A Family History of the United  States


           On gravestones and in court houses genealogists trace the records as meticulously as students of history follow received opinion.  What we know about our past, so the distinguished British 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 sense to it 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."  My hope would be just to learn what I can from their backwoods travail through Virginia, 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 reverses foreground and background, right and left,
the fabled mirror of history contains even more serious distortions.  All the figures I behold there are headed in my direction.  I imagine that they must know where they are 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 day, the 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 with 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 obsolete understandings.
        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 family.   Our 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 to 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.  "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.  But even those "Norse men" were cousins.  The Venerable Bede, who wrote our best early history, records that Angles and Saxons had been invited to Britain as warriors.  They found it so fertile that 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 England.  In short, peering 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 hastened the smaller planters' move upriver.  Acquisitiveness certainly played its rôle in migration down the Blue Ridge.  Devastation 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.

      Use 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 grandparents had already spent their mature years on the Virginia and Tennessee frontiers.  Thus when the British were finally defeated, the 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 century; 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 natives.

    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 Ohio 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 among the 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 continued 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.  He 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.


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