Why is it that some of the most horrific stories can start out so innocuously? When things are "going well," there is apparently no guarantee that they will stay the course. That's the case with the story I alluded to yesterday: a horrible event befalling a family well respected in the community.
Unlike the novelist, a family history researcher won't likely begin the tale with the gut-wrenching opener one would expect in a thriller, of course. Looking at the tale of the Gordon family from a genealogical vantage point broadens the perspective and amplifies the contrast, yet allows us to explore the elements which contributed to the cascade of events.
The story I mentioned yesterday was one I stumbled upon as I worked through my goal of documenting each of the descendants of John and Mary Duke Gordon. I've touched on the various research challenges in tracing the history of the immigrant, John Gordon, who was born in 1739—but where, as various reports insist it was Scotland while others said Germany.
Meeting and marrying Mary Helen Duke in Maryland in 1760, John and his bride eventually settled in Greene County, Pennsylvania. Among their many children was son William B. Gordon, who along with his first wife Mary Carroll became my mother in law's direct ancestors through their eldest son James—and with his second wife, Mary Cain, became another of her direct ancestors through their eldest son, William H. Gordon.
Though John and Mary Gordon ended their westward journey with their passing in Greene County, their son William B. Gordon was smitten with that same wanderlust about a decade after his father's death. All but one of William B. Gordon's children chose to move to Ohio with him when he left Pennsylvania. That one child was their daughter Nancy.
Nancy Gordon, born and raised in Greene County, was already married by the time her father and the rest of her siblings decided to make the move to Ohio. By then, she had been married to David Spragg for ten years, and had given birth to three children, with a fourth one due any minute, at the point at which the rest of the extended Gordon family left Greene County.
While it may have been hard for Nancy to bid goodbye to so many of her family members—after all, in 1836, travel was difficult and the likelihood of future visits quite dim—she and her husband were already well established in the community they called home. An 1888 entry in the Samuel P. Bates History of Greene County Pennsylvania indicated their five children eventually married well and enjoyed successful lives and vibrant families, close to the place they always had called home.
Nancy's husband David Spragg, though not well educated, was noted to have been "engaged in land speculations and farming" from an early age. He must have been quite successful, as his biographical entry in the Bates volume painted him as having "good social qualities" and being known as "a great philanthropist."
Of course, such community "histories" often served as brag pieces for those whose biographical entries were inserted into the publication. And yet, the couple apparently came by those flattering terms quite honestly. Considered "a blessing to the community," this memorial entry noted,
His wife was of a kind disposition, and their home was one of the most attractive in the neighborhood. He and his wife lived a long and happy life together, and were known to every one in that neighborhood as "Uncle Dave" and "Aunt Nancy Spragg."
The Spragg name was well known in Greene County, as was the Gordon name—well, until their removal to Perry County, Ohio, in 1836—and that good name bestowed favor upon the next generation, just as it had for those aunts and uncles and grandparents before the marriage of David Spragg and Nancy Gordon.
In that inexplicable twist of fate, however, things can turn out so differently for those descending from this good name, a generation or two beyond the present setting. While looking closely at the children of David and Nancy reveals nothing of a hint of trouble to come, it helps allow the story to unfold, to find a place on a timeline, and familiarize us with the players—and what might have set the stage for changes and choices. We'll meet that next generation tomorrow.
Above: Illustration of a man named David Spragg—although not included in the same section as featured his biographical sketch—appeared on page 145 in the 1888 History of Greene County, Pennsylvania by Samuel P. Bates