On This Day: Marriage of David Williamson and Anna Young

David Williamson and Anna Young were married on September 26, 1872, in Perthshire, Scotland

David and Anna Young Williamson were my great great grandparents.

Scotland as it would have looked at the time of my great great grandparents’ births.
Map of Scotland – Tallis, John & Frederick (fl. ca. 1846-1850); drawn & engraved by J. Rapkin

David Williamson was born June 27, 1846, in Crawford, Lanarkshire, Scotland. He was one of seven children. He and at least one of his brothers were coal miners. His brother William Williamson, who attended University of Edinburgh, reportedly managed a coal mine for Queen Victoria!

Anna M. Young was born April 11, 1851, in Cargill, Perthshire, Scotland. She was one of eleven children. She married David Williamson in Perthshire.

Post card of mining site – Galena, Cherokee County, Kansas (ca. 1890-1910)

The couple and their five children immigrated to Crawford County, Kansas, in 1887. Their sixth child, my great grandfather, was born shortly after the family’s arrival. David’s brother William immigrated at about the same time. The two brothers worked in the mines of Southeast Kansas.

Anna Young Williamson, surrounded by her children and family dog. Photo taken shortly after the birth of my great grandfather in 1888. He is the toddler, clutching his mother’s skirt.
The Pittsburg Headlight – Pittsburg, Kansas – 12 May 1892

Family lore has it that David had some issues with alcohol (and perhaps owned a saloon at one time?) Local newspaper accounts of the time paint a picture of an immigrant who had money troubles and who ran afoul of the law, serving time in Girard, Kansas, as well as in Leavenworth. It appears he abandoned his home and family on several occasions.

His oldest son appears to have been involved with his father in a scheme of cashing out their business, skipping town, and leaving their creditors in the lurch.

The Leavenworth Times – Leavenworth, Kansas – 22 Jan 1898

At some point, David ended up living with this son and his family in Witt, Montgomery County, Illinois.

The Pittsburg Daily Headlight – Pittsburg, Kansas – 1 Sep 1893

Besides David’s own misfortunes, the brother that had journeyed with him from Scotland to America—William—was tragically killed in a mining accident in Scammon, Cherokee County, Kansas, seven years after the brothers’ arrival in America.

David Williamson died in Illinois in 1908 at the age of sixty-two.

Anna Young Williamson passed away in 1934 at the age of eighth-three.

Whatever unhappiness Anna experienced in her married life, she seems to have been blessed with loving and devoted children who, along with their own children and grandchildren, spent many happy moments with Anna.

Four Generations: Anna Young Williamson, her daughter, Jean Williamson Oliver, her granddaughter Anna Oliver Russell, and her great grandson William Oliver “Bill” Russell

David and Anna Young Williamson are buried in Olivet Cemetery in Pittsburg, Kansas.

On This Day: Birth of Matilda Small Russell

Matilda Small Russell was born September 13, 1846, in Bloomington, Indiana.

She was my great great grandmother.

Matilda Russell, like many members of the maternal line of my family, was a descendant of Scottish Covenanters.

For several centuries, this sect of Scottish Presbyterians fought for the right to uphold their own church government and practices rather than those imposed upon them by the Commonwealth of England and the Anglican Church. Many Covenanters were persecuted and even martyred for continuing to practice their faith. For that reason, many Covenanters chose to immigrate to America in the 18th century. Communities were born around such congregations, and one of those enclaves was in Bloomington, Indiana. Matilda and her family were members of the Reformed Presbyterian Church in Bloomington.

The Covenanters, a group of Scotch-Irish Presbyterians from South Carolina, had settled just outside Bloomington by 1821.  Believing that slavery was a moral evil, the Covenanters acted on their principles and during the Civil War provided a way station for escaped slaves traveling north on the Underground Railroad.

From the website VisitBloomington.com

Each of Matilda’s parents had emigrated from Ireland directly to Bloomington. Her father, John Alexander Russell, married Margaret Fullerton in Bloomington, Indiana, in 1843. Matilda was one of five children that lived to adulthood.

Because of the church’s abolitionist views, many of the early Covenanter immigrants who had originally settled in South Carolina began to question the wisdom of staying in the south. Most of the South Carolina Covenanters in my family chose to relocate to other areas, primarily Indiana and Illinois.

James Faris Curry (1842-1921), who would marry Matilda Russell, came from just such a family.

