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One Man; Two Presidents

During our lifetimes, we cross paths with many different people. Most are regular folks, simply living their own lives as best they can. But sometimes, if we are fortunate, we get an opportunity to rub shoulders with people who might be considered more noteworthy… people destined for great things; men, if not for whom, the world would be far different.

My sister-in-law’s 4th great grand uncle, Joshua Short, had not one such encounter. Remarkably, he had two… with men many consider to be the two greatest Presidents ever to hold the office.

Joshua was 24 years old, living in Pittsylvania County, Virginia when he enlisted as  a private in Captain Peter Dunn’s Company, Colonel Hendrick’s Sixth Virginia Regiment of the Continental Line in the Revolutionary War. He fought in the battles of Brandywine and Germantown and spent that infamous winter of 1777-1778 at Valley Forge under the command of General George Washington who, of course, would go on to become the first President of the United States.

He was discharged in 1778, most likely due to injuries received during that brutal winter. After the war, he settled in Kentucky where he founded the Good Hope Baptist Church in 1796. The church is still operational and some of his descendants continue to attend its services.

In the early 1800s, he moved to Illinois to be closer to some of his children. And, in 1836 at the age of 84, when he decided to form his last will and testament, he sought out the services of a young lawyer who penned the document by hand and signed it as a witness. The lawyer’s name was Abraham Lincoln, who would eventually become the 16th President. Joshua’s will can now be viewed at the Menard County Courthouse in Petersburg, IL.

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. And please watch our TEDxEustis Talk on YouTube at https://youtu.be/uYlTTHp_CO8.

The Dark Horse

One unexpected side benefit from doing all this ancestral research is that it compels us to take a more vested interest in history. Before this, I couldn’t name the 11th president of the United States, let alone know what he did while in office. Now, I can tell you all about him… all because I discovered that he is my niece’s husband’s 2nd cousin.

Wikipedia states: “James Knox Polk was the 11th president of the United States, serving from 1845 to 1849. He previously was the 13th Speaker of the House of Representatives and 9th governor of Tennessee. A protégé of Andrew Jackson, he was a member of the Democratic Party and an advocate of Jacksonian democracy. Polk is chiefly known for extending the territory of the United States through the Mexican–American War. During his presidency, the United States expanded significantly with the annexation of the Republic of Texas, the Oregon Territory, and the Mexican Cession following American victory in the Mexican–American War.

He was a dark horse candidate in the 1844 presidential election as the Democratic Party nominee; he entered his party’s convention as a potential nominee for vice president but emerged as a compromise to head the ticket when no presidential candidate could secure the necessary two-thirds majority. In the general election, Polk defeated Henry Clay of the rival Whig Party.

Historians have praised Polk for meeting every major domestic and foreign policy goal he had set during his single term. After a negotiation fraught with the risk of war, he reached a settlement with Great Britain over the disputed Oregon Country, the territory, for the most part, being divided along the 49th parallel. He provoked a war with Mexico in an attempt to expand the United States and succeeded in doing so, as it resulted in Mexico’s cession of nearly all the American Southwest. The same year, he achieved his other major goal, re-establishment of the Independent Treasury system. True to his campaign pledge to serve only one term, Polk left office in 1849 and returned to Tennessee, where he died three months after leaving the White House.

Though he is relatively obscure today, scholars have ranked Polk favorably for his ability to promote and achieve the major items on his presidential agenda, despite limiting himself to a single term.”

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. And be sure to watch our TEDxEustis talk at https://youtu.be/uYlTTHp_CO8.

Off With His Head

History is filled with injustices and wrongs committed. And position or power often does not protect against them. In the 17th century, my 11th great grand-uncle, Thomas Wentworth, rose to a level of prominence very quickly. He was knighted at the age of 18 and elected to the House of Commons. He sat on a number of Parliaments where he became a supporter of Charles I. This put him in conflict with many of his peers who were actively working to strengthen to power of Parliament and restrict the influence of the king.

Under the leadership of John Pym, laws were passed to take away the king’s right to dissolve Parliament; made it illegal for the king to impose his own taxes; and gave Parliament members control over the king’s ministers. Wentworth sided with the royals in those disputes and was appointed Earl of Strafford in return for his loyalty. But it came at a cost.

Wentworth was arrested and sent to the Tower of London, charged with treason. His widely attended trial opened on March 22, 1641. For seventeen days he successfully defended himself against thirteen accusers, arguing the charges brought against him and for a time it appeared his impeachment would fail. But Pym and his other enemies decided to propose a bill of attainder, which allowed a person or persons to be declared guilty and be punished without the need for a trial.

The king, under pressure from his wife (who did not like Wentworth) and others reluctantly gave consent to the attainder. Wentworth was beheaded on May 12, 1641.

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. And be sure to watch our TEDxEustis talk at https://youtu.be/uYlTTHp_CO8.

