Saturday, July 9, 2011

A Pilgrimage Within a Pilgrimage: Visting a Family Burial Site, Praying for Redemption to Extend to the Past

I mentioned last week that Steve and I took a trip to Houston over the fourth of July weekend to visit my uncle there (and Steve had some work-related business in Houston, as well).   While we were in Houston, I had a chance to take a tiny pilgrimage outside the city on Sunday afternoon, and it has been on my mind since then to blog briefly about this.  Warning: boring family history stuff to follow, which I'll try to summarize as crisply as possible.   

But I'm posting about this pilgrimage within the broader pilgrimage to see an elderly uncle for another reason that transcends particulars of my family history or any family history at all.  This is also a story about in what surprising ways the internet now allows us to make connections to people present and past--ways impossible to imagine even a few years ago.  

Here's the story: I've already told quite a bit of the background to this story in another posting some time ago, and so I won't repeat much of that information here.  In brief, I have an ancestor who was a black sheep of sorts, whose tracks have been fascinating to follow as I've done family history for over 30 years now.  This is a man named Samuel Kerr Green, who was born in South Carolina in 1790, moved to Nashville as a young man, where he co-purchased the city's first steamboat and involved himself in trade between Nashville and New Orleans, and then moved to Louisiana in 1821 when his steamboat sank, ruining his freighting business.

And those events are what brought that branch of my family to Louisiana.  The posting to which I've just linked contains a picture of Samuel's mother Jane Kerr, wife of John Green; Samuel's parents moved from South Carolina to Alabama in 1816 as Samuel and a brother, Ezekiel Calhoun Green, went instead to Tennessee (Ezekiel ending up in Kentucky).

The black-sheep part of Samuel's story (well, one of several aspects that make me think he was something of a scoundrel): Samuel married (or perhaps began a domestic arrangement without marrying) a woman named Eliza Jane Smith in New Orleans soon after he arrived in Louisiana, and fathered a child by her, a son named Ezekiel Samuel Green.  Ezekiel is my great-great grandfather.

Samuel and Eliza then divorced, and she remarried several years later a Capt. Samuel Ives, living with him in New Orleans, St. Martinville, and Iberville Parish, Louisiana.  Meanwhile, Samuel had set himself up on a plantation in Natchitoches Parish (the locale in which Uncle Tom's Cabin is set, by the way), which he then lost for debt, the note having fallen into the hands of the local Catholic parish, which called in the debt and took possession of the plantation.  At this point, Samuel married a rather well-heeled widow, a woman named Elvira Birdwell, the widow of a man in Natchitoches Parish named James Madison Grammer.  I suspect Elvira's attraction was that she had money, a nice amount of it.  And a number of slaves. 

Samuel wanted, in other words, to recoup his losses for that plantation he'd had to forfeit for debt, and Elvira's property was alluring for that reason.  And Elvira rather conveniently died not too long after Samuel married her, freeing her money for him to turn around and buy 640 acres in Texas--the same amount of land he had not long before that lost for debt in Louisiana.  And then there's this: shortly before Samuel married Elvira, his first wife (or co-vivant?) Eliza Jane, having thrown over her husband Samuel Ives, returned to Samuel in Natchitoches Parish, and died at his house, leaving all of her property to their only son and heir, Ezekiel.  The property included nine slaves.

When Samuel and Eliza's son Ezekiel, whom they'd both supported at their joint expense as he had grown up, and whom they'd sent jointly to St. Louis for schooling, requested that his father hand his inheritance over to him, Samuel denied that he had ever married Ezekiel's mother and that he was Ezekiel's father.  And so Ezekiel, who by this point had married Elvira's sister Camilla, filed suit against his father, to obtain possession of the property his father was withholding from him.  (Ezekiel's wife Camilla died in 1862 giving birth to a daughter Mary Ann, my great-grandmother, at which point he remarried to Camilla and Elvira's sister Hannah, the widow of Hardin Harville.  Between them, father and son married three Birdwell sisters.)

The case of Ezekiel S. v. Samuel K. Green reached the Louisiana Supreme Court in 1859, which found in favor of Ezekiel, noting that it's with ill grace that a father would seek to bastardize his son to gain the son's property, that there was abundant proof that Ezekiel was Samuel's son (Ezekiel was named for Samuel's great-grandfather Ezekiel Calhoun), and that it is often exceedingly difficult for a child to prove his or her paternity.  And here's how all of that story connects to Texas and my recent trip to Houston:

I've known for quite some time that when Samuel lost his legal battle with his son, he immediately left Louisiana for Texas, and died very soon after he arrived in Texas.  He died of pneumonia in March of 1860 in Grimes Co., Texas.  I assume that he left Louisiana in some disgrace, having sought to deny paternity of his son to obtain the son's property.  And I assume that he wanted to spend what was left of his life in a new locale, where people wouldn't know of the embarrassing lawsuit.

What I had never quite understood was why he had headed to Grimes Co., Texas, where--as far as I knew--he had no acquaintances or family connections at all.  He did have a sister Jane Caroline Keesee, who lived in Ellis Co., Texas.  And he had a brother Benjamin S. Green who had, I thought, gone to Washington Co., Texas, since I find Benjamin and his family there on the 1850 census.

