Ancestral energy lives in the stars above us, the stones beneath us. Their memory gathers in oceans, rivers and seas. It hums its silent wisdom within the body of every tree.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

The Story in the Life

Painting of Lockport NY, 1839, artist W.H. Bartlett
 For the last few weeks I have been writing out what I know about each of my ancestors into a chronological timeline. I have been doing historical research into the towns they lived in, as well as what was happening in the world-at-large. I enjoy the repetition of writing out information. It’s how I learn. It’s how I remember, puzzling names and dates into history. Their history is my history.
Slowly I am building flesh onto bone and adding tissue and shading where the information is weak or lacking. There are so many names and so many lives that stretch out behind me, so many human beings with dreams and wishes, hopes and regrets. People like me.
I am weaving the moments of their lives that are known with moments from history we can’t forget. I’ve been plugging in world events: wars, natural disasters, new discoveries, etc. I am witnessing the generations that saw the introduction of the telephone, or the first commercial airplane use for travelling. I am seeing the generations that survived or succumbed to plague and lost children to warfare. The emotional context is thick and rich and I can almost reach through the layers and touch them, hold their hands.

The World of Bailey and Ordelia Whitcher
Bailey Harrison Whitcher, my three-times Great-grandfather, was born in 1799, at the turn of the century, in Danville, Vermont. At the time, America was comprised of 16 states and John Adams was our second President. In 1810, Ordelia DeLozier was born, daughter of a man who survived being held hostage at the Battle of Tripoli, a man who owned a cabinet-making business in Lockport, New York.
During their childhoods, at the end of the War of 1812, after the eruption of Mt. Tambora in Indonesia, in 1815, the world knew a year without a summer, where frosts and snow in the New England area through July and August devastated crops. New York declared that all slaves must be freed by 1827 and Mary Shelly published her work Frankenstein.
Bailey’s father died in 1817, and I assume this is when he began his trek to the West, seeking his own life in a new frontier. He was the third son of 12 children. The next time we see him is as an apprentice of Peter DeLozier, the cabinet-maker in Lockport, a town along the Erie Canal.
In 1821, Dr. Isaac Smith settled in the village as its first physician. Construction began on the locks that would master the 60’ drop in the Erie Canal in 1822 and a riot of lock workers resulted in the very first murder in town of a man named Jennings. A year later, the village of Lockport recorded its first earthquake, and two slave hunters from Kentucky came to town to arrest a black barber named Joseph Pickard. Instead, a mob of Irish canal workers drove them out of town empty-handed. The Quakers had a strong anti-slavery hold in Lockport.
Bailey was working as an apprentice for Ordelia’s father, which is where they must have met. They were married June 13, 1825 when he was 25 and she was 15 years of age. The year of their marriage, construction ended on the Erie Canal and the first boat went through the new lock system in October with great fanfare. Lockport was a stopping-point for General LaFayette’s tour, and he made a four hour visit to the village where he received a hero’s welcome for his part in aiding the colonies struggle in the Revolutionary War. In 1832, an epidemic of Asiatic cholera swept through the village.
By 1835, the small village had a population of 6,000 people and had bought its first fire engine, which held a barrel and a half of water. Its first hospital was constructed around the same time as, elsewhere in the country the Cherokee were being forcibly relocated from Georgia to Oklahoma on the Trail of Tears. The village population went up to 9,000 in the next five years. Elevated water tank toilets were commonly found in homes, not just hotels, and the world saw the first mass-production of vulcanized rubber condoms. Niagara County had it’s only hanging, after the first murder conviction of the County occurred in Lockport.
In the first thirty years of their marriage together, Bailey and Ordelia had sixteen children.  Their son Albert Tracy died at the age of 7 in 1836 and the twins, Edward and Edwin, died the same day they were born in 1838. My Great-great-grandmother, Emma Angeline Whitcher, was born in 1845. She was the twelfth of sixteen children.
