Monday, June 30, 2014

Rain, Food And Survival

These days we are so far removed from where our food comes from that rain can seem more of a nuisance than the life blood that it is. For our ancestors, it was a different story. Have you ever really considered just how dependent on the weather our ancestors were for their very survival? What they produced is more than likely in direct proportion to getting the right amount of rain at the right time? Too much, too little or not at the right time, rainfall was crucial for allowing families to produce the food they needed for their own consumption, for sale to neighbors to earn money for other necessities or to feed their animals.

Many people probably had a small (or even large) garden plot that could be watered, if necessary by pumping water from the well and transporting it in buckets. But when the farm in question was tens of acres or more in size, that was simply not feasible. And if you have ever closely examined an agricultural schedule for one of your families you'll see why. As an example, here is what my ggg-grandfather's farm produced in 1879, according to the 1880 agricultural census.

Michael Flynn, 1880, Washtenaw county, 40 acres
25 improved acres, 2 acres permanent pasture/orchard, 1 acre of woodland, 6 acres of mown grass lands, 12 acres unimproved
Hay: 6 tons produced
Horses: 2, 1 other cattle, 1 calf dropped
Milk cows: 1 animal, 100 lbs butter produced
Sheep: 2 animals, 2 fleeces produced (8 lbs)
Poultry: 20 birds, 80 dozen eggs produced
Indian corn: 5 acres planted, 200 bushels of indian corn produced
Wheat: 11 acres planted, 160 bushels of wheat produced
Irish potatoes: 1/2 acre planted, 40 bushels of potatoes produced

Although we don't know what or how much was grown in a vegetable garden, the production of this small farm makes clear that more than just food for the people was at stake due when bad weather struck. Without enough hay, your cows, oxen or horses may not survive the winter. With no oxen, how will you plow your fields? Without your dairy cow there won't be fresh milk, butter or cheese. If you want to see what a large farm (of 178 acres) produced, and therefore what they had to lose if rainfall was suboptimal, look at the bottom of this post.  It is interesting to note (interesting for us, not so much for the farmer) that on the larger farm 10 of the 113 sheep died due to "stress of weather."

All of our farming ancestors, which admittedly means most of them, must have been scanning the skies on a daily basis, particularly during the growing season. Does that wind mean an impending storm? Do those clouds hold rain? Will there be enough?

We have a small garden and I always keep informal track of when it last rained and approximately how much. Unlike my ancestors, I am fortunate. If it doesn't rain enough I can drag about 150 feet of hose down to the garden and spend an hour or so watering our meager crops, but our ancestors didn't have that luxury. In the absence of rain it would be time to gather up all of the buckets, prime the pump, fill the buckets from the well and lug them to the garden while trying not to spill a precious drop. My family doesn't depend upon our garden the way our ancestors did. I can always go to the grocery store to buy what I need, but if money was scarce for our forebears what was their recourse?

So, the next time it rains on your picnic or if the clouds burst when you're grilling on the 4th of July, just remember that that precious, glorious water is ultimately where all of our food comes from. Put down that spatula, put on a rain hat and go out in the rain and do a little happy dance. I'm sure through all of the years, our ancestors must have done so at least once.

Abner Brown, 1880, Cass County, 178 acres
120 acres tilled, 2 permanent meadows/pastures/forest, 46 woodland
Grass lands: mown 15, not mown 40
Hay: 10 tons produced
Horses: 3
Milk cows: 3 animals, 600 lbs. butter produced
Other cows: 10 animals, 3 calves dropped, 2 calves purchased, 5 sold living
Sheep: 113 animals, 54 lambs dropped, 1 lamb purchased, 113 fleeces of 672 lbs
Sheep deaths: 1 sheep slaughtered, 1 died of disease, 10 died of stress of weather
Swine: 2
Poultry: 23 birds, 150 dozen eggs produced
Indian corn: 10 acres planted, 500 bushels produced
Wheat: 35 acres planted, 920 bushels produced
Flax seed: 16 tons flax straw produced
Irish potatoes: 0.5 acres planted, 60 bushels produced
Apple orchards: 2 acres, 100 bearing trees, 150 bushels produced
Wood cut: 20 cords

Now, if only I could get to add the second page of the agricultural census for my Michigan people for 1850, 1860 and 1870! How else will I ever know how many bushels of potatoes they grew.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Climax/Scotts Newspapers Digitized by KPL

As with any family history resource, it may be limited or relate to a small area, but if it contains information about your ancestors it can be a goldmine. If you have relatives who lived in the Climax or Scotts area of Kalamazoo county I have some good news for you. The Kalamazoo Public Library has digitized three newspapers that are now searchable on their website. They are:

Scotts Cereal 1905-1906
Climax Cereal 1900-1912
Climax Crescent 1912-2012

Yes, you read that right; the Climax Crescent images go through 2012. So, if you are trying to track down living relatives, you have a very good chance of finding them if they live in Climax. If your family lived in Scotts, don't be dismayed that that paper covers only a short period. As it is near Climax you'll likely find information about your people in the Climax paper. In fact, The Climax Crescent actually has the subtitle: “The only newspaper that thoroughly covers the territory of Climax and Scotts.”

