Archive for January, 2008

Back to Family History

I’m back on the family history thread here, for those of you who are interested.

Like I said in a previous post, the family history research I’ve been doing had a leg-up from the beginning. The Barton side of my family kept great records going back to the 1680’s, when my grandfather Isaac was born in Killaloe, Ireland.

The only thing we know about Grandfather Isaac and his wife, Sarah, was that they were Quakers, they married in 1705, and they left Ireland for Pennsylvania in 1714.  We have some records of Isaac’s father’s name, but no information on whether or not the family is native Irish or English.   I’ve always known that the Quakers in Ireland had to have been outsiders, to say the very least. To be native Irish and convert to Quakerism, which some certainly did, would mean a willingness to live completely outside the norms of society at the time. By and large, the native Irish were catholic. The protestant English had sent a good many folks into Ireland at various times to set up settlements, and some Quakers moved from England to Ireland, trying to escape religious persecution at the hand of various other protestant groups.  In general, though, being native Irish meant that you were not likely to convert to Quakerism on a whim.  Besides that, there were very few Irish converts in the first place. It was much more likely our line had some connection to England.

I assumed, then, that the Bartons must be related to the Lancashire Bartons.  There were dozens of men and women who share a surname with us who were jailed for Quaker activities in the Lancashire area during this time period.  The problem was, there was nothing in the family record about Isaac’s parents.  Since Isaac was born in the mid 1680’s, I assumed that his parents must have been early Quaker converts.

I pursued my research under that assumption for a long time until I contacted the main records repository for the Irish Quakers.   The records of Isaac’s parents are not just missing from our family history, they simply don’t exist.

This was curious.  For one thing, the Quakers seem to keep very complete records.  It doesn’t make sense that there would be no information on his parents if they were part of the same Friends’ “meeting.”  I wasn’t sure why Isaac’s meeting would keep such clear records, seamless records in fact (for they are duly documented on two continents), of his comings and goings and offer no mention of his parents’ names.   I know there are probably circumstances I couldn’t imagine that would account for the lack of such records.

However, I realized that there could be other explanations for the Barton family origin.  While we are definitely “Anglo-Saxon” via Y-DNA (or the DNA that is used to track male generations).  Also according to DNA, we definitely could be related to some Bartons in the Lancashire area.  However, the latest ancestor for our best match is listed at least 100 years after Isaac left Ireland.  How do these bits of information match up exactly?

I realized that there were a lot of reasons why a boy born in mostly Catholic Killaloe might become a Quaker, the least of which was a rebellious personality that rejected not only the religious hegemony of the Catholic church, but the hegemony of religious authority altogether (since the Quakers do not believe in having “ministers” or “leaders” in their worship).  Could be that Isaac married, and converted, for love?  They moved to Tipperary after their marriage, which was a hotbed of Irish Quaker life.  Although his birthplace wasn’t far from the city, it was solidly in areas that, at the time, were reserved for the native Irish and not yet taken over by the invading protestant Brits.

I don’ t have the answers to any of these questions, really.  All I can do is ponder.  I tend toward the romantic, so I want grandfather Isaac to have converted for love, or even for the sheer rebelliousness of his conscience.  I suspect the answer is much more mundane.


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In Praise of a Neighborhood Bar

I know I said that my next few posts would be about my grandfather Isaac and my quest to discover the truth about his origins, but I’ve been distracted the past few weeks with domestic issues.

We finally set a date for our wedding, and we don’t have much time. My life is scheduled around the University and my future husband’s family lives around the Harvest. We had to negotiate a time between farming and teaching duties so that we could all meet in the same place.

We settled on March 29 because its my spring break and their planting won’t have started in earnest yet. March is still winter in North Dakota.

The short timeframe isn’t a true hassle at all because this isn’t the first time I’ve planned a wedding, or been a bride. But even with a small close-friends-and-family affair, there are things to do.

One of the major chores of any public nuptials is finding a place to host the ceremony. Most folks around here use the family church. We just don’t happen to belong to any particular church, so we’re forced to find a more secular spot.

