Searching for the
The American Revolution as a Topic of Conversation
Over the years my means of writing have become quite complex. To begin with, there are still times when I prefer longhand. Because a ball-point pen and a pad of paper are so easy to carry around, that's what I used on my visits with Grandma. But even back at my apartment I employed the same means to rewrite my notes—because that way my accounts were fuller, as if I were able to tap my memory more effectively by hand.
In high school I had learned to touchtype, and there are still times when I prefer using my Olivetti-Underwood portable—especially when I reflect on past experiences or explore new ideas. In such cases, the typos don't matter, and I'm left with a record that's much easier to read than my cursive script.
But for things I plan to rewrite, the sooner I put them on my computer the better. I purchased my DEC Rainbow (along with WordPerfect software—for its footnoting capabilities) But I soon realized that computers opened the possibility of taking any composition through multiple drafts.
At a single sitting I could make all the changes that I had penciled on the latest hard-copy version, and then I could print out a clean copy for further editing. By repeating the process several times, what I wrote would become "stable." I'd be able to read it through and find no further changes to make—something that didn't tend to happen using either my typewriter or a ball-point pen.
As my trip notes accumulated—and as I continued the practice of compiling essays on some of the topics that Grandma talked about—I began feeling the need for an index. Fortunately, computers lend themselves to list-making. As you start, you don't have to worry about the order of the entries. Moving text around on the screen is so easy that when changes occur to you, it's no problem to make them. Then, as other entries come up, you can add them directly at the appropriate places.
Following that procedure, I began indexing my trip notes—using a couple dozen broad categories. For example, whenever Grandma commented on her history work, I'd list the date of the trip and the page number of rewritten notes—under the general heading "Grandma as an Historian."
While Grandma was still living, I never got around to compiling an essay on her work as an historian. It was just something we talked about. Subsequently, however, I developed an interest in what she had told me about the American Revolution. At that point, my index served me well. After only a couple sessions I was able to locate the material I sought.
One of the most important ways in which Grandma talked about the American Revolution involved the DAR. During my 1981 visit, for example, she described how she had joined the organization. In 1959 or 1960 she was invited to submit an application. The registrar of the Corning chapter cautioned her that she might not succeed but encouraged her to try anyway. "The DAR always needs new members," the registrar said. "They are the lifeblood of the organization."1
Because this was the first genealogical society she had attempted to join, Grandma didn't know just how to proceed. "I made out my own application," she told me, "and I was in a cloud as to whether or not I was doing things right."2 But all went well: on 18 October, 1961, the national office accepted her as a member—based on the service of Lieutenant Samuel Porter (one of her mother's ancestors), who had answered the Lexington alarm in 1775.
Grandma could type, something few other members of the local DAR chapter could do. For that reason, she was appointed their genealogist. One of her first official tasks was to make copies of the chapter's completed membership forms. She'd begin by going to the registrar's home, where she'd make an inked copy of each form. Next she'd take the inked copies to her own home and prepare typed copies. Then she'd return to the registrar's to check the newly-typed copies against the originals. Finally, she'd retype any that needed retyping. In connection with this work, the registrar called Grandma a perfectionist—a remark that Grandma took as a compliment.3
In the course of my visits, I soon learned that Grandma tended to repeat her stories. But they were never exactly the same. Each telling would be different, depending on the circumstances—so each time I learned something new.
On several occasions Grandma again told me the story of copying the application forms. "I had contact with Clara Steele when she was preparing 'grandfather papers' for the Corning DAR," began a short version. "I prepared 70 in all, doing them in lots of 25. I worked on those day and night for a period."4 A few months later came an especially full version:
Alice Dean, the second time she headed the chapter, appointed me genealogist. There was a project underway to make three typed copies of all existing applications. These were called 'grandfather papers,' for the first two generations were left blank. One copy went to the national office, one to the state, and one to the local chapter. We sent them in in batches of 25. There were over 70 in all. Miss Steele wouldn't let the originals out of her house. I had to copy them by hand, type them up at home, and then check them for mistakes. 'Oh, don't check them,' Miss Steele said—until she saw how errors crept in. She would give me a light lunch while I was there.5
Grandma's DAR activities involved more than just typing. She also helped others prepare new applications—and from time to time she'd mention examples.
One person she helped was Elsie Clute, a friend of hers from their student days together at the Corning Free Academy.6 Regarding Irene Joint Scudder—who had once been her neighbor in Campbell—she told me: "I prepared her application for the DAR and helped her do her research,"7 Another time she said: "I made out applications for two Avoca DAR women—two sisters—at whose house the Baron von Steuben Chapter [the Bath chapter] of the DAR met once a year."8
Grandma wasn't always successful in her efforts to recruit new DAR members. "I made out an application for my niece Lillian," she told me. "It was more perfect than mine. She went to a meeting but didn't care for it and withdrew."9
Grandma also helped DAR members prepare applications to join other genealogical societies. "One time," she told me, "I made out lineage papers for a woman in Corning." If circumstances had called for a short version, Grandma might have stopped her story there. But with the whole evening ahead of us, she continued:
At the time of the American Revolution the Erwin family lived on the western shore of the Delaware River. Erwin was an officer in Washington's army, and he furnished boats to Washington for his crossing [in December 1776]. After the war Erwin purchased a township in New York State—which became the Town of Erwin.
