Thomas Dodson’s Estate Inventory, A Tallow Sort of Fellow, 52 Ancestors #153

We met Thomas Dodson in his original article, and we know that he was born in 1681 and died in 1740. What we didn’t have then, and have since acquired, is Thomas’s estate inventory.

On April 6, 1741, the estate inventory was submitted to the Richmond County, Virginia court for Thomas Dodson who had died on November 20th of the previous year, and whose will was probated on February 6th, 1740/41.

Estate inventories are very often overlooked resources, with just the date of the inventory being recorded. Many books that transcribe records don’t include the details, but those details are so very important. Don’t presume that the records don’t exist because they weren’t transcribed because that’s exactly what happened with Thomas Dodson.

I was fortunate that the original records remain in Richmond County and the clerk’s office was willing to make me a copy. I didn’t know that there was a detailed inventory until the envelope arrived.  I was doing the happy dance by the mailbox in the snow, once again.  Not everything is online, and some of the best records aren’t! You’ll never know if you don’t ask.

Why Estates?

When a person dies, the items that they own must be filed with the court. In some locations, the only record is that the inventory was filed, and in others, or at other times in history, the entire estate inventory is copied into the record book.

In some locations, the estate sale, including who the items were subsequently sold to, and how much they paid, are also included, which helps immensely to determine relatives based on who attended the estate sale, and to track important items forward in time. For example, the family Bible.

At this time in history, and throughout the entire colonial era and beyond, when a man died, everything owned by the couple was considered to be owned by the man. The very few exceptions are when something was willed or deeded specifically to the female in her own stead, generally after she was married, and prohibiting her husband was having influence or control over the item. That rarely happened, so when a man married a woman, everything that was previously hers became his, including anything she actually owned from a previous marriage. He could not sell land without the wife releasing her dower right, meaning her right to 30% of the value when he died – but otherwise, he could do anything he pleased with whatever he wanted.

The good side of this situation is that when a man died, his estate inventory literally included everything except his actual land. Therefore, the woman’s spinning wheel, loom, pots and pans…everything…was listed, except for her clothes.

This provides us with a view of the entire family at that point in time. Rather than skimming over the estate, take time to really become one with it. By this, I mean, analyze it, look things up, and research. What did an ox cart or a pewter plate look like in 1740?

You can learn information about your ancestor through their estate inventory that you could never learn any other way – unless you’re lucky enough that they kept a journal.  Raise your hand if your ancestors kept a journal?  Mine neither!

I utilize Google extensively, as well as Wikipedia. I enter the item I’m searching for, with the word “antique” included. This often gives me sites on e-bay and antique dealers. So for stillyard I would enter “stillyard antique 1700s.” In the case of colonial Virginia, I often add the word colonial, or try different word combinations in different order. By the time I’m done, I discovered a lot about my ancestor’s world just from the items he owned. I found a lot more than is included here, but when I’m writing for my blog, I have to worry about copyright.  When you’re just researching for yourself, you don’t have to worry about that.

After you’re finished, you can then figure out a lot more by what kinds of items were missing. Let’s do this for Thomas Dodson, and you’ll see exactly what I mean.

Thomas Dodson’s Estate Inventory

Thomas Dodson’s estate wasn’t particularly large and includes the following bulleted items with their estimated values in pounds, shillings and pence. Spelling preserved as it was in the original.  You can click to enlarge any image.

I don’t know what some of the items are, so any help is appreciated.

  • 4 cows and 4 yearlings – 4.8.0
  • 3 heifers and 1 stear – 1.10.0
  • 8 cows and young stear – 4.0.0
  • 1 cow and calfe 0.10.0

I noticed that commas were not used in the inventory, as there should be a comma between oxen and cart in the item below.

  • 1 yoke of oxen cart and wheels – 4.15.0

Teams of oxen were rarely split as they learned to pull together and were most effective as a team. In this case, they were sold with their cart and wheels and were a relatively high value item. You can read about oxen, carts and wagons in this Colonial Williamsburg article, complete with pictures.

  • 32 hoggs and 8 pigs – 4.0.0
  • 14 sheep and 3 lambs – 2.0.0

Slavery

I don’t even know what to say about the next inventory entries. I try very hard to simply review my ancestors lives and attempt to understand them in the context of the timeframe in which they lived, from their perspective – but the vile institution of slavery rails against everything I believe in. I realize that perspectives were much different then, and I realize that had the slaves not been sold into slavery, they would probably have died at the hands of their tribal captors in Africa, but nothing can justify the institution of slavery – especially not in hindsight. I can only hope that Thomas was a kind and gentle man and that he had a caring relationship with the humans over whose lives he exercised complete control in every way possible.

  • 1 negroe man named Harry – 22.0.0
  • 1 old negroe woman named Sue – 12.0.0
  • 1 negroe woman named Bess – 23.0.0
  • 1 negroe child named Joe – 7.0.0
  • 1 negroe lad named Dick – 22.0.0
  • 1 negroe girl named Sarah – 16.0.0
  • 1 negroe girl named Nan – 14.0.0

In 1726, the North Farnham parish register shows Thomas Dodson as a slave-holder, but it doesn’t say whether Thomas Dodson is Jr. or Sr. Slave births were not recorded by the name of the slave, but by the master to whom the slaves belonged.

We know based on a 1733 deed entry that Thomas’s son, Thomas Dodson Jr. was to own at least one slave “as soon as any comes to Virginia to be sold.”

There simply weren’t enough slaves, or indentured servants, to go around for the labor-intensive tobacco crops.

The chart above is compliments of the Jamestown/Yorktown Foundation educational material.

Slaves were heavily utilized in the production of tobacco on the Virginia plantations, as shown by this advertisement showing tobacco workers in Virginia.

It wasn’t until Thomas Dodson’s will that we knew for certain that he too was involved in the slave trade. His will sets forth negroes named Sarah, Harry, Bess, Joe, Sue, Dick and Nan and Thomas’s children to whom the slaves were to descend.  I was relieved not to find my ancestor, George, among those receiving slaves.

From the time Thomas wrote his will on February 17, 1739/40 and when his estate inventory was probated 14 months later, the negroes he owned had not changed. I chafe at even using the word “owned” in context of humans.

Bess and Joe were to descend to the same heir, suggesting perhaps that Joe was Bess’s child. Bess’s value suggests that she is of an age to have additional children, which makes me wonder if Harry is Bess’s husband since their value is almost equal and they live on the same plantation. Clearly both are in the prime of their lives. Let’s say they are age 30, which means they would have been born about 1710.

Sue and Dick were also supposed to go together. In the inventory, Sue is referred to as an old woman and Dick as a lad, where he is referred to as a boy in the will. His inventory value suggests he is older and capable of hard and productive field work almost equal to that of an adult.

I’m left wondering what would have been considered “old” at that time.

Perhaps the history of slavery in Virginia would lend some perspective here. I’d wager, in general terms, someone 60 or older would have been considered old.

In 1741, a 60 year old person would have been born in about 1681.

In 1650, there were only about 300 Africans living in Virginia. Originally imported Africans were treated as indentured servants. Some Africans did complete an indenture, were freed, purchased land themselves and later, purchased slaves as well.

By 1640, at least some Africans were slaves and by 1660 slavery had become part of the culture, at least in practice if not in law. In 1662, a Virginia suit ruled that children would carry the status of their mother, regardless of their race, paternity or if they were of mixed heritage. The 1660s begin to show signs that Africans were clearly slaves. For example, one African servant who attempted to escape with white servants could not have his indenture time extended, as the white indentured servants did, so he was punished by branding. The only reason an indenture could not have been extended is if the man could never have become free.

If the slave Sue was considered old and was born about 1680, she could have been born into slavery in Virginia, or she could have been born in Africa and imported as either a child or adult.

By the end of the 1600s, Africans were being imported in quantity for sale by the Dutch and English, in particular, and by 1750, it is estimated that there were 300,000 African slaves in Virginia, although many were not first generation. We know that in 1733, there was more demand for slaves than there were slaves available and there was a waiting list to purchase slaves.

More of Thomas’s Estate

  • 1 feather bed and furniture – 5.0.0
  • 1 feather bed and furniture – 3.0.0
  • 1 feather bed and furniture – 6.0.0
  • 1 feather bed and furniture – 5.0.0
  • 1 feather bed and furniture – 2.10.0

We don’t know anything about Thomas Dodson’s plantation, including whether or not his slaves lived in the house with the family or whether they had their own quarters.

A document produced by Colonial Jamestown tells us that small planters typically had 5 slaves or less, including children, and indicated that slaves on small farms often slept in the kitchens or an outbuilding or sometimes in small cabins near the farmer’s house. This document shows some reproduction photos of slavery in colonial Virginia, including slave quarters. Thomas Dodson owned 7 slaves, of which 4 were children, one was old and 2 were adults. Maybe he was slightly larger than a small farmer, but if so, not much.

One thing is for sure, the feather beds and furniture were not for the slaves.

Does this means that Thomas Dodson’s house had 5 bedrooms? That’s unlikely for the timeframe, especially given that children of that time were expected to share bedrooms, and often, to share one bedroom. And sometimes, that bedroom was the attic loft.

However, the fact remains that Thomas Dodson owned 5 feather beds and furniture and they had to fit someplace. Poor people slept on straw beds on the floor.

Thomas Dodson clearly wasn’t poor.

  • 2 chists (chests) table and forum – 1.0.0

A chest in this context probably means a chest of drawers, but I don’t know what forum would be.

  • 1 chist trunk – 0.8.0

A chest in this context probably means a chest like a trunk, probably wooden.

  • Cash – 6.8.2

Given that almost all of the transactions in Northern Neck Virginia were paid using tobacco, it’s amazing that Thomas actually had this much cash on hand.

Here’s the second half of the first page of Thomas’s estate.

  • 2 mares and 1 horse – 8.15.0
  • 1 cubbord – 1.0.0
  • 1 old rugg – 0.2.6

In colonial Virginia, rugs were not used on floors, but hung on walls or used on beds for warmth. Bed rugs, according to the “History of Quilts,” in the 1700s, were of a low grade wool and manufactured in England. In 1755, Samuel Johnson described them as “course, nappy coverlets used for mean beds.” They may have been knotted shag, although no examples remain today.

  • 6 qll? (pounds?) Best puter – 8.9.0

There is no way for us to know if the best pewter and the other pewter is a function of quality, decoration, or wear, or maybe some combination. The pewter plate above, for sale by an antique dealer, is from the 1700s and actually has scratches on the surface from usage.  Lead was originally used in the production of pewter.

  • 3 yll? Of puter – 0.17.0
  • 1 old oval table – 1.0.0
  • 9 old chairs – 0.9.0

Given that there is no other table, this had to be the kitchen table and chairs.  Thomas Dodson had 9 children, so the family had 11 in total.  No spare chairs, that’s for sure.

