Welcome to my world

Category: Historical (Page 1 of 3)

Heading West

Maybe we headed west in short bursts, stopping for a time when the weather got bad or the wagon broke down.

When I last wrote about my family, I was in the process of moving William Edward Collings, his wife Anne and their two young sons, Zebulon and Spencer, from New Jersey to southwestern Pennsylvania. The majority of actual “facts” I had turned up showed that the two boys were born in New Jersey in 1745 and 1750. The third Collings child, Elizabeth was recorded as born in Pennsylvania in 1752.

It seemed logical to me that since my family had spent a large part of their lives in southwestern Pennsylvania, they must have traveled there sometime between 1750 and 1752.

There were two important facts that I ignored by making that assumption:

  • Pennsylvania from east to west is a long state which would take weeks if not months to span, and
  • the area of southwestern Pennsylvania where they were headed was not necessarily Pennsylvania in 1752. Virginia was claiming the country around the headwaters of the Ohio River and therefore assuming it was called Pennsylvania at that time was a bit of a mistake. Oops.

I began working these problems out when I also discovered that my family’s ultimate goal, the area around what is today Pittsburgh, PA, was in the bullseye of the French and Indian War, officially dated 1756 to 1763 but fueled by territorial conflicts from the early 1750s. Why would William Edward set out to put his family in such a dangerous location?

A casual, friendly conversation with a co-worker provided some insight. Not realizing what I was starting, I asked my friend about the origin of his unique family name and he said he was of Armenian descent. My blank look triggered much more information. Michael told me that Armenia is the oldest Christian based country in the world, the first state in the world to adopt Christianity as its official religion in the late 3rd or early 4th century AD.

Armenia isn’t a country often mentioned or studied in geography/history class in school, so I went looking for some context. Armenia is located between the Caspian and the Black Seas, south of Russia, north of Iraq and Iran and east of Turkey. According to Wikipedia, during World War I, Armenians living in their ancestral lands in the Ottoman Empire were systematically exterminated during a time called the Armenian Genocide. This genocide was carried out during and after World War I and implemented in two phases—the wholesale killing of the able-bodied male population through massacre and subjection to forced labor, followed by the deportation of women, children, the elderly, and the infirm on death marches leading to the Syrian Desert and resulting in the systematic mass murder and expulsion of 1.5 million ethnic Armenians between 1914 and 1923.

My friend told me that his grandparents seldom talked about their past, so he had little knowledge of how these events affected his family beyond the fact that they did flee the country. Shortly before his grandfather died, Michael did talk with him some about the family history and found that his was a family that was nomadic for several years. They would travel to a seemingly welcoming country, settle, learn the language begin to assimilate, then for one reason or another, move on seeking a better life. His family eventually arrived in the US, settling in Michigan, but Michael says he has a lot of relatives in France and some scattered throughout Europe.

Michael’s story got me thinking about my own family. Their move west didn’t have to be one great journey across the wide expanse of Pennsylvania. They may have moved in several short bursts, constantly seeking the perfect place. The New Jersey they left in the early 1750s was fairly civilized with laws and boundaries and commerce. Western Pennsylvania was wild and new and they may have moved into that wilderness just a few steps at a time, gradually moving on as they sought that perfect place to build a life.

What I do know is they eventually settled in an area of western Pennsylvania in a county called Yohogania County. I have read court records of the area for the 1770s and found familiar names: Isaac Cox, Nicholas Crist, George Crist, Henry Newkirk, Joseph & William Breshers, Paul Froman, and Hogland. This cast of players all continue to show up in future adventures of the Collings family.

In these court records, William Edward’s grown sons Zebulon and Spencer appear to have been landowners at this time in this place because I see them charged with maintaining roadways near their property. They may have been a little rowdy too, as court records show them posting bail and having bail posted for them for various suits (with no details as to what the alleged misdeeds were).

Those old court records, by the way, are full of fun stories and I may share some of them with you at a later date. Just an example to whet your appetite:

  • In one the court ordered that “…the Sheriff Imploy a Workman to build a Ducking Stool at the Confluence of the Ohio with the Monongohale and…”
  • and another ruled that “On the Motion of Saml’l Semple, It is Ord(ered) that his Mark be recorded a Crop of the right Ear and a Nick in the Edge.” One would hope that this is the recording of a brand or mark to be made on an animal…not on a slave.

William Edward and Ann Collings and their family lived in this area for over 20 years as the states of Virginia and Pennsylvania battled the British in the Revolutionary War and later as they wrangled over ownership of their territories in the west.

Old Records

More interesting than you would expect, more puzzling, too, raising questions you never even considered.

A few weeks into my pandemic inspired confinement, I decided to spend my time like many of my friends who wrote about how productive they became. They were organizing clothes closets and Tupperware collections, moving furniture to increase the feng shui of their bedrooms, creating gourmet meals from canned beans and frozen chopped spinach.

Inspired, I decided to rebuild my family tree and nail down actual dates—birth, death, marriage, etc. I expected this to be a boring, very detail driven exercise, but that seemed to be the way to pass the hours and avoid the mind-numbing alternative of binge watching every episode of Law & Order.

