International Women’s Day: Honoring My Great-Grandmothers

This is a quilt honoring my four great-grandmothers.

Left:  Martha Frances White Johnson (1862-1933) claimed Native American ancestry, and her maternal grandmother was said to have come from the Powhatan Reservation.

Right:  Margaret Matilda Stillwell Alexander (1847-1931) was an identical twin. She startled the neighbors at her sister’s funeral. Her husband was also a twin.

Top:  Mary Arabella McDonald Richardson (1867-1935) was the grand-daughter of immigrants from the Western Isles of Scotland. She loved to walk on her land in the Sandhills.

Bottom:  Margaret Jane Willey Oakley (1858-1934) gathered wild herbs for a living and ran the farm after her husband’s death. Her six children were all boys.

 

Copyright 2018 by Glenda Alexander.  All rights reserved.

How Quilts Contain History

I remember visiting New York City and experiencing its layered texture and gray color.  A huge number of people in a small space for centuries have left their patina of smoke and dust on every surface.  Handbills layered endlessly on every available wall made impromptu collages.  When I entered museums and galleries for the always main purpose of my visit, to see great art, I was struck by the number of 20th century pieces that reflected those surfaces outside.  They were obviously made in the city, which has long been an artists’ mecca.

Later, I took another trip to a museum in coastal Virginia to see works by the famous quilters of Gee’s Bend, Alabama.  The quilts were made mostly for home use, but they have become famous for their obvious roots in West African textile design, preserved by an isolated community of African slaves and passed on to their descendants.

The quilts were almost casually made, for practical reasons, but with roots in a distinctive type of design that the women of Gee’s Bend learned from their mothers and grandmothers and aunts.  They grew up with patchwork quilts that repeated geometric designs originally produced by narrow looms.  The quilts came from an organic process, not an academic tradition or formal instruction.  They came from an environment with fresh, bright colors, not automobile exhaust and building dust.

There was a quilt in the collection, however, made of material with a faded patina and rough surface, namely the work pants of a man who obviously did hard physical labor.  For me, it was the most impressive quilt in the collection, although I did love the vibrant colors and neater designs of the other quilts.  This quilt, by Lutisha Pettway, was rough, but it embodied history and emotion and spoke of the life of the family it came from.  The maker said that she made it when her husband passed away, so that she could wrap herself in his love.  She cut the pants legs apart and arranged the pieces so they formed a large rectangle.  The resulting design was simple and rhythmic.  The stained, worn, and faded denim had a surface interesting enough for any abstract expressionist, but this surface told a life story. 

Unlike the paintings in the Museum of Modern Art, this artwork didn’t compete for status and money, this artwork spoke sincerely of life and emotion.  It embodied the economic struggle of a family and their day-to-day labor, and a wife’s grief.

Pettway lacked academic training and credentials, however, her work’s emotional power was greater than that of any I saw in New York.  I know that statement would make most (maybe all) of my university art professors dismiss everything I have said.  Their prejudice kept them from seeing the art in the work of females, minorities, or anyone without a university degree.

I still love the museums.  So much beautiful and inspiring art is to be seen in them.  After all, it was museums and galleries where quilts were finally hung as works of art and treated with respect.

Copyright 2018 by Glenda Alexander.  All Rights Reserved.

See a variety of “work-clothes” quilts here:

http://www.soulsgrowndeep.org/quilt-categories/work-clothes

Aberdeen

Moore County, North Carolina has one of the largest populations of Highland Scottish descendants in the U.S.A.  About 150,000 Scottish people emigrated to America between 1600 and 1776, and North Carolina had the largest number of Highland settlers in America.  Between 1739 and 1776 about 50,000 Highlanders came to the the Cape Fear River Valley for relief from economic and political repression.  Remnants of the Highland culture survive in local names, liberally sprinkled with Mc’s, the suffix which meant “son of” in Gaelic, in numerous Presbyterian churches, and place names like Caledonia, Cameron, and Aberdeen.