His great grandparents on his father’s side—Samuel Curry (1752-1811) and Margaret Erwin (1750-1831)—had emigrated from County Antrim in part of the first generation of Covenanter immigrants, settling in Chester County, South Carolina. His great grandparents on his mother’s side—John Smith (1730-1784) and Agnes Faris (1743-1838)—had followed the same path. These four ancestors are my 5th great grandfathers and grandmothers.

Some of the Curry children remained in South Carolina, others went North. The same was true of the Smith family.

One of those Curry children, William Curry (1772-1847) married Margaret Harbison (1773-1845) in Chester County, South Carolina and moved to Bloomington. And one of those Smith children, David M. Smith (1771-1841) married Sarah Neil (1780-1861) in Chester County, South Carolina, and moved to Bloomington. These four ancestors were my 4th great grandparents.

Samuel T. Curry and Sarah “Sally” Smith Curry—my 3rd great grandparents and James Faris Curry’s parents.

And, finally, we get to James Faris Curry’s parents. They were Samuel T. Curry (1810-1882)—a son of William Curry and Margaret Harbison Curry—and Sarah “Sally” Smith (1811-1888)—a daughter of David M. Smith and Sarah Neil Smith.

James Faris Curry in Union Army uniform

James served the Union Army with Company L of the 4th Indiana Cavalry and Company E of the 145th Indiana Infantry. At the end of the war, James Curry returned to Bloomington, and in March of 1867, he and Matilda Russell were married in Bloomington.

The couple and their two young children left Indiana for Jefferson County, Kansas, about 1871. Matilda left behind both of her parents and her three surviving siblings. James’s parents and his six siblings accompanied them to Kansas. James’s brother John Haxton Curry returned to Indiana, staying only one year in Kansas.

Bloomington Reformed Presbyterian Church. This particular building was erected in 1877 by the congregation of which Matilda and James had been members.

The young couple’s shared faith and the connection of “sister” Covenanter communities in America were surely responsible for giving them the courage to pick up and move West to Kansas. They would have known that a supportive pastor and congregation would be there to welcome them to Winchester—another Covenanter community.

Rachel Agnes Curry Cathcart (1875-1957)

James and Matilda Curry had seven more children after arriving in Kansas, four of them reaching adulthood. Their second oldest daughter, Rachel Agnes Curry, was my great grandmother.

Their other children were Ollie Henry (1870-1958); Vera Addie (1879-1966); James “Cam” Cameron (1881-1950); and John Thomas (1884-1976).

Matilda Russell Curry is buried with her husband and most of her children in the Reformed Presbyterian Church Cemetery in Winchester.

On This Day: Birth of John “Jack” McKeney Taylor, Jr.

Street Scene – Junction City, Kansas – 1874

Born September 10, 1854, in New Bedford, Massachusetts.

Jack Taylor was my great great grandfather.

Jack Taylor was born on this day in 1854 in New Bedford, Massachusetts. His parents, John McKeney Taylor, Sr. and Jane White Taylor, had married in their twenties and emigrated from Ireland in 1835. Both John Taylor, Jr., and his brother Samuel were born in Massachusetts in 1854 and 1853, respectively.

Junction City Weekly Union – 17 Mar 1921

I hope to someday determine how it came to pass that this family then came to Geary County, Kansas. From documents I have found, it would appear that the family remained in Massachusetts about fifteen years.

In 1869, both sons and their parents moved to Kansas Falls, located several miles outside of Junction City.


On December 1, 1878, Jack Taylor married Meta Christina Asmussen, aged twenty. She had arrived in Junction City at about the same time as Jack. She and her family had emigrated from Germany.

The Junction City Tribune – 19 Dec 1878

Meta Asmussen Taylor in the early 1940s

The couple had ten children, eight of those children surviving to adulthood. One of their children was my great grandmother Jennie Taylor Harding.

Junction Weekly Union – 23 Oct 1915

Jack was a farmer, corn being at least one of his crops. He also had livestock and made his son a co-owner of the farm.

Junction City Weekly Union – 12 Sep 1891 

Apparently Jack—and, later, two of his sons—enjoyed local celebrity status for the spoils of their fishing expeditions.

Junction City Daily Union – 27 May 1918

Jack and Meta Taylor lived out their lives in Junction City and are buried there in Highland Cemetery.

