Sunday, July 17, 2011

Amanuensis Monday: The Story of Harmon Parks Brittain

Amanuensis Monday is a blogging prompt used by many of my fellow geneabloggers. An Amanuensis is a person employed to write what another dictates or to copy what has been written by another.

Today, I've copied down for your enjoyment the story of my first cousin, four times removed, Harmon Parks Brittain. I typically write about my direct ancestors, or at least collateral relatives that I actually knew, but when I read Harmon's story, I knew I had to share it. He was an interesting guy who lived through interesting times. I don't know who wrote this story. I found it, typewritten, in my Grandma Edith's genealogy records. She must have thought he was pretty interesting, too.
Harmon Parks Brittain was born in Clark County, Indiana, February 6th, 1832. He was a farmer at Halfrock (not on modern maps), MO (on the Iowa border), in the years immediately prior to and at the outbreak of the Civil War. During this period, pro-slavery forces and abolitionist forces were each feverishly loading the territories of Kansas and Missouri with their own adherents because Congress had decreed that when these territories became states, they would be slave or free depending on a majority vote of the citizens  at the time of statehood, and if they both went the same way, it would tip the balance of power in the Senate. The result was that the war was truly a Civil War in these territories because of many situations where radical partisans for one side lived next door to radical partisans for the other side.

Harmon Brittain was a fighter, a man who had strong pro-Union convictions. Leaving his wife (Zilpha Theresa Hill Brittain) and three-year-old daughter, Emma, to live with Zilpha's parents, he joined the 13th Missouri Cavalry. (His brother James also joined up, was taken prisoner at the Battle of Shiloh and died in the infamous southern prison camp at Andersonville.) Emma Brittain Chastain said that one of her very earliest memories as a child, was hiding behind her mother's skirt when someone knocked at the door, and watching big-eyed as her mother opened the door with one hand while the other held a pistol concealed under her apron.

Harmon Brittain survived the formal hostilities without injury. However, after Lee surrendered and the army began to disband, he was faced with another problem. The extreme bitterness in Missouri made returning soldiers from both armies targets for vengeance. Many of them who had survived years of war were murdered as they returned home. Warned by his wife that he would be safer in the army than in his own community, he enlisted for another two years in the cavalry.

His wife and later his daughter Emma saved the letters he wrote home during that time, but unfortunately they have since been lost or destroyed. Included in his letters were a number of poems. They were not literary masterpieces by present-day standards, but were impressive when you realize they were written by a man who did not learn to read and write until after he was married (to a school teacher). One of these letters gave a graphic account of how he was sent out one day on a scouting mission and spied a huge cloud of dust moving toward him,which he was sure could only be generated by the largest army of Indians ever assembled on the Western plains. After nearly killing his horse getting back to camp to warn the small company, he was very embarrassed, but greatly relieved when his Indian army turned out to be a herd of buffalo. He titled the account, "The Cowardly Sergeant".

He returned home in 1866, moved his family to Kansas, then back to Missouri and finally, in 1875 joined a wagon train headed for Oregon. A significant commentary about the kind of man he was is made by an incident that happened on that trail. Being a careful man who was well acquainted with the harsh, unforgiving country he was to pass through, he had his animals and equipment in top shape. (He used oxen because of their superior survivability). Only a short way out on the trail, they came upon a family that had started poorly prepared. Their wagon was broken down and beyond repair. Unloading some of his not-so-essential items, he loaded up the family's essential items in of of his wagons and hauled them clear to Oregon. In the process, his daughter, Emma, who was sixteen and healthy, was obliged to walk the whole way -- all but the first two weeks without shoes.

He first settled in the Willamette Valley. But after losing most of his livestock to a mysterious ailment, and the family suffering from "ague" (malaria?), both of which they associated with dampness, they packed up and went looking for a drier place. They headed back over the Cascade Mountains to Wamic, where Emma met her husband-to-be, William Chastain. In 1882, his wife Theresa traveled to southern Oregon to visit family members who were living there, contracted Typhoid fever and died.

Harmon Brittain never remarried. He built himself a house near Wamic and spent the rest of his days there, with his children settling in the near vicinity. Being a man of small stature, he saw no reason for 6' 8" doors in his house. He made them tall enough for him, and if a tall man came to visit, he had to stoop to get through the door.

At some time in his life, Harmon's feet were so severely frostbitten that some of the flesh dropped off and bared some of the bone in the first joint. This gave him no end of pain. One day, while plowing, he decided he had had enough. He took his pocket knife and separated the first joints and removed the offending bone. Why didn't he pass out during the operation or die from infection? Too tough, maybe?

For many years he lived frugally in his house in Wamic, drawing his Civil War veteran's pension. He died January 18, 1916, at the age of 84 in Tygh Valley, Oregon. Some time after the funeral, his family began to try to find his money, knowing that he had been very saving and did not trust it to banks. The money was never found. Too late, it was remembered that he had a habit of putting money in the lining of his coat and that nobody had thought to check that when they buried him. The presumption is that he took it with him.

Children born to Harmon Parks Brittain and Zilpha Theresa Hill Brittain were: Emma Nancy, Aug 23, 1959 at Halfrock, Mercer Co., Missouri; Orange Colman, Mar 4, 1864 at Halfrock, Mercer Co., Missouri; Flora E. at Halfrock July 6, 1865; Myrtle Pleasant, Feb 4, 1871 at New Albany, Wilson Co., Kansas; Hattie E., Nov 21, 1873 in Taney Co., Missouri.
Harmon's story tells us a lot about the man, but also about the times he lived in. For example, when we think about the Civil War, we don't often consider the severe partisan differences between citizens who may have lived just next door to each other. We tend to assume that, once the war was over, everyone just went home to carry on with their lives. I can't imagine what it must have been like for Harmon to be afraid to to back into his own home, for fear of being murdered by neighbors who might not agree with what he fought for.

I'm also in awe of the story of his family traveling to Oregon via wagon train. Can you imagine what it must have been like to walk from Missouri to Oregon, over mountains and rivers and who knows what else, with NO SHOES? I keep imagining something out of "Little House on the Prairie" and thinking about how amazingly tough these folks were.

I'd love to thank the person who wrote this account of Harmon Parks Brittain's life, but I have no idea who that was. If there are any other Brittain cousins out there who can tell me, please drop me a line!

OH! Here's how I'm related to Harmon: his paternal grandfather, Parks Brittain, was my 4th great grandfather. Therefore we are first cousins, four times removed!

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