Sunday, October 18, 2009

Another link in the chain has moved on: my mother died in July. We have held the grave-side memorial, and Buddhist prayer ceremony hosted by my sisters. I have said the Mourner's Prayer, Kaddish, for her with my congregation, which is what Jewish practice teaches me. Unlike other deaths of loved ones I have experienced, my mother's passing is completed and she does not speak to me from the other side. I believe she was really finished with this realm and do not believe in reincarnation or karmic return. I do not believe in afterlife having anything to do at all with the physical body.
I define faith in the most existential terms, which is to say that it is the opposite of knowing and therefore contains doubt and anxiety. I have faith that my mother's soul has been restored to God and that gives me comfort and peace. But while I do not have belief in any revisiting of the soul in another sentient form, I do believe my ancestors are here in a physical way, in my own blood and DNA, as well as particles of the very stardust that makes the earth. That feels like the truth to me, like enough for me.
I think faith is a beautiful thing, "knowing" is something that is dangerous. Those who know the "truth," who hold their own truth as the truth for all, frighten me with their certainty. All too often their certainty is backed up by their violence.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Tartan Day

Throughout the summer, indeed the entire year, Americans of Scottish descent and their guests, head off for a day or two they will spend watching men in kilts throw over-sized objects made of stone or wood; they will observe sheepdog trials and step-dancing (up & down, up & down--don’t you dare move those hips!), sample whiskeys, and try a Scots, ahem, ‘delicacy’: oats and offal wrapped in sheep’s stomach by the name of ‘haggis.’ Finally, they may stand in awe before massive quantities of tartan wool-blends wrapped around supersized Scots-Irish Americans proudly displaying their heritage.

It was Roots by Alex Haley (the book and movie) that launched a thousand hyphenations of the American identity. Before Roots, we were black, red, yellow, brown, and mostly white: Irish and Jews were white. Asians from anywhere west of the Pacific Ocean were yellow, and blacks, well, blacks were really black then--though still frequently called Negroes--(at least to white Americans whose one-drop rule made any form of miscegenation illegal and its progeny black unless light-skinned enough to fool somebody).

But from our nation's beginnings, America was a melting pot of tribes and clans, ethnicities and nationalities. And, from that start, not discounting what was happening between the thousands of tribes and sub-tribes of natives, whites were as ethnically identified and stratified within their own groups as other populations. Polish-American and Italian-American had as little in common as High Yellow and Ebony. Even within the Jewish tribe, there were Litvaks and Galicianers, new arrivals and the older, German-rooted groups, who discounted one another the way the Scots-Irish separated themselves from Irish-Irish (meaning Catholic) arrivals.

Whether it has been mankind’s self-imposed noose or science’s bad call, ethnicity and race have long separated us, even as it bound subgroups into tighter wedgies. Yet hyphens are meant to become new words and, often, interracial/inter-relegion/inter-ethnic marriages have been desparate attempts to escape ethnic provincialism; besides, opposites and differences do attract to one another. And, eventually, as a Newsweek magazine spread showed us a few years ago, we all do sort of blend together.

To attend the Scottish games, is to dip into my own ancestral weave and lore. Some attend these festivals for the sheer lark; it is a day of fun like no other, especially if one enjoys guessing just what is under those kilts. But, I am afraid, there are those who attend the Highland Games to spend a few precious hours with their "kin," code for white folks. To my shame, it was one of the reasons my mother--who barely kept her racism in check--enjoyed the games so much.

In 1998, Senator Trent Lott saw his Senate Resolution 155 passed unanimously into law. This resolution acknowledged the presence and contribution of Americans of Scottish descent. Thus, Tartan Day came into being, although outside of certain enclaves, most have probably never heard of it. I hadn't. Here is the resolution’s text:

Senate Resolution 155

Whereas April 6 has a special significance for all Americans, and especially
those Americans of Scottish descent, because the Declaration of Arbroath, the
Scottish Declaration of Independence, was signed on April 6, 1320 and the
American Declaration of Independence was modeled on that inspirational document;

Whereas this resolution honors the major role that Scottish Americans played in
the founding of this Nation, such as the fact that almost half of the signers of
the Declaration of Independence were of Scottish descent, the Governors in 9 of
the original 13 States were of Scottish ancestry, Scottish Americans
successfully helped shape this country in its formative years and guide this
Nation through its most troubled times;

Whereas this resolution recognizes the monumental achievements and invaluable
contributions made by Scottish Americans that have led to America's preeminence
in the fields of science, technology, medicine, government, politics, economics,
architecture, literature, media, and visual and performing arts;

Whereas this resolution commends the more than 200 organizations throughout the
United States that honor Scottish heritage, tradition, and culture, representing
the hundreds of thousands of Americans of Scottish descent, residing in every
State, who already have made the observance of Tartan Day on April 6 a success;

Whereas these numerous individuals, clans, societies, clubs, and fraternal
organizations do not let the great contributions of the Scottish people go

Now, therefore, be it Resolved, That the Senate designates April 6 of each year
as "National Tartan Day."

