Posts Tagged ‘folklore’

The difference between folklore and fact is that one can be irrefutably proven and the other is usually a bit of an embellishment of truth that is handed down until the retelling of it becomes known as fact. An example would be the Ballad of Jesse James in which the writer wrote that Jesse robbed from the rich and gave to the poor, and that he had a wife and three children. The facts were very different: James was a thief with a vendetta against the railroad and he did not spread his wealth to the poor. He also only had two children, not three.

So what has this to do with Benedict Arnold?

I was leafing through some of my Grandfather Wilcox’s letters (Gramps, as I knew him) and I stumbled onto this gem of a story about my ancestry. I’d read it before but remembered few of the details. Here is the story (ancestral names in bold)(and complete in grammatical error):

<snippet> “Then there was another cousin, William Meade, his father & my great grandmother were brother & sister so I am told. That is the branch that had ancestor that was around Cedar Hill, N.Y. when he was very, very old. Along with two other lads they deserted the Continental Army thinking the cause about lost. On the outside they learned and observed different and were looking for a ticket back in to good graces of the Federal Forces when oneXXX Major Andre walked into a bar, then called a tavern, and they took him in tow and found the famous message from Benedict Arnold. They had their ticket and used it. Ancestor Williams was rewarded with a very nice piece of land that kept him in drinking liquor until he was still well preserved into the memory of future generations.” <end>

That makes you say “Hmmmm”, doesn’t it? Given Gramps’ penchant for spinning a tale and embellishing it, I thought it prudent to see how much of that narrative actually matches the historical record. I was surprised to find that enough of the record matches to make a connection, and the historical record differs a little in every version of the telling. However, not one single, verifiable, item in the record points to the three young men as AWOL from the Continental Army (which was not, no matter how much Gramps wanted it to be, a “Federal” Force as the Nation had not yet been born).

This much is true: three militiamen by the names of John Paulding, Isaac Van Wart, and David Williams did make the discovery and did arrest Major John Andre. (Another version gives the second man’s name as Van Wert.) (A “skinner” would be a Militiaman). Paulding was the only one of the three who could read and soon realized the man they were robbing was actually a British agent.

This little gem of Gramps’ use of folklore is full of fact and falsehood, but it makes for a great fireside story in much the same way as the Ballad of Jesse James makes for a moving ballad. Sprinkle the truth with a little spice – that would have been Gramps’ motto. There are obvious holes: Gramps skipped from William Meade, the very, very old man to a story about an ancestor named Williams.

This fellow, Williams, would be a distant relative, not a direct ancestor – if we are even related. I haven’t gotten that far on my search because I’m trying to stick with the straight lines of the family first (which includes the matriarchal lines as well as patriarchal).

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