Intergenerational Solidarity

Ernest Arthur Laney (1889-1958) was my father’s paternal grandfather. He was a miner in the lead and zinc mines that at one time dotted the landscapes of Kansas, Missouri, and Oklahoma.

One generation further removed on my father’s maternal side, his great grandfather, David Williamson (1846-1908) was also a miner. David Williamson, along with numerous brothers and sons, had been coal miners in Scotland before immigrating to this country. They worked in these same mines and, as recent immigrants, they were probably particularly desperate for this work and qualified to do little else.

While the working conditions and health hazards of this particular segment of workers has not gotten as much attention as has the plight of coal workers, those who mined ore were no less vulnerable to exploitation by their employers.


Eagle-Picher Mining and Smelting Company was a conglomerate that owned many of the mines in the tri-state area. My great grandfather Laney worked for this company. At least one of his assignments was to a mine near Picher, Oklahoma.

While those who worked in lead and zinc mines did not suffer the effects of Black Lung disease, there were inherent dangers in their work environment nonetheless.

My father remembers as a child playing, climbing up and sliding down the huge piles of “chat”—the detritus brought up with the ore. The toxins contained in these erstwhile playgrounds of by-product had yet to be discovered.

A mountain of waste rock—“chat”—outside a zinc concentrator near the Eagle-Picher plant near Cardin, Oklahoma, in 1943.


Eventually, Picher was declared a Superfund site, and the town in which my father was born is no longer in existence. My father and I shared a heart-breaking documentary that details the environmental destruction wreaked by the tri-state mining industry upon Picher and the subsequent abandonment and condemnation of this once vital community. The film is entitled The Creek Runs Red, and I highly recommend it.

My grandfather, his mother (my great grandmother) and my great grandfather Ernest Arthur Laney holding my father, David Arthur Laney.

As members of a collective bargaining unit, my great grandfather and fellow Eagle-Picher miners had the backing of a labor union in combating such environmental work hazards and in negotiating for better pay on their behalf. Eagle-Picher miners were members of Local 861 of the International Union of Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers (which later merged with United Steel Workers of America.)

I am proud to have recently discovered, through researching newspapers of the time, that my great grandfather was personally involved in negotiations on behalf of those Eagle-Picher miners, successfully securing a new collective bargaining agreement in 1946.

Joplin Globe – April 21, 1946

My great grandfather, seated second from left, and his co-workers.

On this Labor Day, as a member of American Federation of Musicians Local 802, I am very proud of the history of organized labor in my industry, in my orchestra, in our country, and in my own family.



On This Day: Birth of Jennie “Jen” Nell Taylor

Jennie and younger sister Violet Mae Taylor

Born August 30, 1886, in Kansas City, Kansas 

Jennie Taylor Harding was my great grandmother.

Jennie Taylor Harding was one of nine children born to John McKeney Taylor, Sr., born in Massachusetts, and Meta Christina Asmussen Taylor who was born in Schleswig-Holstein, Germany. Meta immigrated to Kansas with her family around 1870.

The Junction City Weekly Union – April 12, 1907

On January 1, 1907, Jennie married Reginald Harding in Junction City, Kansas. The couple spent their early years of marriage touring with various musical and theatrical troups, and in fact their first child, Gladys, was born in Salt Lake City, Utah, during a tour of the Western states.

Pencil drawing of Jenny Taylor Harding as drawn by her daughter Maxine.

Jennie and Reginald had three children–two daughters and a son: my grandfather, Clifford Lorraine Harding.

Jennie and Reginald had seven grandchildren, four of whom can be seen to the left.

BACK ROW, l-r: Jennie Taylor Harding holding my mother, Sandra Joyce Harding; Reginald Harding holding Barbara Reid;

FRONT ROW, l-r: Bill Deppish and sister Donna Deppish.

Jennie Taylor Harding with granddaughter Sandra Joyce Harding–my mother


FOUR GENERATIONS: Seated is Meta Asmussen Taylor; standing to her left is her daughter, Jennie Taylor Harding; daughter Jennie’s son Clifford Lorraine Harding stands on Meta’s other side; Clifford Harding’s daughter, Sandra Joyce Harding–my mother–stands in front of Clifford.
Siblings Sandra Joyce Harding and Clifford Lee Harding with both their paternal grandparents–Reginald and Jennie Taylor Harding–and their maternal grandparents–Tom and Agnes Curry Cathcart.

