11 June 2015

To Be a Virginian - More or Less

The Shenandoah Valley, near Natural Bridge, Virginia ~ © 2015 Richard G. Williams, Jr.
To Be A Virginian either by Birth, Marriage, Adoption, or even on one's Mother's side, is an Introduction to any State in the Union, a Passport to any Foreign Country, and a Benediction from Above.
Most native Virginian's are likely familiar with this creed often seen printed on t-shirts and trinkets in gift shops all over the Old Dominion. It reveals the special bond that many folks feel with what could be called the most historic state in the Union. The familiar slogan acknowledges one can claim "to be a Virginian" in many ways. My personal story, like many in the state, has a deeply rooted heritage and ancestry with Virginia and would identify with the "by birth" portion of that quote.

On my father's side, his own paternal ancestry can be traced all the way back to Roger Williams. His great-grandfather, Benjamin Franklin Williams was a carpetbagger who bought a plantation in Nottoway County and eventually got elected as a state senator; becoming one of the "Big Four" who opposed some of Governor (and former Confederate General) William Mahone's programs. He and his sons became successful lumbermen, as well as tobacco and cotton farmers. On my father's maternal side, his great-grandfather was John W. McGann who served with the 51st Virginia Infantry during the War Between the States. My mother's maternal ancestry can be traced all the way to Jamestown and includes one who gave his life fighting for Virginia and the Confederacy with the 60th Virginia Infantry. His name was John Meredith Crutchfield. Wounded at the Battle of Piedmont, he was taken prisoner and then transferred to Chimborazo hospital in a prisoner exchange. There he succumbed to his wounds and the treatment he received at the notorious yankee prison, Camp Morton. 

Also on my mother's paternal side is a Confederate soldier, Morris (Maurice) Coffey who also served with the 51st Virginia Infantry and was wounded twice. Grandpa Coffey served time in another notorious yankee prison, Point Lookout. Also on my paternal grandmother's side of the family are lateral ancestors who fought for American Independence. Moreover, I married a woman with similar ancestry and with an additional tie that goes even deeper. She is descended from the Monacan Indians.

I could go on, but suffice it to say, my family has deep roots and ties to the Old Dominion. So it is with some curiosity I read the following statement on another blog recently in regards to more recent arrivals in Virginia and their "legitimacy" to be called a "Virginian." This individual stated that persons with no similarly deep-rooted ties are "just as Virginian as those descended from soldiers of the ANV." The claim is similar to the one made by the Virginia creed quoted at the beginning of this post. But are either of these claims really accurate?

Well, yes and no. From a practical and legal standpoint - and even one of affection for Virginia - both characterizations would be correct. However, there's more to being part of a community - even one so widely described as "Virginia" and all that should entail - than just a 911 address and a valid driver's license. Southern historian and scholar, Richard M. Weaver expressed this idea as he reflected on his experience on living in Chicago:
. . . we have a politically defined area, we have local laws and institutions, but that which makes true community, namely association on some non-material level and common attachment to some non-material ends, is lacking.
So, from a cultural perspective and one of "community", I think the assertion about being a Virginian needs further consideration. Let's use an analogy. 

If I moved to Mexico City tomorrow and began whatever process it takes to obtain permanent residency, could I claim that I was just as Mexican as those descended from soldiers who fought with and served under Santa Anna? Or if I moved to Quebec and began the process of becoming a permanent resident there, could I claim that I was just as much a Canadian as someone descended from Samuel de Champlain? Suppose I was able to emigrate to Iraq, could I make similar claims? Pick your country or even your state. If I moved to California, could I claim I was just as much a Californian as those men and women descended from the 49'ers or those descended from late 18th Century Spanish Governor of California, Felipe de Neve? Should I move to London and begin whatever process to become a resident of Britain, could I claim to be just as much an Englishman as those descended from soldiers who fought with Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington and who helped defeat Napolean at Waterloo?

And one more - if I moved to Georgia's Sapelo Island tomorrow, could I claim to be as much a part of Gullah Geechee culture of those whose roots are centuries deep?

I think the answer is quite obvious. The notion is absurd on it's face - unless you're blinded by your political agenda. Those who would attempt to argue yes to these hypotheticals would have to deny the importance (and make no mistake, that's part of the agenda) of heritage, tradition, longevity and family roots in a particular location or what is often referred to as "a sense of place." It's not quite the same as a valid driver's license or 911 address when speaking from a legal standpoint but, in many ways, it is much more important - at least to some people.

As one writer has put it, such denial means one has to "omit fidelity towards a particular place and, as a result, display a lack of gratitude for the sacrifice and service of others before oneself."

That well describes our current age, does it not, "a lack of gratitude for the sacrifice and service of others before oneself"? Narcissism on parade. And yet one more slant of Gordon Wood's "condemning the past for not being more like the present" while also revealing a disdain and contempt for anything older than some pop star's latest twerking exhibition.

