Wednesday, 31 May 2017

What do we know about William R. Poe? Part 1

(Revised 31 May 2017)

William Romulus Poe is my earliest known male ancestor. ‘Earliest’ doesn’t mean he lived in ancient times – he only died in 1866.

I don’t yet know enough about him to work out who his parents were. On the other hand, when I began researching family history I didn’t even know his name.

What do we currently know about him?

Firstly, his surname. On different occasions, it is spelled Powe or Poe. He certainly preferred Powe himself during the middle part of his life in Garrard County Kentucky and Missouri though by 1850 he and his sons all used Poe. 

The usage in the early part of his life is not clear, though some families changed from Poe to Powe at that time.

William was born 27 December 1794 in Virginia to as yet unknown parents. He may have been born in Richmond as some later descendants believed, but Virginia was widely believed by children of both his marriages. 

His second wife described him ‘from her best recollection’ (12 years after his death) as being 5’ 6” of fair complexion with grey eyes and dark hair. At least one of his sons had a similar appearance and another had a dark complexion with brown eyes and dark hair.

He took part in the War of 1812 as a member of a militia. There are two possible soldiers in the record.

It is likely that he was a Corporal in Ambler’s regiment in Virginia as claimed by one of his daughters, Mrs Lucy Blandy. This claim, made in 1921, allowed her to become a member of the National Society United States Daughters of 1812. It seems to have been specifically supported by the US Adjutant General’s office but this document has not survived so we can't tell what the specifics were. The period of service of this solider, named in the record as William Poe, was 23 August to 3 September 1814.

The other possibility is the Kentucky militia. In 1878 his widow obtained a pension on the basis of the service of a William Powe who served in Captain William Wood’s Company which was part of Lieutenant Colonel Gabriel Slaughter’s Kentucky Regiment. The period of this service was 14 November 1814 to 10 March 1815. 

It is possible that one man could have been involved in both periods of service. If so we can date his move from Virginia to Kentucky as about October 1814.

His move to Kentucky by 1814 may have been with his family. The fact that he is not a head of household in the 1820 census may mean that his father is one of the other Powe men who was listed. Also, Elizabeth, presumably a widow, is mentioned as a head of household also. If this was his mother this may also explain why he didn’t establish his own household.

There in no surviving direct documentary link of either to William Romulus Poe, so the question is one of probability. In addition, neither file gives any clue as to other family members.

Three specific items which his widow mentioned may help confirm his identity in the William Woods Company.

He was given 160 acres as the result of his war service: There is no evidence yet that this was actually taken up. Corporal Poe was apparently eligible for such a grant, and the widow's pension file indicates that Private Poe in Captain Wood’s militia has a related land bounty warrant, so both could be a match. A connection to land obtained by Poe himself as a result of war service would confirm at least one of these records as relating to him. 

He took part in the Battle of New Orleans: This was fought between 8-18 January 1815. It was the final major battle of the War of 1812 and a well-known because its outcome was decisive. American forces commanded by Major General Andrew Jackson, prevented an overwhelming British force, under Admiral Alexander Cochrane and General Edward Pakenham, from seizing New Orleans and the vast territory the United States had acquired with the Louisiana Purchase. William Powe's service in William Wood's Company meets this requirement.

He was a substitute for a William Leusieur: This is a very specific reference, but her pension file isn't linked to another soldier. As the result of her pension claim, an index card for Leusieur was created but it only refers back to the widow’s pension file. My impression is that authorities felt that her claim was genuine even if they weren’t able to match all the details she gave at the time. The only mention of the surname as spelt is for a Charles who served in a Virginia regiment. However, was not substituted and was in a different militia from Corporal William Poe.

The nearest sounding name is a William Laysure who served in Slaughter’s Regiment, even though the company is not specified. The Regiment was organised 10 November 1814, specifically to support the New Orleans campaign. William Laysure is listed as a substitute for a William Powe: this is unlikely to be a mere coincidence. I now believe that Leusieur and Laysure are one and the same, even though the records are not linked. The William Powe in Wood's company, therefore, is an excellent match for the description which Poe's widow gave.

As an aside, the fact that none of Poe’s descendants claimed membership of organisations of the sons or daughters of revolutionary war may mean he did not have a male ancestor in the country at that time. There are a large number of possible Poe / Powe participants - too many to investigate without more details. Migration into Virginia was still taking place in the years before William's birth.