  • 1 large Bible – 0.15.0

Oh, what I wouldn’t give for this Bible. I’m guessing that this Bible may have originally belonged to Thomas’s father, Charles Dodson. Thomas couldn’t read, but his father could. It would not be unlikely that the Bible was given to Thomas by his father, or by his older brother, Charles at or before his death in 1716, if father Charles had left the Bible to son Charles.

The Bible was probably oversized and leather bound as was the custom with Bibles of the time. It was also worth as much as some of the pewter and more than the 9 old chairs, not quite as much as the oval table, but exactly as much as a pair of cart wheels with the parts to finish.

I have to wonder, if Thomas could not read, and we know he signed his name with a “T” mark, what did he do with a Bible? Perhaps it was sentimental in nature.

  • A parcel of tools – 0.18.0
  • 1 chist 2 small cask – 0.7.0

Wooden boxes during that time were called caskets. Given the chest context above, I suspect that’s the kind of cask being referenced. However, the 13 lid of cask below probably references lids to tobacco casks, which were used to pack full of tobacco and roll the tobacco down the road, termed rolling roads, to the docks where the casks would be loaded for England.

  • 13 lid of cask – 2.12.0

A tobacco cask was called a hogshead, shown below and was often quite large, almost 3 feet wide holding 1000 pounds of tobacco.

  • 1 still and tub – 6.0.0

There’s no doubt about the meaning of a still. Alcohol at that time was believed to be medicinal as well as recreational. You can read a fun article by Colonial Williamsburg here about drinking and distilling in colonial America. George Washington’s distillery at Mount Vernon is wonderfully preserved, although certainly much larger and involved than a single still.

People regularly drank beer, because typhoid was passed in water contaminated with fecal matter. Beer was much safer, and was often consumed in place of water. Oh, and by the way, cider at the time was alcoholic too, so don’t think your ancestor drinking “syder” was a teetotaler. He wasn’t..

All things considered, it’s amazing that fetal alcohol syndrome wasn’t rampant with the estimate that people of that time drank roughly 8 ounces of alcohol daily. Maybe women didn’t consume as much alcohol as men.

This photo below is the copper pot from a still displayed in the Museum of Appalachia.

And the still itself.

The still was obviously considered quite valuable, as much so as a feather bed and furniture or the smallest slave child.

  • 2 raw hides and side of leather – 0.9.0

I wonder if these hides were from domestic animals or from wild animals. My suspicion is that they were domestic. Nothing was wasted. A hide would have been untanned and leather was ready for working.

  • 2 pr cart wheels part to finish – 0.15.0
  • 1 pr spoon moulds grasp (or prasp or trays) and pinchers – 0.8.0

I looked for spoon molds and found molds for spoons. I doubt that is what was meant. Anyone have any ideas?  There are no candle molds in the inventory, but spoon molds aren’t candle molds, are they?

  • 7 old books – 0.75.0

I looked at this two or three times. Seven old books were worth more than a gun? And maybe the reason they were old books is because they had belonged to Thomas’s father, given that Thomas was not literate. Did he keep his father’s books for sentimental reasons? Why did a man that couldn’t read own old books?  I’d love to know the titles.

  • 1 gun – 0.10.0

Would the gun have been a pistol? If so, this tells us distinctly that Thomas wasn’t hunting. I suspect by the time that the Northern Neck had been settled for 50 years or more, by the time Thomas was born, the wildlife was pretty well hunted to extinction in that region.

This flintlock pistol was from circa 1700-1730.

  • 1 box iron heaters and spit – 0.8.0

I’m not sure what iron heaters were at the time, but a spit would have been used to turn meat in the fireplace (or in an outside kitchen) while cooking. You can see photos of lots of colonial American furniture here, as well as fireplace apparatus.

  • 2 pair tongs and candle sticks 2 pottacks 2 narrow ? – 0.19.6

I wish they had said what the candlesticks were made of. Obviously, some kind of metal but they were not included with the pewter. Perhaps brass?

  • 1 cross cut saw wrost? and file – 0.10.0

A cross-cut saw is designed to cut across the grain of wood and is usually quite heavy duty. This example is a two man saw with a springboard.

By Eugene Zelenko – Own work, GFDL, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8452686

  • 4 broad hoes and 2 narrow do (ditto, meaning hoes) 1 frying pan 13 old hoes 2 old axes – 0.16.0

An ax from the 1700s. Men forge fond alliances with their long-time favorite tools.

A story from the farm where I grew up was about the old ax. There are only 2 parts to an ax, the handle and the blade. At some point, the handle got replaced, and at another point, the blade got replaced, but it’s still considered and referred to as the same “old ax” even though neither of the original ax parts remain.

  • 1 womans saddle and bridle 1 old saddle pistols holsters and bridle – 1.0.0

I notice that there is one less saddle than horses in the inventory.  In colonial times, horses were not used in the fields.  Oxen were.

At that time, women rode sidesaddle, with the pommel being located to the left of the saddle instead of in the center.  This would have been Thomas’s wife’s saddle and probably also used by his daughters from time to time.

I do wonder if it was the woman’s saddle that had the pistol holsters, or if this just happened to be listed together. All sorts of thoughts flew through my head.

This article by Colonial Williamsburg shows a saddle pistol holster at the bottom, along with saddles and bridles from The Saddler’s Shop.

And this fellow, being the original gun collector, apparently, sports several holsters as this year’s new fashion look on the front of Pirates Illustrated:)

  • 1 pair hand irons 1 frying pan 4 roap hooks 8 ½ brass 1 lavie? Pam (pan?) – 0.18.9

I have absolutely no idea what a lavie? Pan might be, but I know what a frying pan is!

This item, below, found at an antique shop and now sold is a plantation size frying pan. I swear, it’s large enough to make paella for everyone, although paella wouldn’t have been on the menu in early Virginia.

I had presumed that a frying pan would be cast iron, but obviously, I was wrong.

  • 2 tin pans kittle and lanthorn 127 lb? pott iron – 18.6

I’m thinking this probably was not a tea kettle.

Lanterns were the only form of lighting other than candles. Many lanterns were designed to be carried outside and were sometimes hung outside. Lanterns enclosed the flame to reduce the risk of fire.

The second page of Thomas’s estate begins, below.

  • 1 basting ladle 1 iron Do (ditto) and flesh forks pr stillyards 1350 nails – 1.0.6

A stillyard is a weighing and balancing device. This picture actually shows a stillyard from Pompei, but they changed very little over the years.

Nails were individually hand forged on plantations by blacksmiths. Each nail, at this time, was square headed and nails were valuable commodities. There is no evidence of blacksmith tools, so Thomas would have purchased or traded for these nails. I wonder if he was planning to build something.

This photo is not from Thomas Dodson’s property, but it’s from a restored Virginia property built around the same time, using square nails and construction probably similar to that found in Thomas Dodson’s home.

  • 2 punch bowls 1 earthen dish 2 pieces earthen ware – 0.12.0

I wonder if a punchbowl suggests entertaining.

  • 2 tubs 3 pails 1 piggin 6 trays 1 moal tubb – 0.12.0

A piggin is a small pail with the handle on the side used for measuring grain.

These items all look to be for maintaining livestock

  • 2 old sefters? 1 old rundlet 1 old dripping pan 2 meal bags 1 leather wallet – 5.0

This leather wallet is from the 1700s. When open, it contains pockets much like wallets today.

A rundlet is a small barrel which may contain from 3 to 20 gallons. As a measure for wine, it often contains 18.5 gallons.

  • 1 grinding stone and some triflets 12 lb? wool 1.5 lb? yard 1.5 lb? cotton – 0.13.6

A grinding stone would have been something used on the farm, like a grinding wheel, or something closer to the Native American grindstone which consisted of a smaller stone to be used with the hand and a larger stone that the smaller stones crushed or pounded corn or grain against.

A triflet is another name for trinket or trifling item.  I sure would like to know what those triflets were.

  • Looking glass 1 slate a parcel knives and forks – 0.6.0

A looking glass, another term for mirror, was most definitely a luxury item, but it’s the only luxury item in Thomas’s estate. We don’t know if this was a handheld item or a larger wall-mounted mirror.

I sure would like to know how many knives and forks were in that parcel. Often estates had fewer silverware pieces than people, which makes me wonder at the mealtime protocol.

Does a slate infer education of children, perhaps? I believe, but am not sure, that George Dodson, my ancestor who was the son of Thomas could write.

  • Old spinning wheel 1 old shoot – 0.3.0

Spinning wheels were essential to colonial households. Everything had to be spun into thread or yarn before it would be woven or made into something else. You can read an article about weaving, spinning and dyeing at Colonial Williamsburg, here.

I don’t know what a “shoot” is.  Any ideas?

  • 10 lb? taoller (tallow?) 6 bottles 2 dunking glasses – 0.4.8

Does anyone know what a dunking glass is?

Women made candles of tallow using cotton or linen wicks. However, tallow candles were odiferous, given that they were made from rendered animal fat, and not odiferous in a good way. I’m surprised that there are no candle molds given that he has tallow, although wicks could also be dipped in liquid tallow to form candles. However, this methodology was generally for those too poor for candle molds, and Thomas’s doesn’t seem poor.

Wealthier people could purchase candles made of beeswax. Apparently Thomas Dodson was a tallow sort of fellow.

  • 10 cups and salt seller – 0.2.8

A salt seller, today termed a salt cellar, is quite close to my heart. I’ve been infatuated with salt cellars since I was young and have a small collection today. Salt cellars are items of tablewear used to hold and dispense salt. In the 1800s, each individual person had a cellar set at their place beside a pepper shaker, but earlier, everyone shared one cellar, dipping salt with a small spoon or pinching with their fingers the amount of salt they wanted. Family sizes cellars were maybe 2 inches across, with personal cellars being an inch or so. We don’t really know what this “seller” was made of, but since it is listed separately from the pewter and with the cups, I’d wager it was glass or china and not silver or metal. Salt is corrosive, so glass was a much more utilitarian device. This beautiful English salt cellar is from about the 1720s.

  • Old broad ax 1 iron wedge 1 goudge – 0.3.0

A gouge is a type of woodworking chisel, shown below, being utilized to make a dovetail joint.

By Aerolin55 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8266918

Contemporary gouges of different shapes and sizes and a wooden mallet used to strike the gouges.

Thomas’s inventory was dated April 4th, and signed and recorded by the court on April 6th, 1741.

Charles Dodson, John Hightower and William Everett were the appraisers.

The Charles Dodson listed would not have been Thomas’s son, Charles, as heirs were never appraisers. Thomas’s brother, Charles was deceased already, so the Charles Dodson in question was Thomas’s nephew, Charles Dodson.

