INTRODUCTION TO an AMERICAN FAMILY TREE
So. You think you want to know more about your family history. Do you really? Are you ready to find cousins who took on the Bolsheviks in Siberia? WWII soldiers in every branch of military service? Espionage agents taking down Nazis? Aunts helping create the first atomic bomb? And that’s just recent generations. How about generations of Irish families rebelling against the monarch of England, French Huegonauts escaping annihilation, German farmers migrating through war torn Europe finally coming to labor and rest in the cornfields of the midwest.
I can promise you all of that and more. But I have to ask you a serious question. Can you handle the truth? I can see the face of Jack Nicholson sneering down his angry nose at Tom Cruise, “You want the truth? You can’t handle the truth!” Well. Maybe you can. Earlier generations, those that preceded my present day Smith Clan, could not handle the truth. Somewhere in the 18th Century lips were sealed, Biblical records disappeared and closet doors were locked and bolted tight, concealing family secrets forever or so they hoped. The lives, the stories of our forefathers were buried with their bones in the Piedmont fields of North Carolina and Virginia. Peter Smith of Round Hill, James Smith of Bull Run, William Whittington would all but disappear from family history as centuries passed and descendants forged their way into Kentucky, blazing the Wilderness Trail in advance of Daniel Boone.
Family histories have been handed down from one generation to the next over the course of centuries. Oral history was the stuff that made campfires interesting at night. Irish story tellers could earn a living going from village to village. A few good stories earned the vagabond a decent meal and a place to sleep. It has been a universal phenomenon, found in all cultures among mankind, spanning the earth, from the Aborigine of Australia to the Celts of Northern Europe and all places in between. While the medium for story telling has moved from human memory to Youtube video; the concept of a story remains important. Embellishing a story also remains important, creating fiction from truth becomes the work of politicians, spin doctors and authors of historical fiction. When researching family history one has to avoid many pitfalls and the urge to adopt fictional links to the past in order to create a more sensational, but fictional family tree.
The proliferation of internet access to genealogies and historical data provides the author of a family tree with fertile grounds for growing one’s roots. Unfortunately the ground is often made fertile by someone’s bull manure. Reputable online software programs offer assistance in building one’s tree. “Hints” are made available to the researcher and the public is allowed to post their family tree online, for all to see. Newcomers to this forest of trees are often buffaloed by information that has been carelessly ‘published’ as accurate. Here is one example from my recent research:
Ellen DeMaster, mother of five children, was born one hundred years after her last child. Go figure! Yet, people blindly copy the information into their own tree and press ahead looking for a notable personality. We desperately want to find King George frolicking with Annie Oakley, producing offspring like Jerry Seinfeld, who turns out to be our cousin Wilma’s prom date, but she couldn’t go because of the Typhus thing she got while visiting her father in a Mexicali prison.
We look for a name that will sound good when we drop it into a lunch gathering at Chuckie Cheese. While the kids at Eddie Bratkowski’s birthday party are barfing up milk shakes in the nerf ball pit, mothers can proudly reveal the lineage of their little troopers. We wrongly assume that the appearance of a monarch in our family tree will be of greater interest to our friends than a sod busting, bourbon guzzling, pioneer farm family that carved a home out a cave on Licking Creek and died when mistaken for a turkey gobbler by an elderly neighbor who had been a long hunter, long before the coming of spectacles to the Muhlenburg apothecary shop.
False stories abound in family trees. Perhaps the epic example of the mass marketing of a false story occurred when Alex Haley’s Roots played to an audience of one hundred and thirty million viewers. I think of the character, Kunta Kinte, in that epic novel. I picture him at the campfire in Juffure, the Gambia, listening to the griot and learning of his ancestors. It has been demonstrated that Haley’s work was historical fiction borrowed from Harold Courlander’s The African and that Haley’s representation of his family genealogy was false. It certainly made for an epic story and contrubuted to the mass education of a lot of folks as to the nature of slavery and the plight of the slave.
