The Big Picture

The endeavor of genealogy is constrained by two immovable facts. First, consistent written records are increasingly scarce the further back in history you look, and even when records once existed they often suffered from loss, destruction, or permanent stashing in a dark corner somewhere unfindable. Once the written record is gone, it cannot be recovered (except occasionally those found in the dark corners). Oral history is sometimes useful, but it takes just one generation that doesn’t care about the family stories to lose it completely.

William_the_Conqueror_after_Hastings

William the Conqueror after the Battle of Hastings

Second, searching for one’s ancestors inevitably runs afoul of the exponential growth of those ancestors generation to generation. Each of us has two parents, four grandparents, eight great-grandparents, and so forth. Each of those great-grandparents contributed equally to make the person you are today (at least biologically), not just the 1 of the 8 who happened to pass along your last name. The same is true for preceding generations. While 8, or 16, or 32 ancestors are not difficult to research, 3 generations after that each of us has 256 individuals who contributed to our heritage. In another 2 generations it is over 1,000. At some point, it becomes impractical and somewhat meaningless to keep looking. Our family is among many which can claim to ancestry from William the Conqueror, the Norman who successfully invaded England in 1066. However, if we count back the 31 to 34 generations to William’s, we discover between 2 and 17 billion ancestors at his spot in the family tree. By comparison, there were only an estimated 3.25 million people living in England at the time, a number which dropped over the next three centuries thanks to the bubonic plague. It would not be a stretch to assert that everyone living today who is in part English is likely descended from William the Conqueror.

Given these immutable constraints on genealogical research, the focus of this work is constructing a family history from the founding of the United States forward. Every effort has been made to identify the individuals in the family tree back to those who were adults during the War for Independence from Britain. That occurs about Generation 8. In addition, secondary sources have been utilized where available to trace the history of some of these family groups back to their immigration to North America, providing enough data to draw some general conclusions about the origins of the family in the Old World.

Very little has been done to trace the family tree at the point of origin in Europe (and all roots are in Europe). Why? Well, most of the family’s ancestors immigrated to North America a really long time ago. The last immigrants arrived around 1848, great-great grandparents Emmanuel Loeb from Alsace, France, and his future wife Marie Morningstar from Szered in the Hungarian portion of the Austrian Empire. A generation before that a married couple, the Hockshaws, arrived from Ireland sometime in the 1820’s. With the possible exception of one British soldier who probably arrived to fight against American Independence during the Revolutionary War, everyone else – more than 80% of the family’s genealogical material – was already living in the U.S. by the time the Declaration of Independence was signed. The problem of “too many ancestors” is already in force before reaching those who lived in Europe.

Where did they come from, and where did they go to? Someday I hope to develop an animated map that will have a dot representing each ancestor at a particular point in time, and which would play forward a year at a time so viewers could see the patterns of migration. If such a map started in the year 1600, all the dots would be in Europe, mostly in England, Wales, and Scotland, but with a handful in the southern Rhine river valley between future Germany and France, and another handful elsewhere in France, Switzerland, and — for the Jewish ancestors — scattered through eastern Europe (likely). Beginning in 1608, a few dots would make the journey from England across to the Chesapeake Bay area, settling in Virginia. By the middle part of the 17th century, these few dots would become a flood of dots leaving England, joined by a few from Northern Ireland.

Western Europe at the time of Queen Elizabeth

Western Europe at the time of Queen Elizabeth,from The Public Schools Historical Atlas by C. Colbeck

In the last quarter of the 17th century, a few dots would leave Wales and go to Pennsylvania, and at the new century some come from France and Switzerland too. By the early 18th century, most of the dots in England, Scotland, and Wales have left and eastern Virginia is full, spilling over into northern North Carolina. In the mid-18th century the dots from the Rhine valley would leave and go to Pennsylvania, as would all the remaining dots in Northern Ireland. Many of the dots in Pennsylvania and Virginia would begin moving south along the eastern slopes of the Appalachian mountains into the “backcountry” of North Carolina – the western Piedmont. A few venturesome ones would cross to the western side of the mountains, into what became Tennessee and the southwestern counties of Virginia.

After the Revolutionary War, all the dots would pack up and move west, going from Pennsylvania, Virginia, and North Carolina into southern Kentucky, middle and western Tennessee, and northern Alabama. A few of the Pennsylvania dots would head west through Ohio into Indiana. There are many fewer dots now, since each passing generation halves the number of ancestors. In 1848, the last two dots leave Europe, one for New Orleans, then traveling up the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers to Louisville, Kentucky. The other would leave a city in Hungary (found in modern-day Slovakia) and travel to New York, then west to southern Illinois.

By the time of the Civil War, the remaining dots would be concentrated in the counties of western Tennessee (Thompsons, Nelsons, Blakemores), southern Tennessee (Paysingers, Tenerys), Kentucky (Raglands, Loebs), and Indiana (Fohls), eventually narrowing down to Paris and Nashville.

By thinking through this simulation, two important observations jump out. First, the family is almost entirely Western European in origin. Notably absent from the family tree are any individuals from Eastern Europe (excepting only the Jewish ones) or Southern Europe. The famed mass immigration through Ellis Island is not part of our story – we were already here by the time those migrants came in the late 19th and early 20 centuries. Nor do DNA tests indicate that any African or Native American genes slipped into the family tree, pieces of the past that might otherwise have escaped documentation because of well-known racist cultural attitudes. British, French, German, and European Jewish — but mostly British — are where we began.

Second, ours is primarily a family of the Old South — a mixture of English, Welsh, Scots, Scotch-Irish, French Huguenots, and Germans who made up the bulk of non-African colonial settlement of the South. The family has been in Virginia, North Carolina, and Tennessee for hundreds of years, long enough that the cultural influence of Europe is less important than the culture the colonists created in these southern states, both for good and bad. Plenty of slave owners show up in the early censuses, and many ancestors played a role in driving Native Americans off their lands. But many also sat in the Virginia House of Burgesses and rubbed shoulders with the likes of the Jeffersons and Madisons. Some immigrants were  Quakers who brought with them some of the U.S.’s fundamental democratic ideals. Many ancestors fought in the Revolutionary War to free their states from tyranny, though others fought in the Civil War (some reluctantly) to preserve an institution rooted in tyranny over others.

Farmers, ministers, businessmen, Indian fighters, midwives, peddlers, doctors, merchants, politicians, soldiers, and more are part of the family heritage. Untimely deaths, cataclysmic events, risky adventures, and — above all — good fortune (after all, we’re here, right?) shaped the family’s future. The rest of this work will explore all of this history.

The complexity of genealogy makes it difficult to write a coherent narrative. Exploring the past, each generation further from the present splits the story in two, with each half heading in a different direction only to split again in the next generation. Starting in the past and moving forward is even more difficult since the narrative can then fragment into a dozen different story lines within a single generation. Many writers will thus either simply catalog a family or write a story about a single, interesting branch of the family tree. The former lacks for color and interest, the latter neglects the vast majority of the family’s history. Thanks to the power of new online research tools, it is now possible to catalog more quickly and accurately than ever before, and enables the modern writer to attempt something new: to characterize the entire sweep of a family’s origins. This is what I will attempt to do, recognizing of course that the “family” is a moving target. The history described here is entirely relevant only to the families of the author and his brother, and the next generation will have twice the story to tell.

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