On 30 October 1817, William married Margaret Ann Brown in Garrard County, Kentucky. The bondsman for the marriage was Frederick Brown who is likely to be her father, though I can find no further details about him. William is in the marriage record as William Powe. He is constantly confused with the William Powe who married Sarah Harris in Garrard County in March 1816. One can imagine he may have had the problem in his own lifetime.

In the 1820s, William and Margaret Powe moved to Missouri, and the next post will take up the story there…

Garrard County, Kentucky

Wednesday, 24 May 2017

From the War of 1812 to eternity via the Y chromosome

One aim in researching family history is to discover the origins of the male line.

This is a popular objective for genealogists as it shows the geographical origins of the surname which a person carries. There are other possible choices of course. The female line would take a completely different path, or one could track all ancestral lines equally.

Pursuing the last option may quickly lead to an uncontrollable flood of ancestors, but it has the benefit that some lines are easier to research than others – and reminds us that our real roots spread far and wide.

It was easy to follow my mother’s female line which took me back to the kings of Scotland (they were males I know) and thence to Charlemagne from whom most Europeans are descended. See ‘Why do family history?’.

The Genographic Project takes things much further than any genealogy could. Around 100,000 years ago, an unnamed male ancestor developed a mutation named ‘P305’ in his Y chromosome. 70, 000 years before anyone invented surnames, one of his male descendants emerged from Africa. A later ancestor known as ‘M207’ was born in Central Asia around 30,000 years ago. His descendants went on to settle in Europe, South Asia and the Middle East over the following 20,000 years.

Today, most western European men belong to the R-M342 branch who descended from this lineage. It appears to have been one of the earliest lineages to settle in Europe more than 25,000 years ago. So even back then my ancestors were pioneers.

My current search aims are rather modest by comparison, I’m hoping to trace my male line back about 500 years, not 50,000. ‘M 207’ may have thought it was too hard to get to America but much later, some of his descendants ended up there.

The name of my nearest ancestor who arrived in America is something I’ve yet to work out. The DNA evidence does not show a certain connection to any relevant participating family in North America. In any case, the only way to build certain link is from documentary evidence, but a DNA link could provide a clue if the right people take part.

Back to surnames… 

My father changed his surname from Poe to Lyell just before getting married. It was a logical move for him since he had been brought up by the Lyell family from about the age of 7.
As a young man, I announced my interest in family history. My father asked me what I’d like to know. The question top of my list was ‘Tell me about your father and his family’.  ‘Oh, he was William George Lyell and his father was William Ly…’  ‘No’, I said ‘your real father.’ ‘Well, he was my real father’.  I looked at him and said, ‘I have your birth certificate here…’ 

It was a tense moment.

‘OK’, he conceded, ‘See what you can find out and I’ll tell you if it’s true’.  ‘Would anyone like a cup of tea’ Mum interjected…

That was a challenge I took up; the ‘see what you can find’ I mean.  I had the cup of tea too.

I had noticed some of the family stories didn’t match up. Mum had told me what she knew of Dad’s actual parents. Though she swore me to secrecy, the documents allowed me to ask the question. That’s the first lesson: listen to the stories but get the documents!

Finding out about the Poes proved difficult as my father was not the first to change his name. My grandfather used many names and on other occasions seems to have obscured facts. He was not alone in this and when combined with earlier generations distrust of governments seeking information, illiteracy, the loss of records through fire or neglect, wishful thinking and faulty memories and the endeavour is quite a challenge.

It took a little time to track my grandfather’s birth details, he was born at Shasta Retreat in northern California. Once I could plug into the census records it was relatively straightforward to make leaps through the next three generations to my great great great grandfather, William Romulus Poe (WRP).

I thought the gallop back in time would continue, but here the trail quickly ran cold.

I was comforted by the likelihood that good records could probably be found somewhere and that they would take me back at least another three generations to perhaps indicate where the family were before they arrived in America. However, finding WRP’s birth and death details is a drawn-out task.

I knew that WRP married Margaret Brown in Garrard County, Kentucky in 1817. There were however too many possible Poe ancestors in the early census records that survive and these are not very helpful because only the head of the household (usually a male) is listed. Williams and Johns abounded as given names and there were natural variations of surname spellings due to assumptions of the census collector or the lack of literacy of the household member who answered the door.

