In 2001 Gene Strachan, a retired relative, called to ask if he could come to visit. He was working on a family genealogy and wanted access to my father’s photo albums. I was in this little old house in Valier trying to write and living on pennies, not quite close enough to retirement to have income from SSI. I tried to talk him out of it. I didn’t know him well, barely remembered his one or two visits to my family when we were growing up. I kept trying to tell him how marginal this house was, but he wouldn’t listen. He said he had grown up poor and could adapt to anything.
My great-grandfather, Archibald Strachan, had left Scotland with his wife and three grown children. In DeVoe, South Dakota, homesteading, they had a fourth child in 1892, Thomas Welsh Strachan. Gene was the oldest of four children born to “Uncle Thomas” and Ida Carrie Platt, married in June 20, 1918 in Viborg, S. Dakota. Gene did not remember a happy childhood, being at odds with his father but much attached to his mother. Part of the problem was poverty until Thomas hit his stride as a county agent and became an expert on grasses and forbs of the prairie.
Gene married, then divorced, had no children, and proudly served in WWII in New Guinea as an airplane mechanic. Most of his life he had been a bookkeeper. He would be traveling to visit me with his lady friend, a Shoshone grandmother, a CNA. He was very cagey about whether they would be sleeping in one bed. They were indeed daunted by my living arrangements: big puffy pillows for reading in bed, a foam pad instead of a mattress, cats who considered the double bed theirs, and the CNA demanded to know whether I bleached the shower daily. I did not. No color TV, no recliner for naps.
But Gene sat himself down to go through the dozens of photo albums and was very pleased to discover pictures of things he only vaguely remembered, like the house Archibald had built with tall Victorian windows in the mansard roof, which made it the coldest house on the South Dakota prairie.
We took several drives around the rez and with every jolt on dirt roads he complained about a hurt back. After he got back home, he was diagnosed with stomach cancer and soon died. In fact, he may have known that’s what he had before he came. Genealogy can be a form of immortality for some people. After one of our drives, my neighbor came knocking, very excited. The 9-11 attack on the World Trade Towers had just happened. Gene went out to try to reconnect my TV antenna but I blocked him. Instead I set up the computer on Internet so Gene could watch the news videos. He was ready to re-enlist to serve in WWIII, which he felt was inevitable. His lady friend was desperate to go home where she would feel safer.
In a few years Gene sent myself and Scott McLean copies of two books he had hand-written after years of research on the family. I’m typing out what he wrote about the Gillis branch.
GILLIS NOTES BY GENE:
We spent three days driving St. Simons, the island. One important step was the cemetery at Christ Church. They had a full time registrar, but no Gillis was found in the books. I went to all the old cemeteries I could find on the island and in Brunswich. The Christ Church Cemetery had graves that dated back in the 1820 time frame. The other cemeteries had mostly Civil War veterans. I went to all the Chambers of Commerce, tourist bureaus, etc. One afternoon I read in the library at St. Simons.
St. Simons Island has a long and violent history. Britain, France and Spain had claims in the area, many years before the Revolutionary War. James Oglethorpe, a Britisher, arrived in 1733 and built up defenses for protection from possible Spanish forces. Oglethorpe sent representatives to the Scottish Highlands to recruit an army and came back with a few hundred of the most experienced and best soldiers in Europe.
At this time Spain held Florida and had fortifications at St. Augustine. (I [Gene] have been on that fort in about 1957.) In 1742 a Spanish armada of forty-plus warships appeared off St. Simons, unloaded troops and proceeded to take over the island. When the Spaniards crossed Bloody Marsh, they were mowed down by the Highlanders who had positions in the trees. The Spaniards were confused by that type of fighting, were routed and fled. The book I read in the St. Simons library said that this battle determined whether North America would be British or Spanish. The British won. Of course, the Revolutionary War eliminated the British.
