Humor and History in England

Saxons vs. Vikings: Alfred the Great and England in the Dark Ages, and 1066 and Before All That: The Battle of Hastings, Anglo Saxon and Norman England, Ed West (New York: Skyhorse Publishing, 2017)

These slim volumes are the first offerings from A Very, Very Short History of England, a series that pitches itself to “newcomers to the subject” who are “trying to understand England and its history in the most informative and entertaining way possible….” Sadly entertaining means the display of an ingratiating hip sensibility on nearly every page.  It begins to grate before the first chapter of the first book is finished. For example:

The Romans camped in a gorge with a forest behind them, ensuring that only a small number of natives could attack them at any one time, a battle plan similar to that of villains in kung-fu movies coming at a hero one by one rather than just overwhelming him. In contrast to the Braveheart-style appeals Boudicca to her people, Suetonius told his men, presumably in a posh accent sounding like Charles Dance….

There. Three pop allusions within the confines of just two sentences. It occurs to me that it might be possible to engage, indeed entertain, a general audience without trivializing the subject. Humor, yes; but in carefully calibrated doses that hopefully will not be dated in a year’s time.  Saxons could have been a much better volume without the trite references.

The span of a millennium is also covered by a scant 121 pages. (To be fair, it is possible to abbreviate yet leave the reader with a sense of satisfaction as does Peter Ackroyd’s Foundation.) The result here, however, is a mash-up of  facts and (admittedly interesting) tall-tales in the run-up to the rise of the House of Wessex. To West’s credit, the story holds the attention with the advent of Alfred the Great and his immediate kin.

Posted in Anglo-Saxon England, Medieval History | Leave a comment

Find A Grave Rant

Recently, I came across a puzzling set of photographs that had been added to the Find A Grave memorial that I created for Charlie Suwanee Dees. According to the contributor, Charlie had been married to one Jenny Bradley, siring the children who were staring back at me. This was news to me. What wasn’t news? Another example of how the open-community format of Find A Grave confounds the living by confusing the dead.

Charlie Dees

Charlie Dees

Charlie Dees was Poarch Creek before there really was a Poarch to speak of. He was the son of Thomas Smith Dees and Ella Hollinger and the great grandson of Billy Hollinger, one of Andrew Jackson’s Indian scouts during the War of 1812. (Billy was raised by no less than Sehoy Tate Weatherford, she the mother of the infamous Creek warrior, Billy Weatherford.) By all the evidence, our Charlie lived his entire life in Monroe County, Alabama. In 1902, he married another Monroe native, Pauline Bell,  and between 1904 and 1920 they had six children. He died in 1934.

So who was this Jenny Bradley? The contributor’s post gave me little to go on, except that Charlie and Jenny had a son named Savoy. Plugging this information into gave me (surprisingly!) a nice cache of documents. Savoy Dees was born 12 March 1900 in Carson County, Texas. He appears in the 1910 U.S. Census, along with his parents, Charles and Jenny Dees of Panhandle, Carson, Texas. According to the census, Savoy’s father was born about 1872 in Kentucky. And this Charles (again born in Kentucky) makes an appearance with Jenny in the 1900 U.S. census for Panhandle.

Lincoln_internet_3Mrs. Jenny Dees also applied for a passport in 1921. She averred that she was a native of Alvaredo, Texas and had been married to the late Charles Dees, a native of Kentucky. A supporting affidavit averred that her husband Charles had died some ten years prior to the application.

As you have no doubt already surmised, none of this squares with the Charlie in my Find A Grave memorial. That Charlie appears with his parents in the 1900 U.S. census for Monroe County. Shortly afterward,  he made application, as an Alabama resident, to share in the Eastern Cherokee Settlement and identified his wife, Pauline. He then appears with Pauline in the 1910 U.S. census for Mt. Pleasant (Eliska), again in Monroe County.

How did such an obvious error make its way onto Find A Grave? I suspect it had something to do with those shaking leaves on (By my count Charlie Suwanee Dees makes an appearance in 23 Ancestry trees. Of those which are public, 4 repeat the claim that Charlie had a family in Texas. One included the offending Find A Grave photo and plaintively adds that Charlies deserted his Texas wife…Sarah! Still more amazing is that some of these trees are sourced with the very evidence that I’ve just rehearsed.)