I began with my generation which went very fast. I have three sisters and a brother and their birth certificates on record just proved the birth dates I already knew. One generation done, I moved on to my mom and dad’s generation. Here, I decided to expand to include my aunts and uncles…and the fun began. You have no idea how interesting official records are until you start doing genealogical research!

I found a birth certificate for a male child named Stanley L. with my grandmother and grandfather listed as parents. I had never heard of an Uncle Stanley. I thought perhaps this was a child who had been stillborn or died in infancy and never mentioned, but the official record stated this was a live birth and the birth weight would indicate an extremely healthy baby. The best clue on the certificate was the birthdate which was the same day as the family-recognized birthdate of my Uncle Jock.

Jock, of course, was a nickname, but I knew his given name to be Howard, very surely not Stanley. Howard was on my uncle’s death certificate; Howard was on his tombstone. Neither of my uncles, nor my dad had a middle name, so a baby named Stanley L. was a huge mystery.

I contacted a cousin who has been at this genealogical game longer than I, and asked about Stanley L. He told me he had discovered this a few years ago when his mom was still alive and asked her about it. Her simple explanation…an error on the birth certificate.

I can’t stop thinking about what my uncle, who all his life went by Howard or Jock, would have to go through today to try to get that ID level driver’s license we are all eventually going to carry. Try to explain to a clerk in the BMV that your birth certificate is just wrong…I can only imagine how that would go.

Just like that, I found that official records could be as much fun and as entertaining as the history I had been chasing earlier.

I went on to find several more interesting facts:

  • my Uncle Bud, whose given name was Harold, was shown on his birth certificate as Herald;
  • my great grandfather had been married twice and had a son with his first wife. The boy was about 3 when the first wife died, around 5 when my great grandfather married my great grandmother and went on to have 9 more children. I vaguely remember an Uncle John, but never knew he was a half sibling;
  • my great uncle, Uncle Pete was not named Pete or Peter, he was named Charles Walter;
  • my grandmother had two siblings who died in childhood in July 1916;
  • my mother’s sister who died from diphtheria in 1932, was seen by a doctor for about a week prior to her passing;
  • my great great grandfather died in 1934…or maybe he died in 1891, I have more research to do on that one.

Interestingly, death certificates list cause of death, other known illnesses, occupations, marital status, and parents, including a mother’s maiden name when known. Death certificates are vitally important to researchers, but not easily found for deaths prior to  1920 or so

I’ve only found official records back about four generations and I realize they will become very difficult to find as I reach back further and further, but this has been an entertaining way to spend time over the last few months.

Oh, and one more thing I learned…Ancestry.com owns almost all the online historical information you will ever go looking for…. I don’t have to drive town to town, county to county, state to state to find these records, but I do have to pay a fee to a for-profit company. Very convenient, yet somehow disturbing and very modern.

Why I Wear a Mask

The sign of the times in the 1920s and 30s.

See if these phrases sound familiar:

  • “There is no vaccine. Prevention is by frequent handwashing, not sharing personal items and staying away from other people when sick.”
  • “It was thought that the disease could be spread through the innocent kiss between a mother and child, neither showing symptoms more serious than a sore throat, yet a “kiss of death” harbouring and unknowingly spreading “the strangler.”

You might think these are unique times, that we are in a “special” place in history, that we must learn lessons from this current pandemic of Corona virus to protect ourselves and our families in the future.

Trust me: anything we are learning today will more than likely be lost over the years as we return to what we think is normal. I say that because the phrases I opened with pertain to two previous episodes in history that affected my own family. And no, I’m not talking about the Spanish Flu of 1918.

The first phrase, the one about frequent handwashing was used to educate people to avoid spreading a disease called Scarlet Fever. In about 1954, my little brother developed this disease and I can remember the ominous red quarantine sign that was affixed to our house, barring anyone from entering or leaving. I was too young to calculate how long we were quarantined, but I know I was not allowed to go to school, and I had a very real sense of how worried my mother seemed. She was pregnant with her third child and cooped up with a sick toddler and a bored 8-year-old in a single car garage tricked out as a temporary living space while my father built our house.

Fun times no doubt, but an interesting illustration of how our current situation is not so unique.

But wait…there’s more. Scarlet Fever wasn’t usually fatal, just highly contagious. The second phrase in my opening describes one possible transmission method of a disease that caused many deaths up until the mid to late 1930’s.

In 1932 one of the most dramatic events of my mother’s life was the death of her older sister, Melvina Wells at the age of 11. Melvina contracted diphtheria, a truly frightening and highly contagious disease. Diphtheria was the third leading cause of death in children in the 1920s and 1930s.

