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We have all known for years that many of our ‘Tommie’ ancestors migrated westward from New England. Nancy Thomson, with her Thompson letters, brought us the sure information that these pioneers, on occasion, and where possible, kept in touch with families staying ‘at home’. The letters are of value as American history, as well as family history, and we are indebted to her for bringing this information to us.

This was brought home to me recently, when I received my grandfather Russell Thompson Jrs’ Civil War Pension Records (obtained by the use of NARA Form 80). This file contained 147 pieces of paper, and documented a lot of health problems and events that I knew nothing about. There was much interesting information. My grandfather died nearly ten years before I was born,( I am 77) but my grandmother lived for another 28 years, and I was then in college. I lived with her part of the time when I attended high school., and I do not believe his name was ever discussed..

Russell F. Thompson (1810-1870, Amy 700), my great grandfather, (Jesse3, Samuel2, Benjamin1), was Jesse’s fifth child and first son. He and his wife, Hester Clark, married in Swanzey, NH, on Nov 18,1830, had a daughter in 1833, and left Swanzey after the 1840 census—moving west! This, I assumed, was in a vacuum insofar as those staying home were concerned, but that does not seem to have been the case.

Russell and Hester moved (via the Erie Canal) to Pennsylvania. Moving on this canal was slow (I ½ mph, 15 miles per day –-at a cost of 1½ cents per mile). I had known only that my grandfather had been born in Erie County, PA, and when I received the Pension Record, I found that he had been born in Girard, Erie Co, in 1841. This in itself did not seem too significant, but the discussions regarding Denman Thompson made me think of lines of communication. SOMEBODY HAD TO BE IN TOUCH! Although Russell and Hester (now with two children) did not stay in Girard very long (two or three years), other Swanzey family members were there, also. There may have been other Thompson lines there, as well, but I have not researched this possibility.

When they arrived in Girard in 1840 or 1841(?), Russell’s cousin Rufus (Amy 708) was living there, and had been there for seven or eight years. Rufus’ father Timothy (274) was the brother of Russell’s father Jesse (273). Russell had a sister, Uranah(698), who also moved to Girard with her husband, Chauncy Haven. Another brother, Joshua Chandler Thompson(704), according to ‘History of Swanzey, NH’, lived in Girard. Rufus had a son (Denman-1193) born in Girard, in 1833. Denman became very famous as a character actor in New England and he moved back to New Hampshire, making his home at West Swanzey. Russell moved his family on westward into Wisconsin, around 1843 or 1844. They had two more children born in Spring Prairie Town, Walworth County, WI in 1845 and 1848, and in 1850, Hester died. They were living on a farm, not far from the west side of Lake Michigan, some miles SW of Milwaukee. In 1850, still one other family member died --Russell’s sister Uranah, in Girard. We also know that Russell’s brother David-(705) ‘moved west’ after 1850, arriving in Spring Prairie Township (in WI, not IA, as Amy records) after his wife died in Swanzey--the same year that Hester and Uranah died. David remained in Spring Prairie Township, remarrying there, and having three children by 1860. Russell had moved on west in Wisconsin, to Green County, and during the Civil War, to Richland County... With these moves, they may have lost the family contacts, as Hester had died at 40 years of age. Two of her children were under 5 years old.

Wherever possible, moves were made by water, and the move from Erie to Walworth County probably had been no exception. Lake steamboats were quite common by the 1840’s. This move took only a few days, but all of this was part of the pattern of westward migration getting under way all up and down the US. River transport was so much easier than the slow moving covered wagons. Those settlers were beset by Indians and water shortages, with all of the costs and perils of long distance moves of that time. Water transport had become so important after the opening of the Erie Canal, that numerous other canals were opened in the Northeast. The rivers provided transport to the ‘jumping off’ points to the west, such as Independence, MO. This example of families’ leap-froging toward western lands must have been relatively common. We are led to think that, at any rate, in our branch of the family.

At first, Russell lived in Wisconsin, working as a farm laborer. Later, it appears that he rented land at several locations in that state, still moving west, but accumulating little capital. Immediately after the Civil War, Russell moved westward into Iowa with his family. This included his second wife, Margaret, his youngest daughter, Hannah, and Russell, Jr. Russell Jr (called Fay). was almost a wreck from lung disease incurred while in the army during the Civil War, and he was discharged in January 1862. The other son (James) had died in the Army in Tennessee (1862), and the oldest daughter had married and remained in Wisconsin, where they lived for several years. During this time, Russell Sr. died. Russell Jr. stayed in Iowa, and married Luella Latham in 1875. She died in less than a year, during childbirth. That child, named Lucius, survived, but died after 1880. Russell married his second wife, Mary Etta Cumming, in 1882. They lived on the farm in Fayette County, owned by Mary’s mother, Jane, and here they had four sons born between 1883 and 1894. Russell (Fay, or R.F., or Ferris) suffered with his damaged lungs during the cold Iowa winters. In an attempt to retain some relief, the family eventually purchased land and moved to relatively newly settled land in Oklahoma. Russell Jr. died in 1914, just four years after moving to Oklahoma. Three of the four sons moved to Oklahoma with the parents., and each had children born in Oklahoma.

The Civil War had ruined Russell’s health, taken his brother, and threatened his livelihood, because his poor health made it so difficult to do strenuous farm work. He received a $2.00 monthly pension from the grateful nation, for a number of years. Mary Etta had also lost a brother in that awful war, at Vicksburg. There were thousands of American families that had these heart-breaking stories, but most of these stories were largely unknown, even to many of their descendants, as was somewhat true in our case.

I knew my Grandmother well, and she never once complained about their difficult life. I never thought to ask her of the family stories that she must have had, and they are now gone forever. Although she did not complain, she obviously missed her old home in Iowa, where she was born in 1851. She lived in Oklahoma for over 30 years, but also, all of those years, she continued to receive, by mail, her local newspaper from Iowa. These two generations lived through the peak of the American western migration. The story is there in the history books, rarely in correspondence, and in their lives, but they hardly realized it. They just lived it, one day at a time, always looking for something better for their families, and doing their best. One can only admire and respect their memories, but we can look at the terse statements above, of them and their lives. We wish that these brief words might be translated into actual stories of people, events and even extend to their thoughts. Their descendants have served their country in WWI, WWII, and Viet Nam, still defending the flag, so the old spirit, that was so evident, may still be present in their descendants. The old lives as farmers are now gone, and the family is scattered throughout the country., stopping only every year or two, to briefly renew the family relationships. I wonder if others of us might have stories to tell that would be of interest to all of us? Can we hear from others?

James E Thompson-2000


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Updated: 16 Jan 2017 12:51 PM