Tobacco

By now, you’re probably wondering where the entry for tobacco was on Thomas Dodson’s inventory.

On August 3rd, 1741, apparently Thomas Dodson’s tobacco crop had been picked and appraised at a value of 3,986 pounds and was further registered with the court.

The most interesting information is that we now know about how much tobacco Thomas’s plantation produced in a year. This tobacco crop had to support the entire household for the entire year.

If one adult male could work about 3 acres of tobacco, let’s say that 2 children could work the same as one adult. We know that Thomas Dodson had 3 adult or nearly adult slaves and 3 slave children, plus one old woman slave. Let’s say that was equivalent to 4 or 5 adults, we know then that Thomas had 12 or 15 acres of tobacco under cultivation. If we divide 3986 pounds of tobacco by 4 people, roughly 1000 pounds of tobacco was produced by each adult. If we divide 3,986 by 5, then about 800 pounds of tobacco produced per person, or about 266 pounds per acre under cultivation.

Of course, we don’t know if Thomas Dodson’s youngest sons were also working in the fields. I would wager than any male living at home was expected to do just that, so Thomas’s two youngest unmarried sons may have also been working the crops. A third son was reported to be blind.

What’s Missing?

Notice there is no entry for corn on Thomas’s inventory, nor was there an additional inventory filed, at least not that made it into the record book and was transcribed.

Corn, hay and grains would have been required to overwinter cows, pigs, sheep and horses. While some cows and pigs would be slaughtered each fall, farmers couldn’t slaughter all of them or there would be none left to reproduce for the following year. Furthermore, horses were extremely valuable and utmost care would be taken of the horses.

Speaking of horses, there weren’t many, and there was no buggy or wagon – which is kind of odd considering this was a plantation.

How did the women get to town or to court, or is this one of the reasons why we seldom see their names in court records? Men rode horses to court and there were no wagons or buggies? There was, however, a woman’s saddle in the inventory. Almost every time a female releases her dower rights in the Richmond County records during this timeframe, she appoints a male power of attorney to represent her in court. Perhaps this tidbit shines additional light on why.

There were no trade tools, such a carpenter’s tools, blacksmith’s tools or cobbler’s tools. This tells me that Thomas had to trade for all of those items and services. His only commodity to trade, other than livestock and perhaps corn, although there was none listed in his inventory, was tobacco.

There were no weaving looms, so cloth would have to be purchased.

There was no table other than the old oval table and no chairs other than 9 old ones.

There were no couches or other furniture that would suggest any sort of aristocracy or that Thomas was anything more than a general farmer in today’s vernacular.

Growing up on a farm, the farmer was always at risk; from insects, from weather, from equipment breaking down, from the markets crashing. Never, ever was the farmer not at risk and never, ever did he not worry incessantly about the crops.

Cost of Goods in Colonial Virginia

Thomas had available cash, meaning sterling. It’s difficult to understand how much items cost, so let’s take a look at the pricing for standard items that was set by the Richmond County court on March 6, 1727.

  • One gallon good syder (cider) – 12 pence or 10 pounds tobacco
  • One quart of punch made with good sugar and lime juice one third rum – 12 pence of 10 pounds tobacco
  • One quart of Madeira Wine – 2 shillings or 20 pounds tobacco
  • One gallon of French Brandy – 14 pence of 14 pounds tobacco
  • One quart of French Brandy Punch made with white sugar – 2 shillings or 20 pounds tobacco
  • One quart of French Clarret – 3 shillings or 30 pounds tobacco
  • One good dyet (diet) – 1 shilling or 10 pounds tobacco
  • Pasturage for a horse – 24 hours 6 pence or 5 pounds tobacco
  • One night’s lodging – 6 pence or 5 pounds tobacco
  • One gallon Indian corne – 7 and one half shillings or 6 pounds tobacco
  • One gallon rum – 8 shillings or 80 pounds tobacco
  • One quart bottle of English beer – 12 pence or 10 pounds tobacco

It seems most of these items had to do with alcohol, but that’s OK, because we know our colonial ancestors consumed a lot. And look, now we have a recipe for two kinds of punch that were likely in that punch bowl in Thomas’s inventory.

I equalized the sterling currently of the time and then calculated how much Thomas Dodson had at his death.

A pence was equal to roughly a pound of tobacco, according to the court order, so 2,402 pence would have been equal to about 2400 pounds of tobacco. Therefore, it appears that Thomas had a little more than one half of a year’s worth of cash on hand, assuming that 3.986 pounds of tobacco was a year’s income.

Extrapolating from that, it looks like it took about 10 pounds sterling for Thomas Dodson to run the plantation for a year, and feed everyone, assuming the 3,986 pounds of tobacco was a representative year.

What We’ve Learned

Based on Thomas’s estate inventory, it appears that he wasn’t poor, but he certainly wasn’t rich, considering that he didn’t own any luxury items other than a looking glass.  He didn’t own a buggy or wagon or even beeswax candles. He had one gun and fewer saddles than horses. He didn’t own enough chairs for his entire family to sit at the table at once, and there is no bench listed in the estate.  There is only one table and no couches or anything else suggestive of anything beyond a relatively spartan farmer lifestyle other than 5 feather beds.

The family story was that the Dodsons of Richmond County were wealthy plantation owners.  Maybe not so much – at least not Thomas. Thomas’s wealth, sadly, was in the value of his slaves which were valued at 116 pounds as compared with approximately 94 pounds for the rest of his estate, less the tobacco crop, which of course could not have been produced with only the labor of family members. It was in the best interests of a small farmer to treat his slaves and indentured servants well.  I hope Thomas did.

I think I’ve milked every iota of information out of Thomas’s estate records by this point. If you can think of something I didn’t, I’d welcome your input.

It’s amazing what can be discovered by systematically and carefully analyzing your ancestor’s estate inventory, especially in conjunction with Google search to see similar items of that date and time, and understanding the history and customs of the time and place where your ancestor lived.

Do you have some estate inventories that you could look at again? Hope you didn’t have anything else planned today!

Sadowski WWII Scrapbooks Salvaged From Trash Heap, 52 Ancestors #149

In the 2015 Memorial Day article, Frank Sadowski, My Almost Father, I shared the story of the man my mother was engaged to before his untimely death in WWII, killed in action on April 19, 1945.

Frank Sadowski

I thought when I finished that article, and hit the publish button, Frank’s story was complete. After all, Frank was killed 70 years earlier, now almost 72 years ago.

But Frank’s story wasn’t yet over. In fact, in many ways, that was a new beginning.

Chapter 2

Exactly a month later, Frank’s nephew, Curtis, found me in a moment of spontaneous serendipity when on a whim he typed Frank’s name into Google and discovered my article.

A month after that, in July 2015, I met Curtis and his wife, Janet, half way between where we live and gave Curtis the original photos of Frank and Frank’s father, Curtis’s grandfather. The family photos had all disappeared, so Curtis was extremely grateful for those two, shown above and below.

Frank Sadowski and father

During the visit with Curtis, I also returned Frank’s class ring to the Sadowski family – the ring my mother had cherished her entire life. Certainly not a decision I reached without a lot of soul-searching.

Frank's ring in box

With mother gone, the ring would have faced a lonely dead end in my family, especially after I join mother on the other side. Frank’s ring belonged with the Sadowski’s…in particular…one special person – and I was on a journey to make that happen.

Now this sounds all matter-of-fact, dry and boring today, but let me assure you, it was anything but. In fact, I cried my way across Indiana that hot July day in 2015. Not only was I about to return Frank’s ring, 70 years later, but I was also “driving through my life,” places I hadn’t visited in years. Where Mom last lived, the farm where my brother, John, lived, past the restaurants where we all met and shared meals on Sunday after church. I passed near where Mom and John both died and are buried and drove through the Indiana of both my and Mom’s childhood – past tractors and corn fields, inhaling the smell of Indiana summertime – all of which brought intense memories rushing back. Every landmark brought fresh tears. All of those things, plus the errand I was on combined into a huge emotional swirley to become a bleary-eyed tornado. I certainly didn’t anticipate any of that. I turned on the radio to divert my mind…only to hear songs that reminded me of…yep…mother and life in Indiana.

Word to the wise – never listen to country music if you’re already crying. It doesn’t help a bit, but you can at least cry with the radio blaring and sing along with the sobbing songs.

Emotional avalanche or not, that trip was destined to be.

At Christmas 2015, when Bert, Curtis’s son was home on leave, Frank’s ring went to Bert who is today serving in Kuwait with a medical unit in the Army. That’s when I published the article, Frank’s Ring Goes Home.

When Bert put that ring on his finger, I felt closure. I knew the ring was where Mom and Frank would have both wanted it to be, protecting Bert, with a future in the Sadowski family.

I thought the Sadowski book was closed for sure then, but it wasn’t.

Chapter 3

A week ago, I received another one of those very unexpected messages on my blog. The kind that makes you blink to be sure you’ve seen what you thought you saw. You read it a second and then a third time, then sit in utter shock for a few minutes, trying to decide if it’s for real. The Sadowski’s seem to produce this kind of unexpected phenomenon.

Joan Mikol, who shall forevermore be referred to as “the angel,” was walking her dog a dozen years or so ago, in Chicago, when she spotted some scrapbooks in the trash. It looked like a home was being cleaned out and there were bags and bags of trash waiting for the trash truck, but one of the bags had popped open and scrapbooks were peeking out.

Curious, Joan stopped and took a look. She saw what appeared to be old letters, and then looking closer, noticed that they were from WWII.  Joan couldn’t leave them in the trash. Having lost a family member in that war, Joan gathered them up and took them home.

Then, Joan read the letters, one by one. She sobbed. Her husband couldn’t read them.

Joan didn’t quite know what to do with the scrapbooks, so her sister took them to California for 5 or 6 years and for awhile, considered writing a book. She didn’t, and once again, the scrapbooks came back to Illinois. Thankfully!

Joan contacted a museum in Washington DC who was hesitant to accept them and encouraged her to try to find the family. They suggested she type Frank’s name into a search engine – which is exactly what Joan did and found my article. Next, Joan contacted me.  You can click to enlarge Joan’s message, below.

scrapbook-e-mail

As you’ve probably guessed already, in a very kind and loving gesture, Joan returned the scrapbooks to the Sadowski family.

scrapbook-joan

This is both a beautiful and a heartwrenching story, and I’d like to share it with you.

But before this most recent chapter unfolds, let’s step back in time some 70 years and take a look at how the scrapbooks became lost in the first place.

The Aftermath

Frank’s death was devastating for the Sadowski family, a loss they collectively and individually never recovered from. According to Curtis, it was like someone extinguished a flame and the light never came back on.

