Sunday, February 28, 2010

Black Hawk and 1832

I'll confess I had little knowledge of the, to quote Josiah Holden, "season of the Black Hawk War." So I thought I'd try and find out a little more about this event in the westward expansion of the United States. This is probably obvious to most, which explains why I figured it out so late in life, that our ancestors did not exist in a vacuum. They lived in communities and had the same worries we do today, a roof over their heads, food in their bellies, and clothes on their backs. Political and economic factors had profound affects upon our ancestors, which reminds me of the old saw, "The more things change, the more they stay the same."

Josiah mentions he started for Illinois in 1834. What is significant about this, is the United States was experiencing an unprecedented round of economic expansion. The future looked bright for the United States. Rarely do things always go as they seem like they should, however. 1836 saw huge immigration to the west. A great example of this is Michigan. It has been estimated that the population of Michigan quadrupled in 1836 alone! Then 1837 arrived. The image above comes from the Library of Congress and sums up the mood of the country.

1837 saw the collapse of the banking system - sound familiar? This plunged the U. S. into a huge recession which lasted about five years. No one had money. More importantly for the developing frontiers, demand for raw products, like lumber, iron ore, and surplus agricultural goods literally evaporated over night. You may wonder why your ancestor moved in the late 1830s, it could be an economic reason. Perhaps they were escaping debt in one area, or perhaps they thought there might be more opportunities somewhere else. The same goes for those ancestors who may have gone west in 1836. You can't find them in 1840, try looking eastward. Quite a few of these early arrivals simply gave up and went back towards 'home'.

So just what was the Black Hawk War? It occurred in 1831-32 and ended up like most conflicts with Native Americans, loss of many lives and even more pain and suffering for the Indians. Black Hawk was an Indian leader, pictured at right in a McKinney and Hall lithograph done in the late 1830s. He, unfortunately, lived at a time when the Native Americans were being pushed ever westward by a sea of white settlers. Often the lands on which the white settlers located came from dubious land treaties procured with gallons of whiskey and granted by Indian leaders who may not have had the authority to cede all the lands included in the treaties. Such was the case for Black Hawk's people.

The land of Black Hawk and his people had been taken by such a method. Of course the white population didn't see it in the same light. So when Black Hawk and about 1000 other Indians returned to their ancestral home in northern Illinois, wide spread panic occurred on the part of the white settlers. The Governor of Illinois declared this an invasion of Illinois and he called up the militia. If you click on the link you can read all about the Black Hawk War. What I found amazing is all of the famous individuals who took part in the fighting, Abraham Lincoln, Jefferson Davis, and Zachary Taylor, just to name a few.

I don't know about you, but whenever I look at my ancestors, I always think about the Native Americans who lived on the land before my ancestors arrived. It really must have been a cultural clash on a magnitude 9 scale. Obviously we cannot change the past - but we can learn from the past.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Westward Ho!

Josiah Holden writes to his niece on 22 Aug 1880. He apologizes to Sarah for his poor penmanship, it seems his eyesight is beginning to fail him. He almost sounds tired. At 83 years old, Josiah certainly could claim the right to spend the rest of his days on the front porch. However, Josiah and his wife had just returned from visiting their daughter up in Manistee, Michigan. What seems even more remarkable about this trip of over 100 miles, is that this elderly couple traveled by themselves. As Josiah succinctly states, "Two rather old chickens to make such a trip alone!" I like this guy!

As I go through more of these letters, I almost feel like an unseen visitor. I wonder if Josiah or Sarah would ever have dreamed that their correspondence would be read with such interest almost a 130 years after it was written. It obviously must have been important to Sarah Cummings, as she saved the letters. So did someone else, I would assume a descendant of Sarah's (most likely a grandchild).

Josiah relates his story of westward movement. He tells Sarah:

We left our native home (Hollis, New Hampshire) the first of June 1832 with four
bright and promising little boys, the oldest 7 years and the youngest, Charles
less than 2 months old. We started for Illinois but it was the season of
the Black Hawk War and we stopped in Ohio and stayed there 2 years and
Gregg was born in Cuyahoga Co. on the 18 day of February 1834 and the first of
June of that year we started for Illinois. Stayed there 8 years, from
thence we moved to New Albany, Indiana and stayed there for two years and from
there moved to Michigan in 1845.

