All I Know

Welcome to my world

Category: Historical (page 1 of 2)

The Lists

Thousands of immigrants risked the dangerous ocean journey to the new land.

It’s been a long dry spell in my family search. Some days I feel as if I’ve seen all there is to see on the internet. Everything. I can’t seem to prove that the man I thought was my immigrant ancestor is really related to me. And if he is not, I can’t connect the man I thought was his son to any other person of record.

So I left that line of research and went on to the man and family members I could trace back to Pennsylvania/Virginia immediately before they traveled to Kentucky. Turns out, he didn’t do much that was worthy of record either.

Then one day, I stumbled onto a document that stopped me cold. I’ve made no secret of the fact that I love the stories I’m discovering whether they contribute to my family story or not.

So imagine my delight when I came across a publication (from 1874) with the fascinating title: “The Original Lists of Persons of Quality; Emigrants; Religious Exiles; Political Rebels Serving Men Sold for a Term of Years; Apprentices, Children Stolen; Maidens Pressed; and Others Who Went from Great Britain to the American Plantations, 1600-1700”

Now how could I resist? Of course, I quickly did a search to see if any of my ancestors were listed. When I found no family names, I couldn’t just leave it alone, I had to dig further. The lists were just too fascinating.

I can absolutely identify with the reason John Camden Hotten stated for pulling together all this data. In the introduction, he states:

“Of the history of the Colonies, and the eventual establishment of Independence, I have nothing to say. My object is simply and briefly to point out some of the causes which contributed to the early emigration of English families to America; and then to estimate the practical value of the contents of the present volume as a means of assistance in making genealogical researches in the mother country.”

Somehow, he knew that one day, it would be important to be able to read when, how, and why our ancestors arrived in this country.

And the “why,” of course, was both economic and political.

Sometime around 1625, Charles the First, King of England began levying taxes on the country without the permission of Parliament. Charles believed in the divine right of kings and was determined to govern according to his own conscience. As with all political acts by a leader, the lawmakers and citizens quickly chose sides. Some said he was the leader, and it was perfectly okay for him to do as he saw fit. Others saw his actions as arrogant, unlawful, and a dangerous precedent.

Strangely familiar, isn’t it? His acts triggered a civil war from 1642 to 1645, at which time he was defeated and in 1648 executed for high treason.

Through these years, those who strongly opposed his arrogance were very vocal in their resentment. It’s not a good idea to resist a king who believes he has a divine right because, after all, he does hold power.

One of the king’s critics, Lord Say and Sele stated: “I would rather lose half my estate than risk the impoverishment of my posterity by the establishment of so dangerous a precedent as a loan without the sanction of Parliament.”

This uproar set the stage for both voluntary and involuntary emigration to the New World “beyond the seas.”

The lists of people leaving for the New World and the notes made on the lists, while in no way complete, caught my attention for several days.

Probably of enormous interest to genealogists is the list of passengers aboard the Mayflower in 1620. The notes on these passengers are heartrending as the listmaker also recorded their fates. Here are some samples:

  • Mr. John Carver, chosen as the first Governor upon arrival, died during the first spring. Katherine, his wife, died a few weeks after her husband.
  • Roger Wilder, a servant, died in the “first sickness.”
  • William Butten, a servant, died on the passage.
  • Mr. Christopher Martin and his wife died soon after arrival, as did Solomon Prower and John Langemore, servants.
  • John Tillie and his wife both died soon after they came ashore. Their daughter Elizabeth survived and went on to marry John Howland.
  • Digerie Priest died in the “general sickness.” His wife and children came afterward. I can’t help but wonder if she knew her husband had died when she set sail to follow him. I imagine she came ashore expecting to see him and the home he had prepared for the family only to learn she was a widow with no resources.

It was recorded that there were 100 souls on the Mayflower. During the voyage there one child was born, and one passenger died, so 100 immigrants arrived on the shores of the New World.

Of those 100 souls, 51 died during the first year. Think about those numbers—over half the new citizens didn’t survive a year in the New World.

The writer of this particular list doesn’t mention any cause of death other than “general sickness” or “during the first sickness.” I didn’t see any accidents with axes or barroom fights or any other cause of death. One has to wonder if these travelers were prepared for what they had undertaken. Did they expect a paradise, a land of richness and gentle weather? Did they realize they would have to construct shelter and plant food crops very quickly? Did they even know how hard the journey itself would be? Did they know the passage would leave them weak from seasickness and poor nutrition at the time they needed to be at their most robust?

They fled political turmoil, ethnic and religious conflict, and poverty to come to a land that promised to solve all their problems. This New World may not have been the promised land they expected, but look at what we, their children, have accomplished.

Maybe that’s a bigger picture we should be trying to see today.

He Just Went Home

This is a pay card for one William Collings.

When you’re a writer, there is no acceptable excuse for not writing. A couple of weeks of not writing begins to create nagging thoughts that go like this: maybe I’m not a writer, maybe I have nothing to say, maybe I should give this up.

I’ve been struggling with a kind of roadblock in my family story. The things I believe, I can’t prove. The things I can prove don’t always make sense in the context of what I believe. And the fact is, my family is a very ordinary one. The records that exist about them are the standards…birth records, death records, cemetery stones with dates, occasional legal documents (both good deeds and bad).

