Monday, April 19, 2010

Tombstone Tuesday - or Is It?

When is a tombstone not a tombstone?   In the Buffalo Ridge Cemetery (Washington County, Tennessee) it's when the stone is put up more than a century after death.

This monument commemorating early Baptist preacher Jonathan Mulkey was put up as part of an effort to mark significant spots in Baptist history.  Behind the scenes was a genteel jockeying for position for the designation of oldest church in Tennessee.  Buffalo Ridge and Cherokee Creek Churches in Washington County and Sinking Creek Church in Carter County each lobbied for the designation, parsing language in ways that would make the most meticulous of lawyers proud.

The dates on the marker for Jonathan Mulkey are correct according to current research.  Some will argue whether he was the first preacher in Tennessee, but he was certainly one of the earliest.  And he was buried in the Cemetery.

But the wives, the wives.  On the bottom of the marker are the names Nancy Howard Mulkey and Anna Lacey Mulkey.  No dates, just two names, neither of which appeared on his original tombstone.  Their names were extracted from Baptist histories more concerned with religious content than genealogical accuracy.  My grandmother and great-grandmother were involved in placing this monument.  I asked Grandmother about the wives' listings and she said they were not the point of the monument.  I asked her if there was any evidence that they were buried there and she said she assumed they were since their husband was.  Really big assumption.  I now wonder if there were two unmarked graves nearby that were thought to be his wives.  I should have asked.

This monument with it's names etched in stone has been referred to more times than I can count as "evidence" that Jonathan had two wives and as "proof" they are buried in the cemetery.  It is neither.  

No evidence of Nancy Howard as Mulkey's first wife exists that I am aware of, beyond an early reference to his marrying a Howard daughter and a strong family tradition.  Some Mulkey descendants point to a family Bible naming his wife Sarah, making Anna Lacey Mulkey (the only wife for whom there is a marriage record) possibly his third wife.  Further research has supported this theory, though it has not been proven.  My pet theory is there were three wives, and that an unknown Sarah married him before 1788 following his first wife's death and died in 1813, according to the family Bible.  But that's not the point.  Regardless of how many wives predeceased Jonathan, I know of no evidence proving where they are buried.  And there is evidence that his widow Anna Lacey Mulkey did not stay in Washington County.

Anna Lacey bore at least two children following Mulkey's death.  Thomas Anderson of Maries County, Missouri named two daughters, born in 1832 and 34, as his illegitimate children of Anna Lacy in his will written in 1854, probated in 1860.  He names both daughters as being known by the surnames Anderson, Mulkey, Baker or Lacy.  The girls were raised in Mississippi by their paternal aunt from a young age, suggesting their mother had died or given them up.  They eventually settled in Maries County near their father.  Whenever and wherever she died, it seems unlikely that her body was returned to Washington County to be buried near Jonathan Mulkey.

Such a rant.  I truly hadn't intended on writing so much.  We all have our hot buttons.

Sources:  Philip Mulkey Hunt's book The Mulkeys of America published in 1982 is still the best single source I know of for information on Jonathan Mulkey (pp. 72-81).  It is available on microfilm through the Family History Library.  Information on Thomas Anderson's family is from History of Maries County by Everett Marshall King (Cape Girardeau, MO: Ramfre Press, 1968), pp. 219-223.  Photograph by Daryl and Cookie Smith, from Scott Harp's website The Restoration Movement.  

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Wordless Wednesday: Williams Family c.1898

My great-grandparents Reese Jackson Williams and Flora McAdams Williams with their three sons Earl (b. 1892), Argil (b. 1890) and baby Guy (b. 1897) in Johnson City, Tennesee about 1898.  I have always considered their names wildly romantic, though they were the most conventional of people.  R.J. grew up in the mountains of southwest Virginia, moving to Johnson City as a young man.  He was a woodworker and cabinet maker.  Flora was raised nearby in Locust Mount.  She was a fervent Baptist and family historian.  

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Over the river and through the woods

I have spent years researching my husband's ancestors and my maternal ancestors.  It's not that I don't love my father.  He's truly one of the most wonderful men ever created and must owe something of his stellar character to his ancestors.  It's just that his parents emigrated to this country in the early 20th century from the former Austro-Hungarian Empire. Since they left wars and political strife have raged across their Carpatho-Rusyn mountain villages, borders changed countless times, and contact was lost with most of his family.  Even the alphabets used for official documents changed.  Assuming I could name the languages my grandparents spoke (another too complicated issue), I cannot read or write any of the official languages used.  So after poring over the Ellis Island records, gathering what could be gathered from family here and - in a post-Cold War miracle - from the family there,  I pretty much gave up and focused on research on this side of the pond.

And then Family Search posted the Greek Catholic Church records from my grandmother's ancestral villages on-line (thanks to Lee Drew at FamHist for prompting me to check!).  I had ordered the films before. Twice.  But sitting in the library poring over almost 500 pages of 19th c. church records in three languages and two alphabets was not productive.  I would work for a couple hours and names (almost always Maria, Georgy or some version of Janos) would start swimming before my eyes.  This time I could work at home, on my own computer.  When the names started swimming I could take the dogs for a walk or go to bed.

