Climbing Family Trees: Rewriting History by Wendy Ward

Climbing Family Trees

More great stories, poems, and helpful hints about genealogy and searching for your family's roots from the twin authors of "Climbing Family Trees: Whispers In The Leaves"

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Rewriting History by Wendy Ward

“Rewriting History”
Wendy Ward
Evanston, IL
I was taking my last graduate class, and I still had no topic for my Master’s Thesis. Near panic, I started to pray about it. A few days later, as I watched my lunch cooking in the microwave, the words “Vinegar Hill” popped into my head. On my grandfather’s death record, Vinegar Hill, Illinois, is listed as his birthplace. The township no longer exists. It was a desperate long shot, but I thought maybe I could research the settlement and why it disappeared. When I mentioned it to my advisor, he got very excited and started talking about the rich history of the Galena Lead District. My father grew up on a farm, and his father died when he was a young boy. In turn, my father died when I was very young. I had never heard of the Galena Lead District.

I searched online for Vinegar Hill, Illinois, but I found only information on Vinegar Hill in Ireland. Somehow, I came across a passenger list with an introductory paragraph about miners from Allendale, Northumberland, England. This caught my eye, because my great grandfather, Christopher Ward, came from Allendale. It mentioned a mining strike in 1849 that resulted in the banishment of about 100 miners, and their families. The Guy Mannering’s Passenger List included a Christopher Ward, and several other familiar-sounding names, but his wife was not my great grandmother. I printed out the list, compared it with my family records, and they coincided! Chris had been married twice, his first son born on the voyage. That explained the surprisingly large number of children with which he was credited!

This “accidental” discovery led me to research the mining strike. I learned that Christopher, his
family, his wife’s family, and many of their friends constituted the 58 who were the first to
depart from Allendale. They were the more active of the strikers. More research revealed that
most of the 58 were either related to Christopher, or were shoulder fellows—members of the
same partnerships. Also on the ship was Christopher’s uncle, Samuel Vickers. According to
newspaper articles, Samuel was denied pay even though he didn’t strike, because the mining
agents thought he would share with the starving strikers. Samuel did very well in America, and
was mentioned in an early history book of Lafayette County, Wisconsin. Several of his
descendants fought in the Civil War. There were Reeds on the ship, and they later sent for
relatives, one who became my great grandmother after Christopher’s first wife died.

I contacted a library in England, inquiring about local histories, but antique books were not being circulated. However, the librarian extracted references to the strike, and forwarded them with some pamphlets, which helped locate other things. Somehow, I ended up e-mailing a number of people in England. A woman in Allendale let me use some of her photographs in my thesis. Another woman voluntarily went to the archives, looked up Chris’s work records, and forwarded a spreadsheet with the names of his partners, his brother’s partners, and what they earned. A British expert on historical smelting, told me how to locate a new excavation of a smelting mill in British Hollow, Wisconsin. One woman sent me a copy of a poem written about the first 58 to leave. It sold for 10 pence a copy at the time. One line says, “we’ll tell our tale in other lands.” As a direct descendant, I am fulfilling that prophecy!

Everywhere I looked, and sometimes where I didn’t look, things fell into my hands until I had accumulated quite a story. Through my search for the 58 miners and their families, I extracted hundreds of names. I had many miraculous experiences along the way. It was not just about me helping them—it was also about them helping me. Whenever I took the four-hour drive to Galena, I felt like I had a full car, although technically, I was alone.

When I went to the Galena cemetery to find Christopher’s burial plot and asked about the cemetery in Gratiot, I was told I had perfect timing. A woman from Gratiot just happened to be in the store ordering a monument for her recently deceased husband. We chatted for a few minutes, and discovered that we shared the same great grandfather—not Chris Ward, but Wash Noble. She told me exactly where the cemetery was. If I had found the store a few minutes earlier or later, I would have missed her.

On my way back to Chicago the next morning, I passed through Gratiot and traveled a few miles farther, but I didn’t find the road that led to the cemetery. I doubled back and stopped at a convenience store. The young woman at the register said she thought another woman named Biddy could tell me about the cemetery. She lifted the receiver to call her, then asked what name I was looking for. I said, “Noble.” She said, “I think Biddy is a Noble.” Five minutes later, I was sitting in the living room of my father’s cousin and childhood friend. My father died when I was eight, and I knew little of his life except what I could remember of his last few years. We lost touch with his family after his death. She told me my father loved to go dancing. He and a friend would come up from Rockford on Fridays, do all the girls’ chores, and then take her and her sister dancing somewhere. She said when he was younger he often stayed with their family for the summer, and did all the chores. When I left, the road to the cemetery was right where it was supposed to be. I know my father liked to play practical jokes, but I felt I was surrounded by a number of jokers who were having fun chasing me from pillar to post so I could have these wonderful experiences. Sometimes their mischief and amusement was so strong, I half expected them to leap out and surprise me!

I can sense that my ancestors know me, and they want me to know them. They didn’t just help me find their names. They helped me write an award-winning thesis, and gave me a sense of who they were and how they lived. I had the thrilling experience of writing new history. People in England were trying to find out what happened to the exiled miners, some of whom had gone to the Galena district, some to Canada and some to Australia. I had the advantage of being related to many of them, which gave me access to the people themselves, through the veil between heaven and earth. I got a stronger sense of myself, having lost touch with family at such a young age.

Being single, I have no one to pass this treasured information on to. As I sorted through my research, I filed some things and I threw some things away, but I knew that even the things I filed would eventually be thrown away when I die. That made me a little sad. One evening at a women’s Enrichment Night at church, they were demonstrating how to do decoupage. From there I got the idea to take an old run-down deacon’s bench I was debating whether to throw out, and decoupage it with pictures from my family history. I hammered and glued it back together, painted it, and then I pulled the more interesting items from my thesis: photos, maps, documents, etc. Using copies, I arranged them on the many facets of the bench and began layering on the Mod Podge. I finished it with a couple of coats of dull varnish. Now I have them where I can see them every day, without adding clutter to my little apartment, and my old deacon’s bench never looked so good.

This is not the end of the story either. I am off on another adventure to find my mother’s family in Germany. Who knows what surprises they have in store for me? I know if I am looking for them, they will find me.


At 4:21 PM, Blogger Greg said...

I enjoyed your comments on Vinegar Hill. I am descended from John and Hannah Graham part of the original 58 that came to Vinegar Hill from Allendale. The Graham family is still very much around in the area. We would love to read the poem if could share it.


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