Saturday, December 22, 2007

Understanding Family

I'm currently reading Albion's Seed: Four British Folkways in America by David Hackett Fischer. Wikipedia says,
The book's descriptions of the four folkways grounding American society is one of the most comprehensive, almost encyclopedic, guide to the origins of colonial American culture. According to Fischer, the foundation of American culture was formed from four mass emigrations from four different regions of Britain by four different socio-religious groups.
The four migrations are discussed in the four main chapters of the book:

* East Anglia to Massachusetts
The Exodus of the English Puritans

* The South of England to Virginia
Distressed Cavaliers and Indentured Servants

* North Midlands to the Delaware
The Friends' Migration

* Borderlands to the Backcountry
The Flight from Middle Britain and Northern Ireland
As it happens, my maternal grandmother (Lillian Upton) descended from the Puritan migration (before the English Civil War) and my maternal grandfather (Percy Herndon) from the Cavalier (after the English Civil War). And, their families had been on opposite sides of the American Civil War, as well. And, Grandma's family won both of them.

So far I am only partway through the first section; it is amazing how reading this throws light on things in my family. We have been in this country a long time, and we have done well in many ways. But we are not among the powerful, and never have been. I can see from our Puritan origin that this has been so all along. The Puritan leaders tended to be ministers and come from East Anglia; my ancestors tended to be craftsmen and came from Devonshire.

We have many ancestors named Sarah, including the one who was accused as a witch at Salem (Sarah Osborne) and my great-grandmother's great-grandmother (Sarah Proctor) who raised her. Sarah was one of the most popular Puritan names. We have a quote from Sarah Proctor that she had read the Bible "civer to civer" and it turns out that civer was not a sign that Sarah was illiterate, but the way the word was pronounced by Puritans in general.

Puritans revered age. Men who were elected to office in their later years were not voted out, they resigned or died in office. The elderly were believed to be particularly wise and strong. So strong, that when they did bad, they were considered particularly evil. So, one side of the coin was reverence for Granny, making sure she had the best seat in the house and was listened to. And the other side was the witch trials. Since elders had the capacity to be so evil, they were particularly fearsome as witches. And here we always thought they were persecuted because it was safe to go after old women with no power. And, instead, they were old women perceived to have more power than anyone.

My mother tells me that my great-grandfather Upton used to say that babies were utterly selfish. The mother could be dying in the next room, and the selfish baby would cry and demand what it wanted with no regard for her. I was appalled that an ancestor of mine could be so self-centered (I thought he was thinking that women should be paying more attention to their husbands!) that he couldn't see the nature of a baby is innocent. It turns out that this idea was not his, it was the basis of Puritan child rearing methods, and indeed of much of Puritan belief and life. That babies are born corrupt because of Adam's sin and must be taught to be good. That their will must be broken. Interestingly, with the notion that the child's will was always bad and had to be broken, and with laws that allowed parents to kill their children for bad behavior, Puritans tended to be loving parents and seldom even spanked.

My grandmother, Lillian, was the second child named Lillian that her parents had. The first had died. Julie and I thought that was odd and more than a little macabre. But, according to Fischer, that was the custom. If a child died, the next child of that gender would be given that name. There were families that lost multiple children to outbreaks of disease and then gave all of those names to the following children.

It is always interesting to see how my family is not unique or nuts. How what we do and who we are has its roots so far in the past. How things we do not even think about, which seem natural to us, are not the norm for everyone. I expect that there is more in this section of the book that will prove illuminating to me.

When I read about the Cavaliers, I'll bet I learn things about the Herndon side of the family as well.

Photos: Puritan courtesy Brookgreen Gardens, South Carolina
Cavalier courtesy Wikipedia.
Do click the pictures and see the stern Puritan, carrying his Bible, and the handsome Cavalier, with his sword, up close.

Update. It occurs to me that my grandmother's people were forced out of England by my grandfather's people. Then came the English Civil War, and Puritan rule. So, my grandfather's people were forced out of England by my grandmother's people. Sort of a hoot.


lilalia said...

I love it when you mentioned your relief that your family is "not unique or nuts". Doesn't that sum up our journey in life?

A very Merry Christmas to you and your family!

J at said...

I think Py read that book when he was at Penn...I certainly remember him having it lying around, and he did tell me a few things about the Puritans. But I hadn't done the genealogy thing back then, and I wasn't as interested as I would have been later.

I wish I had gotten into genealogy when I was on that coast...could have gone to see the graves, etc. But I did so much of it online, and I don't think those websites were really up and running at that point.

Anyway, yes, it is very interesting to find where the beliefs in a family can come from, and to understand a bit more about the folks that we might have written off as selfish or cruel.

Rain said...

When I got a short-term membership in a genealogy site, I was able to trace my father's family back to about 1712 in this country. They were evidently Huguenots and fled persecution. I had heard the story that four brothers left Europe and landed in Canada, spreading out with changing the spelling of their name from du Trieux to Trueax in my case. I wish I'd had more interest in genealogy earlier but I wasn't much into it and now on that side, I am the oldest one left alive. I might find second cousins or remote relatives if I went looking but figured it probably didn't matter a lot. Many did come to the US from persecution and then turned around and persecuted anybody not seeing it their way here. Amazing that being mistreated doesn't make someone kinder but it doesn't always.