I am all for celebrating heritages but I get more than a little uncomfortable with the enthusiasm some pursue their Anglo-Celtic roots, even as I am myself deeply involved with this very excavation. For too long, we have been taught that America was founded on purely European heritages and as a Christian nation; the pictures we were shown of our founding fathers were all white. As some try to create an “English only” America and hurl horrible epithets about “immigrants,” I cringe in my liberal white skin. But, most importantly, I have the knowledge that these myths are not true and they limit our vision of America.

My mother’s mother was a Brown with ancestry from pioneering stock, from those who crossed the wide prairies of Kansas and Nebraska from Pennsylvania, Ohio, Illinois and Iowa. They eventually settled in California’s great Central Valley. Across this mostly inhospitable land, they launched Presbyterian churches, fought in wars, and ranched. My research on the Browns shows them coming originally from Scotland, likely the Highlands. They were probably of the Lamont clan; another clan with a tragic history, the Lamonts were torn asunder by rivalries, and religious and imperial wars which outlawed Highland culture, including tartans, bagpipes, the sept system for organizing families around obeisance to a clan chieftain.

When the Lamont clan was finally shattered by assault (there was a great massacre upon them by the Campbells, killing over 200, including women and children) and law, they split into separate groups and emigrated, many to Australia, Canada, and the United States. Some families took the names of colors: Black, White, and Brown (not the Greens, however), in order to identify one another should they meet again in some foreign land. This is the legend I was told by Duncan Brown in Bettyhill, in Scotland at the Crofter Museum; clan representatives of the Lamonts at the Scottish games in Pleasanton, California, echoed the legend as one they also knew.

Brown is one of the most popular surnames in America and one of the most popular taken by African-Americans when they were freed. Some likely chose the name to describe themselves, the very way the name may originally have described the Scots of the outer isles: brown is related to the Gallic word "doon," from which we get "dun." It means dark, or brown. Other newly freed slaves may have chosen the name to honor the abolitionist leader John Brown.

My Scottish Browns were violently forced from their lands between the 18th and 19th centuries to be replaced by sheep and wealthy lairds who co-opted with the conquering chieftains and English soldiers. It’s not such a radically different history from that of my African-American, immigrant, and Native American brethren: most of us were forced off lands we might have once tended and loved.

Plaids come in thousands of colors.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Bone & Blood, Abolitionists & Slaveholders

I'm reading Complicity: How the North Promoted, Prolonged, and Profited from Slavery, written by three journalists of the Hartford Courant newspaper, so my thoughts are on the ideas that sparked the American Revolution on this 4th of July, as well as on the failure of that Revolution to follow through completely in its promise.

We had to fight a terribly bloody Civil War to end slavery, and then many more years of civil war called Jim Crow, the Civil Rights movement, the protests that turned bloody, the jailings of demonstrators, all to come to where we are now. It amazes me how recalcitrant human beings are to change. And, don't we all have the premonition that change is going to come, anyway?

My ancestors fought in the American Revolution. I am still researching the Dressers who were at Valley Forge and in the various battles. I had maternal ancestors who fought on both sides of the Civil War. The Browns were on the Union Side, and the Shannons on the side of the Confederacy.

My ancestor George Shannon, the youngest member of the Lewis & Clark expedition became a slave owner of seven slaves in Missouri. I may very well have black relatives in Shannon County there. His relation, Wilson Shannon, was the interim governor in the period known as Bleeding Kansas, which launched John Brown's acts of revolution.

I spent last weekend in the mountains with a group of women friends: two were African-American, one Chinese-American, one Irish-American, and another Jewish-American. We were an encapsulation of America's current ethnic diversity, and all of us, middle-agers, are dealing with family stories--the ones spoken and the ones not. I don't think America can move forward until it truly comes to an honest appraisal of its past, which is not to say we must focus on criticisms and disparagements.

I do not hold my ancestors guilty of anything except surviving, but I do need and want to know why they may have acted as they did and whether or not they caused harm in their actions that may need repair.
I am the bone and blood of my family's stories as much as of their DNA, and there is still a lot of work to be done to make this the greatest country ever.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

"We ain't paid no whiskey tax since 1793"

Whiskey Tax Proclamation

Whiskey Still

In early January 2003, the two-hundredth anniversary of my fourth great-grandfather’s death day and my third great-grandfather’s becoming the youngest member of the Lewis & Clark expedition, I joined my husband whose work had taken him to the east coast . I had lost both a job and my health insurance and gone off my anti-depressant rather precipitously which sent me into one of--thankfully few--scary yet strangely interesting bouts of madness, if madness is defined as a change in one’s judgment and perception.

