Friday, April 11, 2014

Nervous Systems I Recognize

In large part, my passion for digging back into family history is to learn more about the origin of nervous systems and core values I recognize in my parents and their parents and now in my descendants.

This passion in retirement isn’t much different than a core aspect of my now concluded career of distilling the personality of communities as a means to leverage visitor-centric economic and cultural development.

Isolating the distinctive core values of any community requires digging much further down than just the first commercial development, back to the near temporal emergence of a community’s distinctive nervous system.

Similarly, newly minted college graduates next month are well advised by Lara Galinsky, the author of Work on Purpose, in a recent post on Harvard Business Review.

She notes that personal stories during job interviews should begin much earlier than just your first job, back to the influences that make a person who they are.

Two of my great-great grandfathers were born a few years and a few miles apart near the terminus of the 400+ mile Delaware River Valley, (depicted below in an oil painting by a contemporary, George Inness.)  They each descended from four to five generations who had settled there near the turn of the 17th and 18th centuries.

Both descended from separatists seeking freedom of religion, one from a mix of Welsh, Irish and English Quakers, the other from Swiss and German roots including Amish and other pietists.  They were born and raised in an atmosphere of ethnic pluralism.

Both converted as Mormons, a newly-founded restorationist Christian religion.  Both migrated to the western slopes of the Rockies long before the Civil War.

Both founded settlements, one along the northern Rockies from near what became the Idaho border and the other along the central and southern Rockies clear to Arizona and across the Great Basin in the eastern shadows of the Sierra Nevadas.

One possibly crossed paths with the author who became known as Mark Twain, who briefly partnered near there in a mining venture at the same time as another of my maternal great-great grandfathers, Thomas Messersmith, a boyhood friend from Missouri.

Both of my Delaware Valley ancestors were asked to practice plural marriage.

Both were entrepreneurs.  Both ran cattle and sheep. I descend from the second wife of one and the first wife of the other, who didn’t go along with the idea and lived apart.

These great-great grandfathers also died a few years apart at the close of their century, half a century before two of their great-grandchildren, my parents, would meet and fall in love during WWII.

Hyrum Webster Bowman was notoriously vague about his origins, giving his birthplace at various times as New Jersey, Delaware or Pennsylvania, but the culture of people living near the Delaware River often identified more with the valley than various provinces, colonies and states.

When he established Pennsylvania by land grant, William Penn also leased counties in Delaware and in the province known as West Jersey stretching across the Delaware River along what now forms the border between the two states.

A friend and I drove much of the length of the river valley a couple of years ago, picking it up where it flows from the Catskills at the eastern border between New York and Pennsylvania.

We drove down through the Delaware Gap, where the river has sliced through a steep ridge in the Appalachian Mountains near where the borders of Pennsylvania, New York and New Jersey meet.

From there we dropped down through the incredible, 71,000-acre national recreation area of that name that stretches about 35 miles  along both sides of the east-west border between Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

Near Valley Forge, where a great-great-great grandfather from North Carolina served in the Revolutionary War, we left the river to skirt Philadelphia through the Amish countryside and then down to Wilmington, Delaware where we continued until veering away after New Castle where the river becomes a bay.

My great-great grandfather Bowman was born in New Castle, Delaware, his mother’s birthplace, but his parents lived up river in Pennsylvania.  He may have spent formative years indentured across the river in New Jersey, thus his ambiguity.

Charles Alfred Harper, the Quaker descendant, was a college-educated carriage maker.  Not only did the Society of Friends keep meticulous records but my great-great grandfather left several journals, personal letters, as well as documents such as passport applications and published news interviews.

I probably know more about him than any other ancestor who had passed before my time.

He stood at 5’8,” which would be the average for 100 years.  He described himself by his 30s as a little bald with dark hair, dark grey eyes, a “Roman” nose, full mouth, ruddy complexion and an oval face.