Diphtheria was called “the Strangler” or “the Strangling Angel of Children.” It began with a sore throat, aches and fever, but the fatal effects of the disease as it progressed was a thick membrane that coated throat, nasal passages and organs such as the lungs and heart. Death was often the result of heart failure or suffocation due to this membrane. One physician described it this way:

 “I recall the case of a beautiful girl of five or six years, the fourth child in a farmer’s family to become the victim of diphtheria. She literally choked to death, remaining conscious till the last moment of life. Knowing the utter futility of the various methods which had been tried to get rid of the membrane in diphtheria or to combat the morbid condition, due, as we know now to the toxin, I felt as did every physician of that day, as if my hands were literally tied and I watched the death of that beautiful child feeling absolutely helpless to be of any assistance.” (“Diphtheria: A Popular Health Article,” The Public Health Journal 18 (Dec. 1927): 574)

Diphtheria is transmitted from person to person, usually via respiratory droplets. And to avoid the spread…quarantine is most effective. Sound familiar?

Mom told about how their family was quarantined and how due to that fact, when Melvina died, they were unable to have a normal funeral. Her body was prepared for burial and displayed in the front window of the home for relatives and mourners to come pay their respects. According to the death certificate I found, she was attended by a doctor from February 2 to February 8 when she died and was buried on February 9, 1932.

A vaccine was developed and tested in Canada in the 1920s but was not well known or accepted in the US until the mid-1930s…too late for my young Aunt Melvina.

In my genealogy studies, I also discovered that two of my father’s uncles died in July 1916 within days of each other. I found no record of their deaths that would tell me how or why they died, but I did find that there was a huge outbreak of polio in 1916 that killed many children in the United States and I can only surmise that this was possibly the cause of death of 8 year old Max Donahue and his 1 1/2 year old baby brother Craig that summer long ago.

As far as I can tell, no other members of my family contracted either Scarlet fever or diphtheria or polio. My mother said that she and her siblings were not permitted to enter Melvina’s room after she got sick. Neither my parents nor I got sick with Scarlet Fever. I don’t know about the other children in my father’s family…or even if polio was the cause of those boys’ deaths in 1916.

What I do know is that communicable diseases are nothing new and we should have learned something over the years. So, what have we learned? Scarlet Fever, diphtheria and polio are examples I can relate to because they are family history, and what I believe to be true is that quarantine is not imprisonment, and distancing, washing of hands. and wearing of masks is not an infringement on my freedom. These acts are simple and sensible practices to help save not only my life, but the lives of those I care about.

Sorry for the cliché, but this is literally not rocket science. None of the procedures we are being urged to practice are new or revolutionary. Stay home if you are sick, don’t get close to others if there is even a possibility they are sick, wear a mask in public, wash your hands a lot.

Get with the program, people! Modern medicine is a wonderful thing, but we can do our part as well with the most elementary practices we (should) have learned from the past.

There is another cliché that is proven time after time: if we don’t learn from history, we are doomed to repeat it.

Living History

Our new look for an uncertain future.

I know I haven’t written for a while. With apologies to Simon and Garfunkel, in times of trouble I am not a rock, not a bridge over troubled waters. I tend more towards the philosophy of the turtle: I pull in my legs and head and make myself as small as I can (metaphorically speaking, of course), then I just plod through one day at a time. It’s how I survived cancer in 2000, it’s how I got through 2008, the year of the flood. It appears to be how I am coping with Covid-19, the Pandemic of 2019-20.

Still, since I have been doing so much research on my ancestors, I am aware of the historical aspect of these times. At some point in the future, as someone is reading the stories I have collected, they may want to hear about this event as well.

The numbers will be recorded in books. The dates will also be recorded. Even the events leading up to it and the various good and bad responses to the pleadings of the medical professionals will be analyzed. No doubt there will be countless investigations into why this viral infection went so horribly wrong.

I don’t need to record any of those things.

I do want to write about heart, the life lessons, the emotions, the things we have discovered about ourselves.

After future searchers have read the facts, the thing that will really tell the story is how we acted and how we survived. They need to know about the humor. They need to know about the dedication of the “little guys.” They need to know about a robust, supposedly well-adjusted country/world that was stopped dead (excuse the bad and unintended pun) by a tiny virus that relied on human interaction to survive…a hug, a handshake, a shared water bottle, a pickup game of ball, a grocery cart….all the ways that little virus could move from one to another of us.

Suddenly the much-maligned cell phone, the internet and social media sites became part of our survival packages. We longed for the people in our lives that we always meant to go visit when we had the time. We missed jobs and classrooms that we used to dread. And for some reason, toilet paper and bottled water became the currency we desired most. Gasoline fell to its lowest price in decades as our cars sat abandoned and dusty in the driveways and garages.

Strangely enough, we became just a little closer in our isolation. We learned how very important low-level, low paid workers were to our daily existence. Grocery clerks and shelf stockers and delivery drivers became our heroes. Nurses and aides and doctors and cleaners were applauded when they finally came out of the hospital for a breath of fresh air or pulled into their driveways at home for a rare day off.

People who worked since they were kids, now drove through long lines to have masked and gloved soldiers place boxes of food in their cars.

It has become a different world…scarier, more personal, and somehow kinder. I choke up every night when the news programs close their broadcasts with just a few photos and names of some of the people who have died. I don’t know them, but I am their family and I mourn them.

