Chasing Ghosts: The Last Word

[This is the 12th post in the series, Chasing Ghosts. I recommend reading at least the first post to get acquainted with the series.]

When I started this research on my family history, using my late father’s big white Stor-All box of records, I only knew a few tidbits of information and some people’s names, and I had a handful of vague notions of what had happened and where. The first and best records in the search have been Alabama Department of Archives & History’s books on the Dickson family and’s digitzed records. With those and some other findings from wider internet searches, I have traced just about every branch of my family back to folks that lived before the Civil War, and some as far back as 17th-century Ireland where the Dicksons came from. For every branch, I’ve gone back at least as far back as the mid-19th century to great-great-great-grandparents.

For me, this search has been about more than curiosity. My immediate family has never been close, and I haven’t known my grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins very well. Most of them, I’ve only met a few times. Researching family history, for me, has been about knowing who I am as it related to where my people come from. Call it “identity politics,” if you like. I just say that it’s worth the time that any person could spend – a couple dozen hours here and there over a couple months time – to find out about the generations that came before.

Most of my people have been rural land-owning farmers who lived in the Deep South. Most of my ancestors can be traced back for a hundred-and-fifty years to Montgomery, Lowndes, Butler and Autauga counties in central Alabama. The Dicksons came to central Alabama from western Georgia in the 1850s, and from the Carolinas before that. On my dad’s mother’s side, the Stradfords were northern Alabama people. On tracing back from my mother’s mother, the Taylors and the Deans came from South Carolina and landed in Butler and Lowndes counties in the 1840s; land deed records document their arrivals. And the one wild hair, my mother’s father, came from tenant farmers in western Virginia, who sometimes wandered east as far as Lynchburg or maybe even Baltimore. I’ve used the columns in the census records that show birthplace, father’s birthplace and mother’s birthplace to surmise every layer of what came before, but almost everywhere I’ve looked, that occupation column reads “Farmer.”

Sadly, among that slew of farmers, I’ve also found the records showing a few pre-Civil War slaveholders: my great-great-great grandfather David Madison Dickson, Sr. (1811-1877) and his father Michael Dickson (1788-1853) are both shown in census records with slaves. And another one, Asa Dean (b. 1807) who was the grandfather of my great-grandmother Sallie (Dean) Taylor. The difficult fact of having deep roots in the Deep South is that the “stain of slavery” will be back there somewhere. But, for me, it’s better to know it and to face it than to deny, deny, deny . . .

However, on prouder notes, I’ve also found the records showing that I have ancestors who fought in the Civil War, the War of 1812, and the Revolutionary War. My great-great-great-great-great-grandfather Gen. David Dickson (1750 – 1830) is a well-documented and highly celebrated Revolutionary War hero from South Carolina. My great-great-great grandfather Mathew C. Stradford (b. 1785) fought with an infantry unit from Virginia in the War of 1812. And Jesse Hamilton Goss (1798-1892) fought in the Civil War before he moved to Florida, participated in writing the post-war state constitution, and became a judge; Goss was the father of Mary Ann Goss (1821 – 1882), who married the above-mentioned David Madison Dickson, Sr.

With only a very few exceptions, the people in almost every branch lived for generations in the Deep Southern states of South Carolina, Georgia and Alabama. (No Mississippi folks that I’ve found.) In some cases, the immigrants got off the boat from England, Scotland or Ireland, set up a life for their families in one of those three states, and here we still are. Among those few exceptions: like I said, my mother’s father came from Virginia – his people had longstanding roots in Campbell County – and some of the Goss family trickled down to north Florida after the Civil War. There was also a Dickson or two who headed out to Texas in the late 1800s, so another branch has thrived out there. But for the most part, everybody is right here in the Deep South.

I’m a firm believer that we can’t understand the present without understanding the past. That goes for the macro level – what we call history – and for the micro level – what we call genealogy. If you don’t believe that, just think about how your upbringing shaped who you are (beliefs, habits, values), then think about how your home place shaped who you are (folkways, foodways, socialization), and you won’t be able to deny it. Especially once you realized that your parents were affected by their parents, and so on all the way back. As a life-long Alabamian, I was already aware of my status as a Southerner, but now I know just how deep those roots go through the farming and slave-holding and wars that shaped this region.

At this point, after several months of searching, I’ve got records coming out of my ears. It’s time to lay it to rest, to let all this information sink in.

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