Storykeepers #14–Runaway Fugitives


While my great-great-grandmother waited to join her future husband in Oregon territory, the slave controversy continued. Tempers flared and conflict threatened as the numbers of those fleeing for freedom continued to  climb. Laws threatened to change the landscape.

The first fugitive slave law, passed in 1793, stated that no person held to service of labor in one state, shall, by escaping to another state be discharged from their bondage. The ruling required both slave and non-slave states to return the runaway, and without benefit of a jury trial to prove the legitimacy of the claims.

As northern states moved to abolish slavery, the enforcement of the law relaxed. Officials withdrew from returning the runaway to his or her owner. Disregard of this law enraged southern state slave owners and would lead to the passage of the Compromise of 1850, a ruling some claim postponed the inevitable War between the States.

This second decision called for the return of slaves on pain of heavy penalty, but permitted a jury trial as long as the fugitives could not testify in their own defense. After its passage, runaways were at risk for recapture all their lives. Slave owners further drove the point that children born to escapees became the property of the mother’s master all their lives as well.

Oney Judge, one of Martha Washington’s slaves, fled to New Hampshire, married, and had a child. Despite living in freedom for nearly fifty years, she and her descendants were still legal property according to the decree and if the Washington family decided to press the point, all of Oney’s offspring could be returned to service.

Northern states moved to protect free black Americans from conscription by requiring proof the person in question was indeed a runaway and the property of another. As the need for laborers continued to grow, nefarious slave traders were known to drug, capture, and relocate black men and women to the south, claiming them as fugitives, even if they carried papers proving otherwise. More than three hundred cases have been documented.

I can only imagine the relief my great-great-grandmother felt when a letter arrived telling her the Oregon homestead had been claimed and her hero was on his way back to get her. That was 1850. Still, she would have to wait.



Wikipedia online–The Fugitive Law of 1793, Compromise of 1850

Storykeepers #13– Grandma’s Loom

loom 2My great-great-grandmother’s reputation as a seamstress was well-known. She owned both a spinning wheel and a small loom. During the four years she waited in Iowa to join her fiancé on his Oregon homestead, she made blankets, comforters and patchwork quilts she’d need for life in the wilderness.

Though imported textiles were available to buy in the mid-nineteenth century, many women retained their spinning wheels and looms as a source of home-based security. Early on, the colonists were determined not to be dependent on imported goods. Money was in short supply and local production was considered advantageous to the growth of the colony.

As the European textile industry grew, the varieties of cloth also expanded and included broadcloth, velvet, satinet, nankeen, chintz, calico, linen, cambric, and flannel. Availability of the commercial cloth, though, depended on where one settled, the further west the pioneers traveled, the less likely a woman was to find what she needed to clothe her household. Spinning cotton or woolen thread from a wheel and weaving it into cloth on a loom were considered important survival skills as the country’s population continued to sprawl.

A spinning wheel could produce flax, wool, and cotton thread. Each fiber called for a different kind of wheel, but often these were interchanged. While making wool thread, the spinner would walk back and forth, holding wool in one hand and rotating the bigger wheel with the other. Smaller wheels spun faster, and since they were powered by a foot pedal, both hands were free to work the longer strands of flax.

The size of  the loom varied, often dependent upon the breadth of the operator’s reach. Shoving the shuttle through and catching it on the other side had to be mastered. Often the cloth was only two or three feet wide to accommodate the weaver’s arm span. The treadles were moved by the feet while the hands kept busy propelling the yarn through the maize of warp threads that created the woven cloth.

My great-great-grandmother’s ability to stitch and mend remained with her as she aged. Her grandchildren remembered her as the woman who came, visited, and emptied the mending basket. She passed her love of weaving to her granddaughter, who became my grandmother.

My grandmother wove rag rugs on a loom she kept in an upstairs bedroom. I still remember the hand woven fabrics lining the stairs in her home. Sturdy and tough—they never wore out.

Proverbs 31:10, 13: “Who can find a virtuous and capable wife? . . . She finds wool and flax and busily spins it.”

  • Acknowledgements:
  • Marion Channing The Textile Tools of Colonial Homes, 1971
  • Catherine Fennelly, Textiles in New England, 1790-1840
  • Ann Cameron MacRae, Women at the Loom: Handweaving in Washington County, Tennessee, 1840-1860. East Tennessee State University


Storykeepers #12–Boundary Dispute

Athens, Missouri 2As I continued my research of my family, my great-great-grandmother’s history puzzled me. The family historian listed her city of origin as Athens, Iowa. Except there is no such place. A site listed as the Battle of Athens State Historic Site, near the northern boundary of Missouri is the only location that came close.

