Tuesday, 12 December 2017

My Grandfather and Wild Bill Hickok

OK, the title above is a bit of a mis-direction. My grandfather did not know Wild Bill Hickok. But he may have heard about him while he was growing up in Kansas.

Edwin Miller was born in Manhattan, Riley County, Kansas on 17 February 1870. His parents, Isaac and Alice Miller had migrated to the area from Indiana, initially by wagon train, in 1866. They settled on bottom lands of the Big Blue River in June 1868, having stopped for a year or so in Westfield, Illinois, where their first child was born. The railroad had just reached the Manhattan area bringing with it farmers and business people looking for new opportunities. Their original homestead probably lies under Tuttle Creek Lake, formed after the Big Blue River was damned for the purpose of flood control in 1951.

The Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fé Railway, Union Pacific Railway and Kansas Pacific Railway were prime factors in the expansion of settlement in the western US. Several sites along the Kansas section became centres for the distribution of goods and services, including the burgeoning cattle industry of Oklahoma and Texas. 

The Kansas Pacific main line shown on an 1869 map highlighting locations of the towns of Manhattan and Abilene. The thickened portion along the line indicates the extent of the land grants available to settlers. At the time of the map, the line extended only as far as western Kansas (section in green). The extension to the Colorado Territory (section in red) was completed the following year. (retreived from the Kansas Pacific Railway Wikipedia website 12 December 2017)

Abilene became an important terminus of the Chisholm Trail, where cattle from south Texas were driven and sold.
1873 Map of Chisholm Trail with subsidiary trails in Texas (retrieved from Wikipedia Commons on 12 December 2017) completed the following year. 
(retrieved from the Kansas Pacific Railway Wikipedia website 12 December 2017  
To get back to Wild Bill and my grandfather – James Butler (“Wild Bill”) Hickok succeeded Thomas James Smith as Abilene’s Police Chief. The city was one of many centres established following the introduction of the railroads into the region, in particular for the sale of cattle. Among some of the more notorious others in Kansas were Caldwell, Dodge City, Ellsworth, Newton and Wichita. Abilene was a lawless place until Smith’s appointment on 4 June 1870. Among his actions, he sternly enforced the town bylaw prohibiting the carrying of guns and clamped down on men, mainly drovers, who wanted to let off steam after a long ride on the cattle trail. Dance hall girls were restricted to locations south of the railroad tracks (the Devil’s Addition). Smith was killed trying to arrest accused murderers and outlaws Andrew McConnell and Moses Miles on 2 November 1870. Hickok was a reputed and fearsome gunfighter. He lasted until December 1871 and ended with the shooting of saloon owner Phil Coe and the death of Deputy Marshall Mike Williams.

Manhattan is only about 40 miles from Abilene. It is certainly probable that the Miller family heard about the goings-on in Abilene and the gunplay that was rampant there and in other towns. The Miller family farmed in Riley County until 1893 when they left to homestead in Oklahoma. Young Edwin may have grown up hearing such names as Bat Masterton, Clay Allison, Doc Holliday, Jesse James, John Wesley Hardin or Wyatt Earp. All were in Kansas during the 1870s and 80s.
Photo of a train of covered wagons, oxen and men on horseback setting our from Manhattan, Kansas about 1860 (retrieved from Kansas Historical Society website 8 December 2017)
I wonder if my grandfather knew about these larger-than-life men living at the time he was growing up. It’s curious to me now that he grew up in a time and place not far removed from where the likes of Wild Bill Hickok lived out part of his life. Looking back on my experiences with my grandfather, I never connected him or his family with the Old West that I saw on TV many years later. Of course, at the time I did not know where he came from and could not appreciate the time period in which he was raised.

Did he play “Cowboys and Indians” the way my friends and I did when we were young in the 195s.? Did he give any thought to their lifestyles or attitudes? Or was the idea of people carrying guns and causing havoc part of normal life? Or was he too busy helping out on the home farm and exploits of the gunslingers never really impacted rural communities such as Manhattan, Kansas?

Did Edwin Miller ever hear about Wild Bill Hickok? I really have no idea. I would like to think he did, if only through reports in the local newspapers. I hope he did not think of such men as heroes though. Most of them, other than perhaps Thomas James Smith certainly were not!

