Glen Smalley died on the bedroom floor of a Kansas farm house on the fifth of December, 1918. It was a historically mild and dry Kansas winter following an exceptionally bitter and cold 1917. A new father and a strapping, handsome man, Glen was twenty one years old. In the summer of 1918 he registered for the draft, but influenza came for him instead just weeks after the end of the Great War. This flu killed quickly and Glen died crawling next to a crib, in a scary and fascinating tale I heard many times as a girl. The baby whom Glen was trying to see one last time was my grandmother.
Glen Smalley (left), shortly before his death
Last month on a lark, I started researching my family history. After purchasing software and a subscription to an online genealogy database , I stayed up until well past my bedtime the first night. I awoke the next morning, my head swimming with kinship diagrams and family trees.
Nearly twenty years ago I studied Ethnic History at the University of Washington. During my years at the UW, I worked as assistant to Dr. Marcia Sawyer as she researched African American farmers in Cass County Michigan. My job was to spend evenings combing through pages of paper census records and tallying acreage, making tabulations on forms to track prosperity of black farmers before and after the Civil War.
Back in these "old-fashioned" days of the early 1990s, the census records were 11x17" paper print outs, tediously produced from microfiche. Now, the familiar looking census records appear instantly on my Adobe .pdf viewer through my online subscription, and the names I study are my own relatives.
My daughter is in the fifth grade and this year she pores over mystery novels. When I was in the fifth grade I spent months reading every history book in the library about the search for a Northwest Passage. At night I huddled under covers, flashlight casting an eerie glow on macabre tales of drowned or frozen ships full of men on doomed paths to nowhere in the Canadian arctic.
Glancing over the spidery script on old records, I envision the census conversation: two people standing on the doorstep of a farm house in the Midwestern spring of 1880. What might I do if I had an hour in that space and time?
Glen Smalley (left) on the back of a motorcycle somewhere in Kansas,
circa 1917 or 1918
Did anyone alive in 1918 notice the tragic irony that Glen Smalley died on the very eve of his mother's 49th birthday? Perhaps this realization was already lost to the passage of time. Georgiana Smalley had been dead almost all of Glen's life. She died after giving birth just days prior to the turn of the 20th century and the 1900 census shows Glen's father Joshua T Smalley (occupation: farmer) alone with six children under the age of twelve.
If anyone was tough enough for single fatherhood, it was Joshua "JT" Smalley. Born in 1863 during the Civil War in Adams County Ohio, JT outlived at least two wives and several children and died in the middle of the Eisenhower administration.
Growing up in Neodesha, Kansas, my grandmother watched JT Smalley leaving on horseback to return home with wolf pelts piled behind his saddle. My Aunt Jan and I spoke recently about our history, and she passed stories down to me. JT was an excellent horsemen and would travel to farms in Western Kansas bounty hunting wolves for farm folk, with his two dogs, Lightning and Thunder. He cooked food for himself and the dogs outside, in a big black kettle over a fire. JT's horsemanship skills were surely impressive but also surprising are wolves living freely in rural Kansas during my family's oral history timeline.
Perhaps it is an inevitable part of entering middle age to contemplate the arc of your life in a greater timeline. This is not the plain fact of aging, felt on and off since childhood. Instead, lately I consider my exact place in history and this brings me to ancestors.
I was born into the late middle of the 20th century, just after the Summer of Love and I came of age during the Reagan era. I was educated in the 1990s at a public university on the West Coast, and found my adult place in the world during the "dot-com boom". These things shaped me as much as my gender or ethnicity, just as my ancestors were shaped by their exact place in time. JT Smalley saw the Civil War, the industrial revolution, and the invention of the automobile and jet aircraft, but he also missed everything that has happened in my life time.
Curious about when the Smalley family arrived in Kansas, I followed the census back over decades. The 1860 United States census finds JT Smalley's parents, Ralph Voris and Rachel Smalley, in Adams County, Ohio. During July of 1863, when JT the wolf hunter was weeks old, the Civil War came to Adams County. For several days a Confederate Commander, Brigadier General John Hunt Morgan led 2000 troops through Indiana and parts of Ohio on a campaign to procure supplies and steal horses from civilians.
In the contemporaneous "Report of the Commissioners of Morgan's Raid Claims" I found a one line entry for a claim by Jesse Smalley, father of Ralph. The claim is witnessed by Jesse's son Abner, including items stolen from the farm by the Confederates:
Two horses, Twenty Bushels of Corn, Three halters , Amount allowed: $217.00
Ralph Smalley and his wife Rachel left Ohio in the years immediately following this incident and grandparents Jesse and Louisa remained behind. By the 1870 census, our branch of the Smalley family is residing in Kansas, where they would remain for decades. Then one day during World War II my grandmother dressed my Uncle Gary in a war-parachute silk suit, climbed on a train, and left to come to Seattle and take a "Rosie the Riveter" job in the shipyards.
Ohio Grave of Jesse Smalley, Grandfather of JT the Wolf Killer
Like almost every branch of my particular family tree, the Smalley family came to North America very early. John Smalley, ancestor of most American Smalley descendants, came to America on the ship "The William and Francis" which set sail from London Mar 9 of 1632 and arrived in the new world June 5 1632. John Smalley and his wife eventually left Plymouth and were early settlers of New Jersey.
Our particular branch of the Smalley family tree follows Isaac Smalley, son of John. Our Smalley ancestors moved steadily Westward from Massachusetts through New Jersey, Virginia, to Ohio and Kansas before coming to Washington.
I regret my inability to speak to Andrew Smalley, grandson of Isaac, about why he moved himself and his family from Virginia to Ohio in the first few years of the 19th century. I would like to ask Louisa Smalley whether she was baking something when Johnny Reb came to the door (And naturally, may I have the recipe?) I would give almost anything in my worldly possession for one more day with one of my grandparents, to listen again to their stories.
Isaac Smalley, son of John
Robbed by the limitations of my space in history, I will die before I am done here and not see what happens next. The world's timing does not work on my inner choreography, a lifelong source of frustration to me and an opportunity for my continuous self-improvement.
Interesting history feels rendered extinct now, as if I weren't paying attention and the last of something precious and miraculous died forever. I have a sharp sensation that the history we are making is not as valuable as the history made before our time. I wonder what will I hand down to my own children? Directions to a copy of my Facebook archive, preserved on a cloud drive?
The most important thing a lover of history can do is pass down a story. The real tale of Glen Earnest Smalley is not one which you will find entered in an ancestry database or written in a history book. I will impart it to my children the way it was told to me: Glen Smalley, a farmer and a Dad, in the Kansas winter of 1918 loved his only daughter so much that he died trying to reach her to say goodbye. And even though he was gone long before she could know him, I know my grandmother loved him back.