My Disreputable Ancestors

Please note: my friend and distant cousin John Alexander authored this article, notwithstanding that WordPress automatically attributed it to me. John has written a book about his Alexander family, see a book review  here.

His  website has a wealth of information, including the entire book as an HTML file with operable links. Check it out. Enjoy!

Robin

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 My Disreputable Ancestors, by John Alexander (Jun 13, 2019)

If genealogical researchers are ever satisfied that they have done enough digging and get around to writing their family histories, they often present their ancestors as model citizens who never strayed from the strait and narrow or, alternatively, as stick figures without personality. Although my wife assigns me to the second category by accusing my characters of being present only so they can take part in the begetting of future generations, I want to introduce you to three Alexanders, two of them named James, first cousins through fathers and through mothers, and show that these men had foibles just as we do today. One of the men, my great-great-great grandfather James, seems to have always used James C. when referring to himself, probably to avoid confusion with his cousin. However, when I began my research, I found that, in spite of this precaution, many genealogists had mixed up the identity of the two, sometimes making them one person. This tale also involves James C.’s son William.

Although I have never found him mentioned in histories of the region, the man known only as James was among the very first European settlers in western Tennessee, the area lying between the Tennessee River and the Mississippi River. He can be found on the 1820 federal census[1] where he and his brother William are listed near Amos Milligan (sometimes Milliken) and Adam Row (sometimes (Rowe). Milligan and Row, who, along with James House,[2] arrived in 1819, are credited as leading the way in settling Henry County, Tennessee. James and William were soon joined by other family members, including their parents and their cousin James C., although most of them probably arrived after formation of the county in 1821.

Religious meetings in early Henry County likely took place in the homes of settlers, but, in December 1828, as stated in the minutes of Antioch Primitive Baptist Church, James and his wife Hester (sometimes Esther) Siddall/Siddle joined six other people to found one of the first churches in the region. Although he was one of the founders, James was excluded from the church only a few years later, in May 1834, and the minutes of the church report dismissal from the church due to “reports unfavorable to Christian character, excluded for making too free with ardent spirits.”[3] Not too long afterward, James, Hester, and their family left Henry County to settle in western Missouri, where he may have found a new place of worship. Perhaps, he, William, and cousin James C. got together too often in Henry County as might be inferred from James C.’s and William’s episode, just below.

When James C. arrived in Henry County in the 1820s with wife Judith Siddle, son William, son John Priestly (my great-great grandfather), and other children, he appears to have been a man of means since he purchased property and posted money as bondsman for relatives’ legal transactions. However, by the late 1840s, his money was gone, and he and William owed many of their kinfolk and neighbors. I have not found any mention in records of the cause of their decline in fortune, but James C. and William were forced to mortgage their real and personal property and eventually sell it at public auction to satisfy claims against them.[4] Although they were not unique in losing all their money and becoming indebted, the interesting aspect of their situation is the listing of assets that were mortgaged and put on sale. There were the common-place items of “two feather beds and bed clothing, steads, & furniture, one claybank mare, one sorrel studcolt, one cow, & side saddle,” “one small bay horse, three yoke of oxen, one ox wagon,” and “one tract of land lying in the 13thcivil district in Henry County containing by estimation about eighty eight acres,” but, in William’s listing, was also “one still, one cap & worm, & twelve still tubs.” Someone’s love for that still must have prompted separate listing of each component. With twelve tubs to provide raw material for the distillation process, there may have been enough product for William, his father, and his cousin-uncle James all to indulge too freely in ardent spirits. That I sometimes don’t remember whether the still and equipment belonged to William or to James C. can perhaps be explained by my overindulging each time I opened the books on their situation.

Lest one believes from this look into their lives that this trio were extremely different from their neighbors, the reader should know that historians tell us that men and women of that time living in the still-frontier area of western Tennessee and Kentucky did more than a bit of drinking and that speculating in land was not uncommon. James, James C., and William merely had the misfortune to have their failures spelled out in public records for all to see.

The subjects of our story survived their troubles without any record of permanent harm and prospered in their new homes, Webster County, Missouri, for James, and Fayette County and Shelby County in Tennessee for James C. and William. James and James C. – and William – have numerous Alexander descendants living today and very likely have surviving non-Alexander descendants, although I have not attempted to trace non-Alexanders after a couple of generations. These descendants include some rather prominent citizens, and I apologize if any descendants are embarrassed by these revelations. Remember, one was my ancestor also, and I am not ashamed that he was human.

[1] 1820 U S Census, Stewart Co., Tennessee, p. 233.

[2] I have never been able to find James House listed on any early Stewart County or Henry County census.

[3] “Minutes of the Antioch Primitive Baptist Church,” transcribed and annotated by Johnny Walker. A copy is in the Inman Genealogical Room, Henry County (TN) Library.

[4] Registration of Deeds, Grants, in Henry County, 1847; reprinted on-line at https://johnandval.org/genealogy/AlexFamHist.html, Appendix I (upper-case I not  1).

 

3 thoughts on “My Disreputable Ancestors”

  1. John,

    I love your article. My Deal/Diehl relatives were not nearly as disreputable as your folks. They were honest coopers … barrel makers … who just happened to live adjacent distillers for decades. I am sure that no one indulged too freely of the product they were putting up in casks. Ha!

    Gary Willis

    1. Yep. Probably didn’t even take a sip. As you say, “ha!”

      It is interesting to note that James was excluded from the church not for merely drinking but for making too free use of drink.

      1. And I think it was one of the Deals who went into court in North Carolina with his assailant as a witness to have the court declare that a piece of his ear was bitten off in a fair drunken brawl. During those days, some crimes were punished by notching an ear. It was important to Deal that he had proof he was not a criminal, just a drunken brawler.

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