Tuesday, 5 December 2017


DNA tests have been in the genealogical news often recently. Every company who offers testing seems to have a special price on for the US Thanksgiving and Christmas season. Most blogs I read have posted comments on the tool, encouraging readers to get their DNA evaluated and see if any new cousins pop up.

I have dealt with the subject before (DNA Matches) when I commented on my own experiences. They have been mixed but I still hold out hope that something will come from the Y-DNA results of some family members.

National Geographic of course has added its voice to testing, offering readers a discount on to join its GENO 2.0 project. They indicate over 820,000 people have already taken part. Results of tests are touted to give participants their regional ancestry makeup as far back as 200,000 years, a deep ancestry report showing where ancestors lived and migrated, their hominin ancestry and now historical genius matches. The latter might show which famous geniuses might be relatives.

In the most recent, Christmas issue of Family Tree (UK), there is an article about a DNA project to build a worldwide family tree. (By the way, I have a contribution in that issue as well about Your ancestors and the Little Ice Age which I hope you will read.)

The article starts off with, “An ancestry DNA firm has set up a unique research initiative with universities across the world to create a global family tree based on people’s DNA.” They want to produce a detailed genetic map with their One Family One World project. They have developed lesson plans that span science, geography, history and social studies to show people how we are all connected. Their objectives are interesting and laudable.

In all the discussions about DNA testing there have also been alarms raised about how the information could be used or obtained by groups or agencies that individuals getting tested never anticipated. James Tanner commented on some of the recent news reports in his blog post of 20 November 2017, Is genealogically submitted DNA discoverable in a criminal investigation? Basically he says, don’t worry about it…the rules of evidence likely preclude the likelihood of law enforcement ever getting their hands on the data. I would not be surprised, though, to see life insurance companies trying to find out how you tested in order to assess your health risks better.

Anyway, to get back to the livingdna website, my first reaction to the idea of trying to assemble a world-wide tree was…Why?

I personally doubt that it is possible to find out how all 7.6 billion people in the world today are related or how they came to be where they are. Man…it is hard enough to find all the living members of my own extended family and learn who they are, where they live and what they do.

It may be a laudable exercise to show how everyone is related if we go back far enough, but we basically already know that from anthropological, archeological and geological studies. Is there really a point to finding out how a farmer in a remote location of Qinghai province, China, is connected to a dentist is Pasadena, California. Genealogy has its limits, mostly due to records only going back a few hundred years. Beyond that it’s unreasonable to think we can confirm familial relationships. DNA may tell us something about the story of migration of our particular forebears, but that is likely to be hundreds if not thousands of generations past. Hardly relevant if you are looking for your 3rd great-grandparents!
Early Human migration patterns (retrieved from https://www.thinglink.com/scene/844602605974847489 webpage 5 December 2017)
The livingdna project kind of reminds me of the goals of the FamilySearch Family Tree which is composed of linked trees submitted by some 22 million users. Over the years I have looked at some of the results, for people in my family I know a lot about, and found many instances where information was just plain wrong. One missed tie between individuals means a whole series of branches will be suspect. Not to demean their efforts but multiply a single mistake by millions and you really have to question the usefulness of the whole project.

DNA tests are a great tool to use for finding relatives, mostly those still living. They might, though, offer a different perspective on the family and perhaps even some new names. Using it to go back several generations is of limited value unless you find those living cousins who might have copies of the documents that demonstrate family connections. Past a couple of generations any DNA similarities might well only fall in the margin of error and it won’t be possible to know if it is real.

Believing that you can go back thousands of years to find ancestors is a fairy tale. Migration patterns are an interesting subject but that is information you can get from many scientific studies.

The livingdna program looks very interesting but, outside of educating people about the common origins of humanity, its goals unite mankind in a common tree may be beyond what is really possible. Check it out!

Tuesday, 28 November 2017

Natural Disasters and Family Misfortunes 10: Appalachian Storm 1950

I have mentioned major storms in some previous posts about natural disasters and their effects on people and communities. This past weekend marked the anniversary of a severe early winter tempest that devastated many parts of the eastern United States. Most readers of this blog will not remember it but their parents might. It happened right about the time that television was making its way into private homes, so perhaps not as many people would have seen the pictures or newscasts as is the case today.