At first glance I assumed the family records contained a mistake. I read another account by a prospector who had traveled with the family across the plains. His book also listed my great-great-grandmother’s place of origin as Athens, Iowa. Two authors from the same era making the same error? Not likely. I dug deeper. What I found was an early boundary dispute.

When the Iowa-Missouri state border was first surveyed in 1816 by John Sullivan, he declared the northern Missouri border to be in alignment with the latitude running through the rapids on the Des Moines river. But no one knew exactly where the rapids were. He’d also made a mistake, not adjusting his compass to allow for the rise from the west side of the state (on the Missouri river) to the east side (Mississippi river), a difference of four miles which included an area of about 2600 acres.

And Athens, Iowa.

When settlers arrived in 1833, established farms, and created towns, they wanted to know where the boundary truly was. With the government promise of a dam and lock system on the Des Moines river, Athens became a thriving port. Mills were built, businesses arrived, and commerce brought more settlers, most of them anti-slavery.

Missouri, on the other hand, remained a slave state.

As more and more runaway slaves sought their freedom in the North, the Iowa-Missouri border became a line of contention. Slaves who made it to Iowa were declared free, and could easily pass on into Kansas on their way to Canada. But in the disputed boundary area, trouble brewed. As my great-great-grandmother waited for her hero to return from the west and claim his bride, her hometown became more and more embroiled in the growing tension between the North and the South.

As her history unfolds, so does my storyline.Iowa land quest

This is a continuation of the storykeepers series I began last October, see listings.


Overcoming Growth Obstacles

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One of the benefits of living in the Pacific Northwest is the usually mild winters. The absence of severe weather affords flower gardeners like myself the advantage of not having to dig tubers every fall. We can leave fussy flowers like dahlias in the ground and know that if we mulch them and keep the soil well-drained, the plants will reappear the next season and bloom again without prompting.

However, left to their own devices, dahlias tubers multiply like fleas on a cat. After two or three years in the ground the plant has made so many new tubers that they suffocate each other. They must be dug up and cut apart, allowing the eye protruding on each tuber to send up a green shoot. The sprout will produce a full-fledged flower, given the chance. If not separated, the green shoots have no hope for survival because they aren’t well rooted and can’t get to the sun. Instead of a cluster of blossoms on sturdy stalks, the grower is left with a mound of brown.

In God’s scheme of things, our busy schedules are like the clump of overgrown tubers. We struggle to juggle one activity with another, often letting our relationship with the Lord take a backseat. Like the eager sprout on the dahlia, our faith fights its way through the maze of appointments we consider more important than time with God. Without encouragement and a regular pruning of our schedule, the seeds of faith dwindle for lack of space in which to grow.

Psalm 1:1-3 (NKJV) says: “Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the ungodly, nor stands in the path of sinners, nor sits in the seat of the scornful; But his delight is in the law of the Lord, and in His law he meditates day and night. He shall be like a tree planted by the rivers of water that brings forth its fruit in its season, whose leaf also shall not wither; and whatever he does shall prosper.”

What important task in your too full schedule needs trimming that you might find more time with God?

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Fowl State of Affairs


A year has passed since my husband and I decided we’d join the urban chicken trend. Our Golden Girls, as we refer to them, have feathered our lives with laughs and tabled our dinner conversation with antics. None of us is certain why we decided to embark on this path, but the cackle within the coop is the resolution proved its worth.

Both of us grew up with chickens. My earliest impressions were of flighty, senseless birds who gave up brains for grains somewhere in the progression of all things fowl. Not these girls. They are masterminds, capable of rivaling a military unit preparing basic maneuvers.

Our mornings begin promptly at dawn. City poultry owners are not allowed a rooster, presumably to keep the noise down, but four hens announcing they’ve laid an egg is enough clamor to wake the dead. If one hen isn’t up to the task of producing that day, she joins her sister lauding her efforts. My husband fears we’ll have to move.

Our days never lack for variety. Dorothy, our alpha hen, continually seeks bigger and better holes through which she can lead the others astray. Her Houdini-like abilities have created more than one scenario of heart-stopping peril.

Working in a back bedroom earlier this week, I thought I heard a sound—that low, drawn out rumble in the throat only a chicken can make. Sure enough, outside my open window, one of our two-legged four studied me as she roamed across the lawn from which she was forbidden. “What are you doing?” I asked. She turned, trumpeted her terror, and ran a lopsided, crisscrossed gait back to her coop. Didn’t fool me. She knew the consequences of her trespass.

My son laments that the hens are not paying for their keep. I’m not sure that’s true. When one considers the amount of giggles, sarcastic asides, and guffaws those four ladies have generated in their brief time with us, the value of their entertainment more than equals whatever deficit might exist in breakfast offerings. At two and three eggs a day, what would I do with more?