I’m taking part in a genealogy challenge developed by Amy Johnson Crow called “52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks.” The idea is to write something each week about your family history, and Amy provides a new prompt (a word or phrase) to help kickstart the creative process.
As you may have guessed from the title, this week’s prompt is “Witness to History.”
Wow. That’s a big one.
I think we all realize that we’re living history right now. I mean, 2020. What the heck?! The year began with the novel coronavirus spreading rapidly through parts of China and thence to the rest of the world. Massive wildfires left incredible damage in Australia and the Western United States, and we had several going at once here in Northwest Florida early in the year. Volcanoes. Earthquakes. Hurricane season set new records left and right; my hometown was directly impacted by Hurricane Sally in September.
I decided to look back at some past hurricane seasons and see how one branch of my family might have been affected.
You know, I think about this sometimes. On the one hand, they probably had no kind of warning that a hurricane was coming. What must they have thought as the wind picked up and just kept getting stronger and stronger? They didn’t have the opportunity to board up windows or make other preparations. On the other hand, they didn’t have power to go out, so they didn’t have to worry about food spoiling, and they had no air conditioning to miss.
In 1850, my great-great-great-great grandfather Isaac Pittman was living with his son and grandchildren in Holmes County, Florida. If you start at the western edge of the Florida panhandle and count five counties over, the small boxy one close to the Alabama state line is Holmes County. It’s very close to one of those red lines. I don’t know if this storm affected my family. That would depend on how large the storm was and how quickly it moved through. Also, by 1860, the family had moved to Baldwin County, Alabama (just west of the Florida state line), and I don’t know when that move occurred; maybe they were gone by the time it hit, although I know some of the extended family remained in Florida.
The 1860 and 1870 Censuses show my great-great-great grandfather Thomas Pittman living in Mobile, Alabama. That little southern panhandle of Alabama is divided into two counties, with Mobile Bay in the middle. Mobile County is on the left and Baldwin County on the right. The Pittman family would most definitely have felt the impact of this hurricane, which had a similar track to Hurricane Zeta in 2020. Thomas Pittman was a farmer; judging by the effects of Zeta this year, I imagine he suffered losses because of the storm.
The resource I found for historical hurricanes did not have a map showing landfalls for 1870 to 1879.
In 1880, Thomas Pittman was living in Baldwin County and “working at home” according to the U.S. Census. His son Isaac was also living in Baldwin County, with his new wife and her family, the Thompsons. He was working as a teamster. It’s unclear when in the decade this one storm made landfall in the area of Fort Walton Beach, Florida. A compact storm, like Hurricane Dennis in 2005, may have been barely felt at all in Baldwin County. A broad storm, like Hurricane Katrina, also 2005, could have downed trees, leaving roads impassible. Strong winds could easily pick up and smash wagons or stagecoaches.
Military pension records suggest that Thomas Pittman died in or before May 1894, just a few months before a major hurricane made landfall dead center of the Baldwin County coast. His widow, Elizabeth Ward, likely lived through this storm, as did Isaac and his family. By 1900, the U.S. Census listed Isaac as a farmer, so whether he was still driving teams in 1894 or was already growing crops, this hurricane very likely affected his livelihood.
How interesting it would be to know when these ancestors of mine first realized that the storm blowing in was going to be worse than usual. What did they see and hear as the storm passed by? What damage did it cause to their home, their crops, their cattle or tools?
I recall my grandfather, Hoyt Cook (who’s connected to the Pittmans by his marriage to the younger Isaac’s granddaughter, Willie Stevens), talking about one major hurricane that came through. I don’t remember now if he was telling his own memory or recounting a story told by one of his ancestors, but he described a piece of pine straw that had been driven into a tree like a nail by the powerful winds.
I’ve been through my share of hurricanes. Frederic in 1979, which made landfall in Mobile. Hurricane Elena in 1985, which kept making loops. Kate, also in 1985, which looked like it might come to Pensacola but ended up turning east (I was in a play and told my director my mother wouldn’t let me leave the house because of the hurricane; I did leave, though, and went to hear Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry speak at the University of West Florida.) Erin and Opal in 1995. Ivan in 2004. Dennis and the very edges of Katrina in 2005. Sally in 2020.
Of them all, from my perspective, Ivan was the worst. That’s based on its effects on the greater Pensacola area. Personally, the house we bought in January of 2004 came through it fine; we lost an awning on one side of the house and our power was out for about three weeks. My parents’ house, not that far away, had more damage from Dennis than Ivan. We lost power for three days after Katrina. A lot of people had major flooding from Sally; our street -which is low – filled up, but nothing got in the house. We did lose power for about a week.
So, my family has been a witness to hurricane history for at least seven generations. Of course, there are a lot of other kinds of history to witness. War, disease, scientific and technological advancement. I wish I knew more about how some of these great events affected my family. Because of that, I’ve also been trying to record how some major events in my lifetime affected me and my family, so that future generations won’t have to wonder.