Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Story time, or Lies, Lies and more damned Lies

I'm having trouble bringing things into focus. Not the meaning of life (an interesting thought but absolutely beyond my scope) but the meaning of this blog.

I spent this summer posting transcriptions and photos. Quick and easy during a busy season. The posts prompted oohs and ahhs from family and kind bloggers, as well as contacts from cousins which is tremendously exciting (and yes, I'm getting back to you!). I haven't touched actual research in months, and haven't posted anything about my research (my ostensible goal) since June.

What I'm learning is that I'm as interested in what other bloggers are writing as in my own research. There are some wonderful minds, good writers and fascinating ideas in the blogosphere and it's downright exciting to read their blogs. My mind is spinning with a month's worth of thoughts, research successes, stories and pictures. I've missed the discussions on sources (gotta get the "Got Sources" badge onto here), discovered some blogs I adore and am suddenly puzzled about my purpose. I hadn't really expected this to be a dialog.

Let's see if I can trace my train of thought (often more a train wreck than actual progress) -
  • Several bloggers I enjoy post family stories, some absorbing, some funny, some tragic. They fall far outside what I've ever done. Tipper blogged about her Uncle Frank recently on her Blind Pig & The Acorn posting "Sinners and Saints". By the comments it's clear I am not alone in being moved by her story. I wrote last week about the memories Sharing a Slice of Life's prompts provoked.
  • James Tanner has been writing about the accuracy of family legends at Genealogy's Star. All the research I did for my first decade was verifying information handed down to me by my family. Not a source cited anywhere. Most has proved true - even information I seriously doubted. A few lines are clearly wrong. But my work focused on genealogy rather than family stories.
  • My own family has been surprised by some of my postings - startled by something they either didn't know or had long ago forgotten.
So is there any value in our specific stories? And does it matter if they are true or not?

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Here's one - When Gone With the Wind was released in 1939 my aunt and her friends wanted to join the local Daughters of the Confederacy chapter. They planned a theme dance, likely dreaming of beaus, hoop skirts and sweeping staircases. My grandmother, Iva, squashed the plans. My aunt could join the DAR, but never the Daughters of the Confederacy. Their family were Union soldiers and supporters. My aunt, never one to dwell in gloom or to be apart from the crowd, convinced her friends that it would be far more fun do something else altogether. I don't remember if it was a fan club or some other exploit but no more was heard of the Daughters of the Confederacy or the dance. I was told this repeatedly during my own obsession with Rhett, Scarlett and Melanie.

It's a fun story, especially as told by my mother with flourishes and embellishments, but no more complete than the book or movie. It neglects the fact that Iva's father R.J. Williams, born in the mountains of southern Virginia, was from a staunchly Confederate family. That her husband's grandfather Porter Conway fought for the Confederacy and that his family had been slave owners for generations. That her Union soldier grandfather Samuel McAdams was from a slave owning family and his father, Thomas, was deemed a Confederate supporter by the Southern Claims Commission.

I admit to skepticism about that last fact. I wonder how much a Southern sympathizer a man could be whose four eldest sons volunteered in the Union Army and who maintained close ties with them. Perhaps a touch of local politics or neighbor's grudge? But even discarding the Southern Claims Commission, there's evidence of a family as divided as East Tennessee itself.

So, the story. Does it mean anything? Is it worth keeping in our family lore? When told properly it gives a clear picture of my aunt as a girl and illustrates more than a few family traits. It suggests Iva's family stories focused on the maternal rather than paternal lines and may point to a bias in her research.

It is probable that Iva did not know of her in-laws' involvement, though she should have known they were slave owners. Her sisters-in-law maintained complete ignorance about their family's Civil War experiences, suggesting no one had actually fought. At least they never heard tell of any such thing. No hint their grandfather had served in the Confederate Army. No war stories beyond what their father had seen as a child. Of course, there was no contact with one great-uncle's family.... some sort of falling out between the brothers when they were young men.

I learned that Porter Conway and his brother Joseph fought on opposing sides during the Civil War only after a cousin's persistent questions forced me to consider what might have caused the schism. It never occurred to me to look. Clearly I absorbed more of Iva's story and the aunts' wide-eyed ignorance than I realized.

So stories to come sometimes - along with whatever I have learned about them. They may point to blind spots. They may be true (not too likely in this crowd!). They probably will say quite a bit about who we think we are and more than I realize about who I want us to be. Maybe I'll tell you about my great-uncle Vasil who fire bombed the church.


  1. Take your research from recording the facts and now, the challenge is to make them people, tell their stories, add "color" to your data base. Make em real!

    You go, and ya, I wanna hear the story bout the fire bombed church.

  2. Hi ~
    I just have to comment on the question, "So, the story. Does it mean anything? Is it worth keeping in our family lore?"

    I would say resoundingly YES! (but then I think it was a rhetorical question, because clearly you are great with sharing and knowing the family stories!!)

    I know that I am much more a family historian than a genealogist (whatever each of those mean) but to me the family stories say so much - about the way that the family wants to think of themselves and, as you say, about who we think we are. I love the stories and I record them even as I continue to look for the "facts". Because really - the fact that my uncle was born a short month after his parents marriage says one thing while the story that the wedding was a year earlier - a story that was carried through all the way to my grandmother's obituary - says something else. Knowing both things tells me so much more than only knowing the bare facts.

    Oh, and I can't WAIT to read about your great-uncle Vasil.

  3. I think an interesting open-discussion topic would be "How my family treated Civil War participation." I always heard the "different members fought on different sides" story, though from what I have been able to learn, they were all Confederates (though there appear to have been Union sympathizers - but they fought for the Confederate side nevertheless). Interesting musings, good discussion points, excellent family story.

  4. Wonderful post! I too struggle with what to write for me it's family stuff vs. the whole of Appalachia stuff : ) Sometimes you just have to go with your gut-what you want to write-what you think is important. My post about Uncle Frank-I set down to write something else-with him being a minor part-but what came out was totally about him. And I wasn't sure if I should post it or not-I worried all night and part of the day it posted too. But I'm glad I did now-cause I think it did give voice to other people's "uncle franks".

    I like the points you made about your family's civil war connections-and like Greta think it would be an interesting thing for bloggers to consider-it might be hard though for all the reasons you named in your own family seem to exist in mine too.

    You're a great writer-and I can't wait to hear about Great Uncle Vasil. (thank you for the shout out!!!)

  5. This discussion is exactly what has so surprised and delighted me about blogging. Thank you all for the encouraging comments and for extending my thoughts further.

    It's not surprising given what a scar the Civil War was in our history that it also marked our families - particularly those in the border states. I love the idea of considering family perception or presentation of the War, even of considering it's actual effects. There may be a series here - a 'What did they do in the war?' or 'What did it do to them?'. Civil War Sundays, anyone?

  6. Absolutely keep the stories! You can always make it clear that you aren't sure how much truth is in them but they are still the "family stories" and they can give a feel for the family that you just can't get from a birth, death or marriage certificate.

    When you do prove that a story is wrong (or at least not completely correct) include that information when you tell the story.


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