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The Chicken Oath

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While conducting my genealogical research, I will often stumble across odd little snippets of history of which I am largely unfamiliar. They will, in turn, lead me on little side quests as my curiosity requires me to dig deeper.  One such incident came as I was reading through a narrative involving a distant relative, Richard Calvin Tate, the first cousin of my daughter-in-law’s 5th great-grandfather.

I came across this account in The History of Calloway County, Missouri dated 1884. In it I learned that “Mr Tate went to California in 1849, and was engaged for some time in hauling with his six horse wagon. During his sojourn in California, he served on a case in which several Chinamen were witnesses, and they swore to everything but the truth, until the judge had a rooster brought into the courtroom and placed on a table, when a blank expression of dread came over the face of each Chinamen, and after that they swore to the truth.”

Reading that paragraph raised a few unanswered questions in my mind, not the least of which was “what does a rooster have to do with anything?”  I found the answer to that question in The New York Court of Appeals, Records and Briefs (pg 48 and 49). It states that “The recognition of an oath or an affirmation is based upon a recognition of the forms which may be used as imposing a binding obligation upon the conscience… It is more or less common knowledge that a Chinaman does not regard an oath as a binding obligation unless at the time he takes it he cuts off the head of a rooster.”

As I continued to read, I found that there are numerous 19th century records in court documents stretching from California to Canada all allowing the unusual “chicken oath” administered to Chinese witnesses to bind them to the truth.

Michael Ondrasik and Home Video Studio specialize in the preservation of family memories through the digitalization of film, videotape, audio recordings, photos, negatives and slides. For more information, call 352-735-8550 or visit our website.

We Hold These Truths To Be Self-Evident

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There are 56 signatures on America’s Declaration of Independence. I suppose it was only a matter of time before I managed to link one of them back to my family.

Col. George V Ross of Pennsylvania was the brother-in-law of my 6th great-granduncle. Born in Delaware to a large family, he started reading law in his brother’s office. He was admitted to the bar at the age of 20. Politically, he began, as many gentlemen did in that day, with Tory sympathies, even serving as Crown Prosecutor for twelve years. But his allegiances began to change and he started siding with the colonists in their disputes with British rule.

He was elected to represent Pennsylvania at the Continental Congress (along with Benjamin Franklin). At the same time, he served as a colonel in the Pennsylvania militia. In 1776, he signed his name to the Declaration of Independence. In 1777, he was again appointed to represent his state at the second Continental Congress but had to resign his position due to ill health. He died from complications of gout a few years later at the young age of 49.

Before he died, he did make one more contribution to the cause. When George Washington and Robert Morris were looking for someone to fashion a symbol to represent the new nation, he took them to see his niece, a talented seamstress from Philadelphia. Her name was Betsy Ross.

Michael Ondrasik and Home Video Studio specialize in the preservation of family memories through the digitalization of film, videotapes, audio recordings, photos, negatives, and slides. For more information, call 352-735-8550 or visit our website.

A Confederate Soldier

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William Patrick Goode, the 4th great-granduncle of my daughter-in-law, enlisted in the Confederate Army when he was 18 years old. He served in B Company, 57th Infantry, Virginia Volunteers under the command of General L.A. Armistead, Major General Anderson, and last under General G.E. Pickett. 

He was captured while holding onto the position the Confederates gained during the famous “Pickett’s Charge” at Gettysburg. He was held at Fort Delaware until his release in June of 1865. Conditions were dismal. Fort Delaware was designed to be a harbor defense, not for housing of prisoners, and after Union victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg, its population swelled to well over 12,000.

From the memoirs of John Sterling Swann, who was also imprisoned at Fort Delaware: “I witnessed the suffering of many, consequent on want of food, clothing and warmth, and many died from these causes. I have seen many go to the hospital never to return. When the winter came on we suffered greatly. The division — our quarters were made of white pine planks, nailed up vertically. It had shrunk and left large cracks between the planks and there being but one stove to the division, and only one blanket allowed to each person, we of course suffered greatly from cold. We were at night continually getting up and coming to the stove and when a little warm we would return to our bunks. So the stove was always crowded. Hence we got but little sleep. There were many rats in the prison grounds. They burrowed under the plank walks and into the sides of the ditches. The more needy prisoners, when they could kill them, eat them with avidity.”

After the war, and upon his release, William Goode returned to Virginia where he married Malinda Jane Oxley-Wigginton, the widow of a fellow Confederate soldier who died in the Battle at Frazier’s Farm in Richmond. Together, they had ten children. He died in 1937, at the age of 92.