I just marvel at the frugality of his words. He doesn't mention all of the tribulations this young couple must have gone through. Imagine travelling with four young children, including one infant during a time when the most common mode of transportation was your feet.

Josiah does not mention how they travelled. I wonder if they went via the Erie Canal? It certainly would seem logical. By 1832, the Erie Canal had exceeded the wildest expectations of the New York Canal Company. Many of our ancestors who came west traveled, at least some part of the journey, on a canal boat. If you click on the link it will take you to the Old Erie Canal State Park. It's a really neat website. I also found the photograph below in the Wikipedia Commons.

I also went looking for Josiah Holden in the 1840 Federal Census. I found him in Jackson, Will County, Illinois.

I will admit it is kind of difficult to read, but the entry above is for Mr. J. R. Holden. I skimmed by the census page on Ancestry three times before I realized it was him. Josiah's brother Phineas Hemmenway Holden (you gotta love that name) has a large family that stays in Will County for years. These must be the 'Illinois' relatives Josiah mentions every now and again.

Coming next - the Black Hawk War...

Monday, February 22, 2010

Sarah Cummings the Genealogist

We now move into the '80s - 1880s that is.

Sarah now begins her research in earnest. I am not quite sure what transpired between her last letter and the one sent to Josiah in January 1880, but her letters from this point on must have been filled with questions regarding the family history. If you have started researching your family tree late in life, my guess is you probably wish you had asked older relatives all those questions that can no longer be asked. Well, Sarah asked those questions.

The letter Uncle Josiah sends to Sarah is dated 29 February 1880. He starts his tale by letting Sarah know the "genealogy of the family for the first 100 years on the period before the time you speak of is not so well kept as it has been since."

He then goes on to relate the story Richard and Justinian Holden and their arrival in Ipswich in April 1634, aged 25 and 23 years old. The first page of Josiah's letter is shown on the right.

The story that he tells of Richard and Justinian Holden seems to have been a common telling of their escape from England because of Puritanism. Evidently, this story is based on a family history published in 1800. I've been looking for a copy of this, but it seems to have disappeared. I wonder if Josiah had a copy of that history?

The rest of this letter has a jumble of names and dates, and even after spending the better part of a week with it, I still can't figure it out! I get the feeling that Sarah couldn't either, as she must have asked him to clarify the family history.

On to the Black Hawk War...

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Grasshoppers and Kansas

We are almost coming to the end of Uncle Josiah and the 1870s. My next post will start his letters from the 1880s. Before I forget, I mentioned a couple of posts ago about a Miss Eastman. I thought her first name might be Lucy. I am 99% certain it is Mary F. Eastman. I found reference to her visiting Grand Rapids in 1874. It appears Josiah's son was also involved in the women's suffrage movement. I wish I had access to the Grand Rapids Herald. I'm sure they covered the event.

Now on to Kansas. My last post described the letter Josiah sent to his Niece regarding his golden wedding anniversary. The last part of the letter describes the tribulations of one of his grand daughters (not named) living in Kansas. She lives in the aptly named, Grasshopper region of Kansas. The story goes something like this, around the first of July in 1874 a swarm of grasshoppers descended onto the farm of his grand daughter. They devoured everything that was green over the period of two days.

His son-in-law lost his 20 acres of corn, "eaten right down to the ground", Josiah mentions. He tells Sarah he sent his grand daughter a couple boxes of supplies and a barrel of flour as they are quite destitute. He feels the Country has forgotten these poor souls.

I went in search of newspaper articles and found among more than 175 articles listed for 1874 at, the small little clip to the right from the Chicago Tribune dated 08 Aug 1874. It describes the horrible destruction caused by the grasshoppers. Evidently, they were so bad they destroyed every green thing in sight. I also found the wonderful link at the bottom of this post. It goes to the Kansas Historical Society. They have eyewitness accounts of the plague. It seems that the grasshoppers would even eat the wool right off of the sheep and devour shirts off the backs of people! The trains couldn't run because the crushed grasshoppers on the tracks made them too slick for the train wheels to get traction. I just can't imagine that!

