Genealogy is interesting to me primarily because it’s a way to look at and understand history. In researching my own family history I have come across material for dozens of novels, more than I could write in three lifetimes.
If there’s one universal truth about writing fiction, this is probably it: happy, contented, well adjusted people don’t make for good storytelling. Conflict is what drives the story. Any serious researcher of family history will tell you that conflict is not hard to find, if you know where to look, but even more important: You also have to be open to unpleasant facts.
So for example: on my maternal grandfather’s line, which is unusually well documented, there were slaveholders. This was in Pennsylvania in the 18th century, when it was not anything out of the ordinary for people to own slaves. Example: While George Washington served as our first president, he owned slaves. As Oney Judge could have testified.
In pursuing this subject in my own family history, I had to back up and start with another sordid fact. I was able to do this with the help of the three volume A history of Wilkes-Barré, Luzerne County, Pennsylvania, from its first beginnings to the present time, Oscar Jewell Harvey, 1909 (online at archive.org, here). The three-volume set is carefully done and fully sourced, with lots of notes and footnotes. As any historical novelist will tell you, the footnotes are where they put all the interesting but maybe not directly relevant stuff. I have pulled whole characters out of footnotes.
This is where I found the detailed history of a large migration from Connecticut to Pennsylvania in 1753. It is an amazingly complicated story, and it reads like a shady real estate deal — which of course it was, as a couple thousand acres occupied by different Iroquois tribes were taken over by Connecticut land grabbers. They pulled this off by first writing a document (full text available from the US Gen-Web Project and online here) which starts like this:
ARTICLES OF AGREEMENT made and settled between us the subscribers, inhabitants of His Majesty’s English Colony of Connecticut in New England, being memorialists to the General Assembly of said Colony at their sessions in May last for the title of said Colony to a certain tract of land lying on Susquehanna River at or near a place called CHIWAUMUCK, an island in said river — and other subscribers hereunto — is as followeth, viz.:
THAT WHEREAS we being desirous to enlarge His Majesty’s English settlements in North America, and further to spread Christianity, as also to promote our own temporal interest, do hereby each of us covenant and engage-for ourselves and for those we any of us represent by signing for them-each of us to pay to Mr. JOSEPH SKINNER SKINNER, JABEZ FITCH, Esq., ELIPHALET DYER, Esq., JOHN SMITH, ESQ., EZEKIEL PIERCE, Esq , Mr. LEMUEL SMITH and Capt. ROBERT DIXON (a committee by us nominated to repair to said place at Susquehanna, in order to view said tract of land and to purchase of the natives there inhabiting their title and interest to said tract of land; and to survey, lay out, and receive proper deeds or conveyances of said land to and for each of us in equal proportion), each one of us TWO SPANISH MILLED DOLLARS, before said committee’s going and setting out on said business […]
These Susquehanna masterminds set up a journeying committee, told them how much land to purchase and how much they could pay for it, and after some negotiation, also empowered the committee to engage new ‘subscribers’ along the way. They did indeed find new subscribers along the way near the Delaware Water Gap:
This committee secured at that time subscriptions from, and enrolled as members of the Company, the following-named men who then resided along or near the Delaware River in what are now the counties of Pike and Monroe: Daniel Shoemaker, Benjamin Shoemaker (at that time one of the Commissioners of the new county of Northampton), Abram Van Camp, John Panather, Solomon Jennings, John Atkins, James Hyndshaw, Joseph Skinner and Samuel and Aaron De Pui, or Depew.
Benjamin Shoemaker or Schoonmacher (1718 – 1803) was my 6x great grandfather (by way of his daughter Hannah, my 5x great grandmother). In October 1753 Benjamin subscribed $2 to the Journeying Committee to enable him to have a share of the purchase of lands from the Indians at Wyoming Valley.
This scheme to buy the Wyoming Valley lands from the tribes of the Six Nations might have come off without a hitch, but two things got in the way: The Pennsylvania Colony got wind of the the fact that the Connecticut Colony was trying to usurp territories they considered their own and immediately started petitioning their governor to put a stop to it; and the French and Indian war got started. In the end, though, the Connecticut Susquehanna Company out-snuck the Pennsylvania Colony, and bought a good chunk of Pennsylvania from various Indian tribes after many days of negotiations with the Sachems, who came to Albany for that purpose. Great grandfather x6 was one of the men sent by the Susquehanna Company to the negotiations.
