Tuesday, October 18, 2011

How Important Are Family Legends?

I grew up listening to all sorts of legends about our family's history.  My parents were from eastern Kentucky, and they passed on stories they had heard from their parents, which had been from heard from their parents, which had...

You get the idea.

In the genealogical world there is much discussion about correct citations of our sources.  There probably isn't a genealogist alive that hasn't wished they could go back and do things a little bit better.  I remember thinking, "Oh, I'll always remember where that was."  Then, life got in the way and I don't have a clue.

But, back to the family legends - perhaps we ought to listen a little bit closer to those stories.  Try as I might, I could not locate a single fact in our family's history that pointed to our having Dutch lineage.  But, Dad insisted that was what this ancestor was always called.

Dutch.  Dutch.  Dutch.  Deutch?

Yep, that was it!!!  The line was German!!!  That made a lot more sense, because a lot of the German foods and traditions were passed on through the family.  I just didn't realize it.  The sausage, the sauerkraut, the Christmas legends, etc.

But, one legend still continues to haunt me.  One of my mother's grandfathers was Robert H. Stevens/Stephens.  He fought in the Civil War.  He settled back into Elliott County, Kentucky.  He died.

A few years after his death, the legend was that a Doctor Brown (?) was supposed to assemble a skeleton as part of an exam.

The legend was that Robert's grave was disturbed.
The legend was that someone ran upon Doc Brown in the woods with a big pot of boiling water.

The legend was that a hand floated to the top.

The legend was that Doc Brown kept a skeleton hanging in his closet for years.

Now, this all makes for some wonderful storytelling.  But, that's not what I'm after.  I'm just trying to find where he was buried.

A few years ago, my uncle told me that a picture existed of Robert, and that it was hanging in the home of a cousin who was in her 80's.  I really wanted to see it, and perhaps take a picture of it.  He told me to go up to the house and knock.  If there wasn't an answer, just look through the door, for it was hanging right inside within viewing distance.

Now, we are talking Kentucky.  You just don't do something like that.  But, I figured there wasn't any other way to see that picture.  My husband and four young children drove up to the house, and I told them to stay put.

I knocked on the door.  There was no answer.   Looking at the hound dog out of the corner of my eye, I took my chances and looked through the door.  It was hard to focus, but that's because just an inch away on the other side of the glass was another pair of eyes looking at me!

I thought for sure I was dead.

This was my mother's dear cousin and childhood playmate.  She reminded me so much of my mother - same hair, same arms, same laugh.  I wanted to get right to the point, but there are some very important points to remember when visiting someone in the south:
1.  Do not, under any circumstance, rush.  If you're foreign, or from the north (in my case, Ohio), you've got to earn their trust.
2.  Ask how the garden was this year.
3.  Ask how the family is doing.  Include the hound dog.
4.  Talk slowly.  Don't try to imitate the "twang".  You'll just sound silly.
5.  Again, don't rush.  Things go at a different speed.  Adapt to it, no matter how anxious you are to get the information and get on the road.

We had a wonderful visit as she shared such fond memories of my mother.  We did finally get around to talking about family, and I asked her about the picture that was indeed hanging on the wall.  She took it down for me to look at, and I gave it a good "goin' over".

I was amazed at the family resemblances that were in this man's facial features that have carried right on down through the generations.

I asked her where she had gotten it.  She slapped her leg and said that some people up the holler had been tearing up their linoleum and ran across it.  (People often placed layers of newspapers and other papers between the floorboards and the linoleum to help insulate against the cold.)  She said Robert's name was even on the back of it, though I didn't ask her to take it out of the frame to look at that.  I kind of wish I had.

She agreed to let me take a picture of the picture, so I took it outside and placed it under a tree so the sun wouldn't glare on it.  This was before the days of digital cameras, so I took several pictures with my inexpensive Vivitar 35mm to make sure at least one turned out.
Robert H. Stevens/Stephens, md to Rachel M. Burton

I have since downloaded his Civil War Pension File, and learned that he served in the Union Army, and at one point was taken as a prisoner of war.  In the 1890 Kentucky Veteran's Census, he is living at Hogtown, Elliott Co., KY, where he states he had a pain in his side and he broke his foot during the war, possibly due to:  "A sudent jar from shells by cannon".

He's a bit of a hero to me.  He's in the Civil War, he dies, perhaps is dug up and hangs in a doctor's office for years.  His picture stays under the linoleum for years and is finally uncovered.  My husband asked, "Were they singing 'I'm Walkin' the Floor Over You'?"

Smarty pants!  Quit talking about my grandpa!!

1 comment:

  1. What a great story! Your description of people in Kentucky could be true of the people in my part of Texas. And the hound dog ... definitely conjures up an image of a specific type of dog (though my Dad called our poodle "Hound Dog" - I don't think his family was aware that there was any other kind of dog).