Friday, November 20, 2015

On History and the Importance of Remembering: An American Family Story for You

I think that perhaps too many postings from me are a big bore. They bore me, if no one else in the world. With that warning, I have thought to share something with you from the previous two weeks in which I worked intensively on getting that book project underway — keeping in mind your many good suggestions to me about that project.

One reason I'm sharing this story is that it ties into what should, I think, be a major theme of reflection for Americans, in particular, as our nation goes into yet another of its xenophobic rages in the wake of the Paris events — rages that demonstrate how little we've learned from our own shameful history, which in the very recent past alone comprises unthinkable violence done by men wearing white robes and brandishing burning crosses, the violence of shutting our borders to Jewish refugees during World War II and thereby assuring that they'd be murdered in the Holocaust, the violence of rounding up Japanese citzens and sending them to internment camps, etc. 

We don't learn from our history. Don't want to learn. 

And so this is a posting about history — about how it preoccupies my attention, if no one else's in the world. This is a posting about my own search for some bona fide data about the history of one of my own family lines, when a great deal of bogus information has been published for a long time now about the family in question.

One of the projects I pursued as I worked on the book project in the previous two weeks was to figure out the tangled, myth-laden history of a family line of mine. The family in question is a Green family. All that many of us researching this family have long known with certainty about this family is one verifiable fact: that we descend from a Hannah Green who was born 8 Aprl 1757, and who died 11 October 1832. About 1773, she married Jacob Braselton, son of John Braselton or Brazelton of Frederick County, Maryland.

Hannah's dates of birth and death and her surname are written in this family's bible. They're recorded in Jacob's handwriting, and so I take it that they're reliable dates. The register of names and dates in this bible has been published repeatedly over the years since the prestigious Virginia history-cum-genealogy magazine William and Mary Quarterly published it in 1911, with (totally spurious) information that Hannah Green Braselton was a niece of George Washington.

That red herring about Hannah's ancestry led descendants of Jacob Braselton and Hannah Green to be so confident we were Washington descendants, that many Braseltons expected to obtain a share of George Washington's estate when a portion of his vast landholdings in Ohio was sold in the early 20th century, and the money from that sale divided up among his heirs. (My great-grandmother Samantha Jane Braselton Simpson was a great-granddaughter of Jacob and Hannah Green Braselton, by the way, and this inheritance was discussed in our own family circle, older relatives who remember my great-grandmother have told me.) Braselton descendants began to circulate a story that Hannah had been the daughter of Duff Green and Anne Willis of Culpeper Co., Virginia. Anne was the daughter of Henry Willis, whose third wife was George Washington's aunt Mildred Washington — and so Hannah's descendants were related to George Washington.

This tradition was embellished with a story which maintained that a daughter-in-law of Hannah Green Braselton had often heard Hannah say that her parents were Duff Green and Anne Willis. On the strength of that report, which I find in family letters circulated among members of the Braselton family in the early 20th century, I myself long believed that there had to be something to the story that Hannah was a daughter of Duff Green — though I was perplexed that not a shred of evidence could be produced to corroborate this claim. And it was not as if Braselton family researchers, several of whom had hired expert genealogists over the years to work on this problem, had not tried to prove this story . . . .

As I worked on this project over several decades, always meeting a stone wall, I began to ask myself the obvious question: how could it possibly have happened that a young man raised on a farm on Little Pipe Creek in Frederick (today, Carroll) County, Maryland, met and married a woman from a rather distinguished Virginia family some 100 miles south of that farm, when all of Jacob Braselton's siblings married people living near their family's farm? Was it not far more likely that Hannah Green had roots in Frederick County, and that Jacob and Hannah met there?

Because I had come to such a conclusion, I was very interested when, a year or so ago, another Braselton researcher contacted me to tell me that she had located a Henry Green and wife Elizabeth in the records of Frederick County. They were there in the early 1770s, living near the Braseltons, and their land records in Frederick County pointed back to Baltimore County — Carroll County is contiguous to Baltimore County — as their place of origin.

Records in Baltimore County showed, this cousin-researcher told me, that Henry was the son of William Green and Hannah Haile of Baltimore County. I tucked this information away in my mind and made a note to myself to do more research on this family when I next had access to a research library with Maryland records — as I did when we went at the end of October to Salt Lake City, where we could spend time in the LDS family history library.

