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This is my entry for Week 5 of LJ Idol (therealljidol), Season 10. This week's topic was "heel turn."



How fitting, I always thought, that my father's mother, a librarian and genealogist, bore the name Grandma Heritage. Thanks to her second husband, the only man I ever knew as my Grandpa, she'd gained a highly appropriate surname. For her, researching our family history meant uncovering gems, proud moments to share with us all.

Through my grandma, Miriam Marshall Wilson Heritage, I learned about our Quaker ancestors: on her side, the Marshalls, Pennocks and Mendenhalls, who attended the Longwood Meetinghouse near Philadelphia and, in the case of the Mendenhalls, ran a stop on the Underground Railroad.

She told us, too, about our ancestor, William Marshal, a soldier and statesman who served as regent to the 9-year-old Henry III, protecting the young ruler until he was able to take over the throne. William the Marshal discharged his duties with honor, providing advice to the young king without scheming to take over the throne himself.

Not only that, she'd said, we had family connections through our biological grandfather, John Omer Wilson, to James Wilson, a signer of the Declaration of Independence and one of the first Supreme Court justices, as well as to two presidents: Woodrow Wilson and James Buchanan.

Occasionally, Grandma acknowledged some information which made her slightly uncomfortable, though she preferred not to dwell on it. My Dad, like me, loves knowledge for its own sake and was therefore perversely proud of the fact that, on his side of the family, he'd had ancestors fighting on opposite sides of the Civil War. "Imagine if they had met each other in battle," he speculated with a twinkle in his eye. "We might not exist!"

Grandma Heritage, however, had little patience for such speculation. She wanted her research to make us proud, to inspire us to lives of altruistic service, of righting injustice, of being guided by an unfailing ethical compass. I'm almost certain that's why she left out some very important things, data points that might spoil the narrative.

Decades after Grandma's death, and shortly after the death of our mother, our father told us about his father's true lineage. We were not, in fact, direct descendants of the Wilson line, as John Omer Wilson had not been born until three years after his mother's husband. Even though William S. Wilson appeared on his birth certificate and on, indeed, all his legal paperwork, he was instead the illegitimate son of a local logger who would one day run a lumber company.

This year, in part to solve the mystery of my great-grandfather and in order to fill in our family history, I began using Ancestry.com. Before long, I tracked down my best guess for our biological great-grandfather, Marvin Beard Eutsler. I tried, with little success, to fill in more of that side of the family, but my searches on my great-grandmother, Fannie Weaver Wilson, came up empty.

Fortunately, my Dad possessed all of Grandma's genealogical papers, so this past Thanksgiving, exactly one year after I'd first been clued into our family's more complicated past, I asked him to bring me the box. Sorting through the folders, I eventually found Grandma's hand-written family tree for Fannie, and I filled the names into my own online chart.

Until Christmas, I focused just on filling in the branches across all the different lines, going back at least five generations, so that I could surprise my siblings with a framed family tree poster. I was only concerned, at that time, with filling out the tree and didn't get around to looking for other documents related to those individual ancestors until later.

For those unfamiliar with Ancestry.com, here's how it works. You can plug in information for individuals you know, such as a name or birth date, and then use that information to search for online documents which could tell you more. If the site locates documents that may relate to a given individual, you will see a green leaf in the corner of that individual's profile. Clicking on the green leaf shows you a listing of the documents, which you can open to determine whether to add it to that individual's profile.

One day, just before Christmas, after the family tree posters had been ordered, I was idly clicking on green leaves within Fannie Weaver Wilson's branch. They were, I discovered, the family who had fought for the Confederacy. In fact, her father -- my second great-grandfather -- John William Weaver (1827-1910), served as a private in Company D, Virginia's 5th Infantry Regiment, enlisting in 1863. Looking into their unit's history, I discovered they had fought in the Battle of Gettysburg. Fortunately, Grandma Heritage's direct ancestor, Milton Marshall, was fighting elsewhere at the time.

I even found a photograph that another user had uploaded of John and his wife, Sarah Catherine Buchanan, wearing the serious expressions required for photographic portraits in that time, clutching an even more serious-looking dog. John had, I felt, a bit of a twinkling about his eyes, nevertheless. I couldn't blame him, living in Augusta County, Virginia, for fighting on what I'd always been told was the wrong side of that conflict.