When Curtis and I were discussing how Frank’s death dramatically affected so many lives, because in an unmistakable way, Frank’s death affected me too – Curtis quite succinctly said, “We’ve all grown up in the shadow of the same man.”

The three Sadowski children were very close in age, with Frank having been born in 1921, Margie in 1922 and Bobbie in 1924.

Frank’s mother, Harriett, dreamed that all 3 of her children would marry and all live in the Sadowski home together, raising their families under one roof. Not only was that not to be, but two of the Sadowski children never had children and the only one to remain at home was Margie who cared for her parents.

After Frank’s death, the Sadowski family tried to rebuild their lives, but their world was clearly divided into two halves, as was my mother’s. Before Frank’s death, and after. Harriett blamed Frank’s father for encouraging Frank to enlist. Harriett didn’t want either of her sons to serve. She had visited a fortune teller before the war who told her that two sons would serve, but only one would come home. Frank’s father probably blamed himself. At one point after Frank’s death, his parents nearly divorced.

Frank’s brother, Edmund Robert Sadowski, known affectionately as Bobbie, was also serving in the military at the time that Frank was killed and experienced what we today know as survivor guilt. Frank’s father, Dr. Frank Sadowski Sr., a general practice physician, begged Bobbie to come home, sending him letters filled with myriad reasons why he, medically, shouldn’t be serving and encouraging him to seek a medical discharge.

Bobbie finished his tour and eventually did come home, much to the relief of his parents and sister, Margaret Rita Sadowski, known as Margie.

Mother met Margie about 1942 or 1943 when they were both dancing with the Dorothy Hild Dancers at the Edgewater Beach Hotel in Chicago, then a swanky upscale lakefront property where featured acts like Bing Crosby performed. The dancers opened for those acts, and when less famous names weren’t on the marquee, their dance programs were the entertainment.

Dorothy Hild Dancers

Bobbie came home the war, married in the early 1950s and started a family. Margie never had children, but that wasn’t the life she had planned.

On December 10, 1952, Margie obtained a marriage license and had a civil marriage ceremony, but never the Catholic wedding her husband promised. In fact, before the all-important church wedding could occur, he abandoned Margie and then, when she divorced the cad, the Catholic Church excommunicated her, so Margie lost both, plus her dreams. Margie did not do well with any of this and spent time “hospitalized” out of state as she tried to recover. At that time, this type of medical event was termed a “nervous breakdown” and both the breakdown and the “failed” secret marriage followed by divorce and excommunication were colored by shame and embarrassment, to be hidden away and never discussed, ever.

One of the ways that Margie dealt with the losses in her life was by volunteering at the St. Mary of Nazareth hospital where her father treated patients as a physician.

scrapbook-margie-1957

In 1956 Margie was a featured speaker for the annual luncheon and in 1957, she received a special award for more than 1000 hours of volunteer work through the women’s auxiliary. Looking at the photos above, with Margie at right, you can see that this was truly a dress up and wear gloves social event. Margie was truly a beautiful woman, inside and out.

Despite the fact that Margie, for the most part, never “worked” outside the home, she had a degree from Northwestern University in Chicago.  In the 1941 Steinmetz High School Yearbook, she is quoted as saying she wanted to dance professionally and obtain a music degree. Margie accomplished both goals. She played the piano and had a beautiful voice, in addition to dancing. Margie’s photo from the 1941 yearbook is shown below.

scrapbook-margaret-1941-yearbook

Margie lived in the family home, caring for her aging parents and with Frank’s ever present photo. Curtis tells that Frank’s mother placed his photograph dead center on top of the grand piano in the living room and that Frank’s eyes followed you everyplace you went in the room, the silent sentinel watching everything, always, never resting.

On June 18, 1971, Frank’s mother, Harriett died after a long illness.

scrapbook-harriett-1971

I’m sure that Margie and her father struggled after Harriett’s death. Harriet had been an invalid for years, and Margie had probably taken over household duties years before. By this time, Margie was just shy of 50 years old and Dr. Frank was 83 and still practicing medicine.

Margie’s life would change dramatically in the not too distant future.

Murder

Just when you think this story couldn’t possibly get any sadder, it does.

scrapbook-frank-murder

Published Dec. 6, 1971, Chicago Tribune

Dr. Sadowski practiced at a time when doctors dispensed their own prescriptions. Furthermore, doctors still made house calls with their infamous black bags – something doctor Sadowski continued to do, often not returning home until 9 or 10 at night after a full day seeing patients in his office.  He would then smoke a cigar and have a beer with a raw egg before turning in.

scrapbook-doctor-bag

By Sandrine Z – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0

Everyone knew the local doctors, and when the doctor arrived at your house carrying his black bag, the entire neighborhood knew someone was “too sick” to go to the doctor’s office. Often, doctors of that generation made house calls until they retired or died, but the next generation didn’t, of course.

I recall when I was growing up that you never went to a pharmacy – in fact – there weren’t pharmacies. No need. The doctor had everything you needed and you left the doctor’s office with a small while envelope, about 2 by 3 inches, if not smaller, with instructions for how to take the medication written on the outside with the medicine on the inside.

Apparently, others knew that too. According to the family, drug seekers broke into Dr. Sadowski’s office when he was alone completing paperwork, demanded drugs and beat the good doctor when he refused their demands. At 83, Dr. Sadowski, a former wrestler, was no slouch and could still take his sons arm-wrestling. He put up a good fight, but was outnumbered. Did they simply land a lucky punch?  We’ll never know, but that beating eventually proved fatal.

Dr. Sadowski didn’t die right away. He lingered for a couple months in the hospital, finally having a stroke that took him. By that point, it was probably a blessing. He was severely injured, more so than the articled indicated.  And in case you’re wondering, two men were tried for murder but not convicted. It’s difficult for the prosecution when the victim who is the only one who can positively identify the perpetrators dies. The defense argued, of course, that it wasn’t their clients who beat the doctor, and that the beating didn’t kill the doctor, the stroke did – and that the stroke was unrelated to the beating. That was before the days of DNA evidence, of course.  The trial might have an entirely different outcome today.

The family, who attended the trial daily, said that when the judge dismissed the charges he said, “Well, he was an old man anyway.”  They found that comment both incredibly inhumane as well as unbelievable.

scrapbook-frank-sr-obit

Published Feb. 7, 1972, Chicago Tribune

During the time that Margie’s father was in the hospital, she met a man named Ray Stehl whose family member was also in the hospital and also died. After Margie’s father died, she married Ray within months. She also inherited the Sadowski family home.

scrapbook-estate-sale

For some reason, the estate auction wasn’t held for another 6 years, in September of 1978.  While the property itself was apparently included in the sale, the home was not sold.

The Memory Keeper

It was Margie that lovingly assembled the scrap books.

scrapbook-franks-letter

Each letter was carefully centered and its envelope exactly centered on the facing page or above the letter, if there was space.

scrapbook-envelope

I’d wager she read those letters over and over again. Maybe they were her link to sanity, or comfort when she had none other. These scrapbooks were Margie’s way of memorializing Frank’s life.

Frank wrote letters home to his parents and to Margie as well. She kept all of those letters, mounting them in the scrapbook, plus included other family memorabilia like her grandfather’s naturalization papers.

Frank Sr. wrote letters to son Bobbie when he was in the service, and Bobbie brought those letters home. Margie included them in the scrapbooks too.

It’s easy to tell what Margie felt was important by what she included in the scrapbooks.

Frank’s personal effects were never returned after his death, including any letters he had in his possession. It took Frank’s father 4 years of constant fighting to have Frank’s body returned. I can’t help but wonder if the body shipped home was actually Frank’s, but it really doesn’t matter now and it didn’t matter then if it brought the family comfort.

Talk about an open wound. I hope the family had some semblance of closure when they finally buried Frank and had a funeral in 1949.

The family never forgot and never stopped grieving. I don’t believe they ever healed.

In 1973, Margie placed a memorial in the newspaper on Frank’s death date, April 19th – 28 years after he died.

scrapbook-1973-memorial

Later that same year, she memorialized her parents’ 54th wedding anniversary.

scrapbook-1973-anniversary

And Frank’s birthday in 1974.

scrapbook-1974-birthday

Her father in 1975.

scrapbook-1975-memorial

Her mother in 1981.

scrapbook-1981-memorial

Margie continued to place memorials for Frank and her parents. In a sense, this is the social equivalent of posting to your Facebook page, except newspaper memorials weren’t free and required advance planning and thought.

In 1996, Bobbie passed away, having blessed Frank and Harriett with grandchildren and great-grandchildren, even if they didn’t all live under the same roof as Harriett had once hoped.

Haunting

After Dr. Frank’s 1971 death and their marriage later that year, Margie and Ray lived in the Sadowski home, referred to by the family as “the big house.”  By all reports, the house was extremely haunted.  The home, originally build in 1896, shown below as it appears today on Google Maps Streetview.

scrapbook-2350-north-oak-park-avenue

The Sadowski children and grandchildren report that they saw shadowey figures walking up to the attic, heard footsteps on the second floor when no one was there and continually heard voices in the house, just out of earshot. Neighbors reported repeatedly seeing a woman watching them from the sewing room in the tower. That house was anything but peaceful.

Eventually, Margie and Ray couldn’t stand the haunting anymore, purchased a motor home and lived in the back yard. Sometime later, they moved to the home that Ray inherited, about 10 blocks away, but still owned the Sadowski home although it sat fully furnished, just like it always had been, but abandoned in time. It was burglarized in 1972 while Margie and Ray were on an extended honeymoon, and ransacked, taking Margie and her brother Bobbie and his children years to straighten out entirely.

The ironic part of this equation is that Margie took the Sadowski scrapbooks with her to Ray’s house, because where Joan found them in the trash was on North Luna Street in the Jefferson Park area where Ray lived, not in the 2300 block of North Oak Park Avenue where the Sadowski home was located.

Even in her later years, those scrapbooks obviously meant a lot to Margie. I wonder what happened to Frank’s picture on the piano and the other family photos as well.

Margie’s Death

Margie died in April of 2004.

scrapbook-margie-death

Joan Mikol tells us that she found the scrapbooks in about 2005, so very near Margie’s death.

According to the Social Security Death Index, Ray died on March 31, 2008.

As her husband, Ray inherited all of Margie’s estate. The Sadowski family was not informed of Ray’s death and his family disposed of his possessions and estate however they saw fit. Ray had no children.

So, now you know the rest of the story…how Frank’s letters came to be found on a trash pile some 60 years after his death a few blocks from the family home. I’m betting Margie turned over in her grave. That’s not all that got thrown away. All of the family photos bit the dust too – all of them. All the family had left were memories of those eyes, watching them from the piano.

