DISASTER

By Betsy Cross Thorpe

“We were taught over and over again what steps to take in case of an approaching tornado. Listen for sirens, go to your basement or cellar, or a closet in the center of your house, duck and cover, wait it out.. We talked about it at home. The newscasters reminded us. We practiced. But we’d never— not once— discussed what to do after.”
― Jennifer Brown


Tornado that passed over my home in Nashville Tennessee, shortly after midnight, March 3, 2020.
Photo by WOODTV

I work Monday nights as a closing server at IHOP.  The IHOP I work at closes at eleven on weeknights. I generally get home around midnight. This night was no different.

I had only been home about thirty minutes when I heard the siren sound.

The piece I planned to write would tell how my fourth great grandfather, William Dawson, and his family were forced out of their home by a band of lawless men during the Great Louisiana Hurricane, of August 19, 1812.  

An outline of the story sat on my desk in front of me. My plan was to tell the story in two or three short paragraphs, post it on my blog and go to bed.

That didn’t happen.

Outside, the siren blew and the wind whistled and whirled while I huddled inside. I waited out the storm in a designated safe room with my worried daughter, two sleepy granddaughters, an inconvenienced Siamese cat, a frightened Pit Bull, and a Chihuahua eager to attack the storm.

Hunkered down in that room I started thinking about my long-gone relatives. I tried to imagine the fright that overcame them the night of the hurricane when a pack of wild dogs and a band of lawless men appeared at their door.

What were they doing when the outlaws rushed into their cabin?

Did William Dawson hear the dogs barking before the men appeared or did they take him by surprise?

Was his son, my third great grandfather, seventeen-year-old Thomas a good big brother to fourteen-year-old Samuel, twelve-year-old Mary Jane, and six-year-old Robert? Was he entertaining them, trying to distract them from the hurricane when terror came knocking?

Was William’s wife Dinah McCormick Dawson holding baby Fanny in her arms when the bad men started making threats and demands?

As a violent rotating column of air roared above our house I imagined the shock I would feel if our home was suddenly invaded by a group of criminals who threatened our lives and forced us to flee into the wind ravaged night.

I knew then that the story I planned to tell about William Dawson and his family was no longer the story I would tell. The story is bigger than the mere genealogical anecdote I had planned to write. It is a tale full of real life human suffering.

With sympathy for the trauma my ancestors suffered and out of gratitude that they survived. I am compelled to tell a deeper and more meaningful story so that everyone who reads this blog post can understand the reality and seriousness of the disaster that befell my relatives on that dark and stormy night so very long ago.  

HOW I LEARNED OF THIS STORY

I learned that my fourth grandparents, William and Dinah Dawson were chased out of their home during a hurricane while I was reading a book titled Our Dawson Kin. The book traces the lineage of William and Dinah Dawson down to my mother’s generation. It was compiled by a distant cousin, Sally Morrrison Patin. I have never met this cousin but I would like to take this opportunity to publicly thank her for compiling such a comprehensive and interesting genealogical record of our shared family history.

MY METHOD

I conduct all my genealogical research for this side of my family with my aunt Gerry Roe. My aunt and I have a different approach to genealogy. But we work well together and make a great team.

 She knows who begat who and can place just about any family name in its proper place on our extensive family tree.

Me? I work to discover what was happening in my ancestor’s world during their lifetime. That allows me to give them and their actions historical context.

LOUISIANA HURRICANE AUGUST 19, 1812

On 9 July 1812, news that three weeks earlier the U.S. Congress in Washington, D.C., had declared war on Great Britain arrived at New Orleans, the location of the US naval station the farthest from the nation’s capital. Captain John Shaw, USN, commandant of the station, had at his command some four hundred officers and men, distributed among two brigs of war and eleven gunboats. Just as Captain Shaw was attempting to set his small force on a war footing, a devastating hurricane struck the Mississippi delta. The 19 August hurricane was the worst experienced there in years. It set back military preparations many months.

An excerpt from a report from Captain John Shaw to Secretary of the Navy Paul Hamilton is posted below.

