Thursday, November 12, 2009

I Might have been Raised a Mid-Westerner

If THIS would have happened a bit differently, or this, or this and that, then I might have been raised in the mid-West, instead of Bethesda, Maryland. I am reminded of the Academy Award-acclaimed movie "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button". In the plot, Brad Pitt's character, Benjamin, is born an old man and matures backwards towards being a young boy. The movie trailer makes the premise that: "Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards". Towards the end of the movie, Benjamin recalls in a series of flashbacks that if a number of events would have happened just a little differently, then his life-long partner in romance would not have broken her leg in five places and ended her career as a ballet dancer. Life changes.

But to explain my situation, I also need to go backwards in time. And, for my "flashbacks", I will use excerpts from my great grandfather's 19th Century Journal which he kept for several years before emigrating from County Durham, England, to America. I transcribe the journal entries of Thomas William Russell just as he penned them [words in brackets are mine]:

"April 4th, 1879. Wheatly Hill colliery [County Durham], page 6"
"On this day I thinking about my brother William. He is goin to set off for Amarica on the 8 of this month."
"Thompson Teasdal, Fountain County, Snodon Mill, Indianna North Amarica"

"April 8th 1879. Wheatley Hill Colliery, page 36"
"Dear Father Mother Brothers and Sisters. We landed in Liverpool about 5 oclock last night we went to the Inman office. But it was no go, we could not be on. There seams to be a understanding with all companys so we will be bord at oclock today with stem ship City of New York. It cost us L 8, 16s, 19d to a place thay call Attice in the state of Indinna. But if any should come, book with Humprey or some of the agents. It saved us nothinges coming to Liverpool. I can say I am prity well at present. Hoping this will find you all at present. You can let Brother Robert no [know]. I hope he is keeping his canch up and I hope it will not be long before we meet again. Excuse this writin so I remain your loving son and brother W.R. Russell"
"Hears is last night note. Make what you can of it. This is the end of the forst letter. Thos. Russell"

"May 26th 1879, page 54"
"Monday morning on this date the sad nues came to our place from our William relating the death of Robert Davison his mate how [who] was killied by his side on the 8th of May in a America"

"May 29th 1879. Wheatley Hill Colliery. page 54
"On this date my brother William returned from amarica. I was in back shift that day. If Robert Davison had been sperried [spared] to come back all would been well but the Lord thought fit to call him hench and may the Lord rest his soul".

In essence, these excerpts indicate that the oldest son of the Russell family, William, traveled to a coal mining region which, I later deduced, was near Snoddy's Mill, in Fountain County, Indiana. The county is located west of Indianapolis on the Illinois border. The Wabash River flows through the county. Apparently, William and his traveling companion, Robert Davison, were making a reconnaissance of the area to see if it was a suitable place for their families to start a new life in America as immigrant coal miners. Unfortunately, Davison, was killed, and I believe the event undoubtedly had a big impact on the Russell Family's intention to leave England for America. Nevertheless, about two years later, in September 1881, Thomas Russell and his brother, Robert, sailed for America, but instead of settling in Indiana, they went to Pennsylvania, and started to work the coal mines in Houtzdale, Clearfield County. Three younger siblings joined them in the mid-1880s. Brother William also immigrated to Pennsylvania but waited until 1887.

Thomas' daughter, Emily Russell, met and eventually married a German immigrant named Otto Streich. Their sixth-born child was my father, who, with a few more twists and turns, migrated to Alexandria, Virginia, where he met my mother.

Yet, I still wonder what it would have been like to pull big catfish out of the creek at Snoddy's Mill- if this or that would have turned out a bit differently.

I posted the transcription of my great grandfather's Journal on my father's branch, genealogical web site about ten years ago. A reader, named Lesa Epperson, emailed me that he and his family grew up in Fountain County, Indiana, around Wabash Township. Furthermore, Lesa wrote that Snoddy's Mill, rather than "Snodon Mill", had been demolished except for its rock foundation. It was located on Coal Creek and once stood in the midst of a coal mining area near Stringtown, which has been reduced to a few houses, and the former towns of Bunkertown and Vicksburg. He added, "One of my ancestors (William Cadman) came from England also to work in the mines. He settled just south of Snoddy's Mill about 1870"

I Googled "Snoddy's Mill" and found a great site for family historians who want to purchase or email vintage postcards depicting landmarks of their family's history. I presume the site gains a promotion. In any case, take a look at Snoddy's Mill below (click on image to enlarge):

Image: Vintage Postcard of Snoddy's Mill described on reverse: "Located in Fountain County, Indiana. First mill built 1828. Present mill built 1867-68 and operated until 1946. Owned by Mrs. Betty Hembrey and leased to Fountain County Historical Society for a museum. There are three covered bridges in Fountain County.

UPDATE, 24 Nov 2009:
William Russell mentioned the date and name of the ship on which he and Robert Davison sailed- see Thomas' Journal entry of 8 Apr 1879. I followed up these leads and made a search of Passenger Lists (

Arriving on the SS New York City at NY port on 21 Apr 1879; departing Liverpool, England, traveling in steerage; Francis S. Land, Ship Master:

"Wm Russell", 30 [born ~1849], mechanic, English; Passenger No. 149.
"Robt Davison", 26 [born ~1853], farmer, English, Passenger No. 150.

Thus, the words written in Thomas W. Russell's journal are validated.


Full transcript of Thomas W. Russell's 19th century Journal

String Town, Fountain Co., IN, on Wikipedia. This former town was described as rough and tumble and boasted of having 17 saloons. I wonder if Robert Davison might have been killed in bar room brawl.

More about "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button"

Vintage postcards at cardcow


Unknown said...

my grandmother who is now passed has always told me that her mother was a russel, and that lor william russel was a great cussin, my greate grandmothers name was alley russel and her father was john

Bob Kramp said...

Hey Steven, Could you tell me where you Russell family lived or where they were from?? Were they from western Indiana? Thanks, Bob

John S said...

Like your family, My Mother had two ancestors that found work in America at Snoddy Mill Mine in Coal Creek, Indiana. William Williams, from Aberdaron, Gwynnedd, Wales where they still speak Celtic and look out over the Irish Sea from the Llyn Peninsula. He and his son, also William migrated to there in 1881. Young William married an Alice Tiley from Snoddy who's father John Sperrin Tiley from Somerset England was a mine engineer there. Like many mining towns in the 19th Century immigrants outnumbered natives. Both Williams and Tiley had experience in the Welsh mining industry before Migration, like your Russell ancestors. I grew up 50 miles from there. It was a great time and place to grow up in the 50's and 60's-You would have liked it there. But somehow, gazing through the Sycamores at the edge of the muddy Wabash river wouldn't hold a candle in my view to looking out over Aberdaron from a high point scanning the beautiful rock strewn coastline or the beautiful vales of the Cotswold near where Tiley's were from. In those days as now, jobs and economic opportunity rump beautiful scenery! Thanks for your blog-very interesting.

John S.
North Carolina