Oral Tradition: Do you believe grandma?

Emma Whetstone Williams (1897-1956) left, and Helen Zeller Kelly (1894-1985).

Would either of these grandma’s not tell the absolute truth? I think not! What about your grandma? We want to believe what grandma tells us, but then….

Did you hear family stories, often called Oral Tradition? Many family historians did. We’re often admonished about believing “any of that nonsense” in favor of doing it the regular way and relying only on documentation, and at that, mostly primary sources. Set those tall tales aside and go do your work in the documents.

However, in my experience most of these tall tales are somehow based in truth. It’s our responsibility to find that grain of truth and rewrite the story, setting history to right.

See that grandma one on the right, she liked to “spin out a yarn,” as she’d day. And ghost stories were her favorite verbal media. Tell it to you like it happened yesterday and pretty soon you’d start to think that you’d seen that ghost too. But she told other true stories as well. (Not saying that ghost stories aren’t true. You hear that, ghosts?)

There was one story that Grandma Kelly told that stuck with all of the cousins. Not the one about the Indian Princess – turned out to be true – but the one about a fortune lost because of a land swindle perpetrated by the big coal company. She got some of it right and much of it not so right. Let’s explore.

There were a rash of land swindle plots going around in the late 1800s. One with which I’m familiar is the House Heirs Association. The basics components of all of these land swindle schemes was: 1. the long-ago-ancestor had a massive land holding of thousands of acres, and 2. the government (usually) leased the land for some time (typically 99 years), and 3. now that it’s past time, they won’t give it back or pay the millions of dollars owed to the family.

Usually these schemes targeted the poorer members of a family, often who couldn’t read or write and needed an attorney to help them. But first they needed to post money to get the project started and to cover papers being drawn up, research, and travel and such. “Send as much as you can! There are millions at stake!” And remember, the majority of the targets of these schemes couldn’t even read or write. One person I ran into said that his father spent the money saved for his college education on the House Heirs Association swindle and received not a penny in return, and so he didn’t get to go to college. No one was ever charged with a crime in this case. It seems that the investors held out hope to the last.

 Our own dear grandma Kelly told of our Eckhart ancestor who “owned all of the land that contained The Big Vein” of coal, worth millions. Not only do the Kelly cousins remember this but a version of this story has traveled down the generation of other lines of the descendants of John Eckhart, George Adam Eckhart’s son. (See previous post for some details.)

The story grandma told was that the Eckharts owned all of the land under which was The Big Vein of coal, and that the coal company had tricked the family and took possession of it. When the family pursued their ownership, the coal company paid off someone at the courthouse to make the deed proving the family’s ownership, “disappear.”

George Adam Eckhart who first owned the land died in 1806 and left the bulk of his estate to his son John Eckhart who owned land in his own right. When Adam’s wife died in 1812 the remainder of the estate went to John who then held about 650 acres. An agent for a mining company, Mathew St. Clair Clark, came to the area with his crew and after evaluating the land in the area, offered to purchase John’s portion. By 1835 an agreement was arrived at. Then John Eckhart died.

Maryland Probate and Guardianship Files, 1796-1940; Allegany, E, Eckhart, John (Box 14)

Before his death, John Eckhart and Mathew St. Clair Clark had come about an agreement that the land would be sold to the mine company for $20,000.

Unfortunately, with some supremely bad timing, John died shortly thereafter. Above is a page from his estate file showing that Mathew St Clair Clark owes $8,000 carrying interest from the 9th of December 1835 and $5,ooo more from 1 April 1836 for a total of $13,000 interest owed. This document is dated: 13 April 1836.

The statement of debts due dated 13 January 1836 showed that Mathew St Clair Clark owed $18,000 plus $8,000 carrying charges. We might conclude that between January and April, St Clair Clark paid the family $18,000 but not the $8,000 interest. It could also be surmised that St Clair Clark might have paid a ten percent down payment prior to the January date and thereby paid the entire $20,000.

The following is from the Hughes Mines Report published in 1835. It describes the actual fact of the mines owned by John Eckhart and sold through agent Mathew St. Clair Clark. Notice that it’s dated 12 June 1835 and says that the land had already been purchased. It makes no mention of “the late” John Eckhart, so it can be presumed that he’s still alive.


It says here that John Eckhart opened the coal pit as early as 1823, and it was said to be the first coal mining effort in Maryland. But once Mathew St. Clair Clark surveyed it and got a geology report, the Big Vein was revealed to be gigantic and well beyond John’s capability. And, it might be noted, John owned a prosperous inn on the National Road that ran right through his property. We can almost hear him thinking: I can’t run a big mining operation but if I sell off all this land that’s just been farming land and just kept the inn, I’d be very well off.

We don’t know if John Eckhart had access to the mining report or if he knew how valuable it would be if mined for coal. An educated guess could be made because at $20,000 for the 650 parcel, that would be $60 per acre. A couple of us are thinking that was n the high side for this particular farming land.

Farming was very difficult on this hilly and rocky land. First the trees had to cleared and sold off and then the many rocks removed. Unless the land was a flat parcel, even the best farmer would have a difficult time. Many came in the early days and moved on to Ohio where there was better, flatter land.

But coal mining was a difficult business as well and it would take a large and money-rich company to set up operation and mine the coal. John Eckhart, while well-off, was in no position to float that effort.

Was there a swindle of the Eckhart land? Was John Eckhart paid a fair price? Was he informed by Mathew St. Clair Clark about the true value of the land to the mining company?  We’ll probably never know all of the details but the hunt continues. New details come to light regularly.

One thing is clear: the family was paid for the land, and were paid a large sum. Instead of being swindled, the family were shrewd and claimed even more than the $20,000 in the $13,000 total interest, a 60% tariff. Now that might have been considered a swindle… on the mining company.

As the years passed, the memory of the transaction took on twists and turns and a new, sour dimension. Did this happen in the crash or depression years of the 1800s? Looking back on much needed large sums, not available to the present generation? We do know that by the time 1900 came, the story now painted the family in the victim role, not in the role of the crafty and wise businessman, which John Eckhart certainly was.

Take Away:

  1. Take all family stories seriously. Write down every detail that you remember and then ask everyone else who might remember the story for what they remember. Get it down in writing.
  2. Try to find other descendants not in your direct line and ask if they remember anything. Make detailed notes about what the versions of the story they remember.
  3. Make a Facebook page with the family name and/or the name of the swindle. Post it everywhere you can think to. Be sure to add this information to the individuals pages on your Ancestry Member Tree. Post everywhere. Ours is called “Descendants of George Adam Eckhart.”
  4. Make a Fact Check chart of each of the “facts” of the story so that you can track them down one-by-one. Of course you’ll want to be thorough and put Google to good use.

Next time: Connecting generations

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