The Hoarder House and A Little Bit of Oklahoma

Three thousand two hundred eighty four miles and seventeen days–my trusty little brown Prius served me well.  No flats, no wrecks, no tickets, no suicidal deer diving for my bumper.

I sometimes felt like I was a little blue dot on a very red map. Saw quite a few confederate flags, despite never setting foot in the confederacy. Well, Missouri was actually claimed by both the North and the South–even had two sitting governments during the war.  But the rest of the states stood with the Union. Many billboards urged me to find Jesus’s love but hate my president; choose life but buy a gun. Luckily, I didn’t have to talk to any billboards. The people I did talk to were kind and generous, like most people anywhere. We talked about family and local history and how amazing our pioneer ancestors were. Very few of us are as scary, dangerous, or stupid as the media on either side would have us believe. So if the screen you are sitting in front of is making you mad at the world, I highly recommend stepping away from it, getting in your car and driving out to the middle of the country. It’s a big beautiful country and we are lucky to live here.

hoardersReally loved being on the road this long but man was it nice to sleep in my own bed last night!  I was pleased with all my Airbnb stays (even the $25 flop house in Barnesville). All of them except…the Hoarder House in Columbus, Ohio. It was described as a beautiful old house–and it was on the outside.  Stepping into it was a like walking into an episode of Hoarders. My friend Margie would have started hyperventilating. The host had a good heart, offering me tea on the only tiny open spot of the kitchen. She shares the house with a sweet, very hyper and thankfully medicated rescue dog. In my room, between books stacked wall to the ceiling, there was space for a twin bed and a small bedside table. The upper hinge on the bedroom door had pulled out from the frame–so I closed the door very gingerly. The sheets were clean though! That’s something. Cigarette smoke and dirty sheets are deal breakers for me. I left very early in the morning, managing not to wake Rescue Dog from his Valium slumber. I love Airbnb and even this experience would never deter me from booking again. But if you ever plan to book a place in Columbus–call me first!

I’ll finish this set of blog posts by bringing you down to Oklahoma, where my great grandfather and his brothers landed after leaving Kansas as young men around the turn of the century. Although I was only a few miles from the Oklahoma border on this trip, I stopped short because I went there last fall. I flew down to meet a distant relative I learned about through Her name is Norma and she and her husband live in the country outside Ardmore, Oklahoma. Kindest people you can imagine. I didn’t know anything about Norma until she messaged me out of the clear blue sky saying she had a wedding picture of my grandmother’s parents among old family photos. 2014-11-12 09.37.16We worked out our family connection–something like step great granddaughter of my 2nd great aunt…? We spent a few days driving around south central Oklahoma, searching library shelves, pouring over giant ancient deed books in the basement of the county clerk’s office (see photo), and tenderly leafing through crumbling old newspapers. It was great fun and very fruitful. Norma and I still keep in touch and we often share discoveries or places we are stuck in our family searching.

Red River Ranch. OklahomaSo back to William and Emeline and their family. This is an old picture of Red River Ranch–it was taken in western Oklahoma, on the first homestead the Purcells had there. The man with the long white beard is William; Emeline stands next to him. I think my great grandfather, Frank, is on the other side of William; the others are his brothers, his sisters, and his sister’s husband and kids. This was taken right around when Oklahoma became a state in 1907. When you look at this picture–the flat dry land–do you think: “Wow! What a great place to farm! Let’s live here!” Boy, I sure don’t. I am glad they stopped there for a few years though–long enough for my great grandfather to meet my great grandmother, Rockie Webb. Her family was living on a farm nearby. Frank and Rockie weren’t spring chickens: he was 35 and she was 27 when they married.

They promptly set about having four boys: Paul Truman, Coy, Weldon, and my grandfather Frank Lyal (born in 1916).

When my grandfather was quite young the Purcell clan must have decided they’d had it with western Oklahoma and they all moved 118 miles east to Pauls Valley–a beautiful part of the state with rolling hills covered with native grasses, red clay outcrops, honey locusts, white oak and red bud trees. The little town had boomed when the Acheson Topeka and Santa Fe railroad came through in the late 1800s. The local historical society is now housed in the old train depot. When I visited, the historian pulled out a quilt stitched by several ladies in town, including Nell Purcell, my grandfather’s cousin’s wife. I love the idea that this quilt had been waiting nearly 100 years for me to come see it.

Rather than telling you about life on a farm in Oklahoma in the ’20s, I’ll let my grandfather do it.