For a long time, I couldn’t find a death record for WRP. I was pretty sure that he must have died and I knew he had divorced my great great great grandmother in 1850. Several people thought he’d gone to prison and died there, but the relevant prison records show the fellow concerned was 30 years too young. 

Others thought he was the same William Poe who married Sarah Harris, but this was impossible as the two Williams were living in the same area with different wives at the same time. Some material on the internet still confuses these two people and mixes up their families.

Eventually, I found what could have been him in Illinois in 1860 living with a much younger woman, Mary Poe, and a child. I eventually uncovered that WRP had married a second time and left Missouri via Indiana to settle in Illinois where he ended his days in 1866 – only seven months after the death of his eldest son, Alonzo Marion Poe, a Washington Territory pioneer.

After confirming that the two Williams were the same person, I then found that a daughter from his second marriage, Lucy Jane Blandy (nee Poe) had joined the National Society United States Daughters of 1812 in the 1920s. The Society is a women's service organisation for descendants of patriots who aided the American cause during the War of 1812 – the final battle for American independence.

Her application papers had some details of the man although nothing of his parents. Mrs Blandy was celebrated as the ‘last real daughter’ for some time before her death at the age of 94. Her application material was complete and had been confirmed by authorities at the time, though the specific letter of confirmation is no longer in the file. Her application was very specific about who her father was, listing the unit he served in specifically showing him as a corporal. This allowed me to obtain a copy of his file from the US National Archives. Sadly, it showed very little, simply confirming his period of service and that he joined in Virginia.

I then obtained a copy of Mrs Blandy’s mother’s pension records as the widow of WRP. Again, the US National Archives were obliging but again the file contained very little. It confirmed that Mrs Mary J Poe was eligible for a pension and had a physical description of WRP ‘from her best recollection’.


Mary was illiterate and wasn’t born until about 15 years after the 1812 war ended. She couldn’t recall what unit her husband served in but nonetheless, her application was accepted. Her pension application was linked to a different William Poe than her daughter had later claimed for membership of the 1812 society. This fellow had joined in Kentucky. 

My inclination is to believe that the daughter’s research in the 1920s was more thorough; it was confirmed by military authorities at the time but the letter confirming this has been lost – it was no longer necessary. Nonetheless, I feel some obligation to also check out the second William Poe.

Nonetheless, to a large extent ancestor William Romulus Poe has been found but I've not found any clues about his parents.

As I mentioned, DNA evidence shows no certain connection to any other participating Poe family in North America. Hopefully, more people will participate and that may help uncover the next clue. 

But the DNA evidence does show a match for a family descended from a John Poe born in Dublin in about 1850. So far, I have not been able to trace the connection to him and my line. His parents are also not known. I am hopeful that a link can be found, eventually, to this family.

The interesting thing is that he also fought in the War of 1812 – for the British!

Uniforms of the Virginia militia during the 1812 War


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Wednesday, 17 May 2017

Joan’s Treasures

The house near Darjeeling where Mum was born looked out to the west across a deep valley.  In the valley, tea bushes could be seen.  Above the horizon hung the snowcapped mountain range at the end of the Himalayas called Kanchenjunga. Its five peaks are regarded by the local Tibetan Buddhists as five treasure houses.

via Wikipedia

Mum left us with five treasure houses of her own.

1 – Music
Particularly polyphonic piano music; Bach and jazz . The piano was her great escape and relaxation and one of her most enjoyable activities in later life was teaching the piano. The breadth of her interests is illustrated in her musical choices. Jo Dunbar, Mum’s mate from her days in the Women’s Australian Auxiliary Airforce (WAAAF) regarded Song of India and the Warsaw Concerto as significant pieces in the intersection of their lives. Mum may not have admired the music but appreciated the link which it brought.

2 – Her WAAAF experience
Mum’s time in the WAAAF was a short but significant experience during WWII. She was a member of the pioneer radar group which played a significant part in the Australian war effort. She found the variety of people she met expansive and satisfying. She built the resolve to identify with ‘real people’ – with or without faults. This may also have been where she developed the ‘military abuse’ style of communication – a thump to the left shoulder and a swift kick in the posterior being memorable expression of her affection. The WAAAF allowed Mum to get to know Australia and Australians outside her family – it was her opportunity to develop the next treasure house.