And so I plugged away, armed with Tylenol and wine, eventually making sense of the handwriting and records.  My great-grandmother's name Szidor, relatively uncommon in this neck of the woods, turned out to be about as common as Smith or Jones up in those mountains.  In one of my most brilliant moments, I remembered I had my grandmother's birth certificate written in cyrillic letters which helped me identify her parents' names and the name of her village in the cyrillic records.  It was like looking for pieces in a jigsaw puzzle focusing on the right shapes and sizes.  My grandfather, blessings be on his soul, had written down her parents' birth dates.  With all that help and about 40 hours of viewing and reviewing, I found her parent's baptismal records naming their parents and a marriage record for one set of great-great grandparents.  Mind boggling.

I'm still decoding some of the information, haven't figured out all the godparents, etc.  But I've learned so much.  My great-grandfather Ivan Pereksta was something of a mystery.  We knew nothing of his family.  But now we know he was the youngest of three children, that his father died shortly before he was born, and that he lived with and next door to other families with the same surname.  And surely it will be possible to discover more about the newly found Janos/Ivan and Maria Szidor - their village's version of John and Mary Smith.

So thank you Family Search for reconnecting me with my Carpathian roots. Thank you grandfather.  And thank you Daddy.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Orphaned and Widowed, Part II

Continuing the story of Margaret Meredith Palmer (abt. 1823-1889) who was born in Lancaster County, Virginia and lost her mother, father, step-mother, and the aunt who raised her, all before she was 16 years old.

It's not clear where Margaret lived after her aunt's death, but in 1842 she married James Palmer at her uncle Thomas Meredith's home in Baltimore.  She and her husband settled onto Clifton, a plantation just outside Kilmarnock, Virginia.  In 1847, only five years after her marriage, Margaret was widowed and left with a toddler daughter and infant son.  She was no more than 25 years old.  Once again she turned to her family for support.  Her brothers Thomas and William each moved in for periods of time over the next 3 years.   That she leaned heavily on them and her uncle is evident from a series of letters she wrote in 1848 and 1849.

Let me be clear about Margaret's life at Clifton.  She was not cooking or scrubbing or working the farm.  There were 28 slaves on the plantation when her husband died.  But neither was her life the social whirl of southern lore.  Her letters to her uncle included the most prosaic details of life - the children's sniffles, getting groceries shipped from Baltimore,  new seeds for the vegetable garden, the price she might fetch for her crop of corn, a request for a black wool hat.  She sent orders for molasses (her young son had a penchant for "beating away" on the jugs with a stick - with predictable and sticky results), a good corn broom and $1 worth of cranberries.

Of far more concern to the young widow were the complicated legal and financial matters resulting from her husband's death.  She agonized over whether she was capable of serving as legal guardian for the children, and who should serve if she could not.  She and the children now owned Clifton jointly and all decisions had to be justified as in the best financial interest of her young children.  Acting as guardian herself might force her to rent out their share of the farm and slaves for the highest income.  A guardian could forbid their Catholic education, which was far more expensive than local schooling, when they were older.  She struggled to raise the $8000 guardianship bond, applying to her brothers and uncle to act as security for portions of the bond.  She dreaded going to court, asking "(m)ust I do it (take an oath) and on a Protestant bible?"  Almost a year after her husband's death and very much at wit's end she wrote her uncle, "I know not what to do(.)  I have recommended it in my prayers and wish the will of God to be done.  Most gladly will I take any advice that your kindness will impart.  Do dear Uncle pray for me and my dear children."

Beyond the details of the farm, her legal and financial concerns, Margaret's letters to her uncle showed  deep faith and longing for greater access to the Catholic Church.  There were no Catholic churches in Lancaster or Northumberland counties.  She was "anxious to go to Baltimore this spring to make my Easter" and asked that he let her know what would be most convenient.  She wrote she "will be very glad to attend a retreat if it is the will of Almighty God and shall be glad if dear Aunty (her uncle's wife) will write if she hears" of one in time enough for Margaret to attend.  One letter written during Lent in 1849 closed with a request, "Pray for me kind Uncle and for him to whom you were so kind while living during this holy season of fasting and prayer."  

I've known the facts outlining Margaret's life for many years but had not considered the emotional toll of such loss.  Certainly she was not unique.   Disease was common, medical care primitive and death a constant.  Many of the letters refer to disease or deaths in the county.  But these letters, some of them almost two centuries old, have illuminated her life and the lives of her Meredith kin beyond the details.  They've brought her to life - more than a century after her death.

The years her children grew up were challenging.  Her uncle Thomas died in 1853,  her brother James in 1855 and brother Thomas in 1859.  Mr. Gresham was appointed guardian for the children and helped her manage Clifton.  Ultimately she did rent out the farm and many of the slaves, using the income to pay for the Catholic schools she so valued.  It's not clear where she lived while they were in school in Maryland.  The Palmer slaves were enumerated on her cousin's nearby plantation in 1860.  She and the children returned to Virginia during summers until the Civil War.  Following the war, her daughter settled in Frederick, Maryland and her son took over Clifton.  Each married, had  large families, and surely to her joy, were devout Catholics.  Her son donated the land for the first Catholic Church built in Lancaster or Northumberland counties in 1885.  Margaret spent time with both of them, but lived her last years with her daughter.  She never remarried.  She died on a visit to Northumberland County in 1889.

Sources:  Letters from M. M. Palmer to Thomas Meredith, 1848-49. The letters are part of the Thomas Meredith Papers (MS1795) at the Maryland Historical Society, Baltimore, Maryland.  They are contained in Box 2, Folder 3.