“Picture a beautiful early spring day, because that is what it was. Each of us boys had a turning plow to fit our age. Paul and Coy had 14-inch plows. Weldon had a 12-inch plow and since I was twelve or thirteen years old dad gave me the 10-inch plow. For you that do not know, those inches are the cutting edge width of dirt the plow will turn over. That morning is very clear today as I type this. We got up as usual at sunup to feed and harness the horses and milk the cows; I do not know how many we had at the time, the most was sixteen, if my memory serves me right. When the feeding was done, we would take the milk to the house and eat a big breakfast of hot biscuits, bacon or ham and eggs, then out to the field. That was the daily routine till we would come in at sundown.

This particular morning we were to plow, as near as I can remember, an 80-acre plot, ½ mile long, ¼ mile wide. Nice level ground. I think Coy started out first. A 14-inch required four horses to pull it. Then Paul started next. After he had gone several yards, Weldon started with his 12-inch plow which required three horses to pull it. At last it was my turn. Already the fragrance of three furrow of fresh-turned earth was beginning to fill the air. As I started, Dad’s plowing instructions were fresh in my mind. We all had been instructed to pick a point up ahead and plow toward it…So that morning what I saw ahead were three brothers plowing furrows I had to follow to plow a straight row. In addition, I saw beautiful picture of three plowmen against the background of an early morning sky with faithful horses pulling their plows so we could plant our crop for the season. I think the reason I remember that picture so well was because that picture was repeated several days in a row before eighty acres were finished. Day after day, the fragrance of fresh turned earth was there. The fun part was to walk barefoot in that soft fresh soil and watch the birds as they circled the field looking for their favorite food. At the end of the day my weary feet still appreciated the soft cool touch of Mother Earth as we finished the last furrow at quitting time.”

I love the imagery in that passage–I can smell the turned soil and feel it between my toes.

My grandparents, and Rockie and Frank stayed in Pauls Valley until early 1930s when the Depression, the Dust Bowl and a series of hardships unmoored them again. They and thousands of other Okies headed for California. But that’s a story for another time.

On this trip I’ve been out “following ghosts,” but my grandfather is very real to me. He died only three years ago. I’ve never been one for regret–certainly not out of lack of opportunity. “Blessed” I guess, with the right configuration of denial, practiced powers of rationalization, and an optimistic outlook, I tend to move on rather than ruminate about things I wish I had done differently. But one regret that gives me a bit of heartache is that I started this project after my grandparents died. It would have been amazing to bring all these long lost bits of their ancestors’ lives to them. Several times, especially after finding a particularly interesting piece of information, I catch myself thinking, “I can’t wait to tell Granddaddy about this.” I imagine sitting next to him in the big swing in their backyard, listening to it squeak as he looked at something I found. He’d smile his big smile and say, “you don’t say!” Then he’d tell me a story.

So many things left unsaid.

Lyal_Windmill_GardenThat’s it from me for a while. Need to sort through my notes and findings, get to writing, and start packing for India. I last saw Nat in July and I’m looking forward to spotting his face among the crowd at the New Delhi airport. May post a page or two here while we’re there. Thanks for reading!



A Columbus Day Missive

Did you read the Little House on the Prairie books? TV show doesn’t count–the books. We did when our girls were maybe 6 and 8–perfect age for them. It was the right age for us too. Both Nat and I were unhappy at our jobs. Our oldest was in second grade and it wasn’t going well. Cuddling up with the girls, reading about Ma and Pa out on the Kansas prairie had us fantasizing about escaping our hectic, fragmented, anxious lives. I remember looking at jobs for psychologists in Montana.  Man, that would have been a trainwreck for everyone.

Mr.EdwardsSanta1Thankfully, inertia prevailed–we stayed in Rochester and worked through all that crap. But every Christmas Eve since then, every single one–before any presents are opened–we read Chapter 19 from Little House On the Prairie: Mr Edwards Meets Santa Claus. In case you haven’t read it, here’s the synopsis. The Ingalls are living a few miles outside of Independence Kansas. It’s Christmas Eve but the Verdigris River is so swollen from rain that Laura fears Santa won’t be able to make it to their house. Ma and Pa send Mary and Laura to bed with low expectations, but early in the morning their friend Mr. Edwards appears at the door, shivering and soaking wet. mrEdwardsSanta2He tells the girls that he met Santa outside a saloon in Independence (!). Being quite fat, Santa could not cross the fast river, but since Mr. Edwards was young and fit, he asked him to bring their gifts. Ma and Pa are overcome with gratitude, “It’s too much Edwards, just too much.” The girls find stockings with a tin cup, a peppermint stick, a cake made of white sugar, and a penny!

It’s a sweet story and I still love it. I even loved squirming at the uncomfortable irony of Laura’s joy over such simple gifts when we were about to dive into our usual Christmas pool of abundance and gluttony.