Last week, I was in Aberdeen, driving along Bethesda Road, also called N. C. Highway 5.  I was surprised to pass under a large archway with large letters reading “Bethesda Cemetery.”  Immediately in view was an old white wood frame church, Bethesda Presbyterian, with a large cemetery on either side of the road.  I then drove under a matching archway and was back in residential territory.  I had to go back for a closer look.  I immediately recognized the McDonald and Patterson names in the oldest part of the Cemetery, and I saw that many of them were born in Scotland in the 1700’s.  Back at home, I found many of their names in Highland Scots Pattersons of North Carolina, by Alex Patterson, a volume you can find in most libraries in the state.

Because of the frequent naming of offspring for their parents and grandparents, the many  Duncans, Malcolms, Anguses, Daniels, and Archibalds, as well as Marys, Margarets, Floras and Jennets have made the McDonalds and Pattersons two of my greatest challenges in searching out the family history.  Read the stones in the cemetery, and you will see.

Sources:

David Dodson, The Original Scots Colonists of Early America: 1612-1783, (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1989;)  Douglas F. Kelly, Carolina Scots: An Historical and Genealogical Study of Over 100 Years of Emigration. (Dillon SC: 1739 Publications, 1998) pp. 79, 81, 209-211; Alex M. Patterson, Highland Scots Pattersons of North Carolina and Related Families. (Raleigh: Contemporary Lithographers, Inc., 1979;) Glenda Alexander, “John Finlayson McDonald & Jennet Isabella Patterson and the McDonald Family Cemetery, Crains Creek,” http://home.earthlink.net/~glendaalex/cemetery.htm.

Copyright 2018 by Glenda Alexander.  All Rights Reserved.

Valentine’s Day

William Edgar Oakley married Jessie Fannie Johnson on December 24, 1916 in Surry County, N. C.

In July of that year, they had survived the worst flood in western North Carolina history.  Ed, a widower with a small daughter, had his entire house swept away by rising water.  Fannie, on the opposite side of the river, (probably the Ararat, a tributary of the Yadkin) didn’t know their fate until days later, when the rain stopped and the water receded enough for people to cross the river and check on their neighbors and family.

I don’t know if this photograph was taken before or after the flood, but the tree behind them is in full leaf, so it must have been in advance of their Christmas Eve wedding, which took place at the home of Baptist minister J. R. Cruise in Mt. Airy.

Valentine’s Day

How did your grandparents meet?  You might find clues in the census.

William Franklin Alexander married Loula Isabella Richardson on July 13, 1910, in Moore County, N. C.  (On the left is their wedding portrait.)  In May of that year, the census said he operated a shingle mill and was a boarder in the John D. Richardson household.  John Richardson was a farmer, and other records indicate that he  owned a saw mill.  His daughter Loula and her sisters were employed on the farm at the occupation of “chopping,” while their brothers did plowing.  Adjacent to the Richardson household on the census page was George Morgan, who was a laborer in the shingle mill.  In the same year, Loula’s sister Pearl would elope with George.  Two of her nieces told me that she slipped out of the house at night, with the help of some female cousins of the McDonald family.  George drove his buggy to Virginia, where they married across the state line.

Like many contemporary couples, these people met at work.  The shingle mill was located on the farm, and Frank actually lived in the household of his future wife.

Last fall, at the North Carolina State Fair, I saw a steam-powered saw mill in operation, which was probably similar to the one used by Frank and George for cutting wooden shingles for roofs and siding for buildings.

Source:  1910 U. S. Census, Greenwood Township, Moore County, N. C., E. D. 7, p. 9A; Family Bible records of the Alexander family in possession of Glenda Alexander.

Copyright 2018 by Glenda Alexander.  All rights reserved.

History Detective Work

Sometimes when the facts don’t add up in your family story, you may find yourself playing History Detective. I found a case that looked like either the dead had been resurrected, or someone had defrauded the state of North Carolina.

In researching Oswald Alexander of Mecklenburg County, N. C., (1836-1915) I found that after his death, his wife Mary R. Alexander applied for a Confederate widow’s pension. However, in the cemetery of Sharon Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, I had seen and photographed the grave monument of Oswald’s wife, Mary Reid Alexander, who died in 1894!