One very sad chapter in Scottish history is the Land Clearances. In 1746 the House of Stuart (Scottish) fought the House of Hanover (German/English) over who was to rule Great Britain. The Scotch lost. The British then proceeded to drive the Highlanders from their homes. In their stead a few Lowlanders and their sheep moved in. (This is a very simplified explanation of events.)
Many of the displaced Highlanders went to North Carolina. In some areas Gaelic was spoken for years. Some, later, immigrated from NC to Georgia. They founded the city of Darien just north of Brunswick which became a shipping point for cotton, rice and other products of the area. During the Civil War, Darien was burned by black troops led by Union officers. The book I read even gave the names of the officers. It is a sore point.
Burning was done on St. Simons Island during the Civil War; burning was again done during the Revolutionary War; the Spaniards burned what they could before sailing back to Florida.
I do not know if my Great Great Grandfather, John Brown Gillis, the ship builder on St. Simons Island, came down to Georgia in the Scottish migration from NC or whether he came there directly from Scotland. A very destructive hurricane hit the area in 1824, causing great loss of crops and buildings. I can speculate that Gillis wanted to go back to Scotland due to his wife’s death and possible damage to his shipyard from the hurricane.
I could find no evidence of a Gillis or Gillies being buried on St. Simons Is. On reflection, I probably should have gone to Darien and checked around. Gillis had money. Darien probably was more city-like and it was founded by Scottish people. Most of the books the librarian on St. Simons Island gave me to read were on Darien and I did not read them.
[ My note.] John Brown Gillis, who is the progenitor Gene is following here, was a Scotsman who had seven children. The sixth was a daughter called Jeannie. She married Thomas Welsh who was the father of seven children. The first six were all girls and then there was a boy. The fates of the girls and their descendants were mostly in North America, each going back to the husband’s name, of course. Catharine married Archibald Strachan, Ellen married James S. Robertson Sr., Jeannie and Margaret did not marry, Mary married Ramsay, Mina married Allan, and John Welsh stayed in Scotland, married to a woman named Lily. Gene and I are descended from Catharine.
John Brown Gillis was a ship builder in St. Simons Island. His wife (I do not know her first name) died in about 1825 and is buried on the island, I believe. Gillis decided to take the seven children back to Scotland via New York. He was a rich man and carried on his person $2460 for expenses. Gillis died in New York. The seven children, accompanied by a black servant [possibly a slave], set sail for Scotland. The youngest child, a baby, died at sea and was buried at sea. The remaining six children were taken in by relatives upon arrival in Scotland.
The $2460 was an interesting story. When Gillis arrived in New York, he put his money in a bank where it would be safe. Gillis had a partner in the shipyard business, a man by the name of Gibson, who made efforts (according to Matt Robertson) to draw the money. He did not succeed. The Gillis children were suspicious of Gibson and refused to give Gibson authority to draw the money. From this point it is not clear what happened, but the money lay in the bank for seventy years. Imagine, a small fortune in 1825 terms was lost.
Apparently, nothing was done to dispose of the money until about 1896 when Matt Robertson’s mother, Ellen Welsh Robertson, and his sister, Jeannie Robertson Abbot, found the money with the help of a banker. $2460 was in a bank in Albany, NY. By this time there were 72 claimants but few close heirs. The money was drawn and divided four ways.
Jean Gillis Welsh, Matt’s grandmother, received one-fourth as she was the lone survivor of the six Gillis children. In 1896 the six Gillis children, other than Jean, had three living children. Each received one fourth.
Aunt Lily, wife of John G. Welsh, the brother who had remained in Scotland, lived in a house in Scotland that was purchased, at least partially, from this money. When Jeannie Jones was working on the family tree in 1957, she asked TWS [Thomas Strachan] for some help. He gave her the address of Aunt Lily, which he had in his head: Lily Welsh, 13 Ravenswood Drive, Shawlands, Glasgow, Scotland. [My father visited her descendents in the Sixties. They were identical twins.]