Thoughts from the Porch


“To be ignorant of what occurred before you were born is to remain always a child. For what is the worth of human life, unless it is woven into the life of our ancestors by the records of history?” — Marcus Tullius Cicero 

Well, Cicero may have gone too far, but it is fun to learn about how you came to be where you are.  So much so, that my father and I became obsessed.  This blog is based on a book that I wrote for my children based on my father’s decades of research and what I was able to add to it. I discovered some fascinating history and wove it into the account of my ancestry. It’s also interesting how it all got started.

When my grandmother, Eveline Victoria Bonorden Gifford, died in 1971, we found a hand-drawn family tree in one of her closets along with numerous old photographs.  I made a new hand-drawn copy of the tree and put it and all the photos in an album for my father’s birthday.  When he retired a few years later he decided to try to fill in some of the missing information.  This was at a time when you had to ask for information through the U.S. Postal Service, which you may have heard of.  Some archived information could be obtained only by visiting far-flung towns and going through the library stacks by hand, which he did.  

Despite these difficulties, my father managed to acquire a lot if information this way.  However, he ran into a brick wall on the one line that should be the easiest to follow, the Gifford line.  At least all these men would have the same last name.  But the line ends with his great grandfather Edmond J. Gifford, who claimed on various census records  to be born in 1830 in Utica, Oneida County, New York.  Edmond’s parents were not found in my grandmother’s records.  

Although my father was able to gather a copious amount of information on Edmond’s life after 1850, he found very little about his birth or his parents.  Edmond’s name first appeared in 1850, but he was living on his own by then.  And to make matters impossible, before 1850 the U. S. Census only lists the name of the head of household, so there is no way to use census records to link Edmond to his parents.  The information that he did get was self reported on Edmond’s later census records.  On one census he claimed that his parents were from Vermont and on another, they were from Massachusetts.  My father decided that Edmond must have cut all ties to his family.  My husband started  referring to Edmond as “the horse thief”.

The title, “Speculations”, refers to the inevitability of having to make them in writing any history, even if it is just a family history.  It’s like working a jigsaw puzzle with missing pieces.  You can still lay out the remaining pieces so the picture makes some sense, using your imagination to fill in the blanks.  And then there is always the possibility that one more search under the sofa will turn up a useful morsel that will help connect the disparate pieces.  Kind of like a treasure hunt.    

I will try to keep my focus on the interesting stories that I found, and not get too bogged down in the dates and other minutia.  One thing I have noticed is that my ancestors (mostly the men, because women’s lives were not well documented unless they did so themselves, and most didn’t have the time) where seldom the most notable members of their families.  Often their brothers had more impact on recorded history and therefore more was written about them.  However, one of these brothers was notable only because he bludgeoned his wife to death.  

I do have a few ancestors who left their mark around the country and even around the world. Some came over on the Mayflower. One was a surveyor in Kentucky with Daniel Boone, another was the Personal Guard to General Washington (well, maybe). Several have rivers, roads and valleys named after them, especially in the south.  One was a Dean of the University of Texas Law School and Vice Governor of the Philippines and of Puerto Rico.  One was a world renown botanist.  Several were highly regarded ministers and missionaries.   

The stories I can tell about their lives depend on what I can find.  For some, there are historical records but little about their personal lives.  For others, there are letters and personal accounts that provide details to give a sense of their lives, but only mysteries about how the family came to be where it was.  For some there are photographs that go back to the 19th century.  For others there are none at all.  Some lived during exciting times and I can tell you about these, giving some context to their lives.  So the chapters are inevitably uneven.  And there are several mysteries about how some ancestors ended up where they did in 1900 because the entire 1890 US Census records were burned in a fire in the warehouse in Washington, DC where they were stored.

I have learned that my ancestors come from four of the five main groups of immigrants (the fifth being Africans, none found yet among my ancestors, except in bondage, and possible siblings) whose traditions and language affected the communities where they settled to such a degree that it is hard to imagine how these new Americans could unite to share a common identity as Americans.  I came to wonder about this from reading books on the American Revolution, especially Freedom Just Around the Corner, by Walter A. McDougall.  As McDougall points out, in thinking about these immigrant groups, that it is important to keep in mind the historical context in the 1600-1700s.  Most large immigrant groups were fleeing oppression and/or starvation.  And they all had very distinct habits of family, community, education, work and religion.  I’ll just highlight a few of the most delightful things he says.

