A Bicentennial for Gramma!

13 Nov

(Great-Great-Great-Gramma, that is)

The usually scheduled post for this time of year (click these words for Veteran’s Day) has been pre-empted by the following regarding Monday’s date.

It just so happens that yesterday, Nov 12, 2012 was the 200th anniversary of the birth of one of my gr-gr-gr-grandmothers, a lady named Rachel Bilderback Campbell. The picture up top is of a farm home that is pretty much smack dab in the middle of the property owned 200 years ago by her father, Thomas Bilderback. It’s conceivable that it’s the same location as the family home back then, but even if that’s not the case, the picture above is within the bounds of the property where she was born in southwestern Pennsylvania in 1812.

Her dad had been born somewhat close by around 1764, perhaps 30 or so miles south of this spot. By 1800, however, he appears with his family in the census at what we can presume safely to be this location. (He secured the patent for the property in 1806 from the General Land Office.) And on that spot he remained until he passed away at the end of 1831.

He’s buried less than half a mile from that land, just a couple of ridges to the east.

But — almost symbolically — it was due west from this spot that his daughter, Rachel would travel…accompanied, of course, by America, right? Indeed, since she and her husband, some neighbors, cousins on both her parents’ sides and even her maternal grandmother all embodied the very growth of this new nation to be summarized, lionized and otherwise collectivelly classified by later historians.

Two years before her father Thomas died, and about two-&-a-half months before her 17th birthday Rachel had married a 28-year-old local boy, son of Scots-Irish immigrants, named George Campbell. She successfully bore a baby boy the next summer — June 11, 1830 — who was duly named Thomas Bilderback Campbell. And after her dad’s passing at the end of 1831 it seems like the nascent family made its home base some 10 miles away on the Ohio side of the river so named, for it was there, when their baby Thomas B. was just past two-&-a-half years old, and Rachel was 20, that she bore their second boy, John Alexander Campbell (Alexander being George’s dad’s name).

Since their third boy — and great-great-grandad to me and many others — was born in northern Indiana in July, 1835, I think it’s somewhat logical to imagine that they must have departed from their native home  in 1834; point being: to get an accurate picture of the situation, what we need to imagine is being a 21-year-old girl with a year-old baby and a 3-year-old, being in a wagon for some weeks. Now she was hardly alone in this. George Campbell was following work, and from a range of sources including census records, land patents, and legal documents we know that they were with a veritable community of cousins and cohorts from the area where they’d grown up that were moving right along with them together. (In fact, one of Thomas B. Campbell’s sons bore the middle name “Causland”, which was a remembered version of the last name of Thomas Bilderback’s neighbor, George McCausland.)

George, who from sources we know plied the trade of millwright, seems also to have been a bit of a civil engineer — which means he must have been tossing up lumber mills to facilitate the clear-cutting required by the construction of roads, canals and towns across the Midwest, and that he almost certainly contributed a hand and/or a plan to the actual building of various bridges, roads and canals as necessary. The fact that the family’s land in Indiana was in close proximity to Logansport, Indiana for precisely the duration of bridge and canal building   there, would indicate this rather strongly. As you can see in the map, above, and though I’ve mentioned this in a previous post, since we’re commemmorating her 200th birthday it bears repeating, Rachel was having babies along their slow route westward. Rachel bore a third and fourth son in Indiana, then they moved to southern Illinois where she bore a daughter and another son. They moved in July, 1844 to the spot that would be the end of the line for Rachel and George: just a few miles from the Mississippi River, on its eastern banks, in the extreme southwestern corner of Wisconsin, and two years later Rachel bore their seventh baby, a sixth boy they named William. She was two months shy of her 34th birthday. And I can imagine you know what’s coming next.

Rachel died about two weeks later, on Oct 8, 1846. Their oldest boy, named for her father, remember, was 16 by then. John was 13. George — my ancestor — was 11, Columbus was 8, the girl, Amanda, was 5, and her little brother Henry was 3. And there was a 2-week-old baby boy, as well. The obvious benefit of large families comes to the fore at this point, since the older boys were of immediate value as labor to their dad, and/or to others who would pay them, while the younger kids must have been of some help in caring for the baby. What ever scheme they had only lasted three years, when the mill-building father George Campbell departed this life, Dec 2, 1849, just shy of his own 49th birthday. The then orphaned kids are found 9 months later in the 1850 census in various locations nearby, but clustered to some degree near each other.