I was lucky to discover the Crist journal. That discovery has made me a proponent of journals, even journals that do no more than record the daily weather or the mundane events of life. In later years, those daily proofs of life will be golden for some researcher who is seeking his or her past.

Here are the “facts” and here is where I am in my own search: I believe, but can’t prove, that the Collings branch of my family came to America in the late 1600s. Like every immigrant at that time, they landed on the east coast and perched there for a time, then began edging westward, apparently searching always for something better.

Without finding any solid proof of the journey, I can get them to western Pennsylvania in the mid-1700s sometimes as farmers, sometimes as hunters but forever struggling to make a life, always working for something more.

At this point, I am researching my family in the Revolutionary War. Family stories have the men of the family fighting alongside General George Rogers Clark, who was the historical hero of the Western Front of the War for Independence.

This has proven difficult to document because if they did fight with him, they did so as the rough and ready mountain men of Virginia and Pennsylvania, not as regular army.

I also found a vague hint that some of the Collings men fought at the Battle of Brandywine, so I’ve spent a few weeks chasing that story and found some intriguing records, a series of “pay cards” in the Revolutionary War Rolls collection of

Unable to prove that this William Collings is my ancestor, this is still a good story of a young man who, if he is my relative, would have been about 19 years old.

William Collings (the records sometimes spell his name Collins, sometimes Collings even on the same card) first appeared in of May 1777 as a Private in Capt. Gourley’s Company, 9th Pennsylvania Regiment. This soldier’s salary appeared to be “6 2/3 dollars” per month.

On the pay card for October 1777, Collings was noted to have been “wounded on September 11.” The Battle of Brandywine was fought on September 11-12, 1777.

The pay card for December also notes “wounded,” so presumably he was recovering in hospital. The January and February 1778, pay cards confirm this with the notes “In hospital.”

His May 1778 pay card contains the note: “Sick Yellow Springs.” I went to Google on this note and found that Yellow Springs was the only hospital commissioned by the Continental Congress. It was the first military hospital built in North America and was constructed in 1777-78.

There was a strange note on the June 1778 pay card: “Returned from Hosp. Left out of April pay roll through mistake.” Collings’ pay card for July of 1778 notes “returned.” In September of 1778, he was shown as “In Camp.”

William Collings’ last pay card, undated, is not a pay card at all, rather a “Depreciation on Pay of the Army” in the amount of £73 – 18p –1s” with a statement in the Notes section: “Deserted 17 Mar 80.”

Once again, to Google. How much did William Collings owe the new government of the United States?

Turns out there is no answer. The monetary system of the 1700s makes no sense to us today. Pounds aren’t dollars, shillings aren’t dimes, pence aren’t pennies. If this helps (for me, it did not), 12 pence equaled a shilling, and there were 20 shillings in a pound. I could not find a satisfactory answer to how many pounds equal a dollar. Every state used the pounds, shilling, pence designations, but they determined the value in each state. Conversion to dollars and cents just doesn’t work. I did find a statement that a teacher in 1759 could earn approximately £60, which very roughly (in 2000) would translate to about $4000.

Clearly, William Collings owed a lot of money to the government. That never comes up in any family stories, nor can I definitively prove that this William Collings is my ancestor…which is probably a good thing. I sure don’t want to have the government come after me for that unpaid debt, compounded over 300+ years.

But here’s what I think: I think he was still hurting two years after spending almost 10 months in the hospital recovering from wounds, and I think the War was over, and I think the young government was reluctant to dismiss the soldiers who had really only signed up out of patriotism, not as a career choice.

So this is what I think…I think he just went home.

This Journey

What do you think of when you hear the word “journey?” Merriam-Webster defines it this way:

journey   a noun    jour·​ney | \ ˈjər-nē  \     plural journeys

1 : something suggesting travel or passage from one place to another

2 : an act or instance of traveling from one place to another : TRIP

Journey is not a word we use often, and I think that’s because a journey is more serious, more monumental than a trip or even travel. A trip is routine…a trip to the store, a trip to the doctor, etc. A journey is something we plan for and anticipate, something more calculated and purposeful.

A journey involves more serious consideration. How long will it take, what do I need to bring along, how difficult will this journey be, do I dare subject my family either by preparing them for my absence or by taking them along?

I don’t think the vast majority of people undertake a journey lightly. Journeys are usually something we consider necessary.

I’ve been thinking a lot about journeys while I do my family research. Everyone I know in my life is here because of a journey someone took years ago to reach this country, a country of freedom and opportunity. For the most part, those journeys were dangerous and difficult and involved leaving an entire existence behind to create a new future.

I seriously doubt any of those long-ago travelers just jumped on a tiny ship thinking, “What a lark this will be. When I arrive, all my troubles will be solved.”

I’m pretty sure they knew, or at least suspected, some of the dangers they were facing. I’m also pretty sure they looked at the lives they were living and the futures they were facing and made a hard decision that that sort of life was not what they wanted for themselves or their families.

Of course, there were always those few, a small percentage, who came because they heard the streets were paved with gold, or because they thought their past misdeeds would not follow them or because they thought this was a fertile new ground for lawless activities.