He had a beard but no mustache, and his favorite dance was the Virginia Reel (orthodox Quakers permitted dancing.)  His favorite song was “Paddy’s Leather Breeches,” an Irish jig also played here on bagpipes and in an updated version here as Celtic metal rock.

His departure from his Quaker roots began when he married his first wife, who though also descended from Quaker royalty, was apparently no longer active.

Quakers had an elaborate process with up to 17 steps required to be married, the most important of which was parental consent.

So the young couple had apparently eloped.  My great-great grandfather earned reinstatement, but this was a turbulent time for Quakers.

Overall, the faith was undergoing its second schism in a decade as many others were during the Second Great Awakening.  Quakers divided into liberal and evangelical wings, although the Harpers were most likely moderates, known as conservatives.

It was the cacophony of the Second Great Awakening that led Joseph Smith to the peacefulness of a grove of trees in the Finger Lakes region of New York and a vision that led to formation of the Church of Christ, a name for the Mormon Church that morphed several times.

He gave several lectures to Quakers, including my great-great grandfather Harper in the West Nantmeal Seminary, a meeting house was erected by Edward Hunter, a wealthy Chester County Quaker, on the condition that all faiths be heard there.  By that time, Smith had settled on The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day-Saints as the name of his new church.

But as it has today, the nickname Mormon had already began to stick.  My great-great grandfather, as did Edward Hunter, were converted to Mormons in what became known as Mormon Hollow.  Visions would not seem unusual to them because they were common among Quakers.

Quakers tended to see the Society of Friends as much family as their own kin so when the two elopers converted to Mormons it appears they were disowned, but not at first.

Before the final trek over the Rockies, my great-great grandfather made the 1,400 mile, 13-day trip back from where Mormons had settled along a bend in the Mississippi River to visit his mother.

The trip involved traveling by steamship down the Mississippi, then by packet boat up the Ohio River where at Beaver, Pennsylvania he caught a wagon ride to Pittsburg, then took a series of cross-state canals to Harrisburg and finally a horse-drawn train down to Upper Providence.

The return trip west took a day longer.

There is no record, but it may have been the last time he and his mother communicated.  I can sense his pain in a letter my great-grandfather wrote in 1848 to his brother-in-law William Wollerton, the year after his vanguard wagon train dropped down into Salt Lake.

Having completed the 2,200 mile round trip to collect his family in Winter Quarters, Nebraska, my great-great grandfather had taken time to send the beautifully handwritten, single space, two-sided, legal page missive to fill Wollerton in on news about his sister and nieces and the harrowing trip west.

He ends by revealing his pain about not hearing from his family:

“It is more than a year since I have received any communication from my folks although I have written repeatedly by requesting an answer.

If you should gain any information of them I shall feel thankful if you will take the trouble to forward the same to me for I don’t think I will write again till they take the troubler to answer some of my many letters.

Seven years later, my great-grandfather stepped off the ship Chimborazo in Philadelphia where several hundred Mormons he was escorting from England boarded rail cars for Pittsburgh, then the steamboat Equinox via the Ohio, Mississippi and Missouri rivers to catch a wagon train he would lead west from Atchison, Kansas.

There is no reason to believe he was able to connect with his parents or with Wollerton again who was on his way to becoming an associate judge and then president for many years of the First National Bank of West Chester.

Preceding my great-great grandfather by two weeks on a sister ship full of immigrants he was escorting from England was my soon to be great-great grandmother Harriet Taylor who arrived a week earlier on the ship Juventa.

Their only child become one of my maternal great-grandmothers.

I look more like Hyrum Webster Bowman and carry his name.

But the lesson taken from my great-great grandfather Harper is the importance of leaving behind not just photos, mementos and documents but also clues to our nervous system such as those expressive of grit and determination, joy and sorrow.

Parts we may recognize.

Note:  I borrowed the phrase "a nervous system I recognize” from remarks by NBC New Digital correspondent Tony Dokoupil made on Fresh Air.

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