                                                                           New Orleans, August 23, 1812

Sir,

I greatly deplore the necessity I am under of communicating to you, the calamitous condition of the small naval force attached to this station–of the City of New Orleans–and, as I presume, of the surrounding Country; produced on the afternoon and night, of the 19th instant, by a hurricane (from the N.E.) which, both in violence and duration, exceeded anything of the kind, within the recollection of the oldest inhabitant of the country:

The Brig Enterprize, which, by considerable exertion, I had got fully manned was driven ashore, high & dry…….

THE STORY

In November of  1803, one month after the US Senate ratified the Louisiana Purchase Treaty, William Dawson, along with his older brother Thomas Dawson and fifty eight other male US citizens signed an oath to remain loyal to the United States of America before taking possession of  tracts of  land they each had obtained  from the Spanish government some time before.

The tracts they obtained were located outside the boundaries of the Louisiana Purchase about one hundred miles from the city of New Orleans, in an area known as Feliciana Parish.  

The terrain of Feliciana Parish was marked by tree covered hills. Ancient cypress, majestic oak, and evergreen pine trees dominated the landscape. Bears and wolves roamed the hills.

The land was uninhabited by humans when the settlers arrived. Spain had allowed wood choppers from Virginia to settle the area to fulfill a pressing need.  Shipwrights had set up dockyards along the nearby waterways and timber for building and repairing ships was in great demand. 

The land obtained by William Dawson contained one thousand acres. It was bordered on one side by the Comite River, a navigable body of water that flowed through the low-lying bottom lands that lay to the south. He took possession of the wild undeveloped land with his wife Dinah, eight-year-old son Thomas, three-year-old son Samuel and baby daughter Mary Jane.

With little outside help he cleared and improved the land. He built a cabin, outbuildings and fencing. He cultivated the earth and raised crops.

His little family grew. A son named Robert was born in 1806 and a daughter named Fanny was born about five years later.

The Dawson family lived in harmony with their neighbors for close to nine years.

Then disaster struck.

I can’t say for sure what time of day the hurricane made landfall in Feliciana Parish. There is no record of what time it struck the Dawson property. But at some time on August 19, 1812 the family’s amiable way of life on their tract of land came to an end.

On that terrible day William Dawson and his wife lost everything they had worked so hard to gain. Powerful winds blasted the landscape, lightning lit up the cloudy sky, The storm surged, heavy rains fell, the Comite River and nearby waterways rose, murky water spilled over as flood waters covered the ground.

But it wasn’t the wind or the flood waters that brought doom.

A pack wild dogs and a band of lawless men arrived at their door. The men forcibly drove the Dawson’s away from their home. They threatened to   “strew their  bones into the hurricane” if they refused to  go.  The father, mother and  their five children  fled to the state of Mississippi for protection, leaving their home and the fortunes of their descendants behind as they escaped into the night.  

THINGS I WISH I KNEW ABOUT THIS STORY

How did they escape?   On foot? By wagon? Horseback? Boat? Pinckneyville Mississippi is about twenty miles north of the spot where their cabin once stood. How long did it take them to get  there? What possessions were they allowed to take?  

These are things I wish I knew.

William Dawson used the courts to try to get his land back. But all his efforts failed. I can’t help but wonder if politics played a role in his unsuccessful efforts.  

In 1810 American settlers, dissatisfied with Spanish rule, successfully revolted against Spain. They established a new country that they named the West Florida Republic. William Dawson’s land—along with the rest of Feliciana Parish—was part of the new country.  He lived under the rule of the West Florida Republic until he was chased out of his home in 1812.

 One year later the United States of America claimed the lands of the West Florida Republic. In 1813 Feliciana Parish joined the US. It became part of the newly formed state of Louisiana.

William Dawson was using the courts to try to regain his land as late as 1826.  

In the twenty-three years that passed from the time he obtained his land till his last recorded court date his tract of land existed under the jurisdiction of three different countries.  He obtained the land under Spanish rule. He lost the land to outlaws during the West Florida Republic’s rule. The outlaws had possession of his land when the US took control of Feliciana Parish.

Which government had jurisdiction over land rights in Feliciana Parish?

Spain granted him the land but he belonged to the group of people who had revolted against their rule. What were his chances of convincing a Spanish land agent to testify in his behalf?

The crime that was committed against him and his family was committed in a country that no longer existed. Where could he go for justice?

His land was occupied by the outlaws who stole it from him when Feliciana Parish became part of the United States. Did the US courts recognize those men as the rightful landowners? Is that why he was ultimately denied his land rights?