Why bring this up? Because this week I learned that William and Emeline Purcell, and their three small children once lived about 9 miles from the Ingalls’ little house. I am not kidding. Let’s go back to Illinois to set the stage and I’ll show you what I found in Kansas.

The Civil War has just ended and the young Purcell couple are living in the thriving frontier town of Princeville. William is probably working as a blacksmith but has no land of his own. They have two small daughters, Jennie Isabelle (again after Isabella Dement Purcell–she goes by Bell) and Mary Ellen. The Morrows, Emeline’s brothers and uncles, are starting to leave Illinois for more open frontier in Washington and California. But the big talk in the town is Kansas opening up for settlement–AKA another governmental action to push the Indians off their land.  IndianRemoval

Here is a map that shows what had been happening to Native Americans in the 1830s. Most tribes from the southeastern states had been pushed into “Indian Territory” — what would become Kansas and Oklahoma. Despite these lands being “set aside” by the government, white settlers continued to push their way into Indian Territory and the government regularly played one tribe against the other.

Osage_warriorThe tribe most relevant to my Kansas ancestors are the Osage Nation. The Osage populated southern Kansas and Missouri at least as far back as the 1600s. For about 100 years after that they hunted buffalo, warred with neighboring tribes, and carried on business with French Creole traders. This is a painting from the 1830s of an Osage warrior by George Catlin–the first white man to paint the Plains Indians in their native territory (my dear friend Mark Catlin is a direct descendant of George.)

By the 1860s the Osage territory had been winnowed down to a strip of land along the southern border of Kansas–the Osage Diminished Reserve. Most historians say that by this time the Osage accepted that they would lose all their land to white settlement and they wanted to get on with it. They offered to sell the lands of the Diminished Reserve to the government in 1868, but arguments in Congress delayed the legislation (what? Congress dragging it’s feet while people suffer? Hard to imagine…) Though the Osage were resigned to losing their land, they were angry with the government stalling and angry with the squatters who kept encroaching on their land. Conflict became common and bloody.

Escalating tension through the 1860s did not deter new settlers. Charles Ingalls came with a big wave in 1869. Laura Ingalls Wilder asserts that he thought the land was officially opened for settlement; whether this is true or not (and scholars dispute it), by May 1871 the Ingalls understood differently and left for Wisconsin. There’s been a lot written about Laura Ingalls Wilder’s depiction of their two years on the Osage Diminished Reserve. I recommend “A Study of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie” by Penny Linsenmayer, or–for a particularly harsh analysis–“Little Squatter on the Osage Diminished Reserve” by Francis W. Kaye.

Purcell_Migration_KansasWilliam and Emeline were right in the large wave, leaving Illinois probably sometime during the spring of 1868. It would be a three year, 575 mile journey to their eventual homestead in southern Kansas. Little Mary Ellen was around 8 months old and Bell was 2 1/2. They traveled by covered wagon in a group that at least included William’s aging father, Edward Purcell, his sister Jane and her family (with three children ages 4, 6, and 9). They stopped in Missouri long enough for Jane to have another child, Charles, who would not survive childhood. Accounts of Kansas emigrants during this period describe living out of their wagons for months on end. Families used to town life with schools, churches, and other civilized comforts lived in encampments under fairly crude conditions.

By 1870, they had settled in the small town of Girard, Kansas, on the eastern border between Kansas and Missouri. Here Emeline had her third child, Jim (Uncle Jim who my grandfather remembered well). William and Jane’s husband set up shop as blacksmiths and Edward, now 60, was working there as a horse farrier. This is the 1870 census and the third entry down is Edward Purcell, under him is William and his family–click on the image, squint your eyes, and you might be able to make out their names and occupations.

1870_Census_PurcellTown life must have satisfied Jane and her husband as they stayed in Girard for many years. But William wanted land to farm. Probably in the spring of 1872 he headed south toward Independence, which by then had grown into the good sized town that Laura Ingalls describes in the book. 2015-10-08 14.40.23The US government had finally agreed to buy the Diminished Reserve from the Osage so land surrounding Independence was now for sale. Sadly, the government delayed paying the Osage for several years, resulting in a period of extreme poverty and starvation for the tribe.

I don’t know how William and Emeline felt about how cruelly the Osage were treated, but it’s likely that their view of white settlement was typical for their time. Both had grown up in frontier settlements and probably interacted with members of various tribes on many occasions. We have no old family stories of hostilities or individual acts of aggression (or kindnesses) towards Indians. My grandfather knew many Native American kids and adults growing up in Oklahoma and spoke of them the same way he spoke about anyone else–without romanticizing or demeaning them. Yet, even if William and Emeline always treated Indians kindly, it’s certain that they–like Charles Ingalls–felt that taking over Indian lands was right, a God-given right in fact.

