Sunday, October 05, 2014


Lucy May Pinkerton Strachan, 16 years old in 1925

My mother’s papers are mostly about her family.  She was a proud Daughter of the Oregon Trail, which records the origins of the travelers -- in her case Kentucky and Missouri.  She grew up at the southern end of the Willamette Valley in Oregon, hill country not unlike the Ozarks and Appalachia.  But she scoffed that some there “live in the hollows and pool their ignorance.”  She was talking about her in-laws.  The Pinkerton girls went for education, the Hatfield boys went for land, and the two families were joined by three marriages, three brides for three brothers.  These same marriages also split the families through rivalry over who was the Alpha.

The Appalachian mountains themselves were created in something like the same way.  A collision of the underlying tectonic plates threw ancient bedrock up into mountains higher than today’s Himalayans, wore them down but then split them to either side of the growing Atlantic Ocean basin so that half ended up being the island and peninsula countries of Norway and Britain, on south to the Atlas Mountains of Africa.  The other half is what we call the Appalachians today.  The migrations of humans across the Atlantic ocean merely made threads across what had once been contiguous, esp. for Scots/Irish people.  To them the soil, the vegetation, and the coal mining were familiar.
At first the new coastal colonial nation was content to accept the remnant range of Appalachians as a natural barrier marking off the Indian lands beyond.  But the coast filled up and newcomers crowded over the mountains.  The French and Spanish circled around to the Mississippi River and ascended into the prairies along the drainage of the Rockies.  The fertile Ohio Valley area between the Appalachians and the Mississippi grew in a three-way settlement pattern among Brits crowding over the Appalachians, esp. after the Irish famine and the Scots land clearances;  French preserving their empire; and the Native Americans trying to maintain their own Five Nations and more.

The Old Northwest, a Territory or a Colony of the new nation, USA

The Old Northwest, a distinct political entity, formed around the waterways represented by the Great Lakes.  In my paternal grandmother’s time, (b. Oct 28, 1871, Quincy, MI, just south of Lansing) this was still forested country and she told about walking with her mother on a path where a group of Indian men stood aside to let them pass.  The NA tribes had also formed a nation around the connected lakes but now they dwindled to an interstitial population hardly recognized by others until the recent renaissance of consciousness.  Hit hard by Euro diseases and finally exhausting their wealth of beaver, many became Metis, then even paler, or moved on farther West.  

The land went to agriculture.  Canals were dug, railroads built.  This is where the main culture we accept as American was formed -- in the “middle.”  By mid-19th century when the farms and towns had finally committed most of the land and the prairie clearances of tribes had ended in the first treaties, movement still farther West began, often launching from St. Louis, which was supplied by steam boats from New Orleans.  

Now my mother’s direct ancestors began to move along the Oregon Trail behind ox-wagons.  These are her “provenance”, her mother’s “tribe.”

From the Kentucky/Missouri complex:  
1845 James Cochran and Elizabeth Bevins
1847 William Cochran and Mary (Polly) Johnson Cochran.  
1851: William Philpott from Virginia; Sarah Darby from Kentucky.  
1852: James Cochran.  

Then those who arrived through birth:  
1851: William Thurston Cochran and in 
1857: Lucy Jane Philpott.

These last two married and became my maternal great-grandparents, forever locked into arrogance about their origins which was tightly connected to church affiliation, the Cochran rigid Presbyterianism v. the more graceful Philpott Virginian affiliation which I suspect was Episcopalian.  Lucy Jane, a high-spirited woman, died young because of complications of childbirth and WT remarried a woman called “Sarah,” whose step-children did not like her.  They called her “Sairey”. These patterns are hard to discard.

Massive sweeps of human population go back to the primal migrations of homo sapiens out of Africa far back in history but nevertheless governed by bodies of water, mountain walls, tribes, commerce and disease.  “Gunpowder, Germs, and Steel.”  Never resolved, always contending (push those neanderthals out of the way), always creating new extinctions and metis groups.  We pretend it’s about religion, but that’s the consequence rather than the cause.  Sometimes the ferment comes to rest for long enough that a generation can grow up.  They think, “Oh, this is the way the world is.”  And they fight to keep it that way -- if it’s to their advantage.  They lose anyway.  Eventually.

My mother left a pile of clips, photos, letters and so on, which she did her best to organize before her death.  The individuals named above settled mostly in the Willamette Valley and did well, though there were eccentrics and black sheep among them.  Clergy, judges, businessmen.  There were still full-blood tribal Indians in my mother’s girlhood (b. 1909, Payette, ID). She took great pride that during the Roseburg Strawberry Festival, the chief of the Calipooyas chose her serving table and accepted his bowl of berries and cream from her own hands. All this material remains for me to convert into what some might call a novel.  Her predecessors belonged to the great triple movement across the Atlantic in Colonial times and on over the Appalachians after the American Revolution and then to the coastal green West across the arid sea bed of the high North American “desert”.

The progression across the continent went parallel to time, at right angles to time, in opposition to time.  Ways of doing things changed, persisted, became irrelevant.

My father’s father was in Scotland until the end of the 19th century.  But the family namesake fortunes were also related to the Atlantic Ocean since the Strachans, though the present descendants are barely conscious of it, were involved in the Great Triangle of trade: sugar cane, rum and slaves.  

Selwyn Strachan

The proof is a complex of Caribbean people named Strachan, who are black.  Former slaves took the names of their owners, or were assigned them.  In some genealogies, one traces back several generations and then hits a research barrier.  I think this is one of them.

By the time of the Boomer Generation, which I barely precede (b. 1939), there is even more emphasis on national origins because of the bookend Great Wars displacing peoples.  The Great Depression in between was a monster that still haunts everyone.  And now there is much awareness of the “Spanish flu” that was the shadow of WWI, because it seems a foreshadow of Ebola.  Flu nearly killed my mother as a child and did kill her doctor.  Her younger sister, who did not live long enough to become an aunt, was killed as a teenager in a car accident.  A great industrial powered mobility resulted from the invention of the automobile and the webwork of highways Eisenhower mandated.

My maternal grandmother @WWI.  The baby is the girl killed in an auto accident as a teenager.  
The older girl served as an Army nurse during WWII.  My mother may have been in bed with the flu at this point.  
Aliene may be the bump under the apron.

None of this means much unless it informs our futures.  War, economic depression and industrial developments still threaten us, nibble at our edges, put damp poisonous hands over our mouths and noses.  The one saving grace seems to be electronics but we forget that the sun itself could flare out to fry our infrastructures, satellites and all, with one burst of cosmic energy.  Some of us -- in black moods -- think that might be a good thing.  Others think of migrating to the stars.  And still others fancy going back to visit their roots, to see what is there now.  But it all depends on which roots one chooses to claim, doesn’t it?

Most of my life has been on the Lewis and Clark trail.
In fact, I'm living on it right now in Montana.

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