia, and near the Capital, all those years ago to the southwest.

(840 words)

Monday, March 14, 2016


Eavesdropping is wrong.  But when you’re the youngest kid in the family and everyone is much older than you, it’s the only way to learn anything.  At least, that is my story and I’m sticking to it.  Although, there’s not really much you can learn while sitting halfway up the steps in the front hall and the people still gathered at the dinner table behind the louvre’d doors are talking….you can catch some words, but not all, unless voices are raised, and when voices are raised you have to be ready to make a quick and silent getaway so you don’t get discovered!

Gossip is bad.  Gossip is the act of transmitting and receiving stories that might be true.  It’s the ‘might’ that makes them exciting.  There is usually at least a grain of truth at the center of a piece of gossip.  Like eavesdropping, it only gives you part of the real story.  Your imagination, along with your knowledge and powers of educated guessing can rush in to fill the gaps. The story you pass along has an added ‘maybe’, ‘probably’, or ‘what if?’, added by you.
While eavesdropping is a method of information-gathering, gossip is a form of sharing information, or more accurately, stories. 

Studying genealogy satisfies both of these illicit urges.  But it’s perfectly okay, right?  Is it eavesdropping if you are reading court documents or letters?  Is it gossip if the subjects have been dead for 50, 100, 300 years??  Is it ‘somebody else’s business….not yours’ when it’s the business of your ancestors?

We can ask people for information, but if we ask, we might not get the truth.  Just as the youngest kid in the family gets a carefully filtered account of family business and events, we will get the version of the story that someone thinks they remember correctly, that might be edited to remove unpleasantness or scandal, that might be full of errors like incorrect names….maybe, the version of the story they heard as a child, while eavesdropping. 

Monday, November 02, 2015

All Souls Day -- The Scotch-Irish Immigrants appeared today, when I wasn't even looking for them.

So, it's All Souls' Day, and the ancestors have been crowding around, wanting to have their stories told. I went looking for one small piece of information in the 1920 Census, and got sidetracked and distracted (isn't that always what happens?) and turned up all kinds of cool things today...but the most interesting thing I found is, finally, a pair of our immigrant Scots-Irish ancestors. I was looking at something in someone else's tree, out of curiosity, and looked at a record, and there they were.
Here is a shout-out to my 6th great-grandfather, Thomas Rutherford, born in 1707 in Derryloran Parish, Cookstown, County Tyrone, Northern Ireland. His father and uncles had left Scotland while in the service of King William III for Ireland, and were present and engaged at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690.  Two were officers, and the third was a Presbyterian minister. They decided to stay on the island, and there they raised their families: one in County Down, the minister in County Monaghan, and Thomas' father, in County Tyrone. In 1728, Thomas was in love with 16-year-old Jean Murdach, of nearby Gorty-Lowry Parish. His feelings were returned, BUT! When he asked her father if he could marry her, not only did her father say "no," but he moved his whole family to Pennsylvania.  I should note that nowhere does it say that he moved them to America to get his daughter away from Thomas, although that would add an extra dramatic spice to the story.
On October 26**, 1728---- either before or after the Murdachs left for America--- Thomas went into Cookstown and bought a memorandum book. On the flyleaf he wrote his name, and the date, and "written at the house of Aggness Murdoch,"---Jean's mother. On the cover, he wrote only "Enquire for Dennygall." Whether from Jean or another source, he was in possession of an important piece of information: Jean's family planned to settle in Donegal, or "Dennygall," on the banks of the Susquehanna River. Either that year or the next, Thomas left for America, the first of his family to do so.
In 1729, he finally got to Dennygall and showed up on the Murdach doorstep to claim his bride. He was again disappointed. Jean's father, John, sent him away, but told him that if he returned with a certain amount of money to prove that he could provide for her, he would allow them to marry. He departed for Philadelphia, and some time later reappeared-- on a horse this time, instead of on foot--- and with documents that satisfied his future father-in-law. No, Jean's father didn't send him away a second and a third time, although that would make this a more stereotypical fairytale adventure.  Thomas later wrote in his memorandum book, "Me and my wife was married the 7th day of September, A. D. 1730, by the Rev. James Anderson, in Donney Gall, America."
In the years to come, Thomas added the births and sometimes the deaths of their 12 children, the later marriages of the surviving children, and other details of their lives. The girls for the most part married at least once, some losing husbands who had left on explorations into unsettled territory, or who became casualties in the Revolutionary War; these families moved south and west, to the Appalachian foothills of South and North Carolina. The boys, for the most part, stayed close to home in Donegal and Paxtang, or Cumberland and Adams counties, in Pennsylvania. 
A kind person who is also a descendant of these people transcribed the records written in Thomas' memorandum book, which still exists. She then posted all of this, along with some bits from William Henry Egles' 'Pennsylvania Genealogies: Scots-Irish and German' on the Find-A-Grave website entry for Jean Murdah/Mordah/Murdach.
Thanks to Thomas and his stubborn determination to chase Jean (part of the way) across the globe, thousands of us now appear solid and clear in our own family portraits (Back to the Future-style), solidly written into our family trees, existing in flesh and blood, here-and-now form at our kitchen tables and walking on the sidewalks of our towns.
To steal the status post of a friend this evening:
"Suddenly all my ancestors are behind me. 'Be still,' they say. 'Watch and listen. You are the result of the love of thousands.'"

