I’ve just shared postings tracing all I’ve been able to discover about an elusive Ulster Scots ancestor, David Dinsmore, who came from Ireland to South Carolina with his wife Margaret not long before the Revolution, took the British side during that war, and found himself exiled to Nova Scotia, leaving his wife and children behind in South Carolina. The backstory to those postings is that, for many years, my FGS for this family had neatly written, in the slot next to David’s date and place of death, the statement, “Prob. died young.”
In researching this family in the records of Ninety Six District and Spartanburg County, South Carolina, I had, of course, quickly discovered that David dropped out of South Carolina records around the time of the Revolution — and I had assumed that he was not to be found in those records or Revolutionary muster or payment lists of his area because “Prob. died young.” I never entertained the possibility I might have had a Loyalist ancestor who was sent packing to Canada from South Carolina. I’d have welcomed learning that I had such an intriguing ancestor: it simply never entered my mind that the reason David “Prob. died young” was that he was exiled to Nova Scotia during the Revolution.
Imagine my surprise when someone who knew I was working on this line emailed me some years back and sent me a summary of David’s Loyalist land claim in Nova Scotia, asking, “Isn’t this the same David Dinsmore on whom you’ve been working?”
“Couldn’t be,” I told her. “I think he probably died young.” And: “How would a man down in South Carolina end up in Nova Scotia?” I asked myself as I raised my eyebrows at the suggestion that the Nova Scotia settler about whom she had information was David Dinsmore of South Carolina. She then sent me a copy of David’s Loyalist land claim in Nova Scotia, stating that he had lost 250 acres on Jamey’s Creek in Ninety Six District, South Carolina (the application reads “James’ Creek,” but the usual usage in Spartanburg County was “Jamey’s Creek of the Tyger River”), and I realized I had do something about that “Prob. died young” tag in my FGS chart for David.
This surprising discovery about David Dinsmore’s Loyalist record: it was precisely parallel to the discovery that two of my direct ancestors, Zachariah Simms Simpson and Elizabeth Ann Winn Braselton, from slaveholding families in Tuscaloosa County, Alabama, had filed claims with the Southern Claims Commission following the Civil War, testifying to their Union sympathies during the war. I had grown up hearing story after story about precisely those families, about their commitment to the glorious Confederate cause. Big houses. Happy slaves. Unionists? How could that possibly have been? I plan to tell these two stories in detail in subsequent postings.
I was schooled, you see, in a south Arkansas-flavored version of the Georgia world that Olive Ann Burns describes in her novel Cold Sassy Tree — and my presuppositions about what was historically probable reflected that schooling and its patent biases. Burns writes,
Cold Sassy is the kind of town where schoolteachers spend two months every fall drilling on Greek and Roman Gods, the kings and queens of England, the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, Marco Polo, Magellan, Columbus, the first Thanksgiving, Oglethorpe settling Georgia, and how happy the slaves were before the War. A good teacher could cover the history of the whole world in two months and spend the rest of the school year on the War of the Sixties and how the Union ground its heel in our faces after it knocked us down . . . . In Cold Sassy, nobody ever made or waved an American flag.
In my experience, genealogical research worth its salt inevitably leads to surprising discoveries that tags on FGS charts of the “Prob. died young” ilk are often based on flatly incorrect assumptions, assumptions shattered when unexpected documentary evidence turns up to illuminate lacunae in our data about people in our family trees (no, the reason James. R. Brooks suddenly drops from records in Lawrence County, Alabama, in the 1840s is not that he “Prob. died young,” but — as I discovered when I read the loose-papers estate file of his father Thomas Brooks in Morgan County — he had gone to California to pan for gold, and is on the 1850 census living in a mining camp in El Dorado County). As historian Diarmaid MacCulloch reminds us in his study entitled Silence: A Christian History, a primary reason such lacunae occur in historical accounts is that people forget what’s convenient to forget about their history: MacCulloch writes,
The history of Christianity is full of things casually or deliberately forgotten, or left unsaid, in order to shape the future of a Church or Churches. Institutions religious or secular create their own silences, by exclusions and by shared assumptions, which change over time. Such silences are often at the expense of many of the people who could be thought of as actually constituting the Church; institutional needs outweigh individual needs. Some are conscious silences of shame and fear at the institution of the Church not living up to its own standards of truth and compassion; and there has often been a particular pain meted out to those who make the silences end. Life is rarely comfortable for the little boy who says that the emperor has no clothes.
All Americans descended from colonial settlers of course had Revolutionary ancestors. All Southern families, especially those holding slaves, were of course Confederates. Real history, what actually happened, is often inconvenient to remember for one reason or another. So we flatten our historical narratives, mythologize the past, and when real history stares us in the face in those inconvenient documentary sources we did not ever expect to find, it often has the unsettling effect of demythologizing and unflattening what we had imagined we knew about the past.
And now on to the story of an uncle of my maternal grandmother, Hattie Batchelor Simpson, a man about whom I heard numerous stories as I was growing up: Patrick Ryan was born about 14 April 1846 (the date of his baptism) in Buckstown, a “suburb” of Mullinavat in County Kilkenny, Ireland, and died 18 October 1893 in the Orion community of Grant County, Arkansas. He’s buried there in the cemetery of Orion Baptist church. My grandmother was five years old when this uncle died, but she spoke as if she had a vivid memory of him, as did her brothers Pat, Monroe, and Ed, her three siblings who were still alive as I was growing up. Pat and Monroe had, in fact, known their uncle Pat fairly well, since they were older than my grandmother.