Jennie Taylor Harding passed away on March 2, 1953, in Junction City, Kansas. She is buried in Highland Park Cemetery in Junction City, Kansas.

On This Day: Birth of Reginald Harding

Born August 29, 1886, in England

Reginald Harding was my great grandfather.

Reginald Harding and his siblings and parents emigrated from England to Kansas when Reginald was about three years old.

The Harding family’s arrival in Junction City, Kansas, made quite the big splash, even warranting a write-up in the social pages.

A pencil sketch of Reginald Harding drawn by his youngest daughter, Maxine.

Reginald Harding grew up in Junction City, Kansas, and married Kansas native Jennie Taylor on January 1, 1907.

The couple had three children–two daughters and a son: my grandfather, Clifford Lorraine Harding.

It seems that Reginald led an interesting life, finding work in various unrelated ways.

He raised poultry.

He worked in a cigar store in Topeka.

He was a performing artist.

His singing and acting talents were utilized in performances and tours in which Jennie was also involved. In fact, their oldest daughter, Gladys, was born in Salt Lake City, Utah, during one of the couples’ tours.

He was employed by and later owned and managed a Standard Oil gasoline station in Wakefield, Kansas.

The Junction City Weekly Union – August 19, 1915
The Junction City Daily Union – February 16, 1915
BACK ROW, l-r: Jennie Taylor Harding, holding my mother, Sandra Joyce Harding ; Reginald Harding, holding Barbara Reid; FRONT ROW, l-r: Bill Deppish and sister Donna Deppish.

Reginald Harding passed away on January 2, 1956, at the age of 70. He was predeceased by Jennie.

Surviving were his three children and seven grandchildren, four of whom are pictured here.

Reginald Harding is buried in Highland Cemetery in Junction City, Kansas.

Newspaper clippings from The Junction City Daily Union and The Junction City Weekly Union.

Gestation through the Generations

My daughter, moments after her birth on August 28, 1997.

Twenty-two years ago last night I was standing in my kitchen when I felt a deluge of warm water plunge all at once down my inner thighs, instantly soaking my clothes and creating a sizable puddle on the kitchen floor.

My water had broken. 

My obstetrician had examined me only a few days earlier, boldly stating at the time, “This baby’s going to TERM!” Armed with that information, I figured I had the next two weeks until my due date to continue preparing my “nest” as well as to complete an embroidery project that had occupied a lot of my leisure time that summer. I began stitching “September” on the counted cross-stitch baby sampler that was now, like my baby, very near completion.

What I had not remembered (or hadn’t known previously) is that medical wisdom of the time dictated that once the mother’s water had broken, if labor did not happen on its own within twenty-four hours, labor would be induced.  It was not advisable for the safety of the fetus for it to remain in utero without the protection of the amniotic sac and fluids. 

Apparently having utter confidence in her prediction of several more weeks’ gestation, my obstetrician had taken a hiatus. And so it was that the obstetrician on call was the one to return my phone message. She prepared me for a night of cramping and bleeding and instructed my husband and me to meet her at Mount Sinai Hospital early the following morning. 

I went to sleep that night (or tried anyway!) thinking, “Tomorrow I will have a baby!”

I now knew that my baby’s birthdate would be August 28, 1997!

The “September” stitches were easily pulled out at a later time.

The finished stitchery with amended month and added date and time, height and weight.

I know that it is not uncommon, especially when the health of the mother or baby is concerned, to be given a date by which a mother might be induced or a C Section performed; nonetheless, it was a unique feeling to have gotten into bed that night thinking that, whatever other tasks I would perform the following day, I was going to give birth!

I recently read an article in the Science section of the New York Times in which I discovered that at least some in the medical community are now questioning the wisdom of this practice. In the article, entitled 10 Findings That Contradict Medical Wisdom. Doctors, Take Note, the author states:

If a pregnant woman’s water breaks prematurely, the baby does not have to be delivered immediately.

The author went on to explain,

Sometimes, a few weeks before a woman’s due date, the membrane surrounding her fetus ruptures and amniotic fluid spills out. Obstetricians worried that bacteria could invade what had been a sterile environment around the fetus, causing infection. Better to deliver the baby immediately, doctors thought.
But a clinical trial found that if obstetricians carefully monitor the fetus while waiting for labor to begin naturally, the fetus is at no greater risk for infection. And newborns left to gestate were healthier, with less respiratory distress and a lower risk of death, than those who were delivered immediately after a break.

