Legacy and land

As I pour over the census pages that track my family’s past, I find over and over that my ancestors scarred the soil.  The words “Farmer” and “farm laborer” indicate the occupation of most of the men who came before me.  I should not have felt surprise at this.  The reason for expansion, as Jason Godesky points out in A Short History of Western Civilization, rests in the fact that we kept using up the soil and so had to seek new soil to rip apart in order to grow our grains.

In 1733, a ship called Elizabeth landed in Philadelphia, bringing my 7th great grandfather Johan Peter Faust.  He came to plow up Berks County, Pennsylvania, until he moved his family down to Orange County, North Carolina.  Three generations of Fausts spent their lives pulling biomass out of the soil of Orange County (now Alamance County) and apparently did very well at it.   The wills of many of the Fausts indicate vast holdings of grain, cattle, land, tools, and even slaves.

With the fourth generation of Fausts/Fousts (the spelling of the last name changes from time to time among the census pages as well as other documents,) my 4th great grandfather John Foust  started moving west.  He married a Kentucky girl and settled for a while in Tennessee and Mississippi before shooting right over Arkansas to die in Texas.  His son, my great great grandfather, James Ellison Foust, however, settled smack dab in the middle of northern Arkansas to farm the land on Peter Creek in what we now call Cleburne County, Arkansas.

According to his grandson Loy, the folks around Peter Creek knew James Ellison as “an excellent hill farmer, who kept a two-year’s supply of corn on hand at all times, fat horses, and plenty of ham meat.”  His wife Harriet (whom one source indicated as mixed-blood Cherokee) earned a reputation as “the favorite mid-wife of the whole surrounding territory.  They knew when they saw her riding her own horse sidesaddle and wearing her familiar brown woollen cape, toting her leather bag, that their community was about to be blessed with a new member.”

James Ellison may have carried the legacy of agriculture into the west, but he rebelled against his family’s heritage in other ways.  Although his father John and his grandfather Peter had both owned slaves, the Faust family history tells a different story of James Ellison.

James Ellison Foust could not accept the acts of slavery even though his foreparents had owned slaves in North Carolina.  He believed that all men should be free, and that no one person should have the right to buy or sell another.  All his Civil War service [for the North] was in the Missouri and Northern Arkansas conflicts.

Of course, only a few generations after James Ellison, you see evidence that the new land start giving out like the eastern land had.  Instead of trying to farm further west lands, though, my nearer ancestors moved about Arkansas, Missouri and the Midwest trying to make a non-agricultural living.  James White (my great grandfather, who married James Ellison Foust’s daughter Malviney) followed a path of wandering from the east coast to Arkansas similar to that of the westward Foust he married into.  He farmed around Peter Creek as well, but his children started to wander in the years leading up to and during the Great Depression.  His son Andrew Joseph (my great grandfather) shows up on the 1920 and 1930 censuses in Missouri as a painter and barber respectively.  You can also see a vast lack of farmers among the neighboring families on the census pages.

Andy Joe’s son Clyde White (my grandfather) meandered over the Midwest as well.  He drove trucks, preached, started a chain of shoe repair shops in the Denver metro area, and eventually retired as a cattleman back in Cleburne County, Arkansas.  The land that had given out on row crops could still push up grass, and to this day, much of the former farm land of the Ozarks feeds beef and dairy cattle.  Clyde’s wandering matches my father’s and my own.  We latter Whites have hung our hats in a number of places as we seek too eek out our living.

And now, like my thrice great grandfather James Ellison Foust, I hope to turn the tables on the family legacy.  As he rebelled against the slave-holding of his fathers, I seek to rebel against both the wandering and the agriculture of my progenitors.  If I can learn to stay in once place and give back to the land that my great grandfathers took from, then maybe I can repair some of the crimes against the earth that my family has committed.

I could try to get poetic and declare permaculture as a kind of battle against commercial agriculture, similar to how James Ellison fought against the ideals of his fathers.  I don’t want something so grand as a war, though.  I just want to learn how to grow poly-cultures that nurture each other.  Instead of seeing the division between myself and the soil and plants and animals that feed me, I could take an animist approach and try to rebuild those connections — to give thanks to the world that feeds me by helping to nurture a world that can then feed itself.

I don’t mean to say that I won’t ever wander at all, though.  The Wazházhe (Osage) that lived in these Ozark hills before the civilized invasion came along lived a life of cyclic wandering.  They planted guilded gardens in the spring, went west into the plains to glean from the migrations of bison, and then came back to harvest from the gardens that they had left alone before they set out on another hunt.

Living in semipermanent villages primarily along the Osage River, the Osage Indians roamed the land between three great rivers, the Missouri to the north, the Mississippi to the east, and the Arkansas to the south. Their western boundary stretched into the windswept plains where they hunted buffalo.

The Osage way of life depended on hunting, since deer and bison provided food , clothing, and other essentials for them. Before leaving on the summer hunt (one of three annual hunts), the Osage planted vegetables such as corn, beans and pumpkins. In August, they returned to harvest their untended crops, and then left for an autumn hunt.[1]

Perhaps I can learn from the native predecessors of this land as I seek to undo the damage done by my own invasive progenitors.  As James Ellison Foust stands out in our history as someone who dared to uphold the personhood of people with black skin, I hope to set a course of seeing the personhood of the whole other-than-human world around us.


3 responses to this post.

  1. another rich chapter! yes, let’s grant person-hood to the nonhuman world. i really recommend “the spell of the sensuous” as a resource for how we can find the roots of such a perspective in the most unlikely of places – western culture itself. it’s there, but it’s buried deep and it’s had to hide to survive.

    in a similiar vein, when i did some ancestral work i was told by my teacher to not be too disparing of our ancestors’ way of life. they were living within the prison of complex social system just like us and it’s hard to see those bars, you know?

    but i love your sense of local history and the desire to look to the indigenous peoples to reconnect. ultimately, i hope and believe that ancestral work can lead towards a revitalization of western sustainable values too, a blending of of our own buried indigenous selves with those who still are close to the earth.


  2. Posted by Rix on 11/21/2007 at 1:55 pm

    Thanks for sharing the words of your teacher, Ryan. I have to remind myself of that perspective from time to time.

    I definitely hope to make something new by learning from the past: from my forefathers as well as from the indigenous cultures that lived here before my forefathers. We can never go back to the way things existed before, but we can forge something new (I like your term “blending” in regards to this) that can outlast civilization’s crash.


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