History is Where You Find It
An Essay on an Ironic Vicissitude of Historical Documentation

I have had and continue to have difficulty in tracing my earliest ancestors with a documented presence in Florida.  I phrase it that that way because in various parts of the family there is Native American ancestry that is very difficult to trace, apparently because in the prevailing political situation admission that such ancestry existed much less detailed information about it was apparently suppressed, even within the family, for a number of generations... till it was well and thoroughly lost.

Whether any Native American ancestry was included in my Haire and Butler lines is still a mystery.  Until I found her image in a family photo from the 1890s in 2005, I thought maybe my 2-great grandmother Eliza E. Butler might have had such ancestry, but after finding and identifying her in the photo I am inclined to believe that unlikely to be the case.  As to her husband John Hair(e)... well, I'm still not entirely sure.  There is oral history that came down through his son John Levi Hare(sic)'s line, to the effect that an ancestor was "a Creek Indian chief who dug his own grave".

Eliza E. Butler was born in Florida in 1835.  Her father, Levi Butler, was born in Georgia about 1811.  I have not been able to discover even her mother's first name because she died before such information came to be included in U.S. censuses in 1850. (Sometime in the 1840s Levi Butler re-married to Nancy, maiden name unknown.  Nancy was born in Georgia about 1811.)  However, based on information in the 1830 and 1840 Florida censuses, Levi Butler's first wife (my 3-great grandmother) was also born about 1811, and based on census information later given by her children, she was born in Florida.  Florida was not U.S. territory in 1811, but was still in the second period of ownership by Spain.  I suspect, however, that her parents either (possibly) came into Florida during the period of its control by Great Britain, 1763 - 1783, or (more likely?) filtered down from the U.S. as became fairly common in the Second Spanish period of Florida history.

But for the longest time I was stymied by oral mis-information my mother gave to me as a child, at Butler Cemetery, Grady County, Georgia, where they were buried, about a sibling of one of my two 2-great grandparents.  Mom told me that Carrie Newton, wife of John Newton, was John Haire(e)'s half-sister.

Some years after mom died, though, I found a document among her possessions that was absolutely critical to straightening that out and essential for all progress I have made in the past couple of years, including identifying Levi Butler as my 3-great grandfather, finding the location of his land in Gadsden County, Florida, finding his widow Nancy's land in Liberty and Gadsden County, finding John Hair/Hare/Haire's Confederate military service records, and most recently, finding that although  Jesse Haire lived in Baker County, Georgia, at some point he acquired land almost adjacent to that of Levi Butler in Gadsden County, Florida... land that he and his wife Dicey sold in 1868.  (Many Gadsden County records are missing due to a courthouse fire there in 1849.)  From this I have adduced that Jesse and John Haire were close kin, probably brothers, and that it was probably while tending Jesse's land in Gadsden County, that John Haire came to meet and marry Eliza E. Butler.  John himself owned no land till late in life, and in the 1860s and 1870s apparently worked the land of his stepmother-in-law Nancy Butler, in Liberty and Gadsden counties.

But what was this vital document which led to all of these subsequent historical "discoveries"...?

It was... <GASP> a paper napkin with some scribbling on it.  The scribbling was apparently (based on context and my knowledge of her handwriting) notes taken by my mother of fairly wide ranging discussion of "old-timey" things and family history, during a meal with my grandmother (Mary Lee Haire Davis).  It included both cooking tips for such as "tenderloin's cooked in hot ashes" and Haire / Butler family history.  The napkin notes are... um... of course... not dated, but grandma died in 1985 and was debilitated for some time prior to that by Alzheimers or a condition resembling Alzheimers, so I suspect that these notes date to sometime in the 1970s.  I found it and recognized its significance about 30 years later, so, for a "disposable paper product", the napkin has certainly exceeded the design standards to which it was manufactured.  It is discolored by acidic self-destruction, but all in all is remarkably intact even when the photo of it which appears below was taken (10 December 2005).

Humble though it may be, that old paper napkin is a document vital to the setting down of oral history of my family on paper, and I'm damn glad that I eventually found it and recognized its significance.  To my way of thinking, this napkin is a valuable embodiment of a basic principle about history... of how history, and/or the material documentation thereof, is where you find it.

And Oh... by the way... I had "the devil's own time" in figuring out how to copy this napkin.  It wouldn't come close to fitting a scanner's bed nor would it lay flat...  I eventually came up with the idea of stretching it and attaching it to a painted board with push pins.

Richard White - Tallahassee, Florida - 10 December 2005
(To read the "upside down" part click here.)



This page was created by Richard White on 10 December 2005.