I find it fascinating that, even one generation later, a common practice associated with childbirth is now being reconsidered and that some medical practitioners now consider the practice unnecessary at best and detrimental to the development of the fetus at worst. 

In the thousands of documents, personal stories and, sadly, photos of infant grave markers I have come across in plotting my family tree, it’s astonishing to me how problematic and fatal childbirth was not all that long ago.

In my research, I have found so many cases of still births, often with the mother’s date of death being the same as her infant’s. Thankfully, that was not the case with my maternal great great grandmother. She did, however, live to mourn the loss of five of the thirteen children born to her.

Photo taken on the occasion of the marriage of Jannet White Mathews and Robert Beattie Cathcart

Jannet White Mathews (1831-1915) was one of ten children born to Thomas Mathews and Nancy White Ross Mathews in Ballymoney, County Antrim, Ireland. She and her family came to American when she was eight years old, joining others of their Covenanter faith in a community in Southwestern Illinois. At the age of nineteen, Jannet married a fellow church member, Robert Beattie Cathcart.

Life in rural Illinois was a harsh one to begin with, but my great great grandmother also lost five children there. Perhaps thinking that a change of venue would help his distraught wife, my great great grandfather and grandmother and their five surviving children relocated to Eastern Kansas, leaving behind her parents and all but one of her siblings. (A brother of Jannet’s also chose to move to Kansas.)

She also left behind the graves of her four children who had died in infancy and that of a daughter that had died at the age of three.

In Kansas, the couple would have three more children, and they both lived to see those children prosper and have their own families.

Robert and Jannet Cathcart, surrounded by their adult children, in Winchester, Kansas in 1895.

According to family lore, Jannet never really recovered from the loss of those children and, before departing for Kansas, she had instructed a family member to erect suitable gravestones for each of them, promising to send money for that purpose at a later date. 

The graves of the children
of Robert Beattie & Jannet Mathews Cathcart
Hill Prairie Cemetery, Sparta, Illinois

Her strong desire to see her young children given proper burials was realized. This photo of the five small markers holds a certain poignancy for me. On the one hand, looking at the photo, I feel a sense of hope that perhaps the existence of these markers had given my great great grandmother some sense of peace and closure; but viewing the photo also stirs in me a sadness that must be a mere taste of what had to have been her tremendous sense of loss and heartache.

While today is a celebration of the day I safely gave birth to a healthy baby girl, I have never lost sight of the miracle that the birth of my child truly was. 

Thankfully, dramatic advancements in science and diagnostic medicine since my great great grandmother’s time have made pregnancy and childbirth safer and healthier for mother and baby. Sophisticated methods of monitoring the fetus in utero and the prevalence of neonatal intensive care units have also resulted in reduced infant mortality rates.

Melanie Beryl Spector, shortly after her birth on August 28, 1997, in Manhattan’s Mount Sinai Hospital.

Advances in medical technology are not the only technological advances that have changed the labor experience, however. As my ob-gyn often remembers to mention when I see her–even over twenty years after she assisted me in my daughter’s birth–that day marked the very first time she had ever seen a digital camera.

Yes, my husband and I were early adopters and had one of the very first digital cameras that came out. One look at the pixelated photos with slightly “off” colors above and at the top of this post, taken in my hospital room, is a reminder not only of how much more sophisticated digital photography has become since 1997 but also of the fact that today’s high resolution images and video are widely available on cellphones, devices seemingly ubiquitous to twenty-first century living.

While the advancement in medicine and the encouraging statistics might logically result in “routine” births being taken for granted, one would do well to remember the true miracle that is the cycle of pregnancy, childbirth, and the extremely rapid growth changes the infant undergoes in its first year of life.

I know I will NEVER forget the miracle of your arrival into the world, dearest daughter. And I will always enjoy celebrating that date just as much as you do.

And I like to think that perhaps I even got to meet you two weeks earlier than I would have if common medical wisdom twenty-two years ago had been what it is today!

The Farmer and the Cowman–and the Government–Should Be Friends

My grandfather as a high school senior.

