Family Myths: More Ancestry

I realize there were a couple of you who started following my blog out of a shared interest in ancestry, and just as soon as you hit that follow button, I managed to hop down every other crazy blogging bunny trail except anything resembling family trees.  This one is for you.

Like every family we have our family myths – among them are:

  • My 4th great-grandmother was the first cousin of Davy Crockett
  • Our family owned a plantation in Georgia
  • The plantation in Georgia was partly used as a basis for Tara from Gone with the Wind
  • A Union soldier took my great-great grandfather’s new shoes when he was a little boy, and threw them down a well.  When the man returned as a carpetbagger years later, my great-great grandfather chased him out of town.
  • There was a secretary (the wooden kind, and by wooden not “stoic” unless you’re anthropomorphizing a desk) used by Gen. Wm. T. Sherman from where he issued the orders to burn Atlanta.  His signature can still be found carved into the desk (he must have been hell on nibs, or maybe the secretary was made from balsa wood).
  • And then the newest one – my great-grandfather worked for a railroad in Chatanooga and killed a man with the ticketing tool, because the man offended him.  My great-grandfather was fired from his job for breaking the tool. He was never punished for the crime, because the man he killed was African American and this was at the turn of the 20th century.

I’m a tad cynical when it comes to any myth, but when it comes to family myths I’m even more so. Deep down, I want these stories to be true.  They’re part of my make-up.  They’re partyly how I’ve always define myself. They’ve occasionally been  the reason I’ve stood toe-to-toe with someone in and shouted, “I am SO his cousin!!” Then as I grew older, and could throw in the occasional smidge of maturity,  would dismissively retort, “I don’t need to prove it to you.  I know what’s true.” It turned out that I eventually needed to prove it to me, too..

With the help of my Mom, I proved that dear ol’ Davy wasn’t my 4th great-grandmother’s first cousin as was depicted in one hand-drawn family tree. (Actually, it was that hinky little line that said “Davy Crockett” that started the investigation.)  Let me just say you don’t exactly get a hero’s welcome when you make that announcement to the family.  No, “hey Beth, thanks for taking away a bit of my identity – that a girl!” I had single-handedly (dual-handedly since Mom helped?) dismissed one of our better family stories.  Go me!  On the bright side, if there is a bright side, we did prove we are related even though it’s quite distant.  That’s a win, right? Still cousins! Everything is ok! Sure, his father and my 5th great-grandfather weren’t brothers, but really whose is? Brothers! Who made that stuff up? Am I right? Really all our findings meant was that dear sweet Sarah (GGx4) was probably not helping Davy kill bears when he was only three, and thus the song was all about Davy. Scene stealer.

The one I’m currently working on, since I can’t disprove shoes being tossed down any wells, is about the secretary.  It’s supposedly still in the family. I had asked if someone could send me a few photos of it. I wasn’t even looking for the story to be a myth. I had only wanted to see the desk of legend, and maybe a close-up of the carved-in name. I figured this would be a rather simple request.  Well, it turns out the person to ask is elderly and may not understand who I am. Then the story became that writing would be out of the question – it would be even more confusing. Oh, and well, we don’t even have her address.  It might be better to conference you in on a phone call. (I should mention here a quirk of mine: I was a telemarketer in college and after for several years  (yes, the bane of your evening routine), and after countless chats over countless years, I do not care to be on the phone for any length of time.  In fact, I chose my particular career path based on limited phone time. It’s actually a screening criteria when go job hunting. The only reason I carry a cell phone is for emergencies (oh, but I did discover the joys of the GPS, so it’s dual purpose – GPS and phone rock in my purse for emergencies), and I never have the ringer on; there’s no point in calling it.  In sum, I kind of have a freakish little phone phobia.  So, when I hear sentences that go “I’ll conference Beth in,” they sound like my perfect idea of a nightmare. I’m sure Dante forgot the phone level of Hell, but I know it exists.) I cheerfully declined and worked on my back-up plan to get the information.  Sadly, it involved two hours of phone time (oh karma, if we ever meet in a dark alley…), but it got the information flowing again.  I contacted a cousin who is part of the particular family branch who supposedly have the secretary. It became its own challenge. Before I could even get him to contact this branch, he insisted on blustering (for two hours – did I mention two hours?) about the censuses of the time, and how our shared relatives didn’t live anywhere near where Sherman had come through and that their property values didn’t support a plantation (there goes a 3rd myth). The conversation was akin to listening to a timeshare pitch in order to win the blow-up cooler. “Before I’ll ask, you must hear me out on why your side of the family are morons.” He actually used the phrase, “Mary Chrstine’s family…” as a way to deride us which “may” have lead to some voice raising on my part since Mary Christine is my great-grandmother. It almost wasn’t worth the blow-up cooler, but I was an hour in and I really wanted my way.  (An only child thing?) Then he asked if I understood logic. (He’s one of those who would jovially describe himself as the smartest person in any room – possibly all the rooms.), and I still insisted, “talk to those people who we think might have the secretary and let me know what THEY say.”  Yes, I understand the logic, but I wanted to hear directly from the source of those who are believed to have the secretary. Maybe there’s some piece of the story we don’t know.  I’m just not in the habit of making assumptions. Yes, I get Occam’s Razor. Yes, this is likely a tall tale, but hey, let’s ask the questions and not summarily discount stories because they don’t neatly line up with a census paper trail.  There’s a reason the story is there.

Well, I finally convinced, him and he contacted the cousin who I was told would know where the secretary was. Unfortunately, she had never heard of the secretary.She also had never heard about any plantation, but she did agree to contact the older relative I was supposed to be conferenced in on.

So, that’s where we stand right now on the secretary.  My best guess is it’s another family myth, but it’s one I would really like this one to be true. I want to look at the picture, see the signature driven into the wood (imagine what the paper looked like),  and I want to have that shared history with Sherman.  I don’t know if I can live in a world where Sherman wasn’t the great defiler of family furniture.  I don’t want to live in that world. 🙂