I did lineage paper work for two sisters, Elizabeth Jewett, on the Northside of Corning, and Carolyn, in Addison. Their maiden name was Rogers. Their mother was an Erwin. Elizabeth had [earlier] joined DAR and was head of the Corning chapter when I joined.10
Something else I learned from Grandma's comments was that she occasionally participated in the activities of other DAR chapters in the area. For example, she was once asked to speak at a meeting of the Addison chapter. To illustrate her remarks she took with her several things—including her statue of the three patriots (the one patterned after "The Spirit of '76" painting).11
In addition to her DAR activities, Grandma mentioned the American Revolution in connection with her travels. For example, she and her husband once stopped at Carmel, New York, a small town east of the Hudson. Carmel was the birthplace of John Dean—one of her husband's ancestors—who had served in the French and Indian War, as well as the American Revolution.12
Another time, she told me how she had been to Mount Vernon on three separate occasions—and she then added that she had learned much of her history through travel.13 She also described how she had visited White Plains and Oriskany—both in connection with state DAR meetings.14 "I remember well visiting the tall monument in a field at Oriskany," she added on our very last visit together.15
Besides travel and DAR activities, Grandma's interest in the American Revolution involved cemeteries. Following her husband's death she had become active in the Campbell Cemetery Association. "The greatest expense," she once explained, "was mowing. To help out, I would trim around the headstones—while there I might copy down inscriptions. It got to be where some people made a joke out of it. 'If you can't find Marie Cornell,' they'd say, 'look for her in the graveyard.'"16
On my visits I encouraged Grandma to show me the things that she had written, and one of the earliest pieces to surface was a mimeographed booklet entitled "In Memoriam: A List of the Names of Our Soldier Dead in Campbell and Vicinity Cemeteries."17 Prepared in the spring of 1959, the list included a handful of veterans of the American Revolution. Among them was Solomon Campbell, Sr., a member of the family for whom the town is named. He's buried in Hillside Cemetery (along Route 415, toward Curtis), and in May 1959 Grandma featured him in an artricle she wrote for the Corning Leader.18
Not included on the 1959 list was Jacob Stewart—who is buried in Hope Cemetery in Campbell. But in another Leader article several years later, Grandma was able to identify him as a veteran of the American Revolution. 19
Shortly after that, the Leader also carried her article on William Steele.20 "Steele's monument," Grandma once told me, "is at Gorton Cemetery in Corning. It's a little cemetery, an old cemetery. I did much research on him." After reading me a brief published account of his life, she commented: "Steele was higher than most on the social ladder." She then described her larger project, which was to research the lives of military men in the area.21
All these stories involving the American Revolution came to me separately, at different times. But after compiling them, I realized that military history, as such, held little appeal for Grandma. What's more, even though she had collected inscriptions from area cemeteries and even though she had written to obtain the service records of many individuals, her interest lay not merely in collecting the evidence required for joining genealogical societies. Instead, she was also drawn to these men because—in her eyes—their military service testified directly to their love of country. She saw them as patriots, the local embodiments of traits supremely represented in the person of George Washington.
Even toward the end of her life she found ways of sharing with others her admiration for Washington. Several months before her death, she asked me to purchase for her a supply of a new commemorative stamp bearing his profile, "I'm having a good time givng a few of them away," she later reported. 22
Although I hadn't been present when she distributed the stamps, I could imagine her reminding her acquiantances—as she had reminded me on several occasions—of Henry Lee's 1799 tribute, that Washington had been "first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen."
1 Visit, 3-11 July 1981, p. 36.
2 "Order of Membership," 5 July 1981, p. 1.
3 Visit, 3-11 July 1981, p. 51.
4 Visit, 26-27 May 1989, p. 19.
5 Visit, 8-9 Sept. 1989, p. 16.
6 Visit, 6-7 July 1987, pp. 6-7.
7 Visit, 12-13 May 1989, p. 9.
8 Visit, 29-30 Sept. 1989, p. 25.
9 Visit, 26-27 May 1989, p. 19
10 Visit, 8-9 Sept. 1989, pp. 12-13.
11 Visit, 24 & 27 Mar. 1989, p. 25.
12 "The Photos in the Barn," 2 June 1987, pp. 8-9.
13 Visit 4-5 Nov. 1983, p. 3.
14 Visit, 24-25 July 1987, p. 11; and
Visit, 7-8 Aug. 1987, p. 23.
15 Visit, 5-6 Jan. 1990, p. 17.
16 Visit, 3-11 July 1981, pp. 27-28.
17 Visit, 6-7 July 1987, p. 30.
18 "Campbell Founder Honored By Service Posts On Memorial Day," 27 May 1959, p. 20.
19 "Flag Marks First Revolutionary Soldier's Grave at Campbell," 7 June 1965, p. 7.
20 "Identify Soldier Buried in Park Ave. Cemetery As Revolutionary War Vet.," 15 June 1965, p. 7.
21 Visit, 2-3 June 1989, p. 8 and pp. 14-15.
22 Visit, 29-30 Sept. 1989, p. 7.
© 1996, Thomas D. Cornell