The story I discovered when I began combing the records of this particular Green family is fascinating. It leaves me with no doubt at all that Hannah Green Braselton is not, as has long been claimed, a daughter of Duff Green and Anne Willis, but that she's the daughter of Henry and Elizabeth Green of Baltimore and Frederick Counties, Maryland, and then of Granville County, North Carolina. The latter county is a missing piece of the puzzle of this family. Though Braselton researchers have long known that Jacob and Hannah Green Braselton moved from Maryland to Granville County, North Carolina, in 1778, researchers of the family from which Henry Green descends in Baltimore County, Maryland — Henry is the grandson of a Robert Green who appears to be the immigrant ancestor, and who was in Baltimore County by 1692 — had not realized that Henry and Elizabeth Green and their children also went to Granville County, North Carolina, at the very same time.

Published studies of this family report that Henry is "lost." He vanishes from Baltimore County records by the early 1770s (when he and Elizabeth moved to Frederick County). He does so because he had gone to North Carolina in 1778, and those researching this family were not aware of that fact — something that I now find can be easily proven by a careful study of the records of Granville County.

Here's what I learned during my two weeks recently studying this family: Henry and Elizabeth Green had a son Job who was a merchant of some sort in Baltimore city in the 1770s. Henry appears to have invested in Job's business. In 1777, Job applied for permission from the Maryland Council of Safety — the watchdog group monitoring the activities of suspected Loyalists in Maryland (there were counterparts in all the colonies) during the Revolution — to take a shipload of flour on his schooner Two Brothers to the West Indies.

Permission was granted. But then someone in the Baltimore Council of Safety reported to the state Council that he thought Job was up to no good, and was bringing the flour to one of the British outposts in the West Indies to aid the British cause, and Job got clapped in jail. Near the end of December, he gave bond for his good behavior and was released from jail in early January 1778.

By May 1778, he and his brother-in-law Jacob Braselton suddenly appear in the records of Granville County, North Carolina, signing an oath of loyalty to the Revoluionary cause. Before leaving Maryland, Jacob had signed a similar oath in early 1778. It's obvious to me that he and the Green family left Maryland all at once, all together, and that the precipitating factor in their migration southward was the spot of trouble into which Job had gotten himself.

Soon after these families arrived in Granville County, all settling near each other on Knap of Reeds Creek, Jacob Braselton witnessed a deed along with his father-in-law Henry Green and brother-in-law Job Green. Henry died testate in 1810 in Granville County, but, unfortunately (for Braselton researchers), not naming daughter Hannah Braselton in his will. He and Elizabeth had other children, however, who appear in the baptismal and birth register of Saint Paul's Episcopal Parish in Baltimore County who are also not named in his will, but were still alive when the will was made. And I find it seems to have been something of a "thing" in this particular Green family for people not to name all of their children in wills.

Another "unfortunately": Hannah's date of birth is also not entered in the Saint Paul's register, though it fits perfectly a gap between Henry's children Job and Elizabeth, whose births/baptisms do appear in this church register. Despite those two obstacles — the will of Henry Green and the Saint Paul's register — I'm confident that Hannah Green Braselton is the daughter of Henry and Elizabeth Green. Henry and Elizabeth were living near the Braselton family in Frederick County, Maryland, when Jacob and Hannah married about 1773; they then moved together with Jacob and Hannah to Granville County, North Carolina, in 1778; they settled near each other in that county; and they appear together in various land transactions in that county.

Hannah Green is obviously named for her grandmother Hannah Haile Green (whose parents, I now discover, owned the two tracts of land, Haile's Addition and Merryman's Lott, on which much of Johns Hopkins is built). She and Jacob Braselton named their first son John, which is the name of Jacob's father. The next son is named Henry for the man we now know to be Hannah's father, I propose. The first daughter is named Elizabeth, the name of Hannah's mother, and the next Mary, the name of Jacob Braselton's mother. Jacob and Hannah also named a son Job Green Braselton.

And so it goes, the dance of history, the constant give and take of historical research, in which we're obliged to sift myth from fact — an ongoing process, when the tendency of human communities is to prefer myth-making to clinging to fact.  Having left you with that thought, and having bored you to tears, I must now hie myself off to the dentist for another round of torture involving that tooth that has given me problems for much of this year. Will appreciate your healing thoughts as I face the torturers!

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