All I Know

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Category: Story

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….”

Wait…what?

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.

Research

The Book. Thanks to Kenneth Scott, Connie Hackman, Leona Lawson. This is Vol. 1. Vol. 2 is now available and information is now being sought for Vol. 3.

I never make New Year’s Resolutions and it’s a good thing because I’ve already missed my blog posting schedule every week this year.

In my defense, I have been doing a lot of research for the blog, but none of it is ready for publication, so I’m just writing this (late) post freestyle.

This is the second weekend in a row that we’ve been “snowed in” here in my neighborhood. I’m okay with that. My sister pointed out this morning that the number of inches of snow on the ground during a snow emergency directly corresponds to the number of pounds gained over that same snow emergency. Seems about right.

Now, about the research I’m doing to help me continue my family stories here on my blog:

Research is hard

I just spent a frustrating few days trying to access old newspaper clippings without paying outlandish “membership” fees for the rest of my life. I finally managed to use my library’s credentials to get into the archives to find the information I sought, but there was too much wasted time for the few details that emerged. Once again, I found I had the facts, but not the whole story…and that’s my motto: The story is the thing.

I have many of the hard facts, birth dates, death dates, etc. They’ve been available to me thanks to a huge book compiled by three distant relatives, Kenneth Scott, Connie Hackman, and Leona Lawson, who tracked the descendants of our ancestor William Edward Collings and pulled together the details of the Pigeon Roost Massacre. I will be forever grateful that they not only tackled this massive project, but they saw it through to completion.

Seriously, though, where does a story begin? That can be a huge problem for a story teller. How much background does one need before telling a story? My family story doesn’t begin at Pigeon Roost, it doesn’t begin when the family moved to the Indiana territory, it doesn’t even begin when they moved to Kentucky. I haven’t found the beginning yet and I’m not sure I will, but I’m still trying.

Research is confusing

As soon as you think you have the facts nailed down, along comes someone’s opinion or some other researcher’s notes or a date that’s slightly off from all the dates you’ve carefully recorded. If the birth year has always been 1724 until you read another family tree and find the date quoted as 1754, those lost or found 30 years can change the whole sequence of later events.

I did have that happen with one person’s birth date. Children and events didn’t line up quite the way they should, so I did the math and found that she appeared to be 110 when she died. That seemed highly unlikely back in the 1700’s so I had to spend another day running that information down, trying to find out which was incorrect, her birth date or her death date.

Official government records are fairly reliable, but they are difficult to come by and more so as the story reaches further back into history. I found one official petition by some residents of Kentucky to government officials requesting that Kentucky be allowed to become a state. Several of my ancestors are shown as signers of this petition, so that places them in a general area on a specific date.

I’ll be sharing that petition on this blog in the future because of one section that makes me smile to read how wily the pioneers were in selling their argument.

And then there are the names

I wrote about the naming conventions used by German families, but seriously, names like William and John, used in generation after generation with (maybe) a different middle name (maybe not), do not serve researchers well. Luckily the Collings have some rather unique first names like Spencer and Zebulon and Kearnes and Phoebe (Phebe), but they crop up in many generations, so once again, dates are so important.

Consistent spelling of names was not a high priority in history. I have in my background Collings, Collins, (possibly) Kollings, Nicholas, Nichols, Nicolaus, etc. Doing a search on inaccurate last name spelling has been somewhat of a nightmare even today. That newspaper article I was researching, the one I almost didn’t find, finally turned up when I searched an alternate spelling of the last name.

Researching the women

One of my biggest frustrations is the lack of records for women. Often wives’ maiden names are never provided, they mostly didn’t own property, and when men had two or three wives (pioneer life was especially hard for women) the children of the men were not always listed according to the proper mothers.

When women married more than once, their second marriage only recorded their previous married name, not their maiden name.

Most disconcerting, women just seemed to randomly disappear from family stories. That’s actually what got me started on this journey through my family history.

In all the stories of Pigeon Roost, there was no detail about where or what happened to William Elston Collings’ wife, Phebe, mother and grandmother of many of the victims. William and his two teenage children resisted the Indians, the details of their escape have been told, but there was no word of Phebe, his wife. Many, many researchers claim that she died in the massacre, but she did not.

So, I went looking for her…and found her. Never fear. I’ll tell you that story, too!

Coming Together

The historic marker for Brashear’s Station shows the names Crist and Collings as early settlers.

This is an unfocused week…returning to work after the holidays, getting ready for Spring semester classes at the college where I work, returning the house to some semblance of organized comfort.

