More Oral History

Here’s another story to illustrate the malleability of oral history. We should not trust our family stories, but always look behind them for ways they might have been elaborated over time.

This story comes from Mircea Eliade, a Romanian historian.

Sometimes, though very rarely, an investigator chances to come upon the actual transformation of an event into myth. Just before the last war, the Romanian folklorist Constantin Brailoiu had occasion to record an admirable ballad in a village in Maramures. Its subject was a tragedy of love: the young suitor had been bewitched by a mountain fairy, and a few days before he was to be married, the fairy, driven by jealousy, had flung him from a cliff. The next day, shepherds found his body and, caught in a tree, his hat. They carried the body back to the village and his fiancée came to meet them; upon seeing her lover dead, she poured out a funeral lament, full of mythological allusions, a liturgical text of rustic beauty. Such was the content of the ballad. In the course of recording the variants that he was able to collect, the folklorist tried to learn the period when the tragedy had occurred; he was told that it was a very old story, which had happened “long ago.” Pursuing his inquiries, however, he learned that the event had taken place not quite forty years earlier. He finally even discovered that the heroine was still alive. He went to see her and heard the story from her own lips. It was a quite commonplace tragedy: one evening her lover had slipped and fallen over a cliff; he had not died instantly; his cries had been heard by mountaineers; he had been carried to the village, where he had died soon after. At the funeral, his fiancée, with the other women of the village, had repeated the customary ritual lamentations, without the slightest allusion to the mountain fairy.

Thus, despite the presence of the principal witness, a few years had sufficed to strip the event of all historical authenticity, to transform it into a legendary tale: the jealous fairy, the murder of the young man, the discovery of the dead body, the lament, rich in mythological themes, chanted by the fiancée. Almost all the people of the village had been contemporaries of the authentic historical fact, but this fact, as such, could not satisfy them: the tragic death of a young man on the eve of his marriage was something different from a simple death by accident; it had an occult meaning that could only be revealed by its identification with the category of myth. The mythicization of the accident had not stopped at the creation of a ballad; people told the story of the jealous fairy even when they were talking freely, “prosaically,” of the young man’s death. When the folklorist drew the villagers’ attention to the authentic version, they replied that the old woman had forgotten; that her great grief had almost destroyed her mind. It was the myth that told the truth: the real story was already only a falsification. Besides, was not the truer by the fact that it made the real story yield a deeper and richer meaning, revealing a tragic destiny?

Naming Conventions

One of the canards of genealogy is that professional genealogists always prefer the earliest recorded name. The idea is that name is the most authentic.

More or less true, but not quite, not always.

William Shakespeare, for example. You think you know his name? His baptismal record, the earliest in a scant collection, calls him Gulielmus — Latin for William.

Wait! Do I have to change my database so that my tenuous connection to England’s most famous playwright shows him as Gulielmus Shakespeare?

No, what’s happening here is a very basic confusion. Prosopographers already know there is a difference between having a database identifier, which can be a name, and recording all the name variations a person used in their lifetime.

In short, genealogists haven’t kept up with best academic practices. Many are still mired in the amateur practices of the 18th and 19th centuries. Time to catch up.

Almost Métis

I used to think my dad’s ancestors were Métis. They’re not, but I ended up with a seemingly permanent interest.

The Métis are a Canadian group, a mixture of Anglos and Indians from the area between the Great Lakes and the Rocky Mountains. Not all mixed-race people in Canada are Métis, just the ones where the men in the founding group were employees of the Hudson Bay Company.

One of those men was John Hourie (1779-1857). He came to Hudson’s Bay in 1800 from South Ronaldsay, one of the Orkney Islands off the northern coast of Scotland. About 1809 he married Margaret Bird, a Shoshone (“Snake”) woman. She was adopted daughter of James Curtis Bird.

Howery is not a very common surname. When I was maybe 13 or so and just getting started with genealogy, I knew almost nothing about my father or his family. I eventually eked out the information that his grandfather was Elmer Phillip Howery, who everyone agreed was born in England. (Recently it’s occurred to me that probably I was not hearing the difference between English and Anglo that would have been significant for my mother and some of the others I was talking to.)

I wrote confidently to Somerset House, the English vital records place. Nothing. No record, they said. In fact they had no records of any Howerys. That’s just England, though. Since it was obvious Howery is a British name (so naive back then!), I started thinking Howery is probably a Scottish name. Maybe Irish.

In those pre-Internet days each little nugget of information was a treasure. My access to information was essentially just the local library and quarterly issues of The Genealogical Helper.

I could also order Family Group Sheets from the LDS Genealogical Library in Salt Lake, but I had to be pretty focused. I needed to have name, date, and place. It’s hard to finesse a form when you don’t have much real information. There was no Family Group Sheet for Elmer Phillip Howery, so I was out of luck.

Lucky me. I found Black’s Surnames of Scotland (1946). Yep, there’s an entry for Hourie. I wasn’t finding anything remotely similar anywhere else in Europe, so I was sure this was going to be my family.

