06 April 2012

In Defense of Descent from Farmers

I've been thinking about this post for some time.

There was a post on a genealogy mailing list a while back that indicated several celebrities were not asked to be on WDYTYA because they descended from generation of farmer after farmer. Woe to them---poor fools. The post was essentially based upon rumor (I think), but it got me to thinking. The stories they use on WDYTYA are rarely about "common" people. The stories are always something "dramatic," either an involvement, a cause, a war, someone leaving his current family and starting a new one, etc. The ancestors they use for stories on WDYTYA are never homesteaders toiling on the Nebraska prairie, Ohio pioneers breaking the sod in 1810, or Mississippi farmers living a hardscrabble life in apparent anonymity.

As if there's no drama in everyday life and as if all "farm" ancestors are boring.

As the descendant of generations of farmers--and having been raised on one myself--I take exception to the thought that's it somehow boring to descend from generation after generation of farmers. I've made something of a genealogical career writing about these "common" ancestors, the vast majority of whom were farmers of both the male and female persuasion. I've never been ashamed of where I was born, where I was raised, or who my ancestors were.

There's the farmer who returned to his native Germany in his sixties and, based upon land records and a little reasoning skills, set three of his sons up in farming before he left. Not many people leave their entire family in the United States in 1869 to return to Europe.

There's the farmwife who stayed on the Nebraska homestead during the week while her husband worked on the railroad. She and four children under the age of seven home alone on the prairie during the week living in a soddie. There's a story in their homestead records.

There's the farmer in Colonial Virginia who brought alcohol to an election and was censured by the Virginia house in the 1740s.

There's the farmer who probably never owned more than 80 acres in his life who when he died left it mortgaged. The widow owned a small house and lot in the nearby town. The judge declared the home "worthless" simply so it wouldn't be sold to pay the mortgage and she'd have some place to live. That farmer forty years earlier was working as the hired man for his future mother-in-law and in 1902 testified in her Civil War pension application about the work he did, what he was paid, and the operation of his mother-in-law's farm--in vivid detail with several others.

There's the Maryland farmer whose farm was confiscated during the American Revolution because the owner was a British subject and the farmer's lifetime lease made no matter. The land was sold by the Maryland Assembly to pay debts regardless of protests raised by the farmers on the land.

There's the Kentucky farmer who was arrested in the 1820s for threatening to murder one of his neighbors.

There's the German immigrant farmer who in his sixties learned to read English--he was already literate in German but decided it was time to take up the new language.

There's my own grandfather (another farmer) who, in the depths of the Depression when times were hard and money scarce, sold hog houses he had built to help his younger sister pay her college tuition so she could get her teaching certificate. This is the same man who refused to purchase a TV and soda as a "waste" of money. Of course the flip side of this is that in the 1950s he spent several thousand dollars on a bull at a sale and when he brought the animal home and told Grandma what it cost she "had a fit."

Oh, and when I said "Woe to them---poor fools," I was referring to the producers of the show and not those with generation after generation of "boring ancestors." Sometimes we see in others what's really in ourselves.

And that's probably enough...I've got to get back to work...