Over a period of years, I collected records indicating that:

In Mecklenburg County, N. C.,

  1. Mary Frances Reid married John Mack White, who died in the Civil War.
  2. Mary Reid next married Oswald Alexander, and about 25 years later, she died.

Meanwhile, in South Carolina,

  1. John A. Walker married Mary Crain, and they had a daughter named Mary Crawford Walker, and then Mary C. Walker, Sr., died.
  2. John A. Walker married Mary Rutland, and they had a son named John Rutland Walker.
  3. John Walker, Sr., died.

Then,

  1. Oswald Alexander married Mary Rutland Walker in South Carolina, in 1897.
  2. Oswald died and Mary R. Alexander applied for a confederate widow’s pension in N. C.
  3. Mary R. Alexander and Mary C. Stough, both widows, shared a household in Mecklenburg County. Mary Alexander, only 5 years older than Mary Stough, was her stepmother.

Altogether, I found records for two Mary C. Walkers, two Mary R. Alexanders, and two John Walkers, whose life histories intertwined and criss-crossed the border between the Carolinas.

The death certificate of Mary Crawford Walker Stough, which gave the names of her spouse, parents, and stepmother, helped to clarify their relationships and put them in their proper places on the family tree. With the help of newspaper announcements of marriages and deaths, I was able to sort out these people and find their official records. After a thorough search, I was relieved to find that the dead stayed buried and all parties were honest!

Copyright 2018 by Glenda Alexander. All rights reserved.

Of Astronomy

When Jeremiah Mobley (1744-1826, Edgefield, S. C.) and his family read his copy of the Self-Instructor, they might have been led to believe that there was life on Mars and other planets. In the section on Astronomy, the “most sublime of all the sciences,” they would have read that Mars “has a considerable, but moderate atmosphere, so that its inhabitants probably enjoy a situation, in many respects, similar to ours.”

The sun was described as a “large and lucid planet,” solid, with an atmosphere and with mountains and valleys on its surface. Therefore, it was deducted that “it is most probably inhabited, like the rest of the planets, by beings whose organs are adapted to the peculiar circumstances of that vaster globe.” The Instructor explained how, by logic, the sun must have areas, like mountain tops, which would have cooler temperatures that would not “scorch up” everything on them. His knowledge of the approximate diameter of the sun and its size relative to the Earth’s size were pretty accurate, even though he underestimated its heat.

Astronomy was defined as the science concerning the motions of planets and stars. The Instructor explained how observation and logic determined that the earth was a sphere, and how scholars had debated whether the earth or the sun was the center of the universe.

The Mobleys may have consulted the book when they experienced the Great Comet of 1811, which presumably they and the rest of the world could see in the sky for the better part of a year, without a telescope. The Self-Instructor told them that comets remain in the sky for hundreds of years, and after fading out of sight, they will reappear to future generations. The Astronomy chapter also covered the topics of tides, eclipses, and stars, describing constellations and the Milky Way.

Astrology, however, was called a “malady of weak minds,” as the stars were considered to be too far away to influence human lives. Also, to know the future would destroy human confidence and motivation. Furthermore, the Instructor asserted that only “the light of science…can free us from the gross impositions of these wretched empiricks.” (An empiric being someone who believes in only what they can observe for themselves, as opposed, perhaps, to someone who believes, based on theory, that people live on the sun.)

On the other hand, farming according to the sun signs was a useful thing, as was telling time and navigating by the stars. Also important was the spiritual value of contemplating the vastness of the universe, enhanced by the elegant planetarium illustrated.

Sources: E. MacKenzie, The Self-Instructor; or Young Man’s Best Companion: Being a New, Sure, and Easy Guide to Knowledge, Virtue, and Happiness (Newcastle Upon Tyne: MacKenzie and Dent, 1827) pp. 263-290; “Great Comet of 1811,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Comet_of_1811, accessed 9 Feb. 2018, last edited on 6 February 2018.

Copyright 2018 by Glenda Alexander.  All rights reserved.