We were settled in Princeton, New Jersey, and since I had only recently discovered that I had family ties to western Pennsylvania, I wanted to drive there to check it out. On the map, it didn’t look far. A child of the west, map distances frequently confound me, never really approximating the relative ease or difficulty of crossing a challenging landscape. Thus, I launched myself toward Claysville, Pennsylvania, with just enough money for the return gas: I had determined to avoid the toll roads.

This is how I discovered my ties to Appalachia.

On mountainous roads, in my husband’s little red import (he had not wanted me to go on this adventure), I discovered coal trucks, ice slicks, backwoods trailer homes, pockets of poverty and rural isolation. The leaves were stripped by winter and the only thing moving was smoke from a rare chimney. (Don’t let anyone tell you that genealogy is an armchair pursuit, for those seeking refuge in nostalgia while taking comfort in the present.

y Shannon ancestors (my mother’s wilder Irish side) were the frontiersmen in my family tree, not the pioneers, mind you, but the ones who seemed to leap further and further west into difficult terrains and conflicted situations, like the Lewis & Clark Expedition and the period known as Bleeding Kansas which served as the run-up to the Civil War. They were also around for the conflict in which the newly formed United States government first used the military against its own civilians in the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794.

My first ancestor on my mother’s father’s side to arrive on the North American continent was orphaned here at age five in 1760. George David Shannon (born between 1755 and 1758, died in 1803) crossed the Atlantic Ocean from Ireland with his parents whose names are lost in the mists of time. His mother did not survive the crossing and her body was disposed at sea. The father, a businessman, must have panicked when he arrived in a Delaware port with a young child; he hastily delivered the boy to the home of an Episcopalian minister in Wilmington, then returned to Ireland, not to be heard from again. (One record states that he may have succumbed to an illness back in Ireland and died.)

The year must have impressed itself upon the boy as one of his most traumatic, and although the tale is told that he was treated as a member of the minister’s family, in all likelihood, he was signed over as an indentured servant because he wasted no time after reaching maturity setting out on his own. At the outbreak of the Revolutionary War, when Shannon would have been around 18, he enlisted as a private in Captain James Young’s company, 8th Battalion, Cumberland County Militia (Cumberland, Pennsylvania) commanded by Col. Abraham Smith. Eventually, he would leave the relatively civilized colony of Delaware for the haunts of southwestern Pennsylvania; one record states he achieved the rank of Captain for “gallantry in service.” [There are a number of Shannons, including possible relations James Shannon and John Shannon, both from Pennsylvania, who fought at Valley Forge.]

George Shannon married a farmer’s daughter, Jane Milligan, in Bedford, Pennsylvania, in 1783. Bedford is just north of the Pennsylvania turnpike, which was built along an old Indian trail, and at the center of the bottom boundary of the state; there is a recreated pioneer village there that you can visit which was closed on the January day I drove through. Also here is Espy House, where George Washington and his force of 13,000 headquartered as they prepared to put down the Whiskey Rebellion in 1794.

Claysville, Washington County, Pennsylvania, aerial view

After his marriage, Shannon and his bride crossed the mountains and settled near the town of Claysville, in Washington County, Pennsylvania, "upon lands now known as the Porter Farm, but then were called Waller’s Fort as a blockhouse had been erected there by the first settlers." After tromping around Claysville in the snow, trying to get information about any Shannons in the area from the local hardware store and checking out the cemetery up on a nearby hill, I wandered down to Wheeling, West Virginia, where the Lewis & Clark 200th anniversary was still being celebrated. Following the prescient purchase of Louisiana territories from the French, President Thomas Jefferson commissioned Captains Meriwether Lewis and William Clark to find a way west. This was to enact America’s “manifest destiny” to occupy the entire continent; my ancestor, George Shannon‘s first-born son (also named George) would sign on to the Corps of Discovery and become its youngest explorer.

This was an era of major land grabbing fostered by the great colonial and expansionist European powers. America was in competition for the western half of the North American continent with the Russians, French, Spanish, and English.

But let’s back up just a bit: before Lewis & Clark, the powers that were saw a lot of land in the "then" west, now our mid-west, to secure, clear, and keep from native hands. Land speculation was in the air from the beginning of our colonization. Even before the Revolution, speculators had an eye set on quality real estate once the little problem of colonial independence was resolved. George Washington, who almost single-handedly launched the French & Indian War back in the mid-18th century, was one of the western region’s largest landholders, having surveyed and sent his surveyors, to scope out quality chunks of land.