Frank’s Voice

These scrapbooks give Frank one last chance to speak. His letters give shape and a personality to the man who died 72 years ago. They also give a contemporary voice to other family members, allowing everyone memorialized in the scrapbook to speak from the other side of the grave.

I can’t help but wonder what was in the letters Frank had in his possession when he was killed in Okinawa. You know as a GI he coveted each letter from home, and especially from his girlfriend, my mother.

And since I’m wondering, I wonder what became of the letters that Frank wrote mother. I know she would never have thrown them away. Given that I never saw them, not as a child nor as an adult – nor at her death – I know beyond any doubt that they were either lost or thrown away by someone else – not mother. I’m sure they were extremely personal and probably quite intimate. Aside from professing their deep love for one another, the letters probably discussed their dreams for their future together, their wedding and their eventual family.

I suspect Frank’s letters to mother were disposed of in a fit of jealousy. Mother told me that my father was insanely jealous of Frank, even though Frank was dead and had been a decade before I was born. Maybe the jealousy was so intense because Frank was dead – and died a hero. You cannot compete with a ghost that someone still loves, and I’m sure in many ways no one could or ever did live up to Frank in mother’s eyes.

Mother must have grieved the loss of those letters too. She, like Margie, probably read them repeatedly, seeking any shred of solace. Another part of Frank taken from her, ripped from her very heart.

The Scrapbooks Go Home

On the morning of February 22, 2017, following a sleepless night due to adrenaline and excitement – Curtis drove from southern Illinois and I drove from Michigan on a grey but unseasonably warm winter day. We met Joan at a McDonalds in Portage, Indiana where she gave us the scrapbooks.

scrapbook-mcdonalds

Bless Joan for salvaging what little can be recovered of Frank’s all-too-brief life. My mother too, plays a part in those letters – albeit a bit role.

scrapbook-joan-with-books

Curtis’s wife, Janet, is going to scan all 4 scrapbooks and share the images. I started to read one letter, written near Christmastime just four months before Frank’s death, and teared up immediately. I stopped, because blubbering for hours in a McDonalds reading scrapbooks is unacceptable – especially times 3 people and 4 scrapbooks. They would have called the men with the white coats and the butterfly nets to come and get us.

Instead, Curtis, Janet and I had a lovely visit, for about 3 hours. I love e-mail, but visiting in person is just so much fun!

scrapbook-me-and-curtis

Were it not for that bullet, Curtis and I would have been first cousins. We’d be comparing our DNA results. I’d be part Polish and those scrapbooks that include a few early letters from 1917, written in Polish, would have made my heart quicken and skip a beat.

Curtis and I aren’t biologically related, but our families are certainly indelibly entwined, a kinship, for lack of a better word, formed by the same tragic death almost 72 years ago, before either of us was born.

I never knew before these scrapbooks surfaced that Frank was killed on only his 4th day on that particular medical unit assignment. Frank had previously been ill with malaria and injured his foot with an ax. Oh, that the malaria had been just a little worse or his foot injury had been severe enough to disqualify him from active duty. As a medic, Frank dove, under fire, to rescue an injured soldier, only to be killed himself. I wonder if the other soldier survived, and if so, if he or his family had any idea what Frank sacrificed. Or did those two soldiers die together on the battlefield that day?

The fourth day.

The. Fourth. Day.

And VE Day was just a month away. VJ Day was just 4 months after that. The war was ending. How horribly tragic, in every sense of the word.

Frank came so close to NOT dying.  Four days one way, a few seconds perhaps on the battlefield, a few weeks in the other direction and Frank wouldn’t have died. But he did and that bullet irreversibly changed the lives of so many people, snuffing out possibilities in an instant. Giving me a different father a decade later.  Making Curtis and I only partners on this bittersweet co-journey and not cousins.

Gratitude

Curtis, Janet and I parted so incredibly grateful for Joan’s generosity and that our reunion was for such a wonderful occasion. A homecoming of the best kind – beyond anything we could ever have imagined in our wildest dreams.

I hope Mom and Frank were watching. Maybe somehow they helped. I can see them smiling and applauding – the young Frank and mother, happy, back in 1944 before Frank left the last time.

After I have an opportunity to read and digest the letters, you’ll be hearing Frank’s voice. I promise you, there will be a Chapter 4 – thanks to Joan and the generosity of the Sadowski family.

Thank you Joan, from the bottom of our hearts.  You’ve assuredly earned your halo!

Curtis, Janet and Roberta

scrapbook-curtis-me-janet

LeVar Burton’s Keynote at RootsTech 2017 – From Kunta Kinte to Star Trek and The Power of Imagination

Not only is LeVar Burton an incredible actor, portraying Kunta Kinte in 1977 in Alex Haley’s roots, followed by Lt. Commander Geordi La Forge in Star Trek, but he’s an unbelievably insightful man with a powerful story to tell.

levar-burton

I wasn’t able to attend Rootstech this year, but thankfully LeVar Burton’s absolutely incredible keynote is finally available online. I’ve been hearing about it for days and I was finally able to watch this morning.

If you watch only one thing this year, watch LeVar’s keynote. And I don’t mean if you’re black, I mean if you’re human. It’s only half an hour and, I promise, you’ll not regret it. In fact, you’ll need a box of Kleenex and leave feeling wonderful, renewed and inspired.

And please, do the “One Minute Exercise” with LeVar.

Aside from LeVar’s incredibly interesting delivery and poignant stories about his mother, Roots and Star Trek, he made the following points:

  • LeVar said his mother was determined that he would reach his full potential, “even if she had to kill me.”  I’m sure we can all related to that.
  • We all have an important story to tell and an equally important contribution to make to humanity.
  • Close your eyes and bring into your mind a person who has seen your potential in life and helped you realize your gift, what your contribution to the world might be. Someone who saw you and recognized your brilliance and helped bring it into being.
  • None of us get through this life on our own. We all have assistance on this journey.
  • You can do what you can imagine. Focus equals manifestation.
  • Unless you can be still you may never hear that voice of God within. Pay attention or you might miss something incredibly important that is key to delivering our gift to the world.

The Desert News provided some additional coverage here.

LeVar’s session is not on the RootsTech video selection, but other sessions are available for free viewing here if you scroll down a bit.

Thank you LeVar for the single most incredible, inspiring keynote speech on any topic I have ever witnessed.

2-25-2017 Update – Unfortunately, LeVar’s keynote is no longer at the above link.  I checked the Rootstech site as well as YouTube and was not able to find it elsewhere.  You might check again in the future.  If you find a copy someplace, please let me know and I’ll update the link.

New Year’s Genealogy Resolution – Hey, Look, ANCESTOR

heart

As genealogists, we love genealogy, right?

So we certainly don’t need to be encouraged to work on genealogy. Often, we have to be encouraged to stop working on genealogy – like to do bothersome things like eat and sleep.  Oh yes, and work.

However, sometimes, I find myself researching haphazardly without direction, and I don’t seem to ever get anything “done,” as if there is such a thing in genealogy.  This is the genealogical equivalent of “SQUIRREL” aka “ANCESTOR.”

For me, goals give me direction and clarity. If I wake up in the morning without a plan for the day, I’m much less likely to accomplish anything.

Once a year we make New Year’s Resolutions. Resolutions give us the opportunity to reflect upon what is important to us and how we might go about achieving those things.

But more importantly, resolutions are promises to ourselves. And in my case, a commitment to my ancestors.

I only have one Genealogy Resolution this year.

I know, I know….how can there just be one?

Well, defining what is the MOST IMPORTANT lets me focus on that one goal, without distractions. Ok, with hopefully only a few distractions. Scratch that. I welcome distractions, but only if they are brick walls falling on other lines. See, I’m already distracted. Just thinking about brick walls falling does that to me.  Which is exactly why I need a focused plan.

resolution

I love the 52 Ancestors stories because they give my ancestors’ lives shape.  Birth, death, where they lived, what happened during their lifetimes, what we know or can figure out about each of them and weave into a story – including something about DNA for each of them. These articles bring these people, who are part of me, to life.  And because the articles are online, they can be updated as more information is discovered. How’s that for optimistic! Plus, the stories are available for posterity and they function as “cousin bait.”

Notice, I didn’t say 52 stories.  I want my goal, promise, resolution to be achievable. I don’t want to get discouraged and set myself up for “failure” if I miss a week for some reason. Sometimes the difference between success and failure is how we phrase the goal!

Let’s face it, sometimes life just gets in the way. Sometimes the research and gathering of information for a particular ancestor is particularly intense. Sometimes, I have to wait for information to arrive. Sometimes I need to find someone to DNA test, or order upgrades.  Sometimes we find out that we were, uh, cough…um, wrong…and we have to do some revising.  Ok, we have to saw the whole darned branch off the tree and start over. Dang!

I’d be very happy with 50 stories, truthfully!

This isn’t like that age old promise to exercise more, which, by the way, I’ve already abandoned this year – in favor of genealogy research. I mean, really, who has time for  sweating when there are ancestors who need to be found???

Plus, now that I’ve shared my resolution with you, you are all going to hold me accountable! Right?

Do you have a genealogy resolution for 2017?  Do share!

Sarah’s Quilt, 52 Ancestors #141

In 1870 in Kentucky, if a man died, the entire estate was presumed to be his, legally, with his wife having a “dower right” of 30% of the value of the estate.  By the way, this also included anything, including real estate, that the wife had inherited, from anyone, unless it was specified in the inheritance that she was to hold it separately from the husband.  So the old adage of, “What’s mine is mine and what’s yours is mine” was true.

The only way to value that estate was to have an inventory taken, submitted to the court, then a sale of all of the property. Yes, a sale, of everything the “man” owned. Now that “everything” included plates, cups, forks, pans, skillets and kitchen utensils he had maybe never touched, except to eat, but were legally considered his. Nothing was “hers” or “theirs.” The only way for the widow to retain “her” things, aside from her clothes (literally) was to purchase those items from her husband’s estate sale.

So, let’s get this straight.  If a Jane’s mother had left Jane a plate that was a family heirloom, that plate immediately became Jane’s husband’s property, and if he died, Jane had to purchase her mother’s plate from her husband’s estate sale.  Got it.

If you think this was a barbaric practice, it was.

I can only imagine the sale day, not long after the widow had already suffered the loss of her husband, maybe just a couple weeks after hearing those clods of dirt fall against his wooden coffin. The grave, now with fresh dirt mounded over the top was within sight of the auction as neighbors arrived.  Perhaps they acknowledged their deceased neighbor as they passed by and family placed a few flowers before turning and walking towards the house.

The widow was left wondering how she was going to feed the family and get the crops in out of the field. Her, or legally, his belongings were now standing outside in the yard or perhaps in the barn for all to inspect before the sale.  The widow would have felt stripped bare-naked to the bone, exposed, with her entire life on display for all to evaluate and comment upon.  And rest assured, those comments weren’t all made in the spirit of love.