On Dec. 28, 1768 land was granted to settlers including Benjamin and one of his sons, Elijah. They moved there with their families about February 1769. At the same time subscribers from the Delaware River Valley also relocated to the Wyoming Valley, bringing along the Delaware Water Gap families, and more of my ancestors.
So these land-grabbers settle down in the Wyoming Valley and tend their crops and raise their families, and in time the Revolution comes along. Benjamin Shoemaker and his sons Daniel and Elijah volunteer and serve in the militia. If you’ve studied the Revolution in any depth you may be familiar with the Wyoming Valley massacre on July 3, 1778 (there’s a very succinct and yet thorough summary of the events of that day on Wikipedia, here). Benjamin, Elijah and Daniel fought in this battle. Elijah was killed, but in a way which caused tremendous outcry against the British.
History is all about back story, but I think I’ve covered enough of that now. You have a sense of the colonists who expanded westward, systematically divesting the native tribes of their lands. They worked hard once they got there, and the were willing to go to war to protect what they had acquired. Elijah Shoemaker was seen as a patriot at the time of his death, and is still seen that way today because he died in defense of his family and home. His father survived, and went on with his life. At this point in researching these ancestors, I came across a transcription of Benjamin’s last will and testament. It’s dated May 1773, and reads, in part:
“I leave to my grandson, Benjamin Schoonmaker, my negro Wiet and my wench Jin. I leave to my wife Janneke the use of one room in the west end of my house, and one cellar; also two bedsteads, with everything belonging thereto, and so much household goods as she has need of, and my negro wench Buta.”
Farmers in rural Pennsylvania who fought in the War for Independence owned slaves, and passed ownership of these human beings to their grandchildren. Slavery in the north isn’t widely acknowledged and certainly was never addressed while I was in school, but the history is there if you care to read about it. You might start with Slavery in the North, which includes this summary about the situation in Pennsylvania:
The 1780 act that abolished slavery in Pennsylvania freed no slaves outright, and relics of slavery may have lingered in the state almost until the Civil War. There were 795 slaves in Pennsylvania in 1810, 211 in 1820, 403 or 386 in 1830 (the count was disputed), and 64 in 1840, the last year census worksheets in the northern states included a line for “slaves.”
Common sense tells you that there will have been bad guys in your family history, but what is harder to remember is this: We tend to romanticize those who fought in wars we consider just, which is something a serious family historian has to acknowledge and report. Historical fiction is one way to make people aware of history otherwise so conveniently forgotten. I may never get around to writing a novel about the way my ancestors stole land out from under the Iroquois, or that they owned slaves. But I hope somebody, someday, will bring these times back into focus.
Ephemera is generally understood as bits of paper originally meant to be transitory, but that have nevertheless become collectible. Collage artists are fond of ephemera. So are historical novelists. Give me a stack of bills, ticket stubs, used envelopes, menus, newspaper advertisements, postcards, labels, instruction pamphlets and birthday cards from the 1880s and I’m busy for days. To get a sense of the kind of material out there, have a look at the eBay category Ephemera 1800-1899.
Most ephemera is unimportant in the greater scheme of things, but every once in awhile you run across something breathtaking. I was looking at 19th century prescriptions and pharmacy labels when I found this handwritten cablegram dated 1873 in the Library of Congress American Memory collection.
The Western Union Telegraph Company. To [Horatio Gates] Spafford 159 LaSalle St. Chicago [law office of H. G. Spafford]. Received at Chicago, Ill., Dec. 2d, 5:40 AM, 1873.
“Saved alone what shall I do. Mrs Goodwin Children Willie Culver lost go with Lorriaux until answer reply . . . Paris. Spafford.”-
The Library of Congress provided more detail of the tragedy:
Mrs. Anna Spafford was writing to her husband, a lawyer in Chicago, to notify him that the Ville du Havre had sunk, and she alone of their party had survived. Lost were her friend Mrs. Daniel Goodwin, the Spafford daughters Annie, Maggie, Bessie, and Tanetta, and a neighbor boy called Willie Culver. Mrs. Spafford had gone with Reverend Lorriaux (a French minister and a fellow survivor of shipwreck) to Paris, where she waited for instructions on what to do.