But that was not the majority. The majority was us, or rather those ancestors that paved the way for us. Those who survived the journey. We live in cities built by those survivors; we hold jobs at occupations that became possible because they came and created businesses or grew food and other crops or provided services necessary in the new country.

We are because they were, because they wanted a better life for their children, and because they took the risks, they journeyed, and they survived.

Why do we now assume that anyone who undertakes a similar journey today has not considered the risks? How can we forget that we are the children of immigrants who fled poverty and starvation and tyranny and injustice? All of us; each and every one.

Happy Fourth of July.

The Immigrant

Thousands of immigrants braved the dangerous ocean journey to America. Many of us are descended from people who thought the possibility of a better life was worth the risk of the journey. We’re here because they took the first step.

In genealogy, the first family descendant who left the home country to seek fortune in America is called “the immigrant.”

I’ve finally located the “immigrant” of my Collings branch of the family, the guy who left England and endured the 6 to 14-week ocean journey to make a place for him (and eventually, well…me) in the New World sometime around 1700. His name was Anthony Andrew Collings, and he brought with him his wife, Jane or Jaine.

Anthony was born in Cornwall, England in 1678. Jane has been a little more challenging to track down, and I’m still unsure of her maiden name. It might have been Lancelott, or it might have been Spence. Other reports claim that he was married twice, first to Jane Spence, then to Jane Lancelott. Either scenario leads me down different paths. Because of this uncertainty, I’m not sure what year or where he and Jane were married, but I believe Anthony’s son Zebulon (my ancestor) was born in 1706 in Frederick, Pennsylvania.

In 1712, there are some reports of a daughter Winifred being born in Westmoreland, Virginia. There is also some information about a daughter Elizabeth born in 1712 in Westmoreland, Virginia. That would seem to indicate that Anthony, a twin himself, had twin daughters.

Anthony and Jane at some point moved to Charles County, Maryland where they owned property and lived until their deaths, Anthony in 1754, at age 76.

I don’t know why Anthony came to America, but I have some thoughts and theories (of course I do). There were many reasons people took such a challenging journey, but I think there were probably three main reasons:

  1. The primary goal, of course, the one we all heard in history class in school, was freedom of religion. Major religious conflicts raged throughout the countries of Europe and the British Isles during the 16th, 17th and early 18th centuries. People were desperate to escape persecution and to be able to worship as they wished.
  2.  Another reason was a desire to become landowners and create wealth and security for their family. There were complicated rules for the disbursement of English property upon the death of the owners and titles passed to first sons. Second, third, fourth sons and so on, made do with what they could when fathers died. In America, they could, by hard work and clever trading, become prosperous and successful.
  3. For many, though, the allure of the New World was the adventure. These are the immigrants who just could not be satisfied with the limitations they suffered in their homelands. These were the immigrants who traveled to the new world at any cost, then pushed the boundaries of the country westward.

No one can know for sure why any one particular immigrant came, but I’d like to think that I have figured out Anthony Andrew Collings. He was not the first son of Sir Roger and Elizabeth Collings; he was not the second or third son. He and his twin brother, Roger, were the fourth and fifth sons.

I think that young Anthony Collings, sensing there was little future for himself in England, decided to travel to America to build his own legacy.

Anthony started his American adventure in Westmoreland Co. in the Colony of Virginia, then for some reason moved to Charles Co., in the Colony of Maryland where he lived out his life.

Anthony Collings returned to England, probably around 1715 returning to America in 1716 when he is listed as a passenger on a ship arriving from England. It’s possible this trip had something to do with a disputed inheritance concerning his grandmother, which is an interesting side story, but I find no official records to support that.

I did find, however, that in 1717, one Anthony Collings purchased 100 acres of a 320-acre plantation called Partner’s Content, for the price of “2500# tobacco.” I can’t help but wonder if Anthony returned from his trip to England with enough money to buy this land and start his life as a plantation owner and man of some esteem in his community.

In those early days of our country, property was described on deeds and in legal paperwork by the names of the neighboring plantations and their owners. Several pieces of property in early Maryland records are listed as bordering on or bounded by the property of Anthony Collings. He was also listed in various wills as creditor, appraiser and “test.” which I took to mean that he attested to the signatures of the witnesses of those wills, possibly individuals who could only sign their name with a “mark” or X.

I also found records of his paying for land and other goods with various amounts of tobacco, which was the main crop of those early plantations. The Maryland Tax Roll of 1733 lists him as owning 1 taxable property in “Durham Parish, Upper Part.”

I believe Durham Parish was in Maryland at that time, but one of the fun little tricks of genealogy that I have discovered is that our ancestors may not have moved around in America as often as we thought. It was actually the state, county, and other boundaries that were fluid.

The states of Pennsylvania, Virginia, Maryland and North Carolina all disputed boundaries and claimed land that was or was not theirs well into the late 1700s. The same town could one year be in one state, the next year in another. Sometimes these changes would be accompanied by a county name change, or the familiar county name might show up in a different state at a later date.

Interesting sidebar fact: these disputes continued until two men were sent to survey the disputed areas and established a line from which all future claims could be decided. The names of those men were Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon, and the property line they surveyed, known as the Mason-Dixon Line, played an essential part in the history of our country for many years.

I want to briefly return to the above three reasons immigrants chose to come to America. Strangely, while these immigrants were firm in their determination, second-generation Americans seemed to gravitate to the third category…adventurers.

