Friday, July 24, 2009

Pioneer Day: spookier and spookier.

I love blogging even though I know that most of my posts are read by just a couple dozen people at most. But there's something about these annual Pioneer Day posts -- both my 2007 and 2008 entries have brought unexpected wondrousness raining down on my head, blessings from Good Mother Internet and (I believe) my dear departed deadfolk. I've already blogged about the genealogical adventure in California triggered by the 2007 posting -- here's a little taste of what I received from last year's posting:

Eight months after Pioneer Day a historian named Mr. Calow, who lives in my ancestors' village of Sapcote, England Googled the words "Sapcote" + "almshouse" to see what he could find for a research project. When he clicked "search," up popped my 2008 Pioneer Day post. He emailed me, asking for more information about my ancestors to supplement his research, and I sent him all that I had available. In return for this small contribution to his project he used his expertise on Sapcote history to dig through the local resources at his disposal for anything and everything on my ancestors.

Now, we Mormons are incurable family history nuts (though I'm nuttier than most). Long before my time my family had gathered a lot of information on the Sapcote ancestral branch and I have been very familiar with all of it from childhood: records of major life events, letters and histories written by the more recent generations, and even some wonderful photos. But of course there was more out there waiting to be found, and Mr. Calow found it, and it was delightful. I was giddy for days.

My great-grandfather, Amos Brown Jr (subject of last year's Pioneer Day post), converted to the Mormon church in 1901 and less than a month later emigrated with his wife and child from England to the U.S. One thing that is clear from the letters and history in my family's possession is that Amos loved music more than just about anything. He was an exceptional singer from childhood, learned to play his father's accordion and, though poor, used the money he earned working in the stone quarries to purchase a violin. He then taught himself to play the violin as well and he and a friend became founding members of a string band that played at public events in Sapcote. So imagine how poignant it was to see this 1901 newspaper notice magically appear in my inbox:

April 1901
Bath Street, Sapcote.

J & W Harrold have received instruction from Mr Amos Brown who is leaving Sapcote and going abroad, to sell by Auction on Saturday next, April 6th 1901. A portion of the Household furniture and bedroom furniture, Kitchen and scullery Requisites. Violin and Bow, 3 octave organ, Accordian and other effects.

Far greater sacrifices have been made in the history of the world, but picturing him trading for his new faith the instruments that brought him such joy -- pretty powerful stuff.

That friend with whom Amos founded the Sapcote village band was named Reuben Seal, and decades after the young Amos moved to America, Reuben and Amos still consistently inquired about each others' welfare through the family letters. I had always wondered about Reuben, because it was clear that he and Amos shared a close bond, strengthened by their love of music. Mr. Calow saw Reuben's name popping up repeatedly in the family letters I had emailed to him and he uncovered this little gem -- a photo of the aged Reuben Seal from the local newspaper -- still playing his violin!

Mr. Calow also found a charming photo of Amos's father, Amos Brown Sr, that we didn't have. He's posing with two of his Sapcote buddies. In case you're wondering, Amos Sr is the old fellow with the hat, cane, black coat, and white beard.

We had known that Amos Brown Sr and his wife Sarah Letts Brown both lived long and were the oldest couple in Sapcote for several years. I felt that I knew Sarah well, as she was the main author of the early letters to Amos Jr, but there were no letters from her husband and consequently he was much a much dimmer figure in my imagination. Then another wonderful newspaper article transcription arrived in my email:

17 April 1925

Mr and Mrs Amos Brown celebrated their Diamond Wedding. Both were 83 years old and lived in the oldest house in the village. Mr Brown an old stockinger recalled the time when there were over 100 stocking frames in the village. He himself was
a footer working a wide frame which made six at a time. He used to earn nine shillings and sixpence a week which was very good money in those days. He had a family of nine and sixty grandchildren and fifteen great grandchildren.

I can just see him talking to the newspaper man, getting misty-eyed over the Old Days.