There are so many questions surrounding this story.

I just wish I knew the answers.

#52Ancestorsin52Weeks #52AncestorsDisaster

So Far Away

By Betsy Cross Thorpe

“You are the fairy tales told by your ancestors.” Toba Beta

Account of the tragic death of a long remembered nineteen year old boy. He perished in an airplane crash, on Sunday, August 11, 1929, near my grandmother’s home, in a cotton field, outside Holly Bluff, Mississippi.

SO FAR AWAY

He was a tall, handsome and adventurous boy. The only son of a well to do merchant. He captured my grandmother’s attention when she was a young girl and she fondly recalled his memory up through her old age.  Her stories of him were vague, and the actual role he played in her life remains unclear.

 My mother, my aunt and I, were all privy to her reminiscences of him. However, we don’t all recall her stories the same.  I’m convinced that the boy’s name was Albert Thomas Firth Junior, but my mother is certain that his last name was Butts. My aunt disagrees with her. According to my aunt, the Butts family that befriended my grandmother were from Missouri, where my grandmother spent some years before her father moved his wife and children South to Mississippi.

 I had the notion that the young pilot was in love with my grandmother, that he wanted to marry her, but that she chose my grandfather instead.  My aunt remembers the story in a different way. She doesn’t think their friendship was ever that serious, but she does recall hearing that for some time  my grandfather was quite jealous of my grandmother’s memory of the young pilot and that he would often tell her that she should have married that boy.

Until recently, when I did my research into the plane crash that killed Albert, I was sure that that he had taken my grandmother up in the air for a ride in his plane.  But that can’t be true.  My grandmother married my grandfather at least a year before he learned to fly and was the mother of a young son by the time he owned his own plane. Additionally, anyone who knew my grandfather would agree that he would never have allowed my grandmother to do such a thing.

More than forty years had passed from the time that he died, till the time that my grandmother told me about him. Of all the stories she told of her youth, the story of the daring young pilot was one of my favorites.

I just wish I had thought to ask her for more details. How did she learn that his plane went down?  I wonder today if she was among the “large crowd” that witnessed the tragedy. Was she somewhere nearby?  Did she hear the crash?  His plane nosedived into a cottonfield. Was he flying over the cottonfield where she lived?  I wish I knew.

But the big question I could have asked, one that is common to all, is this; Why did the memory of someone removed so far away by space and time, remain so near and dear to her heart?  I could have asked her, but there really was no need.

I am a hopeless romantic and I always knew the answer.

For 52 ancestors in 52 weeks. From prompt “So Far Away.”

#52Ancestors #52ancestorssofaraway

Close To Home

By Betsy Cross Thorpe

“We’re all ghosts. We all carry, inside us, people who came before us.”
Liam Callanan

My great great grandparents, Benjamin and Emily Isaacs, Lyons County Kentucky. 1880 something.

Unlike me and her three descendants who connect us my great-great-grandmother Emily Manus Isaacs, for most of her life, stayed :

CLOSE TO HOME

The word wanderlust is one of my favorite words.  Fashioned of three soft syllables it rolls easily off the tongue. It is a fun word to say, it’s a whimsical word that sounds like its meaning. It conjures the romantic nature of travel and the poetry found in dreams of faraway places.

 For me personally the word wanderlust best explains a trait that I believe that I inherited from my mother and from some of our most immediate predecessors on our shared family tree.  While the manifestation of restlessness varies in my bloodline from generation to generation our mutual history reveals that an urge to travel exists in my background.  It was passed down to me through the generations,

 One way I like to describe my great-grandfather William Gordon Isaacs is to say that he was a rolling stone. One of ten children safely delivered to my great-great grandmother Emily Manus Isaacs, he was in his thirties when he packed up his belongings and moved his wife and young children away from his long-time home in Kuttawa Kentucky. For many years after he remained a rootless man, moving his family from one work camp to another, never staying long in any one place. He seemed always ready to move somewhere new, eternally eager to make a fresh start. Like the rolling stone that he was, William Issacs gathered no moss.

