Posts Tagged ‘George Washington’

GC Myers- Icon-EleazerWhen you delve back into your ancestry you often uncover surprises, some pleasantly exciting and some a bit disappointing.  In some cases, it’s a bit of both.  Such is the case of the person behind this latest painting from my current Icons series.  This piece is 24″ by 12″ on masonite and is titled Icon: Eleazer.

The person represented here is a fellow named Eleazer Lindsley.  He was born in Morristown, New Jersey in 1737, a member of the family that founded much of that area.  He did well in the years before the American Revolution, owning a grist mill and several other businesses.  He was a man of status that was increased with his participation in the war.  He served as a Colonel and acted as an aide-de-camp to both General George Washington and General Lafayette.  Both were guests in his home at various time and Lafayette personally gifted and placed a signet ring on Eleazer’s hand in appreciation. It was never to come off and was buried with him when he died in 1794.

After the war, for some reason Eleazer chose to leave the comforts of his home state and set out with his extended family to settle in the newly acquired frontier territory.  After the war, the government took much of the land in what is now central and western NY and divided it into parcels that were given to those who served in the war as a form of payment for their services rendered.  Under these Land Patents, a private might receive 200 acres, moving up through the ranks to a general who might receive 2000.   When Eleazer and his family arrived in this area they collectively held 6000 acres.

They settled just south of what is now Corning, NY, occupying a fertile river valley.  Today, much of the area probably still looks relatively unchanged from that time with most of the land still in fields and forests. This area is now the town of Lindley— they dropped the “s” from the name in the 1840’s for some reason.  Eleazer became the first state assemblyman from the area.  He was also active in a plan to secede from NY and from a new state consisting of the area that is now central and western NY.  When he died in 1794, this plan died as well, although it has periodically been thrown out there by upstaters over the years.

There’s a lot more to tell about Eleazer, much to be proud of,especially for someone like me who grew up near the area and never knew of my connection with the founders.  But there was also one dark fact that taints the whole story.

You see, when Eleazer arrived in their new home their party consisted of about 40 members, most of them my ancestors.  But among the group were also seven slaves.  The family story, much of which is contained in family papers and documents held now at the University of  Michigan, claim that the slaves were treated as family members, one being called Uncle Pap, and that they were eventually emancipated in the very early 1800’s.  A story written in the late 1800’s says that many of the slaves settled and raised families in the area.

Now, part of me wants to believe that part of the story or to write it off as simply being an accepted thing at the time–after all, Washington, Jefferson and so many other Founding Fathers had slaves.  But the fact remains that Eleazer owned slaves and it bothers me that he somehow justified that in his mind, especially given that he so heartily participated in a war of independence.

When painting this piece, I found it hard to not make him a bit harsher in his gaze.  Though there is no evidence of mistreatment,  he holds a pair of shackles in his hands as a symbol of slavery.

When you do genealogy you often find yourself hoping for and attributing high ideals to your ancestors.  You want to see them in the very best light and tend to set aside negatives.  But as you dig more and more, you find that they are simply the same flawed humans that we encounter every day, possessing good and bad qualities. I often find myself wondering if I would personally like these ancestors.  But, like him or not, Eleazer is part of my family tree. But I do like this painting, if only for the narrative behind it.  I think the dichotomy of light and dark elements in the story are exactly what I hope for in this series.

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I’ve been doing some genealogy lately.  Don’t worry- I won’t bore you with all the details of my family.  Nobody wants to read that.

But doing so raises the question of why I’m doing this.  What is the purpose in looking back?

Growing up, there was never a sense of history in our families.  It felt as though our family lines had started one or two generations before, little known before the lives of our grandparents.  Hardly anything in the way of familial knowledge was passed down, either in words or objects.  It gave a feeling of being disconnected from the rest of the world.   It left me wondering if the place we occupied in life at the moment was always this same niche.  How did we arrive at this point?

For example, there’s a side in my family that seems like a hopeless lot.  Barely educated with many being illiterate.  Poor.  Prone to violence and crime.  The only stories I heard about this side of my family were lurid accounts of fights breaking out at funerals where the casket ends up overturned and guys kicking out the screens of their televisions while watching professional wrestling.  There were other stories that were worse than that but I’ll keep them to myself, thank you.

The point is, how did they get to this low level?  Were they always like this?  Were they always stupid?  Were they always fighting themselves at the bottom?

When you’re trying to figure out who you are and you see that half of your past is less than inspiring, you begin to wonder.

So I begin to dig, putting together a fragile puzzle with bits and pieces spread all over the place.  I use all the online resources I know of to gain  bits and pieces of info.  There’s hardly any movement then, with a single piece of found information, there’s a landslide of information and the pattern of this family seems to be uncovered.  Their place in the web of the world is there to be seen, not hidden anymore under layers of ignorance and shame.

I felt like an orphan discovering the name of his parents, feeling connected with a knowable history.

And for this side of my family, it was truly enlightening to view their line.  They seemed to be the products of nothing but ignorance at this point but it was not always the case.  Their decline was many, many generations in the making.  They had been religious scholars and among the wealthy merchant class of northern Europe going back to the mid-1500’s.  Recruited by William Penn and coming to America they had been among the first settlers of Philadelphia. They fought with Washington at Valley Forge.  They moved westward, forming some of the earliest frontier settlements in Virginia and beyond.

But as they went, there was a serious erosion of the value they placed on knowledge and learning as evidenced by the numbers of them who were marked down in censuses of the 1800’s as being unable to read or write.  While their family line had once been at the forefront of the great movement west as leaders and landowners, they gradually settled into a life as tenants and farm laborers.  Each generation bringing them closer and closer to the version of this family that I now know.

So what’s the purpose of this whole exercise?  I don’t really know for sure.  For me, it’s finding that my family was an active part of the American past, that there is a foundation down there under the rubble.  It’s a newly found pride in a name that I didn’t want to claim as part of me.  It’s knowing that a positive contribution to the formation of this country has been made and that this line of the family is a real part of the American experience.

It also points out the value of knowledge and education in the survival of a family.

And a country…

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Near Sundown Grant WoodIn an earlier post I spoke briefly of my admiration of Grant Wood, primarily for the rhythm of his landscapes.  The piece shown to the right, Near Sundown, was a huge influence on my earliest landscapes for this rhythm.  The way the hills rolled and the treeline rode them fit perfectly with the way I saw things.Spring Plowing 1929

I failed to mention how much I loved his use of color, the way his shapes had a darkness that gave their color a richness that really appealed to my eye.  This color coupled with the way his landscapes moved in such a organic, human manner made me see that one could interpret the landscape in new ways.  He took what might be considered a mundane Iowa landscape and made it seem alive and moving.  It gave me hope and something to aspire for in my own landscapes.

American GothicMost people, of course, know Wood primarily for American Gothic, shown here.  It is perhaps the most recognizable American painting of the 20th century, widely referenced, and often parodied, in popular culture.  I really admire the way the piece is put together, the way the figures come together with the house to form a classic triangular composition.  I also like the color blocking with the darkness of the clothing making a base that holds up the lighter colors.

A lot of people see this as being a humorous piece, somewhat ironic.  I don’t know but given Wood’s use of humor in other pieces, this may be true.  A good example of his humor is Parson Weems’ Fable, below, which illustrates the famous tale of a youthful George Washington chopping down the cherry tree.  The Mini-Me Washington always makes me laugh.

For all of this, thanks, Mr. Wood…Parson Weems' Fable

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