Don’t misunderstand me. There was an actual Kunta Kinte, who did suffer the atrocities that are inherent in slavery. Trafficking in human slaves remains a tragedy to this day. The story of Kunta Kinte, as told by Haley, ties into our Smith family history in ways I never imagined as a child. The history of a family is never pretty. There are points at which the story tellers may delete significant chapters of a family history, or remove a branch from the family tree. Such was the case when the television show Finding Your Ancestors accommodated actor Ben Affleck and edited out information about his slave owning ancestors in Savannah, GA, Connecticut and New Jersey. Affleck later explained that he was embarrassed to be associated with such a disgusting person. “It left a bad taste in my mouth,” he added. He did not want the information aired.
My father, JD (aka: James Donald, James, Jim, Jim Don, Donald, Don, but never Jimmy), and his father before him (Leb) were story tellers. My dad inherited an Irish gene from his mother Mary Hughes that allowed him to suck on a pipe and lord over the dinner table with a recounting of an event that carried the hint of embellishment that would make an Irish grandfather proud. My Grampa Leb Smith developed his story telling abilities as a cowboy in western Montana, Idaho and the Dakotas in the late 1800’s. Leb handed down the family history to JD and JD, in turn, related what he knew to my sisters and I.
My father shared his knowledge of the family history with us from time to time over the course of decades. The stories remained consistent from year to year. I considered Dad’s efforts to be both honest and accurate. And though I had memorized the tales early on, I never grew tired of listening to his animated presentation of our legacy. I still hold what my father knew and told to be the truth, as he understood it. And you could often tell when Dad was adding one of his father’s embellishments to a story. He would give a quick wink of his eye and his lip would give an additional tug on the stem of his pipe.
Dad’s history lessons never went further back than 1815 and always concluded with a variation on a sentence like this:
“No one really knows from where and when my great grandfather Peter Smith came to America. Some believed he was a British lieutenant who helped Wellington defeat Napoleon at Waterloo before coming to America.”
My sisters and I grew up with an incomplete picture of our ancestors. Someone had moved the paint brush on the canvas of the world from west to east, rather than north to south. I was too busy taking care of my future to concern myself with family history and the past. Little did I know that our ancestors had been engaged in building empires, designing republics and literally paving the roads into the American frontier.
In 1981, at the age of 32, I knew more about my wife Nancy’s lineage than my own. A published anthology regarding the history of the Slaymakers revealed generations of her father’s history leading back in time to great theologians and entrepreneurs of medieval Europe. Extensive legwork conducted by various members of my mother-in-law, Betty Whittington’s family members leads a reader back to the Kings and Queens of England and Europe in general. Thirty generations of great grandparents, some bordering on psychotic, others benevolent monarchs, dance across the pixels of my computer monitor. The researcher’s work was accurate from one generation to the next and substantiated by genealogists and historians. I repeatedly took the time to verify each generation, siblings and all. It is cool to drift through Wikipedia from one monarch to the next knowing that I am reading about the great great grandparents of my wife and son. But it is equally interesting to find a starving peasant ancestor who was hung in Smithfield, London for stealing a bushel of peas off an aristocrat’s front porch.
In terms of my own family, I had little on which to grow a tree. My mother’s lineage stopped abruptly in the cornfields of Illinois and hills of Bayern, Germany. My Smith line apparently went back to 1815. The roots of our tree, beyond the banks of the Ohio River in Posey County, Indiana were shrouded in darkness. I discovered the secrets found behind a door that was dashed open for me by a genealogist in Virginia.
Much to my surprise, information had been deleted from our family tree. The oral history that was handed down to my father ignored two centuries of life in Virginia and the Carolinas. Someone had diverted our attention to a fictional account of a Peter Smith at Waterloo in England. Our Peter had been no where near Waterloo. My father and my grandfather had been sheltered from the truth. By whom? I do not know. Ancestors had been hidden behind doors that remained locked during the life time of my father and grandfather. Someone thought the secret could be contained and we would all be the better people as a result. We had all been Afflecked. Until now. The internet changed all of that. Our ancestors are using the internet as a conduit for both travel and communication. Their names are surfacing as 17th century paperwork is digitized and archived in online libraries accesible from an Ipad at 38,000 feet over Sioux Falls, SD.
