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 Ancestry.com.
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.