Sunday, May 04, 2014


Paternal Great-grandfather's family -- Grandfather in center rear

My birth family has dissolved: parents dead, one brother dead, the other one incommunicado, cousins gone off on quite a different path than the one I took.  My father’s family originated in our consciousness with my father’s grandfather, Scots Archibald, bringing his family to the Dakotas where the BrulĂ© Sioux had just been forced onto reservations, so completely removed that my father knew none.  For my father’s family, Archibald's grandchildren, all that counted was that small group -- all for one and one for all, Sam's three sons and a daughter.  They all married successfully, no turbulence, no skeletons.  Except for my father.

Maternal patriarch

My father married a woman who could be described as the daughter of an Ulster man whose family had been in the States since near the beginning, always struggling to get ahead, always struggling to marry “up,” always moving West.  My mother was a “Daughter of the Oregon Trail” and could have been a “Daughter of the American Revolution.”  There were Civil war veteran ancestors on both sides, one imprisoned at Andersonville.

Third family patriarch in a chicken eating contest with my mother.

My mother thought “up” meant a man of the city with education.  Her sisters thought of local land-wealthy men.  This third family, also Brit, was competitive to the point of turning on each other.  They believed in the old Euro concepts of patriarchs and primogeniture, fertile ground for war.  Their patriarch mocked my mother’s father as a loser.  My mother said that her parents started every day with breakfast arguments over family matters, partly rooted in social inequality at marriage in previous generations, where the wives were the ones stepping down to marry.  Each partner felt embedded in supposed family superiority.  She determined never to argue about such matters, but when she was really angry with my father, she burst out,  “You Teuton!”  In those days, a German connection was a big insult.

The consequence of my choices, which were an extension of my parents’ efforts to understand themselves and their belief in education, has led me to turn a sometimes coldly analytical eye on my “three” families: father’s, mother’s, and the fathers of the cousins since my mother’s sisters married brothers.  I find that none of these people are prepared to hear the speculations I’ve developed.

Disgraced and dismissed.

Each “blood” grandmother had a brother who fought in the Philippine War and returned home damaged (undefined PTSD) and alcoholic.  They probably had the famous genetic vulnerability to both high temperament and the comfort of drunkenness.  The response of the families was to erase and deny them, so that my cousins didn’t know about them.  My paternal grandmother (that couple was intensely progressive, near socialist though nominally Republican) joined the Women’s Christian Temperance Union and banned alcohol.  Her granddaughter loosened the ban for social reasons -- so much business is done over fancy suppers and drinks -- with the result that her son is now crippled by the same vulnerability.  My living brother is a beer alcoholic.  My dead brother preferred pot and speed, which eventually took him to the street where he died.  This appears to be a genetic glitch that expresses only in our males, but -- just in case -- I never drink.

My father's nuclear family plus wives and children

When my paternal grandparents married, they had been homesteading adjacent claims and simply combined households, including livestock.  My cousin’s daughter asked for family stories, so I told her a little story meant to represent the bumps of such a change in arrangements.  My grandfather hitched up his wife’s team, which hadn’t been worked for a while and were used to a different style of driving.  They were disorderly, so he “touched them up” with the buggy whip.  Seeing him from a window where she was washing dishes, my grandmother stormed out, shouting,  “You’ll not whip MY horses!”

The cousin and her daughter took this tale in a new direction.  They have been raised in an upscale neighborhood, which didn’t save them from misery but gave them quite Liberal values -- intensely anti-violence, so all they know about horses is what they see on TV.   They don’t know real horses.  The danger of an uncontrolled team is not in their minds.  They imagined “whipping a horse” as being the use of a bull whip to knock the horse down to its knees and flay the hide off its back.  Horrified, they accused me of maligning our grandfather and stopped wanting stories.  As far as I know, these cousins, unlike my sibs and I, were never spanked, never had a switch taken to their legs, but were managed by guilt and shame.  Upscale.  Alice Miller stuff.