Michael Ondrasik and Home Video Studio specialize in the preservation of family memories through the digitalization of film, videotapes, audio recordings, photos, negatives, and slides. For more information, call 352-735-8550 or visit our website.

Harman’s Battle at Tug River

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The following account was published in the Ironton Register on August 24, 1854. It has been edited due to space considerations.

It was about the year 1791 that Captain Henry Harman, together with his sons George and Matthias and a new son-in-law went over upon the Tug Fork of Big Sandy to hunt. In the afternoon the young men went out (as was the custom with the hunters) to see if the locality pleased them for hunting, before fixing upon their final camping ground. At night the young men returned bringing with them some moccasins, some of them new, which they had found at a camp some few miles distant.

Capt. Harman, experienced in frontier life, took a moccasin and scented it for the strong Indian smell, which it had, and says he: “Boys, you’ve done wrong, for the Indians will trail you here for their moccasins; we have no safety but to go home.” After getting a little distance from the camp they put their horses to full speed, the son-in-law leading and had gone but a short distance before he sung out, “Father, I see Indians.” The old man went ahead; they had gone but a little further before the Indians fired upon them from under the bank of the stream, but as good luck would have it not one of them was injured.

Harman and his boys immediately dismounted and “treed.” There were seven of the Indians under the bank, and soon the son-in-law disappeared; he found a hiding place under a log, leaving Captain Harman and his two boys to fight the battle with the Indians, three to seven. Here they stood it for hours, each party trying to get the advantage over the other. Finally, while Capt. Harman and his boys were yet all unharmed, such had been their adroitness, four of the Indians were killed or mortally wounded, leaving the contesting sides three to three.

The three remaining Indians then becoming desperate dropped their guns and rushed up the bank upon Capt. Harman with their bows and arrows. They shot one arrow into his breast and another into his arm. He fell and fainted. They were about to scalp him, when one of the boys with his rifle drove two of the Indians again down the bank, and the other boy rushed upon the third Indian. This young Harman was lame from a fever sore, and the Indian thinking that he was wounded drew his knife and grappled with him; but young Harman proving an overmatch took his knife from him, and stabbed him eleven times. The two Indians down the bank again came up, but seeing their companion had been killed, and that the young Harmans were ready for them, they ran off with nothing but their bows.

Application of water soon brought Captain Harman to himself again. The arrow sticking in his arm and breast had to be cut out as they were barbed, and having brass heads the wounds were very painful. Nevertheless he determined to “settle,” as he said, “on the spot with that skulking whelp–the scoundrel who deserted us in our time of need” and he loaded his gun to shoot the son-in-law, his mouth all of the time full of wrath and cursing. At the earnest entreaties of the sons, the old man was finally induced to spare him until they should get home. On arriving home Captain Harman compelled his son-in-law to leave for other parts.

Captain Henry Harman was the 6th great grandfather of my niece’s husband.

Michael Ondrasik and Home Video Studio specialize in the preservation of family memories through the digitalization of films, videotapes, audio recordings, photos, negatives, and slides. For more information, call 352-735-8550 or visit our website.

Fife and Drum

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The use of fife and drum corps in the military dates back many centuries. Because of its loud and piercing sound when played in its upper register, the fife, which is also easy to carry, used to be the preferred instrument to signal messages to infantry troops. According to some, a band of fife and drums can be heard up to 3 miles away.

Back in the day, each company in an infantry regiment was assigned two fifers and two drummers. When the battalion or regiment were formed up on parade or for movement en masse, these musicians would be detached from the companies to form a “band.” This is how the word band became associated with a group of musicians.

We have at least two members of our family who served in the fife and drum corps. Michael Cain, born in 1750, served as a drum major during the war of 1812. As lore has it, during the Battle of New Orleans, he exclaimed, “Men are not killed with drums!” With that, he picked up a gun and joined the battle. He was wounded in the head. According to family stories, he was carried off the field on the horse of General Andrew Jackson.

His son, John C. Cain, was denied recruit during the War of 1812 due to a disability so he instead played for the troops in the training camps. But he did serve as a fife major during the Mexican War.

Michael Cain and John C. Cain were, respectively, the 4th and 3rd great grandfathers of my sister-in-law.

Michael Ondrasik and Home Video Studio specialize in the preservation of family memories through the digitalization of film, videotapes, audio recordings, photos, negatives, and slides. For more information, call 352-735-8550 or visit our website.

