In the years following the American Revolution, it was common for families to pick up and make their way west. Some were younger sons looking for land and opportunity. Some were just adventurous souls looking for their next thrill.
But for every family that left the eastern seaboard and went over the mountains, there was another that stayed behind. For these hard-working, middle-class families, there often wasn’t time or opportunity to stay in touch and with the passing of generations, cousins drifted apart.
I grew up in Indiana so, in every instance, my ancestors were the ones who came west. Their brothers, uncles and cousins were the ones who stayed behind. Some of these followed the westward trail in later years, others remained in the east for generation after generation.
My fourth great grandfather, Jonas Harris (1779-1843), was one of the adventurous younger sons. He left Virginia around 1801 and never looked back. After almost two decades in Ohio, he made his way to Indiana where he settled down, built a mill and raised his family. Six generations later, I grew up less than 20 miles from the town Jonas helped build in eastern Indiana.
Jonas’s older brother Levi (1777-1847) stayed behind in Virginia. Since then, his descendants have been on the same land, some of them even living in the same house for three generations. As of 2003, one of my grandfather’s fourth cousins still lived on the Harris farm in Roanoke.
When the Civil War shook the nation in the 1860s, two brothers who were grandchildren of Jonas signed up to fight in the 69th Indiana Infantry. Lewis K. Harris would rise to the rank of Captain; his brother William would become drum major, the leading musician in the regiment. Both served for the duration of the war, with some of their most intense fighting coming at Vicksburg in the summer of 1863.
On the other side, Levi had two grandsons who served in the war, also brothers. William and Francis Snyder both enlisted as privates in the 28th Virginia Infantry. They probably saw their most significant fighting during the Peninsula Campaign and the Battle of Antietam. Their unit would participate in Pickett’s Charge on July 3, 1863 at Gettysburg, but neither of the Snyder brothers lived to see it. Suffering a fate common to many soldiers, William had died on April 26, 1863 of some unknown disease; Francis had died on May 25, 1863 of typhoid.
Jonas’s grandchildren never faced Levi’s on a field of battle. I doubt they even knew they were on opposite sides in this most momentous of struggles.
I’ve found no record of any communication between the families after their parting in 1801. Most likely, they lost touch and became absorbed in the challenges of their own lives. And then as each generation passed, the bonds became weaker and weaker.
Now, six generations later, it’s taken me years of research even to find these ones who stayed behind.