On 15 November 1873, the Ville du Havre sailed from New York with 313 passengers and crew on board. A week into the voyage to France she collided with the iron clipper Loch Earn at about 2 am on Saturday, 22 November. At the time of the collision, Ville du Havre was proceeding under both steam and sail at about 12 knots.
The passengers were roused from sleep by the collision. Most went on deck to learn that the ship was sinking rapidly, broken almost in half. Then, in the panic and chaos, the passengers found that the lifeboats had recently been painted and they were now stuck fast to the deck. Finally a few of them were yanked loose, and passengers fought desperately to be one of the few travelers to board those rescue boats. The main and mizzen masts collapsed, smashing two of the life boats and killing several people. It took 12 minutes for the ship to sink.
61 passengers and 26 of the crew were saved and taken on board the Loch Earn, while 226 passengers and crew perished. The Loch Earn, herself in danger of sinking, was subsequently rescued by the American cargo ship, Tremountain and all Ville du Havre passengers and crew were transferred to that ship. The Loch Earn, with its bow smashed in, commenced to sink as the bulkheads gave way, so she was abandoned at sea by her crew and sank shortly afterwards.
Although Horatio Spafford was not a passenger on board the Ville du Havre, his wife (Anna) and four daughters were. At the last moment Horatio was detained by real estate business, so Anna and the girls went on ahead for Paris. Anna was picked up unconscious, floating on a plank of wood, by the crew of the Loch Earn.
Nine days after the shipwreck Anna landed in Wales and cabled Horatio, Saved alone. What shall I do? Horatio immediately left Chicago to bring his wife home. On the Atlantic crossing, the captain of his ship called Horatio to his cabin to tell him that they were passing over the spot where his four daughters had died. He wrote to Rachel, his wife’s half-sister, “On Thursday last we passed over the spot where she went down, in mid-ocean, the waters three miles deep. But I do not think of our dear ones there. They are safe, folded, the dear lambs”. Horatio later wrote the famous hymn “It Is Well with My Soul” commemorating his daughters.
So that short, terse cablegram provides a door to a much larger, heartbreaking story. It just so happens that there is a shipwreck in the beginning of Where the Light Enters (do not panic, nobody you know was on the ship that sunk). The temptation, when I come across something like this telegram, is to revisit the whole section of the novel to see if I can make it any more factually accurate. What does it means that the Ville du Havre was proceeding under both steam and sail at about 12 knots?
But I will not pursue it. That’s my firm intention: to leave the matter of ships that sailed under sail and steam at the same time in the bin of unanswered questions. Because it’s not important. Nope. Makes no difference to me or my story.
On the other hand, I will tuck this all away for consideration at a later date.
Edited to add this Youtube Video of the hymn written by Horatio Spafford. I am not at all religious, but this piece of music is very moving, given the history.
It’s often distressing to read 19th century advertisements. Our great-great grandparents were just as desperate (and gullible) when it comes to certain aspects of the human condition. Hair loss, for example.
Weight-loss was just as big a topic back then as it is now, though body image was not quite so awful.
Nobody likes a crying baby. Parents don’t like their kids to be in pain or distress, and strangers are often pretty intolerant. Do a google search and you’ll see that this is a perennial problem with no easy solution. Sometimes babies just cry. Sometimes babies get really sick, and they scream. Sometimes overwrought caregivers are driven to extremes. There is no excuse for that, but it happens. It happened then, too.
What’s most disturbing about the 19th century is how unaware they were of the dangers of doping their children. Have a look at this handy dandy cure for the crying baby available at every drugstore.
It’s a challenge to stay in the mindset of your characters when you’re writing historical fiction. An intelligent, sensible person who truly believes that there’s nothing dangerous about smoking, or a little laudanum is just what the baby needs, that is sometimes hard to pull off. I consider it a kind of anachronism to pretend a character understood something that was just not knowable at the time, but I struggle with it.
Of course there were quacks who knew very well that what they were selling would do nobody any good. For instance this cure for male weakness. Note the positioning.