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.