3 – Independence 
This she valued highly. She was not trapped by anyone’s conventions and resisted all control. She had been at the University of Melbourne when it was not common for women to be there. She was an early feminine feminist, quietly stubborn, and a brave uncomplaining fighter. She believed in an Australian republic and ‘de-Britified’ flag when many of her generation and background – and indeed her family - would strongly hold the opposite conviction.

4 – Youthful Intellect
Head over heart. Always interested in new thoughts, Mum sought the ‘plain hard facts’. In matters of religion and philosophy, she was not interested in ideology or dogmatism – these being restrictions to both independence and intellect. Her approach was ‘no bull…dust’ (I think or something similar). She understood that life is full of unresolvable paradoxes and could comfortably live with those.

5 – The Bengal Tiger
The tiger is her lasting symbol – not the Sher Khan of Kipling though.  A more stylish symbol: the bold black, yellow, orange and white. Consider the tiger’s regal inscrutability. Moving quietly with strength and conviction. Blending with the environment and though unseen never lost.

Adapted from my eulogy for her delivered 29 December 1997

Wednesday, 10 May 2017

Employers and volunteers: instructive models

My last post described a few interactions from my student life. This post sketches some people in the next step – working life.

Contacts I made as a student in part-time work lead to what became my regular employment as an administrator/manager at La Trobe University. The role lasted for over three and a half decades – too long in one place perhaps.

An early fixed term job included a stint on the counter in the Graduate Studies Office. The unit was managed by Simon Boeyen, a calm and respected administrator who commenced employment soon after the University was established. 

My supervisor, Joy Jowett, was a strong personality and consistent with the times was always referred to as 'Mrs Jowett'. The first task she gave me was to read the University Act, then the Statutes, Regulations and Administrative Handbook. The task became more interesting as I proceeded and provided an excellent grounding for the future.

I tried to understand Mrs Jowett by watching how she interacted and guessed she may not be as fearsome as her first impression seemed.

A few days into the job the morning paper had a story about abortion, a very controversial issue in Melbourne at the time. She showed me the paper and asked me earnestly, ’You’re an intelligent young man. What do you think about abortion?’

Eager not to offend my boss or appear lame my mind went to work. ‘Mrs Jowett’, I said solemnly, ‘I think the whole idea is based on a misconception’. After a slow deep breath, her expression relaxed and she roared with laughter. I never found out what her opinion was though.

The following year I gained permanent employment and worked near Mrs Jowett. In the intervening period, her unit had merged with student administration. I maintained my habit of calling her ‘Mrs Jowett’ but she soon took me aside and said ‘In this area, everyone calls me Joy. As it seems to be the custom I suggest you do the same’. So, I did. She provided an excellent example of dedication, adaptability and good humour.

One of my most satisfying activities was as ‘scholarships officer’ supporting PhD candidates, many of whom were part of the increase of such students from overseas in the 1980s. There was a host of interesting candidates many with stories of hardship overcome to successfully complete studies which improved the sum of, mostly useful, human knowledge.

Later work in the University Secretariat brought me into contact with a number of interesting people many of whom had become successful in their chosen profession and were doing something ‘extra’ by volunteering to be on the University's governing board or its committees. Two of the notables were first chancellor Sir Archibald Glenn and John Norgard both ‘founding fathers’ of the University who maintained an interest in it for most of their lives.I’ve mentioned Nancy Millis previously.

Millis was preceded as Chancellor by Richard McGarvie. McGarvie’s day job at the time was as a judge of the Supreme Court of Victoria, but he was energetic in the volunteer role of Chancellor eager to contribute to improving the university in general and good governance process in particular.

He was meticulous in personally answering all correspondence addressed to him or to send ‘thank you’ notes for many who assisted him in various ways. A particular legacy was his support the establishment of a law school. In a different era, his name would probably have subsequently graced the relevant building.

He was often asked for an off the cuff legal opinion but always declined to give such advice verbally – except where he was happy to pronounce with a smile that a matter was ‘of ambiguous legality’. The problem would have been that if he did give an opinion and the university disagreed with it there would be no easy way out of a difficult situation. But he was not against given written advice and would do so from time to time on matters of policy. 

Before I understood how this all worked I had been concerned about a matter which may have been sensitive. I thought the best thing to do was ask him what course of action he may prefer. His first response was ‘I’m sorry I don’t understand what you are asking.’ This surprised me as I felt my description was clear enough and his comprehension of the situation would have easily made up for any descriptive inadequacies.  So, I tried again, being a little more direct. He replied again in the same distant tone, ‘I’m sorry, but I don’t understand what you are asking.’ My mouth opened for a third attempt but my brain told me ‘you have your answer now change the subject’. That proved the right course.

