Greenville county, Reedy River

In 1806 my great great great great grandmother Mary Howland went to an estate sale and bought a ‘lot of books’. 

Copy of the court document from Abbeville, SC, 1806; estate of Frances Moore.

In the listing of goods from the estate, there were tables, chairs, shoes, bacon, crocks, whiskey, a heifer, and one ‘umbereller’….but my ancestor bought the books.

This is the oldest documentation of any member of my family history, and–it seems to me–quite an appropriate one!

It’s fascinating to think that, this many years later, her descendant–me– still goes to estate sales and buys books. (I also ignore the umberellers as they are awkward things.)

History is one of my favorite topics, and family history even more so. It is particularly interesting when long-lived generations overlap.

My own family history, on my mom’s side, is old. By that I mean I grew up and around really old people of old ways, from the old south. A large part of my family clustered in South Carolina for many years, before moving on to Tennessee just before the War of 1812. My grandfather was born in 1872, and he grew up in a countryside in Tennessee where the ravages of the Civil war (and the feuds) were still fresh.

Because Grandpa Duncan lived until he was 99 years old, our lives were able to overlap. I was just ten when he died, but he left indelible memories on my young life. He was our patriarch, and everything about him–even his tobacco chewing and spittoon–seemed grand.

His stories were not just told, they were intoned oratory, measured out in slow pontifications.

Elmer Duncan

Grandpa came from an utterly different world. I wish I could remember more of his stories, but I’m just glad our lives intersected for the brief time they did. Because of Grandpa Duncan, I was able to learn to dance faltering two-steps to tunes he played on his fiddle—folk songs that echoed from an ancient Scottish past, stepped out enthusiastically by a little girl in the 1960’s. No one knows those tunes now, unless they are a music historian.


I still have that white milk glass cake plate; Grandma’s coconut was always served on it.

The other thing my grandpa bequeathed to me was a love of books and reading. Without his fiddle in hand, there was a book. My favorite memory of Grandpa Duncan was watching him sit by his favorite window, leaning in for better light, a large book in hand. He was very dismissive of reading glasses and maintained he could do just fine without them as long as he had ‘the light of a good window’.

And to think that this love of reading predates my old grandpa! The world did not begin with him, as it turns out. I can handle that startling realization now, but when I was small…oh I could never have believed that there was anything older than Grandpa.megrandma Yet it was his great great grandmother Mary Howland, the aforementioned ancestress from South Carolina, who went to an estate sale and bought books.

And on it goes. Reading is in the blood, more than we even might know.

Yes, I love family history. DNA is, in itself, a book of record. Bundled inside are stories, along with the shape of our nose. And this thread of inheritance, these stories, bind us to the past. And if that sounds overly sentimental, well, I guess that’s my mood for the moment.OriginalPhoto-478118653.559606

I wish I could travel back in time and go to that estate sale with Mary Howland. We might have fought a little over the books…but, all in all, I think we would have got on well together.




9 thoughts on “Inheritance

  1. Oh that was so nice to read. I’ve got an old letter ( obviously ) from an ancestor describing the funeral of Queen Victoria which I have always treasured so I can imagine your love of all these old memories and your grandfather who seems to have been a lovely and splendid man.

  2. Thank you, I love thinking about our inherited qualities. Who am I like? I often ask myself. It’s amazing you found this treasure from so long ago.

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