So we come yet again to the old rule of thumb in genealogy: doveryai, no proveryai (trust, but verify). The strength of Find A Grave is its weakness: contributions can be made by anyone, anywhere; however, this includes folks who don’t understand the need for a proof standard. I’ve had exchanges with “gravers” who criticize my position that a memorial should report only what is on the headstone barring other supporting evidence.  The typical response is that Find A Grave is not a genealogy site; rather, Find A Grave is about remembering loved ones. Fair enough. But should laudable sentiment trump accuracy? How is the genealogist to proceed? Here are some suggestions.

Bring errors to the attention of the contributor. Find A Grave is a collaborative community. So be polite. Be factual. In the case of the rogue family portrait, I let the contributor know that there were conflicts in the evidence and asked for any information that would correct a misunderstanding on my part. I’ve done the same for “flowers and notes” posts. Most people appreciate your concern.

Ask for headstone photographs. Find A Grave is an incomparable resource when graves are photographed. Good photography eliminates any doubts about the reporting. If there isn’t a photograph, request it. Members of the Find A Grave community volunteer to provide this service and will usually trip over each other for the opportunity to do so. Keep in mind that these photographs are also copyrighted and the property of the photographer.

All other photographs, be warned! See above. Provenance should likewise be a matter for concern. Old photos are as susceptible to misrepresentation as any other piece of evidence. I know researchers who have stopped sharing photos because others have re-posted their media in irresponsible and inaccurate ways.

Check unphotographed Find A Grave memorials against surveys. Find A Grave memorials were created by people who actually visited the cemetery, right? Don’t count on it.  Unfortunately, there are those that report based on secondary and tertiary sources of questionable reliability. Unless you stop in your tracks to contact the contributor, you probably will not know the difference. Unless, that is, you consult a survey.  Rootsweb is a repository for this kind of work.  Some cemeteries offer online burial databases. And there are, of course, books and monographs. All these offer the user some assurance that the information was collected by someone who went to the cemetery for the express purpose of creating an accurate record.

Improve Find A Grave memorials. If you’re visiting a memorial that would be enhanced by an obituary that you have, or a death certificate, pension or interment record, attach it! Unmarked graves are particularly benefited by random acts of genealogical kindness.


Posted in Creek Indians, Find A Grave, Genealogy, Research | 4 Comments

Eastern Creek Essentials: Amos Wright

mcgillivray_mcintosh_tradersThe McGillivray and McIntosh Traders: On the Old Southwest Frontier, 1716-1815, Amos J. Wright, NewSouth, Inc.

Don’t buy this book for the storytelling. Quite honestly, The MacGillivray and McIntosh Traders could have used an editor: the narrative tends to wander and I found myself re-reading paragraphs to make sure that I was getting it all straight. But, the research: black gold; Texas tea. Serious students of the Creeks of the late 18th century and family researchers of the early Mississippi Territory must have this volume in the library.

Buy it for the genealogy alone. The families here are the subject of many tales that have grown in the telling. Wright, however, tackles the received canon and gives us a well-documented look at many of the people who left an indelible mark on the southeast during the revolutionary period.

The traders in mind are the Scot, Lachlan Lia McGillivray (1719-1799) and his Creek son, Alexander (1750-1793). Lachlan made his fortune in the American leather trade. Like many of the backcountry pelt barons, he secured his bona fides with his Creek suppliers by marrying into the influential Wind clan. Alexander, in turn, became his father’s apprentice and eventually leveraged his association with the trading firm of Panton, Leslie into a position of personal power and wealth. Alexander’s nephew, William Weatherford (c. 1782-1824), would figure prominently when war broke out on the frontier in 1813.

One example of Wright’s deconstruction of the canon is the paternity of David Tate (1778-1828). Tate was also one of Alexander’s nephews, but significantly the one who inherited his estate. This made David a rich man but, as a consequence, a lighting rod for the traditionalist Creeks. Tate’s father has traditionally been identified as Col. John Tate, a British officer who died near Cusseta (a Lower Creek town near present-day Columbus, Georgia) while leading a war party during the American Revolution.