When this is over (and it will be over someday), if we can remember a little of the humility and the humanity we have learned in this we might just be a better world…for a while.

HomeTime

Everything is connected.

Just finished my first week of self-quarantine which I started a little earlier than others due to a crowd of people I found myself in on the last day of work. We were setting up and handing out laptops for staff and faculty to use to work from home and at one point the IT office resembled a big box store on Black Friday.

Just kidding. It was actually quite orderly.

I decided it might be time to write about what is going on in the world today rather than digging out what my ancestors were doing in the past. This very time in our lives is the history our children and our grandchildren will read about in the future, so it would be a good thing to put away the panic and the hype and record a little of what is actually happening.

Briefly…and this is for future generations, as we all know these facts…a rogue virus is running rampant in the world, spreading like wildfire and killing mostly the weakest among us. People are mostly social animals, but this thing passes so easily from one person to another to another that we’ve been asked by health care professionals to just stay home (self-isolate) for a while so the virus will have nowhere to go.

We seem to be having a real problem with that. Some can’t afford to do this, and others simply can’t abide staying in one place (like home) for any period of time.

Being “one of the weakest” (due to age and some health issues), I’ve tried to abide by the guidelines. I’m in a fairly good place with a pantry full of food, plenty of books, and a job that I am confident will come back after the crisis, but I certainly feel for others who are not so well situated.

First and foremost, I’m loving the humor and inventiveness. Today I saw a Facebook post shared by one of my friends that said “Kinda starting to understand why pets try to run outta the house when the door opens.”

Due to schools being closed, many students are doing e-learning and being home schooled. This has created a lot of observations:

“Just saw my neighbor out scraping the “my kid is a terrific student” bumper sticker off her car…apparently home schooling is not going well.”

“Home schooling is going well…only two students expelled for disciplinary reasons and one teacher laid off for drinking on the job.”

And I love this one:

“Thousands of parents are discovering…the problem is NOT the teacher!”

Some people just cope better than others and the great thing is, their coping actually helps others. I’ve been reading about photographers who are traveling around taking “porch portraits” while standing in the street (social distancing) and snapping photos of families; and “bear hunts” where people position a teddy bear in their front window so families can get their kids out and drive around counting the bears they see; and then there’s the pastor who taped photos of his parishioners on the pews where they usually sit in church as he live streamed his sermon and panned the sanctuary.

Yesterday I went noodling around on the internet and found recipes for things you have in your pantry. I don’t know who these people are who have these things in their pantry, but it was an interesting diversion. For instance:

Chickpea Curry…seriously? So chickpeas look a little like hominy, right? I have a can of hominy way in the back of the pantry (I happen to like hominy). Another ingredient is coconut milk? Don’t have that, but I do have shredded coconut…maybe I can soak that in milk? We’ll save that recipe for a real emergency.

Baked Artichoke Hearts…oops, fresh out of artichoke hearts.

Creamed Spinach…okay, if I had any spinach, well never mind, I’m not that far gone yet.

A lot of the recipes used chickpeas…guess I’ll stock up next time I’m out; also, tuna, and I had 4 cans of that. Pasta is a good thing to have on hand and with all the varieties of tomatoes I have in my pantry, that will probably be a majority of my main meals. I think I’ll make meatless chili for supper (I’m a little lacking in meat of any kind). I do have eggs, thanks to a sister with chickens, so I will fall back on scrambled, poached and fried eggs.

All in all, I’m doing fine, and I think we will survive this, but I do not want to make light of the situation. Future generations reading this should know that we are using ice rinks and refrigerated truck trailers for morgues, making decisions on who should get ventilators (and live) and who should not (and die), and in Spain over 30 doctors have contracted the disease as health care workers are forced to reuse or work without masks and gowns due to a shortage.

For all of you who are not taking this seriously, it is very serious. Humor and tricks will help some of us survive, and hopefully keep spirits up, but this is a scary and life changing time for many people.

Make no mistake. This is historic.

The Past in the Future

Like ripples in water, it's all connected.

Like ripples in water, it’s all connected.

I’m worried about future generations and how they will know the past. It’s no secret I’ve become obsessed with chasing down my ancestors and stories of my own history, but my concern is not all self-centered. I want my nieces and nephews to know these people, and I worry about how technology outpaces and even leaves the past behind in ways we seem not to notice.

What happened to all the newspapers that were placed in the microfiche program? And now that microfiche is antique, the machines old and clunky, how will we read those old newspapers?

Where are the record players to listen to the original recordings of Bessie Smith and Jimmie Rodgers? And the music that was distributed only on CD…do you still own a CD player?

By nature, I’m a reader and a keeper of “things.” Several years ago, I read an intriguing article about man’s first visit to the moon. Someone got the idea that with all the advances we have made in videography, it might be fun to apply some of those techniques to the video of Neil Armstrong’s first steps in 1969.

“It’ll be fun,” they said. “We can bring out details that couldn’ t be seen in the original material. Let’s do it.”