I suppose we should not be surprised with this attitude. Our mobile society, along with the constant "globalization" mantra of the elites and corporatists, feeling a sense of fidelity and sense of place with one particular piece of ground is so passe and parochial to many of these ruling class elites. It's just not "cool." They're "citizens of the world", don'tcha know?

But this sense of place is real, despite the naysayers attempt to discredit and impugn it. As Wikipedia notes:
Cultural geographers, anthropologists, sociologists and urban planners study why certain places hold special meaning to particular people or peoples. Places said to have a strong "sense of place" have a strong identity and character that is deeply felt by local inhabitants and by many visitors. Sense of place is a social phenomenon that exists independently of any one individual's perceptions or experiences, yet is dependent on human engagement for its existence. Such a feeling may be derived from the natural environment, but is more often made up of a mix of natural and cultural features in the landscape, and generally includes the people who occupy the place. The sense of place may be strongly enhanced by the place being written about by poets, novelists and historians, or portrayed in art or music, and more recently, through modes of codification aimed at protecting, preserving and enhancing places felt to be of value . . .
And this "special meaning", in regards to a sense of place, is all the more enhanced if one's family has deep roots and ties to the particular place - and if one's ancestral blood and bones are in the ground. Historian Jeffrey Wert expressed this special meaning when writing, "In the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, roots went deep into the rich soil . . . The Valley seeped into bones, touched souls."

And Douglas Southall Freeman, the Virginia historian who knew more about the Army of Northern Virginia than anyone else once wrote: "I think the American people lose a large part of the joy of life because they do not live for generations in the same place." 

Thank God, my family has not lost that "part of the joy of life" - we are Virginians and have been for over 400 years.


David Oslin said...

My ancestral roots in Virginia go back to 1686 or 1687 when the first Oslin in the colonies arrived in New Kent County from England as an indentured servant. My grandfather on my father's side, was born in Boydton in 1858, and after the Uncivil War, was bound out as an apprentice printer to a newspaperman in Warren County, North Carolina. At the end of the reconstruction era he migrated to Marianna, Florida where he opened his first newspaper, probably in 1881. From then until his death in 1913 he edited, owned and operated a series of weekly papers in my home state of Florida, which, but the way, was first settled in 1512 a few years before Jamestown. :-)
My heart has always been for the state of Florida, which unfortunately has been filled to overflowing by immigrants from all over who neither appreciate or understand the fragility of the balance in our land, and as a result have destroyed much of what used to be (to me anyway) a land that was every bit as enchanting and beautiful and unique as the Shenandoah Valley.
I thoroughly agree with Freeman's quote at the close of your post. And I thank you for sharing.

Chris Johnson said...

Outstanding family history Rick and very good points made all around. On my mother's side (Braswell), I too have a long heritage here in Virginia as well as North Carolina going back 400 plus years. I was born in Texas (Father was stationed there) but grew up here in Virginia. I consider myself a Virginian but with strong ties to NC. I say that, after starting research and discovering all the family history in both VA and NC. Its that obtained knowledge of one's family, generation after generation that gives me pride and a sense of belonging...

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Thanks Chris. If I'd not been born in Virginia, my second choice would have been the Lone Star State!

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

David - I apologize for not posting your comment earlier. Somehow, I missed it. Thanks for sharing your history - very interesting!

Donna Morris said...

I just happened upon your post when searching for the wording of your opening quote. I appreciate the care you took in writing your essay.
I, too, have very deep ancestral roots in Virginia. However, I would assert that in each of those examples that you put forth that yes, you are 'just as much' a Mexican, Californian, Iraqi, etc. Because, much as I enjoy exploring my family history and enjoy even more learning the local and world history that 'fleshes out' their lives, we in the present day set down our roots where we choose and we cast our lot with our countrymen. I expect that when my Virginian ancestors landed on the shores they were 'all in', just as the many immigrants who followed them have been.
In fact, I could argue that an immigrant has an even greater commitment to his new country. They chose to leave behind their family's roots and start anew. I simply grew where I was planted – no conscious decision involved.
To be sure, 'sense of place' is strongest in those places where generation after generation have molded the culture. But, don't forget, that 'sense' has been influenced and enlivened by regular infusions of outsiders, be they from other states or other shores. One branch of my family settled in the area around Strasburg, Virginia in the early 1700s. They brought with them their German language, farming and building methods, cooking, and culture. By their contributions, they shaped the identity and character of the Shenandoah Valley. many generations later, their decendents made their way to Pennsylvania . They brought that Shenandoah Valley heritage with them and added it to the culture in their new place.
"Sense of place' is an acummulation and it's everchanging.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Thanks for reading and commenting Donna!

"it's everchanging." True, but not always for the best.