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Always Looking. . .

By John I. Blair

Always Looking For A Horsethief – Why I Study Genealogy

A couple of lifetimes ago, when I was a little boy in Kansas, a great gift was given to me. My mother told me I was descended from Daniel Boone.

Now at that age I didn’t even know who Daniel Boone was, so I wasn’t very impressed, and went back to picking my nose. A couple of years later, though, in elementary school (this was back in the day when kids actually had time to learn about history in school, instead of taking crash courses in computer apps, group dynamics, and the elements of cheerleading), we read a story about Daniel Boone and it clicked. This was my peeps! (Of course we didn’t actually talk like that in the 1940s. But you get the idea.)

From that moment, I started taking a real interest in reading history books, for I had now gotten the notion in my head that history was about real people – family – and actually meant something to me. Ultimately, in college, I took enough history courses to qualify for a minor in the subject. I used to claim I was looking for the horse thief in my family tree.

As the years passed, overwhelmed by the job of being a husband, a father and a wage earner, I pretty much gave up active history reading, letting my collection of history books collect dust along with the other volumes in our home library. But just a few months ago, retired after a life of desk work for hire, my only child long since grown and a father himself, free hours on my hands, I got an inquiring e-mail from a nice lady who had seen a couple of old photos I’d posted on a website showing my great-grandparents in Nebraska.

She asked if I had more photos of these people. Turned out she was my second cousin, whom I had not only never seen, but didn’t even know I had. And she was interested in family history and introduced me to some other distant cousins who also were interested.

Fired up by this link up, I started seriously looking again at what I already knew (or thought I knew) and how I might learn more. Names. Dates. Places. Events. Stories. Photos. Books. And I rediscovered how learning about family history is a golden path to learning about all sorts of things and to meeting new friends.

Because my “new” cousins were from that branch of the family, I began by learning more about my father’s mother’s kin. All I had “known” before was that they were Pennsylvania Dutch, with Quaker connections, had once lived in central Nebraska in a sod house, and had associated on occasion with Indians. Interesting enough, but sketchy.

What I found out was that they truly were from Pennsylvania (and also from New York and Connecticut and Ohio and Indiana and Iowa). They were not “Dutch” or even German. A couple of them had fought in the Revolution (one died at the Battle of Wyoming in 1778); several others had fought in the Civil War. At various points they had, indeed, lived among Indians, including Seneca, Miami, Sac and Fox, Kiowa and Cheyenne. I learned about Revolutionary War battles, about the Iroquois Confederation, about unscrupulous, land-grabbing treaties our government signed with Native Americans making it possible for whites to acquire farmland in the old Northwest Territories (and beyond). I took on my share of communal guilt in that area.

Some of my people had, in fact, been Quakers, so I learned about the Quaker faith, its persecution in England and the Massachusetts Bay Colony, and its spread west in this country in a belt from Rhode Island through Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois and Iowa. And some of my people evidently were among the Huguenot refugees from religious intolerance in 16th and 17th-century France who found havens all along the eastern coast of America. I learned about other denominations my ancestors had joined and in some cases helped spread through missionary work and frontier church building in this land of freedom for (and from) religion.

Because of the family link to Wyoming, Pennsylvania, I learned the story of Frances Slocum, a little girl kidnapped there by Delaware warriors, adopted and raised as an Indian, found years later by her birth family, an honored old woman among the Miami of northern Indiana, living by the Mississinewa River with her children and grandchildren. Frances was actually a neighbor to one of my great-great grandmothers in Indiana.

And most of all I learned about the great “westering” movement in America in the 18th and 19th centuries that ended with the closing of the frontier around the start of the 20th century. So much of our country’s history focuses around this continuing migration of people from the original European settlements on the Atlantic coast into the sparsely populated lands to the west that didn’t stop until all the land was filled up to capacity (and sometimes beyond capacity) and the original inhabitants nearly exterminated.

Along the way I revisited my old friend Daniel Boone (who had himself been raised a Quaker and was once adopted by Indians) and met some of his contemporaries like Captain James Piggott of Pennsylvania and Illinois, whose daughter, Assenath, born in Fort Piggott on the banks of the Mississippi opposite St. Louis, is my great-great-great grandmother. I met steamboat pilots, ferryboat operators, horse traders, carpenters, bakers, railroad engineers, mechanics, storekeepers. And battalions of the dirt farmers who were the foundation of pre-modern America.

By now I have a greatly increased knowledge of where I come from, back to the 1600s, mostly in various parts of England ranging from Essex to Cornwall, and, far more important, a deeply enriched appreciation, one more time, of how all these people fit into the story of human movement from one land to another and in the new homeland affected other people, the landscape, ecology, the course of history, my own life and that of my descendants now living and yet to come. They’re all still my peeps.

Oh, and the horse thief? Well, there appears to be some doubt whether one of my great-granddads actually owned the land he traded for 40 head of horses just before he lit out for Oklahoma Territory.

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