If I Had A Hammer

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When looking at history, we can often gloss over the details and in doing so, fail to grasp the full impact of events that occurred. I never before thought of what kind of housing the original settlers of America were able to build.

On the Mayflower, qualified woodworkers were scarce. Of the 102 people on board, only three had carpentry skills. There was a cooper, a sawyer, and a house builder… all too young to have had much experience. And the sawyer died in the first winter.

As a result, the first settlers wound up living in casks, caves, tents, “English wigwams,” even trenches, lined and covered with planks. Subsequent expeditions to the New World made sure to put out the word that qualified carpenters were much in demand.

But the conditions in the New World called for innovative measures. The traditional scribe rule method, used in Europe for centuries, was a labor intensive system in which no piece of timber is interchangeable with another. It also required special scribe joints to connect the irregular timbers to be constructed by skilled craftsmen with years of apprenticeship under their belts. Early settlers, looking to quickly build structures in which to live, largely abandoned this time-consuming and impractical (for their situation) practice and instead developed the square rule system of framing which was based on exact measurements and the cutting of uniform planks of timber. This methodology, which may not have resulted in structures as attractive as the scribe-built, did meet the needs of the colonists who were in a race against the elements.

I came across this little detail while reading some of the history of Oliver Watson, the 5th great grand-uncle of my brother-in-law. Born in 1736, he settled in Great Barrington, Massachusetts where he worked as a carpenter… the first in the fledgling community to build houses by using the square rule method.

Michael Ondrasik and Home Video Studio specialize in the preservation of family memories through the digitalization of film, videotapes, audio recordings, photos, negatives, and slides. For more information, call 352-735-8550 or visit our website.

The Female Factory

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When looking at historic documents, there are certain items that serve as indicators of a potential story lurking within its pages. Certainly, a reference to the Cascades Female Factory associated with my son’s 4th great-grandaunt, Eleanor Owens, qualifies as being worthy of investigation.

As a servant, born in Wales around 1801, Eleanor was caught stealing from her mistress, Jane Jones of Pentrevoelas, the sum of 40 shillings (or 2 English pounds). She was sentenced to death but pardoned on condition of transportation for life. She was 23.

Transportation was the practice of “deporting” criminals out of the country and into a penal colony that existed elsewhere. Eleanor was sent to Van Diemen’s Land, later to be renamed Tasmania. She apparently met and married another convict, Edward Littlehales, who was serving a sentence of 7 years transportation for his larceny conviction.

Rehabilitation was apparently not in the cards for these two. While often female prisoners would be hired out to serve in people’s homes, Eleanor was accused of neglect, impertinence and of having an “improper relationship” with convict William Elliott. This is what sent her to Cascades Female Factory and labeled as “Crime Class” which was the lowest class at the factory. Conditions were harsh and unforgiving. Two of her children born there did not survive infancy.

Meanwhile Edward was not faring much better. He was convicted of sheep stealing and was being investigated for a murder charge.

Somehow, they managed to emerge from their nefarious ways and, in the 1840s, received pardons and settled in Hobart Town in Tasmania. Eleanor has the dubious distinction of having an entry in Philip Tardiff’s “Notorious Strumpets and Dangerous Girls.”

Michael Ondrasik and Home Video Studio specialize in the preservation of family memories through the digitalization of film, videotapes, audio recordings, photos, negatives and slides. For more information, call 352-735-8550 or visit our website.

Tradition, Tradition!

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As the son of a father whose family was devoutly Catholic and a mother who was a lifelong Episcopalian; married to a woman whose Italian heritage on both sides was centuries deep into Catholicism, it came as a surprise to me to find that not only did I have some Jewish relatives… I had, in my family tree, one of the leading rabbis of his day.

Gabriel Wolf Margolis was born in Lithuania and studied with Rabbi Joshua of Vilna, the uncle of the Ḥafez Ḥayyim. He was ordained in 1869 and quickly gained a reputation as being an uncompromising traditionalist. After the pogroms of 1903, he fiercely opposed the Jews who embraced the revolutionary movement but he failed in an attempt to have them declared as being no longer members of the Jewish community.

He accepted an offer to serve as chief rabbi of seven congregations in Boston but disputed with the Agudat Harabbonim (union of Orthodox Rabbis) over kashrut (the set of dietary laws for the Jewish people to follow, familiarly known as kosher). He welcomed a move to New York where he served as rabbi of Adath Israel, a lower East Side congregation, for over a quarter century. The membership of his congregation continually grew, ultimately reaching over 10,000 souls.