If you are old enough to remember that blurred, slightly ghostly image of Armstrong stepping onto the lunar surface, you saw history happening in real-time. Based on today’s GoPro, cellphone, and dashcam video technology, the fact you were able to watch on TV that historic event as it happened, was a miracle.

I’m not going to get all technical on you in this short rant, but here’s a brief description of how you saw that event.

The lunar module had limited bandwidth to send audio, visual, and medical data back to Earth. Remember, this was 1969. Reel to reel tape decks were cutting edge technology.

Westinghouse developed a special camera that recorded video at an extremely slow rate of 10 frames per second to be transmitted back to Earth. Three tracking stations, two in Australia and one in California, would receive the signals and transfer the video to telemetry tapes, still at the 10 fps rate.

Television broadcasts at 30 fps, so the video couldn’t be broadcast directly to television stations. What you saw was the result of pointing a TV camera at a monitor displaying the non-standard transmission. The original image was of reasonably high quality, but what we saw on TV had traveled through space, hopped across microwave and satellite transmitters, was routed through Houston, …and filmed as it played on a computer monitor.

And that’s the simplified version of what you saw. So, yes — finding, viewing, and enhancing the original tapes could be fun and also educational.

Step one: finding them. Thus, began a treasure hunt of epic proportions. In 2006, NASA announced it was looking for over 700 boxes of magnetic data tapes that had been recorded during the Apollo program. They might be at Goddard Space Flight Center…or maybe not…maybe somewhere else.

Step two: viewing them. In 2006 when the hunt began, there was only one piece of equipment left that could play the specialized tapes. Only one. I don’t know if it’s true or not, but I read that the outdated equipment had been designated for destruction. One machine was finally discovered pushed into a corner of an obscure warehouse and covered in dust.

Step three: enhancement. This is a little bit longer story. I watched the transmission of the first step on the moon, and as a writer and a word person, I heard Armstrong’s words this way, “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.” That’s what I heard, and that was such a poetically strong statement.

What most people heard, though, was, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” No one else seemed to hear that he was talking of himself as “a man” making a leap for mankind. Armstrong himself claimed to have said “a man,” but his words have gone down in history as most people heard them.

In 2006, both audio and video tapes were rediscovered and analyzed. Only then did experts admit that it was very plausible that the tiny word “a” might actually be there.

Peter Shann Ford, a computer programmer, analyzed the audio and found a 35-millisecond blip between “for” and “man,” which was just enough time for the spoken “a” to have been uttered.

I choose to believe I heard the statement as it was meant. That “a” changes the meaning of the statement ever so subtly. It makes more sense to me that a man might feel so tiny and so awestruck to be making such a leap for mankind that he would speak personally.

When we go looking for the past, we may not find what we’re looking for, but we often discover what we never expected. The Rolling Stones got it just about perfect: “You can’t always get what you want. But if you try, sometimes you just might find, you get what you need.”

Let’s never forget that while looking ahead is important, what’s in front of us is only there because of what we see when we look over our shoulder. It’s all part of the same picture.

And that’s why I want to meet the family that came before me.

If you are interested, here are a couple of links:

https://en.m.wikiquote.org/wiki/Neil_Armstrong

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Apollo_11_missing_tapes

Getting Closer to Home

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

Over the past few months I’ve taken you on a journey that often went into uncharted territory. When I decided to research my family’s roots, I never expected to find a journal that covered daily American life for 3 generations. I found stories of survival in the most extreme conditions and a story of utter despair as a family struggled to survive while all their sons fought in the Revolutionary War.

Now I want to introduce you to the major players of the story I originally came to tell, the event that started my journey down this path. Not to lead you on…but the biggest family story is yet to come.

William Edward Collings, my six times great grandfather, was born December 1724 in Pennsylvania. When he was 20 years old, he married Anne Elston, 21. Anne had been born in Middlesex New Jersey to Spencer and Mary Elston.

I can’t document exactly when William’s family came to America, but he was born here and it’s relatively safe to say his parents probably were as well. And last week, I told you about the Elston family, in America since the 1600s. My pirate ancestor, remember?

William and Anne were married in Pennsylvania, but apparently lived in New Jersey for a few years. We have church records that show them as members of the Scotch Plains Baptist Church in New Jersey around 1747. Scotch Plains is roughly near Middlesex, NJ, so they probably lived near Anne’s parents.

Son Zebulon was born in New Jersey around 1745 and second son Spencer appears to have been born there in 1750. By 1752, their third child, Elizabeth was born in Pennsylvania.

I’ve mentioned before how fluid state and county lines were in the 1700s, so all mentions of state names are subject to where and when and who was in charge of the area at the time, but I’ve used a couple of these place names for some reference.

I actually Googled a mapped route from Middlesex, New Jersey (where Anne was born) to Somerset, Pennsylvania (where her third child was reportedly born). In land miles the distance is 276 miles and would take a little over 4 hours to drive on good highways.