On November 11, 1872 William Purcell purchased one hundred and sixty nine acres of former Osage Diminished Reserve land from the United States Government for $1.25 an acre. This is the land patent.

2015-10-06 17.05.34This piece of land was on the border between Caney Township and Fawn Creek Township, about 20 miles south of Independence, and about 9 miles as the crow flies from the little house that the Ingalls abandoned in May the year before. Looking at the old map of the county–the southern part of Rutland Township is where the Ingalls were–you’ll see Caney and Fawn Creek adjacent to the south.

MontgomeryCo_KS_OldMapWilliam and Emeline probably squatted on the land near Fawn Creek the summer before this deed was drawn up. Perhaps they built a log cabin and laid in supplies for the winter. Maybe William got work as a blacksmith before they had a harvest to support themselves. In the spring they began the hard labor of breaking prairie ground with horse and plow, planting, maybe adding couple pigs, a cow and some chickens to their farm. Harvest then came in the fall, they laid in supplies as the days grew short, survived the winter, and started again in the spring of 1873. William and Emeline were making a life on their farm.

By 1874 their family grew again when Frank was born–my great grandfather. Now they had five children under the age of 10.  The photo below was taken in Caney around this time and shows members of the Osage tribe with settlers and freighters loaded with grain bound for Kansas City.2015-10-07 11.40.54That June of 1874, when my great grandfather was born, worry likely began showing in William’s face as he walked the rows of his field. Early spring rains were followed by long dry days through the summer. As if drought wasn’t bad enough, in late July the grasshoppers came by the millions.

“The insects arrived in swarms so large they blocked out the sun and sounded like a rainstorm. Crops were eaten out of the ground, as well as the wool from live sheep and clothing off people’s backs. Paper, tree bark and even wooden tool handles were devoured. Hoppers were reported to have been several inches deep on the ground and locomotives could not get traction because the insects made the rails too slippery.” (Kansas Historical Society, quote and photo)

Kansas_GrasshopperWilliam and Emeline probably lost their entire harvest that year.  They and their neighbors survived the winter, perhaps with relief aid provided by the government. The 1875 census shows them on the same land, which by now had doubled in value. But it appears that they could not recover from this loss–many new settlers didn’t.  By 1880 William had sold the land and moved to the outskirts of Caney. On the map above, look for the Havana post office–this is near where they were. William’s financial predicament is clear on the 1880 Agricultural Census: he’s farming rented land in return for a share of the profit–sharecropping.

Life as a sharecropper was extraordinarily difficult and precarious. In Victorian America: Transformations in Everyday Life, 1876-1915, Thomas Schlereth says:

“As renters of practically everything, their material world was sparse—usually one-room log or frame homestead, in which the family cooked, ate, and slept…Tenant life also spawned “feast-and-famine” cycles: times of abundance (albeit limited to when the crop came in) and periods of belt-tightening and habitual mobility. Since by tradition, tenant contracts ran for one year only (and tenants had no assurance that their leases would be renewed), tenants’ lives took on an episodic quality, prone to constant uncertainty.”

By 1885 the Purcells were a family of eight. In 1887 the last child born to Emeline, Emerson, died as an infant. When my great grandfather was 19, the Great Panic of 1893 sent the country into the worst economic depression in its history. Frank and his brothers began talking about leaving Kansas. Their father’s dream of farming his own land had failed. Maybe in Oklahoma they could make a go.

2015-10-07 12.45.54 On a bright blue sky day, I drove several miles on a dirt road searching for the piece of land described in William’s deed. The dirt roads in Kansas are white, from sandstone I guess, and great clouds of white dust rose up behind my car. I knew that William and Emeline had driven their wagon along these roads over one hundred years ago, with great white clouds billowing behind them. And horses carrying Osage families kicked up that same dust before them. William and Emeline were part of the epic, romantic Western migration–as brave and determined as any heroes depicted in those stories. But they also became a cog in a terrible machine that was responsible for the suffering and deaths of so many Native Americans. Of course this fact isn’t news to me in an abstract sense. Any of us who descend from European immigrants of this era have ancestors who were also part of this machine. But this project has made my ancestors more concrete, more real, and so too the Osage families who once lived on William’s land.

I stood by my car looking out over the gold, green, and burnt orange grasses, thinking about the two narratives: the brave, determined homesteaders and the displacement and decline of an Indian Nation. It was easy to imagine an Osage encampment in the distance and the Purcell’s little house on the prairie. I tried to hold both in my mind at once.

Grandma Purcell, Lyal, brothersEmeline Purcell surrounded by her grandsons. My grandfather, Lyal, is on the left front.