Sarah-Catherine-Buchanan_John-William-Weaver
Sara Catherine Buchanan and John William Weaver
(Click to see a larger version)



Then I started clicking on the green leaves associated with the Buchanans. First, Sarah Catherine Buchanan, then her father, James Wilson Buchanan (1827-1910); son of John Buchanan (1785-1866); son of Captain James P. Buchanan (1749-1808); son of Colonel John Buchanan (1724-1769). That's when a data point jumped out at me as somewhat surprising. Here is where Colonel John died:

16 Aug 1769 • Cherry Tree Bottom Plantation, Botetourt, Virginia, USA

A plantation, huh? Maybe it was just a fancy name, I told myself. Maybe he was a farmer with grandiose ideas, and the term didn't mean that I thought it did. My sinking suspicions were soon proved dreadfully correct.

Col-John-Buchanan
Col. John Buchanan



As I learned, Colonel John Buchanan was a leading figure in his county, serving as first a surveyor, then a sheriff, militia leader, judge and community leader, with the county's largest town eventually named after him. All of these represented achievements that would have made Grandma Heritage proud. But she would not like some of the other information I learned.

In 1860, there were separate census records termed "slave schedules," and Col. John was listed as the owner of a 27-year-old male, a 20-year-old female, and a 1-year-old male. A little family, perhaps? When Colonel John died, he bequeathed to his daughter Mary, wife of William Thompson, "one negro woman" along with some land. I inhaled sharply, feeling queasy. An ancestor of mine had owned slaves.

Colonel John's son, Captain James Patton Buchanan, inherited some property from his father, although indirectly, as most of it was initially left to his two older brothers, one of whom died fighting in the American Revolution and the other while fighting Native Americans. Upon his death in Kentucky in 1808, an inventory listing for James included, beneath the cows, mares, horses, and hogs, "a negro woman named Eve, a negro woman named Dinah, a negro boy named William, a negro boy named Hamon (?), a negro girl named Rise and a negro girl named Tamar (?)." I found myself wondering who these people were, where they had ended up, where were their descendants. Had they been family members? Did they stay together, or were they split up? I couldn't sleep that night.

Researching further, I learned the son of Captain James, John Buchanan (1785-1866) didn't seem to own slaves as a rule, although he might have inherited one from someone other than his direct line. In the 1810 census, when he was 25, the census records only five free white persons, which would be himself, his wife and his first three children, including my ancestor James Wilson Buchanan. In the 1830 census, his household contained 12 free white persons, reflecting his growing family. In 1840, the census records a John Buchanan with 12 household members, one of them a female slave between the ages of 55 and 99. I'm not sure how she joined the family, but it's possible that she was inherited from another family member or perhaps a neighbor. By 1860, John was living with his son John Alexander Buchanan and John's family, with no slaves in the household.

By the time that Fannie's father, James Wilson Buchanan, grew to adulthood, my direct line was completely out of the slave-holding business. In the 1840 census, which only listed the heads of households along with a breakdown of free people and slaves, his household contained only 7 free white persons.

Should I be surprised that Colonel John Buchanan, a contemporary of George Washington (also a colonel at the time), would own slaves? In fact, Washington visited Colonel John's plantation in 1756. If the colonel had lived longer, instead of succumbing to illness at age 45, he might have fought in the Revolution, alongside his son. Many of the Founding Fathers owned slaves, which were seen as being necessary for working large tracts of land (much like undocumented immigrants are today). But to me, this sort of justification feels like hypocrisy. I was raised differently.

At about the same time, I discovered, in Grandma Heritage's files, a copy of a letter she had sent to a cousin. He was doing research for a cook book he intended to write based on family recipes. Upon request, she related to him some reflections on her family and their relationship to food. She also mentioned a fact I had never heard before: that her mother had lost eight children in addition to the four who survived. Quickly, she urged him not to include that information in her book. "You should focus on positive things," she told him. Which is why, I suppose, she never told me any of this, if she had, indeed, discovered it.

