I’ve grown up knowing our story. Our family history, based on the patriarchal line. I know how the pioneers worked their way to this gorgeous prairie in southwest Michigan from England, by way of Delaware and Ohio.
My ancestors were solidly Quaker. Nary a soldier among them. For someone who loves history, especially the Civil War, coming from a line of Quaker farmers has always been slightly disappointing.
The Greens were quiet, nondisruptive folk. Still are. There will be no rocking the boat with this family. So it shouldn’t be too surprising that even though they settled an area that eventually was called a ‘hotbed of abolitionism’, their names are absent from the historical footnotes. Not surprising, but disappointing.
But surely the George begat Paul begat David begat me line isn’t the only one I come from.
What about Paul’s mother, George’s mother, and their mother’s mother’s mother?
You can see why it’s easier to stay with the paternal line. So many more lines and names and stories. It’s almost too much to keep straight.
But if the stories of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are important, if God can be found in the ancient of ancients, then so too are the stories of our ancestors.
If God worked through the stories of Sarah, Hannah, Deborah – even the unnamed midwives in Exodus, then God was surely at work in the stories of Lydia, Rachel, Emeline, and those unknowns lost to history.
When I dug into my matriarchal family history, I was blown away by how fascinating it was. Nearly every line led back to England and Quakers (except the one French Huguenot couple who were persecuted, fled to England, and of course, converted to Quakerism). I already knew that was my heritage. But I didn’t know the blood ran so deep.
My 9x great-grandpa bought 1000 acres of land from William Penn, and my 8x great-grandpa signed a charter with him in 1676. My 5x great-grandpa helped create Michigan’s state Constitution. Apparently Quaker farmers aren’t always boring!
A particularly sweet piece of knowledge was that my Great-great-great-grandpa was not only a Civil War soldier (finally! For a pacifist, I love this war way too much.) but was part of the regiment that captured Jefferson Davis. (Should probably keep that one a secret in Virginia.)
But the greatest part was finding out that the non-Green side of my family was not only Quaker, but defiantly so.
They uprooted and moved north from North Carolina because of slavery, leaving Ohio for good prairie in Michigan offered cheap by the government. Eventually they were moving people to freedom, being raided by Kentuckians, starting a new Quaker group that was more passionate about active involvement, the area known as the Quaker Line, with people as famous as Henry Clay taking notice.
But of course, there are unpleasantries as well. There were feuds and the gradual leaving of the faith, and the very, very uncomfortable fact that buying over 1000 acres in 1829 played a very real part in the Indian Removal Act of 1830. Even though they were friends to the Indians, it didn’t stop most of their removal from the land.
And going back even further, some of my colonial ancestors (one of which first settled in the city we’re moving to) owned slaves. Family history, like all history, is complex and hard and contradictory.
I’m proud I can say I am descended from such strongly opinionated, passionate people. (And also the silently pacifist defiant side, Civil War love aside.) And I am shocked that I only learned about this in the last couple of weeks.
Because who pays attention to the line of women?
And if I don’t tell my kids about this, record this for the future, it could all die out because of my marriage license.
People value history. But what kind of history are we valuing? Only male history? Only biblical history? Why does family history even matter?
We went to a dead family reunion a couple of weeks ago. 5 cemeteries within 20 miles of each other, filled with my greats and the great-great greats. Headstones, monuments, and those tilted, cracked, ‘I can’t even read this’ slabs tell part of my story. The names and dates a glossary to the atlas of my life.
The stories of my ancestors matter because my story matters. Because my kids stories matter. And someday, our stories are going to be the stuff of ancestral lore. How did I live my whole life here and not know cemeteries filled with my relatives were so close?
Yes, the biblical narrative shows us how people interacted with God, and we drill it into our heads and our children’s heads, because we see value in it.
But isn’t there also value – maybe more – in learning our actual history and seeing the humanity of our ancestors, as well as finding God in the midst of it?
People have always been human. They have always been a mix of oppression and justice, fighting and friendship. The people we come from have been the same as us.
I am from a line of faith and activism, but as I prepare to leave this land of my ancestors, the description that stands out is the one of people packing up and crossing mountains, traveling hundreds of miles, to settle in a new place. They set down roots that now reach the future, 200 years away. I can only hope that a century or two down the road, my descendants will look back and find the same kind of legacy and humanity in me that I have found in mine.
So, what’s in your history? Anything fascinating or interesting?