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Middling Folk

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11.11.23

The author of a recent Virginia family history writes that "historians and biographers traditionally have favored stories of the influential—people who altered national history or transformed the practice of science, industry, or the arts. More recently they have concentrated on the lives of the impoverished and disenfranchised: slaves, peasants, excluded minorities, women—those whose stories have been denied or suppressed. I understand why, of course.

"But who tells the stories of the people in the middle?  They get lost. The experiences and values they reveal seem ordinary, not worthy of comment, even bourgeois or embarrassing. The people who live them are preoccupied with the present and the future. Too often, their descendants have no interest in looking back. Yet it seems to me that these are the most important histories of all. They belong to the people who quietly, century after century, conducted the business and built the livelihoods that made their societies prosper. Their attitudes are difficult to alter or predict, yet they shape culture more profoundly than wars, pestilence, or changes in regime."

Middling Folk: three seas, three centuries, one Scots-Irish family is the story of one family, the Hammills, from its appearance in North Ayreshire, Scotland, to their sojourn in northern Ireland, to their immigration to colonial Charles County, Maryland, thence to Prince William County, Virginia and, finally, in the 1880s to Washington Territory. Linda H. Matthews has written the story of her family, but it stands for the stories of so many Scots-Irish who formed the backbone of the Appalachian region and of the middle class of the entire country.

Building upon extensive research her father and aunt conducted, Matthews has delved into records that go back as far as medieval times, broadened her investigation to encompass history, social conditions, and numerous facets of daily life of the places and times of the Hammill existence. Her efforts put flesh on the record skeletons of her ancestors, make them human, and bring them alive for the reader who is curious about his own Scots-Irish heritage.

The Hammill name may be Norman in origin, although the first evidence of the people of this name appears in 12th century southwestern Scotland. They were minor gentry buffering the divide between the great baronial families who controlled entire regions and the freemen and indentured servants. The Hammills accompanied Montgomeries across the sea to take advantage of cheap land in Ulster in the early 1600s, where they prospered. A few years after the Siege of Derry and the Battle of the Boyne, where they defended the English Crown against the Irish Catholics, they sailed another sea in the early 1700s to the Maryland Colony.

Immigrant John was a teacher, surveyor, and tobacco planter with numerous land holdings. Matthews' careful examination of the estate inventory taken two years after his death reveals much interesting information about his life, both by what was listed and what was not.

We learn that, contrary to widely held assumptions, not all Scots-Irish were Presbyterian. The Hammills were Anglican, which explains why they settled in Maryland, and were royalists. In time, their descendants were drawn to Methodism.
The Hammills were educated and settled into a variety of useful occupations—as shopkeepers, weavers, farmers, wagonmakers, blacksmiths, hotel operators, and millers.

Thanks to the detailed records of the Southern Claims Commission, we gain a lively picture of life for civilians in northern Virginia, including Hugh Hammill, during and following the Civil War.

It is not necessary to have Hammill (Hamel-Hamil) ancestors to find this history fascinating. Matthews provides detailed notes on her sources, which make interesting reading in  themselves. And she offers supplemental documents and an annotated bibliography at her website for the book, www.middlingfolk.com.

This is an admirable model of engaging, gracefully written family history. Readers who enjoyed Jim Webb's "Born Fighting" will enjoy this.

For more about the Scots-Irish or family history, visit www.tcplweb.org or call 988-2541.

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