Among the stories my grandmother and her brothers told about their uncle was that he had lost an eye and wore a patch over the missing eye. The mysterious patch — How did he lose that eye? — figured in every story told about Pat, including ones about his legendary kindness to beggars. They would come to his door and ask for money, the story goes, undeterred when the man opening the door to them turned out to have only one eye. He would never turn a beggar from his door. He’d drop coins into their hands and say, “Faith and beJasus, keep this money and ye’ll nivver be a poor man again.”
At some point in my childhood, I’m fairly certain one of those story-telling elders told me that they understood their uncle had lost his eye during the Civil War, but didn’t know particulars about what had happened. I seem to recall that as I was told this, I also asked whether he had been a Confederate or a Union soldier: no one seemed to know the answer to that question. Or if they did know, they weren’t talking.
Fast forward to the mid-1970s when I decided to begin writing down all the family stories I’d been told as a child, and to gather all the documents I could find, especially the brittle old bible registers that were already falling apart by those years. I was heading off to Toronto to do graduate studies, and thought someone in my family should try to save all of this information and documentation before it was lost. I decided I’d try to record all my family knew about relatives of the past including Pat Ryan, his parents Valentine Ryan and Bridget Tobin, and his siblings Catherine Ryan Batchelor, my great-grandmother, and Margaret Ryan Sumrall.
Since there was that tantalizing supposition that someone — my grandmother or one of her brothers — had offered, that Pat Ryan had lost his eye serving in the Civil War, I decided to dig for a Civil War service record. For a Confederate record…. Since Grant County is in the southern half of Arkansas…. Where I understood Confederate sympathies had been stronger than Union ones…. (Never mind that it was named for Ulysses S. Grant when it was formed in 1869). Southern Arkansas, Southern sympathies: that was the embarrassingly simplistic rubric I applied as I outlined the parameters of my search for a Civil War service record for Patrick Ryan when I began doing formal genealogical research in the mid-1970s.
When I launched this line of inquiry, I immediately found there was, indeed, a handful of CSA soldiers in Arkansas who had been called Patrick/Pat Ryan. I combed through the service records of each of these men. Nothing in them leapt out at me. Nothing clearly matched what my family knew about my grandmother’s uncle Pat. In fact, none of these records seemed to fit the facts of his life in any way at all.
At this point, I dropped that search, turned to my graduate work, then started a full-time teaching and administrative career, and forgot about Pat Ryan and why his eye might have gone missing. I did, however, spend some time in these years searching diligently for the precise place of origin of my Ryan family in County Kilkenny (we had always known that this was the county from which the family emigrated to New Orleans and then to Mississippi and Arkansas), made several trips to Ireland, and had the fabulous fortune to meet a retired teacher and writer living in County Kilkenny, John Ryan, who generously offered to help me in this search. John located my family in the records of their Catholic parish in Mullinavat in the archival holdings of the county historical society at Rothe House in County Kilkenny — the first concrete evidence we had had of their precise place of origin in Ireland.
Then roll the reel forward another several years to 2017, around this very time of year — as St. Patrick’s day approaches — and it occurs to me, “You know, years ago when you searched for a Civil War service record for Pat Ryan, you didn’t even think to look for a Union record, did you?” And so I did just that, with the 21st-century magic of the internet making that search so much easier than it would have been in the 1970s, and here’s what I immediately found: on 8 November 1863 in Little Rock, a young Irish-born man named Patrick Ryan enlisted in the 3rd Regiment of the Arkansas Cavalry, Co. K. Of the Union Army….
His service papers state that he was 18 years old when he enlisted, born in Ireland, a farmer, 5’5″ in height with light hair and blue eyes. He was the wagoner of his company, and a teamster. Since this was clearly my grandmother’s uncle Pat, I realized as I scanned the service packet that, as with many young men joining the military, his age at enlishtment was off by a year because he had fudged it slightly and made himself a year older than he actually was.
And then I found that he had filed a pension claim for his Civil War service, a claim his widow Delilah Rinehart Ryan continued following her husband’s death, and I sent off to the National Archives for that set of papers. When it arrived, I learned at last from the rich cache of documents it comprised — I learned in vivid detail — exactly how Pat Ryan lost that eye. As a Union soldier…. And part of a hand and an arm…. And I learned, too, an amazing amount of other information of which no one in my family had had any inkling, including that Pat had had a wife prior to Delilah, the widow of one of his comrades in arms who died during or soon after the war — stories I’ll save for the next installments in this series.
This is the first posting in a nine-part series about this topic. The next posting in the series is here. That posting will end with a link taking you to the next in the series, if you’re interested in following this series to the end.
 Z.S. Simpson and his wife both died in 1869; the claim was filed on behalf of their estate by son-in-law Thomas Clements, and supported by affidavits of a number of family members who testified that Z.S. Simpson was a Unionist.
 Olive Ann Burns, Cold Sassy Tree (NY: Dell, 1984), p. 61.
 Diarmaid MacCulloch, Silence: A Christian History (NY: Penguin, 2013), p. 191.
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