Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Reading Between The Lines

I stayed up late last night reading old letters that my fabuloso cousin has been so diligently transcribing. These letters add so much insight into the life and times of Alexander Gillespie and his family. But there is one letter in particular that I consider heart-pounding, from Alexander Gillespie to his son Alexander Garfield Gillespie, written October 28, 1911 from Gaines, Michigan. There is one run-on sentence that reads like this:

"Well it will soon be Halloween it was just 56 years ago on that night we came to Oakland County to Uncle Jimmie Greers and his 80 acres and the 40 acres your Aunt Elizabeth owned, that is the forty the share is not paid on. Well the 120 acres has been sold about 3 weeks ago to Detroit parties for $40,000 for a summer resort."

Oh my. Until now there has been not one shred of personal documentation that ties the Gillespie and Greer families together (before the marriage of James H. Gillespie to Belle Greer) - how cool is this? Maybe the most significant truth brought to light here is timing. Since discovering Pioneer Elizabeth and her probate record that mentions her half-siblings, I assumed that our Robert Gillespie came to Michigan to collect his inheritance in 1857 when Elizabeth died. Wrong. He was in Michigan a full two years before she died. With his family! This is a big wow for me. I keep crossing out and rewriting what I think I know!

But now several other questions bubble up from this letter of Alexander's, a few of which are:
  1. The letter mentions coming to Michigan on Halloween, which is a curiosity in itself. I'm pretty sure that Halloween is a uniquely American holiday (to Europeans it was All Saints Day), so it must have been a strange thing for a Scotch-Irish-Canadian to consider. And what exactly was the custom then? Did poor rural kids in the second half of the 19th century dress up and go out asking for candy??? This is a topic that could use more looking into.
  2. As I have reported elsewhere in my blog, our family historian, Edith Gillespie, published for many years a family newsletter. In one newsletter, there is a snippet from THIS letter telling about Alexander coming to Michigan on Halloween to stay with Uncle Jimmie Greer. But now that we have the actual letter, we find there is also the mention of Aunt Elizabeth's 40 acres. Now comes a bevvy of new questions:
    • Why did Edith drop this detail from the newsletter? a) she was simply short on space, cramming all the monthly news onto one sheet of paper whenever possible, b) she assumed Alexander was talking about his own sister, Lizzie Winslow, having no idea whatsoever about Pioneer Elizabeth, c) she knew everything there was to know about the Greers in Oakland County and just decided not to tell us.
    • Can we assume that Alexander probably did not first introduce the topic of arrival in Michigan in this letter, but he had told his son (and other of his children) about it personally at some previous point in time? And if Alexander G. and any of his siblings knew the full story of arrival in Michigan, why didn't THEY ever pass it on, even if only verbally?
  3. And what about those 40 acres? I just don't understand what Alexander is referring to nearly 50 years after Pioneer Elizabeth's death. Elizabeth originally purchased 78.45 acres. My understanding is that our Robert Gillespie got 40 acres (I'm not sure how he got half with several other heirs), but then it appears to me that he sold it almost immediately to the administrator of Elizabeth's estate, namely Robert M. Greer. Then Robert M. Greer sold it to Mary Slater for $75. It is entirely possible that I am still missing some of the details of the transaction, but this is what I know about it to date. What is meant by "the 40 the share is not paid on" is completely unknown. We have a few suspicions, but that's for another post, I think.

  4. Summer resort? Does that still exist today? And who collected $40,000? I can only guess it was a Greer?

Well, two of these questions are about what other people knew or didn't, which might not seem to have any relevance now. But I sometimes feel like we are learning about our past through two distinct layers - one is our own discovering and reading of documents and letters, and the other is Edith's earlier translation of those same documents and letters. It's so interesting, isn't it? It's like the difference between painting my own picture based on what I see now (even though I am farther away still from the true events), and turning around and looking at the painting that has been hanging on my wall since childhood, the one painted by Edith. When I started doing all this, I assumed these two paintings would be identical - mine would just have fresher paint. But they are not identical. They are strikingly similar, and some might argue in most of the ways that matter. But my story is different, so full of stubborn questions. And to think that at some point in the future, somebody will wonder about my own translation of this family history, what I really knew about, what I didn't tell about, and why. More and more I come to more fully comprehend history not only as a tangled web, but one that is still in process of being woven.

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