The German immigrants included Prussians, Dutch, Swiss and Palatines, as Queen Ann of England labeled them before expelling them.  They brought with them sausage, pretzels, pickles, rye breads, cheeses, wines, beer, cakes and pastries.  Some settled in New Amsterdam, later known as New York (mostly in “Kleindeutschland” in what is now the East Village). Some came to be known as the “Pennsylvania Dutch”, not because they were Dutch, but because they were from Deutschland. In a small town of Conestogoe, in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, they began a road heading southwest.  This was the beginning of the Great Wagon Road that ran down the valleys of the Appalachian Mountains to Virginia and the Carolinas.  Thousands of settlers who used this road modeled their wagons on the “Conestogoe” wagons of the Germans. 

One group of immigrants that made good use of this road was the Scotch-Irish, Protestant Scots who had migrated to Ireland.  This was one of four distinct groups of English speaking immigrants, the Scotch-Irish being the most numerous one.  And with the least means.  They were fleeing border wars between Protestant and Catholic in Ireland (the border eventually became the one between the Irish Republic and Northern Island and the “troubles” did not cease until recently).  Passing down the Great Wagon Road they named towns like Cumberland, Gallway, Derry and Durham. Their dialects were the foundations of the country and western speech of hillbillies ( “git offa mah prah-pitty”), including subject-verb mismatches (“Them gals is buck nekkid”), double negatives (“I ain’t fixin’ ta rassle no critters”) and double positives “He done did it, jedge, Ah seen him mah own self”).  And they brought their music and their dance, the Irish jig which morphed into the tap dance of Africans held in bondage.  Their experience taught them to be always on guard, fiercely protective of family, loyal to friends and ruthless to enemies.  The communities along the Atlantic seaboard were relieved when these newcomers moved on to the frontier where they could be of no danger to anyone but the Indians.

The Puritans who settled in New England were fleeing religious persecution in eastern England.  They were primarily tradesmen and craftsmen, rather than farmers, and so they did not need to migrate any further in search of more fertile land.  The East Anglicans had a twangy “Down East” accent that tends to add an “r” onto words ending in a vowel (“Ameriker”), soften long vowels (“Aah pahkt mah cah in Havahd Yahd”).  They valued individuality, marriage and family, and believed that sin, temptation and sudden death were everywhere.  They believed in witches and acted on those beliefs. They were stoic, repressed their emotions and shunned proud clothing.  They ate pease porridge (“pease porridge hot, pease porridge cold,…”), pumpkins, cornmeal with pork, beef or fish (Boston clam chowder).  They did not celebrate traditional Christmas holidays.

The Society of Friends, or “Quakers” (meaning “to tremble in the way of the Lord”), considered Puritan New England to be oppressive and set out with William Penn to create a “holy experiment” in New England, Pennsylvania and West Jersey.  The Quakers eliminated all traces of formal religion from their lives, believing that all men and women are imbued with a divine inner light.  They were very egalitarian, focusing more on the community than the individual or family.  They brought with them a dialect rich with slang (by golly, bamboozle, chock-full, flabergasted, thingamagig, wallup) but short on grammar.  Children’s education was a family decision, not a community one.

The English royalists uprooted by Cromwell’s takeover of the British government were enticed by the governor of Virginia to immigrate to Virginia by bestowing on them large estates and high offices.  These impoverished noblemen needed cheap labor to work their lands and so held slaves and hired indentured servants to run their large land holdings.  This setting lead to a community that was Anglican, aristocratic, hierarchical, almost entirely rural, enamored of horses and gambling and deeply in debt.  They tended to come from London and Bristol and spoke in languid rhythms, softened consonants and elongated syllables (“taahmaraah is anutha dai”).  They used non-grammatical expression, such as “I be”, “ain’t”, and tended to drop the “g” in “-ing” (“I be bringin’ thah puddin’”).  They enriched the English language with terms like chomp, flapjack, grit, yonder, book-learnin’ and, of course, “tump”.  They smoked “tobacca”, drank wine, valued a dancing master over a tutor, and adorned themselves with elegant clothes.  Unlike Puritans, Virginians wore their coats of arms, not their religion, on their sleeves.

My ancestors can be traced back to the Puritans, Quakers, Germans, the Scotch-Irish of South Carolina and the hills of Kentucky, all on their way to Davenport, Iowa or Falls County, Texas. My ancestors were more adventurous than their parents or siblings or cousins.  They continued to move west as the frontier receded, settling down only when the frontier disappeared or they just got tired.