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Believe it or Not

By Daniel Hubbard | June 3, 2012

“An eastern exchange remarks that Kansas first had border ruffians, then Indian massacres, then tornadoes, grasshoppers, prairie fires, drouth, potato bugs, the exodusters, horse thieves and prohibition and it only lacks a nice small-pox epidemic to complete the set.”

I read that in a Kansas newspaper published in 1882. Perhaps it is not the most fair image of Kansas but neither were statements like “rain follows the plow.”

What Matters?

An important part of genealogical research is an understanding of migration, so I will use it as an example. Why do people move from one place to another? The answer to that question, directed at a specific case, can often lead to the solution of a problem. Where did a family come from? Where did a person go? When did the migration occur? Understanding what might have caused someone to migrate can help us answer those questions.

We often look to concrete historical events as the cause that propelled a person from point a to point b. Famines, wars, persecutions, economic hardship and natural disasters are all examples of things that can push people away from where they are. Each of has has something from that list in their ancestry. Counting drought as a natural disaster, I’ve found all of those items in my ancestry plus a few more.

Sometimes a factor can work the opposite way and delay or prevent migration. I have ancestry in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. In the mid 18th century it was on the frontier. Land was purchased and trees were girdled so that they would die and the land could be cleared. Many people had every intention to migrate. They didn’t, at least not right away. The new town on the frontier was threatened by war between France and England. It was close enough to the Hudson that invasion from New France to the north was a very real possibility. Actually, it did not even take war. Efforts to settle the area stopped even before the war began. They ended because people believed that the area would soon be in peril. War was not necessary, the belief that war might come was enough.

That might not seem like an important difference but if I stop and think about it for a moment, how often do we get to know what an ancestor intended but did not do? How often do we know what an ancestor was thinking that prevented him from going through with a plan?

Great Plains or Great Desert?

For good reasons we research events and conditions that could and did set people in motion. Modern historians, geographers and scientists have been able to tease out imminence amounts of information about those conditions and events and genealogists should take advantage of what people have learned about the past. Nevertheless, we shouldn’t leave it at that.

I am always fascinated by researching what people believed. What did people read in the newspaper about far away places? What was recorded by writers who lived in the same place physically or the same space culturally? What beliefs are found in their writings that represent what an ancestor might have thought? Those things motivated.

Many of the earliest colonists of Virginia believed that they would find golden riches or that an easy portage would give them a route to China. My favorite map of Virginia shows a land more like Panama than a place perched on the edge of a vast continent. Those colonists who believed in a gilded isthmus  would be disappointed but the pull of belief kept drawing people over the Atlantic.

What often moved people wasn’t so much reality as belief. There are many ways that belief enters the picture. Religious belief can lead to persecution but that persecution is a very real thing. Having a place of worship closed or a coreligionist burned at the stake are very real events. The belief is more background than foreground.

In other cases, belief enters the picture as a facet of our human ability to predict the future. “A war may come, therefore I will not settle where the enemy can get me.” “I see no future, therefore, I will join the army.” Both of those statements of belief play into my family history.

Other times, pure unadulterated belief is a factor, even the defining factor that sets people in motion or keeps them were they are. The Great Plains were once “The Great American Desert” and settlers stayed away. Then “rain follows the plow” and the settlers came and they plowed. Then the rains stopped coming and the wagons headed eastward, back to whence they had come.

In 1846 a new trail guide extolled the virtues of a new route to the west. It would cut hundreds of miles off the traditional route to California. It was an easy route with no particular difficulties. A group of 87 people believed the guide. The trail was unmarked. It was full of boulders, trees and brush. It snaked along precipices and crossed waterless deserts. It was more than one hundred miles longer than the route it was supposed to improve upon. Those 87 people are known today as the Donner Party.

Our ancestors beliefs mattered.


The Exodusters mentioned in the opening quote were African-American migrants who felt that they had no future in the South once Reconstruction came to an end. In 1879 and 1880 they migrated to Kansas. Along the way they faced persecution because of their poverty and the belief that they spread yellow fever.

In 1870, the man who wrote the trail guide used by the Donner Party, Lansford Hastings, was guiding a party to his new colony in Brazil. They were former Confederates who felt they had no future in a reconstructed South. Along the way, Lansford Hastings died, probably of yellow fever.

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