Wednesday, February 15, 2023

Those Old Family Stories


Being quite cognizant of the dangers of relying on family legends, I want to take some time today to explore some old family stories passed down from well over a century ago. The reason: I'm on a mission to figure out just why Benjamin Taliaferro might not have been included in his father's will.

First, let's rule out the obvious: Benjamin Taliaferro was certainly quite alive when his father, Zachariah, drew up his will in 1797. Furthermore, Benjamin, born in 1750, did not die until 1821. That he left his childhood home in Virginia could not be the issue, either. Benjamin's service in the Revolutionary War—a war which his father also supported, as we can see from Zachariah's listing as a DAR Patriot—took him far afield of his parents' Amherst County home. His service took him to both Georgia and South Carolina, where he was captured by the British at the fall of Charleston.

It may take a little more reading between the lines to find any signs of a rift in the family constellation. And that is where those family stories come in.

Thankfully, there has been well over one hundred years of genealogical publications to fill the void for us—if, that is, we are willing to tread that shakey ground of family legends and sometimes less-than-perfect research and reporting.

Let's take, for instance, the Historical Sketches of the Campbell, Pilcher and Kindred Families, a 1911 publication co-authored by Margaret Campbell Pilcher and three men, presumably also members of the family lines in question. Among those authors was one Calvin Morgan McClung, whose name resonates for those familiar with the name of the historical collection housed at the library of the East Tennessee History Center.

According to the Historical Sketches, Zachariah Taliaferro and his wife, Mary Boutwell, had ten children, of whom Benjamin was the oldest. The authors share some details about Benjamin's service in the war, then launch into the anecdote in question:

He and his brother, Zachariah, were in love with Martha Merriweather [sic], of Amherst County, Virginia; Benjamin won and married her.

What was this "winning" that pitted Benjamin against his brother Zachariah? The Historical Sketches goes on to conclude, "This caused a lifetime estrangement between the brothers."

Understandable, considering the ramifications, which we can only imagine, given such a story. Wanting to know how true this family story might have been, I went looking for another version. Granted, an earlier version I found, published in 1855, was far closer to the time of its supposed occurrence, but the catch is that it puts us relying on the too-blunt, tell-all former Georgia governor, George Rockingham Gilmer.

Here's the governor's take on the situation, from his own book, Sketches of Some of the First Settlers of Upper Georgia. After describing Benjamin Taliaferro's service in the war and his capture by the British, Gilmer begins by describing Benjamin's appearance

His person was six feet high, his features handsome, and his understanding good. Army intercourse had refined his manners and made his conversation agreeable.

The author went on to describe young Martha Meriwether, "a blooming, charming young woman." Then the author inserts this one line of explanation: she "had previously been engaged to marry Zack Taliaferro," Benjamin's brother. Apparently, she broke off the engagement and married the older brother. As one can imagine after a move like that, "The brothers quarreled and parted, never again to meet in friendship."

Would that explain why their father didn't include Benjamin in his will? Possibly. But in that same narrative, I noticed one other detail. Author Gilmer had just concluded an anecdote on Benjamin's father, Zachariah, concerning an event which occurred just before the elder man was sworn in as sheriff of Amherst County, when he chased after a "notorious outlaw" and didn't give up pursuing him until he caught him. 

This vignette demonstrating the man's thorough determination led up to the next family story: that of Benjamin being challenged publicly by a bully to a fight. Benjamin somehow deflected the challenge, but when his dad heard of it, Gilmer's interesting comment was that he "was threatened with disinheritance by his father for his supposed want of courage."

Disinheritance? Could that be the reason? Would it have been from that specific instance in his youth, considering that Benjamin eventually served with distinction during the war? Or could this simply be pointing out his father's inclination to do such a thing as write a son out of his will?

There are likely many details of the daily life of our ancestors for which we will never be able to read between the lines with confidence—or even accuracy. But when those gaps in the story make their appearance, it's pretty evident that subsequent generations are tempted to try and fill in those blanks. 

Whether the Pilcher Sketches of 1911, or even the Gilmer Sketches of half a century prior were able to capture the essence of the reason, I can't say. But I know for sure that something happened to create a rift that ricocheted through the family for decades afterwards.  


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