According to Thomas P. Slaughter, “During the 1760s and 1770s Washington mounted a campaign for land on the frontier more impressive than any he ever executed as a general--and more successful. He had an acquisitive genius and was a ruthless exploiter of advantage.”
While most of Washington’s--and other land speculators'--lands were acquired legally, many massive sections of land were taken illegally; on a number of these plots there were frontier squatters of Scottish, Scots-Irish and German extraction. Many of these folks had been pushed out of their homes in the old countries by skyrocketing rents, or starved off their lands by famine and economic depression. They were mostly Protestants with the fearlessness, tenacity, and desperation to confront native peoples, wild land and animals, but who were not sufficiently financed to secure the land for themselves in most cases. What the frontier offered was land and freedom, although neither came in the size and quantities as promised in the promotional brochures that enticed foreign settlers to emigrate then migrate into the interior of the newly created United States. In short, they were tough people who scratched their survival on the western side of the Appalachians and never got very far ahead economically in this nation, which is true even of today.

*** In the federal election of 2008, then-candidate Barack Obama got himself into hot water by getting quote out in a quote he made at a private fundraiser. He referred to the people of rural and western Pennsylvanians as ‘a bitter people clinging to their guns and religion.‘ Although that was the quote heard round the world, what Obama was acknowledging before saying this, was that here was an area of rural poverty that had never received much help from the government, had lost many jobs, and were beaten down. The physical geography is one of rough rolling hills and mountains that harbor pockets of coal. In 2003 I saw small farms and dairies, and a lot of land that looked like you couldn’t do much with it except hunt varmints and maybe deer. (I actually found it very beautiful in the winter, but then I was off my meds and my rocker just a tad.)

In the late 18th-century there were enough hunters and farmers willing to make it a homeland of independence and freedom. They were self-sufficient and didn't depend on the cash economy of soft eastern money men. Instead of coal, these adventurous settlers relied on barter and trade, using their prized commodities of animal furs and whiskey. Any good frontier Scotsmen knew a thing or two about running a still, after all. This rural economy would soon clash with the evolving eastern markets in one of America's first tax rebellions. The Whiskey Rebellion took place in and around Washington County, where one in ten families owned a still and rural families were often better off than the townies because of it.

Several factors came together in a perfect storm to foment the Whiskey Rebellion. The first was the increasing immigration to the frontier by these aforementioned pioneers. Between 1720-1775, there were major migrations of Protestant-Irish and native Scots to the western lands, mostly along the spine and flanks of the Appalachian/Allegheny mountain chain. According to Thomas Slaughter, historian of the Rebellion, the American-born descendants of these early settlers lived “in a cohesive geographic area” in the mountains of what later became Pennsylvania, Virginia, then West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, North and South Carolina.

There is an old joke about the arrival of people from Britain and Ireland that goes: When the English came to the North American continent, they put up forts and towns, courthouses and formed militias; when the Irish arrived, they squatted at the edges of these towns, dug the ditches, built railroads, churches and pubs; when the Scots came, they took one look at these urban developments populated by English and Irish, and headed west as fast as they could, toting their guns and seeking freedom.

Slaughter states that “Geography formed the heart of the western country’s character, and paradox marked the center of its topographical face. The western country lay at the crossroads of European wars for the continent. It stood at the military and geographical center of English and French contests for North America. It was isolated though, from the population centers of the English colonies--now American states--by the Appalachian chain of mountains.” The Eastern establishment politicians and settlers depended on these westerners to keep the Indians at bay and to clear as much area for white settlement as possible, although there was not much regard for their culture or compensation for their militia actions. In fact, most of the land was held by absentee landlords. America was in the early throes of European-styled stratification. “For most frontiersmen, life was very hard during the 1780s by any standard. For most it got worse over the decade. In 1780 more than one-third of western Pennsylvania’s population was landless.”

While most were having trouble hanging on to property, others, mostly outsiders, were heavily involved in land speculation, to the extent that the bottom 10% of taxpayers was falling behind in land ownership as the top 2% of taxpayers increased their land ownerships from owning 26 to 35% in the mid-1790s. As Slaughter puts it: “Speculators were never popular in the region. Washington and other absentee landlords monopolized much of the area’s best land while local farmers labored to scratch a living from what remained. Washington owned thousands of acres and did not even farm or live on them, although he tried to hide these facts by having his agent build dummy dwellings on these tracts. It just did not seem right to the local people.” The majority of settlers, roughly a quarter of the population were “croppers,” tenant farmers, developing the land but not owning it.
Washington was one of the largest absentee landholders, owning over 63,000 acres of trans-Appalchia. And, speculators and the excise men who came round trying to collect taxes, were none too popular among the landless farmers.