Sticks and Stones Can Break My Bones, But Words Can Lead to Bullets

There was a time when words had consequences. Nearly 140 years ago, two competing Virginia newspapermen discovered this for themselves. Richard Beirne was the 28 year old editor of Richmond’s newspaper, The State. It was widely known to be an arm of the Democratic Party. Their competitor, The Whig, was run by William C. Elam. Their war of words began in 1883 when Confederate hero Billy Mohone used Elam and The Whig to launch a new political party.

Beirne published an editorial highly critical of Mohone and insulting to any who followed him, calling them a “vicious, corrupt and degraded group.” Elam responded in his paper the next day calling Beirne not only a liar but one who does so “deliberately, knowingly, maliciously, and with the inevitable cowardice that is always connected with insolent bravado.”

Beirne took offense and through an intermediary sent a challenge to Elam which was accepted.   News of the pending duel spread through the town and the mayor ordered both men to be arrested. But they were already in hiding. Their first attempt to settle their dispute was interrupted by an officer but the parties managed to escape. They agreed to meet again outside of Waynesboro.

This time, they were not disuaded. Both men fired their weapons at the count of two and missed. Their pistols were reloaded. The second time, Elam’s shot went high but Beirne’s bullet caught Elam in the inside of his right thigh. Both men were taken from the scene and were back to work at their respective papers within 10 days, each one publicly praising the courage of the other.

Theirs was the last formal duel fought in Virginia. My sister-in-law’s 1st cousin, Waverly Ragland, served as Beirne’s second for the first (interrupted) duel.

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. And be sure to watch our TEDxEustis talk at https://youtu.be/uYlTTHp_CO8.

A Colonial Love Story

John Wentworth, my wife’s 6th great grand uncle, lived in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.  And even though he was smitten with his cousin, Frances Deering Wentworth, who felt the same affection for him, as a loyalist, John had political aspirations.  And so to Frances’ dismay, he “went to England, no positive pledge of marriage passing between them.”

In his absence, another cousin, Theodore Atkinson Jr., wooed Frances, winning her heart.  He proposed to her, and they married on 13 May 1762 when she was 16 years old. She sat for her portrait at the age of nineteen.

Sadly, a few years later, Theodore developed a “lingering illness,” and was expected to die.  During that time, John Wentworth had returned to the Province of New Hampshire as the newly appointed royal governor of the colony.

The Wentworth and Atkinson families lived in houses within view of each other. If the ancient gossip is true, Frances had various methods of communicating to John how her husband’s health was faring, by hanging a handkerchief out of her window.

On 28 October 1769 Theodore Atkinson Jr. died.  The event that followed caused at least a few colonial jaws to drop.

On one day Theodore breathed his last. His burial took place on the following Wednesday; by the Governor’s order all the bells in town were toiled, flags were hung at half-mast, and minute-guns were fired from the fort and from the ships-of-war in the harbor.  On Sunday the weeping widow, clad in crapes, listened in church to the funeral eulogies; on Monday her affliction was mitigated; on Tuesday all the fingers of the seamstresses of the country roundabout were flying; and on the next Sunday, in the white satins and jewels and fardingales [hooped skirts] of a bride, she walked up the aisle the wife of Governor Wentworth.” [from New England Legends by Harriet E.P. Spofford, 1871]

The colonists’ victory in the American Revolution made John the last royal governor of the New Hampshire colony. After fleeing the country, Frances was appointed a lady-in-waiting at the court in England, and John was given the governorship of Nova Scotia as a reward for his loyalty.

Michael Ondrasik and Home Video Studio specialize in the preservation of family memories through the digitalization of film, videotape, audio recordings, film, negatives, and slides. For more information, call 352-735-8550 or visit our website. And be sure to check out our TEDxEustis talk at https://youtu.be/uYlTTHp_CO8.

Tax Laws Too Squirrely?

Settling the new American frontier was a daunting task in that it presented challenges that required “out-of-the-box” thinking from the civic leaders of the day. Such as the one Ohio faced when they first entered statehood in the early 1800s.

One of the first things the state legislature did was to enact a property tax on the assessed value of land ownership. This was obviously not a popular decision, especially among the farmers who were already struggling just to tame the land and bring in their crops.  In the early days Ohio farmers were seeing great losses of livestock due to wolves and other wild animals. In addition, squirrels were getting into barns and raiding their stockpiles of animal feed.

So the legislature came up with a solution to not only ease the tax burden but address the farmers’ dilemma. They amended their tax laws to include a requirement for any male of military age to kill 100 squirrels a year and deliver the pelts to the town clerks. By doing so, they would receive a tax credit for that year.

It was an effective solution… in fact, too effective. Hunters would bring in far more than 100 pelts to receive credits that could be applied to future taxes. In less than ten years Ohio faced dwindling revenue and voted to end the squirrel bounty program.

