Monday, September 20, 2010

Musings on History: Tortuous Paths, Ambiguous Legacies

I'm going to take a break from blogging about heavy issues this afternoon and post about something that interests me, and is unlikely to interest 99.99% of the rest of the world.  So please be forewarned.  I am pretty much worn out with political and religious topics at the moment, and as I noted in a recent posting, have been trying to deal with learning that I'm diabetic over a month ago.

On that front, good news.  With medication, stringent exercise, careful attention to diet, and weight loss (some 15 pounds in a month), I now have the sugar levels at a level the doctor considers very good, and have brought the diagnostic level of diabetes down over a whopping three points.

At the same time, I'm also finding I don't have as much energy as I'd like to think and write, as I work on trying to recover health.  Hence this post about a light topic that interests me--with apologies for its irrelevance to most readers, and for going on about boring health matters in the preceding paragraph.

The elderly lady whose portrait sits at the top of this posting is an ancestor of mine, a number of generations back.  Her name was Jane Kerr, and she was born 8 October 1768 in Abbeville County, South Carolina, and died 2 November 1855 at Green Pond in Bibb County, Alabama. The portrait was painted around 1850 in the house that Jane's husband John Green built at Green Pond in 1816 when the couple moved their family from South Carolina to Alabama.  The portrait is currently owned by another descendant of John and Jane Kerr Green who has kindly sent me a photograph of it.

I never expected to see a picture of this several times great-grandmother, and find it moving to see something of what she looked like not long before her death.  I do have copies of a number of letters that her husband wrote to Jane's uncle, John Ewing Colhoun (whose portrait is on the left), during the early 1800s, when John Green managed John Ewing Colhoun's upcountry plantation, Keowee (a drawing of which is below), in the South Carolina upcountry.  John and Jane moved over from Abbeville to Pendleton District, South Carolina, in 1791 in order for John to oversee the building of the Keowee house and the operation of the Keowee plantation while Jane's uncle John E. Colhoun resided on plantations that had come to him in the lowcountry from his wife Floride Bonneau.

The letters contain little information that would interest anyone other than historians interested in plantation life in the South Carolina upcountry in the late 1700s.  They do, however, contain tidbits of intriguing information about Jane--such as an assurance from John, when he and Jane were trying to coax her uncle and aunt to come to the upcountry to escape the heat and illness of lowcountry summers, that John and Jane would carry guns and meet her uncle and aunt, to assure their safety as they arrived at the plantation.  John may have had his own interest in seeing Jane's uncle and aunt bring their family to the upcountry during summers, as well, since his brother Benjamin was tutor for John E. Colhoun's children on John's lowcountry plantations.

I also have a copy of a letter that Jane's mother Mary Calhoun, a daughter of Ezekiel Calhoun and Jane Ewing, who married Samuel Kerr, a man killed as a Revolutionary captain in 1781, wrote to her brother John at a point at which his daughter, Floride Bonneau Colhoun (she was named for her mother; her portrait is on the left), was not expected to live.  "Littel flory" was just past a year old at the time.  Mary's letter encourages her brother to remember that "we have no abiding citty hear and that we are at best but Strangers and pilgrames as all our fathers have been . . . . "  She also hopes that her brother will remember "allways to Stand in readiness as we know not when they may come upon us in this uncertain wourld wherein we are Sure of nothing or at any reate very uncertain of anything but that one thing Death and after that the Judgment that we may be clothed with christ's unspotted righttiousness[.]"  

Mary knew whereof she wrote with such Presbyterian fortitude.  When her parents, uncles and aunts, and grandmother Catherine Montgomery Calhoun had moved to the Long Cane area of Abbeville County, South Carolina, in 1756, they found themselves living adjacent to land whose ownership was contested by the Cherokees to the west.  In 1760, a massacre occurred, in which Catherine and many other early settlers of the Long Cane community, including Mary's uncle James Calhoun, were killed.  Catherine was 76 years old at the time.

"Littel flory" did, in fact, live, and went on to marry her cousin John C. Calhoun, who held, among many other offices, the position of vice-president of the U.S.  And I suspect that, had she not been a Calhoun descendant, Jane Kerr would perhaps have stood less of a chance of being immortalized in the portrait at the head of this posting.  I certainly don't have portraits like this on most sides of my family.

