Yet Here’s a Spot

This seems like a good time to write about the early days of the United States.

When I first started researching my family, I had one clear goal – find a descendant of my grandma who fought in the Revolutionary War.

This was around 2012-2013 and my weapon of choice was Ancestry.com (U.S. records only). I’ll write a separate entry about all my thoughts on search platforms and DNA testing at some point. For now, all I’ll say is that Ancestry was the most obvious choice and it did (and does) have quite a hefty stockpile of records. I rooted the tree to myself and entered everything I knew through my all of my great-grandparents, knowing I would get to my dad’s side eventually. Then I started searching my grandma’s family.

It didn’t take long to become frustrated. I was new to this particular game and there was so much to sort through. I had not anticipated there being so many Cooneys and Claders (my great-grandmother’s ancestors) in Illinois and Indiana. My great-grandfather’s family, the Ramages, remain one of my biggest conundrums to this day. I started looking for the path of least resistance from any branch in my mom’s family. I didn’t expect to find it through Lily May, the most difficult person I’ve ever heard of. I should have known I wouldn’t like what I found in the end.

The line back to the first revolutionary soldier that I found in my family goes as follows:

I. My mom

II. David Snyder (Grandfather)

III. Lily May Frankenstein (Great-grandmother)

Check out my last post for the story on Lily May.

IV. Mary Simmons (2x-great-grandmother)

Mary Simmons

Mary Simmons was born on May 11, 1878 and grew up on a farm in Alton, Indiana. She was one of at least eight children (7 girls and 1 boy, as far as I can tell from census records and obituaries). At some point, the family moved off the farm to Louisville, Kentucky. They lived at 1104 Goss Avenue in 1894. She married Benjamin Frankenstein on June 1, 1899. I’m guessing that the photo above was taken around the time of her engagement or marriage. I don’t know many details other details about her life. She died on March 17, 1942 in Louisville. My grandpa would have been 12 years old and lived a few doors down from her, but I never heard any stories.

V. Francis M. Simmons (3x-great-grandfather)

Francis Simmons was born around 1854 in Kentucky, probably somewhere in Breckinridge County. His father was in company I of the 13th regiment of the Kentucky infantry in the Civil War and moved the family to Indiana when he returned. Francis married Nancy Reesor in 1874 in Kentucky. He died at 40 on July 23, 1894 in Louisville. The mortuary record lists his cause of death as Bright’s Disease, an outdated term that likely corresponds with diabetes or an autoimmune disorder such as Lupus (thanks, Wikipedia). It’s possible the family moved to Louisville to get him medical care. Treatment at the time included mercuric compounds, opium, and laxatives. I know 2021 isn’t exactly a cakewalk so far, but at least we have modern medicine.

VI. Belinda Stiff (4x-great-grandmother)

Belinda Stiff was born in 1811 in Bedford County, Virginia. Francis was her youngest and last child at 43 years old. I know that she was alive in 1880, where both she and her husband are listed as living with Francis and his family on the farm in Indiana. She is listed as 69 years old on the census. I do not know when she passed away. Like most average women in history, she’s mostly a ghost.

This is the first point where I needed to rely on the work of others to move forward. Belinda’s family, the Stiffs, are old and well-documented. I got the names of her parents from other Ancestry users, and there seemed to be a reassuring consensus on her lineage.

VII. William Burrell Stiff (5x-great-grandfather)

William Burrell Stiff was born on December 24, 1783 in Thaxton, Virginia. According to the U.S. Encyclopedia of America Quaker Genealogy, he married Sally (sometimes Sarah) Wray on September 11, 1801 in Bedford County, Virginia. In 1810, he lived on a farm with his wife and three children (a son and two daughters all under 10 years old). The census only names the head of household, the rest are enumerated by race and age range.

According to the 1810 census, William owned one slave, which is too many.

Between 1810 and 1830, the family moved to Breckinridge County, Kentucky. Kentucky was originally part of Virginia, and it’s possible they already had friends or family that had made the trip west. The 1830 census also only lists the head of household and enumerates the rest, but the household grew to 11 members and no slaves. I don’t think they learned any lessons – they simply didn’t require the labor.

I was also able to locate William’s will in the ledger for Breckinridge County. It reads as follows:

“In the name of God amen. I, William Stiff of Breckinridge County, State of Kentucky, being in my right mind make my last will and testament as follows: that I bequeath to my wife Sarah Stiff the whole of my estate during her natural life or widowhood. And at the close of said Sarah Stiff’s natural life or widowhood I wish and desire the said estate to be equally divided among my children taking into consideration what […] heretofore […] of me. Given under my hand the 29th day of November 1837 – William Stiff”

Part of the end is difficult to read, but it seems to say something about money he has already paid. I cannot tell if it’s referencing his children or debts to others. Belinda appears to have lived in close proximity to her father for his entire life. He died in March 1840 and is buried in Union Star, Kentucky.

VIII. James Stiff (6x-great-grandfather)

This is the guy.

James Stiff was born in 1758 in Cumberland, Virginia. His family moved to Thaxton, a farming hamlet about halfway between Roanoke and Bedford, when he was very young. This is where he lived for his entire life.

Most of my information on James comes from John William Persohn’s application to the Sons of the American Revolution in 1949. James enlisted on February 26, 1776 and received his first discharge on March 6, 1778. He served as a private in the 5th Virginia Regiment under the command of Colonel Josiah Parker, who would later represent Virginia in the first through sixth U.S. Congresses. In 1779, he married Mollie Lewis. He then re-enlisted in 1780 and served for another three months. He fought at the Battle of Germantown and wintered at Valley Forge, two experiences I would not wish on anybody.

He was very young – only 18 years old when he enlisted. I can definitely imagine a young guy on a tobacco farm getting stoked about overthrowing the British. The local fervor would have been high. Thomas Jefferson’s father-in-law owned a large tobacco plantation in Bedford County, and many of the leaders of the revolution had tobacco interests that they felt were being depressed by lenders in London. This is a friendly reminder that the Revolution was not all about ideals – money was a big motivator. He was probably sold on the idea of future prosperity. It appears to have panned out.

I have the 1810, 1820, and 1830 census records for James Stiff. At first, he owned 3 slaves. Then 7. Then 15.

Tobacco farming required specialized labor to be profitable. The more slaves you owned, the better you were doing and could do in the future. When he died on August 19, 1837, he was probably pretty comfortable for a farmer. Persohn’s application says that Mollie, who outlived her husband and son William, left the slaves to be divided among her three remaining children in her will. It feels disgusting to even write those sentences, even if they are true. But there’s no point pretending that this went another way.

We like to put the people who fought the Revolution on a pedestal, but I can’t find any praise for James Stiff. I don’t believe in the idea of a benevolent American slaveowner. I assume he was horrible. And I don’t believe that veteran status erases consequences for other actions. I would trade James Stiff in a heartbeat for someone who stayed home, and stayed poor, if it meant I could wash away this spot on my heritage.

I imagine this spot as blood spatter he forgot to wipe off, until it sank in and was part of him. And then, like a birthmark, it passes through the generations. It fades and distorts little by little, and we start to forget what it means. And then when we’re reminded, the temptation is to scrub furiously in denial.

I would not own him. I confer him no honor. I went looking for other options.

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