He was also famous for the ‘McGarvie Model’ which proposed a change to the Australian Constitution to remove references to the monarchy and establish a republic. He submitted it to the Republic Advisory Committee in 1993 and doubtless drew on his direct experience of Australian politics. 

At the Constitutional Convention of 1998, it was the second most popular model of the four voted upon. Its strength was that it required the least change and recognised that the move would be ceremonial. It was straightforward, easily implemented, practical and principled – all hallmarks of McGarvie. Most importantly it would have kept the separation of powers intact. Opposition to it claimed that it didn’t allow for the popular election of the head of state, but that would be a substantial change to the nature of Australian Government – not the 'problem' which becoming a republic was aiming to fix.

Wednesday, 3 May 2017

A funny thing happened on the way to the Agora

I spent a lot of time at university.  

It took me ‘longer than average’ to complete my degree – and my education in life. But, the experience melted the scales of parochialism from my eyes.

My student life and belated maturing were centred on Chisholm College a residential establishment named after Caroline Chisholm.

The original Chisholm, who died some 95 years before the College was opened, provided shelter for wayward miners during Victoria’s gold rush. The College was named and designed by students guided by the astute chemist Professor Jim Morrison. In the early days, it was said, black anarchist flags blew in the wind from the College buildings - called 'towers'.

Not total anarchists, however, rules for residents slowly evolved, the first being to the effect that ‘thou shall not lead a horse up the stairs’ – the result, so legend had it, of one resident finding that a horse doesn’t like to go down the stairs...

A week before the 1975 academic year, I was interviewed by Professor Morrison, Head of College, before being offered a residential place. He asked me to commit to contributing to College life.

Not sure what to offer, I told jokes and joined the College's General Committee.

One gig was a College dinner and Jim invited a distinguished speaker. I heard that his name was ‘Mac-something’. I assumed he must also be a fellow-Scot (Jim had a gentle Glaswegian lilt) and offered a couple of Irish jokes to kick things off. 

Jim then introduced Professor Bob Magee. Sure enough - he was in full possession of a clear Irish brogue. Magee was also a chemist and advocate for the residential colleges. He had an international outlook, acting as honorary consul for Pakistan at one time, and that approach was consistent with the College ethos.

Later, I was part of the Committee which invited University Council members to visit the College to see for themselves what College life was like. Council members were grouped into pairs accompanied by a committee member to visit one of the 12 Chisholm towers. My pair consisted of Mr Justice Smithers, the dignified and engaging Chancellor, and Mrs Cecile Storey an outspoken advocate for many things. Both were good with people. 

The senior residents for Tower 4 were a Korean couple Mr and Mrs Kim. Mr Kim was completing a PhD in economics. They were a little overawed by the apparent dignity of their guests.

Mrs Kim asked Mrs Storey about her family. That went well and the Chancellor added some jovial comments. More relaxed, Mrs Kim then asked ‘How long have you been married to each other?’  I don’t know who was faster to deny any such association with the other but Mrs Storey was certainly the loudest and Mr Smithers the most amused. I encouraged the laughter with nervous enthusiasm and Smithers' genuine warmth and mirth won the day.

When Jim Morrison left Australia for a stint in Utah, the College was run by Mike Tolhurst who, as an administrator rather than an academic, was a radical choice. But he was the right person for the time and showed the Committee how to strengthen the College’s infrastructure and future.

Tolhurst was a creative, respected and fearless executive and a wise mentor in the administrative arts. It was at this time that I found myself writing the College newsletter. Someone else got it started naming it ‘Emanon’. The name was picked after struggling with a number of not very inspiring alternatives. This one sounded interesting – it’s ‘no name’ spelt backwards.  It was one of my most enjoyable student activities.

Of course, studying was another… 

I did manage to find time to attend lectures and tutorials though got as much out of going to lectures I was not enrolled in as the ones I was. Most of them stirred my brain but a standout was a series of lectures on Max Weber by Werner Pelz who managed to clarify concepts which had remained foggy to me. While I learned that Pelz’s views were sometimes unique his ability to summarise ideas made them accessible. In those days, it was indeed still “a new university with a meritocratic ethos and [some] brilliant teachers”.

Caroline Chisholm on the old five dollar note.