Defying the Odds in Peoria

2015-10-01 11.53.07“Americans as a people are prone to migrate. From the earliest days at which the settlements scattered on the shores of the Atlantic were able to push their limits one mile up the rivers toward the back country the gradual movement towards the West has appropriated the land step by step until the entire expanse from coast to coast has been brought under the direct control of the race…The census of 1850 shows that of 17,737,000 free inhabitants of the United States at that date over 4,100,000 or twenty three percent had migrated from the state of their birth.”

This observation was made by historian William Pooly in 1906 in his book about the settlement of Illinois from 1830 to 1850. Two lines of my family, the Morrows and the Purcells, fit this description perfectly: they traveled hundreds of miles from the place of their birth to converge along the banks of the Illinois River between 1831 and 1851. Purcell_Morrow_MigrationTracing the migration paths of my ancestors gives me this creepy sense of how unlikely it is that I exist. A different decision here, a chance encounter there, and a whole different world of people come to be. So many potential universes laid out before each person in my past. In fact just yesterday my cousin and I were looking through old photos and found picture of the woman my dad was (rather seriously) dating before my mother caught his gaze. As I looked into her not-my-mother eyes, I wanted to call my mom with a sense of gratitude for her willingness to break up that relationship—Yay Mom!

It’s so tempting to feel special–the one who beat the odds and came into existence. My ancestors, and certainly my grandfather, would see this as divine pre-ordination–God chose me. I see chance: my existence is just a likely or unlikely as any other of the many, many potential offspring that could have come from these unions. It’s only the peculiarly human configuration of grey matter between my ears that makes this one outcome–me–seem important. Though my ancestors and I might disagree on the explanation, I’d like to think the feelings of awe and gratitude are similar. I feel blessed that my number came up on those many rolls of the dice. And in Peoria, the dice were being thrown by my third great grandparents.

By 1850 the Purcells were poised on the edge of change in West Virginia. Edward Purcell had married Isabelle Dement around 1833 and by this time the couple had six children who survived the perils of childhood. In my first post I suggested that Edward Purcell’s move to Illinois might have been motivated by financial and/or legal trouble. In 1844, at the age of 33, Edward was charged with counterfeiting by the state of Virginia. counterfeit_imagesThis conjures up images of a shady character mass producing currency in the basement. It doesn’t appear that he served time, so I suspect he was charged with passing a fake bill or two. This period between the Revolution and the Civil War was the “golden age of counterfeiting.”  There was no standard currency; individual banks would open their doors, print currency, and promptly fail. Stores would maintain large books, updated regularly, with descriptions of fake bills known to be in circulation. In my brief perusal of the Wheeling Intelligencer for 1852 and 1852, there were several warning notices like this one:

“Counterfeit $20 bills on the state bank of Ohio Ripley branch are in circulation. The center vignette depicts a female figure with right arm resting on shield and frame…It will be well to keep a sharp lookout as it is exceedingly well executed.”

The details of Edward’s misdeeds, or alleged misdeeds, are unknown, but the court also stepped in to reconcile his debts in 1850 and 1851. So Edward definitely wasn’t riding the gravy train. People who migrate rarely are. If you are fat and happy, you stay put. Life for farmers in Wheeling had been going down the crapper for several years and as a result they were heading west. The expansion of railroads was flooding the east with cheaper products; local farmers were increasingly priced out of the market. Edwards’ older brothers and one of his sister’s families had already moved to the Peoria area by 1850.  In a small heritage museum in Princeville, Illinois I found this recollection from a family related to the Purcells–the Yates.

“In 1847 they and their families left those rugged hills to find a place where living conditions would be pleasant and the rewards of toil much more satisfactory. Reports said, too, that in the great prairies of the west land was cheap and abundant…They left Wheeling by flat boat, coming via the Ohio. Mississippi and Illinois Rivers to Peoria, then a straggling of one short street along the river bank.”

Traveling-by-flatboat-engraving-by-Alfred-R-WaudThis is an engraving by Alfed Waud from the late 1800’s showing people traveling by flat boat. It’s probably a fairly accurate depiction of what that was like.  Several families in the Purcell’s circle moved to within a few miles of each other between 1847 and 1855.

Around the time of the Purcell’s move west, Isabelle died. She was around 37. Her oldest daughter Jane may have been pregnant when she died–Jane named her daughter Isabelle. I’ve still had no luck finding where Isabelle was buried. I thought maybe she made the trip to Illinois and was buried there but none of the cemetery records carry her name. It appears that the family fragmented after her death. By 1860, my 2nd great grandfather, William, and his youngest sister are living with Jane and her family in Illinois. Two other grown sisters are living nearby, but his father, Edward is mysteriously absent. He doesn’t reappear in the records until 1870 when the family is in Kansas.