The newly minted citizens who came seeking religious freedom did establish communities dedicated to their religious beliefs, but many of their children became dissatisfied with the rules and regulations…and began pushing the boundaries of our country westward.

Those men who came to America to obtain land or become merchants and shop owners, ambitions that were never available to them in the Old Country, were often successful and became influential citizens. Their children, though, were reluctant to be tied down by the responsibilities of those same plantations and shops…so they traveled westward to seek their own fortunes.

And the children of the adventurers who simply came to the New World to see what they could see? They kept looking and they, too, pushed west.

My family was no different. That second generation, the children of Anthony Andrew and Jane Collings moved west.

The story continues.


All About the Land Part 2

Early map of the 1700s.

In 1768, after tough negotiations, the Cherokee Indians and the British government finalized the Treaty of Hard Labor to establish a western boundary beyond which the Indians had full rights and the American settlers had none.

The Treaty of Hard Labor relinquished the rights of the Cherokee to most of the territory we now know as West Virginia. The Indians would own the land west of the Ohio River and white settlers (and land speculators) would be able to claim, sell and improve the wilderness in nearly the entire area we now know as West Virginia.

A month later a different set of British negotiators met with the Iroquois and finalized the Treaty of Fort Stanwix which set a different boundary pushing the Indian lands farther west, leaving them the areas that later became Kentucky and Tennessee as their “forever hunting grounds.”

While these treaties opened vast areas of new territory for settlement, government officials had actually given to the Indians territory that early land speculators such as Jacob Hite thought they had already purchased from individual Indian tribes.

You will remember that Jacob Hite, upon learning that his land purchase was voided faced losing everything he owned to settle his debts. He responded by packing up his household goods, slaves and livestock and fleeing to the disputed land he felt he owned.

The British treaties that set these boundaries also set the stage for legal battles with men whose names have become synonymous with Revolutionary patriotism. Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, in particular, had been seeking to purchase land in the area now ceded to the Cherokee Indians. And of course, Jacob Hite was nearly destroyed financially by the treaties and the British insistence that settlers abide by the new boundaries.

The British had their motives. If they could establish certain boundaries to the satisfaction of the Indians, settlers could safely and legally move into new lands and the British would not be called upon to protect those settlers from the Indians who would happily hunt and live in the land further west.

That was the plan, anyway. There were two problems with that plan: 1) no words on paper could stem the flow of those early pioneers who were hungry to claim land of their own, and 2) the entrepreneurs seeking to claim and then sell the land had no intention of letting the British thwart their dreams of wealth.

Jefferson, Washington and every member of the Virginia House of Burgesses felt that the British were imposing impossible limits on the economic growth of their state and, more importantly, on their wealthy citizens. They petitioned the British to revoke the treaties and to allow the state (or colony) of Virginia to annex the areas further west including what we now call Kentucky.

The friction between Indians and settlers, and between British and Americans truly began to smolder towards an explosive situation with the signing of these two treaties.

Freedom from British oppression was something every citizen could get behind, but make no mistake, controlling the land and thus the economy was the spark that triggered the American Revolution.

So, knowing all this, why did my ancestors move from their homes in western Pennsylvania to the Indians beloved hunting grounds in Kentucky?

Because they could. Following the Revolutionary War, the British treaties were no longer valid and American speculators could now officially seek ownership of the Indian land. Individual settlers in small groups could begin to claim the land a few hundred acres at a time. They could move from the smothering rules and regulations that told them what they could and could not do and into the wilderness where they were their own law and government.

Last week when I wrote about the legal problems of Jacob Hite, I thought I was just trying to set the stage for you to understand some of the economic struggles leading up to the Revolutionary War.

This week, I found that Jacob Hite’s story directly relates to my own story. I keep forgetting what a small world that world was!

Hite’s sister, Elizabeth, married a man named John Paul Froman of New Jersey and sometime before 1780, the Froman family moved to that rugged Kentucky territory that Jacob Hite wished to claim. The Froman family established a “station” or small community near Cox’s Creek in the area of the salt licks south of present-day Louisville.

This was the area that Jacob Hite had purchased from the Cherokee.
This was the area where Jacob Hite fled to avoid authorities in Virginia who had attempted to seize his personal property.

And in 1778, George Crist, writing in the Crist family journal, wrote “Me and Nicholas and Henry want to explore the land in Kaintuck that Daniel Boone keeps talking of. He says there is thousands of acres of land waiting to be claimed. Plenty of wild game and wild horses and that the land will grow anything. The Indians are worse there but we think with enough men it will be safe enough.”

We know that Henry did travel to Kentucky several times and experienced at least one adventure as his group was attacked by Indians, an attack he barely survived.

Based on the stories Henry brought back about the rich lands of Kentucky, and the stories of Danial Boone who was actively encouraging settlers, George finally wrote in 1783: “Me, Henry, Nicholas and William and our families and Besy’s parents and their families along with many more it’s about three hundred in all are going to leave in two days to go to Kaintuck.”

William in that passage would be William Elston Collings and the “others” would be his parents and brothers and their families, and that’s how my ancestors began their journey west, settling first in the area of Kentucky known as Froman’s Creek or Froman’s Station near the land of Jacob Hite.