Google also very helpfully told me that should I want to walk the route, I could do that in something like 100 hours. Assuming one could walk 8 hours a day, it would take 12.5 days to travel between the two cities. That assumes, of course, good weather…no baggage…on straight wide roads as we know them, not meandering trails hacked out of heavily wooded areas. And, by the way, the route passes through the Allegheny Mountains.

This nearly 300-mile journey was the first move west for my Collings family.

Somerset in the western part of Pennsylvania, is south and a little east of present-day Pittsburgh. In the 1750s, this was frontier, nearly uninhabited wilderness. The governmental agencies of Somerset didn’t even come into existence until the 1790s. I also can’t find any recorded history of settlers to that area prior to 1760, so if this is where the Collings came, they may have come here through a series of moves that I cannot find in any documentation.

One key fact about the Somerset, Pennsylvania area is that it is drained by Coxes Creek, which empties into the Ohio River. This means that in the mid 1700s, my family relocated to the pioneer version of an interstate highway.

In the 1770s, there are several official records (okay, court records) of the Collings family in Yohogania Co., VA located near Somerset, PA

William Collings and his sons owned land, they were charged with maintaining roads near their property, they witnessed wills and incurred debts and even tangled with their neighbors and with the law at times. All told, they were active in the area for several years.

We tend to think our early ancestors had hard lives and died young, but consider this: in his mid-50s, around 1783 or so, William Edward Collings packed up his family and with his grown children and several friends traveled down the Ohio River from Pennsylvania to the wild and untamed territory that later became Kentucky.

As when leaving New Jersey, the Collings family moved from a place that was somewhat civilized, with boundaries and courts and government officials, into a wilderness frontier of danger and adventure.

This move was made after the Collings men…William Edward, his sons Zebulon, Spencer, William Elston and Thomas, fought in the Revolutionary War. William, the father, and the two older boys are reported to have served in the Jefferson County Militia under General George Rogers Clark in the Northwest Campaign.

I’ve actually seen an image of a payroll roster, dated 1782, for the company of Captain John Clark who served under General George Rogers Clark. This roster includes the name of Spencer Collings and also George Crist whose family name often appears in the Collings story.

For those of you not familiar with George Rogers Clark and his exploits during and after the Revolutionary War, you need to know at least this: The United States as we know it would look completely different on the map without his efforts. Almost entirely on foot, with a ragtag bunch of independent pioneers, woodsmen, and a few professional soldiers, young George Rogers Clark defeated the British regular army tasked with securing the western territory for England.

George Rogers Clark felt this Northwestern Territory that later became the states of Kentucky, Ohio, Indiana and Michigan was the key to the westward expansion of our United States. As we would say today, he nailed it.

When the battles were won and negotiations secured the boundaries, my family packed up and moved to claim their place in this fertile and hopeful new land.

A Sort of Review

No treasure, but maybe a pirate or two…

I think I’ve made clear that there is no beginning and no end to family stories, and this makes it difficult to follow a strict timeline in research. The beginning of a new year and a new decade seems to warrant a bit of review, but as usual, I discovered a sideroad…

In 1607, the first successful English settlement in “our” part of the continent, North America, was at Jamestown, Virginia. In spite of the difficulties the new immigrants encountered, the flow of newcomers increased steadily through the 1600 and 1700s bringing thousands of settlers.

At some point during that 100-year period a man named Collings came to America seeking something…land, wealth, freedom, adventure, something that he couldn’t find in his homeland. He came from Ireland or England or Wales, probably as a young man. I don’t know if he came with a wife and children, or if he came as a child himself.

I can’t truly document this family line beyond one William Edward Collings who was born December 11, 1724 In Pennsylvania. I can’t pin down his father, though I am fairly certain his father’s name was Zebulon. There are some records that this is the case and William named his first son Zebulon, which seems to back up that theory.

In 1744 William Edward Collings married Anne Elston (daughter of Spencer and Mary Elston) in Frederick, Pennsylvania. Their first two children, Zebulon and Spencer were born in New Jersey in 1745 and 1750 respectively. Three more children followed — Elizabeth in 1752, William Elston in 1758 and Thomas in 1760, all born in Pennsylvania.

There were a couple of accounts that William might have married a woman named Anne Nowlin, so that was one side road I got lost on for a while.

Tracing women in genealogy is a little trickier than tracing men, but I’m convinced William Edward Collings married Anne Elston. Naming conventions were fairly common in the day and William and Anne named their first son Zebulon (after his father), their second son Spencer (after her father) and their third son William Elston, (Elston being her maiden name).

Anne’s family, the Elstons (also spelled Elson, Alston and various other ways), have a long, long history, as detailed extensively in a book titled “The Elstons in America” that I found on Ancestry.com. Although not documented, there is some speculation that in England, a Peter Elston was part of a group responsible for the execution of King Charles II in 1649, which would surely have been a pretty good reason to emigrate to another country.

