The opening scene (as I recall) of the movie How the West Was Won depicts a farmer standing at a well, reeling in a rope. A bucket emerges from the well, and the man snorts in disgust when he sees that it’s filled with rocks, not water.
He decides it’s time to move on, to the new frontier, and convinces several of his neighbors (also his in-laws) to do the same. They build flatboats, pile on all their worldly goods, and float downriver to a new beginning, a new life, in a more promising territory in the Far West.
That storyline could have been pulled directly from my family’s history. After migrating from Virginia to what is now East Tennessee in the wake of the American Revolution, a group of Edwards families, along with their neighbors (with whom they had intermarried: Ramsey, Wheelis) built flatboats, floated down the Powell and Tennessee rivers to the Ohio River and on to Missouri. There they traded the boats for covered wagons and trekked westward to Iowa Territory. That was 1850.
Twenty-six years later, in 1876, apparently tired of the Iowa winters and frustrated by a few bad years of farming, they loaded up prairie schooners and moved on to the Palouse region of Washington Territory. There my grandfather’s grandfather, Anderson Edwards (1832-1908), and his extended family began farming wheat and built a grist mill in St. John. Many of them have graves still found in the region today, Pine City in particular, where my grandmother gave birth to my father, Loren Ira Edwards (1927-1978), in the family farmhouse.
One of the genealogist’s best friends is a census record, which divulges a person’s location, the names and relations of the others in the household at the time, age, place of birth, occupation, and other facts, depending on which questions were asked on a given census year. It also reveals names of the neighbors and others living in the region. After examining the data, patterns often emerge, such as how families intermarried (or intramarried), especially during the 19th century and earlier.
Anderson Edwards in particular stood out as I filled in the branches of the family tree (with the help of my wife, Janis Cadwallader, the dogged genealogist of our family). My snickers elicited a “what did you find?” from Janis.
“Anderson married his first cousin, Armina Ramsey,” I said.
Janis smiled. “That explains a lot.” Then she asked me when Anderson died.
“In 1908, according to the family record,” I said.
Janis showed me the Washington census for 1900, pointing out that Anderson wasn’t on it, and it identified Armina as a widow.
“Seems odd that anyone could have made that big of an error,” I said. Anderson and Armina were buried side-by-side in Pine City Cemetery, if the tombstones could be believed.
Janis did some more poking around and found the 68-year-old Anderson living in Yamhill, Oregon—with another woman.
“The randy old bugger,” I said.
I once asked my grandmother, Ruby France Edwards (1900-1997, m. Ira Josiah Edwards, 1899-1978), about Anderson, if she remembered him. Grandma Edwards, who never swore, read her bible every day, and generally had nice things to say about others, leaned toward me in a conspiratorial posture and said in low voice, “He was a mean so-and-so” [translation: son of a bitch]. But neither she, nor anyone else in my family as far I as knew, had ever mentioned the “other woman.”
That gave me the bug to do more research into my family’s past. I had heard rumors of the so-called Edwards Fortune, and that one of my grandmother’s ancestors had signed the Declaration of Independence. And being a history buff, I knew of an Edwards being the first governor of Illinois, and that Davey Crockett came from East Tennessee. I wondered if I might be related to them (Governor Ninian Edwards, distant cousin, but not a direct ancestor; Crockett lived in the neighborhood, but no direct tie). And the notion that I (along with thousands—if not millions—of other Edwards are direct descendants of King Henry VIII; and if not him, then ancient Welsh kings, certainly (makes a good story, if nothing else).
Thus, the research took on a greater scale and scope. As I combed through the family genealogy, I watched the history of the United States unfold, and the roles the Edwardses played. Some became community leaders, others fought in the wars to create and preserve the Union.
At the same time, some roles, at least by today’s standards, leaned toward the unsavory side. I found some Edwardses in lists of Virginia tithables (tax rolls) as slave holders (others as indentured servants), and one Edwards served as a trustee of land once held by the Nottoway Indians in Virginia—a group of Native Americans that became virtually extinct a short while later, following years of war, famine, and lack of immunity to diseases introduced by Europeans.
Disease didn’t only decimate the indigenous population, however. In an 1820 census, I found an Edwards household in East Tennessee—man, woman and five children. In the 1830, census, the woman is listed as head of household and there are just two children. They lived a hard, uncertain life eking out a living on the frontier. Few, if any, medical services, and the only means of communication being face-to-face or hand-written letters.
I poked bit farther back, trying to identify some direct ancestors in Virginia Colony. The old adage “be careful what you wish for” came to mind.
I called out to Janis. “Look, dear, I found a Cadwallader Edwards.”
“Apparently I’ve married my cousin.”
Next installment: the Edwards Fortune [Hoax] and the “brick wall” [at Abel Edwards, abt 1750-1825, m. Polly Potts].