Later, I’ll tell you what it took to make that journey.

All About the Land

Early map of the 1700s.

In spite of the politicians and the press, wars are seldom fought for high ideals. Those advertised high principles and lofty ideals are incentives for the soldiers and the families who send the soldiers, but most wars are more often fought for economic reasons, to gain territory and power, or in retribution.

That may sound cynical but just think about it in terms of the wars you’ve known. I don’t want to get into a heated argument here, I just have some problems with wars in general, and in my genealogical studies, I’ve been reading about the Revolutionary War or the War for Independence.

The patriots who fought in the Revolutionary War, our ancestors, fought for independence from Britain, freedom from the oppressive taxes that England imposed, the ability to govern themselves and the land on which they lived. Lofty and admirable as those principles were, that war was also fought mostly because some of the prominent citizens of our country were unhappy that Britain was blocking their ability to claim and sell (at huge profits) the vast territories to the west of the settled lands of the 13 colonies.

For those of you who slept through jr. high American history, the 1700s were chaotic times in the Colonies. With Indians to the west of us and the Atlantic Ocean to the east of us, with more and more immigrants landing on our shores, owning and selling property became more and more profitable and desirable.

Some of the more well-known patriots, those men we call the “fathers” of our country early on began to look at acquiring ownership of large tracts of land to the west of the Allegheny and Appalachian mountains. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry, George Mason all were eager to acquire rights to property that lay in what we now know as Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky, and Tennessee. And they wanted those lands, not for the greater good…they intended to claim and own those lands for their personal gain.

One particular early land transaction in 1774 that sets the scene involved a man named Jacob Hite, an unapologetic land speculator in the Shenandoah Valley. Jacob’s father Jost Hite had made a great deal of money buying and selling land. Jacob aspired to build his own reputation and fortune in the same way.

Hite and a partner, Richard Pearis, conspired to acquire a large tract of land in the unsettled territories west of what is now South Carolina. This was Indian land, land the natives had hunted and lived in for centuries, but Hite and Pearis had a plan. Pearis had a son named George by a Cherokee Indian woman. Using the son’s standing with the Indians, the two men backed George to buy 150,000 acres of the Cherokee land which he then sold to his father and Hite.

It was a smart plan and should have worked to make the men rich. They would survey the land, divide it into smaller lots and sell it to settlers eager to move into the area and establish their own land holdings.

There was only one serious problem with the plan.

British officials had severe reservations about the wisdom of angering the Indians who had not been consulted or signed on to the sale of the land. The British were at that time on shaky ground as to their relations with the Indians who were attempting to form an anti-British confederation of several tribes.

In the interest of keeping the peace with the Indians, the British convinced a South Carolina court (which after all, ultimately answered to their British rulers) to void the deal.

This left Jacob Hite in severe financial jeopardy. As a land speculator, he had gambled heavily on the sale of these lands to acquire the funds to pay off debts which he now could not pay. In the domino effect often created by gambling and speculation, his creditors also had loans to pay off and at their insistence officials were ordered to seize personal property of Jacob Hite and auction off said property to raise the money to pay his debts.

Jacob was not happy about this solution to his money problems, and he vowed to stop any sale that took place. Gathering together some friends, Hite and a gang of armed men stormed the jail to take back his horses, slaves and other property. Unable to convince the jailor to turn over the keys or open the door, they chopped the door down with axes and then broke the lock on the stable door to retake his property.

Following the raid, Hite fled with his family and his belongings to the land he attempted to purchase in the Cherokee country.

Some of the perpetrators were subsequently arrested and charged with breach of the peace, but were acquitted due to sympathy by the locals for debtors who they felt were wrongly deprived of their personal property. British intervention in local business deals was an unpopular action and was already a factor in the increasing unrest in the colonies.

Following the failure of the legal system to punish Hite’s “gang,” heated verbal battles ensued as accusations flew back and forth between the sheriff, Adam Stephen, whose job it was to seize the property and Hite whose very livelihood depended on not losing his possessions.

Over the next few years Hite and Stephen carried on a bitter rivalry that involved letters in local newspapers and court cases, until in the fall of 1776 when a newspaper report stated: “…Mr. Jacob Hite, who lately removed from Berkeley county to the neighbourhood of the Cherokee country, with his family and a large parcel of negroes, were murdered at his own house by those savages, with most of his slaves, and his wife and children carried off prisoners; his son, who was in the Cherokee country, was likewise murdered.”

This incident was just one example of how important and life-altering ownership of the wilderness land to the west could be to individuals in Colonial America and how anger at the British style of government was simmering.

Next week, I’ll tell you how our patriotic forefathers were involved in similar schemes leading up to the Revolutionary War.

Past as Present

Fire as execution method in the 1600’s.

I thought I would share with you some of the rabbit holes that open up to those of us who go searching for ancestors.

I recently received a long note from my niece that illustrated all of the problems I have already detailed…women’s records are difficult and spotty, common names like Jane and John and William are hard to wade through, families often switch between references to first and middle and then compound names (Michelle, I’d suspect that Sarah Jane actually could be the full name for someone referred to as Sarah and/or Jane).

There is the frustrating use of junior and senior, which in the old days did not necessarily indicate father and son (or mother and daughter) but rather meant older and younger closely related family possibly living in the same house or neighborhood.

