musings on family history

I love history. Also family history.

If you look at our family pictures, is pretty obvious that we don’t have that much genetic diversity. But we have a little.

I have some slight Cherokee heritage. It’s only 1/64th, so our children are a mere 1/128th, not much at all. But it is still worth noting and celebrating.

One of my great-great-great-great-grandmothers was Cherokee. According to family lore she married a French fellow who had fled France for reasons of health — either because of his Huguenot faith or, if he fled during the French Revolution, because his family belonged to the lesser nobility; I forget when in the 1700s he came over. I wish I knew the story about how they met.

I do know he was a Huguenot (a French Protestant). The Huguenots often faced persecution, and sometimes massacre, in Roman Catholic France. I also know that his family claimed to be descended from Charlemagne. That claim may well have been mere pretension, but it wouldn’t have made the family popular during the Reign of Terror. So I’m also at least 1/64th French.

One of their children married one of my Scots-Irish ancestors; they were my great-great-great-grandparents. Once we get to the grandchildren of the Cherokee and French couple I start to know more family history.

So my great-great-grandfather William Robert McCracken (he went by “W.R.”) was a quarter Cherokee. He was early a part of the Restoration Movement in the 1800s. A farmer in Indiana, he gave a section of his land to the Monrovia Christian Church when they were sufficiently organized to want a building. The building on that plot now houses a Methodist congregation; at some point before my birth the Monrovia CC grew out of their space, and another farmer just outside of the village gave them land to build a larger structure.

The Restoration Movement — which resulted in today’s Christian Churches, Churches of Christ, and Disciples of Christ — was born out of the Second Great Awakening. Its three most famous early leaders were Barton W. Stone, Thomas Campbell, and Alexander Campbell.

Interestingly, Barton Stone was fluent in the Cherokee language and would often preach in that language. (I’ve read that he knew five different Native American languages, but cannot provide citations for that. There are extant manuscripts of Stone’s sermons in Cherokee, though written phonetically in Latin script. Stone was preaching in Cherokee before Sequoyah’s newly devised Cherokee script was adopted.) It’s statistically unlikely that WR (who may not have spoken the language), his parents, or his Cherokee grandmother heard Barton Stone preach in the Cherokee language. But it’s still an interesting connection.

Barton Stone was the minister of the Cane Ridge church in Kentucky during the Cane Ridge Revival, which was part of the Second Great Awakening. An early opponent of slavery who manumitted the two slaves he had inherited, he reflected that “This revival cut the bonds of many poor slaves!” At Cane Ridge and other churches influenced by Stone at this period, there was no distinction based on skin color or ethnicity. Those of African heritage were listed on membership roles alongside those of European heritage — a novelty at that point in American history.

I don’t know whether my great-great-grandfather ever met Stone or the Campbells. But I do know that he shared Stone’s views on the abhorrent evils of slavery. In the 1860s, he joined a regiment from Indiana. One of his motivations was the abolition of slavery. He was willing to fight, and perhaps to die, to “declare freedom to the captives.” He served with distinction as a second lieutenant and the aide de camp to General Benjamin Harrison, who later served as America’s 23rd President.

WR was not a warmonger, however. He had seen the horrors of war first hand. Many years later his son, my great-grandfather Benjamin Harrison McCracken, was eager to join Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders to go to Cuba to drive the Spanish out of the New World and liberate the Cubans. WR put his foot down. You think that war is all romance (using that term in the 19th century sense of “adventure”) and glory, but you haven’t seen what I’ve seen. War is hell, and I don’t want any son of mine to see what I’ve seen. Perhaps he was also thinking that he didn’t want any son of his to do what he had done? I don’t know — to my knowledge, that’s the closest he ever got to speaking of his war experiences. My family still has his service revolver … I wonder what stories it could tell? I wonder if I would want to hear them … . Regardless, Benjamin did not go to war in Cuba.

I know a funny story about great-grandpa Ben and a corny joke from the 1800s. He married later in life than was then common. When he started courting Miss Minnie Cain, they would promenade up and down the street of their small town as they conversed. His friends guffawed, “Lookie there at ole Ben. He’s so old, he’s awalking with a Cain!” <cue laugh track>

My mother has a letter that WR wrote to his son Benjamin. Apparently a later than average courtship and marriage weren’t the only way he was a bit slow to “settle down.” He had at that point only toyed with the Christian faith. He knew the good news about Jesus is true, but he hadn’t settled down and made a commitment. It’s about time for you to man-up, son, and make a decision. (Well, maybe that’s how he would’ve written today. Over a century ago, his language was a little different.) At least twice, Benjamin listened to his father. He didn’t go to war with Roosevelt, and sometime after reception of this letter, he did accept Jesus as Lord. He was baptized and followed Jesus until his death. The letter must have made a difference, for he kept it and my grandma (his daughter) kept it after him.  Sometime around 1918–1919, Ben & Minnie moved back to Monrovia, Indiana.  As members of Hazelwood Christian Church, Ben taught an adult sunday school class for years.  My mom has both WR’s letter to Benjamin (her grandfather) and the bible from which Benjamin taught.

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