Monday, October 5, 2009

My Kindred Dread


 "The Massacre at Wyoming" by Alonzo Chappel

Our identities are mostly invented.  We hammer our histories like blacksmiths working iron: heating and bending, pounding and tempering until what we wish happened, is what we remember happened.  Memories, identities are malleable: This is what occurred.  This will always be.  This is who we are.

Most of it is wrong, and in our embrace of the contrived, we miss the lesson we need to learn.  We leave ourselves open to repeating the same old mistakes, committing the same old sins, then, teetering on the sandy foundation we've chosen, wondering why God has abandoned us, and why the Fates conspire against us.

Here is the single most important reason to do family history:  It peels back the layers of myth to show us reality.  It reveals shameful things, as well as unexpected nobility and courage.  It uncovers heartbreaks long forgotten, turning us to our pasts, allowing us to mourn with those that mourned (and no doubt mourn still), and somehow, in that mourning, cast comfort across the generations.  It allows us to know ourselves, by knowing them.  It allows us to face ourselves, by facing them.

This morning I've been plowing through a century-old history of the Battle of Wyoming, Pennsylvania, one of the most shameful episodes of the American Revolution.  A group of inexperienced American militiamen were ambushed by a a combination of British regulars, Iroquois warriors, and Tory volunteers, an infamous group of guerrillas known as "Butler's Rangers".  After forty-five minutes of battle, three hundred forty of the 360 Americans were dead, most of them killed after surrendering their weapons.  According to Colonel John Butler's own records, 227 of the Americans were scalped.  One of the murdered, William Buck, was fifteen years old when an Iroquois tomahawk smashed his skull.  Butler's Tories were at best silent witnesses, at worst enthusiastic participants in the slaughter.  

This madness did not end that July afternoon.  Dozens of women and children, their homes burned, their brothers, sons and husbands butchered, died in the weeks after the massacre, victims of hunger, exposure and disease.   In 1779,  General George Washington commissioned  Major General John Sullivan to lead a retaliatory force against the natives, leading to the destruction of more than 40 Iroquois villages across upstate New York, and the deaths of thousands of Mohawks, Cayugas, Onondagas, and Senecas. 

This image -- men who were only a few months before nothing more than yeoman farmers suddenly turning into war criminals, delighting in the mutilation and humiliation of their victims -- is made more shocking when we know that Butler's Rangers were recruited from Wyoming Valley.  These men were killing their former friends and neighbors.    

Among the Rangers was my direct ancestor, Jacob Anguish.

Did he participate in the killing? Here is what I've learned about Anguish:  Official documents related to his properties are signed with an "X', indicating that he was illiterate.  Accounts identify him as a "prominent Tory" and in a letter dated January 23, 1773, he is called a "disagreeable man."  Anguish appears to have been in some dispute over property in the Wyoming Valley, and at about the same time he was joining up with Butler's Rangers, he was also attempting to negotiate with the Americans, professing his fidelity to the United States.  It is possible that he was conflicted, forced, as he claims, to march with Butler.  It is equally possible, given his past combativeness, that he saw the Rangers as the means of settling old scores, bringing to the Colonies horrors we thought only happened in places like Bosnia, or Rwanda.

One of the militia leaders is said to have encouraged his men with these words, worthy of being written on a Title of Liberty:

"The enemy is probably in full force just ahead of us. If so, we shall have hot work. Remember your homes! Your women and children call on you to protect them from the tomahawk and scalping-knife of the savages. Your own fate, as well as that of your women, your children and your homes, is in your hands.... Victory is safety! Defeat is death! Let every man do his duty and all will be well!"

A few hundred yards away, crouched low in the tall grass, Jacob Anguish and the other Rangers waited.

Whatever it was that drove Jacob Anguish -- anger over a land deal gone sour, loyalty to the Crown, good old fashioned bloodlust -- he is dust, and his victims are dust, and those times are far past.  Names are forgotten and killing grounds return to meadows and farmland, but horror and hate never completely vanish.  Not until we see it, face it, face the whispers of it in our own hearts,  and determine that these strange paths are ones we will not walk, even though they tempt us, even though it would be easy to give in to anger or fear or hatred.  Knowing the past, and determining to not repeat it, heals the past.

It would be lovely to believe that all of our progenitors were giants, straight and true, noble and fair.  That is a lie we haven't the luxury to invent.  When we fire the forges of history, we do it to take crooked things and put them straight, not to twist and bend the past to fit our fancies.

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