Monday, December 29, 2008

Unremembered History, part 2


Last week we began the story of Tom Olney and his springtime birth in rural England, 1698. Due to complications in childbirth, and the absence of a doctor, some local gypsies assisted, after which one of them prophecied over the newborn infant that "one day... he will be permitted the gift of having one wish granted by the gods, when he wishes it with all his heart."

Unrembered History of the World, continued

Many years passed and as the boy grew the strange prophesy seemed to recede in importance. These were the days when England's disenfranchised had begun dreaming of a better life, a better hope, a better world across the seas... in America. A friend of young Tom Olney's had just returned from this new world and spoke in glowing images of a sprawling untamed land, luscious as Eden, {cf. J Warwick Montgomery, The Shaping of America, chap 1, Questing for a New Eden} where a man can put down his roots and truly be a man.

Olney's imagination was stirred. His parents knew it would only be a matter of time and their son would be swept away with the currents that drew dreamers to the American Colonies.

The day came more quickly than they supposed, however. A scandal broke out amongst the Brethren, the religious sect to which the Olneys subscribed, and young Tom was in the middle of it. In the spring of 1718, a certain Molly Hartwick, daughter of the venerable attorney Lyle Hartwick, was found to be with child. Though the proper thing was hurriedly carried out, there was no escaping the chatter that accompanied their every move about the village. By the time the child was born, Tom and Molly were so wearied by the galvanized glances and wagging tongues that they determined the only hope for a decent life for their young son was in the New World. Arrangements were made, farewells exchanged. They soon found themselves residents in a place called Berks County, Pennsylvania.

The transition to life on the American frontier was not terrifically difficult. There were many Quaker Brethren here, and the young family had a heart full of dreams. The land was good, the forests amply supplied with game. The increasing numbers of settlers were eager to help one another. Settlements of Delaware, Susquehannocks and Shawnee in that region had become accustomed by now to the presence of the white man and were no serious threat.

As an aside it should be remarked upon how fertile this new colony was to become in the shaping of future history. It is noteworthy that the forebears of Abraham Lincoln resided here, that the Daniel Boone legacy originated here, that Benjamin Franklin and others of similar stature trace their roots to this selfsame soil. And most significantly, the firstborn son of Thomas Olney: Charles Rogers Olney.

Two years later Molly gave birth to a robust redheaded daughter, Elizabeth Mary Olney. It was a difficult birth and afterward the Lord closed Molly's womb, leaving her unable to bear more children. Somehow they found this difficulty acceptable, and they rejoiced greatly in the two wonderful children that seemed to blossom under their care.

Over the course of years it seemed the Lord's hand of blessing was with this family in a special way. The fields Olney planted seemed to produce twice the harvest as his neighbors, and the skill, intelligence and character of the Olney children gained the Olney's recognition from as far away as Philadelphia. It was said that son Charles was fluent in four languages and on his fifteenth birthday demonstrated his mastery by reciting in five languages -- English, Dutch, French, and Shawnee, the local native Indian tongue -- a short narrative he had written. For all these blessings the elder Olney, with evident humility, gave all credit to our gracious and Almighty God.

Tragically, the tables turned and a series of devastating losses occurred, beginning with the death of the family dog which Olney's daughter found cruelly beheaded in a shallow stream near their home. The perpetrator of this horrible thing was a passing stranger who had been seen hanging around in town the previous week and who many believed to be demon possessed. The man disappeared and was never seen again, but the incident produced in Olney a great foreboding.

That fall heavy rains fell, lasting for several weeks, followed immediately by a severe cold snap. But for the potatoes, Olney's entire crop rotted on the vines. Though publicly he declaimed, "The Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away," in his heart he began to be anxious, fearing still further losses.

It was February when the fire broke out that took his homestead and his wife. People say he was talking like a madman for days, blaming himself for the sin that led to his marrying Molly in the first place, though he loved her dearly and she him and that though God forgives he still punishes even though it doesn't seem right. It was the first that anyone had heard of the illegitimate conception.

Nevertheless, the church family pulled together to aid the wounded Olneys. The teenage children were housed with the Hamiltons while Olney himself was given a room with Robert Russell who promised not to leave his side till all was well. Olney wept bitterly and would not be comforted.

The gossip spread like an acid. In spite of the illogical nature of it, the neighbors began to wonder if Olney was not indeed cursed. He himself had said it, referring repeatedly to the brutal slaying of his dog as an omen. They were difficult days for everyone, as each searched his own heart and wondered the same. Even his best friends became awkward around him, and sensing this awkwardness, Olney knew inwardly that he was no longer at home here, that he had become an alien.

That spring the house was not rebuilt. Olney and his two children determined instead to move further west, to clear a new homestead, more isolated and remote, deeper in the Blue Mountains.

Of the difficulties that summer, the small crop, the ramshackle one room home -- there is no need to create details which have so long been forgotten. What is known about this period is that people in those days experienced many hardships. In addition to disease and famine, the occasional Indian uprising presented a serious threat to personal safety.

For the sake of this story we are most concerned with an incident which took place during one such uprising in the autumn of 17xx.



Sandra said...

Just wanted you to know I'm following this story.

ENNYMAN said...

Cool. I think you will enjoy it as it unfolds....
Thanks for the note.