He wouldn’t have been the first immigrant. The earliest documented mention of an Elston in America is an account of a shipwreck in the “Annals of Salem,” Vol. II, page 210, Joseph B. Felt:

“1631, July 26, Winthrop relates, ‘…a small bark of Salem, of about twelve tons, coming towards the bay, John Elston and two of Mr. Craddock’s fishermen being in her, and two tons of stone and three hogsheads of train oil, was overset in a gust, and being buoyed up by the oil, she floated up and down forty-eight hours, and the three men sitting upon her until Henry Way his boat, coming by, espied them and saved them.’”

This same John Elston was described as coming over on the Winthrop Fleet as “probably one of Craddock’s servants.” And before you ask, I have no idea why you would transport two tons of stone, nor what “train oil” was, there being no trains in 1631. Those questions are two sideroads I avoided.

In 1698, one of the more interesting Elston men, gave an account of his adventures as a young cabin boy on what could only be described as a pirate ship. Claiming that he ran away from home and fell asleep on a ship, he awoke to find the ship (and himself) out to sea. He names the various ports the ship visited and the “encounters” they had with other ships. Authorities investigating his actions wrote:

Dureing the time of theire being on the Coast they tooke two shipps Danes and Sweedes Laden with Goods for the Guinea trade takeing as many men out of them as were willing to saile…turning the shipps a drift, that in the Acc’on they had a Dispute with said shipps for about halfe an hour looseing one man

Apparently, there was a little bureaucratic snarkiness going on at the time John Elston was being investigated. He and another young man (both aged 19 or 20) were “seized” by the Earl of Bellmont, but the Earl seemed to view their adventures as youthful hijinks. He wrote in a letter to his bosses, the Lords of Trade, that since the boys were so young at the time of the piracy (12 or 13), were merely cabin boys and did not partake or profit from any of the encounters, he saw no reason to hold them or send them to England for a trial, and that they should be released on bail.

The Governor of East Jersey, on the other hand, was furious. He wrote to the House of Commons (his bosses) that it was his duty to refuse bail but that the Earl of Bellemont “by pretended Admiralty power forced them out of your petitioner’s hands and set them at liberty upon insufficient bayle, to the great hazard and danger of your Petitioner.”

There was detail as to how these young men posed a danger to the Governor and there are no additional records about how this case resolved, but I have to say: I’m excited to have a pirate in the family, even if he was “sort of” innocent.

Christmas, 2019

A couple of weeks ago my friend Eli explained the difference between happiness and joy and helped me better understand the very mixed feelings I get at Christmas.

Happiness is event driven and joy is a feeling that exists in spite of everything external. Joy is an emotion that comes from anticipation or expectation.

Christmas, said Eli, is not a happy time for some people. There is illness and loss and families that are far way or separated by anger. Christmas is a time when all that we do not have in our lives becomes painfully evident.

It’s not a happy time for everyone, but out of all the frustration and ordinary day to day struggles, out of the awe and fear of the responsibilities there is the anticipation of a fulfilled promise… joy.

There’s a real and human side to Christmas and we shouldn’t lose sight of that because it only makes the miracle of the season that much more joyful. That’s what I was trying to get at when I wrote the following, several years ago.

Every year I try to think what it must have been like that night.

Some say it was cold, maybe so. Since the country of Israel is subtropical, it wouldn’t have been cold as we in the Midwest know cold, maybe in the 40’s or 50’s. But of course, cold is relative, so it probably did seem cold to them, that young couple on that ill-timed journey long ago.

More than likely the weather was damp, and rain had been falling most of the day. That’s typical winter weather around that time, around that place. When you are road weary and wet, 50° would be cold…bone-chilling cold.

And they surely would have been weary. Twenty-five miles doesn’t seem far in a car, but try walking it…or worse yet, riding on the back of a donkey with your own back aching from a nine month pregnancy.

Of course, they were tired, but that wasn’t the worst of it. Young and newly married, they must have been a little dazed by the turn their lives had taken.

We all know the story. When the betrothed, yet unmarried Mary learned she was to bear a Child of God, she went to visit her cousin Elizabeth, also miraculously pregnant. She may have been seeking some solace or trying to put some distance between herself and her well-meaning but skeptical family. The Gospels tell us she stayed with Elizabeth for three months. One can only wonder what those two women talked about late at night. There must have been some doubts and fears about how this could possibly work out.

While Mary was gone, Joseph must have wrestled with his own problems. Being betrothed to Mary was much more serious than merely being engaged. It meant Joseph had agreed to be responsible for Mary. The couple had already taken a sort of pre-marriage vow, and to learn that Mary was carrying a child must have been a tremendous blow to a man who knew he had honored his vows to her.

Joseph would have been perfectly justified in publicly denouncing Mary, yet after much consideration, he decided to very quietly divorce or step away from her with no public shaming.

I’m sure his family had a lot to say about that decision. I’m sure he had a cousin or a friend or someone who made sure to tell him just how foolish he would look by treating Mary with compassion. Still he stood his ground. He would not be cruel to this young woman he had known all his life, this young woman he cared for and had planned to marry.