Still, I believe that it's important to know the full truth if you expect to truly understand anything. As ugly as that truth may sometimes be, knowing it opens your eyes to the complex nature of life and human nature; of patriotism and hypocrisy; of mixed motives, the compartmentalizing of morality, and the tyranny of the status quo. To be proud of my family history, I must also accept the shameful parts. And as I educate myself on its complexity, I see the truth in a saying I will paraphrase here: You cannot choose your family, but you can choose what inspiration you will draw from it.




While this entry focuses on my Dad's side of the family, my Mom's family contains some people who would make Grandma Heritage proud, as well. About two months ago, I looked through a packet of genealogical information prepared by one of her cousins about the Hamptons, who were the family of my twice great-grandmother. An ancestor in that line, Ethan Hampton, helped write and signed a key Quaker document making an argument against slavery.

Also, if you're interested, there is a lot more information on Colonel John publicly available online: http://www.werelate.org/wiki/Family:John_Buchanan_and_Margaret_Patton_(1)

Comments

( 27 comments — Leave a comment )
lawchicky
Jan. 23rd, 2017 07:37 pm (UTC)
I love that you've found so much about your family history. I've only just started learning things and can't go back nearly that far, but I find it fascinating!
rayaso
Jan. 23rd, 2017 10:01 pm (UTC)
This was a fascinating tour through your family history, including the turn into the dark side. The part I like the best was your grandmother's name. It has a great ring to it.
halfshellvenus
Jan. 24th, 2017 07:18 pm (UTC)
I sure understand why that discovery would leave you sleepless! Worrying about the family you discovered, and where the families of the later slaves were... it just makes you heartsick.

I can see on the one hand why your grandmother might have wanted to suppress the fact of the eight lost children (her siblings, they would have been), but these days people would typically want to know about that-- whether because of maternal fertility issues that might have been passed down, or because of other health legacies.

Someone I know has a daughter with a rare genetic disorder, and the only link they can see to it is an uncle who died in infancy due to "failure to thrive". The defect makes it impossible to process milk or its by-products, which build up in the body like a toxin, and the end result of that would look very much like starvation. Nobody could have known what it was, back then, but that history helped in the diagnosis.

dee_aar2
Jan. 25th, 2017 06:51 am (UTC)
That was such a detailed investigation ... a wonderful journey back to the past. Isn't it wonderful knowing that there is much history back there
eternal_ot
Jan. 25th, 2017 11:05 am (UTC)
Seems like you have embarked on an adventure of your own and are enjoying it. The entire narration was fascinating and I understand that a lot of time and work must have gone into finding stuff and completing the picture. Great read!
m_malcontent
Jan. 25th, 2017 02:44 pm (UTC)
Previous comment was mine, forgot I wasn't logged in
morettaallstar
Jan. 25th, 2017 03:27 pm (UTC)
Such a rich family history! I'm always fascinated by these sorts of stories and discoveries, this one makes me want to find my own!
bleodswean
Jan. 25th, 2017 03:37 pm (UTC)
Such amazing discoveries! I love that you have a surveyor in yoru genealogy! My husband hails from a proud line of surveyors!

I am a huge fan of the vintage photographs. They are such treasures. But yes, we get a strangely distilled idea of our forebears because of the long exposure time. :)

Ancestry.com has been such a speedier addition to the "old fashioned" days when we had to petition the Mormon Church with requests.
alycewilson
Feb. 1st, 2017 11:14 am (UTC)
I'm fascinated by surveyors, myself. The Buchanan line is the only one where I believe we have members of that profession. Most of the rest of the family were primarily farmers, doctors, botanists, and coal miners.

I get very excited when I find an old photograph or drawing. In the Eutsler line, our 2x-great-grandfather's uncle was an itinerant photographer. I haven't found a photo yet of our 2x-great-grandfather, but I've found them for our 3x-great-grandfather and 3x-great-grandmother. My brother looks so much like him it made my sister and I laugh!
dmousey
Jan. 26th, 2017 02:52 am (UTC)
Wow! That's some sleuthing! Librarians, historians, and genealogists are not given enough credit for the amazing amounts of knowledge they collect, protect and share. This has to make you feel truly rooted (pun intended) to our country! Hugs and peace~~~
alycewilson
Feb. 1st, 2017 11:10 am (UTC)
It truly does! I'm even discovering some family ties to the area where I grew up. I always felt a lack of connection to it, as if I didn't belong there, in part because of the political beliefs but mostly because I was one of the few people in my class whose family didn't go back generations in that area. Now, it wasn't my actual home town, but I have found ancestors (or cousins) living in surrounding towns!
bewize
Jan. 26th, 2017 05:28 pm (UTC)
This was a fascinating look at your family history. I enjoyed your honesty about your emotions as you read it. So many people want to just believe the good things. Thank you for sharing it all.
alycewilson
Feb. 1st, 2017 11:03 am (UTC)
Thank you. It's tempting to want to talk about only the good things, but ultimately, lies lead only to misunderstandings and pain.
my_name_is_jenn
Jan. 26th, 2017 08:59 pm (UTC)
I love your final paragraph. So much truth in there.

