Every writer of history has to deal with spoilers. Historians try to tell the story of something that’s already happened. If we’re lucky, our readers don’t know how the story ends. But as the creator of the narrative, we never get to pretend we don’t know how it ends.
Knowing the ending changes how we understand the story, if not how we tell it. When we talk about the pioneers in our family who successfully led their loved ones into new territory, we romanticize them. If we tell the story of our ancestors who lost their way (or never found the path they were meant to follow), we draw them as pitiful.
It’s easy to assume our ancestors had a path assigned for them. We can see where they’re going, so sometimes we forget that they couldn’t at the time.
When my four-times-great grandfather Jonas Harris left Virginia to head west in 1801, I’m not sure if he knew where he was going. He stopped for a few years in western Pennsylvania and married Hannah Beeson. In 1804, they moved with her family into eastern Ohio. Then three years later Jonas and Hannah left her family and headed up the Ohio River to Columbiana County in eastern Ohio. Here they bought some land and presumably set up a farm.
They stayed in Columbiana County for twelve years and added nine children to their family. In 1819, they sold their land for a 300% profit and headed west again. Was this always their plan or did something happen to cause them to move on? Did they want to lock in their profits and try again or did something compel them to leave?
1820 began with Jonas and Hannah bringing their children to Wayne County, Indiana. Over the next decade and a half Jonas helped lay out the town of Hagerstown, and two of his sons built the first house in it. In addition to his farm, Jonas owned several plots of land in town, but in 1835 he sold them all.
Jonas and Hannah’s daughter Mary and Mary’s husband Reuben had both died of the milk sickness in 1834. This deadly disease was scary and not well understood. It ravaged its victims and terrified anyone who was watching.
I think Mary’s death is what caused Jonas to make his last move (although I wonder if he knew it would be his last). He took his family and headed north, settling just north of South Bend, Indiana.
Jonas built the first grist mill in South Bend. The mill would run for 60 years (and stand for another 30-plus), but Jonas lasted only five. He was buried behind the mill that soon became someone else’s.
Could Jonas have known his ultimate destination? Did he plan each leg of his journey in advance? Did he want to take the path he did, or did he feel manipulated by fate?
These are the kind of questions that are the hardest to know–especially when there’s no diary or stash of letters to tell us what he was thinking. But we know enough for it to look like he did a lot of recalculating.
Another four-times-great grandfather of mine, Robert Hill, followed a more orderly path. He left North Carolina in 1802 to join some friends who had gone before him into the Ohio Country. He stopped briefly in Carthage, Ohio (near Cincinnati), before settling in 1806 on the main wagon path going west in a new town called Richmond in the land that would become Indiana.
Robert set up an inn along the path that would soon become the National Road. He served four terms in the Indiana state legislature. He traded with Indians. He raised a family. He was buried in the cemetery on the farm he passed down to his children.
Robert and Jonas were both pioneers. They both followed family and friends (at least initially) as they travelled west. Robert led a settled existence and left a significant estate. Jonas died intestate and his mill was sold to settle his debts. Robert’s children stayed in Richmond; Jonas’s kids scattered.
Each of them made choices and took risks. Each did some recalculating in life.
My wife and kids and I recently made some choices and took some risks. We closed one chapter of our life story and started a new one. Like all of our ancestors before us, we don’t know where this one will end. But I hope someday it will make a wonderful, romantic story.
To read more about Jonas Harris, see my former post Grounded
To read more about Robert Hill, see my former post Life on the Frontier