Saturday, February 13, 2010

The Golden Wedding Aniversary

Well it finally happened. Josiah and his wife, Joanna, celebrated their golden wedding anniversary! Josiah had been writing to Sarah Cummings about the plans for this grand event for more than a year. His letter dated 17 Feb 1875 gives Sarah all of the details.

His brother Milton Holden came from New Hampshire. Josiah mentions that his sister Lucetta sent a poem which was read at the festivities. He mentions that he had sent Sarah a copy of the poem, unfortunately it doesn't seem to have made it into the box of letters I have.

Josiah mentions he and his wife received $254.38 in gifts of money. My trusty inflation calculator says that would be the equivalent of $4788.16 today. Not bad for a present. Josiah writes, "the whole thing passed off in the most pleasing manor at the Morton House." I found a photo of the Morton House on the online collection of the Grand Rapids Library. It was taken in the 1880s.

I look at this image and wonder what the 78 year old Josiah was thinking as he walked into the lobby of this grand hotel with his wife of 50 years. He was surrounded by friends and family.

He again tells Sarah that he has lived too long. He states, "I used to think a person at that age (78) was a pretty old person and now when I look around and find so few of that age it causes me to wonder why I have been left here so long." He then mentions that if he could go back and tread over the ground one more time, he would try to mend all the bad plans.

He then mentions the grasshoppers in Kansas...

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Of Blatherskites and Dreamers

Josiah writes to his niece on 21 June 1874. The image above is part of this letter. Uncle Josiah is describing to Sarah the exciting news! The voters of Michigan, that is to say - men, are going to be voting on an amendment (in Josiah's own words), "to our constitution for the enfranchisement of women to be voted on yes or no".

He goes on to say, "needless to say that I am amongst the advocates of the measure, as all my children and grand children are that are old enough to distinguish between good and evil..." I am liking old Josiah more and more as I read through his letters to Sarah. You can almost sense his wonderment at the unfolding drama.

He tells Sarah about the 'mass convention' that was held in the 'longest hall in the city'. Sarah is told it was literally crammed with people far into the evening. The speakers were mostly women, including a female from Pittsburgh (whom he does not name) and a Miss Eastman from Massachusetts. She evidently spoke for over an hour in the most 'modest and telling' fashion, according to Josiah.

The newspaper article above and to the right is from the Grand Traverse Hearld dated 30 July 1874. I know it is a little hard to read, but this is another view of the same event. The Grand Traverse Herald was ardently anti-suffrage. Miss Eastman, (I think she is Lucy Eastman) is said to "come from Massachusetts to find some way 'to drive a coach and four' thro' the Michigan laws".

The author of this little diatribe goes on to explain just how lucky women are. They are always favored in regards to the law, and most of them don't even want to vote. At one point the author implies men have less legal protection than women! The final paragraph of this letter to the editor produces a passing shot at the like of Miss Eastman. He calls them blatherskites.

A blatherskite essentially is someone who talks nonsense. It really is more than that, though. Not only do they talk nonsense, they are contemptible too! This was about as close as one could come to using profanity in print in the 19th century.

In case you were wondering, the Michigan amendment failed by a vote of more than 2 to 1.

I guess Uncle Josiah was the dreamer....

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Home Mail Delivery

Uncle Josiah writes to our Sarah on 8 Feb 1874 in reply to Sarah's previous letter. Evidently, Sarah's husband William had been ill but had since recovered. William Cummings had been discharged from the army during the Civil War. He had contracted some illness which had nearly killed him. William also received a pension for his service in the War.

Josiah then goes on to discuss his Golden Wedding Anniversary and his hope that both he and his wife would be alive to celebrate it. I'll let you in on a little secret - they do. He tells Sarah about visiting two of his great grandchildren. Josiah states he has lived longer than he ever thought he would. It almost seems like he is a little depressed.

He mentions his brother Adams Holden, Sarah's adoptive father. Adams had been dead for many years. Evidently his son Brewster was still not amounting to much. I'll have to look up Brewster and see what I can find out about him.

In closing, Josiah tells Sarah to include his address on her letters. Grand Rapids now had mail delivery right to their house, as long as the address is specified. He listed his address as 264 Lyons Street in Grand Rapids. The image at the top of the page was taken from the most amazing map. It was produced in 1868 and drawn by A. Roper. I found it at the Library of Congress website. I wonder just where his house was on Lyon street?