While I only have a few distant relatives who lived in the Scotts area, I found a brief reference to the Clemens family reunion of 1918 at Indian Lake in the Climax paper. I failed to find any other description of it in these papers, but armed with the date, I can scroll through the microfilm for the Vicksburg Commercial the next time I visit the WMU Archives. With any luck I'll find something interesting on my family. Maybe you can find something on your family as well.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Ousting The Loyalist Preacher

Let me start by saying that this post has absolutely nothing to do with Kalamazoo. While working to source my Goff/Goffe line (that ended up in Cass county) I spent some time browsing the New Hampshire Town Records at Family Search. In searching for vital records in Bedford around the time of the American Revolution, I happened upon the case of John Houston. In the first entry I noticed, the town had decided to withhold his salary until he came to his sense. I was intrigued.

It seems that as of April 12, 1775 Bedford had no problem with the Rev. John Houston. At the annual town meeting on this day they voted to choose someone to collect the rates (taxes) to pay for his preaching for the coming year. [1]

Then, after the shot heard round the world, everything changed. 

Wash drawing by Francois Godefroy of the Battle of Lexington from Journee de Lexington.  Held by the Library of Congress. 

April 20, 1775:
The town received an urgent letter (grammar and spelling preserved):
“To the select men of Bedford – Gentlemen
This moment the meloncholy Intelligence has been Received of Hostilities being Commenced between ye troops Under the Command of General Gage and our Brethen of the Massachusetts Bay.
The Importance of our Exerting ourselves at this Critical Moment has caused the Provincial Committee to meet at Exeter and you are Requested instantly to Choose and hasten forward there a Delegate or Delegates to Join the Committee and aid them In Consulting Measures for our safty. In great hast I am by order of the Committee your Humble Servant. J. Wentworth” [2]

Note: The Battles of Lexington and Concord were fought on April 19th, 1775

May 2, 1775:
The town of Bedford raised the matter “Relating to the Rev'd. John Houston in thoss troublesome times as we apprehend his praying and preaching to be Calculated to Intimidate the minds of his hearers and to weaken their hands in defence of their Just Rights and Liberties as there seems a plan to be Laid by Parliment to destroy both.” [3]

I find it ironic that the warrant to inform all of the freeholders of a town meeting in which the selectmen set forth the item about John Houston's preaching was recorded “in his Majesty's Name” and after the orders of business had been listed, the selectmen of the town indicated the above items were given under their “hands and seal at Bedford this 2nd day of May in the 15th year of his Majesty's Reign Anno Domini 1775.” [3] Not surprisingly, this was the last time the meeting entries were recorded in this manner.

May 16, 1775:
“Voted that what Mr. John Houston give in is not Satisfactory to this Body.
Voted that the Meeting House doors be Shut against Mr. John Houston until the_ he Comes to a Sence of his Duty and behave himself to the Satisfaction of the town and that he Shall have no Salary from the town until he behaves himself as above.” [4]

June 15, 1775:
“Whereas we find that the Rev. Mr. John Houston after a great deal of Tenderness and pains taken with him both in publick and in privat toward him Relating to his Speeches frequently made both in Publick and private against the Rights and Priviliges of America and his Vindicating the King and Parliment their Present proceeding against the Americans and having not been able hitherto to bring him to a Sense of his Error and he has thereby Rendered him Self Despised to people in general and to us in particular and that he has Endeavoured to Intimadate us against maintening the Just Rights of america therefore we think it not our Duty as men or Christians to have him Preach any longer with us as our Minister. Therefore voted that he (viz) the Rev. Mr. John Houston preach no more in Bedford until the last day of March Next and that he have thirty Six Sabath days more to his own use and Dispossal (viz) from the 16th of May last to the last day of March Next More than the nine Sabath days Voted to His own use and Dispossal at our last March meeting and that the Town be freed from paying him anything for the Said thirty Six Sabath days.” [5]
The vote was unanimous. [5]

September 19, 1775
The town voted to treat with John Houston and to apply to the Presbytery to get him dismissed and to see if Mr. Houston himself would also petition the Presbytery asking to be dismissed. [6]

