A Family History of the United States
gravestones and in court houses genealogists trace the records as
students of history follow received opinion. What we know about our past, so the distinguished
historiographer Herbert Butterfield reminds us, begins with lists:
contributions to the temple, taxes
delivered up to a warlord, the "begats" of the Old Testament.
When historians at last try to go beyond the lists to formulate some
all, they resort to abstract notions: trends, epochs, tribes and
nation states, the
causes people struggled for, or against. After all, only God
can create individuals. Historians create the generalizations and
abstractions. In their eyes these are the purpose
and goal of history writing. In any case, the larger vision carries more
authority than individual
names on a
family tree. That anguished refrain, "Tell me what were their names, tell me what were their
names," is only the stuff of song.
Here I have singled out one family. Its very insignificance leaves us to focus on the hardships and hopes of just a few colonists, individual revolutionaries, remote pioneers.
They are some of the people whom urbane academicians scold for
their "excessive individualism," "expansionism," even "racism."
would be just to learn what I can from their backwoods travail through
Maryland, the Carolinas, Tennessee, Arkansas, Texas. If my effort has
any redemption at all, it may be that this kind of writing is not out
to prove anything.
Perhaps it is impossible to understand past times. Just as my
physical mirror on the wall
foreground and background, right and left, the fabled mirror of history contains even more serious distortions. All the
behold there are headed in my direction. I imagine that they must know where they
going. I approve
their progress toward my world. But the
more I allow the mirror of history to be informed by the wisdom of my
foggier it gets. I
always have to remind myself that those who appear to be looking right
at me, are strangers gazing out into the unknown. A contemporary
whom they left behind, but never forgot, expressed our
human dilemma this way:
But Och, I backward cast my e'e
On prospects drear,
An' forward, tho' I canna see,
I guess an' fear.
My views arise from
assumptions quite different from those of my forebears, and may even conflict
what they believed. Sometimes I try to use their language, as if
in discourse with them. Mostly I write to be
understood by my own contemporaries. I do try to eschew the politic
language of history books, which trim their vocabulary,
even revise their chronological apparatus, to popular dictate. The
dilemma in points of view between the historian and his subject matter
constitutes a huge impediment--which some do not
even wish to surmount. Let us see if we can follow
the trials of
one family. We must try to sympathize with their untimely views and
America is gladly referred to as a great
melting pot, where immigration increased both in volume and variety
until at last inclusiveness and tolerance became catchwords. We are a typical American
earlier home in the south of England, populated for centuries by West
Saxons, had been little affected by subsequent incursions. As colonists in Virginia and Maryland, the English still kept
themselves during the 17th and 18th centuries. At last (in the
ninth American generation) there came a marriage out in Texas with
Laura Ann Kirk, a freckle faced girl of Scots blood. One seeks in
vain for a German, Scandinavian, much less an Eastern European or
Mediterranean name. There are many, many families like this one,
set off from multicultural America, and thus offering an
easily discernible tracer through the some four-hundred-year
peopling of the continent.
That is not a very long time in human civilization, which we
count in the thousands of
"Years" is itself too
small a measure. If I try to formulate our past in more
comprehensible terms, I might say that our first American came
to Virginia about a dozen generations ago. Before that, his
family had lived among kinfolk in England for a dozen
generations after the island was overrun by the Normans.
even those "Norse men" were cousins. The Venerable Bede, who
best early history, records that Angles and Saxons had been
invited to Britain as warriors. They found it so fertile
they abandoned a homeland north of the Weser River, in present-day
Schleswig-Holstein. That was about a dozen
generations before their cousins to the south invaded
back into the fog
of northern Europe, one
can discern a fairly continuous line of maybe
three dozen generations. DNA kinship, of course, becomes
imponderably remote in much fewer generations than that.
Still, blood is thicker than water.
After coming to Virginia in the seventeenth
century, the offspring did not remain settled there for long. Having found
cause to leave England, the family were not very complacent here
either. They seem seldom to have regarded themselves as belonging
to the solid, satisfied citizenry, however well they might have been
faring. Even at moments of respectability, even perhaps
prominence in their community, not only the children but also the
parents were apt to up and move away. One can speculate why that
was so. Exhaustion of the soil by tobacco was an early cause for
moving on. The vast royal grants made to families like the
Carters, the Byrds, Fairfaxes, Culpeppers, Beverleys etc. may have
the smaller planters' move upriver. Acquisitiveness certainly
played its rôle in migration down the Blue Ridge.
and despair, perhaps even our own misdeeds, drove some of us out of
Tennessee. Certain early commentators thought migration
characteristic of the New World. Perhaps restlessness went back to
our ancient forebears.
of the word "home" for our grandparents'
residence probably went back a long way, too. When hostilities
with England broke
out in the 1760s, the Tennessee boys returned "home" to
Baltimore County, where their own
parents and grandparents, as well as at least one great-grandmother had
been born. But by now, other
already spent their mature years on the Virginia and Tennessee
frontiers. Thus when the British were finally defeated,
young folk came "home" to the frontier wilderness.
Pioneer life may have
contributed to what modern historians generalize as "individualism."
Not only was each subsequent generation likely to move on,
but distance from home required young people ever to start their
family afresh. Boys in their teens might set out on their
own. Girls did not enter into marriages arranged
by their parents. Where a modern European couple might today feel
burdened by family traditions, Americans are more likely to seek out, or even to try to establish a tradition for their own
children. Whether it was good for the individual thus always to
have to "start from scratch" is open to discussion. It was
typical of my family so long as they were attached to the land, that
is, until into the twentieth century.
The first of our American
forebears established himself in Virginia in the seventeenth
his elder son continued
there. The younger moved to Maryland, lived long and produced
a large family. Some of them were ready to forsake the
narrow tidewater for the piedmont. They would strike out not just
individually, but as a tribe--brothers, sisters, uncles, cousins, still
toting heirlooms from England as they moved out of the tidewater
first as far as the Blue Ridge, then in the very next generation to the
frontier of North Carolina. Here they again braved the gloom of
the "forest primćval" and contended with the increasingly hostile
Young Virginians served in militias to protect their
families from the Indians, who were sometimes allied with the French. By the 1760s in the Carolinas they were fending off the British Redcoats. They took
up "overmountain" settlement into the Watauga basin, where ebullient American quest for new ground was attracting families. Whether these "Western Waters" drained by the
and Mississippi were to be governed by Spain or France long remained
uncertain. Many, like Aaron Burr and Sam Houston, would envisage vast new
dominions to the south and west. People like those in the Watauga settlement were
first to reject the English crown. They likewise declined to be part of the
new republic formed in Philadelphia.
Our ancestor's signature appears on the petition (1776) for an independent republic.
Some of the family
to drive the Indians before them as they pressed on westward, but our
immediate forebear continued tobacco farming and merchant business on
the Cumberland. One of his sons set up a trading establishment
there, others became lawyers, preachers, smiths, land
speculators. A peaceful half century was shattered by the
great civil War. The storekeeper was seized for supplying Rebel troops.
died in political prison. His son, among the boys resisting the
invasion, was also imprisoned. When they paroled him, he came out
to Texas. It was his children who at last had to adapt to a new
industrial age, something the family had long resisted.