This week I finally got my Christmas tree put away. In the interest of honesty, you need to know that my Christmas tree is 1 foot tall with tiny little ornaments and has been sitting on my coffee table for about two weeks. “Putting it away” involves carrying it to the spare bedroom and sitting it on a top shelf of the bookcase.

So, it’s been difficult to get back into blog writing and I have struggled all week (in addition to the above chores) to come up with a subject I can settle into.

You can see how scattered my mind is when you notice I ended the above sentence with a preposition…a very bad thing to do, but a habit I struggle with. There, I did it again. I’m reminded of a letter E.B. White, one of my writing heroes, wrote that went like this:

Dear Jack:

The next grammar book I bring out I want to tell how to end a sentence with five prepositions. A father of a little boy goes upstairs after supper to read to his son, but he brings the wrong book. The boy says, ‘What did you bring that book that I don’t want to be read to out of up for?’

If E.B. White can find a way to end a sentence with 5 prepositions, I guess I can get away with one or two!

Now, to focus…

I believe it is time to pull my family story together, tie up the loose threads that led to the Crist stories I’ve been sharing and show how they lead to my own story.

I was born a Nicholas. I come to that name from the Collings line, who married into the Richey line, who eventually married into the Phegley family, who married into the Nicholas line.

So, you see, I am a Collings, a Richey, a Phegley, and a Nicholas, which brings up the question, as the television show asks…who do you think you are?

And that’s just on my dad’s side of the story. We all profess to want to be our own person, but how can that be? Like it or not, we are a product of our ancestors.

My ancestors fought Indians, started pioneer businesses, petitioned the young American government for land, hacked a life out of the wilderness. Don’t tell anyone, but there are criminals in my background and people who might not have treated the Indians so well when we moved into their hunting grounds.

The Crist family and the Collings family have traveled together, lived alongside each other, and supported each other through many adventures. Every time I told you a story about a man named Crist, there was a man named Collings standing nearby. And how that all was set into motion is still a mystery to me.

Nicolaus Heinrich Crist, in the account book given to him by his father, related that William Edward Collings, a boyhood friend, traveled the high seas with the Crist brothers when they came to America from Germany.

I can’t document that. As a matter of fact, all my research proves quite the opposite.

Every reference I have found in my family tree tells me that the Collings family (my Collings family) originated in England and that my ancestor named William Edward Collings was born in the Colonies in what was then called Pennsylvania, son of Zebulon Collings who was also recorded as being born in Pennsylvania.

While it would seem that the account book is wrong about William Edward Collings and therefore not to be trusted or used as reference, later entries in the journal have this Crist friend, William Edward Collings, producing a son named William Elston Collings and a daughter (among other offspring) named Elizabeth. That I can document as part of my family history. I am descended from William Elston Collings who had a sister named Elizabeth, both children of William Edward Collings.

There is some speculation that the entire journal of the Crist family is a fabrication, but I’m not buying that. There is enough fact in the journal that I can corroborate, so I choose to take it as a story based on mostly facts.

Family stories are like that. They take on a life of their own. They contain kernels of truth that help us know who we are and where we come from, even though they might also contain dramatic flourishes that keep us engaged in the story. And be honest with me and with yourself…you’ve enjoyed the stories, right?

Maybe the Collings and the Crists did not travel to America together, but they did travel through America and through history together, and that I can prove, so the journal has served as a lasting story of a life we can only imagine.

Nicolaus Crist’s son George married William Edward Collings’ daughter Elizabeth, sister to William Elston Collings. That fact I can document. It happened and it became very important to my future story line.

William Elston Collings, son of William Edward, was the patriarch of the group who traveled in 1809 from Kentucky into the territory that later became Indiana.

To be more precise they moved into southern Indiana near what is today Vienna, Indiana. This group, consisting of many Collings family members, settled in an area they called Pigeon Roost. There they built cabins, laid claim to land and planted crops. And there, many of their stories ended, but thankfully my story continued, so you see, it is my duty to tell this.

This is my family and now, over the next few weeks, I will begin to tell you their story.

Story

So, I’ve been thinking a lot about story lately. Not a particular story, but story as an abstract noun…story as an idea.

Seriously, where does a story begin? It’s an important and very tough question for any writer. Does it start with the event I want to write about, or does it start with how my characters came to the place or time of the event, or does it start even further back to previous events that had to happen for this event I’m writing about to even be possible?

We have this idea that a story is simple thing with a beginning, a middle and an end, but those facts alone can drive a writer crazy, because often there is no beginning, no end. I love a line in the song “Closing Time” by Semisonic that says “every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end.” There’s the definition of story in a nutshell.