Then there’s the rabbit hole of a good story possibly unrelated to your family. I went down that rabbit hole yesterday.

One of my ancestors had a unique middle name. In researching his father, I found that I had two choices for his mother, both with the same first name, but one with the last name that matched my ancestor’s middle name. That was a pretty good clue as to which possible mother I should track, so I began to look for that surname which was Elston.

I casually scrolled down several pages of search results, finding several probable new relatives when I was struck by one result that read “A Warning for Bad Wives or The Manner of the Burning of Sarah Elston Who was Burnt to Death on Wednesday the 24th of April 1678 For Murdering her Husband….”


I had no indication that where were any ancestors named Sarah or Thomas Elston in that generation of my Elston line, but how could I pass up a story like this? I couldn’t.

It was a most controversial case, raising all the questions that we struggle with in this day and age. On the bare facts of the case, Sarah’s crime would appear to be a matter of self-defense. During a heated argument, Thomas had beat Sarah severely with a fire shovel and was reaching for a frying pan to continue the abuse when Sarah stabbed him in the left chest with a pair of scissors.

An editorial note here: a frying pan would not have been a lightweight, one-egg Teflon pan like we use today—it would have been a large, cast iron skillet and would have probably resulted in a totally different outcome for Thomas and Sarah.

The story does, however, include much testimony from neighbors and paints a picture of regular marital strife including violent arguments, physical altercations and loud and public threats of future revenge and even death.

Neighbors told of Sarah’s threats on her husband’s life and how her drunkenness and profligate spending had driven him to try “to beat her out of this wicked course, and to that end [he] did sometimes chastise her with blows…”

Thomas was described as “troubled and disturbed” by his need to use violence on his wife, violence that included throwing her down the stairs on the night of the final argument.

Witnesses heard Thomas “wish himself dead, or that he had been buried alive that day he was married to her” and Sarah’s threats that at one time or other she would kill him.

Historian J.M. Beattie, PhD. is a professor in the History Department of the University of Toronto, and he wrote extensively about crime and law in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. He commented on this case, and I’m sure many will be upset by what he says, but remember, he is telling it like it was in the 1600’s.

He says the “self-defense plea was inappropriate in the context of husband-murder” because “in law, wielding a knife or pair of scissors against a man who used mere bodily force or a blunt instrument indicated excessive retaliation,” not legitimate self-defense.

Bottom line, Sarah was found guilty and burned at the stake for her crime. At the stake, before her sentence was carried out, it was reported that she said, “notwithstanding all his Abuses,” she still felt that “she had done very ill in lifting up her hand against her Husband, and offering to revenge her self of him.”

My guess is that all law enforcement officers would recognize these events back in the 1600’s as exactly the kind of domestic situations they find themselves called out on in this day and age.

You see how I get involved in this research and end up being late to work or unable to eke out time to write or forget to go to bed at a reasonable time!

Once again, I must say, schools should teach history this way, with genealogical research. The problems, the relationships, the issues, the hopes and dreams of the past are all present now in the lives we live every day.

Probably some of the truest words ever spoken are George Santayana’s: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” (Yes, Winston Churchill said something like this, but Santayana said it first.)

I think I might add that those who can’t understand the past will never understand the present.

Odds and Ends

Writing a journal may seem a boring thing to do, but it can tell the story of a life lived.

This past week has had an air of the terrible,-horrible,-no-good,-very-bad-day story. Without going into details, it’s enough to say that, in case anyone noticed, I did not get my usual Thursday blog posted.

Please don’t worry, there is no physical or even long-lasting mental damage…just the frustration of huge projects that did not get completed and co-workers who moved on to greener pastures and the looming holiday that I cannot seem to get under control.

So, today, a few days late, you are getting a bag of odd sand ends of facts and thoughts. This may not be too satisfying for you the reader but will clear my plate for a continuation of family stories after the holidays! There are more adventures to come.

Some readers (well, one reader) wanted a little more information about Henry Crist, survivor of the attack and long journey home on hands and knees.

During and after a long recovery from his injuries, Henry became a salt-maker and acquired several parcels of land in the Bullitt County and Shepherdsville area of future Kentucky. As a land owner and respected businessman he participated in the act of creating the state of Kentucky, became a justice of the peace, was duly elected to serve in the state legislature representing Nelson County and later, Bullitt County. He went on to serve in the 11th Congress of the United States (1809-1811) and was commissioned a general in the Kentucky state militia.

Henry died in Shepherdsville, KY in 1844 and was buried there, but in 1869, the Kentucky Legislature elected to recognize his service to the young state by having his remains moved to Frankfort, Kentucky, the state capitol, where a monument stands in his honor.

I want to explain once again that Henry Crist is not a direct relative of mine, but the Crist family is related to mine by marriage and by long time association. I came upon the Crist story while doing research into my family, the Collings. At one point, I became very frustrated trying to account for one of the women of the family at a certain point in our history.

Family research is interesting and frustrating at the same time, but it is further complicated because the records of females mostly depends on the records of their fathers and their husbands.

I was delighted to finally answer an important question about my fifth great grandmother with the help of the Crist family journal or account book. For this reason, I have become a strong advocate for journaling.