When my son was an infant child I asked him a question about the universe to which I did not expect an answer. Rather than saying “I don’t know,” he brought a smile to my face when he twisted his lips in deep thought and said simply, “I can’t know.” It was true. He did not have enough information at his finger tips to provide a correct response. When my father was asked about the generations preceding Peter Smith, he could not know. Nor could his father, Grampa Leb, know the truth. They did not knowingly withhold the truth from their children. They simply did not know the truth. They couldn’t know. Somewhere along the way, about the time of the Civil War or before, the family story tellers ‘took a chain saw’ and removed part of our family tree. Had it not been for the internet, the truth may have been lost forever on the shelves of a Caswell County library collection in the piney piedmont of North Carolina, or in a Bible on the mantle of a distant relative in Muhlenburg, Kentucky.
Let’s go back to Kunta Kinte in Roots for a moment. He actually fits into this historical narrative. According to Alex Haley, Kunta Kinte was taken hostage and held captive on a ship, the Ligonier, the captain of which was a Thomas Davies. Our Davis family were seafaring merchants and mariners whose development of American colonies at Jamestown and Popham are well established in anthologies found online in 2015. The Davis family line is found in our own family history in the 16th and 17th history and is often spelled ‘Davies’. But the Thomas Davies who brought slaves to the colonies was not a great grandfather in our tree; a distant cousin perhaps or great uncle. That picture remains obfuscated. Available records do not reveal a direct link to our family. He was not the well kept secret.
The Davis family of North Carolina and Virginia married into our Stilley family line when Hezekiah Stille (1763-1840) married Sarah Davis (1764-1811) in c.1780. My father did not know of either of these two pioneers. He did not know the history of the Davis family before the marriage of Nancy Swofford (1820-1888) and William Davis Stilley (1819-1890) in 1838 in Southern Illinois. His insight into his Smith family tree began with the marriage of Peter Smith (1803-1870) and Matilda Montgomery (1808-1874) . It was this Peter who (legend had it) fought in Europe, on behalf of the British crown and it was this Peter who settled in southern Indiana (Smith Township, Posey County) and raised a family that included my great grandfather James Monroe Smith (1846-1910). The Smiths were so numerous in Posey County that they warranted their own cemetery which still stands today, several miles to the south and a tad east of Cyntithia, Indiana. Hezekiah Stille and his brother and families were mad men. Not Madison Avenue advertising men, but genuinely mad. They had to be. They were the first white families to build frontier homes in southern Illinois when it was still ‘Indian Territory’ and beyond the control and protection of the United States government. But this was typical behavior among those who subscribed to a Daniel Boone mentality.
Peter Smith (b.1803) did not come to Posey, Indiana by way of Great Britain. He was all of 12 years old when Napolean lost to the British at the Battle of Waterloo. Peter Smith came to Indiana by way of North Carolina and Kentucky. He was the son of George Rudolphus Smith (1772-1840) and Lydia Tate (1761-1810). Peter Smith died in Gibson, Posey County, Indiana in 1870. His father also died in Posey in 1840. Peter’s mother (Lydia Tate Smith) died in Muhlenberg, Kentucky in 1810. She never made it to Posey. George was soon wed again to Sarah Armstrong.
George’s oldest son, Peter, took Matilda Montgomery for his wife. The Montgomery ancestors of our tree also played a significant role in the development of the frontier, the winning of the American Revolutionary War and colonization of the New World. We will come back to them for sure. Their recoded history flows back to the days of William the Conqueror.
The Smith family was part of the Great Migration that found our ancestors leaving the established colonies on the Atlantic coast for lands beyond the Blue Ridge and into the Great Plains. Members of the Smith lineage played significant roles in the settlement of Kentucky, Indiana and Illinois, as did the Davis and Stilley families, the Tates, Armstrongs, Simpsons, Whittingtons, Slaymakers, Parkers and Campbells.
Irony comes into play as my ancestors share neighborhoods with my wife’s ancestors (the Whittingtons, et. al.) for much of the journey in America. Anyone who had the courage to come over the top of the Appalachians and descend westward into the wilderness along the Ohio River played a significant role in conquering that frontier. Some of these pioneers were sturdy stock, reverent Christians dedicated to family and hard work. Others were less scrupulous, less reverent and more prone to sloth. Karma had a way of coming into play along the way.