William_CivilWarWilliam Dement Purcell, my 2nd great grandfather, grew from a teenager to young adulthood in Illinois. He served in the Union Army for a short period at the end of the war, then married Emaline Morrow, the daughter of a frontiersman. You’ll need to click on this to see his name, but here is his registration for the 86th Regiment for the Illinois Volunteer Army, in 1863. His name is the first one in the last grouping of young men in Princeville, near the bottom.

This post is already longer than I intended, but before I leave Peoria, I want to introduce you to Emaline’s father, James Edward Morrow. James_MorrowHere’s the dude himself–can’t tell if he has smiling eyes or not. I like to think he does, but I’m sure he would sit me down and give me a stern talking to in a heartbeat. His family left South Carolina when he was a boy, so he spent most of his growing up years in a Daniel Boone-esque life on the frontier in Kentucky and Indiana. As a young man he settled down on the border between Akron and Princeville, just north of Peoria. On my way out of town I drove over the Spoon River and remembered that he and his wife first settled near there but packed up after suffering attacks by Black Hawk Indians. The settlers in Princeville had a more amicable relationship with Indians, so the Morrows decided to stay there. They probably didn’t travel by flat boat, but by canastota wagon–the prairie schooner.  In that same heritage museum I came across descriptions of massive examples of these wagons–really makes you think of the Winnebagos lumbering down the highway, except no TV and microwave.

James Morrow and his siblings were part of the founding of this town in the 1830s. His sister Elizabeth married Daniel Prince, who the town is named after.  So in contrast to the Purcells, it was easy to find information about them.  Here is a map that shows the Morrows land–it’s not a great picture so you’ll need to click on it to get a good look.  Their property is in the upper left quadrant (BTW: if you notice E. Purcell on this map, it’s not my Edward, unfortunately. Not sure how related but he’s tricked me on a couple occasions in my search). Akron Township_MorrowsA short biography about James Morrow written in 1874 said, “He has always been a farmer, and has never rode on the cars nor seen a steam engine. To do right has been his rule of life.”  Sounds like an upright guy.

Wrapping up here, I want to tell you about my three night Airbnb stay in Peoria. I stayed in a small apartment with a very sweet and generous couple in their late 20’s: Celia and Subrat. She is Chinese, from northern China near the North Korean border, and he is from Indore, India. They met on the first day of a Master’s program in Mechanical Engineering at SUNY Stonybrook, and promptly fell in love. Now, two years later, they both have jobs working for Caterpillar in Peoria. I asked them if they plan to marry. Being a little familiar with Indian and Chinese cultures I know that (a) this is not a rude question, and (b) this is a very complicated situation for them. 2015-10-01 21.54.04

A 28 year old single woman in China would be written off as too old to ever find a partner. Celia figures that when she tells her mother about Subrat, her mother will be so happy that Celia found someone to marry that she won’t object too much. Subrat has told his family and they are distraught and insist that he break off the relationship. He comes from a Jain family (a small ancient religious sect that tends to keep itself closed off culturally–somewhat similar to Orthodox Jewish communities here). He is the oldest son and his parents cannot accept this rejection of their culture and tradition. But Subrat and Celia are adorably in love and plan to marry. I can’t help thinking of their future children, tracing a map to see the thousands of miles their parents traveled to meet in Long Island. Maybe they will marvel at how unlikely it is that they exist–how they too beat the long odds.

After a weekend break in Omaha with cousins, I will be following William and Emaline to Kansas. Hoping to find Edward’s grave–he’s got to be buried somewhere there. And hoping to learn more about how this generation of Purcells live on the Kansas prairie.


Genealogy Crack

2015-09-26 17.56.46I love this photo. This building is across the street from the rooming house I’ve been staying for the past three nights. Its an old farm house that used to be out in the countryside surrounding the small town of Barnesville Ohio. As the sprawl inched down Main Street–Rite aid, Advanced AutoParts, Sav-A-Lot–the house became part of it. I found it on Airbnb–$24/night! It had ok reviews (“clean” was the key attribute I required), but anyone opting for $24/night needs to have expectations that are in accordance. This is the house below. Looks nice, 2015-09-26 18.12.51right? I’m sure it was a hundred years ago–it looks best from this distance. The door frames are so warped that none of the interior doors close. So in order to offer guests a suggestion of privacy, the bedroom and bathroom doors have those chain locks that you usually use on an exterior door to open it part way and peek out. But hey—$24/night! I’m guessing that my housemates found this place on Craig’s List–don’t seem in the usual Airbnb demographic. Three young men, probably in their mid-thirties, blue collar workers, here for a few months to work on the pipeline. I met a couple of them–polite but not too chatty. One brought his young wife. They’ve been my reliable alarm clock: thin walls, squeaky bedsprings and young passion welcome me to my day at 6:30am. In addition to these courtesy wake up calls, I have a clean room with an easy chair and TV tray, a relatively clean shared bathroom, and use of a kitchen (that is mostly piled with housemates’ dirty dishes and a few mouse droppings–so I use the fridge). No cigarette smoke. For $24/night, its perfect.