It also happened at a time when atmospheric CO2 levels were not very high, so storms of this magnitude occurring during this and previous periods could not be blamed on anthropogenic climate change associated with that so-called greenhouse gas. The storm was just one of those big events that came around every once in a while – and always had – when meteorological conditions combined in particular ways.

As described in Wikipedia (and in several other reports), the “Great Appalachian Storm of November 1950 was a large extratropical cyclone which moved through the Eastern United States, causing significant winds, heavy rains east of the Appalachians, and blizzard conditions along the western slopes of the mountain chain. Hurricane-force winds, peaking at 110 miles per hour (180 km/h) in Concord, New Hampshire and 160 miles per hour (260 km/h) in the New England highlands, disrupted power to 1,000,000 customers during the event. In all, the storm impacted 22 states, killing 353, injuring over 160, and creating US$66.7 million in damage (1950 dollars). At the time, U.S. insurance companies paid more money out to their policy holders for damage resulting from this cyclone than for any other previous storm or hurricane. The cyclone is also one of only twenty-six storms to rank as a Category 5 on the Regional Snowfall Index.”
Surface analysis showing cyclone near time of maximum intensity on 25 November 1950 
(retrieved 20 November 2017 from Wikipedia)

According to authors, Paul Kocin and Louis Uccellini, in their books, Northeast Snowstorms, Volumes 1 and 2, the 1950 storm “represents perhaps the greatest combination of extreme atmospheric elements ever seen in the eastern United States. We feel that this storm is the bench mark against which all other major storms of the 20th century could be compared.”

The New England Historical Society documented the event here. See also The Great Appalachian Storm of 1950 summarized on the LEX18.com (the Lexington, KY news website) last week.

The 1950 storm was not the first to rampage over the Eastern US in the early winter season. A powerful blizzard slashed across New England on Thanksgiving Day in 1898 – hitting hardest in New York, Connecticut and Massachusetts – disrupting transportation and communication, and leaving 20-foot snowdrifts in its wake. It caught many areas unprepared as it followed a warm Indian Summer period. Over 450 people were thought to have been killed. At sea the steamer Portland was overpowered by winds and sunk.

Other not-so-Thanksgiving Day storms:
·         1926 Arkansas tornado
·         1945 Boston nor’easter
·         1971 New York snowfall
·         1982 Hawaii hurricane
·         1988 North Carolina tornado
·         1991 California dust storm
·         1992 Gulf Coast to Eastern Seaboard tornadoes
·         1998 Washing State windstorm

You will find hundreds more if you search for destructive storms on any other day of the year – holiday or not.

History records major storms throughout the centuries of human existence, although it is only in the last few hundred years that the consequences have been set down in print. Prior to that, we have only geological data on which to base their existence and severity. A quick search of the Internet will bring up dozens of examples of extreme storm events in North American and Europe that have occurred almost on a regular basis during the past several centuries.

Most of the deadliest storms we hear about happened in the last 100 years mainly because reporting of such events was more complete. You have to go into historical records – which do not always contain a lot of detail, especially concerning meteorological data – to find out about similar events before the 20th century.

On 26 November 1703 (later to be the US Thanksgiving Day season) the Great Storm struck southern England causing widespread damage from the West Country to London. The maritime fleet was decimated with over 100 shipwrecks – including 13 royal Navy warships – and more than 8,000 seamen drowned.

Areas along the coasts of continents are most susceptible to hurricanes and typhoons that come in from the sea. Coastal towns and cities fare worse than areas further inland when these sorts of storms attack.

Everybody talks about the weather. Farmers, in particular, have been known to agonize over it. For much of mankind’s existence, weather has had a significant impact on survival, controlling agricultural success or the numbers and health of animals hunted or raised as food sources.

Besides the deaths of people in major storm events, there is always significant property damage which can cripple families under unforeseen financial burdens.

Chronicling of major storms falls well within the time period of genealogical studies. The 1950 time frame would not normally be a part of genealogical investigations but it did affect people three or more generations ago. More to the point, it certainly was not the first (nor will it be the last) intense storm to have an impact on communities.

It may be worth family researchers’ time to review the aspects of the environments in which their ancestors lived to see if natural disaster like storms, and associated wind or flood damage had major impacts on lives and livelihoods.