Wednesday, June 05, 2013

Queering the family tree: Part 3

Genealogy is a field fixated on breeders, so the lives of those who lived and died single tend to be obscured, in part because they left no descendants to tell their stories, sometimes because they or those who survived them intentionally blurred the facts. That's another reason for pulling some of them forward into the light --- even though in the times they lived such attention might not have been a comfortable thing. 

Frank Hiett Rhea (left), an accomplished genealogist and maternal cousin of my grandfather's generation, was born Jan. 25, 1871, in Saybrook, Illinois, taught school, earned his undergraduate degree from Illinois Wesleyan College of the Arts in 1898, then went on to earn his law degree from the University of Illinois in 1902.

Family history was his passion, however, and he devoted every spare moment of his life to it, especially to tracking down the complex lines of our Jolliff and Rhea families. Our mutual ancestors were James M. and Rachel (Jolliff) Rhea, pioneers of Sangamon County, Illinois, both members of vast families of Scots-Irish and English descent who settled in the great valley of Virginia before moving west into Kentucky, then up into southern Illinois.

The Rheas especially were a family that gives face to the old joke, "Question: Where'd ya meet your wife?" Answer: At a family reunion." My great-great-great-grandparents, Richard and Elizabeth (Rhea) Rhea, were first-cousins. Elizabeth's parents, Thomas and Polly (Rhea) Rhea, were cousins, too.

Elizabeth and her mother, Polly, as well as Elizabeth's second and third husbands, Thomas Etheredge and Edward E. Sargent, are buried in Bethel Cemetery, out on the road to nowhere east of Chariton. Richard Rhea, a Baptist preacher and farmer, died young in Illinois.

Frank Rhea was working in a time when genealogical research was a complex undertaking accomplished  only by personal research among dusty records and extensive correspondence. But he had the advantage of working at a time when many people who knew the old stories still were alive and able to tell them.

Unfortunately, Frank died rather young --- on April 18, 1926, in Bloomington, Illinois, at the age of 55, leaving behind a vast collection of notes, letters and documents, but not the book he had planned to write. His collection fell into the hands of an older sister, who didn't think much of Frank or his hobby and who burned all but a few scraps rescued  from a bonfire by a niece.

Fortunately, Frank was an amazing correspondent and left behind letters so interesting and so filled with detail that the recipients saved them. Three, still extant in transcript form at least, were written to my great-great-grandmother, Elizabeth Rachel (Rhea) Clair.

Because of those letters, those of us who came along later have been able to reconstruct some of Frank's lost research and to gain some insight into the character of their author.

Like most who live single, Frank felt it necessary now and then to explain his single state. He wrote to my great-great-great grandmother that he had been engaged when a very young man to a lovely young woman who died unexpectedly and broke his heart, causing him never to consider marriage thereafter because he was sure he'd never find another like her.


Elizabeth Rachel (Rhea) and her husband, James Wayne Clair, had among their 12 children two sons who no doubt were called upon at various times to explain their single states, too 

This is Alvin Erastus, born Nov. 23, 1871, during the same year Frank H. Rhea was born. Alvin and his younger brother, Charlie, remained at home to support their mother after the untimely death of their father during 1894, moving with her from the Clair homestead in Rooks County, Kansas, to the little town of Alton a few years later.

Alvin never married, worked all his life as a farm and ranch hand and at odd jobs, then died on Aug. 16, 1942, age 70, still single --- the classic stray, perhaps gay, uncle.

Charlie, as he neared 50, decided to marry --- to Emma Boland, approaching 40 and almost related via one of the quirkier Clair family lines. The family loved Emma --- my grandfather corresponded with her for as long as she lived --- but the marriage didn't last. 

When Charlie's health began to fail, he married again --- during 1946 to Marie Hoar, a spinster of 65 --- and she nursed him until his death five years later, on Jan. 13, 1951, age 72. She, at least, considered Uncle Charlie to be quite a prize.


Although not directly related, one of the more interesting characters in the family is Edward Ebenezer Sargent, mentioned briefly earlier, who was the third husband of my great-great-great-grandmother, Elizabeth (Rhea) Rhea/Etheredge, Sargent.

Born Sept. 14, 1831, in Berkshire, England, he arrived in the United States during 1851, alighting in Scott County where he married on Aug. 6, 1853, Sarah Ann Wright. They had two children, Rowena, born during 1854, and a boy named John who died as an infant, before Sarah died during 1861.

Rowena was given to her grandparents, Joy and Laura Ann (Story) Wright, to raise and during the fall of 1862, they moved to Cedar Township, Lucas County. Although Rowena and her father had an amicable relationship, there is no indication that she ever lived with him again.

Edward, known as "Squire" by his neighbors, followed the Wrights to Lucas County. At some point and in some manner he became intimately acquainted with my ancestor, Elizabeth, whose second husband --- Thomas Etheredge --- had died during 1862. They married on Sept. 12, 1870, when he was 39 and she was 59.

Now this may have been a passionate heterosexual pairing, or it may have been a marriage of convenience --- Elizabeth had considerable assets, Edward had none. But it seems to have been an amicable relationship that endured for 18 years and in a somewhat rare reversal of roles, Edward nursed Elizabeth through her old age until she died on Aug. 7, 1888, at the age of 77. 

Edward lived 20 more years, fondly recalled by my maternal grandfather as "Grandpa Sargent," until his own death on Feb. 25, 1908, on the farm he had inherited from Elizabeth. He seems never to have considered marrying again.


So these are three more little stories, in part speculative, about people I've come across who seem to have lived out of step with their heterosexual contemporaries. Some most likely were what we'd call "gay" today; others may not have been. Most likely we'll never know for sure.

Some would argue it's unfair to "out" people long dead and unable to speak for themselves. Others are welcome to make the case, then, that sexual orientation was not a factor in these lives, that they were lived in a manner that somehow seems incomplete for other reasons.

Whatever the case, a major purpose of LGBT activism on its many fronts today is to ensure that no one rising now need feel a need to live an incomplete life, or a life in the shadows, because of sexual orientation. And to show respect, too, for those who came before and endured nonsense imposed upon them by heterosexual family, friends and neighbors.


Norm Prince said...

I enjoyed your series on the gay ancestors and the fact that we are in an area of research were in most cases no direct source of proof will be found. One of my thoughts while reading each of your offerings was these were all males you spoke about and I am sure that many of the 'spinsters' may have a similar reason for not taking on a partner of the other sex. I believe there are several folks from both sex in my tree who could fit the image but like you mentioned, they all are an end of that twig. No new growth from each of the single members.
Thanks - norm

Frank D. Myers said...

It did feel odd (and incomplete) to make the focus here mostly male. But the situation with women is considerably more complex and I don't necessarily understand all the implications. For one thing, the pressure on men to marry was largely societal, but the pressure on women was economic, too. Until not that long ago, there was no way in most instances for a woman to support herself unless attached somehow to a man. Plus, it seems to me, genealogy, by its very nature,tends to marginalize women. It's usually Grandpa's accomplishments we focus on, not Grandma's.