Family Stories

 I'm currently wrestling with one of those family stories that get passed from generation to generation by word of mouth, often with absolutely no supporting evidence - at least, none that lasts as long as the stories. I'm 99 per cent sure (maybe even surer) that this particular story is untrue. Still, if even a small part of it is accurate, it could open up some new avenues of research for me. So, I wrestle.
   Every family has such tales. I grew up thinking that I descended from President Grover Cleveland. I didn't. I am related, in the sense that my great grandmother was a Massachusetts Cleveland, but her and Grover's lines diverged pretty early. Any gene pool I share with the former President is a pretty small one.
   I also grew up thinking that my Gordon ancestors in Scotland left me a castle that I could claim if I would just pay the Scottish Government the back taxes owed on the place. The oft-repeated story was that, every so often, family members would get letters from Scotland concerning ownership of the castle, and the Government's desire for someone to take it off their hands. I never saw a letter, and I occasionally wondered how anyone in our family had been tracked down. We only had one Gordon family that reached America - John Gordon reportedly came to the United States after his father disowned him for joining the Mormons - and only part of that family came because John's sons were not enthusiastic about their father's new religion, and stayed behind in Scotland with their grandparents. In any event, by my time the Gordon name had been absent from the family tree for six or seven generations. The little I've since learned about our Gordons makes me doubt they were of the castle-owning branch of the clan.
   If you're not serious about your genealogy, these family tales are harmless and fun - and sometimes more exciting than real life. But if you really want to identify the branches and twigs on your family tree, they can be confusing and frustrating. Maybe the worst aspect of them is that it's often impossible to completely discount them. There must be something behind them, you think, even if the story has become muddled since its inception. My Grover Cleveland story is probably easily explained, and discarded: Grover was a Cleveland, my great grandmother was a Cleveland - ergo..... Somebody just speculated, and it became family lore. Similarly, I imagine a large proportion of the Lincolns in the country (and it is a very big clan!) think they are descended from President Abe. But what about the Gordon castle? It doesn't seem like a story that would have developed out of thin air, does it? And that's why I keep wrestling with an almost certainly wrong story about Nova Scotia in the 1700s.

* * *

   I think my favorite story of "family history" run amok has its beginning in Philadelphia just before the Revolutionary War. These are the details as published in a Trenton, New Jersey newspaper in 1933. The narrator's grandfather, Kollock McCully, was from a Philadelphia Quaker family. As Quakers, they would not actively fight for either side in the war, but their sympathies were with the Loyalists who opposed war with Britain. Rebels broke into the McCully home in Philadelphia, and killed Kollock's father. Kollock reportedly barely escaped the mob by jumping out a window, wearing only his night clothes. He made his way to British headquarters, and enlisted to fight for the King. For his services, he was granted land in New Brunswick, Canada. Later, during the War of 1812, he commanded the Kent County militia against the Americans. After the Revolution, two of Kollock's sisters came to Saint John, New Brunswick, and settled there.

   Pretty good tale, right? Lots of good, concrete details, right? Best of all, the story is only two generations old, not some tale out of deep family obscurity. If not completely true, it must be pretty close.
   Well, there are a few problems with it:
     1. The Philadelphia family were not Quakers; in fact, at least two from the Revolutionary period were Presbyterian clergy.
     2. Family sympathies were not with the Loyalists. Probably a dozen or more served in the rebel army.
     3. Kollock's father was not killed by a mob. He died a traditional death before the Revolution.
     4. Kollock did not flee to the British before an angry mob. He very purposefully went over to the British camp, taking his family with him. In fact, he enlisted two of his sons in the Army with him, even though one of them was too young to actually serve.
     5. He did serve with the British through the Revolutionary War, and was granted land in New Brunswick. He didn't command the Kent County militia - that was his son. I don't think the Kent County militia saw any real service during the War of 1812.
     6. His sisters did not move to Saint John, after the Revolution; it was his daughters.
   So, maybe the story isn't quite as accurate as it first looked. It's still a good story.

* * *

   Oh, there is one other thing I should mention: there was no "Kollock McCully." There were two grandfathers - William McCully, a farmer in Kent County, New Brunswick, who apparently had nothing to do with any war; and Simon Kollock, who did fight in the British Army, and whose "crimes" (by rebel standards) were so great that he was one of the few Loyalists not granted repatriation after the war.


Leave a Comment:

© Sanford Wilbur 2021