One of my strategies back then was to use phone books to find addresses of people who had the surnames I was looking for. The Grand Junction Public Library didn’t have a large collection but they did have some. I would also call directory assistance and do a little fishing for names and addresses. My allowance at that age wasn’t so high I could afford a lot of stamps, so I had to be cagey, looking for the best opportunities. Then too, most people never wrote back, even though I learned to type on my mother’s fancy Olivetti, she taught me to use business format, and I enclosed stamped return envelopes.

With my Howery search I eventually connected with Ian Howrie in Dallas, Texas. He told me, in one paragraph, the story of his ancestors John Hourie and Margaret Bird from Red River, Canada. I was sure that was my connection. The other people I talked to mostly agreed.

I think it was probably several years before I made contact with Pat Sorenson in Yuba City, California. That was through one of her ads in The Genealogical Helper. She couldn’t help with my line, not directly, but she offered the very firm advice that my line probably belonged to the large clan of Midwest Howerys and Howreys descended from Jacob Howry of Howrytown, Virginia, and he in turn from (she thought) the Mennonite Hauris and Howrys from Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.

Pat turned out to be right. I gave up my Métis ancestry, almost without noticing. Too bad. I think my dad would have liked that line to pan out. Many years later when I wanted Ian Howrie to do a DNA test for the Hauri DNA Project, I couldn’t find him again. The whole Métis piece just receded into the distance, although I think there might be distant cousins here and there who still think we’re descended from John Hourie and Margaret, his Shoshone wife.

More Information

  • John Hourie“, Red River Ancestry <>, Dec. 5, 2016, retrieved Aug. 23, 2020.

Anglo-Saxon Genealogies

Germanic pre-Christian ideas of ancestry wouldn’t necessarily be totally intuitive to a modern person looking back.

This is a favorite topic of mine. I rarely pass up a chance to point out others who agree with me. Here, Simon Roper.

The old, poetic genealogies handed down by our remote ancestors “were probably not completely reflective of genetic relationships in the same way as our modern idea of a family tree would be, so a lot of them seem to go back to a god like Woden, although post-Christianization the royal family trees were retroactively so that the god was somewhere in the middle of the tree rather than at the base. And in fact these genealogies seem to have reflected socio-political associations a bit more than they represented actual, real genetic descent as we would see it.

So, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to think that probably people coming from elsewhere and integrating into the local society could possibly be accommodated into that genealogy without actually having been a known blood relation of anybody in the group.

It’s clear that not being of genetically Anglo-Saxon ancestry did not preclude a person becoming a very active member of society with a lot of responsibility. So identity was rooted in descent but that descent was not necessarily strictly generation to generation genetic descent; that’s a very modern way of viewing it.

It’s broader than that, even. As an example well-known to historians, the genealogy of the Wessex kings descended from Cerdic seems to have been grafted on to the older and more prestigious genealogy of the kings of Bernica (Kenneth Sisam, “Anglo-Saxon Royal Genealogies”, Proceedings of the British Academy, vol. 39, pp. 287–348 (1953)).

These can be difficult concepts if you’re not used to them. I’m reminded of an old professor of mine who used to say, “Objectivity is nothing more than consensual subjectivity.” Powerful stuff. Think about that for a minute.

When we know there might be something to see, it’s not hard to find ways in our own culture where people see genealogical and cultural identity in different ways.

At a different point in this presentation Roper says, “Think of how many different ways people view their identity today – I know people who consider themselves British but have two natively Japanese parents, and people who consider themselves French despite not having had a French ancestor in more than a hundred years. Neither of these is an invalid way of viewing identity, but it goes to show that we cannot agree on what constitutes cultural heritage and identity nowadays. . . .

Our ancestors thought genealogy should reflect cultural relationships. We think genealogy is only true if it represents biological facts. We’re not talking across the generations about similar but different things. We can’t use their information for our purposes.

South Pass City

Another Wyoming video. This is drone footage of South Pass City, one my favorite places.

It’s a ghost town on the old Oregon Trail. I lived here in a past life.

When I was a teenage boy in Grand Junction I had some very vivid dreams about dying here as a teenage boy in the late 1800s. I had no idea where it was, just that it was an Old West town.

Then, as an adult I visited here for the first time. Say, about 1992 or 1993. We were driving around, taking in the sights on impulse. I don’t remember exactly but I’d guess we had been to Farson and were headed to Lander. We lived in Farson when I was little and sometimes went shopping in Lander. It would have been a nostalgia leg of the trip.

As soon as we pulled into town, I knew it, knew it without being told, the buildings, the roads. I walked around in a daze, feeling caught between two worlds. I saw the hill that had the shack where I was staying in that other life, and the hill where I tumbled to my death because I was too feverish to be careful. A stupid accident.

Then, as my 20th century visit wore on, the other world began to fade. We spent the afternoon there. I think I had the experience only because I came upon it unexpectedly. My mind wasn’t ready for it at first, but when it had the chance to experience the physical reality, it adjusted.

I’d like to go back again, even though it wouldn’t be the same.