This is an expensive and annoying process that I simply didn’t have the chutzpah to pursue. I looked around at a few obvious places here in Little Rock: Trapnall Hall, The Arts Center, a couple of local bed and breakfast inns. In the meantime, we settled on The Oyster Bar for our reception. After a frustrating evening checking schedules and prices, I asked my betrothed if he objected to just doing the ceremony at the Oyster Bar. It sounded good to him.

Our friends think this is the coolest idea they have ever heard. At least, this what my friends Lesha, Betsy, and Sheena all immediately exclaimed the minute I told them.

They think this, because The Oyster Bar is much more than a local seafood joint in Stift Station. The Oyster Bar, just like Pizza D’Action down the block, is like our own living rooms.

A few weeks ago we walked into Barnes & Noble and I spied a new children’s book version of Puff the Magic Dragon. The minute I saw the green dragon on the book’s cover, I was immediately transported into my own history.

I was four years old, at the “Pizza D” down the street from the Oyster Bar, and I was listening to “Puff the Magic Dragon” on the juke box. My parents and their friends would play it for me over and over and I would dance to it until I couldn’t dance anymore. In the mid-1970’s, the place was still fairly new and hadn’t acquired its characteristic grunginess quite yet. The was still filled with smoke and hippyesque twenty and thirty-somethings sitting around the bar in wrinkled t-shirts and over-worn blue-jeans. I could remember those nights perfectly: my parents and I would eat dinner at the Oyster Bar, slurping down peel-em and eat-em shrimp and hushpuppies. We’d over-use the roll of paper-towels on the table because we all over did it with the cocktail sauce. Then we’d wander down the block to “Pizza D,” as we still call it. I would listen to “Puff,” my parents would have a couple of cocktails, and then we’d head home to our rented Sears-catalog cottage at the corner of Van Buren and Kavanaugh.

I realized, when I saw that book, that my life really hadn’t changed that much since then. I don’t think Pizza D has “Puff the Magic Dragon” on the juke box anymore, but the sequence of events remains the same. I can’t count the number of nights I’ve spent as an adult eating at The Oyster Bar and wandering down the street to drink at Pizza D. Lesha I used to run a reading series out of The Oyster Bar when we were in college. At least once a week, I crave the shrimp etouffee there like other people crave their momma’s fried chicken.

I think, this time, I’ve picked the right guy to marry. He developed his own personal love of the Stift Station bar scene before we met and so we’ve managed to find much joy in repeating ritual together. I’m glad it finally dawned on me that we could get married anywhere we wanted, sans security detail and a $500.00 security deposit. I think that getting married at The Oyster Bar is the coolest idea I’ve ever had.

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On Positive Distractions and Research Revelations

A few years ago, I decided that I wanted to write a book-length project about my childhood growing up as the daughter of a man completely obsessed with canoing and whitewater rivers. I had a pretty normal American upper-middle class childhood, except for the paddling.

My life was completely overshadowed by our parallel existence on the banks of the creeks in the middle of nowhere. When I was in elementary school, it wasn’t uncommon for us to spend nearly every weekend at slalom canoe races, or driving 12 hours to eastern North Carolina to paddle for a single day.

At first, I thought the project might work best if I set it up as a kind of memoir/history of the various rivers in Arkansas where I spent most of my time. I thought this might appeal to regional publishers. I started with Big Piney Creek in Pope County, Arkansas. It is the river where Dad and I both learned to paddle. It was also the daily landscape of my ancestors, who all settled in Bullfrog Valley (a slice of bottom land along Big Piney) in the 19th century.

I thought it might be a good idea to start with a little explanation of our family’s home landscape, considering the entire project was about “place.” I knew a little bit about how my Dad’s side of my family came to live in Bullfrog Valley, but I didn’t know all the details. I knew less about my mother’s side of the family.

I borrowed what family records I could find and got to work. I immediately fell into a bottomless chasm of tantalizingly partial information, a series of cold facts that started to add up to a story and then lost the thread, and little theories that I can probably never verify. Of course, I became totally obsessed.

My original project shifted completely. Instead of writing a book length project about growing up paddling, I found myself writing shorter essays on more specific incidents during my childhood. I have one on the subject coming out in Divide any week now. I had another broadcast during the September issue of a local NPR show, Tales from the South, last year.

