By Daniel Hubbard | September 8, 2013
The story of one part of the life of an ancestor of mine comes from his son’s obituary. It is the brief but interesting story of a long pioneering journey. It is also clearly wrong. Not so wrong as to be worthless, there are plenty of good clues but there is, for example, an obvious problem with travel during the winter. I would express it mathematically as boat + river + Wisconsin + February = impossible.
Given the description of the difficulty of the journey and the time that it was begun, I have serious problems understanding the motivation behind it. Clearly it was made but just as clearly there must have been something else going on beyond what was written.
Another problem that came up in the obituary was connected to one of the forms of transportation, “drum” boats. It gave some details about the boats but not enough for a police artist to sketch the suspect. As far as I can tell there was no such thing as a drum boat, at least nothing that matches in both name and description. There was such a thing as a Durham boat. It fits the description but is hardly what one would imagine and that presented new problems. They were simple boats but they were 40 or more feet long and required a crew to steer and pole them. Not something that a man who could never have seen such a boat could casually whip up upon reaching a navigable stream in the middle of nowhere. If he could, would he build it for the transport of his wife and three young children? Then I read an account of traveling down the Fox by Durham boat that involved shooting a seven foot drop in a cheaply built 40 foot long boat. Do that alone? I think not. Not even with a baby on board sign hanging off the back.
The man who introduced those boats to the river was named John Arndt. When I read that, it all began to fall into place. I already knew from evidence dating from just months later that my ancestor knew Arndt. Other evidence soon showed that Arndt had some connections to places along the way that my ancestors traveled and that they could have met significantly earlier. The odd timing and the use of a difficult route suddenly had a possible explanation. My ancestor worked for Arndt after their journey and if at just one crucial place along the way there had been employment, then it all just might make sense. Arndt had a connection with that place too.
When I was a kid just starting out doing research, I got a will that proved that a long-ago ancestor had been a small-time slave owner. I wasn’t thrilled to learn that and I was less thrilled to see in his estate inventory that he possessed “handirons.” I interpreted that to mean shackles. That was also not particularly nice to discover. For some reason I didn’t jump to conclusions and I researched his things and realized that I had, in fact, discovered the shocking truth that my ancestor had owned “andirons,” sinister devices used not for manacling slaves but rather for keeping your home nice and toasty by improving the air circulation around the fire in one’s chimney. Bit of a difference there and a lesson learned. The identities of all those things we learn of but don’t immediately understand can’t really be ignored. Doohickeys can make a difference.Twitter It!