My uncle, A.E. (born in Oklahoma and, sometimes in the South, people had names that were just initials), is the source of the material Janet and I used to make our way across Kentucky, Missouri, Arkansas and Oklahoma. His interest in his roots was sparked by his mother's claim that the family was related to Jesse James.
A.E. and my father
probably Coalgate or Boggy Depot, Oklahoma in 1925
When A.E. retired, he decided to devote considerable time researching whether my grandmother's claim was true and a whole lot more. He bought a Cadillac – he knew how much time he'd be spending driving and decided to be as comfortable as possible! - and spent about ten years traveling to courthouses, libraries, cemeteries and the homes of family members. In the process, he came upon books and pamphlets written by distant family members, which gave him the information to delve deeper.
And along the way, he did confirm his mother's story. My great-great-great-great-great-grandparents, Robert and Elizabeth Mims Poor, were the great-grandparents of Jesse James. Jesse James married his first cousin, Zerelda Amanda Mims, who was descended from the same couple, so I'm related to his wife, as well. More about this in a later blog post.
Zerelda is back row right and Jesse James is next to her
As I've read through the hundreds of pages provided by my uncle, it becomes quite clear why many people can't trace their ancestry very far, if at all. So much of what has been recorded about a person's life is based upon the ownership of property. If you weren't buying, selling or somehow conveying property, your name may not be in the county courthouse. It's easy to skim much of what my uncle wrote because it's heavily a list of real estate transactions – going back almost four hundred years. There is also slave selling and “gifting.” Those aren't so easy to skim. They stop me cold each time. There are many entries like this one:
Between 1850 and 1859 William and Frances [Collier – my great-great-grandparents] sold to Frank Griffin for $1,400 a negro woman slave named Martha Ellen, aged about 19 years & her child named Marshall aged about 6 months.
While making this journey, I was reading White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America by Nancy Isenberg. Because so much of the White underclass in the United States was (and, to a degree, still is) heavily concentrated in North Carolina, Kentucky and Arkansas and so much of my family has lived in those areas, I assumed that we were that “White Trash.” Wrong! We owned property and the founders of this country worked assiduously to make sure that “White Trash” (and obviously Indians and Blacks) did not own property. White people with property could eventually vote (before universal suffrage) and “White Trash” were considered genetically unfit for voting. It has been interesting, indeed, to hear Trump's language aginst immigrants and the poor get more and more extreme – “animals!” - while reading about the ongoing tradition that began with the colonization of this continent.
Worth a read
The property-owning history of my family goes back to the very beginning – Jamestown. Sarah Winston Woodson, my great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandmother, survived her husband (killed in 1644) and died in 1659. In the meantime, she married two more times – last names Dunwell and Johnson. Here's an excerpt from White Trash:
Men of Jamestown found they could increase their acreage and add to the sum of laborers by marrying a widow whose husband had bequeathed land to her.....Widows were obvious conduits of wealth and land, and with high mortality rates prevailing through the seventeenth century, those who survived rampant disease would likely have married two or three times.
Many were not so lucky. Here's more:
What separated rich from poor was that the landless had nothing to pass on. They had no heirs. This was particularly true in Jamestown, where the orphans of the dead servants were sold off like the possessions of a foreclosed estate. As 'beggarly spawn.' the poor were detached from the land. Only proper stewards of the fertile ground deserved rights.
This foundational value, that there are people who deserve and those who do not, is with us to this day and central to the way in which both business and government operate. Next time you listen to your neighbor speak about the homeless or the unarmed black men killed on our streets, you may hear the echoes of this undemocratic value. And when Trump uses this language, he's not just talking about people of color, but of poor white people, as well – all the people for whom money spent on education, housing, healthcare, clean water, etc. is wasted money and better directed into the pockets of the wealthy.
So much of the family record reads like this:
I [my uncle] have found a number of deeds references to a plat of division of George Richeson's tract of land on the Bell's Run and Buford Road into at least seven lots. Lot #2 (19-1/2 acres) was allotted to Frances G. Richeson, wife of William J. Collier. On 21 November 1884 Frances G. Collier transferred Lot #2 to George W.L. Richeson for $135. Lot #3 (19-1/2 acres) was allotted to members of the Bell famiy....There were seven owners of Lot #3, five of whom transferred their 5/7 interest in Lot #3 to George W.L. Richeson on 21 December 1884 for $75.
It goes on and on, but my eyes begin to glaze over.
But, even for those with land, life was fraught with the possibility of losing it or having to sell it. As people were lured west, government-sanctioned land speculators found ways to get their hands on the lands that ordinary folks had begun to improve. A long tradition there, too!
....the ruling elite at the Virginia constitutional convention....were quite content to dump the poor into the hinterland. With the opening up of the land office in 1776, a new policy was adopted: anyone squatting on unclaimed land in western Virginia and Kntucky could claim a presumption right to buy it. Like the longstanding British practice of colonizing the poor, the Virginians sought to quell dissent, raise taxes, and lure the less fortunate west. the policy did little to alter the class structure. In the end, it worked against poor families. Without ready cash to buy the land, they became renters, trapped again as tenants, instead of becoming independent landowners.
And if, like my ancestors, you did own land, it was hard to keep it in competition with the wealthy. Thomas Jefferson wrote a lot about the value of farming and farmers, but most didn't have his advantages.
Farming was arduous work, with limited chance of success, especially for families lacking the resources available to Jefferson: slaves, overseers, draft animals, a plough, nearby mills, and waterways to transport farm produce to market. It was easy to acquire debts, easy to fail. Land alone was no guarantee of self-sufficiency.
You could build it and lose it
(of course, it was stolen in the first place)
The family records are full of land sales to repay debts. As the various lines of my family moved west, they generally owned less and less land, often ending up with none. And, for whatever reason, my direct ancestors seemed to lose more than many of their siblings, nieces and nephews. A.E.'s record includes what he learned about those siblings and their children and there are many lawyers, legislators, etc. Mine are mostly farmers, carpenters and blacksmiths. There are even some murderers.
For those whose families have been here for several generations, there is another excellent source of information – the U.S. census, which was preceded by county ones. Initially, these were public records and you can see the original documents – in the handwriting of the census taker – with names, addresses, ages, occupations, place of birth, and household members and their ages. The earliest county ones contain less information and, beginning with the 1950 census, that personal information became protected.
1930 census - my great-grandfather, Robert Bruce Collier, age 66,
working as a blacksmith and living with his son
and daughter-in-law in Coalgate, OK
It is particularly interesting to see how often people moved and how often their occupations changed – particularly leading up to and after the Great Depression. Also of note, is how many people took in boarders. It's common to see your great-grandparents' names, followed by the names of a few children and then totally unrelated adults (sometimes with children, too). The ways in which many people are finding themselves forced to live now were once common. There was just this brief period when prosperity was “shared” a bit more – a period which is now ending as the rich realize we won't revolt if they take everything back.
Coalgate, OK - one of the country's dying towns
where my uncle and father were born
Okay, enough of the political for now. I promise that, in the next trip blog, I'll actually write about the journey. And more photos.