Father with sibs

When I suggested to this cousin -- who always insists that my fatally flawed father was her mother’s dearly beloved protector and hero -- that my mother was not happy about my father continuing to treat his sister like a princess, maybe paying closer attention to his sister than to his wife, the cousin was aghast.  

My mother was raised to be “as good as any man,” and to resist all signs of landed gentry class titles as hints of popery.  Attempts to push her into princesshood were hopeless and, in fact, her worse epithet for me when she was angry was “the duchess.”  My cousin reacted to the idea of a man being emotionally closer to his sister than his wife as if it were enacted in an actual affair.  She was horrified.  Of course, moving from sympathy to sex is common and even accepted today -- at least judging by Dear Abby.  And consider the Lannisters, eh?

My father believed in salvation by books, esp. those about curtained subjects, like birth control.  He made a great fuss about condoms in a time when they were illegal -- not because they were a sign of prostitution but because limiting the number of children was vital to prosperity.  But my mother became pregnant a third time, causing comment on the streets.  “Are all those children yours?”  She had a tubal ligation.  He did NOT have a vasectomy.  Ponder that.  There was no pill.

Maternal family

There never was quite enough money but we weren’t in real poverty.  My father’s cameras were justified as part of his job.  My mother’s standards were those of a Depression prune farm with a low-producing well.  She found ways to cope: quiet bookkeeping for friends, picking fruit, and one tight summer “working the bean belt” where she took on the union head for his corrupt practices.  When I suggested that our third sib was the result of a hole in a condom, my living brother was incensed.  How could I suggest such a thing?  It was shameful to suggest that our dead brother was unwanted.

Uncle, Father, Brother (the third sib)

The paternal Scots side of my family has been “into” genealogy in perfect confidence that they would only find admirable characteristics and proof that the family was superior.  They go back to Scotland and look up the village that supplied the family name, though no one in the family lived there.  The Archibald Strachans were from Kilmarnock. 

The maternal Ulster Scots (really more Irish) were constantly attacked by each other and by that third land-owning family who cared only about money and would even cheat each other.  One woman who married a cousin began researching his father’s family.  She soon found evidence of genetic defects (not alcoholism, but polydactyly -- irregularity in the development of fingers and toes -- and an uncle who was frankly psychotic, possibly dangerous), marital unfaithfulness, and crooked land deals.  The family resisted her and she has been divorced.

Reading “Born Fighting” by Jim Webb has been both explanatory and relieving, because he makes it clear that what I think of as family tension has long-standing cultural foundations as old as Jesus.  The Romans on one side with their bureaucracy, military force, land-craving, admiration controlled by hierarchies, top-down.  On the other side, the Celts, trained by their own rocky land to be fiercely self-determining, accepting governance only if it were earned and then loyal to the death, settling for relatively ascetic lives to spare themselves from scuttling after wealth.  It is the suggestion by both Webb and others that it was these restless people who emigrated to populate the US, not so much along the coast as at the frontier represented by the Appalachian and Allegheny mountains, where they were allowed to do things their own way so long as they were a barrier against war with the Indians.  George Washington, William Clark, and a host of other tall, red-headed, stiffly determined, violence-accepting men and women didn’t just participate in our history -- they created it.

And now, too busy fighting to take a care for education and access roads, their penchant for drinking and drugs, their clannishness, their refusal to accept any standards but their own (which settles everything with violence), combined with a limited but emotional understanding of the Old Testament, has trapped them into being hillbillies.  No longer useful.  Discarded.  Enraged.  Armed.

Stonewall Jackson

This is so explanatory and relevant that I’ll be following out the implications in terms of the fur trade with the Blackfeet and the ensuing lines of development, including the present polarizing politics.


Diggitt said...

Kilmarnock, eh? My paternal grandmother's family was from Kilmarnock.

In the 1920s, a cousin was a Rhodes scholar (he went on to enter the Episcopal clergy) and--in a fit of genealogy, I guess--decided to visit Kilmarnock. The story he told me, some decades ago, was of getting off the train in Kilmarknock and looking around the streets feeling a little lost.

