Tuesday, August 19, 2008

The House Where Clara Grew Up

Some time between 1910 and 1913, Clara Paxton went to Valley Falls, Kansas, to live with her Uncle Charlie and Aunt Sue Overholser, who had no children of their own. Her mother, Grace Overholser Paxton, had died in 1901, before Clara turned two, and her father George Bailey Paxton died in 1910. Clara and her brother Burton were living with their grandmother Paxton in Independence, Missouri, in 1910 (down the street from the future Mrs. Harry Truman), but some time before 1913 they left her home. Clara went to Valley Falls and Burton to his aunt Hattie Overholser Jones in Columbus, Kansas.

(At left is a picture of Main Street in Valley Falls in 1909; the population in 1910 was 1150.)

Clara lived with Charlie and Sue until she finished high school in 1918. Now, thanks to some recently posted newspaper archives online, I think I've found some information about just where she lived.

The picture at left is from the front page of the July 27, 1906, issue of the Farmers Vindicator, the newspaper in Valley Falls. With the headline "An Historic Corner," the accompanying article talks about an old local hotel called the Cataract House (cataract being another word for waterfall--who knew?). Most of the article describes the hotel, which was built in 1857, but the last paragraphs touch on our family in explaining why the hotel is no longer there:
In 1880 the Cataract House was purchased by Mrs. Susan M. Gardiner, of Winchester, which under the management of J. J. Gardiner continued a popular hotel for 20 years. . . .About the end of the century the Cataract was closed as a hotel and the property was transferred to Susan E. Gardiner, now Mrs. Chas. L. Overholser. The work of removing and tearing down the old house began in the Fall of 1901 and in the year following the present modern cottage home of Mr. and Mrs. Overholser was completed.
Herein are illustrations of the old house and the new. The first lights in the Cataract House were tallow candles, then sperm, a burning fluid lamp, and later the Kerosene Chandelier. The Overholser home is brilliantly lighted by electricity in every room, and even out to the wood house and the hen house.
So from reading this and later newspaper items about Charlie and Sue, I feel fairly sure that the house pictured is the one where the Overholsers lived while Clara was with them.

More nuggets from the Vindicator to come.

Finally! We're a Persecuted Minority!

I suspect a lot of you are like me in that you never really had much of an answer to the question "What are you?" (i.e. Irish, German, etc.) Except for the dash of exotic Czech on Blanche Vermillion's mother's side--and Miles Branch's Welsh mother--I thought of my family as just a bunch of indistinct white Americans.

And I'm not alone. When confronted with the box asking for their ancestry on the 2000 census, 7.3 percent of Americans said simply "American" in 2000. While you might think that this is a widely varied group of people who didn't know any more about their ancestry (or didn't consider it the Census Bureau's business), there's actually a distinct geographical pattern to those responses. You can see it in the map above, where the counties with the greatest percentage of people answering "American" are darkest.

The shape that emerges is a map of Appalachia, a region whose first white settlers were the group known as "Scotch-Irish" or "Scots-Irish." Their real origins are in the border region between England and Scotland, though many of them lived in Northern Ireland before coming to America in the 1700s. I have slowly come to understand, with the help of a couple of good books, that the Scots-Irish were and are a very distinct cultural group--and that much of my family is part of that culture. It is a culture that overlaps with a lot of better-known segments of American society: born-again Christians, NASCAR fans, and, at least in this year's primaries, Hillary Clinton voters. (The map of the counties where she won by more than 65 percent looks a lot like the one above.) But it's also a culture that doesn't have a strong sense of itself as being different from other Americans--thus the answer to the census question.

One of the things I've learned is that the Scots-Irish culture in its early years was open to people of other nationalities who were willing to adopt its (protestant) religion and values. So even though I have found French, Dutch, and Swedish people in my backcountry ancestors, they all seem to have signed on to the Scots-Irish culture.

Cal Jones's parents were both very much of this culture. Blanche Vermillion Branch's father was, too, as was Clara Paxton Jones's father. (Her mother's family had some Scots-Irish blood, but they were part of a German-American culture that existed alongside the Mid-Atlantic Quakers.

One of the books I'd recommend if you want to know more is called Albion's Seed, by David Hackett Fischer. Fischer breaks down the migration of people from the British Isles before the revolution into four distinct cultural groups: New England Puritans, Virginia elites (and the indentured servants who came to serve them), Mid-Atlantic Quakers, and the Scots-Irish who populated the hills and backcountry. Fischer's book is written for a scholarly audience and can be slow going sometimes, but it opened my eyes to a lot of American history that I'd never understood.

And it explained some things about the people we call hillbillies or rednecks. For example, the stereotype of the hillbilly in a tumbledown shack (or more recently, the mobile home) isn't necessarily a sign of laziness: the Scots-Irish, living on the border, were constantly in the midst of war between England and Scotland, and whatever they built was sure to be destroyed. This state of war also led them to develop close affiliations with family-based clans that were allied with one side or the other: the Hatfields and McCoys were continuing a very old tradition when they were a-feudin'.

A more readable book is Born Fighting: How the Scots-Irish Shaped America by James Webb, a U.S. Senator from Virginia. Webb is a former Marine, and his take on his Scots-Irish heritage is less scholarly and more of a celebration and a rallying cry. He wants his fellow Scots-Irish to be aware of their heritage and think and vote more like a group. He also recounts a lot of history of the Scots-Irish before they came to America, which is enlightening.