By Bob Ferris
I have butted heads with the so-called "patriot" groups over the years on various matters relating to the US Constitution, conservation practices, and public lands. One group in particular drives me crazy: The 3 Percenters. This para-military group claims to be the voice of those 3% of Americans who served in militias during the American Revolution. This number is a little specious both in terms of a measure of patriotism (i.e., militia members being more patriotic than those in the Continental Army) and gross numbers as overall participation in this conflict was something like 15 percent. It made me wonder where our family came out in this number and what that means now and in the future.
The Revolutionary War started in earnest 243 years ago. As male generations are on average 35 years long, or 15 years longer than female generations, that means we should be talking about males in the seven or eight generation or between 64-128 potential soldiers in the Revolution. As we have at least 17 Revolutionary War combatants in our tree or 13-26 percent of our expected pool that means that we might have collectively served a little less or a lot more than the average population at 15 percent.
But it is more complicated than that. For one thing, males had to be a certain age (16-55) during a certain window of time (1775-1783) so we might have had some who were alive during war, but too old or too young. This said we also had instances where both father and son served such as Declaration Signer Lewis Morris and Lt. William Walton Morris (not to be confused with his son Gen. William Walton Morris who served in the Civil War). And we had a few who were not in the country at this time such as Patrick Ramsay (Scotland), William Poyntell (England), and Joseph Gales Sr. (England), the latter my family's most recent immigrant (1790s).
Also mainly through my great-grandmother Caroline Johnston Canby Ramsay on my father's side, there is a strong Quaker connection. Three of note were David Deschler, Joseph Tatnall, and Benjamin Chew. Interestingly, all three hosted George Washington in their homes at times, but they dealt with their pacifism and the war in different manners. David was perhaps the most involved providing supplies, money, and eventually serving as the Commissary of the Army in 1780. David was also a man of principle supporting the Revolution, but also once defending a British officer who was traveling with his family from an angry crowd of militia members in Philadelphia. Joseph Tatnall, a mill owner, also worked hard to keep the Continental Army in flour and had constant contact with Washington. Benjamin Chew stuck to his material neutrality offering only legal advice to those serving in the Continental Congress and advocating for protest leading to a peaceful resolution rather than declaring independence. While David and Joseph retained the full goodwill of their neighbors and new countrymen, Benjamin's road, because of his why-can't-we-all-be-friends approach, was rougher.
Those who served were old and young. Though my mother has told me often of a little drummer lad in the family who went to war I have yet to discover that intrepid boy. The youngest I have been able to find is Ensign John DePeyster Douw who joined at 19. The oldest was Colonel Samuel Coit who led his Connecticut regiment for a year before being replaced at age 73. They also came from nearly every colony so there was diversity in this regard if not in other areas.
"Mrs. Johnston died in that city, but we have no record of the date of her death or where interred." In Some Pennsylvania Women during the War of the Revolution (1898 see here).But what about the women? The above quote says a lot about that issue. The Mrs. Johnston in question was Alice Erwin Johnston wife of Colonel Francis Johnston and she broke with her Quaker community and worked hard to get food and supplies to soldiers during the war. This was particularly true about Valley Forge where her husband served with Washington and another Francis (Chaffin) who died there of small pox even with the efforts of Alice and her allies. Luckily, we actually do know where Alice was buried and then reburied, but even in a book dedicated to acknowledging the role of women in the Revolution details about women were omitted or overlooked. Odd that.
This walk through history is interesting but how do we judge it and our collective role? What does it mean for the future? In essence, what is the point? My sense is that revolution is much like soil tilling in that it gives a clean slate on which to grow dreams like those expressed by Gouverneur Morris in the Preamble. Perhaps we should not be measured by the quality or quantity of our disturbance as I have documented above, but by the crops ultimately produced. And even there my desire would be that we evaluate ourselves more by the flowers nourished and enabled rather than just in terms beets and broccoli.
|Alexander Johnston Cassatt by Mary Cassatt. Alexander helped his sister promote her art in the US. They are both great-great grandchildren of Alexander Johnston who immigrated from Ireland and was father to Francis.|
|Illustration from one of Mary Lanman Douw's books. The Rapelye (Rapalje) cradle was where Sarah Joris Rapalje was rocked after being born in the New Netherlands in 1625. She was the first female child born in the new colony at Fort Orange (Albany).|
In addition to a painter and fire-chasing, trouser-wearing philanthropist in our extended family we also have writers. One such was Mary Lanman Douw who wrote much about history, genealogy, and the early Dutch experience in the New World. Nina Chandler Murray is another author who penned a book about an epic family cruise to the Galapagos Islands. I would also include Winifred Marshall Gales, the first female novelist in North Carolina, within this group too even though she was in England during the Revolution, because her public sympathy to this revolt and breaking away led to her and her husband Joseph Gales Sr. being chased out of England one step in front to the law. The fact that the Gales entertained folks like Thomas Paine of Common Sense fame in their home and printed some of his material probably helped along this process of moving from liking the American stance to being American.
|Award-winning teacher Lauren Bergland Rosenberg at work.|
My grandmother Edna Dora Robb also was one of these flowers. She wrote about her experiences in post-World War I Alaska in Field and Stream Magazine, but she is better known as a school teacher who as a single woman went to the relative wilds of Seward to teach before marrying my grandfather at the start of the Roaring Twenties. And there are other teachers too like second cousins once removed Lauren Bergland Rosenberg (above) and Patty Lavarias who are both probably going to look at my grammar.
In closing, I will say that we are living in dark times, but the strength, creativity, and sensibility of the women in our families and lines gives me hope. I gain this feeling, because these women might be the ones who inspire or lead this next revolutionary adjustment or needed democratic booster shot. Maybe they can do so in a better and more enlightened manner than our more recent forbearers did in the mid-1800s. It might also be good time for those of us not women to model Alexander Cassatt by recognizing this talent, however different, and supporting it.
The above is something that we should think about this July 4th as we celebrate the work of our Founding Fathers and simultaneously mourn how far we have drifted away from our founding principles and the vision expressed in the US Constitution. We need to return to protecting all within our country from the corrupting forces of a too-empowered elite, over-entitled corporate interests, and the dangerous re-emergence of the functional equivalent of a state church or religion. We should recognize this trio for what they are: the catalysts for the original Revolution. So enjoy the fireworks, but get your shoes ready to march on as the fife and drum are calling!