A policeman happened by and asked him what he was about. He explained that he was a McEvoy and was looking for relatives. "A McEvoy, eh?" went the policeman. "Then ye'd best be lookin' at the jail."

I guess my ancestry, Kilmarnockwise, is not as grand as yours!

Rebecca Clayton said...

You've got to take the "Scots-Irish Appalachian frontiersman" story with at least a grain of salt. It was fostered by post-Civil War missionaries to the South, who initially went there to save and educate the freed blacks, but gave that up when it threatened to drive white Southerners out of their denominations. To keep things acceptable to their white Southern members, the missionaries turned their attention to the "Southern Highlanders." It was important to identify these people as white, and Protestant, so they had to be differentiated from the Irish Catholics (a threatening mass of unwelcome immigrants of the day) and from anyone of African descent.

Jim Crow laws made it very important to pass as white, so enslaved ancestors have been carefully scrubbed from the family Bible. If you want to start a fight at an Appalachian music festival, just point out that the banjo is of African origin, and that bluegrass music has its roots in the blues. (These things are objectively true.)

In fact, where I live (on the Allegheny front) the descendants of the frontiersmen have English and German surnames. Sicilian immigrant miners' descendants are well-represented, and the Irish names are likely to come from 19th and 20th century immigrants who came here for the timber boom. But most people will tell you about their "fighting Scotch-Irish" heritage. It's mythology developed and enhanced through the end of the 19th century to the present.

In case you're interested, one of many books on this subject:
All That Is Native and Fine: The Politics of Culture in an American Region by David E. Whisnant, 1986. (University of North Carolina Press. ISBN 0807841439.) I've collected quite a few other sources, but this is a good place to start. (I got it on Amazon for 1 cent and the price of postage.)

Mary Strachan Scriver said...

I'm responding to "Albion's Seed" and "Born Fighting" by Jim Webb, which seems pretty well documented to me. They emphasize that "Scotch Irish" is a sign of outsiders, since it's more proper to say "Scots Irish." My index term is "Ulster Men."

My family, of course, is the victim of my observations. I've left out their sur names so search engines won't find this post. They don't read my blog anyway, so far as I know. I'm not sure they read at all.

Prairie Mary

Rebecca Clayton said...

I can't speak to the other three regions discussed in Albion's Seed, but the section on "Appalachia" turns out to be very weakly documented. I was interested enough to track down some of his sources, which include works of fiction, colorful (and fanciful) travel writing for Harper's Magazine, and works from Presbyterian missionaries, soliciting contributions. He cites Emma Bell Miles' "Spirit of the Mountains" as if it were a true personal account, but the author was the daughter of Northern missionaries, writing fictionalized local color in ladies' magazine style. (It is a really fascinating book, as is her biography, by Kay Baker Gaston, but it's not a reliable source.)

I hesitate to criticize Jim Webb's writing, but he has absorbed the 19th century romance version of the Scots Irish that you find in John Fox Jr. ("The Little Shepherd of Kingdom Come") and John C. Campbell's "The Southern Highlander and His Homeland." I enjoy reading books like these, but they're not necessarily accurate. If you define "Scots-Irish" so broadly that it includes Daniel Boone (a Quaker from Pennsylvania) and George Washington (family from Northampton, England, and a founding father of the American Episcopal Church) it just doesn't mean much.

(If you're interested, I've got a pile of references. At first, I was disappointed that the romance was concocted, but the more I read about it, the more I became fascinated by the romance-creators, including Jim Webb.)

Mary Strachan Scriver said...

Thanks for the cautions, Rebecca. I know you're on the spot and doing the research which is different from what I'm doing. I'm as interested in the myth as in the reality and ultimately in how that myth meets and matches the mythology of the Plains Indians. Maybe, since you're a regular reader, you'll recall that I started this thread with my cousins' fascination with "The Outlander," the time-machine romance full of SM and porn!!!! And then the fire was fanned by "Game of Thrones." So I'm hardly looking for accuracy here, unless it's a sort of emotional need on the part of people who make these claims. They ARE appealing!

Prairie Mary