The earliest source for Colonel Tate is Thomas Woodward’s 1859 Reminiscences of the Creek, or Muscogee, Indians:

John Tate was the father of Davy Tate, and was the last agent the English Government ever had among the Creeks. During the American revolution, Tate raised a large number of Indians on the waters of Alabama, and from almost every town (except the Tallassees and Netchez, who, through the influence of McQueen, never did take up arms against the colonies during the revolution.) Tate carried his warriors to Chattahoochee, and there joined Tusta Nuggy Hopoy, or Little Prince, with the Chattahoochee Indians, and started to Augusta, Ga., to aid a Col. Griefson, better known as Grayson, a Tory Colonel. Near the head springs of the Upatoy creek, and near old Fort Perry, Tate became deranged; the cause I never learned. He was brought back to old Cusscraw and died; he was buried on a high hill east of the old town, and near what was the residence of Gen. Woolfolk when I left the country. I have been shown his grave often, and have heard what I have stated from Little Prince, and a hundred others that were along at the time.

The story had currency within the family. Tate’s son-in-law, J. D. Driesbach, repeated the substance of it in a letter to Lyman Draper in 1874. Tate’s grandson, Elisha Tarvin, repeated it in 1893. The tale made its way onto the Kashita Town monument at Fort Benning and then into such recent works as Benjamin W. Griffith’s, McIntosh and Weatherford: Creek Indian Leaders (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama, 1988).

Wright could never find any record commissioning a Colonel John Tate, however. What did exist was an uncanny parallel with events in the life of Capt. David Taitt, a surveyor, cartographer and deputy to British Indian Superintendent, John Stuart. Taitt was a confidante of Alexander McGillivray and was frequently present at Little Tallasee between 1772 and 1781. Taitt also led an aborted Indian raid into east Georgia. The departure was his survival of the war. Parenthetically, this is par for Woodward: in another instance of receiving alleged first-hand knowledge, he passed along questionable details about the maternity of Dr. Thomas Holmes (the survivor of Ft. Mims and one of A. J. Pickett’s informants for The History of Alabama and Incidentally of Georgia and Mississippi).

Here we must question Wright. He ultimately dismisses Taitt as David’s father on circumstantial grounds: chiefly, Taitt was in bad odor in the Upper Nation by 1778, making him an unlikely paramour for McGillvray’s sister, Sehoy. Further, he argues that Sehoy would have never married Charles Weatherford while Taitt was still in the country.

This, unfortunately, fails the test for circumstantial evidence. As mentioned, Taitt raised a force of Upper Creeks for the relief of Savannah in 1779, a remarkable accomplishment for a man without influence in the nation.  Spanish Governor Galvez also threatened his execution in 1780 because of his influence with the Indians.

But 1779 was also Taitt’s annus horribilus. He lost his protege, Superintendent John Stuart, in February.  In March, the war party that he financed out of his own pocket was scattered. His mission failed, his hopes for advancement dashed, he made his way into the British lines at Savannah. And as I’ve hinted, things did not improve in 1780. He was captured by the Spanish in Mobile, held in a prison, and, after being paroled, reduced to begging. There is no evidence that he ever entered the Creek nation again and he left for England in 1782. That Sehoy took a new husband before Taitt’s departure is not unreasonable.

And some of Wright’s research falls short. He states that Taitt disappeared from the record in 1793 when he was seeking reimbursement in London for the failed raid of ’79; however, according to Edward Cashin, Taitt was compensated with land in Nova Scotia and was the provost marshal in New Breton by 1784. His talent for surveying was again put to good use by laying out the streets for Sydney.  Taitt is buried in Halifax.

Michelle Woodham, a researcher of the Tate-Tunstall families, recently found the 1796 baptismal record for Alexander McGillivray, Jr. and David Tate at All-Hallows-by-the-Tower church, London. (Wright does track Alex Jr. to London and accounts for his death there.) The latter’s father is reported as “David Tate.”  Here is the proof that was lacking for Wright. The informant had to be the teen-aged David himself.

So Col. John Tate was an alter ego. As with the story of Capt. Jean Marchand, the husband of another Sehoy, “[i]t makes better reading if the brave father is killed instead of deserting his family when his tour of duty is over.” Wright, 187.