Only after Joseph made this decision to quietly put Mary away from him, did God send an angel to explain everything. I wonder how long the angel had to talk. How quickly did Joseph grasp the significance? And did he do so with relief, or with some skepticism, or with patient resignation. Did he realize the responsibility of becoming the stepfather to the Child of God?

I bet his family had a lot to say about that, too, about the marriage proceeding as planned in spite of all appearances.

So, you see, the young couple had to be emotionally drained as well as physically exhausted when they got into Bethlehem. Newlyweds…Mary nine months pregnant…Joseph concerned for his young wife, worried and frustrated that on top of everything they had been through, he was expected to drag her out in this condition to fulfill the government requirement for a stupid census.

Imagine how frustrated, how angry, how helpless this young husband must have felt when he began to realize that there was not one room left in Bethlehem where they could relax.

Was the stable where they finally settled offered to them by some kindhearted soul who saw Mary’s condition or Joseph’s frustration? Or did a greedy innkeeper see a chance to make some pocket money by charging a desperate man for the only space available where a tired couple could pass the night relatively dry and safe?

We’ll never know for sure. All we know now, some two thousand years later, is that God’s Plan would happen. For in the night, in the stable, in the little town of Bethlehem, to an ordinary couple, road weary and far from home, a Child was born.

Every year I try to think how it must have been that night.  All the frustrations and human failures and problems, all the hurt and the sorrow and the pain, everything that was ordinary fell away, paled in the face of the miracle not just of birth, but Birth.

And if ever there was a time when the earth stood poised with all of eternity within our grasp, it must have been that night, when the angels sang to shepherds and a young mother cradled the Son of God in the form of a baby.

Every year, I try desperately to think how the world must have felt that night.

Blue

The Blue Fugates of Kentucky

One of the fun things about chasing down one’s ancestors is the numerous sideroads and detours one finds.

This week I’m deep into studies about my family’s role in the Revolutionary War. This is more difficult than I thought it would be, so I’m taking the week off to follow a side path into a curious family story that actually has nothing to do with my family…as far as I can tell, anyway.

Racism has been a dark part of our national story since before we began shipping in captured Africans to work on our plantations and farms. I can only imagine how it feels to wear the badge of your so-called “status” in such an obvious way as the color of your skin. As a so-called “white,” I can never claim that I’m not racist since I’ve never had to think twice about the instant judgment people make upon seeing my skin color.

In the early 1800s, in the eastern Kentucky Appalachians, there was a family whose skin color made them the target of fear and scorn. Strangely, they weren’t black…they were blue.

Yes, you read that correctly. They were blue like robin’s eggs, like an April sky, like the waters of the deepest lake. Blue.

The family of Martin Fugate, who had emigrated from France, came to be known as the “blue people of Kentucky.”

When I first heard this story, I thought it was one of those mountain myths, a story told by someone who heard that someone else had talked to someone else who had seen them. I thought it might be a story easily explained; maybe a coal miner’s skin absorbed the coal dust in a way that appeared blue in the light of day. Maybe it was a dietary aberration, much like too many carrots can turn your skin orange for a brief time.

Nope. This family was blue. I have seen a grainy photo of a crude painting of a family unit: a blue father and four blue children with a “normal” mother and three “normal” children. There is no doubt the artist was on his honor to render the family as he saw them. Public opinion would have roasted him if he had pictured them all as white; the family would have hunted him down if he had colored them all blue.

Of course, this family was much talked about and even feared as ghosts and “haints.” Women dragged children across the street so as not to walk past them on the sidewalk. Merchants laid the change from their purchases on the counter to keep from accidentally touching them.

The condition now has a name: methemoglobinemia, and it was discovered in the 1960s to be the result of a faulty gene. If a person has two of these genes, the levels of methemoglobin cause their skin to be blue, their lips purple, their blood to be a chocolate brown. If a person inherits only a single gene, they look “normal” but can pass the disorder on to their children.

Blueman Martin Fugate was an orphan who had traveled to Kentucky from France. He met and married red-haired Elizabeth Smith, who, as it turned out, carried one gene for the disorder. She and her husband had seven children, four of whom inherited the gene from each parent and had blue skin.

Being so visibly different, the family hid in the hills of Appalachia, attempting to hide their skin with long sleeves and bonnets and gloves during trips into town.

As a result of their social and geographical isolation, there was intermarriage between cousins and aunts and uncles, producing more “blues” as children were born.

Kim Michele Richardson has written a novel, The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek. I picked up the book because I was intrigued by the history of the ladies of the Kentucky Pack Horse Library Project. Richardson, however, chose to tell the story from the perspective of one young woman who happened to be blue, and I was quickly drawn into the story of the Blue People of Kentucky.

The entire book is based on fact, the story a fictional account of being a person, a real person with hopes and dreams and issues, but a person with the added difficulty of being “different.”

What is normal? And who decides? I’ve often wondered about that. I have a friend who says, “Normal is just a setting on the washing machine,” and we laugh, but it’s true that normal is a very fuzzy state of being.

It seems a shame that the color of our skin hides the person underneath, and an even bigger shame that what we see is all we ever know of others.

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