March 27, 1776:
“The town took in to Consideration Mr. John Houston Conduct as being Inimical to this Country for which he was tried by the Commitees of three Neighbouri-- towns and found Guilty as also a former Vote of this town Setting him aside from preaching to us as our Minister on the Same account till he made proper acknowledgment for his faults and Returned to his Duty – Wherefore Voted Unanimously to allow the Said Mr. John Houston the whole of his time to himself for this year for the above Reason and the town free from his Charge on Said account.” [7]

March 27, 1778:
The town appointed a committee to “treat with the Presbytery” or to create their own to put Mr. Houston on trial and see if they will dismiss him. [8]

March 8, 1779:
“To see if the town will vote to defray the cost that has already arisen by the selectmen and commettee of safty of going to Exeter against Mr. John Houston's taking the Oath of Fidelity.” [9] The town voted to pay some of these costs. [10]

May 1, 1780:
“Voted no to pay Capt. Samll [Samuel] Patton the money that he disbursted when the committees mett concerning Mr. John Houston when it was thought he was inical to the country as mentioned in the third article in the warrant.” [11]

I don't know how the case ultimately ended, or even if it did. It had already dragged on for five years and frankly, as I had found what I was looking for on my Goffe family, I stopped paging through the records to chase a man I care nothing about. The time I spend on genealogy is precious and I would rather use it to cross something off my family history to-do list. I did, however, want to share what I did find on John Houston because while it is only telling us about a few little towns in New Hampshire, this story makes it quite clear how this little settlement in the woods felt when it was time to choose sides in the American Revolution.

  1. "New Hampshire, Town Clerk, Vital and Town Records, 1636-1947," digital images, FamilySearch ( accessed 14 Jun 2014), Hillsborough > Bedford > Town records 1770-1794 vol 3 > image 72, page 133.
  2. "New Hampshire, . . . 1636-1947," FamilySearch, image 73, page 135.
  3. "New Hampshire, . . . 1636-1947," FamilySearch, image 74, page 136.
  4. "New Hampshire, . . . 1636-1947," FamilySearch, image 75, page 138.
  5. "New Hampshire, . . . 1636-1947," FamilySearch, image 76-77, page 141-142.
  6. "New Hampshire, . . . 1636-1947," FamilySearch, image 79, page 144.
  7. "New Hampshire, . . . 1636-1947," FamilySearch, image 783-84, page 153-154.
  8. "New Hampshire, . . . 1636-1947," FamilySearch, image 107, page 200.
  9. "New Hampshire, . . . 1636-1947," FamilySearch, image 123, page 232.
  10. "New Hampshire, . . . 1636-1947," FamilySearch, image 125, page 236.
  11. "New Hampshire, . . . 1636-1947," FamilySearch, image 150, page 286.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

What Did You Inherit Besides The Obvious?

When we think about what we inherited from our ancestors we might immediately think of our eye or hair color. Family medical conditions and their impact on the current generation (like I found to explain my cousin's vein problem in Medical History Revelation) might also spring to mind. But have you thought about other traits or affinities (musical talent, mechanical inclination or dance skills, for example)? While we don't “know” how much of these sorts of abilities can be ascribed to genetics it's not unreasonable to believe there may be some contribution, especially when these things have not been taught.

Here are a few examples from my family.

Ever since I've lived away from home I've had houseplants. I now enjoy gardening, especially my flower garden that keeps expanding every year. My grandmother did as well. There were plants and terrariums all over her house, she mixed her own dirt and pored over seed catalogs with her sister. When she was alive and active I don't remember participating in her hobby so I didn't pick it up that way. My grandma's father (who died when my grandma was only five) loved planting flowers and his father (who died long before my grandma was born) worked as a gardener for a number of years. My mom jokes about going to the garden center with her mom decades ago and now in recent years with me.

My cousin really enjoys mechanics. While in the military and now as a civilian he repairs vehicle engines. No one else in the current generation has this propensity, but our grandfather worked for Fuller Manufacturing and actually made some of his own parts for his Fiat.  Also our gg-grandfather's uncle was a carriage maker and served with the 1st Michigan Engineers and Mechanics during the Civil War. When my cousin learned of this he felt more connected to the family than he had before.

I discovered in graduate school that I love ballroom dancing and am pretty good at it. I actually ran the school's ballroom dancing club for several years. It just so happens that my grandfather taught ballroom dancing (we still have some of the records he used to play for classes) and participated in square dancing for many years. Though I did actually dance with him once, as a child it meant nothing to me.

It's possible that these are merely coincidences, but even if they are I think it is a useful exercise to think about our similarities with our relatives. After all, anything that makes us think more about our ancestors' lives is a good thing because I believe it helps us to view them as real people who had the same emotions as we do.