It's amazing you've been able to find out so much of your family's history.
alycewilson
Feb. 1st, 2017 11:02 am (UTC)
Thank you! I sound like an advertisement for them, but Ancestry.com is definitely worthwhile. I wish I'd started sooner!
tonithegreat
Jan. 27th, 2017 02:07 am (UTC)
That's a lot of research! My mom has been doing genealogy again lately and you can certainly find interesting things. I'' glad your journey has been rewarding, if sometimes unsettling too.
alycewilson
Feb. 1st, 2017 11:01 am (UTC)
It's good that your mom is doing that. If she hasn't already, work with her to identify the people in your family photos. Even if she knows who they are, it will be better for future generations. For older photos, a soft lead pencil works best (try a corner first), and for more recent photos, you can get archival photo markers.
roina_arwen
Jan. 27th, 2017 02:59 am (UTC)
I love those old photographs. Somewhere around here I have one of those old tintype photographs, circa 1899-ish.
alycewilson
Feb. 1st, 2017 10:36 am (UTC)
Oh, I'd love to see it. I have only one tintype, but it's awesome because I believe it contains my great-grandfather on my mother's maternal side, Jonathan Hinkle. Plus three other dudes, possibly at least one being a brother.
murielle
Jan. 27th, 2017 05:11 pm (UTC)
One of my cousins in Scotland was deeply into creating a family tree. I've always meant to ask him if I could see it. I have heard some wild stories growing up, it would be interesting to see if any of them are true.

Great entry! Very well written!
alycewilson
Feb. 1st, 2017 10:28 am (UTC)
No time like the present to ask him for a copy of what he can show you!
devilz_workshop
Jan. 27th, 2017 08:02 pm (UTC)
Wow. It is not easy to accept a dark past. But I guess you can take solace in the fact that your family's past doesn't need to define who you are as a person. Good entry.
alycewilson
Feb. 1st, 2017 10:24 am (UTC)
Exactly. While acknowledging those truths, I take far more inspiration from those in my family who worked against slavery.
uselesstinrelic
Jan. 27th, 2017 11:13 pm (UTC)
It's so important that you're considering the reality that many try to ignore- that they come from families who believed they could own other people. I once spoke with a woman who said, "My great, great (however many greats she said) grandfather did own slaves... but he was really nice to th-" and I was like stop. There's no way that sentence ends okay.

There's no good way to polish that history, and you're right, people have tried to justify it in the past, as well as today, because nobody wants to think they would come from family that would do something we now consider so unspeakable. But being honest about it is the first step. And I appreciated your idea that it's not what your ancestors have done, but how you choose to use and grow from that. I can understand why some would want to hide it, but confronting it like this... I think you have it right.
alycewilson
Feb. 1st, 2017 02:54 am (UTC)
I am under no delusions about such things, although I did find myself wondering how cruel they were. But as my other ancestors would stay, owning them at all was unforgivably cruel.
penpusher
Jan. 27th, 2017 11:57 pm (UTC)
It's so great that you have been able to do such meticulous research into your family tree. For many of us, this is difficult, if not impossible because of the actions of people who intentionally wanted to obscure that information to protect their reputations, as I'm sure you are becoming aware... A thoughtful understanding of our American experience.



alycewilson
Feb. 1st, 2017 01:20 am (UTC)
Very true! In my experience family stories, even about "colorful" individuals, usually have at least a grain of truth in them. What usually turn out to be more scandalous stories are the ones about which people don't even talk.
( 27 comments — Leave a comment )

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