Five years later, I am still digging around trying to find out as much as I can about my ancestors. I’ve turned into one of those people who thinks a nice long weekend trudging around rural Mississippi looking for an old family cemetery is the pinnacle of good times.

At some point, I had to ask myself a question I ask my students regularly: What exactly is my thesis here? I no longer knew where the project was going. I was constantly gathering new information about the family and their 150 year journey from Ireland to Arkansas, but I didn’t know what it meant.

I’m one of the lucky few who embarks on a genealogical journey with good family records for at least one line. The Bartons have excellent records all the way back to 1685, when my great-grandfather Isaac was born in Killaloe, Ireland. His wife, Sarah Vesey, was born in Limerick the same year.

They became the focus of the first big unanswerable question and the impetus for my first big “aha moment” that finally solidified the project for me. My next few posts will be about Isaac and Sarah and how they helped me figure out what I’m really writing about.

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Why Hillbilly M.F.A.?

The abbreviation “M.F.A.” means different things to different people, but to folks from the worlds of creative writing and art, it means someone obsessed enough with their own creative urge to spend three years doing nothing but indulging it. I belong to that group of people. I am one of the legion of artist-academics with enough of a masochistic streak to survive a graduate program in fiction writing. To further this penchant for torture, I then managed to join the ranks of full-time faculty at a small state college.

“M.F.A.” isn’t just a graduate degree, it’s a kind of life style. It doesn’t only apply to people who earned diplomas. All over this country, and certainly here in my home state of Arkansas, there are writers, visual artists, and musicians whose lives are just a series of gigs. We spend the summers teaching at art camps, we sell a piece or two, we teach full time for nine-months a year, we follow craft fairs, we start small businesses related to our work, we work day jobs and write at night, we drive around in vans from show to show, we juggle nine projects at a time. We do all of this, mostly, in complete obscurity. We do it for very little money. We’re the workaday artists and thinkers that keep art alive in every small town in America.

I happen to write short stories and creative non-fiction. I am the editorial muscle for a fine press which is associated with my best friend’s book bindery (she’s also a fellow M.F.A.). And there’s the teaching job.

I have at least two major writing projects I’m working on currently and I have no idea where they will take me. Smaller projects bubble to the surface semi-frequently too. After years of boring a tight group of friends over at, I decided that I needed a different place to indulge these projects by talking about the issues in my research, issues in ethics and culture, issues in literary arts and publishing, and art in the land of Hillbilly.

“Hillbilly” is another one of those terms that connote very different things to different people. The most common, of course, is a bare-foot slack-jawed yokel playing the banjo in the mountain backwoods of Arkansas, West Virginia, Virginia, Tennessee, North Carolina, or Kentucky. It generally means someone who is ignorant, uneducated and prejudiced. To people who actually live in those mountains, the word is either a slur or a thing of pride. I happen to agree with the “thing of pride” camp. That is not to say that there aren’t ignorant, uneducated, prejudiced people who live in my corner of Hillbilly land. There are more than there should be.

But like all stereotypes, that image only goes so far. Hillbillies, in reality, are a complicated and interesting bunch of people. They have a long history of independence and fortitude that goes back to early American colonial history. You can find out about most of it here: Hillbilly: A Cultural History of an American Icon by Anthony Harkins.

I’m a native Arkansan from a small town in the Arkansas River Valley. After college and graduate school, I came on home and settled down. A long time ago I heard a quip that went like this: “All children born in Arkansas are born with a boomerang on their asses. No matter how far they go away, they always end up back home.” I’m one of those former Arkansas ex-pats who, like old Mr. Twain, left home at 18 thinking I knew everything the state could teach me. I came home at 31, clutching my conviction that Arkansas had more to teach than I could learn.

These two major themes, art and Arkansas, make up the major content of my creative focus. This blog will most likely cover them both in detail. But I’m also going to throw in some genealogy, American history, a few good books (I’m on a non-fiction kick right now), the occasional movie review, and some reflections on the research and writing process.

I hope it doesn’t bore ya’ll to death :).

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