The grieving widow, hearing the auctioneer’s rhythmic incantations to bid, echoing through her mind forever like a terrible melody, watching her life indiscriminately and methodically being sold off piece by piece to family members, neighbors and strangers alike. Heirlooms were sold outside of the family, including items like the family Bible. Going…going…gone! Nothing was exempt.

Furthermore, given that the widow only had the “right” to one third, she had to be careful only to bid on what she desperately needed and could afford, no more than one third of the value of the estate. If she spent her entire one third recovering household and farm items, enough to at least attempt to farm, she would have no cash from the sale to purchase supplies or food she couldn’t grow, like sugar, or pay for labor. And who was going to give a widow woman credit? What a terrible quandry.

I hope, I really hope, that when other bidders saw the widow bidding on something, they just shut up.

William Chumley’s Estate

This past week, I was perusing the estate of my ancestor’s daughter’s husband, William Chumley, who died in 1870 in Russell County, Kentucky. There were three documents filed with the court. The first document I found was the actual estate sale. Like normal, I saw the widow’s name, Sarah Chumley, among the bidders, which always saddens me greatly.

chumley-williams-sale

Sarah Chumley bid on and purchased several inexpensive items.

  • 5 comforts – 1.00
  • Sett teas – .10
  • 7 plates – .10
  • 5 glass tumblers – .15
  • 1 clock – .25
  • 1 looking glass – .10
  • 1 small table – .25
  • 1 hoe – .15
  • 1 plow – .15
  • 1 plow – .15
  • Cavalry saddle – .15
  • 1 sythe and cradle – .50
  • 1 sucking colt – 5.00

The second document I came across was titled “Allotment to widow Chumley” with a list of items allotted to Sarah and values attached. In this case, these items were in addition to what she purchased at the sale. In other words, these items below seem to have been set aside for Sarah at the appraised value of the items. She never had to bid for them, but she had to accept whatever the appraisers estimated their values to be.

Sometimes this was fine, but other times, not so much. The appraised value could be more, or less, than what the item actually sold for. In William’s estate, an ox cart that was appraised at $12 only sold for $6.60. If the widow had wanted that cart, she would have “paid” $12 for it to keep it from being auctioned. Of course, had she waited to buy it at auction, she might not have been able to purchase it, and it might have cost more than the $12 that it appraised for.  The 5 bed comforters that appraised for $1 to $1.50 each were purchased together at auction by the widow for $1 total. So this “setting aside” practice could be a double edged sword.

chumley-widows-allotment

The estate appraisal was the third document filed for William Chumley, although that normally was filed first. All of William’s estate documents were filed at once, on October 7, 1870, and the appraisal just happened to be the third one copied into the book.  It appears right after the final portion of the widow’s allotment.

chumley-inventory

Each item that a deceased person owned was valued by, traditionally, 3 appraisers. The first appraiser being the person the deceased owed the most money to, the idea being that individual stood to benefit the most from the estate items being sold at the highest value possible so the debts of the deceased could be paid, in full, hopefully. The second appraiser was generally someone related to the wife to represent her interests. And the third appraiser was an entirely disinterested party, but with a working knowledge of prices in the area. Often you see the same people being appointed by the court over and over again in this third capacity.

Estate appraisals are wonderful documents for the genealogist, because in essence you’re peering into their house and barn from the distance of decades and sometimes centuries.

I was scanning down the inventory list, imagining what their life was like in rural Kentucky, based on what was and wasn’t present in the appraisal.

That’s when I saw it.

The Quilt

1 Quilt…..$15

chumley-quilt

A quilt.

chumley-civil-war-era-quilt

This quilt isn’t Sarah’s quilt, but it is a quilt top (unquilted) made from Civil War era scrap fabrics from the same time and may have looked similar. The pieced blocks in this quilt appear to have been made from old clothes, complete with stains – a very common way to utilize remaining fabric after clothes were too damaged to wear any longer. Everything was salvaged and reused one way or another.

The quilt in William’s estate inventory was probably a quilt that Sarah had made with her own hands, often piecing and quilting with scraps from clothes, old and new, by candlelight in the evenings.

Maybe Sarah made that quilt from the scraps of the clothes she had made for her children. Sadly, those would be the children Sarah either never had, or that never lived long enough to be recorded in a census. The children Sarah longed for and hoped for, but were never born, or were born and died and were buried in the ever-expanding family cemetery behind the house where she could watch over their graves daily. The same cemetery where she would one day bury William.

Maybe eventually Sarah took the tiny clothes she made for those children she dreamed about apart and used the fabrics in the quilt she and William used to keep warm. Maybe this quilt got them through the Civil War.

It may have been the quilt Sarah sobbed into when her father, Lazarus Dodson, died in October 1861, just a month before the Confederates camped beside, or maybe on, her family land. Two months later, the Battle of Mill Springs (Logan’s Crossroads) took place a mile or so away – the Union forces advancing across the family land – perhaps through the cemetery where her father was buried.

Did Sarah huddle, wrapped in this quilt, with her step-mother and sister as the menfolk engaged in battle? Did the women hide a gun for protection in the folds of that quilt, praying they would never have to use it and hoping they could shoot straight if they did? They could surely hear the battle, the cannons, the shots and the cries, half a mile or a mile away, across the fields, past the cemetery.  Hundreds died that day and scores more were injured. Did this quilt comfort a wounded soldier?

Were Sarah and her sister huddled together with the quilt wrapped around them for warmth in front of the fireplace when they received word that Sarah’s sister, Mary Redmon’s step-son had been killed? His stone rests just down the road at the Mill Springs National Cemetery, but his body never came home.

And what about Mary’s husband, William “Billy” Redmon, who was fighting for the Confederacy?  He came home safe, but Sarah and Mary would have worried relentlessly until he did.  Did Billy know his son had been killed until he arrived home after the war?

Did Sarah shed tears of anxiety as she worried about her half-brother, Lazarus Dodson, named after her father, who fought for the Union in the war? And what about Sarah’s half-sister, Nancy’s husband, James Bray, also fighting for the Union?

How about Sarah’s half-sister Rutha’s husband, John Y. Estes who while fighting for the Confederacy was injured, captured and held prisoner of war? Did he stop at the cabin on his way walking back to Tennessee after his captors released him north of the Ohio River, injured and with no food or supplies? Did John find his way to his father-in-law’s land, knowing he would find food and shelter, only to discover Lazarus’s grave? Did John sleep beneath this quilt perhaps, or as a former Confederate, was he not welcome in Sarah’s home?

And then there was Sarah’s half brother, John Dodson, and his wife, Barthenia, who lived nearby and simply disappeared between the 1860 and 1870 census, with some of their children in 1870 found living among relatives and neighbors. Were John and Barthenia war casualties too?

Sarah probably wrapped up in that quilt for comfort when she buried her children, if she was able to conceive, then when she buried her father, Lazarus Dodson, her sister’s step-son, her brother, his wife and some of their children and then in 1870, when Sarah buried her husband as well. Life was difficult and there were probably many more burials, sorrows and trials that we know nothing about.

The quilt, valued at $15 was worth more than the brown heifer at $11, about the same as 8 shoats (young pigs) at $16 and the man’s saddle at $14, and more than the ox cart and a saddle with bridle, valued at $12, respectively. As far as household goods, nothing was worth more. The quilt was valued at exactly the same as 10 head of sheep, and animals were the most valuable items in this estate inventory except for a grouping of 2 beds, bedding and furniture for $30.

This tells you that the quilt was not a tied comforter, but a beautifully hand crafted quilt. This quilt was clearly more than just “bedding,” given the appraised value, and since there was only one, it was likely an heirloom to Sarah – something she had poured her heart and soul into.

Maybe some of the fabrics in the quilt had even come from Sarah’s mother’s dresses. Sarah’s mother had died when Sarah was a child, sometime between Sarah’s sister Mary’s birth about 1833 and Sarah’s father’s remarriage in 1839. Was Sarah’s only memory of her mother through fabrics in the quilt?

At her husband’s estate sale, Sarah Chumley, the widow, bought “5 comforts” for $1.

chumley-comforters

But comforts aren’t quilts. For clarity, comforters are whole pieces of cloth, front and back, with some sort of cotton or wool “batting” layered in-between, and tied or “knotted” every few inches with thread or yarn to hold the layers together. Comforters were quick to make. Quilts weren’t and aren’t – taking months and sometimes years.  Not only was the quilt top hand pieced, but the top, batting and back were held together by millions of tiny stitches, every one lovingly placed by hand, about 10 stitches per linear inch of thread.

What happened to that quilt?

We don’t know.

It’s not listed on the bill of sale from the auction. It’s not listed in Sarah’s allotment. Let’s hope that someone, someplace had the good sense to simply let Sarah have her quilt and just “lost” it in the process.

Lord knows she needed it.

Ten days after Sarah’s husband died, on May 20, 1870, Sarah made her own will, at roughly 37 years of age, stating that she was “week of body but of good sound mind.” She left everything to a child she appeared to have raised, but with a different surname, and her sister’s children, her “neeces and neffu.”

On September 23rd, that same year, Sarah’s will was recorded with the court, indicating she had passed on.

Indeed, Sarah desperately needed that quilt, just for another 3 months or so, as she mourned the life she had, the family she had lost and the children that were never born, or were and died. Sarah needed comfort as she left this earthly world. When you wrap up in a quilt, those who made the quilt, or those who love you from the other side are hugging you – earthly caresses from the wings of angels to ease your way.

All things considered, I wondered if Sarah was perhaps wrapped in and buried with her quilt.

While Sarah couldn’t be spared the many griefs in her short lifetime, let’s pray that Sarah was at least spared her quilt.

9/11 at 15 Years

9-11-rubble

I don’t want to remember, but I can’t forget. Those arches and palisades that would be beautiful architectural pieces in a cathedral but are horrific in the rubble.

I didn’t want those images seared into my psyche forever, but there they are.

It has been 15 years, and there is certainly nothing to celebrate – except for the heroism that followed this horrific, inhuman attack on America.

Those two things, the most horrific scenes I have ever seen paired with the most incredible examples of humanity I have ever witnessed. I guess it takes a tragedy to make heroes – and this was a tragedy of immeasurable proportions, never experienced before, and thankfully, never again since.

9-11-firefighter

Before I go any further, let me say that not only does my son work in the line of public safety, but so do many of my family members, friends and former clients.  Many went to New York to help in the following days and weeks.

As I listened to this horrible event unfold on the radio, driving to a public speaking event at the Michigan Municipal League Conference, I couldn’t help but think of the police officers, firefighters and EMTs that would be responding and by virtue of their chosen profession, would also be in harm’s way. I said a silent prayer for them. In the end, 343 firefighters, 71 law enforcement officers and 55 military personnel would perish in addition to almost 3000 innocent people on planes and in buildings struck by the terrorists. And that’s just the immediate count, not counting those who died later, and continue to die, as a result of those attacks.