But I’m not posting this as a tale of woe. Every one of the 7 kids would make it to adulthood, and 5 of them went on to have kids of their own. Three of those five ended up in California. Thomas, the eldest, landed in Colorado, and through George P.B. remained in Wisconsin, his kids and theirs spread about the nation. Although neither George or Rachel got to see or meet any of their kids’ kids, they were eventualy the grandparents of 43 grandchildren. The last two of those 43 died in 1972 and 1973; one was a daughter of Thomas, the other a son of George P.B., 160 years after their grandmother had been born. To me, that’s wild.

No accounts have surfaced that directly relate anything about this great-great-great-grandmother; no pictures, of course, either. To get any idea of what she or at least her life was like there are various very general resources about, for instance, groups in which she fit, like Pennsylvanian American Protestants, and there are things one might reasonably infer about her from such sources, as well as from what we know of how other similar people responded to the “challenges of daily life” in that period and place. But one should be intellectually honest enough to admit that we can never (most likely) really know much at all about this person.

I think more might be gained by looking at the things, the consequences, the results, the patterns of actions that she left behind. It’s super easy to feel a helluva lot of compassion for this lady — I do — this girl who died when she was 33 years old, after bearing 7 babies while moving house and home via horse, wagon and barge every year or two. And it seems hard to match “33-year-old woman” with “grandma”, much less with “great”-etc-grandma. But such as it is, that 33-year-old lady was our gr-gr-gr-gramma, and there are effects in the world of the people she left behind which make her legacy not a light one. I can’t know what precisely, but something of this woman came down through time to her descendants.

I am one of a group of 7 first cousins descended from Rachel and George; we’re in the 5th generation of their descendants. But there are 213 others in the 5th generation, at least 100 in the 6th generation, similar numbers in the 7th, and most of the 4th generation are still alive, too; 124 of them at last count. (Note, that count is definitely still incomplete, but not far from what’s likely to be the total.)

What ever it is that I’m suggesting can be known of Rachel may not be directly noticeable in the 500 or so living descendants. But I don’t think it’s ridiculous to posit that what she imparted as a mother (above and beyond the obvious genetics), and as a person, could be discerable in the lives of her kids and her 43 grandkids. I never would have had such a thought until recently, and it emerged after I’d collected a large batch of new life stories. I’m referring to the lives I’ve discovered within the last six months of the fellow descendants of hers and George’s as I’d set a course of trying to track down all lines of their descent and have had greater success than I really thought possible. Story after story piled up, and I began to see a pattern.

From the stalwart perserverance of the sickly oldest child of George and Rachel’s oldest child and of her daughter after her, to the care and raising of a grandchild by their youngest (who went on to have kids), there are similar and often identical threads, themes, tropes and stories of triumph in the face of odds that were challenging to the say the least. Can that be isolated as a trait? Can we say that it came from Rachel and not from George, or elsewhere? No, we certainly cannot make such claims. But I think that something of it, something of strength of character in spite of it all, some yearning for something better might be in her legacy.

If nothing else, I’ve recently learned through genetic testing and meeting another person descended from Thomas Bilderback that I inherited a gene from him through his daughter Rachel that confers exceptional resistance to bacterial infection. (And indeed, I almost never get sick; maybe once a year, if that. Thanks, gr-gr-gr-gramma! 🙂

Anyway, the stories of her grandchildren are marvelous and thoroughly American. More next time. For now, I’ll depart with this funny thought that (I hope!) helps to collapse those 200 years and make her life more tangible:

Since my kids (in the 6th generation of Rachel and George’s descendants) are well acquainted with my mom, and since she was well acquainted with her grandpa Campbell, and he was a grandson of R and G, that means my kids know someone who is only seperated by two degrees from someone who was born when James Madison was re-elected for a 2nd term!

Part 2 in a jiffy… plus, here’s a link to a video I made about my cousins’ and my descent from the past, specifically, from Charlemagne et al… Enjoy!

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Posted by on November 13, 2012 in Uncategorized


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