Monday, July 4, 2011

America in My Family Tree

While I think it is important to acknowledge and honor those that put their lives on the line and took up arms for a cause, I also think it is important to do the same for the "behind the scenes" ancestors who did their parts to help make America what it was when and what it is today.  In honor of the 4th of July, these are some of the ancestors I think of when I think of patriotism and the American Dream - two things we celebrate most on this date.  These people aren't in history books, they didn't see combat, they didn't enact any landmark laws and most have been largely forgotten by time.  They are average people, on the surface unremarkable, the "common man" in every sense of the word, and people who I admire and think of when I think of America in my family tree.

Anne Coles Mott (1747-1840)
Anne was a Quaker with four small children when the Revolutionary War broke out.  During the course of the war she lost both her husband and youngest fifth child.  She came from a family that supported the American cause (her brother was a spy for General Washington) but lived in a city (New York) that was largely Loyalist in leaning.  She didn't have to do anything, I doubt anyone expected her to.  But, she did and then she went above and beyond.  She nursed the American prisoners being held in the dreaded Sugar House Prison, where conditions were, to put it mildly, horrible.  She gave them food, clothing and in at least one instance a place to recover from the prison (only after her husband put up half of a 1,000 pound sterling bail bond).  In return, the American soldiers gave her a quilt which she cherished.  Many years after the war and towards the end of her life, her great-granddaughter remarked that she continued to leave things outside for the American soldiers and was convinced that British soldiers were hiding in the trees outside her home.  My dream has and continues to be to join the DAR through Anne's service.

John Chapple Wellons (1805-1896)
The Wellons family owned slaves.  They likely owned them from the time they arrived in Virginia, roughly a hundred years before John's birth, and they continued to own them in Kentucky.  A biography written by John's grandson says that John freed his slaves in the 1830s or 40s.  I know that John's father, Henry, owned them, but can find no record of John having owned any.  Either they were freed upon by Henry upon his death or John did so not long after (as the eldest son the plantation and everything on it would have passed to him). Whoever did it, I'm proud of them.  Twenty + years later, when the Civil War broke out, John saw four sons (and very nearly two more if they hadn't been caught for being underage) and several nephews enlist and serve on the side of the Union.

Mariah Adelaide Doyle Shinn (1832-1917)
When Mariah died her obituary mentioned that she was an early pioneer in her community, that she was related to the Beecher family and that she was well loved by those who knew her.  She was also the daughter of a prominent early California and Nevada lawyer and judge and her mother's people were some of the oldest and most respected New England families.  But it is what her obituary failed mention that I am proudest of.  As a little girl her family nearly starved while they tried to establish a community along the then wild Mississippi River before returning in failure to her hometown of Rochester, New York.  She got married at twenty and soon had a baby which she took with her on the dangerous and grueling voyage and trek over the isthmus of Panama to reach California.  The family prospered for a time but then her husband died of malaria, leaving her with vast amounts of acreage needing to be cleared and unfarmable... as well as three small children.  She was also briefly married to a bigamist before divorcing - an event that deeply scarred her.  She could have just sold the land and gone back to what she knew and what was easy but she didn't and what's more, that never really seems to have been an option in her mind.  The land was cleared, the children raised and a legacy of farming begun.  Her husband's dream was not to dig up California's gold but to plant it - a dream she seems to have shared and passed on to later generations.

Susanna vonAllmen Berger (1849-1932)
She was the daughter of immigrants who chose to leave crushing poverty and famine in Switzerland for the US only a few years earlier.  At seventeen she married a physical fragile young minister who had been permanently scarred by his time in the Civil War.  She then spent the next twenty five years following him to where ever the church sent him.  If they were lucky they got to stay in one place for more than a year or two.  And even when they were settled in one place she was often left alone in a community of strangers with her young children while her husband traveled and spread his church's message.  What little money they did get from his preacher's pay surely wasn't enough for their large family (there were ten children in all) but she made do.  And then came the biggest move of all: to Germany so her husband could do missionary work.  While there her eldest child died and two more were born.  The family's final move was to Oakland, California where her husband died soon afterward.  She was only 42 and her youngest child (who was severely handicapped) was only a year old.  She went on to raise their children by herself with only her widow's pension (and the charity of others) to support her.  She outlived her husband by over forty years.  My grandmother's recollections of her, pictures of her in old age I have seen, stories told to me, and letters to her I have read give the impression that she was a pretty formidable person - something I'm sure she had to be to survive everything that had happened to her.

Mary Anna Webb Wellons (1862-1926)
There is a lot about Mary Anna that is admirable.  In fact, I could devote a whole post just to her.  But I'm just going to salute one thing about Mary Anna - something that is often a forgotten part of the American Dream: the right to vote.  When California granted women suffrage in 1911 (nine years before the 19th Amendment passed), Mary Anna started appearing on voter rolls immediately.  She exercised her right as an American citizen when she didn't have to, when many women still chose not to, and when many women who wanted to weren't allowed to.  She was almost fifty years old when she was able to vote for the first time and until her death fourteen years later appeared on every voter roll.  She was also somewhat unique in that she didn't just vote the same as her husband, in fact, they weren't even members of the same party some years.  I also think she played a big role in the fact that her daughters also started appearing on voter rolls as soon as they were able - and even they didn't always vote the same as their parents.  A loving family where everyone voted according to their individual ideals?  That is something I think of when I think of American greatness.

Lauren Everett Healey (1873-1959)
I chose Lauren but it is really all the Healeys that I want to honor here.  While the family did a lot that I'm proud of, the reason I'm saluting them here is because of their response to one event in American history: the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake.  Lauren (and likely the rest of his family) lost everything that April day.  He spent weeks living as a refugee at Golden Gate Park trying to get word to his family through the Red Cross.  His family spent that time across the Bay watching their city burn and crumble, all the while not knowing if Lauren was even alive.  They could have left, I don't think anyone would have blamed them if they did.  But they didn't.  They stayed and rebuilt when San Francisco needed them most.  They repaid and remained loyal to a city that had given them so much.  And most of all, they carried on with their lives and, like so many other San Franciscans, never let one horrible event define (and destroy) their city.

The Immigrants (1620-1920)
From the Mayflower to the Madonna, I salute them.  Leaky boats, covered wagons, aching feet, train, plane or automobile - no matter how they made it, I'm so glad and so proud that they did.  I am especially proud of the ancestors like my great-grandmother who came to this country not knowing anything about the language, the culture or what the future would bring her family.  She came through Ellis Island eight months pregnant with her fourth child headed for a strange land called 'Ohio' and a factory town - a far cry from the Italian countryside she knew so well.  While she spent the rest of her life struggling to learn the language, she embraced her new country, and it embraced her like it did for all my other immigrant ancestors.

Happy Birthday, America!  Here's to the many things you do better than anywhere else, the mistakes you've learned by, and the amazing people (my ancestors included) you've both attracted and fostered from elsewhere and homegrown.

4 comments:

  1. Really enjoyed reading this post, Happy 4th of July!

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  2. What a great way to honor this day and your ancestors - I love the variety of ways they did their part to make this country great.

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  3. Brilliant post. Interesting all and an unusual way to honor the 4th and America, I might add. I enjoyed the read and your take on our independence.

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  4. Beautiful post. My husband and I both had many ancestors in San Francisco in 1906 and I wonder about what they lost, what they endured, and how they managed through it.

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