A major and distinctive population influx, an imbalanced landholding situation in a rural economy based on goods and an exchange of services rather than cash, and a heavily armed and fiercely independent culture, tipped the area into a bloody conflict that was violently put down by none other than the father of our country and one of its most prosperous landlords. Enter the whiskey tax.
I cannot drum up the spirit of George Shannon to ask him whether he knew of George Washington’s and others’ land speculations; all I know is that my ancestor did end up in western Pennsylvania, owned property there and later in southeastern Ohio, and lived at the heart of the region during this rebellion.

Reading the story of the western territories’ revolt against the whiskey excise tax imposed by George Washington and Alexander Hamilton in the late 18th century, I keep wondering what usefulness is this history to me, sitting here in my California coastal living room in the early years of the 21st century.
The immediate relevance has to do with the fact that I, too, live life close to the edge.

The frontier borders have certainly shifted and “civilization” has won over wilderness. I rest on the progress made by my ancestors, but that progress seems narrow if measured in terms of flush toilets, job protections, sales and transportation taxes. My neighborhood has the right to arm itself but this is mostly useful to thugs involved in the local drug trade. As far as I know there are no stills locally, although beer and wine making has a certain cache and there are suppliers for both operating within a one-mile radius. We’ll see what happens if marijuana is legalized and taxes attached to its sale, but right now there is a valiant struggle for those wishing to grow and provide it for medical reasons.

My greatest pleasure, books, are covered by sales taxes imposed by the state and county in order to maintain certain governmental services. In fact, I live in a city and county that has one of the highest local sales taxes of any in the country. My low and unsteady income is heavily taxed and because I do not own property, I feel the discrimination on my annual tax returns that would give back to me for “developing” the land.

While I do not identify completely with the conservative thinking of where my Shannon ancestors came from--western Pennsylvania, northern West Virginia, Kentucky and eastern Ohio, and later Texas--I can certainly empathize with the harsh realities of never getting ahead in a skewed economy. I might blame different causes, and I did vote for President Obama, but I take umbrage at those who easily dismiss these fellow Americans who ‘cling to their guns and religion‘ and wish that Obama‘s full speech, which was made at a private fundraiser and leaked, would have been quoted.

Many of these rough-and-ready frontiersmen made it possible for the rest of us to find our way over the mountains and move further west and they are usually the first in the queue to defend this country in distressed times. They value the school of hand-knocks over public education, are suspicious of government to the point of libertarianism, and are taxed beyond fairness while receiving little in return. Whiskey, for many of them, is one of life’s pleasures, and damn if you tax them for making and selling it!

A couple of foototes: Excerpt from the April 6, 2008, fundraising speech by then-candidate Senator Barack Obama, in San Francisco, which was secretly audiotaped and released to the media.
“I think it’s fair to say that the places where we are going to have to do the most work [in winning the election] are the places where people feel most cynical about government. The people are mis-appre. . . I think they’re misunderstanding why the demographics in our, in this contest, have broken out as they are. Because everybody just ascribes it to ‘white working-class don’t wann work -- don’t wanna vote for the black guy.’

That’s . . . there were intimations of that in an article in the Sunday New York Times today--kind of implies that it’s sort of a race thing.
Here’s how it is: in a lot of these communities in big industrial states like Ohio and Pennsylvania, people have been beaten down so long, and they feel so betrayed by government, and when they hear a pitch that is premised on not being cynical about government, then a part of them just doesn’t buy it. And when it’s delivered -- it’s true that when it’s delivered by a 46-year-old black man named Barack Obama (laughter), then that adds another layer of skepticism (laughter). . . .

But the truth is, is that, our challenge is to get people persuaded that we can make progress when there’s not evidence of that in their daily lives. You go into some of these small towns in Pennsylvania, and like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing’s replaced them. And they fell through the Clinton administration, and the Bush administration, and each successive administration has said that somehow these communities are gonna regenerate and they have not.

So it’s not surprising them that they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.”

References Borneman, Walter R. The French & Indian War: Deciding the Fate of North America (HarperCollinsPublishers, New York: 2006). Hogeland, William. The Whiskey Rebellion: George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, and the Frontier Rebels Who Challenged America’s Newfound Sovereignty. (Scribner, New York: 2006). McConnell, J.H., great-grandson of George Shannon (notes transcribed by Gary Sherman Shannon and James Ray Shannon from a letter by Aunt Winnie Shannon which was passed down to them), Slaughter, Thomas P. The Whiskey Rebellion: Frontier Epilogue to the American Revolution (Oxford University Press, New York: 1986), p. 65. Tanneyhill, R.H. “George Shannon 1760-1803“ in “Biographical for Hon. Wilson Shannon, Governor of Ohio: 1838-1844.“ History of Belmont and Jefferson Counties. Zacharias, Frances Shannon (granddaughter of William Russell Shannon and Nannie J. Sweatt). Our Side of the Shannons (Frank R. Soares, February 22, 1979), based on interviews with Nannie Shannon Giffen (daughter of William Russell Shannon and Nannie J. Sweatt), Edith Hoag Manley (grand-daughter of William Russell Shannon), and Ruth Wilkins Havrilla (niece, and great grand-daughter of William Russell Shannon).