The year of Emma’s birth, a telegraph office opened in Lockport and news of the Great Irish Famine was spreading. The famine killed a million people and led to the emigration of 1.5 million Irishmen. Soon after, the California Gold Rush boomed and Ordelia’s father and Bailey’s former employer, having abandoned his family to return to the sea, died of Cholera in Clinton, Connecticut, his birthplace.
In the 1850 census, Bailey Whitcher is listed as a shoemaker. During this year over 30,000 boats passed through the lock system to finish their journeys to Buffalo. The Village of Lockport had a population of 12,000 people and made use of gaslighting. A great fire swept the town in 1854, destroying 26 buildings and 10 acres of land. One of the buildings that burned was Bailey’s store, the first brick building in Lockport. Bailey was 55. His wife Ordelia was 45 and my ancestor Emma was 10. Lockport was a center of industry, thanks to the canal.
In the larger world, the first dirigible was invented by French engineer Henri Gifford and the first packaged toilet paper was sold right around the time that construction of Big Ben was finished in London, in 1858. The next year, Charles Darwin published his controversial work, On the Origin of the Species.
In 1859, Birdsill Holly, famous patent-holder and inventor of municipal tap water, fire hydrants and steam heating, moved to town. He was a friend of Thomas Edison, who visited Lockport often. In the 1960 Census, Bailey, age 61, was listed as a retired shoemaker. His mother-in-law, Lucy DeLozier was living with the family. His daughter Emma was 14. Susan B. Anthony spoke in town at the Universalist Church against slavery, while elsewhere in the world Louis Pasteur was proving his discovery of bacteria, of germs. Things were changing.
Then my forebears saw the start of the American Civil War. Lockport became the first official volunteer regiment to answer Lincoln’s call for 75,000 volunteers. The same year, unrelated yet in tandem, the first condom advertisement appeared in the New York Times newspaper. Bailey and Ordelia’s son George Harrison Whitcher, joined the Michigan 7th regiment. Their son Orville Bailey Whitcher joined the New York 8th regiment. In 1862, Emma exchanged letters with Capt. Charles Johnson, George’s brother-in-arms, mentioning that the town’s first dead soldier returned home. It resulted in the first funeral procession through Lockport, with the fire engines draped in black fabric as they accompanied the body on a hero’s welcome home through town.
On July3, 1863, George Harrison Whitcher died at the Battle of Gettysburg. His body was never recovered. Lockport had grown enough to become the first city in Niagara County the following spring. A year after his brother’s death, Orville Bailey Whitcher died as a result of wounds he received in action in Virginia on July 14. Bailey and Ordelia lost two of their sons to the war.
Four months later, Emma Angeline Whitcher married Hiram King Wicker, a man who would become a prominent merchant and citizen in Lockport. 1865 saw some major changes. President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth and the end of the Civil War came. Two months after the last battle, Bailey Harrison Whitcher died at the age of 65, having seen the death of four of his children.  
In the last 23 years of Ordelia’s life, her children and their families were flourishing. Her son-in-law Hiram King Wicker, my Great-great-grandfather, owned a Flour and Feed Store with his brother, served as Fire Chief for the city and was a high-ranking Mason in his lodge, denoted as a Past Eminent Commander. Ordelia’s mother died in 1874 at the age of 84. She had still been living with her daughter. Two years later, Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone.
In Lockport, Birdsill Holly used his own home to prove his patent of central steam heat in dwelling spaces and was able to build a boiler large enough to heat 50 homes and one large school building. The City Council decreed an end to segregation in the school system. In 1879, Thomas Edison invented the lightbulb, the Nestle chocolate company formed and the first motion picture camera was invented.
Before her death, Ordelia remarried a man, surname Niles, as his fourth wife, but he died a year later. Lockport was wired for the use of incandescent lights, electric street lights were installed and the first door-to-door mail delivery began. At the other end of the state, construction on the Statue of Liberty was completed. Ordelia died two years later at the age of 77, in 1888. She outlived her first husband by 23 years. Neither Bailey nor Ordelia lived to receive the letter about the bit of rifle that had been dug up in Gettysburg belonging to their son, George Harrison in June of 1889. At the time of Ordelia’s death, there were 38 states ratified and Grover Cleveland was the 22nd President of the United States.

Relevant Post:
Emma’s Letters (published February 22, 2012)

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