**- my birthday, no big deal...

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

On Creepiness

There are two sides to the coin of "creepy," which describes and defines this time of year.

There's the warm side, of friends and firelight, holidays and companionship...romantic language and story-forms.  Tradition.  Tales told over and over but never written down...the same stories told in different ways in different places, the children of travelers, adept at blending in and looking at everything familiar through a different lens in each new location....and all the stories that have been written down.  Literature and folklore, transmission of cultures...Festive and social,  awash in spiced harvest foods, candy, and alcohol.  Creepiness as entertainment: a costume that can be put on and taken off with little or no risk in the comfort of society.  Quaint idioms to universalize and tie a clever bow around the primal reality symbolized and played out by the natural world at this time of year.

But the other side of the coin is not so much cold, as devoid of warmth.  There is no companionable feeling here.  No stories to distract and thrill.  Stories can be put aside, but what is here can never be put aside, because it is part of the whole fabric of which we are made. Nothing is familiar, there is no blending in.  No literature or art to make beautiful that which is inevitable and terrifying.
It is not human, not in our image or the image of any other creature we know.  It does not care or feel.  It is cold.  It is bleak, most of all.  It is what is left when there is nothing else.  Despair and emptiness.  Gray daylight ordinariness.  The most disorienting dream you have ever dreamed.
Sometimes you will catch a glimpse.  This is a warning.  Nothing lies beyond but more and more of the same.  This is what you have been looking for, and it's like nothing you could have imagined.  It is truth.

Sunday, October 04, 2015

Sleep Story

At my grandparents' house, I usually slept in the guest room on the first floor.  Down a tiny hallway off of the 'entrance' hall (which wasn't really an entrance hall since only strangers used the 'front' door), the guest room had three windows, two of which faced the spacious side-yard, which was bordered by the Chincoteague Bay and PawPaw creek on the east and south sides, and was empty except for a weathered picnic table and a large cedar tree.  The third window looked out on what I thought of as the 'front' yard, since it was the side of the house that we saw first when we arrived, since it faced the road.  Later I learned that the real front of the house was the side that faced the water, and was fronted by the wide, screened porch.  The 'front' yard contained the willow tree that I liked to climb and sit in. The willow branches made swish, swish noises when it was windy, which was always.  Inhabited by rhythmically-singing cicadas in the summer months, it was easy to climb.  I loved to collect the crispy brown shells that the cicadas left behind.  My grandmother would give me a paper lunch bag to keep them in, and I would take them home to my house in Elkridge, for my mother to throw away months later, no doubt, when these summer days were more distant and my thoughts were absorbed in the worries and business of school days.  Behind the willow tree ran the white-painted, two-planked fence which separated the yard from the end of the tar and gravel lane that dead-ended at the creek, and the low, narrow, ramshackle pier that reached out into the shallow, muddy water.  Across the lane stood the neighbors' house across a damp grassy lawn, and an expanse of salt marsh, and finally, from this same window you could see the bridge that crossed the creek.  Bayside Road ran, and still runs, along the Chincoteague Bay coast from Public Landing, swooping inland at Boxiron Creek and Brockatonorton Bay.  In the 1970s, the bridge still wasn't paved, and each car or pickup truck rumbled over the wooden bridge, the sound echoing off of the surface of muddy PawPaw Creek and drifting back toward the house.

Friday, July 03, 2015

The Beech Tree

While the house I grew up in was being built, my mother would sometimes come and watch, making a cozy spot for me at the feet of a huge beech tree that stood in the backyard, at the edge of the woods in our new neighborhood, Marshallee. We moved into the house in August of 1968, when I was 10 months old. The tree still stands behind the house, but after more than 40 years of residency, my parents sold the house a few years ago. I haven’t been back to see it since, although I’m often in the area visiting friends, or my sister, or my daughter who now lives with her aunt during the school year.
There are many things about beech trees that set them apart from their fellows in the tree world. First would be their smooth, silvery bark, which scars easily and is therefore a beloved target of graffiti aficionados who were obviously never Girl Scouts who were taught that tree bark is the equivalent of our skin. Second would be their interesting, rounded-pyramid-shaped seeds, housed in prickly little nut shells. Squirrels sometimes nested in this tree, but always loved scrambling around in its branches, feasting on these tasty (I imagine) little nuts. The shells would fall gently onto the back porch, and sometimes our heads, in the autumn months. I wonder if the squirrels made bets with each other about whether they could make their scraps hit us when they fell. The third, and most interesting, unique feature about this breed of tree is the way that its trunk seems to grow human faces. Knobs and whorls, which appear on the smooth trunk as it grows, resemble eyes and eyebrows, sometimes even a lumpy nose or a scowling frown. A single tree can glower down upon the forest from 6 or 10 different vantage points on its trunk. Because of these faces, beech trees have always seemed to me more likely to be inhabited by a spirit or soul than the average tree.
This exact tree, both in fact and in fancy, watched me grow from a baby into an adult…watched my sisters grow, and my family evolve. I miss it almost in the way I would miss a relative.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Jail-keeping and Wolves' Heads **

