Sunday, October 09, 2016

The early 20th century writings of Oren Frederic Morton (1857-1926) – "the ark of the covenant of American ideals rests on the Southern Appalachians".

OOren Mortonne of the most impressive validations of Scotch-Irish / Ulster-Scots heritage is when someone who is not - as you might say - ‘of the community’ recognises the importance of the story and sees value in the contribution these folk have made, and as a result writes about them with no ‘baggage’ or ulterior motive. One such writer was Oren Frederic Morton.

You can tell by his name that he’s not obviously of Ulster-Scots ancestry. His lineage, on both sides of his family, seems to have been English, among the first arrivals in Massachusetts in the 1630s.

Oren Frederic Morton was born in Fryeburg, Maine to Harrison G. Morton (1810–91) and Helena Theodate Gibson (1819–97) - they were both from Winthrop, Maine and married in 1841. Helena was descended from a John Gibson who arrived in Massachusetts in 1634; Harrison’s origins were with an Eleazar Morton was born in 1659. Harrison was called into service in the Civil War in 1863, fighting for one of the Maine Union Army regiments.

After the War ended, when Oren Frederic was around 10 years old, the family moved westward to the wide flat grain-growing plains of Iowa and later onwards to Nebraska. He graduated from the University of Nebraska in 1879 and then came back east, becoming a teacher. He also set up a woodworking business but “a severe hurt compelled him to quit”. From 1894 he lived in various towns in the Allegheny mountains of West Virginia where he became a prolific writer and meticulous community historian. He married Helen Louise Moody of Indiana in 1915, and died in Winchester, Virginia on 17 May 1926 where he was buried at Mount Hebron cemetery. Some of his archives are in the Winchester-Frederick County Historical Society collection at Handley Library, Winchester.

There is much Scotch-Irish material in his books, and also interesting references to the German settlers, their language and dialects, and the gradual erosion of these. Below is what I think is his complete bibliography:

Under the Cottonwoods: A Sketch of Life on a Prairie Homestead (1900) 337pp

Winning Or Losing?: A Story of the West Virginia Hills (1901) 402pp
• The Land of the Laurel: A Story of the Alleghenies (1903) 240pp
A History of Pendleton County, West Virginia (1910) 544pp
A History of Highland County, Virginia (1911) 452pp
The Story of Daniel Boone (1913) 23pp

• A Practical History of Music (1915) 82pp
A History of Preston County, West Virginia, Vol 1 (1914) 1140pp

A History of Preston County, West Virginia, Vol 2, Biographical (1914) 810pp
A History of Monroe County, West Virginia (1916) 570pp
Annals of Bath County, Virginia (1917) 234pp
A History of Rockbridge County, Virginia (1920) 616pp
History of the church of the United brethren in Christ (1921) 320pp
A Handbook of Highland County, Virginia (1922) 109pp

• Historical Gleanings in the Virginias (1923)
The story of Winchester in Virginia, the oldest town in the Shenandoah valley (1925) 336pp

The local histories follow a similar format to one another, and because of the close proximity of these counties to one another, the same content appears in a number of the books. But there is loads of great content.

In the first of the histories, Pendleton County (1910) he gives details of a William Adamson who was born 1799 in Gilford in County Down who had farmed in Pendleton, with his wife, 9 children, his brother James and family. A John Boggs who was born in 1774 in Ireland and came to WV with a huge entended family. A Calhoun family who came from the north of Ireland in the 1730s; three Cunningham brothers who sailed from Dublin sometime before 1753; a Preston Wilson from Ireland;  an Aaron Kee who was a friends of the Boggs family who became a merchant; a William Smith from Ireland; a Thomas Higgins from Ireland - and a short history entitled The Men Who Settled the Thirteen Colonies which has many references to Ireland and ‘lowland Scotch’. And the quote in the post title here - "the ark of the covenant of American ideals rests on the Southern Appalachians” - is on page 443.

In this book alone the term ‘Scotch-Irish’ appears 56 times. There is a tantalising, almost almost, reference to a much-challenged George Washington quote:

… The most unanimous of the Americans were the Scotch-Irish on the frontier. They stood by the cause of American independence almost to a man. It was they that Washington had in mind when he said that as a last resort he would retire to the mountains of West Augusta and find in its men a force that "would lift up our bleeding country and set her free." By West Augusta he referred to the District of West Augusta in its original boundaries as described in a previous chapter ...

In A History of Rockbridge County (1920) there is an entire chapter entitled ‘The Ulsterman and the Pathfinders’ (click here). ‘Ulster’ appears 68 times in the text, with ‘Scotch’ and ‘Scotch-Irish' peppered throughout. 

His works are a cultural, historical and genealogical gold mine. And all from a man who was not himself of Ulster-Scots descent. 

If you stop to think transatlantically for a moment - these books were pouring out of, and in to, Appalachia in the first 25 years of the 20th century - at the time of the Ulster Covenant, of the Battle of the Somme, of a time when young Appalachians like Alvin York were displaying remarkable heroism at the front alongside Ulstermen (and whose statue stands at the Nashville Capitol, beside Ulster Presidents Jackson and Johnson) a time when Partition would soon draw a line in Ireland and create two states, a time when Woodrow Wilson, a grandson of Ulster folk, was the President of the USA, a time when Ralph Peer would arrive in Bristol - where Virginia and Tennessee meet - to record folk of Scotch-Irish ancestry playing the first country music. What a time to be alive.

Yet, retrospectively, so much transatlantic cultural connection should have been made by the first Government of Northern Ireland, but wasn’t. Would our past 100 years have been different? I hope that this generation doesn’t miss the transatlantic cultural opportunities which are on the horizon.