I've saved the best for last. This one's much older, from a time when traces of the landless poor are usually limited to brief church records of baptisms, marriages, and burials. My great-great-great-great grandfather Thomas Ellis was born in 1769 and all we knew about him and his family were their names and the dates and locations of their major life events. But Mr. Calow knew where to look for more information and he found a letter to a local landowner from the landowner's employee, regarding the poverty-stricken Thomas Ellis and his wife and six daughters:

2 May 1800

"...I cannot forbear making one request in behalf of that poor Man Thomas Ellis. There is misery enough, no doubt, every where; but think what this poor fellow undergoes in maintaining himself, a Wife, and Six Children, in this dreadful scarcity, by his own hard labour. I am convinced he will not be able to do so long; he will work himself to Death; he swooned twice in his Frame last week, and this week he is so weak as not to be able to get what is necessary for the subsistance of his Family. I have already lent him Nine shillings and sixpence this Week, and I believe I should lend him as much more if he asked for it, he is such an honest Industrious man. He says if he had room to set Frames in, for his Children to work, he should maintain his Family with pleasure. You will recollect when you was last at Sapcote, that you ordered me to build a Shop for him at your expence; this I would have done immediately, if straw could have been found to cover it; but straw is not to be had. I have been talking with Mr. Lovett about it, and he as well as myself, sincerely hope that you will in this one instance consent that he may have a Shop covered with tiles. Consider, Sir, it is not pride that urges me to make this request, it is nothing but real necessity, and the pleasure one has in being the means of bettering the condition of an Industrious man. If you will but grant this, the poor man shall work in his own Shop in less than a Month. He says I am the best Friend he has in the World, but alas! What can I do for him without you enable me. I am to take all the trouble myself in building it; but it is you that must be his best Friend; and I have no doubt but that he has a grateful heart, and will be thankful for what you may do for him. He knows nothing of my mentioning his case to you..."

I'm reduced to tears every time I read it. Thomas Ellis's desperate situation and honest struggle to provide for his family over 200 years ago is likely lost to the world except for this letter. And now I have it. Wonderful. Wonderful that a kindly man took an interest in my ancestor's plight, wonderful that he secretly wrote a letter requesting means to aid him, wonderful that someone preserved and transcribed that letter, and wonderful that someone living thousands of miles away and whom I've never met voluntarily took the time to find it for me.*

The Internet is a miraculous realm, my friends. A glorious, glorious tangle of possibilities. How in the h*** am I supposed to have a social life with these mesmerizing dead people lurking in every corner?

Happy Pioneer Day, my dearest dead! I love you all -- even you cranks.** Send me more flashy genealogy miracles this year, okay?

* He found many other interesting things -- if you are a family member interested in seeing all that he sent, let me know and I will email it to you.
I'm also nearly finished scanning, ordering, transcribing, and footnoting the full collection of family letters from England, and I'll post them as soon as they're done. Isn't this why God created spinsters? I hope so, because I love this stuff and I'd rather call it a Calling than an Addiction.

** I'm talking to you, William P. Smith.


Gawain said...

Marie - I would LOVE to receive copies of what you've acquired. I sincerely hope your Pioneer Day posts continue on.

plainoldsarah said...

i sure enjoyed this! it made me wish i loved family history as much as you!

citymama1 said...

I like your pioneer day posts. It makes me want to go look up some long lost kin of my own. You certainly have a gift for family history.

Carvel/Dad said...

Thanks, Marie! I've read part of this post to your mom, and she'll read the rest in a few minutes.
I really enjoyed reading this post.

lenalou said...

Marie, I love these stories! You've reinspired me to pick up work on my own family history again. And how wonderful to have such exceptional ancestors.

Stephen said...

Even William P. Smith couldn't be cranky after reading this fine piece.

Marie said...

Gawain -- Ack! I"m sorry! I'll get that off to you ASAP. Thanks for reading!

Sarah -- One day you will catch the disease. Just you wait. And you will forget to feed your children and forget to take the curlers out of your hair....

Citymama -- Thanks!

Dad -- Glad you liked it, and thanks for reading.

Lena -- New FamilySearch will be available here very soon (if my sources aren't being overly optimistic), so hopefully your next visit to the underworld will be less exasperating than the last. More likely it will be even more exasperating for awhile, however, until they get the bugs worked out.

Stephen -- Thank you. I hope that's true. I do like him a whole lot and don't want him turning poltergeist on me just because I ribbed him on a public blog.