wv-map2The dead people I’m trying to see on this leg of my trip are George Purcell and his family. He’s my 4th great grandfather, born in 1778 in Pennsylvania and had a farm on the steep hills north and east of Wheeling, right near the PA border. If you take a look at the map and find Wheeling WV, its up in that tiny sticky uppy part at the top of the state. Standing in Wheeling, if you stretch your arms wide, you can almost touch the borders of Ohio and Pennsylvania. Economic distress is hard to miss here now, but back in the early 1800 when George first bought land here, Wheeling was booming. Steamships and packet boats crowded the Ohio river with goods and passengers. Construction on the National Road, the first federally constructed highway, reached Wheeling in 1818. George’s land went right along side of it. West Virginia was western Virginia at this time (and until the Civil War).

George is the farthest back that I’ve been able to confidently trace on the Purcell line. is helpful but has lots of family connections without any supporting evidence. Most family trees created by individual members on will link Edward Purcell back to a family in the tidewaters of Virginia–a family that first arrived in the colonies in the early to mid 1600s. There is no documentation supporting this (believe me I have searched) and once you get to know these people, it makes no sense. The early Virginia colonists were English Anglicans. Edward and his father are Presbyterian; George’s wife was born in Ireland, probably from a family from his town in Ulster. This part of western PA and a western Virginia were heavily settled by Presbyterian Ulster Scots (the “Scotch Irish”) in the mid-1700s. So these are very different people than those who colonized Virginia in the 1600s. Beside that, I found George’s will in which he names his son Edward and all of Edward’s siblings.

Goerge_Will_excerptThere are more interesting things in this will than I can report here (teaser for the book), but there is one bit that is a fascinating window into who George was and the time in which he lived. George died in 1855 and he makes a bequest of $50 to the Colonization Society. This was six years before the start of the Civil War. Slavery was much less common in western Virginia than in the rest of the state. While there certainly was strong morally founded abolitionist sentiment among some people in the Wheeling area, it was other geographic and cultural differences that primarily set them on the pro-Union side of the fence. The land in western VA was mountainous and not suitable for plantation crops. The people came largely from generations of tenant farmers in Ireland and Scotland. They had no affinity for the fancy pants, rich English-descended plantation owners in Eastern VA.

In the years leading up to the Civil War, the American Colonization Society was established to help freed black slaves emigrate to their “homeland.” A colony in Liberia Africa was founded and donations supported transportation by ship and resources to get the colony going. There was some support for this among freed blacks at the time. The motivations for whites was complicated and evolved over time. Some whites were motivated from a compassionate place: freed black would always be discriminated against here and would have a better opportunity to thrive in Africa. Others, particularly slave owners, saw freed blacks living among them as a threat to their livelihood–they would give their slaves “ideas.” We don’t know exactly how George Purcell felts about the issue. But he would have read this article from the Wheeling Intelligencer on 25 November, 1852 with great interest:

For Liberia: The Baltimore American reports that the good ship Linda Stewart sailed for Liberia yesterday. She carried out 9 colored emigrants from this city and is to take on board 170 more at Norfolk, all on account of the American Colonization Society, and destined for Monrovia, Liberia. Besides emigrants, the Linda Stewart carried out as cabin passengers the Reverend Bishop Scott, Reverend W. Horn, Miss Reynolds of Methodist Episcopal Church, and Miss Preckman of Protestant Episcopal Missionary Society. The Brig, another fine vessel, will leave this port for Liberia on Wednesday or Thursday next. She will carry some forty emigrants from this state together with 5 cabin passengers from the Baptist Missionary Society. She will touch at all colonies.”

Even assuming all humanitarian motivations, the colonization of Liberia was mostly a failure that cost many lives. Most voyages were under-funded and poorly supplied, as was the colony itself. It’s an interesting point in time though, poised on the edge of the Civil War. Here is a link to a Wikipedia article if you want to know more. American Colonization Society. Beyond the issue itself, seeing this bequest for $50 tells me something about George. We can’t know his thoughts and feelings about slavery, but we know he was engaged in social and political affairs of the time. He served as an Elections Commissioner in Wheeling, so he was an active member of the community. I can see his ghost a bit more clearly.