My maternal grandfather, Clifford Lorraine Harding, was born on this day in 1909 in Junction City, Kansas. He was a successful farmer in Northeastern Kansas. I fondly remember visiting my grandparents at their home in Lawrence, and I particularly enjoyed going there in the summertime. While my granddad had a large commercial farm outside of town, he also had a farm on my grandparents’ very large personal property. Granddad’s backyard garden stretched at least seventy-five yards out from my grandparents’ storm porch. Whenever our visits included staying for dinner during the summer months, my brother and I got to go with Granddad to his garden to pick vegetables for supper.

My grandfather taught my brother and me how to distinguish when ears of sweet corn were ripe: when the color of their silks had turned brown but their husks were still green and the kernels were still “milky”. We also had to make sure that no worms had made their way inside the husks and eaten from the cob. We also learned how to tell when his large heirloom tomatoes–red, orange, and yellow–were ripe, and we were then allowed to pick what was needed from the vines. We also pulled radishes out of the ground. I have never acquired a taste for them, however.

We also picked pea pods. Although this was perhaps the most labor intensive task of all, I always loved the “plink, plink” sound of the individual peas hitting the bottom of the aluminum pail, after I had pried open their hulls.

Besides tending his own crops, my grandfather also helped other less fortunate farmers. My grandfather was a local agent for the Resettlement Administration as well as the federal program’s successors: the Farm Security Administration and the Farmers Home Administration. The RA, FSA, and FHA were New Deal initiatives, designed to assist those in need of assistance due to the effects of the Dust Bowl and the Depression. These initiatives followed passage of the Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1938– “An Act to provide for the conservation of national soil resources and to provide an adequate and balanced flow of agricultural commodities in interstate and domestic commerce and for other purposes“–essentially a modification of the Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1933.

As an experienced farmer and a person familiar with the needs of the agricultural community, my grandfather was hired by the government to serve as an intermediary between local sharecroppers, tenants, and landowning farmers and the governmental agencies set up to assist them. From what I understand, his work was diverse. He served as an educator, advising farmers on the latest scientific discoveries related to agriculture, innovations in industrial equipment and farming practices, as well as on the governmental assistance available to them. He made suggestions regarding selection and rotation of crops, rotation of crops with livestock, and on matters such as irrigation and soil conservation. My grandfather counseled struggling farmers and made applications on their behalf in order to avoid foreclosure on their farms. In some cases, based upon his expertise and recommendation, the government chose to purchase sub-marginal land and to resettle farmers and their families on government-owned group farms. (See article above.)

Here are a handful of local newspaper clippings, dating from 1940 to 1968, that mention my grandfather’s activities on behalf of the farmers of Jefferson, Allen, and Douglas Counties:

There were conflicting opinions on the advisability of the government taking on this level of responsibility, just as public sentiment today varies on matters of federal assistance. A Supreme Court case and subsequent legislation necessitated changes to the structure and financing of the initial agency: the Resettlement Administration. In 1937, the program was transferred to the Department of Agriculture and became the Farm Security Administration. For various reasons, the FSA’s role was later reduced, and in 1944, the agency’s responsibilities were then transferred to the Office of War Information.

A highly detailed piece on the impact of World War II upon farmers with regard to the government’s needs, crop yields and types of crops or livestock, and price fixing is available here.

Migrant Woman-Dorothea Lange ©1936. Lange’s iconic photo is probably the most well known of the work of the FSA photographers.

The establishment of programs to aid farmers was merely one of President Roosevelt’s many New Deal initiatives, of course.

Hired to document the initial work of the Resettlement Administration was a staff photographer named Roy Stryker. Stryker then stayed on with the subsequent agency, the FSA, leading its Information Division. In that capacity, he and his staff were responsible for a body of work that served as a testament to the plight of those living in poverty as well as evidence of the need for and the success of the New Deal initiatives. Stryker enlisted an entire team of photographers and writers, instructing them to document–in their own views and words–the conditions of poverty they encountered in both rural and inner-city America.

The stated goal of these FSA artists was “introducing America to Americans,” via a focus on photography and written narratives.

One of Stryker’s hand-picked photographers was a man by the name of Arthur Rothstein. Rothstein captured images of poverty from Alabama to Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, to Nevada, to Oregon. And it was Rothstein who captured these two images of my grandfather meeting with clients in Northeastern Kansas.

