Tag Archives: history

Moving on

On the road from Birmingham to the beach there’s a town called Lockhart a mile or so north of the Florida state line. In the early 1900s, it was home to a rich pine forest and what was then the biggest lumber mill in the country. Today the only thing a visitor might notice is the Confederate flag on a tall pole just off the highway, with a plaque to inform visitors about “Lincoln’s Tax War.”

This nonsense is part of the campaign by various troglodytes to cover up the fact that the Civil War was brought upon us by slavery. If your beliefs fall anywhere within this dark corner and you’re not willing to consider my side, go away. (PS: All comments are moderated.)

I wouldn’t be writing about this if I hadn’t recently learned about the Confederate Catechism,  which the bigots use to justify themselves. The booklet blames Lincoln and the anti-slavery forces for starting the war and rejecting what the booklet claims was the South’s legal right to secede. Though it’s still circulating, this little pile of crud was written back in 1929 by Lyon Gardiner Tyler, son of President John Tyler — and as I’ve just found out, a man with whom I share ancestors. His mother, Julia Gardiner, came from one of the families on my father’s side.

The connection goes back to at least the 1700s and I’m not descended from the Tylers. Still, it can really kill your day when a name from your family tree is associated with such an odious piece of history. Even more disheartening is that the war is a century and a half in the past, yet we’re still shouting and sometimes shedding blood over the issues at its core. Hatred and ignorance are values passed down through generations.

It helps to remember that our collective legacy also includes some great, inspiring stories. This year marks the bicentennial of one of those events: the founding of the Erie Canal, which the Swans traveled when they moved west in 1848. They took a canal boat or “packet” from Rome, New York to Buffalo, then went on through the Great Lakes to Illinois aboard a sailing ship.

My great-grandfather Adin Swan, then a young man of thirteen, recounted the journey to my grandfather. He in turn told it to my uncle, and my aunt left it written down for me. Though it was probably embellished over the years, it’s still vivid. These are excerpts:

Tomb of Adin and Achsah Swan

The long days on the packet got to be boring, but when the boat was close to shore, my brothers and I would hop ashore…We would look for wild onions for mother to use in cooking and found many berries, especially the wild strawberries.

We caught wild turkeys and at night after building a campfire on the land, mother would roast the turkeys on a spit across a fire pit for all of us to enjoy. These towns where we stopped each night were called “belt cities.”

At long last and after two weeks, our packet docked at Buffalo and we had our first glimpse of one of the beautiful Great Lakes. It was the Erie…I stood looking at this lake, the largest and bluest I had ever seen!

I remember that on Lake Huron we had a terrific wind develop. The wind howled in the ship’s rigging and the snap of the sails could be heard even below deck.

As we neared Green Bay we saw many Indians, for here were gathered many of the tribes of the Algonquins, among them the Potawatomi…At last our ship sailed into Fort Dearborn at the mouth of the Chicago River.

I wouldn’t be here if not for the pioneer spirit and courage of my ancestors, the vision of the canal’s founders, and the sweat of the workers, many of them Irish immigrants, who dug it out of the wilderness. No matter how dire things seem today, these people overcame struggles we can barely imagine. Let’s hope that when our descendants look back on us, they’ll find we overcame the ugliness in our history, and our present.

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Our roots and their keepers

Another box to look through as we declutter. This one sat in the basement, out of sight and definitely out of mind, since we moved in 14 years ago. The weight tells me it’s either very important or something once important, now useless.

Inside is a magnificent old family history book, 1,315 pages long, published in 1883 by an ancestor of my father and given to him, according to the inscription in the flyleaf, at Christmas in 1937. I’ve seen this before, but also in the box is an envelope containing two sheets of paper that I never read or even knew existed: “Will of Adin Swan of Rome, N.Y.”

It’s a transcription of the original document, probably typed up by my Aunt Rowena, the family historian. It reads like a typical will: Considering the uncertainty of this mortal life and being of sound mind and memory, Blessed be Almighty God for the same, do make and publish this my last will and testament. But when I saw the name Adin Swan, my heart beat faster as I sat there staring at the papers, trying to fully absorb what I was holding in my hands. For these are the last known words of a man who fought in the Revolution.

According to Ro’s research, Adin joined the Continental Army at the age of 14 and spent most of his service in Rhode Island. Like many people in those times, he had a large family: I give to my oldest son George Swan and Philander Swan and William Swan and Alonzo Swan and Edwin A. Swan and to their heirs forever all my real and personal estate…and the furniture that my wife Martha leaves at her decease is to be equally divided between my daughters Polly Brainard and Ann Mosely and Palmire Rudd.

Twenty years after Adin’s death in 1842, his grandsons, George Swan’s sons, would join the Union Army and one would die in Louisiana. My own grandfather, Hoyt Swan, was born in 1879, just fourteen years after the Civil War ended. Now I sit here in 2016, reading First I give and bequeath unto my loving wife Martha Swan during her widowhood…

Thanks to Ro, who took the time to find, copy and file away the will, Adin and the early life of our still young country are no longer remote or abstract, but close and very real. Blessed are the genealogists, the librarians like my amazing wife, the archivists, and all of those who preserve our collective heart and soul, from inaugural addresses to postcards, cassette tapes, and floppy discs. (If you don’t know what cassettes and floppies are, ask your parents. They’re really not as clueless as you think.)

In this hyperactive, here-one-second-and-gone-the-next digital age, the tasks of preservation and organization must be harder than ever. I’m certainly not vain enough to think anyone will be reading this blog in 174 years, the age of Adin’s will. But I hope we leave something tangible, so if humankind is still around in 2190, someone whose world we can only dream about will still have the thrill of opening the envelope.

Will of Adin Swan.