Somewhere in the life of George Rudolphus or Peter Smith the family history was muted, silenced perhaps by shame and the dramatic history of a nation torn apart by a Civil War and the culture and economic shock that followed. As an example: the Davis plantations dissolved with the end of the Civil War and termination of slavery. Davis Island and Davis Shore plantations became the home of freedmen (former slaves) who made a living as farmers, fisherman and merchants. Freedom did not necessarily bring good fortune to the former slaves. Far from it. While hard work had always been a part of their lives, the freedmen were now victims of a different form of poverty and discrimination. The plantation owners, small and large, and economy of the south were plunged into economic chaos.
Grampa Leb’s grandfather Peter (1803-1870) of Posey, Indiana did manage to “fight” in a war: the American Civil War. At the age of 58, Peter of Posey mustered up a number of senior citizen farmers in southern Illinois and hustled off to Cairo, Illinois, anticipating a Confederate invasion of southern Illinois. If the Confederacy could control the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers it would do much to slow the Union transportation system and flow of goods and services related to the war effort. Fortunately for Peter’s brigade of geriatric heroes, General Grant was able to cut off the Rebel soldiers before they reached the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. Peter of Posey had cousins who were decorated heroes in the Confederate army. We were one of those many families who had relatives on both sides of the blue and gray battle line.
In Haley’s fictional account, Kunta Kinte fathered Kizzy. Kizzy learned of Africa and her ancestors, a proud people, educated and possessed of their own rich culture and religion in the Gambia. Kizzy was sold away from her parents and into the hands of another plantation owner in North Carolina. Kizzy was raped by that master and her son Chicken George was conceived. It was the master’s way of saying “I own you. You are my property and I can make you do whatever I damn well please! Now get to work.” Haley brought that horrific reality to our television screen and left an indelible impression on all of us. We shuddered to think that people could really do that to another human being. The story of Kunta Kinte and Kizzy was long ago and far away, or so we told ourselves in 1973. We took some psychological comfort in thinking we had moved past that barbarous history. We still have a distance to travel.
Kizzy’s master, in the novel, movie and her real life, was Tom Lea. Google his name and find yourself in Caswell County, North Carolina. He was not a fictional character. We are not descended from Tom Lea, but Tom Lea’s grandparents, aunts and uncles, were all neighbors to the family of our Peter Smith at Round Hill. Tom Lea’s father, Major Lea, grew up with George Rudolphus Smith and George’s siblings. George Smith’s father, Peter of Round Hill, and Major Lea’s father, James Lea, were involved in several land transactions in Caswell County, as well as other business arrangements. James Lea and Peter Smith died within the same year and their properties descended into the hands of their children.
The previously mentioned, George Rudolphus Smith, was the son of Peter Smith of Round Hill (GGF4), Caswell County, North Carolina. George was born of Peter (1734-1797) and Jemima Simpson (1743-1793). This Peter Smith of Round Hill owned a plantation on Hogan Creek just one mile inside the North Carolina state line, three miles south of Danville, Virginia. I could walk you onto the property. The Round Hill Plantation was known at the time as one of North Carolina’s most prosperous plantations. It was a large operation with many slaves. How Peter treated his slaves we do not know. The mere fact that one person owned another person is disturbing enough. It was culturally acceptable at that time, economically important and somehow justified by many very scrupulous and reverent people who believed in God. I can relate to Ben Affleck’s reaction. Slavery is a disturbing tragedy to find in one’s life.
Peter wasn’t the first in our family to own slaves and he wasn’t the last. His slaves were handed down to his children and his children’s children. The slaves were identified by their first names in a will that often gave them a value of $700 if they were a hardy male and less if they were too old or female. A good female could bring a higher value if she were of good breeding stock. The first slave to be sold by one plantation owner to another in Virginia was sold by William Whittington, a great grandfather (ggf6) in my wife’s family tree. There are a number of disturbing facts that can be found in the will of a plantation owner. A will often distributed an enslaved woman’s children to various households across the land, destroying her family for a profit. People were treated as chattel, livestock moved about for the purpose of labor. People were identified as little more than farm machinery and and traded for 1000 pounds of tobacco or an old plow horse. I learned of these things in history class when I was half asleep and bored to tears in high school. Finding these lives being destroyed in my own house brings home the harsh reality of atrocities that I once thought were foreign.