County Supervisor for Resettlement Administration with Farm Rehabilitation Client ©Arthur Rothenstein, May 1936
Two Men Discussing Farm Problems with County Supervisor, Jefferson County, Kansas, USA, ©Arthur Rothstein for Farm Security Administration (FSA), May 1936
The same photograph used in an FSA promotional advertisement.

I was thinking recently of my grandfather’s work as well as of President Roosevelt’s interest in and efforts toward fostering a better understanding between those in need, the government, and the rest of America. This was prompted by my having read an Opinion piece in the New York Times.

The co-authors are advocates for re-examining federal aid to farmers, moving away from existing federal subsidies toward a system in which financial rewards would be given to those farmers who take on the additional cost and effort involved in adopting more ecological farming methods. Doing so, the writers argued, would simultaneously assist the agricultural community and enlist them in a tactical strategy for addressing climate change. They write,

Government programs like the current farm bill pit production against conservation, and doing the right thing for the environment is a considerable drain on a farmer’s bank account, especially when so many of them are losing money to low commodity prices and President Trump’s tariffs.

My grandfather passed away in 1976. He never heard the expression “global warming”. I’m not even sure that evidence of the phenomenon existed in the scientific community at that time. However, the first Earth Day had occurred in 1970, and he lived to see a handful more in his lifetime. Concern for the environment was at least in its infancy.

The Ecology Flag, popularized in the 1970s by environmentalists.

I do know how much my grandfather cared for the earth and its inhabitants as well as for those who work the earth. I also know that he believed in the government’s responsibility to address the sustainability of the soil, water sources, and the country’s natural resources in general. And I know that he knew first-hand how challenging the farming life is and how critical it is–for farmers, for our nation, and for our nation’s food supply–that our government is directly involved with the farming community.

Knowing all of the above, I am proud to think that, were he alive today, my grandfather would probably share the concerns of these two Iowa writers and others currently working to address issues pertaining to the farming industry and to the environment. I’m quite confident that he would be at the forefront of efforts to put farmers on the front lines of the war on climate change.

A Place for Storytelling

I was born in Winchester, Kansas, and grew up in Cherokee County, Oklahoma—the capitol of the Cherokee Indian Nation—where I learned a lot about the history of the Cherokee (Tsalagi) people.

Sequoyah and His Syllabary

One particularly fascinating tribal leader, Chief Sequoyah, created a system for writing the oral Cherokee language (Tsalagi Gawonihisdi.) The resulting “syllabary” of eighty-six characters was introduced in 1821 and was officially adopted by the tribe in 1825. It is said that the Cherokee’s literacy rate quickly surpassed that of surrounding European-American settlers.

Sequoyah’s dream of providing for his own people something akin to the white man’s “talking leaves” had been realized.

I’ve long loved the imagery conjured by Sequoyah’s term:  documents that could literally speak. The term is a fitting metaphor for the intended purpose of this blog:  to allow my ancestors to “speak” to me through documents I have assembled in researching my family tree.

My research has largely afforded me only a limited “dialogue” with previous generations. I have discovered a plethora of citations, licenses, records, and certificates connected to any one ancestor.  Less frequently, I’ve located an obituary.  Rarer still are the times I have unearthed written stories shared within the genealogy community at large.  I’m fortunate to have amassed so many photographs in my endeavors,  but even the sum of each of their “thousand words” have left me wanting more. 

Thus, the objective of this blog is to combine this accumulated physical evidence, viewing it through the prism of both its historical context, twenty-first century perspective, and my own personal beliefs and philosophies and distilling from that personal and familial narratives. 

Native Americans have a rich tradition of oral storytelling as do the Celts from whom I descend. In ancient Celtic society, bards held a position of esteem, second only to kings, says present-day Irish storyteller Marianne McShane. McShane explains that Bards memorized vast amounts of poetry which they performed live, and their poems and songs were often the only historical record available. Bards evolved into the traveling Irish storytellers known as the “seanchaí” (The Anglicized “shennachie” and variations thereof were used in the Scots language.)

Éamon Kelly, who brought the style of the seanchaí to Irish radio and television, wrote,

…the storyteller was the local historian and genealogist — a walking library, the repository of folk wisdom and culture.

My knowledge of history–even my own family history–pales in comparison to that of these storytellers of old, but if this post and those to follow capture a bit of the flavor of the oral storytelling tradition of my Scottish and Irish ancestors, my goal will have been met.

The seanachaí by Hugh Thomson