Friday, February 19, 2010

Thomas David Evans and his wooden leg

This is Thomas David Evans' wooden leg. It is on display at The Pioneer Memorial Museum in Salt Lake City, UT.

Thomas David was my 3xgreat-grandfather. He was born in Wales. He tells the story of how he lost his leg in a journal archived in the Brigham Young University Library :

"At the age of 7 years, I went to work in the Iron Works. The first work I did was lifting the doors for the puddlers, in a forge where there were 2,000 workmen employed. The lifting had to be done regularly, for an iron ball like fire to pass through in that hot state, to make [train]rails. It was a very responsible position for a man, but such was child labor at that time in Europe. I continued taking the courses one after another until I completed the trade or profession of 'iron roller'. A remarkable accident happened to me when I was about nine years old. My mother sent me to Sabbath School one Sabbath morning, but as I was confined to the shop mine through the week, I concluded to play truant. I went off to play, and the wheels of a [coal] dram went over my leg just below the knee. I had good doctors, but they had to amputate my leg, and I have worn a wooden one ever since. "

Can you imagine the cautionary tale that sprang from this incident ? How many of his young children skipped church, do you think ?

At the age of 16, Thomas left home to serve six-year proselyting mission throughout the Welsh countryside. When he returned, he married and prepared to emigrate to the United States.

After disembarking in Boston, he and his new bride rode a train to Iowa, where the real journey began. They were part of the pioneer migration that used handcarts rather than wagons to cross the plains. To save money, only a limited number of wagons were sent with each company, to carry the heavier necessities of frontier travel and tools to establish settlements at the end of the journey. The pioneers themselves were alloted one handcart per 5 people.

Handcarts are similar to rickshaws, without a seat, of course, as there were no riders. What small space available in the cart was filled with about 500 lbs of flour, bacon, salt, and coffee-each family's share of the Company load. A family's total personal belongings were limited to 17 lbs. per cart. Everything else was left behind.

Thomas walked most of the way to Utah, some 1300 miles of dirt trails, rock ridges, and rivers to cross. An average day's travel would cover 15 miles. The entire trip was supposed to be completed in 90 days. Finally at some point, he could no longer stand the pain of his bleeding and infected knee, and gave up on the side of the trail. The company pushed on, and when camped for the night, realizing they had lost a member, sent men back for him. At that point, Thomas was put in charge of one of the supply wagons, and was therefore allowed to ride the rest of the way.

I am one of many, many descendants of pioneers such as Thomas and Priscilla. Many pioneers did not finish the trek, and many others endured far worse things than my ancestors. Upon arrival in the Utah Valley, their trials did not end. Nor were many of their circumstances inherently different than those of other people throughout the Western frontier at that time.

But genetically speaking, it gives me strength to know that my body is constructed and organized by the same DNA as these people. Things I see as impossible, pale in comparision to what they pushed through. I still whine, and wish for even more comfort, but every now and then, I remember and appreciate the ease of my existence.

Friday, February 12, 2010

By Way of Introduction . . .

This is my great-grandmother. Her name is Blanche. She was a secret. I have been doing genealogy for my entire adult life, and only within the past year did I become aware of her connection to me.

If you've ever done genealogy, a discovery such as a secret grandmother is pretty thrilling.

Blanche's story comes with all the trappings of a pulp mystery novel-guns, gangsters, and murder. I remember after a volley of emails between myself and the Center for Sacramento History, how excited I was to be told that yes, they did have on file, a 1936 mugshot of my ancestor. For a fee, they would send it to me. The very helpful research librarian had included in her emails a transcription of the arrest, but not the photo, of course. Research libraries survive on things like this. I mailed the check, and waited. The projected date of delivery came and went with no disk. Eventually, another was sent, and this time arrived as scheduled.

In all my anticipation and excitement, I was unprepared for the humanity of this picture. I had forgotten that she was a young girl, and forgotten the kind of reality that exists in criminal and correctional environments. I had gotten caught up in The Story of it all.

Then here was this tearful, frightened woman facing me, looking very much like her daughter, the grandmother I HAD known. It was a heart-dropping landing.

Her story is still unfolding, and very worth telling, but that will hopefully come later.

Myself, I spend as much time as possible in Archives, Libraries, and older relatives' living rooms. It's a seductive thing, travelling to the time of these people who call from the census, xeroxed letters, parish registers, and muster rolls.

My intention with this blog is to present one picture with a short background, hopefully every week or so. I hope it will be interesting to my family, friends and other genealogists.