 Like her father William before her, my grandmother Ruby Elizabeth Isaacs Roe was also in her thirties when the desire to travel overcame her. In 1946 she boarded a westbound Greyhound bus in rural Greenwood Mississippi. Traveling with my grandfather Henry David Roe, five children and all their worldly possessions, she left behind the familiar  cotton fields of the Mississippi Delta that had been home to her since before her marriage and set out for the unknown wilds of the  Great Pacific Northwest.  She was a migrant mother, part of the Southern Diaspora, she was one of the more than three million white adult southerners who fled the South after the end of World War II.  Men and women left in mass.  Searching for a better way of life for themselves and their children in the most northern and western regions of the United States of America.  Migrants of the Southern Diaspora helped reshape America by southernizing the communities they settled in. When my grandmother arrived in Dorena Oregon, she brought a love of country music and a set of southern cooking skills with her. For the rest of her long-life Ruby Roe shared her joy in southern regional pleasures with every guest that entered her home in the northwest.

My mother, Nannie Elizabeth Roe Cross is a globe trotter. I’m not sure when the travel bug first bit her, but I do know that following  the honeymoon trip through Nevada and California she took with my father LaMoine Lee Cross in 1957, she planned many family trips,  and vacations   throughout the 1960’s and early 1970’s. Summer excursions to see local sights, like the Oregon coast, the lava beds near the town of Sisters, and Peterson’s Rock Garden outside of Redmond Oregon eventually expanded in to overnight  road trips and full blown weeks long vacations. Thanks to my mother’s wanderlust, me and my two younger brothers, Randy LaMoine Cross, and Nicky Scott Cross enjoyed a backseat view of America.  We watched the landscape change through the windows of our parent’s Rambler American automobile.  The Redwood Forest, Disneyland, Mount Rushmore, Yellowstone Park, Devils Tower, The Great Salt Lake, the Gulf Coast, the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway, and New Orleans were just some of the iconic places we visited.  A few years later with her children grown my mother made her maiden overseas journey when she flew across the Atlantic to see London with my father. Since then Nannie Cross has visited more than fifty countries and has enjoyed sights on every continent on the globe except Antarctica. She is very proud of her travels and would be the first to tell you that she would probably never have had the opportunity to become a globetrotter if her mother, Ruby Roe, had not  sought a better life for her family and migrated from Mississippi to Oregon when she—Nannie—was a nine year old girl.

Me? I am a free spirit.  When I was young, I was bent on finding the real America and my lust for travel was couched in my desire to understand the world I lived in. I was determined to change the world, to make it a better place.  I trekked from place to place never sure of my destination, not knowing how long I would stay once I arrived there.  I suppose that in this regard I had more in common with my rolling stone great grandfather, than I did with my migrant grandmother, or my globetrotting mother. For according to the stories I heard about him when I was a child it seemed to me that William moved from place to place whenever the notion struck  unlike my grandmother and my mother who each traveled with a definite purpose and  after much planning. Me? I remain a free spirit, still on a quest to discover the true nature of my country, but I have changed. For now, when I embark on a journey I do so with a certain end in mind. I put much more thought in the details of my travels than I ever did during my free-wheeling days. In this regard I have become much more like my grandmother and my mother than I ever was in the past.

There is one more direct ancestor that is of interest here. Williams mother, Emily Isaacs. I don’t know much about her. Memory of her was almost lost to history. But thanks to a few legal documents, government records and one treasured photograph, I have enough information to thoughtfully speculate on how she lived her life.  I can definitively state that for the greatest part of her life Emily stayed close to home. She was born on June 12, 1860 in Lyon’s County Kentucky, in 1879, at the age of nineteen, she married my great-great grandfather Benjamin Franklin Isaacs there.  She passed away in Lyons County on November 18, 1936 at the age of seventy-seven. The only record I have of her ever leaving that area was when she gave birth to her first child—and my great grandfather—William  on October 11, 1880 in Memphis Tennessee, almost two hundred miles away. I will never know why she gave birth so far away from home, or if she shared the wanderlust, that I believe I inherited from her son.  I like to think that she did.  It is possible that she possessed an urge to travel. Even if her urge to travel was strong enough to pass down to future generations it is imaginable that as the mother of ten children, she pushed her personal wants and desires aside while she cared for her family. The responsibility of caring for such a large brood would most likely overwhelm even the most free-spirited characters among us and keep even the most adventurous of souls close to home.

#52ancestors #52ancestorsclosetohom

From 52 Ancestors prompt “Close to Home.”