A group of us talked about this in a writing workshop recently. Journaling is one of those activities which seems mundane and kind of useless at the time, but which records for all times the details of a life lived. I’m sure that Nicolaus Heinrich Crist had no idea when he started his journal, that one day over 200 years later, I would find one line written in that journal that would answer a burning question for my family (or at least for me).

Today, more than ever before, we have a problem with recording the details of ordinary lives. Living on into eternity we will have official records of the politics of the day, the wars we fight, the major disasters we experience. But where will future generations read about how we as individuals feel about those events?

I read in the Crist journal about how families suffered during the Revolutionary War and how it felt to have sons fighting, knowing that any news of their fate could take months to reach them. I read about the concerns of traveling into unexplored wilderness and setting off for a land only heard of in other travelers’ tales.

Nicolaus Heinrich Crist wrote early on in his journal these words: “I am going to write in my account book about me so if we die they will know who we are.”

I can’t think of a better reason to start a journal and would only change the word “if” to “when” to make it the motto of my own writings.

Desperate Journey

Cover on both shores made for dangerous travel.

Henry Crist thought he was about to die. As far as he knew, all his companions and his business partner were dead, killed in the sudden and brutal attack on their way up the Salt River to Mud Garrison. He had watched from the riverbank as the woman in their party was captured, and during his frantic escape he had been shot in the foot. Unable to walk upright, Henry crawled deep into the brush and assessed his situation.

As he lay weak from loss of blood and the terror of the battle, he though some of the men made it into the woods. Crepps, who had been running beside him, was hit by a ricocheting bullet and had disappeared into the brush, bleeding.

Henry was wounded and alone, his only hope to reach the closest settlement, Bullitt’s Lick. With the bones in his heel shattered, he tried to stand, but fell to the ground He would have to crawl.

Still bleeding, Henry removed his moccasins and tied them to his knees with strips of cloth torn from his shirt. He wrapped his hands with his hat and pieces of his hunting vest and began to crawl. All day, he moved slowly on hands and knees, following the river towards safety. He crawled over rocky ground, down into ravines and up out of them.

Knowing he needed to cross the river, he crawled until nightfall, then found a fallen log, slowly rolled it into the river, climbed on and let it float him across to the other side. There he pulled himself into a thicket and tried to rest. Exhausted, scared and weak, he lay on his back with his swollen, inflamed leg propped up, but found no relief and very little sleep.

Staring at the stars, he wondered if he would die. He thought about the battle. Could they have done anything different? Could he have done more to save the men who died? Were they all dead? He thought he had seen Moore escape and Crepps, though shot, he had last seen running, so perhaps they were alive. He thought about the woman and how steadfastly she had refused to move from the boat. If he had physically picked her up, they both would have been captured or killed. Should he have done that?

As despair set in, Henry made up his mind that he must move on if he wanted to survive. He couldn’t just curl up and die in the forest with no one knowing his fate. He renewed the makeshift padding on his hands and knees with the last of his shirt and trousers and began to crawl.

Sometime deep into the night, he saw a campfire and heard a dog barking ahead of him. He hesitated. How desperate was he? Should he call out for help? Creeping closer, he heard the voices of a group of Indians. Fear washed over him, and he lay flat to the ground and very still. As the voices quieted, the dog stopped barking and the fire died down to embers, he moved away from the camp as quietly as he could. He dropped into the water of a small branch of the river and pulled himself across large river rocks so as to leave no trail.

As morning began to bring light, Henry crawled up a small hill, hoping to be able to get his bearings. As he looked out over the land around him, all he could see was wilderness. He had not eaten nor had decent water since the day before the battle. Hunger, exhaustion and terrible pain washed over him.

He reckoned that Bullitt’s Lick was nearly 8 miles away and that he was able to crawl but a half mile an hour. He rested briefly, adjusted the wrappings and set off again. His injured leg was now so swollen and painful that he could no longer bear to use it, it dragged uselessly behind as he moved forward, but he knew he must keep moving.

Through another day and night, he crawled, resting—crawling—resting—crawling, ever so slowly, painfully. He could not give up. He would not give up.

As the third day of his ordeal turned into early evening, he knew he must be nearing the settlement, but he was growing so weary and so weak he finally began to consider that he might die. Even worse, he might reach Bullitt’s Lick only to die from his wounds.

As darkness fell, he could see numerous campfires that must be Bullitt’s Lick, but still over half a mile away and he had no strength left. He was nearly delirious from hunger and pain and he could crawl no further. His hands and his remaining knee were bloody raw wounds that were almost as painful as his wounded leg.

As he lay there exhausted and hopeless, he heard the sounds of a horseman approaching. Could it be? Could help be here now? He called out, weakly at first then louder. He heard the horseman stop briefly, then take off—riding away fast.

His last hope passed him by. He closed his eyes and gave in to death, wishing he had just been killed in the boat with his companions.

Meanwhile, the frightened horseman rode into the Bullitt’s Lick camp, shouting that Indians had called out to him along the path, babbling about being called by a name he didn’t recognize. The men in the camp realized that Indians would not have called to him but, more likely, would have killed him. An armed group quickly formed to find whoever was lurking outside their camp.

In the gathering darkness, they came upon the half-dead, 24-year-old Henry Crist, barely conscious and gravely wounded and brought him back to camp.

