Monthly Archives: December 2022

The Public Universal Friend

Black-and-white portrait of The Public Universal FriendOn 11 October 1776, 23-year-old Jemima Wilkinson lay close to death in her bed in Cumberland, Providence, Rhode Island, suffering from a fever, possibly typhus. Much to her family’s relief, instead of dying, she awoke and rose from her bed, alive but forever changed. She announced to those around her that she was no longer Jemima Wilkinson, who had died. Her soul had gone to heaven, and in its place, God had sent down a divine spirit charged with preparing his flock for the coming millennium. This holy messenger, neither man nor a woman, was to be known as the “Public Universal Friend.”

The Public Universal Friend lived during a time of widespread religious fervor known as the Great Awakening, which began in colonial America in the early 18th century and continued in successive waves up to the late 20th century. In reaction to the ideas of the Enlightenment and Calvinist theology, the evangelical movement of the 18th century emphasized free will, the possibility of universal salvation, and a personal relationship with God. Continue reading The Public Universal Friend

“He looks like a deranged Easter Bunny…”

Image from A Christmas Story. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1983.

There are no right answers here, but my choice for the greatest Christmas movie of all-time is A Christmas Story. You can’t convince me otherwise. I love it so much that I bought a leg lamp for our front window. Every year, even before we’ve purchased a tree, the leg lamp makes its appearance—and we have copious amounts of glue, should anything happen.

Beyond nostalgia and tradition, the subtle one-liners are the movie’s greatest strength. Some of my favorites, in no particular order:1

  • “In our world, you were either a bully, a toady, or one of the nameless rabble of victims.”
  • “Adults loved to say things like that, but kids knew better. We knew darn well it was always better not to get caught.”
  • “In the heat of battle, my father wove a tapestry of obscenity, that as far as we know, is still hanging in space over Lake Michigan.”
  • “Some men are Baptists, others Catholics; my father was an Oldsmobile man.”
  • “Randy lay there like a slug. It was his only defense.”
  • “He looks like a deranged Easter bunny.”

I can’t remember the first time I saw A Christmas Story, but after the fourth or fifth time watching it, the word “deranged” became part of my vocabulary. I didn’t look up the definition, but from context clues I knew it meant “wacky,” “silly,” “insane,” or something to that effect. So, when I started work on a project for the Society of the Cincinnati—the nation’s oldest patriotic organization, founded in 1783 by officers of the Continental Army who served together in the American Revolution—I was surprised to see the word “deranged” used as a description of one’s military service. Continue reading “He looks like a deranged Easter Bunny…”

Saving Grace

Photo of Grace Dixon with her three childrenSometimes it starts with that picture in the attic. It falls out of its black corners and yellow cellophane as if to say, look at me, I’m here for a reason—challenging you to rediscover its past, to make the voice of its subject heard.

I think it must have happened this way for my sister, as she explored the small attic of our mother’s house a few months ago. Here among the musty bric-a-brac and old pictures, a single photograph shook itself free. Mrs. Grace Dixon: a woman none of us in the family had laid eyes on before, waiting buried deep within our archives for one of us to uncover her story.

Sis called me right away, and indeed, I was impressed with her find. I’d first heard of Mrs. Grace Dixon1 years ago, not through any family member, but rather via a brief biographical sketch in Phillip Judd and his descendants.2 At that time, I’d attempted to explore some of the facets of Grace’s life, and I admit that I’d given into genealogy’s worst enemy: assumption. Seeing her there in that old photo with her children, I winced at some of my previous speculations. My sister’s discovery became my opportunity to revisit Grace, and reevaluate what I thought I knew. Continue reading Saving Grace

Following Irish Migrant Workers

Photo of the Irish countrysideHow did our Irish tenant ancestors earn the money they needed to pay their yearly rent? One possibility: they travelled to Great Britain to work for the summer.

A common occurrence in many parts of Ireland in the 1800s, the Irish harvest migration was a well-established means of earning a living. In the spring an Irish cottier would plant his potatoes, cut his turf, and possibly plant some oats. By late spring, little needed to be done on the farm until the fall harvest, giving the farmer time to take on supplementary work elsewhere. One option was to sail to Great Britain and find agricultural work for the summer. When the harvest was done in Britain, the farmer would return to Ireland for the fall, leaving enough time to bring in his potatoes and harvest any other crops. But most importantly, he would return home with cash to pay the landlord for his lease.

Continue reading Following Irish Migrant Workers

Van Salee Descendants

Reis Mourad the Younger

African Founders , a recent publication by David Hackett Fischer, discusses Anthony Jansen van Salee (1607-1676), known as the “Black Mohammedan.” His mother was of African origin, and his father was Jan Jansen van Haarlem, known as Reis Mourad the Younger, a highly successful Dutch pirate in Algeria and Morocco. Anthony and his brother or half-brother, Abram Jansen van Salee (d. 1659), were early settlers in New Amsterdam, now New York City. Their surname “Van Salee” refers to their origin in the Republic of Salé in modern Morocco. Anthony had considerable landholdings in Manhattan and later, after some disputes with other Dutch settlers, in Brooklyn near Coney Island. Abram lived in Brooklyn as well. Anthony’s descendants largely married into other Dutch families of the area, while Abram’s descendants largely married other people of African descent. Continue reading Van Salee Descendants