For the longest time, storytelling was the only way of recording history. Before reading and writing were skills shared by nearly everyone, only the storytellers held our history. It was a powerful

Plato said: “Those who tell the stories rule society.”

position in any tribe or family to be the one who knew and could tell the stories. The storyteller was the one you went to with questions that did not have yes or no answers, questions like “where did we come from?” “why do we look the way we look?” “why don’t we eat this or that plant?” “why do we fear the big winds?”

Storytelling was entertainment, education, and moral compass. Sadly, we no longer hold the storyteller in high regard. Storytelling has been reduced to joke telling. Everyone loves a good joke, but they expect it to last no longer than, say, a minute and a half and it must have a good punchline.

Storytelling is an important skill and something we should appreciate, and I believe we should all develop and nurture storytelling in ourselves and in others. Stories are how we learn about each other, how we come to understand those around us and how we explain ourselves to the world.

During a 2012 TED talk, filmmaker Andrew Stanton told of a card that children’s TV personality, Mr. Rogers, carried with him. On the card he’d copied a quote from a social worker he knew. It said: “Frankly, there isn’t anyone you couldn’t learn to love once you’ve heard their story.”

I don’t know if that’s true, but I do know that every person has a story and that story when it is told can make a difference in the way the world sees us and deals with us. And if our story is never told? That, too, makes a huge difference in the way we fit into the world.

I think the most important fact of any story, the one thing that every story must have, the kernel that every listener wants to find in a story is …why?

Even if the final answer to that question is “we just don’t know,” the story can help us understand why it is we just don’t know. In the telling, the story is the answer, whether we like the ending or not.

To Tell a Story

In my humble opinion, it takes a pretty big ego to say or even claim one is a writer. I’m still working on that. What I think I am is a story teller, which is a very different animal. Writers aren’t always good story tellers and vice versa…a story teller is often a lousy writer. In very rare situations you do find a person who can handle both.

Photos are stories we tell when we can’t say the words. I think that’s why I fell in love with photography. I love to look at old photos like this and imagine the stories.

Stephen King comes to mind, Mark Twain was the ultimate story telling writer and I would love to meet Jessamyn West some day at Starbucks just to hear her stories (yes, I know she has passed but I’d still like to talk with her).

See, writing is about rules and structure. Story telling is more free form. A writer can write something very learned and even readable as long as he sticks with the norm, stays on the path. A story teller, on the other hand, just as often wanders off into the brush chasing rabbits and deer before bringing you, the listener, back around to an ending you never saw coming.

And here’s the thing, the story teller’s tale does NOT have to sound the same the next time it is told. Stories are alive, they live and breathe, they grow and change with the audience, the teller, the time they are told. A story floats in time. It can begin yesterday when you thought of it, or it can begin two years ago when you made the decision to turn right instead of left. It can end now, at the telling, but it can go on in time to the next telling and the next, never really ending.

A story can be true or it can be a lie, but a good story teller always makes you at least WANT to believe.

I have stories always waiting to be told. I can tell at least two stories about a visit to Boston, one about a visit to Montreal and probably several about my travels in Haiti. I met and talked with Al Unser in Albuquerque, NM in 1965, fell for the old broken-part-on-your-car-but-there’s-only-one- in-town-and-it’ll-cost-$300 scam in a little gas station in Arizona and toured the Texas-Mexico border with the border patrol. I’ve lived through a flood, witnessed a helicopter crash, seen horrible things that tear at the soul, and I can tell you stories about all of it.

Lately, I’ve been doing genealogical research and the most important thing that I’ve discovered is that we all have stories. Stories tell us who we are and sometimes even why we are who we are. No one tells a story about something unimportant to them so stories also tell us about the teller.

I know stories about my generation and have been told stories about the previous generation. I know those people and I can tell the next generation about them. That family history deserves to live on when the people are gone. I’ve heard it said that we never really die until our name is never again spoken. Our stories keep us alive.

I have a real fascination with words, their meanings, their origins, their evolution, so it’s not lost on me that the root word of history is story. As I’ve learned about my ancestors, I can’t help but learn about the daily life they saw and experienced, the world events they lived. It’s made history come alive for me in a way school history classes never did.

I started out telling stories with photos, the gradually I found my words, but a few years ago, I lost my “story vision,” that part of me that saw the stories all around me. I’m working to get that back. Over the next few blogs, the weeks or months I am able to keep this up, I want to tell stories of my family and find new stories that can speak to my readers. The other day, in my car at a red light, I looked over and the lady in the car next to me, also waiting, sat with her face buried in her hands, sobbing. There was a story there, but the light changed and as we have all been trained and must, traffic moved on. I’ll never know that story, but I will continue to watch for the stories that I can know, listen to the stories of others and more importantly, tell them so the lessons, understood or not, are not lost.

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