I wrote this up for another reason, and it occurs to me that I really ought to post it here:
Lies my family told me
I have joined the legions of silver-haired old ladies who get a kick out of genealogy, and there’s a good reason why. Once you start digging into the past, you uncover a steamy soap opera starring your own family. Most people like to talk about the dignitaries who decorate their family trees. I’m a lot more interested in the characters—and in my family, there were quite a few. Oh, I’ve got a governor and not a few members of the nobility in my family tree, I think. I may even be distantly related to St. Oliver Plunkett, the last Irish martyr, who was drawn and quartered during one of Ireland’s many times of trouble. I’m not sure, though. I’m on firmer ground with the murderers. One is definite, and I’ve got the newspaper clippings to prove it. Two more are undeniably possibilities. The best story, however, involves my dear departed great-great-great grandmother, Statia Scoggins. Known as Stacy, she lived to be 97 and didn’t die until the late 1800s. In the 1920s, one of her granddaughters dutifully wrote down Stacy’s stories of moving from Alabama to Arkansas in a cart drawn by oxen, and the tale of children who dispersed to Texas. Yeah, we’re the ones who kept moving west. According to this family history, passed down through the years, Stacy and her brother Marville were born in Glasgow, Scotland, and orphaned at a young age. The only problem with the story is that it is all a lie, religiously passed on from one generation to the next. There are genealogy chat rooms where you can hook up with people researching the same family trees. I hit the mother lode with the Scoggins and also with the Taylors. Stacy’s mother was a Taylor. It quickly became apparent that the Scoggins family had been in this country since the 1600s, moving from Virginia to North Carolina and settling in the western mountains. Although the origin of the Taylors is murkier, Stacy’s father and great-grandfather were tried for treason after the American Revolution. I have the court records to prove it (I should mention that they were exonerated.) I also have the will in which Joshua Taylor left $100 to each of the children of his departed daughter Rebecca. Stacy and Marville are on the list—and so are a number of siblings. Their father Ezekiel was alive and well, and he wasn’t living in Glasgow. I figured the story had somehow gotten garbled over the years, although so many of the other details were correct. In fact, Stacy and Marville traveled to Alabama from North Carolina during the period of “Alabama fever” in the early 1830s. Stacy soon married Patrick White and settled in Lawrence County, in the fertile Tennessee River valley. Marville also married and settled in the area. There was only one problem; Marville had a wife by the name of Lucretia back in North Carolina. The reason for Stacy’s lies came into focus when a genealogy friend sent me an account of a famous court case, written up in many books. Marville Scoggins’ case went all the way to the North Carolina Supreme Court. He sought a divorce because Lucretia gave birth to a mulatto baby five months after the marriage. The baby was sent to Tennessee, and Marville fled the marriage bed. The court denied the request for a divorce, however, finding no fraud and faulting Marville “in marrying a woman whom he knew to be lewd.” Lucretia was not the ideal of a virtuous woman, so the judge opined: “He who married a wanton, knowing her true character, submits himself to the lowest degradation and imposes on himself.” So he left for the frontier with his sister; I guess you can’t blame them for fabricating an entirely new family history. And then there is the elaborate story of the Whites as Huguenots fleeing Catholic persecution in France, arriving in the United States in the early 1800s. In fact, about that time they appear to have been deep in the mountainous Cherokee country of northeast Alabama. “French blood” was a good way to explain their slightly exotic, dark appearance. I have found distant relatives who say some of the family “took the Indian money,” while others decided to pass as white—but that’s another story for another day.