Kunta Kinte’s daughter, Kizzy, gave birth to Chicken George. George learned to survive as best he could in the world of the white man. Eventually he was able to buy his own freedom. His surname (last name) was Lea, only because his master’s last name was Lea. It makes me pause now when I meet an African American with the surname Smith or Davis. Are we related? Aren’t we all related in God’s eyes? How is it then that one man could own another? And yet, the Bible is replete with stories of warfare, executions, adultery and enslavement. My forefathers twisted these facts in the Bible and believed that the black person was an inferior being. God intended for the white man to provide care for the lesser being and in return receive the benefit of their work. It was a crock of crap but it sounded good and it sure provided a ready source of labor for the tobacco and cotton fields.
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to understand why Peter Smith of Round Hill was lost in our family tree. Perhaps George Rudolphus Smith (GGF3) wanted to leave the plantation behind him as he headed into Kentucky and Indiana, where acceptance of slavery was already waning. Perhaps his son Peter (GGF2) wanted to bury the history along with the unspeakable horrors of a civil war witnessed by a nation. For whatever reason my father never knew of his roots in North Carolina and Virginia. The sins of the slave master were the sins of a nation, of many nations who trafficked in slave labor: abducting men, women and children in one part of the world and shipping them like cattle across a sea. They were the sins of my forefathers.
Slaves were a commodity discussed, along with tobacco, rum and sugar cane in the corporate board rooms of England, Holland, France, Spain and Portugal. The Dutch were far kinder to the cattle they sent to the new world than they were to their slaves. One man was assigned to four cattle on each Dutch shipment to the New World. That one man was to insure the safe passage of the four head of cattle. The cattle were provided with adequate bedding, food and water to insure they were healthy on arrival in New Amsterdam (Manhattan, New York). One of our Smith family great grandfathers, Wulfert von Couwenhoven (GGF7 in the Stilley line), was responsible for the safe passage of livestock in 1630. The care that he provided livestock was mandated by corporate directives. The documentation can be found online. We treated our cattle with greater care and concern than we did our slaves.
Peter Smith (GGF4) of Round Hill (1734-1797) was the grandson of yet another Peter Smith (1663-1741) (GGF6) of Yeocomico, Westmoreland County, Virginia. This Peter Smith (GGF6) is what genealogists call a ‘brick wall’. He is the “end of the line” character in the many Smith family trees that have been fleshed out over the past 25 years. As we go back in the history of our tree to Peter Smith of Yeocomico, the gaps have been filled in. Countless people have done the footwork necessary to create an accurate Smith family tree. Information has been thoroughly groomed and documented by many historians, genealogists and amateurs such as myself. People have poured over wills, family Bibles, property deeds, legal transactions, courtroom documents and church records. There are questions that remain. Where did Peter of Yeocomico come from? Who was his father? His mother? His wife?
Before we launch into this narrative and provide greater detail on each of these men, I want to assure you that I will also relate everything I can about the women as well, wives, lovers, consorts, and children. We will also dig into the many other families that are equally important: the Davis family, Montgomerys, Stille, Van Couwenhoven, Hughes, Byrne, Simpsons and their next of kin, neighbors and anyone else we can salvage from the annals of history. I don’t want to pass misinformation on to future generations, nor do I want to embellish what is already a pretty amazing history of the real life characters who preceded us. I have exercised care to find the truth and present the material with some integrity. I hope to reconstruct the past in a way that is as consistent, honest and accurate as my father thought his narrative to be when he told the family stories. I only wish my father could have known the people I have come to find in the annals of history.
Our 18th Century ancestors eventually shed their lives as plantation owners and aristocrats in an economic system premised on the belief that one man could own many people and force labor from those slaves and servants. They adopted the skills and tools necessary for survival as noble savages in a landscape that drew them further and further into the heartland. Some got as far west as Olathe, Kansas and Tyndall, SD and muttered, “What happened to the trees?” They eventually found their back to the east side of the Mississippi River and helped create a demand for McDonalds, John Deere tractors, Musky lures and Chicago Cubs paraphernalia.