As I listened, I had no idea, absolutely no idea, of the magnitude of the devastation that would follow. When the towers collapsed, I was physically ill, because I knew what that meant. I prayed everyone who would die, died quickly. What a terrible prayer to pray.

I stopped at a gas station to fill up, take a break and see if they had a television, because I wasn’t sure I believed what was on the radio, although the descriptions were incredibly graphic and I could tell that the reporters were in shock themselves.  I guess I didn’t want to believe it was true. The clerk at the gas station didn’t even notice me walk in, because she was absolutely glued to a small television.  I joined her and we stood, motionless, in stunned silence.  It was true, and was getting worse minute by minute.

When the first plane hit the World Trade Center, I assumed it was some small privately owned plane that made a grave error.

When the second plane hit, I knew it was something much worse. I called my husband immediately, who works in an industry very concerned with security, and he was already “in motion,” so to speak. He wanted me to turn around and come home. I kind of thought he was nuts, and I didn’t. Later, as all of the gas sold out of stations, I wasn’t sure I could get home.

I know this makes no sense, but I wanted to know where my family was. I wanted to gather them to me, regardless of their age. I wanted us to be together, because as the nightmarish proportions of that day unfolded, I think we all came to realize that we had no idea where the next shoe would drop, that there were many shoes, and we were suddenly all vulnerable and at some level of risk, as were our loved ones.

I called my elderly mother.  She was sobbing and wanted to know where I was.  I told her to pack a bag, take the cat and all the cat food she could buy, fill her car with gas and go to my brother’s who lived an hour distant.  I didn’t want her to be alone, no matter what happened.  I was 6 hours and 2 tanks of gas away and I wasn’t sure she could get to me, given that we didn’t really know what was happening.  She would be safe with my brother.

The traffic on the interstate was horrendous on my drive to the conference. In fact, it was dead stopped. Apparently people had been so dumbstruck by the news that they stopped paying attention to their driving and had a series of accidents. I could certainly understand that. I drove cross-country, taking the back roads in the beautiful sunshine.  It seemed so wrong for such a terrible day to be so beautiful.  In fact, it all seemed impossible and surreal.

I gave my presentation at the conference, which was normally packed, but on that day, was very sparsely attended. I could tell that no one’s mind was on what I was saying at all. My mind wasn’t on what I was saying either. Finally, we all went out to the lobby and watched CNN together. And we cried. We shook our heads in disbelief as we watched those images over and over again, waiting for the next piece of horrific news. We hugged. Men and women alike. It was the most somber group of people I have ever been with, all funerals included. Each person there served a municipality, and we all knew that anyone could be next. Who would be next? What did we need to do? What could we do?

Air traffic ground to a halt. Never in the history of aviation have such drastic measures been taken. Our skies were eerily silent and fighter jets replaced normal commercial air traffic, especially for those living near borders and “high value targets.”

Never has America been so unprepared for an attack, with no warning, on our own soil. In Michigan, bridges and tunnels were closed due to concern over safety and the fact that some of our bridges lead to other countries. Some bridges are just exceedingly long, and none were prepared for the possibility of terrorism.

Terrorism. What a terrible word. A dark soulless word.

9/11 was the day that terrorism was introduced into our collective psyche in a way that no one alive on that day will ever, ever forget. Terrorism, unfortunately, at one level or another, has been a part of our lives ever since – not only in the US, but also in Europe and other parts of the world. It has spread like a deadly disease – the Zika virus of  radicals bent to destroy us.  They tried to break us, but they failed.

Terrorism also called us all to be patriots. And we answered in such numbers that there were no American flags to be purchased, anyplace.

9-11-newsweek

It galvanized us in our resolve to be Americans, to be brave, and not to be held hostage by terrorists, terrorism or fear. Yes, we live our lives today, still in a heightened state of vigilance, but we do live our lives. They inflicted a grave injury, but they did not and have not won.

Thinking Further Back

As we approach this black anniversary, I realized that there are few things that have had the level of impact on my life, aside from personal anniversaries like births, marriages and deaths, that 9/11 has had.

Another event that probably falls into that same category was the assassination of President Kennedy. That was the day that Americans collectively lost their innocence and 9/11 was the day we became enmeshed in a war that won’t end in our lifetimes. We can’t even see the enemy. They don’t wear red coats anymore.

Vietnam, not a day, but an era, was also very defining for my generation.

On a more positive note, defining moments in my lifetime include the election of a black President and the nomination of a woman by a major party for President. It doesn’t matter whether you like these particular politicians or not – the very fact that our country and society has progressed to the point where people who couldn’t even vote 100 years ago now can and do lead our country is incredibly iconic and liberating. We have gone from “Hell no” to “maybe” to a token “yes” to “absolutely” within two or three generations – mostly within my generation. When I was a child, girls could only be secretaries, waitresses, teachers or nurses. My, how things have changed.

Being a genealogist, I think regularly about the lives of my ancestors, and the 52 Ancestors stories that I’ve been writing allow me, really, force me, to think about their lives individually. I ask myself what things in their lives would have been defining events that shaped their lives, meaning culturally or historically, as opposed to those personal milestones and dates that we typically associate with genealogy.

Some of those milestones stand out as not only life-changers for the ancestors in question, but events that precipitated changes that reverberated down through the generations and changed future lives too. The biggest difference is that that news was carried by Paul Revere on horseback, a town crier or a pony express rider, not by CNN, the internet, cell phones, texts, messages, Facebook and e-mails.

There was no immediate notification across the country, so the news was slower to spread, and reaction took much longer. There was no mass shock. But then the problem couldn’t spread itself by airplane either. Of course, the news might have been much less accurate by the time it reached the most distant cabins and was generally “old” by the time it arrived.

As I write my ancestors’ stories, I try to look for these types of events in their lifetimes. Several come to mind and I’m sure there are many more that could be added to this list:

  • The French and Indian War
  • The 30 Years War
  • The Inquisition
  • The London Fire of 1666
  • Indian Raids on Various Frontiers
  • The Acadian “Grand Derangement” or Removal
  • The Revolutionary War
  • The Civil War
  • The War of 1812
  • The Enslavement of Native People
  • The Genocide of Native People
  • The Trail of Tears
  • The Emancipation of Slaves
  • World War I
  • World War II
  • The Holocaust
  • The Atomic Bomb
  • Women’s Right to Vote
  • The Introduction of Antibiotics
  • The Introduction of Electricity, Telephones, Radio and Television

I asked my mother, before she died, which things had the most profound personal impact on her life and she said that wiring their house with electricity and World War 2.  Those answers didn’t surprise me, except that I hadn’t realized that at one time, she had lived in a home without electricity.  Mother’s fiancé died in WW2 and that clearly changed the entire path of her life.

I ask myself, how did these types of events affect the lives of my ancestors? Did they change their lives by virtue of direct involvement, like fighting in a war, or did they change their lives by virtue of a cultural change, like electricity in homes?

Did they too live in a time of terror?  Did tragedy make heroes of them?

Who were the heroes? Who sacrificed? Whose lives were changed and how? Who died for the cause?

I wonder if they, like us, 15 years later were still living in a “state of heightened vigilance.” I know those types of event changed many forever.

Never Forget

The experience of 9/11, for those even remotely involved will never be forgotten, and for many, especially in New York and for the families of the victims, it doesn’t even fade.

For those of us more remotely involved, being supportive from a distance in whatever capacity we could, those images remain and will remain forever seared into our psyche. Only death will remove them.

We all grieve and mourn in our own way and time. This is the memorial quilt that I started but could never finish, because, well, I just couldn’t.

9-11-quilt

Perhaps it’s time to finish this now and title it, “They Didn’t Win.”  What do you think?

I wonder which images remained for our ancestors for the duration of their lives? How did they cope?  I wish they had told us, written something about their life and times.  While these memories remain vivid for us, anyone under the age of about 20 has no personal memory of this event.  If we don’t tell our stories, and record them for posterity, they will forever be lost.

Where were you on 9/11?  Which images remain for you?  What is your story?

The Death Watch and Harkening Back

Have you noticed that I’ve been a little quiet lately? My publishing goal is for one genealogy related DNA story each week, typically a 52 Ancestors article, and one other technical article as well. I’ve been a little shy recently, and will be a for a little while longer.

In my world, August has been a brutal, brutal month.

I have trouble with August anyway, truthfully. August 26th is when my father was killed in an automobile accident when I was 7, and my dearly beloved step-father died over Labor Day weekend 31 years later. Those kinds of deep wounds never heal entirely, they simply scar over a bit and we remember them with both sadness and fondness forever. But in reality, we never forget, either the person or the pain of their absence – or the circumstances surrounding their death. In the vernacular of days gone by…the death watch.

In early August, this year, we received news that a family member had been diagnosed with cancer after a routine colonoscopy. Now, that could even be construed as good news, if you’re a glass-half-full person, because it means they found the cancer early enough to do something about it. In other words, while cancer is horrible and terrifying, finding it early increases the survival odds dramatically.

At that point, I did what quilters do – I set about making a “care quilt” for the family member, Mary, with help from my quilt sisters – to let her know the family is thinking of her, to send positive energy her way, to let her know she is loved and to give her something to take with her to the hospital, rehab, chemo…whatever. Being wrapped in a quilt is being wrapped in love. Need a hug, grab a quilt.

I’m glad we made the quilt and shipped it when I did, because little did we know time would be so short.

Mary with quilt

The Dentist and Never-Ending August

Have I ever mentioned how much I hate going to the dentist for dental “work?” Well, I do. It almost never goes well and there is always some complication. That could partly be due to a car accident many years ago, but whatever the reason, it’s always some flavor of quite unpleasant.

So, of course, I was on the way to the dentist’s office when I received the text on August 9th that subsequent scans indicated that the cancer was more advanced than originally thought, but that surgery was scheduled for the 17th. Not good, but still hopeful. I was a bit shaken, understanding how unsettling this news must be to her immediate family members.

A few minutes later, standing IN the dentists lobby, I found out that my friend’s house had burned to the ground that morning and her son did not escape the fire and perished. The terrible irony is that my friend is a firefighter. I will also say that thankfully, Andrew, her son, did not burn to death, but died of smoke inhalation. I know, that is small consolation but it is some. Additionally, I later discovered that the family pets perished as well. Needless to say, it was a horrible, horrible day that rocked this entire community.

I had what I think is known as a meltdown, right there, in the lobby. Thankfully my friend works there. They graciously rescheduled me because the dentist cannot work on a sobbing blob.

