Sunday, November 11, 2012

Not Quite Hatfields and McCoys, But Still Pretty Bloody

The New York Times wrote about the Turner-Howard feud in 1889.
Well, I certainly didn't expect to uncover a new piece of family history while reading Malcolm Gladwell's book Outliers, but that's exactly what just happened. Outliers is Gladwell's attempt to explain what makes people successful. As the back cover puts it, "we should look at the world that surrounds the successful—their culture, their family, their generation, and the idiosyncratic experiences of their upbringing." (I'm just halfway through the book, and it's really fascinating. I'd recommend it.)

To illustrate how centuries-old cultural traits shape people to this day, Gladwell talks about one of my favorite subjects, the Scotch-Irish immigrants whose proud, violent culture was shaped by their experience on the border of England and Scotland. A good half of my ancestry is Scotch-Irish, and some of the stories I've told on this blog reflect that culture of feuding hill-country clans. (Remember how Silas Jones fled Arkansas? The story is here, here, and here.) Gladwell uses as an example a feud between the Howard and Turner families in Harlan County, Kentucky, after the Civil War.

The feud he recounts—between the descendants of William Turner and those of Samuel Howard—went on for years and cost at least a dozen lives. (One account is here; you can read Gladwell's summary on Google Books here.) It started with a dispute over a poker game and escalated with each successive insult to Scotch-Irish honor. At one point, the governor sent troops to the area to protect the courthouse in the midst of the feud, and in 1889, the New York Times published an article about the feud, calling it "a faction war that has cost many lives and still disgraces the state of Kentucky." The main characters on the Turner side were grandsons of the patriarch William Turner: Will, George, and "Devil Jim." As Gladwell puts it succinctly, "These were not pleasant people."

When I saw the name Turner and Harlan County, though, I had to reach for my family history files. And sure enough, the same William Turner described as the patriarch of the feuding family was an ancestor. Born in 1770 in Virginia, William married Susannah Bailey and moved to Harlan County, where he owned a tavern and two general stores. Their daughter Mary Turner married Bales Shumate. They had at least one son, William Shumate, before Mary drowned in the Clover Fork River in 1828. (The family story is that she was going to her sister's house to care for someone who was sick.) A few years later, their son William moved to Arkansas with his wife Sarah and her Ball family; Bales moved to Arkansas at about the same time. William and Sarah were the parents of Bennett Shumate, who fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War and was Cal Jones's grandfather. (I wrote about the Joneses and Shumates in the Civil War here.)

So although my direct ancestors had moved west some 30 years before the feud began, they were very closely related to the feuding Turners. I hope to learn more about the particulars of the feud and report in future blog posts.

Monday, June 11, 2012

The Vermont Clarks and the Year Without a Summer

I've talked about this before, but the most common theme in my family history is an insistent westward movement over many generations. I've learned enough by now to understand the macro reasons for such movement: people scraping together an existence from the land had to keep looking for new land, and, being poor people, they had to keep looking for land nobody really wanted.

But in the absence of much detailed written or oral history in my family, I've never known much about the events or decisions that may have led anyone in particular to pick up stakes and move. (There are some exceptions, most notably Silas Jones's perceived need to get out of Arkansas in a hurry.)

So it was exciting for me to hear today about the Year Without a Summer in New England in 1816. I heard about this on an episode of Backstory, a terrific public radio show about American history. As they described it, there was crazy snow, cold temperatures, and frozen ground all summer, leading to crop failures and hunger.

The eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia in 1815 was bad news for farmers, but good news for painters of sunsets. J .M. W. Turner's painting Chichester Canal was inspired by the golden sunsets caused by the ashy sky.
It is now understood that the cold weather was largely due to a huge volcanic eruption in Indonesia the year before, but no one knew that at the time, and, as the Backstory guys explained, the freak winter caused people to leave Vermont and New Hampshire in great numbers for less settled, warmer places like Ohio and Indiana.

As it happens, my only New England ancestors, John and Marcy Clark (who I've talked about a little before), were married in Vermont in 1810. Eight years later, their son Ambrose was born in Ross County, Ohio. I have no record of when they moved (nor do I have birthdates or birthplaces for any children older than Ambrose) but the timing makes me wonder if they were among the people who fled New England when it seemed that summer would never come again.