Monday, May 25, 2009

Children of Divorce

Farmhouse on the Yorkshire dales.
For generations, my ancestors were content to stay put in the East Riding area of Yorkshire in northeastern England. The records show ten generations who lived there post-Viking invasions/migrations that might have brought Norse blood by way of Gotland to mix with the native English tribes.

The people who became the Dressers were probably farmers, fishermen, tradesmen. My family name indicates a trade, for instance, a "dresser" being one who finishes material before it is finally manufactured into shoes, boots, or cloth. A finisher of hides, one who adds the last touches to fabric, one who "dresses" the fabric. Like "cooper," "baker," "chandler," "miller," many early English surnames followed the practice of identifying an individual with his family's trade.

Being a Yorkshire peasant in the middle ages might not have been so bad; the land was moist, green and met by the sea. It's an area that became steeped in the dissenting Protestant traditions that arose after the break-up of the monasteries in the 1500s, evidence that much more than the monasteries were broken as a result of Henry VIII's desire to divorce Catherine of Aragon, his Spanish Catholic wife, in order to marry his new sweetheart, Anne Boleyn.

Henry hadn't intended to start a whole new religion, but his amorous ways had wide-ranging consequences. The winds of Protest-ant theology were blowing across the European continent and making their way to Britain--along with illegal shipments of printed English Bibles. It's hard to imagine now that it was a capital offense to be caught with an English-language Bible during this time.

Henry, a practicing Catholic most of his life (even after turning the church inside-out) had himself designated as the head of the Church of England and confiscated lands held by the Pope. Former landholders, many of them church-bondsmen, were routed and more and more prime English lands were turned over to private hands. Such are the roots of many a great English countryhome or estate.

Would Britain remain Catholic or become Protestant? The changes affected everyone, aggravating tensions with Ireland, Scotland, Wales and English peasants. Eventually my own ancestors would be uprooted from their native land in order to seek religious "freedom," a freedom that was designed to allow them to practice their own version of Protestantism while excluding others. I do not know when they changed from being Catholics to Protestants, just as I do not know when they evolved from their pagan roots into Catholics, but I am certain that both transitions happened and that it caused some stress in the families making the changes.

Henry's divorce from Catherine triggered a couple hundred years' worth of religious and political strife. I can relate to the fallout from this, although when my parents finally divorced (I was about 14), it was a good thing. In my family's case, chaos preceded the divorce and took the form of my father's drunkenness, horrible fights nearing to violence, jailing and expulsion of my father from the house, and my father's infidelity.

Rowley Parish, East Riding, Yorkshire England

Oddly there were fights about what church we would attend, with my father insisting on dragging us across town to the Episcopalian church (church of England in the homeland), and our mother wanting us to attend the local Lutheran or Presbyterian churches (the northern, Scots influence can be felt in her callings). I went to church with whatever friend came from a churchy family, and especially loved the Catholic Mass, remembering attending Latin services when I was very young (vestige of the old religion in me?). What the churches called themselves didn't seem to matter as much as there was peacefulness in most of them.

The disruption in our family, caused by economic distress and my father's alcoholism, affected my siblings and myself in so many complex ways that it was a relief when my mother finalized the paperwork and finally sent my father packing. Divorce isn't the worst thing that happened to us, yet growing up with its stigma was aggravated by the zeitgeist that mythologized the American family in a "Donna Reed/Father Knows Best" post-war era. And, even now, with divorce so prevalent, it is often added to the listing of an individual's flaws when he goes off the rails: "He's from a broken home," as if to explain why something went wrong with him.

Stability and upheaval are two themes in American history; Americans long for home, permanence, property, yet political moodswings and economic roller-coasters have often been at our backs, nipping at us to pick up stakes, move on. A part of me so identifies with England and Scotland, the homelands of my ancestors, where for so many generations they made their lives. It's a relatively recent phenomenon that I am/we are Americans, and I am trying to sort out what is it that evolved into our Americanisms, and what are the vestiges of the old world I may still carry.

The truth is that all Americans are children of divorce, one really big one that split our parent country in two, and the many smaller divisions that occurred in all our countries and lands of origin: we must deal with exile, abandonment, regrouping after becoming refugees, just as we are required to determine what is uniquely American about us and name what is at the heart of our American experience.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Fly Over

Do we ever get used to the experience of flying above the clouds, across this vast continent, thousands of feet above earth, looking down on both its wide-open spaces and the drawn-and-quartered pieces of it? It's hard to fathom the experience our ancestors had crossing it slowly, on the ground.