After finding Samuel's death record, I searched for some years for a tombstone record or indication of his burial place, but found no information at all.  And then this happened: in the past year, at the wonderful Find a Grave site, I happened to notice this strange configuration of names in a tiny Green family cemetery in Waller Co., Texas, just north of Houston: the cemetery has a tombstone for an S.K. Green and one for a B.S. Green with initials of what seem to be B.S. Green's family members.

Strange, I thought: when I know that I have an ancestor whose name was Samuel Kerr Green, and that he had a brother Benjamin S. Green who ended up in Texas as Samuel did, what are the chances that a single cemetery in Texas would have tombstones with the initials S.K. and B.S. Green?  But if these are the tombstones of my Samuel and his brother Benjamin, why on earth is this cemetery in Waller Co?

And then I began to do a bit of research.  Waller County was created in 1873, and one of its parent counties is Grimes County, the county in which Samuel K. Green died.  Unbeknownst to me, Samuel's brother Benjamin had also died in Grimes Co. in March 1860, but his name is disguised on the mortality census of Grimes Co., since his initials appear as R.S. and not B.S. Green.  And so I had never found this record in the past, since I was searching for a man with the initials B.S. and not R.S.

So Benjamin had ended up in Grimes Co., and it was to his brother Benjamin's family that Samuel went when he left Louisiana in disgrace in 1859.  Once I had located Benjamin in Grimes Co., it was very easy to track his family through various records in that county and in Waller, since the land on which they lived fell into Waller Co. in 1873--and so the family cemetery in which the members of the family are buried, along with my ancestor Samuel Kerr Green, is now in Waller and not Grimes Co.  Through the internet's magic, I had finally located the burial place and tombstone of this elusive black-sheep ancestor, and had figured out why he went to precisely the spot in Texas that he chose as his home when he left Louisiana . . . .

And when I knew I'd be making this trip to Houston, I was determined to see if I could locate the cemetery on a drive out into the countryside, since the cemetery is only some 35 miles or so north of Houston.  That's the goal Steve and my cousin Ben and I set for ourselves last Sunday afternoon, after Ben had gone to church and we had had lunch with his father.

Again, through the magic of the internet, which had allowed me to make all of these connections in the past several months, I was able to see on a Google map precisely where the cemetery (which is unmarked) is located.  And so we drove along a winding road in rural Waller Co., where suburban expansion from Houston is creating a mix of developed neighborhoods side by side with old farm places, keeping our eyes peeled for a tiny unmarked cemetery that has only two tombstones, both of which, I suspected from pictures I could see of them online, were lying on the ground rather than standing upright.

It was a bit of a needle-in-a-haystack search, and when we'd driven the whole length of the road between the terminus a quo and terminus ad quem that, I knew from various sources, represented the points between which the cemetery lies (two small towns called Hempstead and Magnolia) and hadn't spotted the cemetery, we were tempted to give up.  But then we decided to retrace our steps, and I had the bright idea of matching the turns and curves of the road on the Google map to the turns and curves of the actual road, which, I reasoned, should give us an idea of precisely the patch of road where we knew to be looking most carefully, since the location was precisely marked on the Google map.

And that method of searching paid off: right at the spot where Google told us we should find the cemetery, we found it--unmarked in any way at all, completely neglected, with one stone lying on the ground and the other, Samuel's, upright on its foundation, though an indentation in the ground behind it tells me it, too, was lying on the ground until very recently.

And I wish I could say that finding this long-sought gravesite gave me some kind of spiritual insight or ah-ha sense that made the search on a very hot July afternoon worthwhile, but I'd be less than honest if I claimed that.  If I felt anything at all on seeing this gravesite and touching the stone marking the burial spot of my black-sheep ancestor, it was a sense of satisfaction at having completed a task I'd set for myself.

And a sense--a fairly keen one--of sadness.  Sadness that a father would ever try to deny his son, and, in particular, for lucre.  Sadness at the pain this must have caused both the father and the son.  Sadness that the two parted company, by all indicators, with their relationship unhealed and that the father then died in a place apart from his son, and the father's burial site has long since been neglected.  (None of Benjamin's four children married or had any heirs of their own.  All lived into their old age on their family land, sharing the farming operation among themselves, and so there are no descendants left to tend to this cemetery.)

But a sense, as well, that it was meant for me to find this gravesite, to pray a moment there for the reconciliation of fathers and sons in the eternal scheme of things, and for the rest of a man whose spirit must surely have been tormented, if he placed his own financial gain over the well-being of his son.  I have long believed that the redemption we Christians believe the death and resurrection of Christ effects works on all planes of time--in the present and for the future, of course, but also back into the past as well.

So that one's prayers for healing at a spot in which a tormented man is buried may possibly reach into the past of that man, and the son he wounded, and draw the healing grace of Christ back into a past full of pain.  And to that end, I found two rocks on the ground near the gravesite, said my prayers, and put the rocks atop the base of the tombstone, as a sign that a grandson (several generations down the line) had come to this spot, prayed, and hoped for peace and love to mark the final resting place of this ancestor.

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