One last bit. The big payoffs for taking trips like this is finding things in a county library that will never get scanned and put online. Case in point–I couldn’t figure out where George and others in his family were buried. Nothing in the usual sources found them. With only a couplehours left in the library, I came upon a volume entitled “West Alexander Cemetery Records.” At this point, I knew George’s farm was near there so pulled it off the shelf and opened the index. There they were! It was coming on 5pm and the rain had stopped so I headed out the old National Road from Wheeling to West Alexander PA, the very road that George would have traveled (though better paved). Its a 20 mile trek and the road cuts a narrow path through the mountains, with small towns made up of worn down trailers and clapboard houses. On my way I noticed a sign for Castleman Run–that’s where George’s farm was. I saw Atkinson’s Point Road–George’s daughter Sarah married into the Atkinson’s family; they had a farm nearby. I detoured off the road and headed up the mountain.

The sun was getting lower–didn’t want to get lost out in the nowhere’s of West Virginia at night, so back in the car to the cemetery. Just a stone’s throw from the WV-PA border is West Alexander and the cemetery was right there. Cemetery map in hand, I walked up the path to an older section. And there they were. George, his wife Elizabeth, his brother or maybe uncle James, three of his daughters and one son. Down the road is the West Alexander Presbyterian Church they attended (I’m sure the building is new).

Finding these graves and a few other precious tidbits made the trip worthwhile. But these little things are crack for genealogists–its never enough. One person I was really hoping to find was Isabella. Isabella Dement is my third great grandmother–she married George’s son Edward. She died here sometime between 1850 and 1853. I thought she might be buried with the other Purcells at West Alexander, but she wasn’t there. Why? I also checked her family cemetery–nope. Where is she? Her husband, Edward, left for Illinois shortly after her death. Why didn’t he have her buried with his family?

Time’s up here–off to follow Edward’s path to Peoria County Illinois.


Following Ghosts for Three Thousand Miles

Family_Hx_Road_TripIts 5:27am. As soon as I post this I will climb into Dingleberry, my trusty brown 2007 Prius, point her westward, and take off into the heartland of America. Brilliant leaves, pumpkins, fields of golden wheat, and the deep blue skies of autumn await me.

Heading out on an open ended three thousand mile solo road trip feels incredibly exciting. I’m imagining myself starring in a great road trip movie–shot in Wes Anderson colors with a cool indie music score and witty honest dialog. The screenplay pitch for this movie would go something like:  middle aged genealogy-obsessed lady heads off on a road trip following her ancestors’ westward migration. In the car she interrogates their ghosts, trying to solve their mysteries and bring their stories to life. She meets odd but endearing characters in small rural towns and learns deep life lessons about family and journeys and what America is all about.

Meh.  Unless we could get David Lynch involved…

I have become one of those women who is obsessed with tracing family history–pouring over census documents and old wills, visiting abandoned cemeteries. Its hard to explain the fascination. A book about my mother’s side of the family that was originally going to take a few months has grown into a monster project that already passed its second birthday. This is my third trip following the trail left by long dead people who are connected to me in a pretty abstract way. But piecing together the shards of their lives is strangely compelling.

My ancestors were a restless bunch. So far I’ve traced them through the Virginia, the Carolinas, Tennessee, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma and Texas. On this trip they are taking me to West Virginia, Illinois, Kansas, and possibly back through Pennsylvania. Throw in stops in Omaha, Columbus, maybe Terre Haute along the way–because why not? I’ll be in the neighborhood

Here are a few of questions I’m hoping to answer:

  • Was my 3rd great grandfather, Edward Purcell, a bit of a ne’er do well or just unwise with his money? Court records list him as a defendant in a charge of counterfeiting, and he had multiple debts for bad land deals. Did he take his family to Illinois because he’d burned his bridges in Wheeling?
  • Edward’s mother appears to have been born in Ireland. Who was she? His father, George, was born in PA in 1788–who were his parents? Were they Scotch Irish (I think so), and not English as I first thought. When did they come to the US?
  • Was my 2nd great grandmother, Emaline, a missionary in India? This would have been in the latter part of the 1800s. It seems crazy, but my grandfather mentions it and it appears single women were going to India as early as 1860–so it could be true. Church records or old newspapers in Princeville Illinois might help. Imagine traveling to India in the 1860s.

So I’m resurrecting the blog again and hope some of you might find it a worthy distraction–especially some of my relatives who have probably lost faith that I will ever finish this project. I’ll fill you in on my discoveries, introduce you to some of my ghosts, and post lots of pictures of where I am.

Think I’m ready–my cooler’s packed, 32 hours of The Outlander audiobook is loaded on my iPad, and a kind and distractible friend gifted me a few Adderal for the long hauls.  Quiet on the set, places everyone…cue the soundtrack music….

See you on the road!