At age 7 or 8, Elsie Mae Brown, my maternal grandmother, crossed over half the continent with her family. The family had started in Council Bluffs, Iowa, where Elsie Mae was born. Council Bluffs was one of the main jumping-off points for crossing into the American west. It was also the eastern terminus of the Continental Railroad.

Elsie had spent time living in Pretty Prairie, Kansas, where some siblings were born, not far from where the railroad traversed through cattle and wheat-growing country. In the late 1880's the market for wheat crashed. The family moved again.
My mother says she does not remember her mother, Elsie, talking about how she arrived in California; to my knowledge, there is no diary, or record, of how the family emigrated.

The crossing from Kansas to southern California took place around 1888; they may have come by covered wagon, or they may have come by train, but it seems clear Elsie, her mother, Clara McAfee Brown, and siblings were following a trail set out by Thomas Lindsey Brown. [Addendum: At the picnic, an eldest cousin confirmed that Elsie and family crossed to California in a covered wagon.]

Thomas and Clara are buried in a cemetery in Fowler, California, not far from the tombstone of William D. Brown, a Presbyterian minister who helped to establish many Presbyterian chuches across the west, including the one in Fowler. Thomas and Clara were the next generation with other ambitions; Thomas worked in the railroad post office in Council Bluffs where all mail coming from the west and going east and vice versa, had to pass. Thomas tried ranching and wheat-farming, and eventually followed the zeitgeist to California and brought his family forth.

Grape rows in the San Joaquin Valley

Tomorrow, I go to an annual Brown Family gathering held each year in Fowler. When I was a child, the picnic was held in Kearney Park, in Easton, just outside of Fresno. The picnic was larger then, and I remember being confused by all of the criss-crossing relationships, with my mother trying to explain that "this woman is your mother's mother's sister's daughter," and so on. It is still something of a shock to me that I learned my maternal great-grandparents are buried in Fowler, because for most of my life, they and their stories seemed lost in the mists.

Like the followers of Moses out into Sinai's wilderness, like the enslaved Africans and partitioned Native Americans, the impulse toward survival quite often overshadowed everything else. My ancestors' migratory patterns were rooted in the pursuit of improving the material aspects of their liveslife. Yet, my great-great-grandfather's ministry, says that something other than purely economic interests were at stake. How these motivations interweave with the rest of America's story is a fascinating and complex one.

Just when do our ancestors catch their individual breaths and come to grips with so much organic change? My fear is that they never did, they just kept pushing on, pushing on. For economical or political reasons, they had to keep moving: first, from lush Scotland to the Ohio Valley, then to the prairie, and finally to California.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009


UFO Sighting over Ft. Belvoir, Virginia. The Army hospital where I was born.

Every writer--every artist for that matter--must deal with "exposure" and the tensions that can arise when one's own reality seems to step on the reality of another. My interest in excavating my ancestry flies somewhat in the face of my family's rules. These are the very rules of my ethnic ancestors, going way beyond my nuclear family: they are familiar to any one of British/Irish/Scots ancestry, I believe.

Here they are:
- we don't air dirty laundry
- we practice "reserve"
- we keep our secrets to ourselves
- we downplay our misfortunes and broadcast our successes
- failure is unthinkable
- we don't acknowledge the elephants in the room or the skeletons in the closet
- we just don't talk about it here
- if you are hurting, take care of it yourself
- don't bring your problems to me
- buck up and stop whining
- we pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps
- we don't trust authority
- we obey authority.

Many of these became America's dominant paradigms too. And, I want to explore that segue between what I learned in my cultural and family conditioning and what America's lessons were for me as a child of the 1950s and 1960s.

As I befriend individuals from very different ethnic backgrounds, and learn how there are cultural tones to our personalities, I begin to pick at what I think of as the
downside of my inherited "traits." The word itself has that sense of something repeatedly drawn until it becomes a deeper rut. It can work for the good, but it can also inhibit us. Merging with those from other countries, cultures, religions, ethnicities can be liberating. It is the reason America is great, in my opinion, to the extent we are welcoming of this diversity. But as we hold on to one supposedly "true" idea of what America is, of what we are, we sacrifice something very important: spontaneity, freedom to be different and to grow in a new direction.

My ability to turn over rocks, pick at wounds, scratch at the surface is the result of three things: 1) work I have done in the recovery movement and in therapy; 2) my contact with people who have very different cultural backgrounds than the one in which I was raised; and 3) my own family's (particularly my mother's) willingness to welcome individuality, to see the individual rather than cling to stereotpying. While my father, through his illness with alcohol, become ever more rigid, my mother was always able to meet a person face-to-face with warmth, generosity, curiosity, and kindness. Her hospitality to my friends and magnanimous spirit may be residue of Scots-Irish, pioneer openness. Cast into wilderness, unfriendliness won't get you very far. . .