November 7, 2007

While taking a break from working very hard on this quarter's statistics at work today, I found a really cool and amazing thing on a genealogy site....transcriptions of Westmoreland County, Virginia court records concerning John Minor (a 10th great-grandfather from Garway, Herefordshire...the immigrant!) and his wife, Ellinor. This document has his date of birth as 1625, which could be more accurate than my date of 1600. But look! He was in court practically ALL the time, which I guess is not shocking since this also reveals that he was the undersherriff of Sheriff Youell for many years. It looks like he was responsible for prisoners, and for building a jail, providing accommodations for transported indentureds, etc etc which his wife seems to have continued after his death. This is totally fascinating, and I recognize some of the other names in these records as names appearing in my tree, too (Bull, Allerton, Sturman, and even a Thomas Vaughn who maybe he knew from back home?)

John Minor's Court Records

***October 23, 2015.  This REALLY needs to be about the wolfs heads!

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

John Chandler - Part One

 I find it interesting that this year, the year my father died, is also the year that two major immigrant brick walls have come down in my family history research.  One of those walls has revealed John Chandler, the youngest person at the time of his arrival to ever land at Jamestown.  The timing was dramatic; if he had been on an earlier fleet, he may have had to endure The Starving Time, which ended with the arrival of Lord DeLaWarr's fleet in 1610, on which John was a passenger.  The evidence linking this particular John Chandler to my family was established earlier this year, following genetic testing and research...more details of that later.  Some months ago I began putting together John Chandler's story, and typed up the sketch below to give context to his arrival:

                     The situation at Jamestown, Virginia on June 10, 1610, the day that                            John Chandler  (age 9) arrived on board the Hercules, the third ship in Thomas West, Lord DeLaWarr’s fleet

At the end of the previous summer (October 4), an injured John Smith returned to England.  Conditions in Jamestown quickly deteriorated. Relations with the natives quickly went from a fragile truce to an open campaign by Chief Powhatan to starve out the colonists.  Since previously, colonists had relied on trade with the natives for the bulk of their food supply, this spelled huge trouble with the coming winter.  The colonists had neglected their fishnets, which rotted in the water.  Hunting was extremely dangerous, since natives attempted to kill anyone who left the fort.

The expected fleet from England had suffered damage from a hurricane that summer, with the flagship becoming stranded in Bermuda, with a bulk of the supplies and food. One ship returned to England, and the seven other ships landed at Jamestown, delivering 200-300 men, women, and children and few supplies.  Although a fleet returned to England to warn of the settlers’ predicament, no further supply ships arrived that year, or the following spring.

The Starving Time followed, and that winter, 88% of the approximately 500 colonists died.  All of the fort’s animals were eaten, many houses and parts of the palisade were burned for firewood, and some even resorted to cannibalism to survive. 

The Bermuda contingent, including the recently widowed John Rolfe, arrived in May of 1610 to find 60 sick and starving colonists confined to the safety of the blockhouse, with the rest of the fort deteriorated around them.  It was decided to abandon the colony and on June 7, 1610, everyone boarded the ships and began to sail down the James River. 

At approximately 10 miles downriver from Jamestown, they were met by a fleet of supply ships led by Thomas West, Lord DeLaWarr, that had left England on April 1.  The newly appointed Governor West headed the group back to Jamestown.  On the third ship in this fleet, the Hercules, the youngest passenger was John Chandler.  He was also the youngest person to date to have been sent/brought to Jamestown.

*Governor Percy had sent Capt. Francis West on a trading mission to the Potomac.  After trading for corn, West and his men on the Swallow began to return to Jamestown, and at Ratcliffe’s fort at the mouth of the James learned that the colony was in dire need and had resorted to cannibalism.  Instead of proceeding with due speed, they headed to sea and consumed the corn themselves on a return trip to England.

Although he was very young, John Chandler wasn't traveling with relatives.  It is not known if he had any connection to anyone else on the fleet, or why he was aboard.  Just a few weeks later, another boy would arrive:  Thomas Willoughby, age 10, whose uncle was an investor in the Virginia Company.  It is a safe bet that the two boys, as the only children in the colony, became friends.  In any case, by 1624, John Chandler was living as an employee at Thomas Willoughby's military encampment at Elizabeth City.  John Chandler's fortunes were just about to change.  (to be continued)