Eden Bar

Here’s a very short video of the exterior of the Eden Bar in Farson, Wyoming.

I must have driven by it a million times as a kid and a dozen times as an adult. It never stood out for me. I wouldn’t have thought I ever noticed it. I wouldn’t have thought of it without some kind of prompt. I never lived in Farson-Eden as an adult.

But as soon as I saw the video I knew exactly where and what it was.

I’m linking it here purely for nostalgia.

Farson Dig 1940

I don’t think I knew the Eden Point was named after Eden, Wyoming. I wondered, of course. My mom knew, though. Of course she did. She grew up at Farson.

Here’s a video clip from a 1940/41 archaeological dig at Farson. The Pennsylvania Museum (University of Pennsylvania) conducted the dig at a site they named the Finley Site.

The Finley Site is an old paleo-Indian bison kill site, where arrowheads had been found on the surface. The site dates from ~9 thousand years ago. It’s now associated with the Cody Cultural Complex, Archaeologists found a type of point that had been found elsewhere, but never before in situ. They named that style “Eden Point“. The site was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2010, long after we all moved away.

There’s also a “related” site, the Farson-Eden Site. It was an American Indian camp site with 12 lodges and large collection of antelope bones. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2014.

Most of the video from the Finley Site is field footage, no sound on any of it. I’m focused on the two little local history pieces. The video shows a road sign at 03:33 and a brief shot of Farson Mercantile at 11:53. That sign was just across Highway 191 from the store.

The shot list for the video shows:

  • Fieldwork, dusting of samples. Linton Satterthwaite and Edgar B. Howard.
  • The arrow points from a buffalo kill site, known as Eden Points.
  • Mrs Charles Bache also assisting
  • Sifting artifacts from dirt
  • Surveying landscape
  • Directional Sign with arrows: Eden Rock Springs, Pinedale, Jackson, Yellowstone. Mrs. Bache pointing to Rock Springs.
  • Seated near the buffalo bones
  • Hammering in a post for a shelter
  • Sun/shade shelter next to buffalo bones find.
  • Survey of the land
  • Sifting materials Gathering materials in a tarp
  • Breaking clods. General field activities.
  • Picking up one of the points, extreme close up
  • A visit to town, likely Farson.

I think I would change that last line to “A visit to the Farson Mercantile.” I wrote to them about. We’ll see what they say.

  • Penn Museum, Digging at Farson, Wyoming,, Dec. 5, 2012, retrieved Aug. 16, 2020. “Partially edited footage of the Finley Expedition; Farson Wyoming, Film made possibly by Charles Bache.” Another copy of the video is hosted at Pennsylvania Museum.

Before Wyoming

Very interesting article about pre-settler Wyoming. I wonder, briefly, whether the author might be related to the Justin Nickerson who went to school with my mother in Farson, Wyoming.

I found this one because I was searching for information about American Indian place names in Wyoming. Specifically, I was wandering off on a tangent after reading that there has been no progress on the Oglala request to rename Devil’s Tower, Wyoming to Bear Lodge (Mahto Teepee). This site says “The proposal was blocked by Wyoming’s congressional delegation until 2021.” I hadn’t heard that, but it’s easy to believe.

There’s a map here I found very helpful for other reasons. Searches like this are fun because they uncover new and interesting information you wouldn’t think to look for.

Here’s the perennial reminder that my mother’s family is from an area known as the Red Desert (Ay ga Vahsah Soegoep, Red Desert Dirt, in Shoshoni).

And a reminder that my father’s Lakota name, Wind River Eagle, might not capture the Lakota name of that place (Beeyah Ohgway, Big River, in Shoshoni; Huchaashe, Wind River, in Crow; Hote’niicie, Sheep River, in Arapahoe).

Another map on the same page shows a good and detailed overview of the many pioneer trails that criss-crossed Wyoming.

Go. Look. You’ll find something to like here.


In the novel American Gods, Neil Gaiman quotes Richard Dorson:

“One question that has always intrigued me is what happens to demonic beings when immigrants move from their homelands. Irish-Americans remember the fairies, Norwegian-Americans the nisser, Greeek-Americans the vrykólakas, but only in relation to events remembered in the Old County: When I once asked why such demons are not seen in America, my informants giggled confusedly and said ‘They’re too scared to pass the ocean, it’s too far,’ pointing out that Christ and the apostles never came to America.” (“A Theory for American Folklore,” American Folklore and the Historian (University of Chicago Press, 1971)

This, of course, is the premise of the novel, that the old gods did in fact come to America, for interesting reasons and with interesting consequences.

Leaving aside, for now, the problem that Mormons believe Christ did come to America, so that doesn’t work well for everyone, I also trip over the idea the fairies and nisser are “demons”. Otherworldly, yes, but surely not demons.

The piece that really stands out for me is the idea our non-human friends didn’t come with us to America. The nisser are the Norwegian equivalent of our Swedish tomten (“house elves”). I don’t know about other families but our tomte came to America in my great grandparents steamer trunk. My mother told me so. Why would he not come? That’s just silly talk.