Something else that strikes me as I look at the portrait: until I began gathering family information and records in the mid-1970s, I knew next to nothing about the Green side of my family.  The connection to the Greens is through my father's grandmother Lindsey, who was née Mary Ann Green.  

I happened into a wealth of information about this family during the years in which I was teaching theology at Xavier University in New Orleans.  In that period, I sent off for a copy of the death certificate of my great-grandmother Mollie Green Lindsey, and found that she had been born in Pointe Coupee Parish, Louisiana--not too far north from New Orleans.  I had somehow discovered that Mary Ann's father Ezekiel Green had married Mary Ann's mother, Camilla Birdwell, in Pointe Coupee Parish in 1853, and I was having difficulty obtaining a copy of the marriage document from a less-than-forthcoming parish clerk.

So on a whim one day, I drove to New Roads, the parish seat for Pointe Coupee, and looked for the marriage record myself--and found it immediately.  Since I had done my errand quickly and had time to kill, I began leafing through the folders of original judicial case files for Pointe Coupee Parish, and my eyes fell on a fat folder full of documents labeled "Ezekiel S. Green v. Samuel K. Green, #1525, 9th District Court."

The folder turned out to be an historical goldmine.  It contained documents from a suit my great-great grandfather Ezekiel Samuel Green had filed against his father Samuel Kerr Green in 1856.  When I read the file, I discovered that Ezekiel's mother Eliza Jane Smith had died at Samuel's plantation in Natchitoches Parish in March 1843, leaving her property, including some 15 enslaved African Americans, to her son Ezekiel, though she and Samuel had divorced and Eliza had then remarried a Captain Samuel Ives, who had predeceased her.

When Ezekiel came of age, his father refused to turn the property over to his son, and sought to deny paternity of Ezekiel.  Hence the lawsuit, which went eventually to the Louisiana Supreme Court, which upheld the verdict of the Pointe Coupee court, ruling that Ezekiel had abundant evidence to show that he was Samuel's son.  The state Supreme Court also noted that it is  "with a bad grace" that a father would seek to illegitimate a son to gain the son's property, since "it is sometimes impossible for a child to know with certainty whether he be legitimately begotten or not."

Over the years, I've gotten to know Samuel K. Green--who seems to have been something of a scoundrel, as the 1856 lawsuit suggests--far more intimately than I would ever have expected to know an ancestor about whom I had absolutely no information before I began doing family history.  I've found, for instance, that when his parents moved to Alabama in 1816, he and a brother Ezekiel Calhoun Green went to Nashville, where Samuel quickly became involved in the business of freighting goods between New Orleans and Nashville.

With several other men, he purchased the first steamboat to ply between Nashville and New Orleans--the General Jackson--and was among its captains, making trips for a number of years between the two cities.  It was the sinking of this steamboat and the destruction of his financial security--a consistent pattern throughout his life--that precipitated Samuel's move to New Orleans around 1819, and the rooting of my branch of the Green family in Louisiana, my father's state of birth.

I can't say I have any snazzy morals to draw from all these stories, except perhaps this: history--no matter the person or institution we might want to research--is always far richer and far more tortuous than we ever imagine, when we begin an historical investigation.  It never ceases to amaze me that many of those writing about the history and tradition of faith communities are so absolutely confident that they know these histories and traditions beyond the shadow of a doubt without careful research.  And that these histories and traditions are unambiguous and univocal.

I haven't found that to be the case with any slice of history I've ever recovered through painstaking research. No matter what the topic.

Another musing: what would these high-toned Southern Calhoun ancestors have thought about having a gay descendant/relative years down the road?  I have no way of knowing.  I daresay not a few of their descendants would not be happy to know that they have a distant gay relative--a mouthy one, at that, who tells the whole world about his life. 

I also daresay that among the thousands and thousands of Calhoun descendants in the nation today, I'm not the only gay offspring, though not all of these gay descendants may be out of the closet.  In fact, I'm fairly confident I've located another gay cousin back in this family's history--and an illustrious one, at that.  If I'm granted a few more years of life and can muster time and energy to write about this person, I have plans to do so.

And it may well be that these doughty Ulster Scots Presbyterians would be more unhappy to find they have a Catholic descendant than a gay one.

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