The lesson for the genealogist is clear: never take anything for granted. Wright is a trove of information that merits further attention and refinement.

Posted in Antebellum Family Research, Creek Indians, Genealogy, Mississippi Territory, Tensaw Country | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments

The City of Four Flags


I proudly celebrate our great city’s rich history, but I do not believe that we are defined by our history alone. We will always be the City of Five Flags — but now is the time for us to turn our focus to our city’s bright future.

Mayor Ashton Hayward

The silly season has come to the City of Five Flags.

Not that long ago the city of Pensacola, and then the Escambia County Commission, entered the fray over the Confederate battle flag.  (This is the same flag that, until recently, festooned Bo and Luke Duke’s Charger, The General Lee.)  Such was necessitated by the shifting tide of public opinion over flying the Stars and Bars as part of the area’s iconic, perhaps outdated, brand: the “City of Five Flags” is market-speak that compactly conveys Pensacola’s long and interesting history on the Gulf Coast. That the battle flag offended some, however, was undeniable and a community dependent on tourist dollars does not need to be provocative.

first_national_flag_CSAThe solution was to substitute the first national flag of the Confederacy.  Such a flag would maintain the context of the message, but without the bitter aftertaste. And the new flag was a suitable stand-in precisely because it was unrecognizable. (The Confederates dumped it after a short career because it was easily confused with the Betsy Ross flag.)

…the new marketing message for the City of Five Flags is this: come for the history, just not that one.

Yesterday our lawmakers voted to remove the first national flag. It is not because it became notorious overnight. It has not been identified with any particular hate group; nor has it, as Pensacola’s mayor puts it, become “a painful symbol of racial hatred and intolerance.”  Rather, one must surmise its removal is the result of a whole new wave of protest, which I call confederaphobia: a fear of all things confederate. Because Pensacola was part of that past, a politically incorrect past, the politicians aim to airbrush it out of the public square. So the new marketing message for the City of Five Flags is this: come for the history, just not that one.

The state flag of Florida will now fly in its place. The problem is, the replacement, any replacement, disrupts the context provided by the other four. As it stands, the message is just as stark as if the pole had been left empty. (Ironically, nearly all of the states of the original Confederacy incorporate elements of the battle flag in their own flags, including Florida.) The politicians might be better served by ditching the French, English and Spanish flags and getting out of the history promotion business altogether.

The lessons for genealogists are disturbing.

The politicization of history is having a chilling effect on our craft. Sensitivity and respect, yes. But fear of giving offense shuts down discussion. Conversely, the pursuit of “politically correct” narratives conflict with our best practices. Think of it as an expansion of the old problem of how to deal with the crazy old aunt who died in an asylum.

The polestar for the genealogist is honesty.  The criticism of the field before the Genealogical Proof Standard came on the scene was that it was about achieving approved narratives, a feel-good contrivance for the collection of famous dead psuedo-relatives. As many professionals will tell you, today’s emphasis on accuracy sends many away disappointed because their family story was not a life-affirming discovery. The PBS hit, Finding Your Roots, was justly criticized for indulging this sort of nonsense. (Actor Ben Affleck had talked the host into omitting mention of a slave-owning ancestor.)

…the story of Pensacola’s relationship with her people of color might just be surprising.

Ironically, confederaphobia also complicates the task of black family researchers.

I learned from go-to expert Frazine Taylor that slave research can be daunting. Dogged persistence and hard work is required. Part of that work requires the black family historian to get as throughly familiar with the institution of southern slavery as possible, advice that I would offer to any researcher of the period. See, e.g., Reclaiming Kin (Slave Research: Four Things You Need to Know). To do that, the stereotypes that make for compelling political narratives or offer the moral high ground will not do.  Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Gone with the Wind cannot be the basis for a proper understanding of the antebellum south. Thus dispatched, the story of Pensacola’s relationship with her people of color might just be surprising. But in today’s ahistorical climate it may be difficult to pick up Blassingame’s The Slave Community or  Owsley’s Plain Folk of the Old South without feeling someone’s withering stare.

If the foundational principal of good genealogy is owning up to the truth of our past, warts and all, then the present wind will blow us no good.

Posted in Antebellum Family Research, Slavery | Tagged , , | Leave a comment