Moshe Sherman said, referring to Gabriel Wolf Margolis: “The major thrust of his efforts to transplant the European world of Jewish piety and observance to the United States proved to be difficult” – at least in his generation when Americanization was the primary interest of immigrants and especially of their children.

At the time of his death, he was recognized as the oldest active rabbi practicing in the United States.  Gabriel Wolf Margolis was the granduncle of the husband of my wife’s grandmother.

Michael Ondrasik and Home Video Studio specialize in the preservation of family memories through the digitalization of film, videotapes, audio recordings, photos, negatives, and slides. For more information, call 352-735-8550 or visit our website.

In Heaven There Is No Beer

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But as the song goes, “that’s why we drink it here” and in the late 1800s there was ample opportunity to do just that. Especially in the Chicago area where over 100 breweries were in operation during those years. One of them, which started its history as the Joseph Jerusalem Brewery, happened to be in my family.

Joseph Jerusalem was born in Prussia in 1836 and after leaving school, emigrated to the US where he learned the trade of a brewer in New York. Following an opportunity, he moved to Chicago where he was employed as a journeyman brewer. Four years later, in 1870, he opened his own brewery. It was one of the many casualties of the Great Chicago fire of 1871 (the one allegedly started by Mrs. O’Leary’s cow) but he was able to rebuild from the ashes and resume the production of his Weiss (white) Beer, with its refreshing taste and lower alcoholic content. Weiss Beer was first brewed in Bohemia and is part of Bavaria’s 500 year old tradition.

Joseph married Ulricke Giese in 1872 who ran the company following her husband’s death in 1877. She remarried Gustav Eberlin in 1891 who renamed the brewery after himself and took control of the company but when he died in 1903, she once again had to take the reins and guide the brewery through the first decade of the 20th century.  The family run Eberlin Weiss Brewery finally closed its doors in 1908 after 40 years of beer production.

Karl Gustav Eberlin was the 2nd great-granduncle of my daughter-in-law.


Michael Ondrasik and Home Video Studio specialize in the preservation of family memories through the preservation of film, videotape, audio recordings, photos, negatives, and slides. For more information, call 352-735-8550 or visit our website.

More Than A Disney Princess

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Disney movies sometimes get it wrong… at least when it comes to history.

Upon learning that Pocahontas was occupying a place within my family tree, I looked into her life to try and separate fact from fantasy. She was, by all accounts, a remarkable woman who led a tragic life.

She was born to Chief Powhatan, who ruled over 30 Algonquian-speaking tribes around the tidewaters of Virginia. Her mother apparently died at childbirth. She was given the name Amonute but known by her people as Matoaka. She was a precocious child so her father began referring to her as ‘Pocahontas’ which meant “playful one.” She was 10 years old when Captain John Smith was brought into her camp. Romanticized versions of their story have largely been discredited. What is true is that Smith was granted by Powhatan the title of werowance (chief) of his tribe (Jamestown) which granted him access to the other tribes for the purposes of trade and support.

While in their camp, Smith and Pocahontas would teach each other elements of their respective languages to help bridge the gap between their two peoples. When Smith was released to return to his people, Pocahontas and others would often visit Jamestown, bringing gifts and food to the struggling colonists. The young girl’s inclusion in these trips was most likely intended to be a symbol of a peaceful intent. 

But the peace between the two cultures began to deteriorate as the colonists’ continual insistence for food and land (often accompanied with threats of violence) began to wear on Powhatan’s patience. Unfortunately for Pocahontas, who by now had married a member of her tribe and had a child, she became a pawn in the growing hostilities. Abducted by Captain Samuel Argall, she was held hostage to elicit concessions from her father. She was indoctrinated into the “English world”, being forced to learn the language, dress, customs and religion of her captors. She eventually was baptized, taking the name Rebecca, and traveled to England to help raise money for the colony, which by then had discovered that tobacco could be a sustainable crop. She died during the return voyage at the young age of 21.

Princess Pocahontas Matoaka Rebecca Powhatan was the mother-in-law of my sister-in-law’s 9th great grandfather.

Michael Ondrasik and Home Video Studio specialize in the preservation of family memories through the digitalization of film, videotape, audio recordings, photos, negatives, and slides. For more information, call 352-735-8550 or visit our website.