Sharing oneself can be friendly or confessional; each decides how much to let out, let in. It is my responsibility to speak of my
own experience, and leave it to others whether or not they wish to speak at all; the difficulty comes when we share a past.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

What father never knew . . .

The pictures show my father, me (at around age 18 months), and my older brother as we take to a ship while he was working for the Army Corps of Engineers in Europe on one of his military tours; the color photograph features my distant cousin Dave Flack and myself. Dave provided me with most of what I know about the Dressers.

Deep ancestry is what I call our connection with members of those families we did not know as we grew up. They were the relations that were not spoken about, the ones lost to suicide, depression or mental illness, alcoholism, childlessness, or who disppeared for other, perhaps more mysterious reasons. They are also the ones whose names are only a signature on an indentured servitude contract or a slaveholder's bill of sale. Perhaps a deed passed between one hand and another, or a court deposition that tells of some wrongdoing.

That last revelation about my family tree occurred to me when I requested information on a "Lanham" family website asking if anyone knew anything about a Jannie Lanham, born in Washington D.C. in 1884. A number of weeks passed. I received a message from a Robert Lanham of Virginia, a family historian related to Jannie (his aunt, I believe). He was hesitant to tell me what he had discovered about her life and wanted to be sure I was ready to hear it.

Jane Elisha Lanham was one of seven misfortunate children born of Robert Lanham, a Civil War veteran, and Mary Ellen Beach. Robert died young and Mary remarried a man with whom she loved to share the drink. The children were neglected; a neighbor complained; the court intervened and the youngest kids were removed from the home of Mary Ellen. My grandmother is described in the court deposition as being poorly dressed for winter, not attending school, with vermin in her hair. She found an au pair job as an adolescent and through that probably acquired any mothering skills she had.

My father may have known about his own mother's difficult childhood but it was something never spoken of. Nor did the information that my father's ancestors were descended from English Puritans, probably of a craftsman/merchant class, ever come to light. This I learned from Dave Flack, another online cousin I met while researching the tree.

What interests me is the extent to which our lack of knowledge of our roots may be the source of "soul" diseases, the term I use to describe depression (my own cross to bear), alcoholism (which my dad died from), suicidal tendencies, mental illness, lack of joy or ambition about life, or any other spiritual confusion that leads to a kind of malaise. I've always thought that my father was drawn to the false "spirits" he found in Old Grandad's. Unfortunately, he died when I was 21, too early in my own development to have formulated the proper questions, too early in my own self-destructiveness--my use of drugs and alcohol, my promiscuity, my basement-level self-esteem--that had not yet gotten sorted out.

Friday, April 24, 2009

They came in ships . . .

From the time a first ancestor is identified out of the mists, it is the placing him into a culture and era that begins our rootedness, even if it is true that the relation stayed no longer than one generation in any particular place. This is all we have to hold on to, and to the extent that each of us is unique, it is the land and sea surrounding our home that originally make us so. If there is no longer a record or a story that ties us to a place, there is no longer a distinct genealogy. Then, we must turn to the research of geneticists and historians of human migrations. Perhaps even narrowing down our "haplotype" through the new tool of tracing mitochondrial DNA.

My ancestry begins with the record that says my Dresser name comes from Gotland, which doesn't surprise me too much, since the English that I knew as my true ancestors were overwhelmed for many centuries by Vikings, northern seafaring peoples who came from lands now called Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, and other Baltic areas. They came in their ships, looking for land to farm, booty to sell and trade, and women with whom to mate. The Vikings, it is known, got to the North American continent long before the English and Spanish, and they traveled as far south from their homelands to trade with those in the Middle East for their arts and crafts have been found in archaeological digs there. "Russia" itself is named for Vikings, the "red" people, for they were fair and light-haired and they came down Russia's rivers and land byways.

At the time that English record-keeping made note of Viking invasions, when the great sagas recounted the exploits of heroes and monsters, the other strains of my ancestry (those further to the north and west of England, in Scotland and Ireland) relied on the oral tradition. Oral tradition is all well and good, rich in its music and poetry, but it is not reliable for recounting any particular family's story, unless it is of the king or chieftain. Oral tradition holds that the MacAfee name of my maternal grandmother probably referred to the "dark people of peace" who came from Colonsay in the Hebrides of Scotland, possibly from the seals themselves as half-seal/ half-human creatures known as "selkies," but with this we have stepped out of specific genealogy and into ancestral myth. Still, it was beyond odd and chilling when I watched my youngest sister bodysurfing in the Pacific Ocean for hours, playing with seals; dressed in her dark wetsuit, splashing and diving with the crew of seals around her, I wondered about where we might have come from.

The pictures are, at top, Gotland, a small island off the southeastern tip of Sweden; the island of Colonsay, and an image at bottom depicting the selkie.