Saturday, November 24, 2012

Southern Mom, Southern Blood, and “Southern by the Grace of God”

I lost my mother on the 1st of November 2012. She’d recently turned 88 and though I’d given thought to her not making it to another Christmas after the one coming up, I still figured she’d be here for this one. I was debating how to handle the upcoming holiday, believing it might be her last (she used to love Christmas so). I brought her home from the nursing home last Christmas eve, and I guess it went fairly well, but other than making me feel good, I’m not sure the visit did anything at all for her. Certainly she didn’t remember being with her family after walking out my front door when we headed back to her nursing home.

Mama suffered from Alzheimer’s, and though she still remembered me—and things from the long ago—she knew or cared little about what was going on around her in the present. That included food. Never a big eater, she’d recently stopped eating completely. I was in the process of getting hold of my brother (who lives out of town) to discuss whether or not we wanted to go with a feeding tube, but the morning after consulting with the nursing home regarding that option, I was wakened with a call from that facility and told Mama had been rushed to the hospital. She’d gone to sleep, and there in her dreams she’d gone away. She had no intention of coming back.

Lola Mignon Gibson (Nonnie to her family) was born on the 29th of October 1924 in Rye, Arkansas, the youngest child of Fed Gibson and Sarah Wooldridge. She had three older sisters.

Unfortunately, and I think this is true of many of us, I did not develop a real interest in my ancestry until all the people who could talk to me about it were gone, but I have done a little research into where I came from.

Grandma Gibson, Mama’s paternal grandmother, named her. Dubbing her granddaughter “Mignon” indicates a French origin—it means “small” or “petite” just like the steak. Now I know enough history to know France is a Catholic country and there’s not a hint of Catholicism in our family history. But in a conversation dealing with the orgin of her name, Mama said her people (and she was talking Grandma Sally’s) were French by decent. When I questioned Wooldridge not sounding very French she said it had been Anglicized. If either one of us had given it much thought at the time—and this was a lifetime ago—we’d have realized that Grandma Gibson was not a Wooldridge.

Wooldridge is actually a prolific English surname. Gibson, I have learned in my research of not only the family, but of the South and Mississippi, is a very good French Huguenot surname. The Huguenots were French Protestants primarily from Normandy, descended from the Vikings and linked to the Scots-Irish Protestants like blue eyes are linked genetically to red hair.

The Huguenots came early to the South—primarily to escape France, which was, as I stated earlier, full of Catholics—and they (in tandem with like minds among the Scots-Irish) often allied with Mother England—meaning the Brits footed the bill—in attempts to infringe on those “Catholic” Frenchmen, eyeing the lower Mississippi Valley for protection of its lucrative fur trade in the upper valley. English interest in the lower Mississippi is what drove French expansion into what is now Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama. I don’t know when the Gibsons arrived in Arkansas, but I do know roughly when Grandma Sally’s “distaff” side got there. This latter line, as it turns out, is particularly special to me, made all the more precious for its Mississippi link.

All my life I’ve been the consummate “daddy’s girl”, but a few years ago I was on a quest for a Confederate ancestor. From word of mouth I knew he was back there (actually they were back there), but I had no concrete info as to who and where. I was searching the web one night for my ephemeral Confederate in Georgia where Charles Russell’s (Hip I called him, and he was my daddy) people hailed from. The Russell’s had come to the Georgia Up Country from “the Carolinas” and were characterized as happy, red-headed, blue-eyed Scotsmen. My great-grandfather, Hugh Henry (illiterate) wed Mary Price (who could read and write) in 1870 or 1871. She was quarter-blood Creek, though I have one cousin who seems to think she was Cherokee. The family passed through east Tennessee and with the Carolina connection, I wouldn’t rule Cherokee out at this point, but the “Creek” information came from an aunt, which makes it one generation closer to the mix—pun intended.

My father’s mother was a “King”—her father being James Albert King. The Kings were septs (branch) of the clan McGregor, which was one of the first Highland clans removed during the Scottish clearances. Georgia was a penal colony and many Highlanders settled (or were settled) there. I’m only speculating here—this branch of the family is murky, and there’s little information on my branch of the Russell and King families documented on Ancestry or, but to make a long story short, on the night in question, I found hundreds of Russells and Kings in Georgia’s Confederate rolls, but I couldn’t confirm my relationship to any one of those fine young men. Before turning off the computer for the night, I decided to take a quick look at Mama’s side.

As it turned out, someone on her side had done quite a bit of research on the family ( I found Sally Wooldridge and her father Hugh—I found his first wife, Grandma Sally’s mother, Nancy Young—a name I had heard before. Turns out she’d been born in Mississippi in 1870. Now that I hadn’t heard, and as far as I know, Mama didn’t know it either.

Then I found Nancy’s father, my great-great-grandfather, Phillip Sherrod Young, who had been born in Chester County South Carolina in November of 1840. His family immigrated to Pontotoc County Mississippi (along with a number of other Chester County residents) as pioneers in 1842 after Indian lands were opened to white settlers. He was two. In January of 1861 he wed Sarah Alabama McKeown the daughter of another such family. The Scots-Irish McKeowns had immigrated to South Carolina from County Antrim in Ulster, Northern Ireland in the early 18th century.

Sarah and Phillip’s first baby was born in December of 1861. Their second baby didn’t arrive until March 1866—eleven months after Appomattox. Seven more babies arrived over the next 14 years—births in the case of babies number 3 and 4 occurred only 10 months after babies two and three. From that evidence, I deduced two things—there was a virile daddy and a fertile mama and they seemed to like each other. And the lack of babies between 1861 and 1866? I’m sure you’ve jumped to the same conclusion I did. Daddy wasn’t there.

I knew I had my Confederate, I just needed to confirm him in the rolls—which I did many weeks later, in the roster of Company G, Pontotoc County Volunteers, Third Battalion, Mississippi Infantry, Confederate States Army.

Phillip and Sarah’s baby following my great grandmother was born in Arkansas in 1873. That period encompassing 1870-1873 comprises three of the darkest years of Reconstruction in Mississippi. I do not know that adverse conditions drove the family from the state, but I do know the Youngs appear to have thrived in Arkansas.

My “reputedly” handsome French Huguenot-descended granddaddy (Mama’s father) disappeared during the 1927 flood, apparently hoping everyone would believe him drowned—a ruse that did not fool Grandma Sally or her daddy, Hugh Wooldridge. Fed Gibson had abandoned his wife and four daughters for another woman. Mama was three. With the help of her family—both the Wooldridges and the Gibsons, devastated by their son’s betrayal—Sally Gibson raised her four daughters alone.

Despite Granddaddy Gibson’s perfidy, Mignon Gibson Russell came from great stock. Combine her blood lines with those of my dad’s and, it turns out a microcosm of the Southern populace flows through my veins.

I am very proud of those credentials.