Ancestral families

Where_Once_They_StoodExcerpted from Where Once They Stood: The Colonial and Early Republic Ancestors of Alpheus Appenheimer and America Swango:

“The tracing of a modern person’s lineage back through the centuries to a single remote ancestor in a vanished time and place, is the essence of genealogy.  However painstaking the research, with continual cross-checking and cross-referencing—however thorough and dispassionate the examination of evidence from multiple sources, however ingenious the triangulation of disparate data, and however rational the reliance on DNA testing for verification—the pursuit of a genetic lineage is an endeavor not untinged by the stain of romanticism. Though they might disavow it emphatically and cling to the respectable trappings of the dedicated scholar, there lurks in the shadowy recesses of every genealogist’s soul a secret Galahad, a quester after the Grail, a seeker after a direct link to some storied, half-mythic ancestor who has captivated the imagination, whether prince, or knight, or notorious outlaw.

The emphasis, in other words, is all on the individual—on direct links to particular ancestors—on traceable lineages—on great grandfathers and great grandmothers, as opposed to great uncles, great aunts, or first cousins several times removed.  This emphasis on direct lineages is mirrored in the history and legal system of every nation, and one can hardly gainsay its importance, but it is nevertheless a distortion of a core human reality: that the most basic unit in human society is not the individual but the family.

If this assertion seems less obvious now than in earlier eras, it is only because so much of human culture—through forces originally set into motion by humankind, but now utterly beyond its control—is currently in the process of disintegration. The typical American family in our time is both fractured and fractious, a mere stump of the great spreading tree that it was in its prime.

We speak reverentially of American individualism as a central national tenet, embodied in the figures of the 18th century longhunter or 19th century mountainman, the lone restless wanderer with his powderhorn and longrifle, self-reliant, living off the land, who has broken finally and utterly with the feudal European system of master and vassal: the quintessence of the free and independent man.

And while such individuals did exist—perhaps in greater numbers on the Appalachian frontier than in any other place before or since—their role in the arduous transformation over decades of the wilderness into established settlements was peripheral at most. That prodigious under-taking, for good or ill, and the brutal struggle it entailed against the Shawnee, Cherokee and other indigenous tribes, was the work not of intrepid individuals but of grittily determined pioneer families whose other options—very often—had all but run out.

Not only was it families who turned the tomahawk claims into backwoods farmsteads, who hewed out the first wagon roads and laid out the earliest frontier towns—it was also families (not generals or governors or governments, but families) who, in many instances, raised the militias, built the forts, and patrolled the forests. Consider those self-reliant families in the Watauga valley on the far side of the Alleghenies: cut off from any hope of support against the Cherokee from the governments of either North Carolina or Virginia, they declared their independence, established their own government and petitioned Williamsburg for recognition.

Dependent on no one but themselves for sustenance from the wilderness and protection against the tribes, families on the frontier naturally turned to neighboring families for support. They joined forces against the dangers that threatened them from all sides, and, before long, sealed their bonds by marriage, until families in a given region became, in effect, one great extended family.

For us now, trying to comprehend the lives of our colonial ancestors, it is not enough simply to trace the lineages of direct forebears. They did not exist as isolated individuals, but as members of extended families and close-knit communities who, for generations, had depended on one another for survival.

For this reason, in presenting the story of Alpheus and America Appenheimer’s frontier ancestors, I have included not only fathers and mothers, sons and daughters, but brothers, sisters, cousins and even in-laws as well—for they too were family.  On the frontier, especially, families were closely bound. They emigrated into the wilderness together, endured hardships together, suffered Indian attacks and abductions together, and went to war together. Calamities were family affairs.”


BJ Omanson

A Young Girl’s Diary during the Great Depression: Life on an Illinois Farm

AYoungGirlintheGreatDepression_coverExcerpted from the Preface of A Young Girl in the Great Depression:

“What is especially notable about this diary, written by one so young, is how outwardly directed and objective it is.  While her own activities are recorded, they receive little more attention than those of her siblings and parents, with nearly equal additional attention given to the activities of a host of relatives and neighbors. The result is an account of an extended family, and its surrounding community, which is unusually comprehensive.

On the one hand, because she is constrained by the small amount of space is allotted for each day, her entries never exceed more than a modest paragraph. She has to pack in the information, and avoid digressions of any sort. She has to stay focused on particular facts and events and, because the life around her is so rich in the number of small events which she is determined to record, she has no space to spare for description. What matters above all is what people do.

            To an historian, this is pure gold. A major obstacle in understanding rural life in earlier periods, is the lack of sources which portray what people actually did, and how they interacted, on a day-to-day basis: all the little ordinary activities and events which no one thought important enough to record. But it is exactly such details as these which historians require if they are to reconstruct rural life accurately.

Farmers and their families are not natural diarists.  They are simply too busy, and too tired at the end of the day, to keep a faithful record of everything that happens and of what everyone does. Adolescents, on the other hand, have more time, and are probably more inclined to keep diaries, but they almost invariably write about themselves to the exclusion of everything else. Such diaries rarely possess any historical value.

Adolescents are naturally self-centered, and I do not mean this as criticism. Both their outward and inward lives are changing so rapidly that they can barely keep track of the daily stresses, traumas and transformations. The diary of a typical thirteen-year-old is almost entirely subjective. Everything that happens is taken personally. It is simply in the nature of being an adolescent. Their world is changing by the day, and it is a full-time job just to keep track of one’s inner turmoil. There is no time left over to follow everyone else’s activities.

Yet in Betty’s diary the degree of self-centeredness is almost nil. She is more interested in what happen to others than in what happens to herself. She possesses a natural empathy which keeps her outwardly focused. She is pleased when others do well, and sympathetic when they suffer. She writes about those around her in a plain, straightforward manner with no hint of fault-finding. She gives everyone the benefit of the doubt. And as hard as her life obviously is at times, it never occurs to her to complain.

As history, the most valuable documents of rural life are often business records kept by the farmers themselves. Regarding Al Appenheimer’s farm, we are fortunate to possess highly detailed records of the farm’s operation which cover every year from the late 1920s to the early 1970s. But for all their historical significance, such records tell us very little of what individual family members actually did on a day-to-day basis.

Another primary source for understanding the daily life of rural families are letters, but letter writers almost always concentrate on important events such as weddings, births, illnesses and deaths.  What they omit, not surprisingly, are the small occurrences and activities which comprise an ordinary working day. Letters are relatively infrequent, so that events tend to be summarized, and condensed.  They convey little of the daily rhythm of rural life.

It is this aspect of Betty Appenheimer’s diary—the faithful recording of all the little things that she and her family and neighbors do, day in and day out, through three years of changing seasons—which makes her diary such an historical treasure trove.”


BJ Omanson

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