The next few days were consumed with trying to figure out how to help. How to help the family who lost everything in the fire. How to help my family member with cancer and the other family members caring for her.  How to be useful but not in the way or overbearing.

And truthfully, I felt like a zombie. I spent some time with my friend’s daughter and her fiancé who had escaped the fire. Loren, the fiancé, had tried to rescue Andrew, but a middle-of-the-night fast moving fire offers very little opportunity to do anything – even to escape yourself. The family members who survived barely escaped – with maybe 30 second to spare. If not for Loren, they wouldn’t have escaped either.

And so, two more quilts were delivered, and I am still finishing the third.

A four quilt week, in total. I never, ever want to live to see another four quilt week. But I wasn’t done yet.

My cousin’s husband had a stroke. This isn’t a distant cousin I’ve never met, but a couple we’ve traveled with. We saw them last fall at a reunion. Yep, a fifth quilt is in the works.

On the 17th, Mary, the cancer victim, underwent surgery which, as they say, did not go well. She was consumed with cancer and died eight days later, August 25th. Needless to say, this was not the result we expected and two days before her death, optimism and hope turned to resignation and immediate family received the “come now” call. Thankfully, most of the family did make it in time, by the skin of their teeth, and she retained enough consciousness to know they were there.

Mary had asked for her quilt to be brought to the hospital. The quilt was doing its job, bringing her comfort.

Andrew’s memorial took place in the midst of all of this, and I discovered that another friend had lost both her husband and father within the past few months, on Christmas Day and Father’s Day, respectively.

And of course, the anniversary of my father’s death was mixed into this painful brew.

Is August ever going to end???

The Death Watch

I’ve been thinking a lot about death this month. It’s OK to laugh at this slight understatement.

My last ancestor story that was published, about Daniel Miller, recounted that his death, on August 26th, was probably unexpected. (I told you August was a rough month.)

Unexpected. The norm then. Aside from accidents, few deaths are unexpected today.

My ancestor Joseph Bolton reportedly got up from the breakfast table and walked out to the fields to work and died of a heart attack. That’s rare, very rare today. He was probably having warning symptoms long before that fateful and fatal attack, but had no way to recognize them, and nothing to do medically in 1920 in Claiborne County, Tennessee if he had.

At that time, most deaths weren’t protracted. Today, it’s a different story.

The following death information was extracted randomly from a dozen chronological Claiborne County, Tennessee death certificates from 1917 beginning in May and ending in late June. 

Name Cause of Death Duration Contributory Cause Duration Comments Death Watch
Nancy Roark Asthma 30 years Acute indigestion 10 days Probably a heart issue 10 days
Demis? Cosby? 7 month child No medical attention 0
Lonie Cosby Tuberculosis No medical attention, mother of child above ?
Esker Brooks Whooping cough No medical attention ?
Shrelda Yeary Dropsy No medical attention ?
Child Fulty Stillborn No medical attention 0
Ansel Ellison Diphtheria No medical attention ?
Alexander Welch Homicide by shotgun Right groin, left side chest 0
James Carr Pernicious anemia 2 years Was a physician ?
Jordon Welch Suicide by shotgun Heart wound 0
Gareth Overton Bowel complication 4 months Tetanus 1 yr 4 months 4 months
James Kivett Drown 0

Looking at these records, it’s easy to see how many of these deaths today would have been preventable, or the disease curable or at least treatable.

When I first started visiting Claiborne County, Tennessee in the 1970s and 1980s, many people still eschewed going to the hospital in Knoxville, about an hour away. When antibiotics were first introduced, people began to seek doctors and medical attention more routinely, but by the time you were bad enough to go to the hospital, it was assumed you were going to die anyway. People gave reasons like “didn’t want the family to be split apart,” but in reality, it was hopelessness. Hospitals, at that time, couldn’t do any more for the ailing family member than the family could do at home, and hospitals were viewed as simply places to go to die. Then, it seemed that going to the hospital “assured your death” and people became even more afraid and superstitious with the stigma of a “wives tale” attached.

Looking at Indiana death records which began earlier than Tennessee death records, we find the following for Elkhart County, Indiana beginning in 1902 where records were clearly kept in alphabetical order:

Name Cause of Death Duration Contributory Cause Duration Comments Death Watch
Elizabeth Miller Inflammation of bowel 12 days Valvular insufficiency of heart Several years 12 days
Harry Miller Typhoid malaria 3 weeks Typhoid ? One week 1-3 weeks
Baby Miller Premature birth 4 hours 4 hours
Jacob Miller Typhoid Intestinal hemo??? ?
John David Miller Senile gangrene 7 months ?
Joni Miller Inflammation of bowels 10 days 10 days
Ruth Miller Malignant jaundice 2 weeks 2 weeks
Solomon Miller Abscess in liver 2 months Probably cancer ?
Rettica Minnich Collapse 10 hours 10 hours
Sadie Michler Bloody flux 11 days Followed by cerebral meningitis 3 days 3 days
Jessie Mitchell Cancer of stomach Don’t know ?
John Mitchell Brain lesion 14 days 14 days
Rebecca Mitchell Old age Dysentery One week One week

In terms of the length of the death watch, Indiana records are more informative.

Today, medicine can “save” many, and I put the word save in quotes on purpose.

Before I say what I’m going to say, I want to be very clear that I am an advocate for medical care, both preventative and remedial. However, sometimes medical care simply extends the death, not extending a useful, meaningful life that has quality.

I was speaking with a physician this past week who is also a friend. She told me that she had “finally” lost her father. She is not an insensitive woman, but it took her father 10 years to pass away. His life was repeatedly “saved,” only for him to go back home to wait for the next medical disaster to befall him. He was immobile, diabetic, had kidney failure and finally died of sepsis. His life had no quality – and the family literally had a 10 year death watch with no hope of real recovery. Should I even mention what that, along with 10 years of 24X7X365 caregiving, did to her mother’s life???

Our generation is the first generation to experience these truly prolonged death watches. In my own family, my 4 grandparents passed as follows:

  • Mother’s mother (1960) – heart attack, death watch 4 days
  • Mother’s father (1962)– liver cancer, death watch about 10 days
  • Father’s mother (1955) – congestive heart failure, death watch probably days to weeks
  • Father’s father (1971) – old age, heart failure, death watch just days

Contrast that to 10 years for my friend’s father, or two years while my brother died of cancer, multiple surgeries and chemo rounds one after another. I surely wonder, in retrospect, if my brother wished that he had foregone all of that and lived just a few months, but pain free and with some quality of life as compared to two years of one bodily insult after another. I guess the price of opportunity and possibility was surgery and chemo.

My other brother spent 18 months on a liver transplant list and then died of liver cancer, without a transplant. My sister had surgery for breast cancer which had returned when she died of a heart attack.

These protracted deaths make for an extremely long and draining death watch for anxious family members who so desperately want the person to be healed, especially if more than one death watch is in process concurrently.

More Deaths Than Births

As my physician friend and I continued to discuss this situation, we were talking about how our generation is the first to routinely experience this phenomenon of the extended death watch.

The death watch used to be characterized by the family sitting by the bed of the person who was going to pass over shortly – usually for hours or a few days, generally after they were too sick to get out of bed anymore. Today, the death watch is very different and often significantly prolonged.

One observation we made is that there just seems to be so MUCH death now. It surrounds us. We realized that this is, in part, because of the lifesaving measures that are underway. We never had these opportunities before, and yes, they do turn into death watches in many cases. But not always. My sister-in-law has had cancer twice and remains cancer free today – 15 years later.

Another observation is that there are a lot fewer births today. That same sister-in-law has 7 siblings, and only one has passed away. My step-father had 12 siblings and my father was one of 10.

By comparison, my sister-in-law had 3 children, I had 2 children that lived, my mother had 2 children that lived, my uncle had 2 children and my other brother had 2 children. Much smaller families today.

By virtue of simple math, in our generation, there are simply more deaths to experience and fewer joyous events like births. The scales have tipped, for now. In the next generation, the balance should be more even, although that doesn’t make the deaths any easier to handle – but there should be fewer of them. That also means fewer family members to love.

Another item of note is that when a joyous event like a birth or marriage does occur, it’s over rather quickly and everyone goes back to what they were doing. Death watches have become prolonged, along with the grieving.  So yes, it does often seem that there is much more death than before, and that the negative outweighs the positive.  In terms of the number of days we are feeling the immediacy of grief through a death watch as compared to the joyful days, the number of grief days has increased while the number of joyful events has decreased with smaller families.  This phenomenon isn’t imagined, it’s real.

How does this stack up in your own family?  How has it affected family members?

Empathy

Empathy, according to the dictionary, is the distinctly human ability to understand and share the feelings of another.

Sympathy is when you feel sorry for another’s misfortune, but empathy means putting yourself in their shoes.

How to we acquire empathy? From experiencing those same things ourselves. Those experiences are what give us the ability to be empathetic. Sitting those long days and nights in an uncomfortable chair by a hospital bed holding a death vigil ourselves – watching the breath becoming shallower and shallower, more irregular as the hours and day pass, until there are no more breaths and the heart beats for the last time – as the last bit of life slips from our loved one and we know they are gone.   Passed over to the other side.

As my husband said, tears welling in his eyes, on a particularly difficult day this past week, “I can’t hear about this without harkening back to my own experiences of when my parents and grandparents passed away.” That’s empathy.  Harkening back.

Empathy is how we know how the other person is feeling, not just feel sorry for their misery. In essence, it’s how we make lemonade out of the lemons we’ve all experienced and continue to experience as humans.

Based on this, the current generation of older adults should be extremely empathetic, helpful, understanding and willing to lend that helping hand.  I find that empathy often increases with age, as people experience more of these events personally.

Empathy – it’s how we know that people need care quilts, and why we make them.  Many times, it’s all we can do.

In Summary

August is nearly over, thank goodness.

Please bear with me as I catch up with my hundreds of unanswered e-mails and write new articles – along with finishing those two quilts and a sixth quilt that is needed now. I’ve used all of my reserve – emotional, blog articles and quilts.

On the other hand, I’m very grateful that I can write these articles and make care quilts. I much prefer this to being the person in need. It’s just that I have not yet figured out how to forego sleep entirely to harvest those extra hours.

There are exciting things that have happened and come my way over the past couple of weeks that I haven’t been able to attend to. For example, I have finally had my 23andMe account transitioned. I need to look at that, along with a new tool developed by a genetic genealogist. I’m looking forward to getting back in the groove. I miss the sanity/insanity of genetic genealogy.

As I said to my husband yesterday, “You got to work.” He replied, “You say that like it is a privilege.” It is actually, especially when you can’t for whatever reason.

Thank you everyone for your understanding during this difficult period and while I catch up from under a seemingly bottomless pile. I’m back at work!