Thursday, October 30, 2008

Voices from the Past

Last year my daughter was given a “politically correct” school assignment to research her ancestry and determine who her immigrant ancestors were. The assignment was intended to show that all Americans were immigrants – some have simply immigrated more recently – and less legally – than others. The assignment backfired when she learned that only two of her ancestors were immigrants. The rest had been living on American soil before the U.S. was founded! Dozens of her ancestors were among those who created a new and radically different nation out of a hostile wilderness and established the principles by which it would quickly rise to become the greatest nation on earth.

Since I was the one in possession of the family Bibles and other ancestral records, it fell to me to help her with the research for this project. What started out as a simple task of assembling a list of names and dates of birth and death quickly spiraled out of control. We soon realized there were numerous gaps in the records in my possession, and that the records for several branches of our family ended prior to identifying their immigrant ancestor. So we had to start digging deeper.

We discovered that, prior to about 1850, there were few government agencies or offices keeping birth, marriage, and death records. Instead, the primary repositories for these records were local churches. Fortunately, as city governments began taking responsibility for maintaining these records in the mid- to late 19th century, churches provided copies of their records to the local town clerks. These clerks often compiled those records into local histories that were published in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. And what most would find mundane reading became life-changing for me.

It began when I read a few sentences in The History of Pittsford Vermont concerning Stephen Jenner, one of my ancestors who fought briefly in the Revolutionary War. Stephen and his wife, Mary, moved to Pittsford in 1772 following their marriage. On July 7, 1775 they had their first child, my great-great-great-great-grandfather, Timothy. On Timothy’s second birthday 1,000 soldiers from Gen. John Burgoyne’s army attacked the nearby town of Hubbardton, killing some 300 men, women, and children. Those not killed were forced to flea, some bringing the news of the attack to Pittsford, where the townspeople could hear the sounds of gunfire from the battle. Fearing a similar fate, the people of Pittsford buried their belongings, so the British could not make use of them. While others prepared to defend the town, because Mary was four months pregnant with their second son, Stephen helped her mount their only horse, placed the infant Timothy in her arms, then led them out of town under the cover of night.

Tears welled up in my eyes the first time I read this account and imagined the scene of a 28 year-old father, having buried everything they could not carry, placing his pregnant young wife and 2-year-old son on a horse, then stealing through the darkness, leaving their home and nearly all possessions to an unknown fate while silently praying they did not run into any British scouts who might be patrolling the roads that night.

For the first time in my life I truly began to understand the miracle of the American Revolution and the sacrifices my own ancestors had made to create this country. It was no longer just a list of names, places, and dates in a dusty history book. It had become personal, because it was the story of my own family.

For several months now, the leisure time I would normally spend reading a Tom Clancy novel has instead been devoted to reading about the lives of my own ancestors in The History of Ancient Woodbury and similar tomes. And it has been as fascinating as any adventure story. I’ve read of Civil War battles, the War of 1812, the French & Indian War, the Pequot War, and King Philip’s War, of men and women conquering the dangers of the wilderness to build their homes and lives, of the struggle for the abolition of slavery and the institution of women’s voting rights. I’ve read the actual charters of new townships, deeds for purchase of land from indigenous tribes, records of church and town meetings, and letters and diaries expressing the hopes, fears, and ideals of those who risked their lives and fortunes to create the United States of America.

And it has left me with an overwhelming sense of shame!

We are a lazy, depraved, and ungrateful generation who do not deserve the great gift that has been given to us. Perhaps because we did not put a single drop of our own sweat or blood into obtaining our freedoms, we treat them with disregard. We have abandoned most of the principles, morals, and personal disciplines that made the U.S. once the greatest nation on earth. We have distorted, confused, and abused those principles, morals, and disciplines for political or financial gain, or to assuage our guilt at violating them. And by doing so, we have desecrated the masterpiece my ancestors created.

The voices of my ancestors now cry out from the past. They cry out from the pages of those local histories, letters, deeds, and wills. They demand to know how long I will sit back and allow my own countrymen to despoil what they worked so hard to create. They cry out to me to do something to reverse our country’s deterioration before it’s too late to salvage my heritage. And the pain and despair in their voices has made the political and social climate of this country intensely personal for me.

I only hope their voices reached me in time … their voices have certainly determined how I will vote next week!

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