I came across this nugget of history while reading town records mentioning William Houston, one of my daughter-in-law’s great-granduncles, alongside his annual squirrel tally.

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 First Prime Minister

It is largely accepted that Great Britain’s first Prime Minister was Sir Robert Walpole, a Whig who was initially elected to Parliament in 1701.  Seen as a political moderate and efficient administrator, his skill in retaining his political office was noteworthy.

When the Tory government took control of Parliament in 1710, they targeted him and stripped him of his powers; even drummed up corruption charges of which he was (falsely) convicted. He was then briefly imprisoned in the Tower of London.  However, when George I ascended the throne, the Whigs regained control of the government and Walpole assumed his mantle as the defacto party leader, being appointed First Lord of the Treasury and Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1715. His dominance strengthened in 1720 following his handling of the scandal of the South Sea Bubble. The Whigs, under the steady hand of Walpole, were to remain in power for the next few decades.

In 1732, George II offered 10 Downing Street to Walpole as a personal gift. He accepted it only as the official residence of the First Lord of the Treasury. While his successors did not always live at Number 10, preferring instead to remain in their private homes, it has become known as the official residence of the prime minister.

His father, Colonel Robert Walpole, has the dubious distinction of being in the Guinness Book of World Records as the person having the oldest overdue library book. He borrowed the book from Trinity College in 1667 when he was an undergraduate. It was eventually found at his family estate, Houghton Hall, and returned… some 288 years later.

Sir Robert Walpole is the 6th great-granduncle of my daughter-in-law’s great-grandaunt.

Michael Ondrasik and Home Video Studio specialize in the preservation of family memories by the digitalization of film, videotapes, 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

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.

Feats of Clay

There are many great people whose lives and accomplishments continue to have impact upon our lives today. And yet, they stand on the precipice of being forgotten by a fast-paced, self-absorbed world. One of them, I just discovered, sits upon a branch of my family tree.

Henry Clay was a Kentucky politician and statesman who was once named as one of the five greatest senators of all time. Here’s a little taste of what he did:

  1. Called “The Great Compromiser,” he skillfully navigated around the opposing and heated viewpoints of the 1800s. His compromises quelled regionalism and balanced states rights and national interests. His arguments managed to hold the union together until a Civil War could no longer be avoided. But by his delaying the inevitable, the union was able to gain enough strength to survive that terrible war.
  2. Not only did he actively participate in the War of 1812, he served on the committee that drafted the Treaty of Ghent which effectively ended it.
  3. He served as Speaker of the House of Representatives and in many ways defined the role, shaping it into the powerful position it is today. He served in this capacity longer than any other (with the exception of Sam Rayburn.)
  4. He supported the emerging South American republics, helping many to find their way to becoming independent nations.  As a result, he became as beloved a figure there as Simon Bolivar.
  5. He argued many times in front of the Supreme Court. He was the first to introduce the concept of the Amicus Brief. His arguments continue to be cited to this day.
  6. As a farmer, he was respected as a breeder and one who utilized scientific data. He introduced Hereford Cattle to the United States and was a prominent provider of mules to the South.
  7. He influenced many politicians who came after him, including Abraham Lincoln who described him as being his “ideal beau of a statesman.”
  8. He left a family legacy of which we are a part. Henry Clay was the 8th great grandfather of the man who married my niece.

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.

His Excellency’s Guard

On March 11, 1776, George Washington issued a General Order directing his Commanding Officers to select four men from each regiment. These men would be used to form his personal guard. He was very specific in his request:

“His Excellency depends upon the Colonels for good Men, such as they can recommend for their sobriety, honesty and good behavior; he wishes them to be from five feet eight inches high, to five feet ten inches; handsomely and well made, and as there is nothing in his eyes more desirable than Cleanliness in a Soldier, he desires that particular attention be made in the choice of such men as are clean and spruce.”

The official designation of this new unit was “His Excellency’s Guard,” or the “General’s Guard.” However, enlisted soldiers would refer to the unit as “The Life Guards” or “Body Guards.”

Two months after its formation, they were at the center of what came to be known as the Hickey mutiny. This attempt to infiltrate Washington’s inner circle in order to assassinate him was eventually uncovered and resulted in the arrest of a number of “Life Guards,” including Sergeant Thomas Hickey, an Irish migrant who deserted from the British army and reenlisted in the Continental Army. He was court martialed, found guilty and became the first member of the Continental Army to be executed. Following this incident, Washington ordered that no foreign born soldier could be assigned as a guardsman.

Captain Stephen Jackson who, at the young age of 17, fought and was wounded at the battle of Yorktown, was chosen to become one of Washington’s “Life Guards.” In fact, Washington is known to have once stopped at Jackson’s home in Rockaway NJ in 1780 to partake of refreshments. Jackson was the 4th great grandfather of my sister-in-law.

Michael Ondrasik and Home Video Studio specialized 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.