Henry survived, making a long slow recovery over the next year. He went on to live a long and productive life in the frontier territory that became the state of Kentucky, serving in the state legislature and even a term as a representative in the US Congress in Washington, D.C.

Henry Crist, one of those ancestors who crossed the Atlantic to America to seek a better life, who survived hardships we can only imagine and who helped build that better life for those of us who came after him.

Henry Crist

Cover on both shores made for dangerous travel.

A couple of weeks ago I told you about Henry Crist, one of the early pioneers of the Kentucky Territory and a sort of left handed relative of mine. From the age of around 15, Henry, along with members of his family and mine, made several trips into the Kentucky Territory. At a very early age Henry began working with a man named Jacob Myers, locating and laying claim to large tracts in the wilderness.

The most valuable commodity in this new land, besides the game, was the land itself…and salt. Salt deposits near the streams drew herds of deer and buffalo which drew hunters. The hunters required large quantities of salt to preserve their meat. But salt was expensive and difficult to transport over the mountains from the east.

The discovery that the area contained salt laden clay which leached into the waters, made this a prime area for the first industry in Kentucky…salt making.

Entrepreneurs found they could produce large quantities of salt by boiling away the water in huge kettles over a trench of fire.

In 1788, Henry Crist, with a friend named Solomon Spears, obtained interest in a production site called Long Lick. In the spring of that year, the two men purchased a quantity of large kettles in Louisville and hired a flatboat with crew to transport them by river to their claim.

Crew and passengers, totaling twelve men and one woman, boarded the boat to travel along the Ohio to the Salt River, then up that river to a place called Mud Garrison, located near where modern-day Shepherdsville, Kentucky now stands.

You need to understand that in the late 1700’s, rivers were the interstates the pioneers used to move goods. On the map, the area of the salt licks was almost directly south of Louisville and not that far by land, but to move the heavy cargo of huge 100-pound kettles, the river was the route of choice.

The spring levels of the Ohio and Salt rivers made the journey somewhat easier. The water flowed above the sand banks and by May, the current was fairly slow and dependable. The broad Ohio was safe and easy. Traveling down the center of the river, boats and their passengers were out of reach of any sudden attacks from the ever-present Indians on shore, but upon entering the much narrower Salt River, the boats were in range of rifles and arrows from both shores. For this reason, the men sent out scouts on foot to watch for danger.

On the evening of their first day on the Salt River, Henry and a man named Floyd went ashore as scouts. While they did see some sort of trail, they found no recent evidence of Indians. Early in the morning they returned and around eight o’clock the crew took the boat ashore to cook and eat breakfast.

As they chained their boat to a tree, the party could hear what sounded like the gobbling of many turkeys and two of the crew, anxious to acquire fresh game, headed into the brush with their rifles. As they disappeared over the riverbank, gunfire and yelling erupted.

Horrified, the men on the boat watched as the two hunters reappeared, running for their lives, pursued by several Indians.

Henry Crist was standing in the bow of the boat with his rifle and he was able to fire at the pursuers causing them to drop back and seek cover. As the two hunters reached the water’s edge and climbed into the boat, others were able to retrieve their rifles and return fire. One of the would-be hunters was hit by a bullet which broke his arm, but he managed to get into the river and around to the back side of the boat to be hauled in by his companions.

The huge salt kettles had been loaded in rows down either side of the boat forming a long corridor in the center. Unfortunately, the boat, chained to a tree, was bow to the shore, allowing the Indians to shoot down the length of the boat, providing no cover for the defenders.

Desperate to loosen the chain that bound them to shore, the men needed to free the boat to gain cover and some mobility. Fossett, the injured hunter, could no longer use his rifle, so he grabbed a pole and with covering fire from the others began trying to dislodge the hook on the chain. Eventually, he was able to loosen the chain and the boat began drifting into the river, slowly turning so that the sides faced the bank, finally giving some cover from the Indians’ rifle fire.

With this short respite, the survivors took inventory of the damage. Five men lay dead. Spears, Floyd, Fossett and Boyce were injured, Spears so seriously that it was evident he would not survive. Only three men, Crepps, Moore and Henry Crist were uninjured.

Spears as he lay dying, urged the men to run the boat up on the opposite shore and run for their lives leaving him to his fate, but his companions refused to abandon him.

Ahead of the boat, the men could see a group of Indians crossing the river. They were now under fire from either side making a river escape impossible. As Spears breathed his last, the others saw they must do as he had advised: run the boat aground, separate and hide in the woods.

As the men clambered out of the boat, Crepps and Crist reached out to help the woman disembark, but she was frozen with fear and refused to move. No amount of coaxing would get her to budge and finally, the men had to use their rifles to cover their own escape into the woods.

Hopeless and desperate, the men charged the Indians that attempted to block their escape and managed to get past them, but as they slipped into the covering brush, the Indians fired a last volley. One shot ricocheted off a rock and struck Crepps in the side. Another bullet struck Crist in the heel, breaking several bones in his foot.

Looking back from their cover, the men saw the Indians turn and converge on the boat to take their woman companion captive. While the Indians were thus distracted, Crepps and Crist escaped into the woods where they became separated.

Next week, I’ll tell you of Crist’s desperate fight for survival.

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