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AMERICAN TAPESTRY by Pat Speth Sherman


Portrait of a "Middling" Family, 1746-1934

by Pat Speth Sherman

Publisher: Luminaire Press

A historical work introduces readers to at least six generations of a family and tells the story of the America the clan grew up with.

This account of Sherman’s family starts with her Irish immigrant ancestor James Woodside, a farmer who homesteaded in Central Pennsylvania near present-day Harrisburg in the 18th century. Then, down through the centuries, the volume covers John Woodside and his son, Jonathan, in the direct family line. In the 19th century, Mary Ann Woodside married George McEliece, starting another Irish American clan. Their son, John McEliece, married Ann Ellen Lukens. These were the author’s great-grandparents, giving way to her grandparents Dr. James J. Brown and Lillian McEliece. This is where the sprawling account ends, a story that takes readers from an agrarian semiwilderness to the 20th century, from Native American raids to the automobile and the electric light. Along the way, the work discusses the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, and the Civil War, with all the reverberations they entailed. And let’s not forget the Industrial Revolution. The book focuses on the various men in the family. They were all civic-minded, and some prospered and some didn’t. As the subtitle notes, Sherman wants to celebrate a “middling” family (which happens to be her own), not memorialize famous figures whom readers already know about. The volume features charts, maps, and archival photographs.

Sherman is a competent writer and is passionate about the downtrodden, such as the Native American tribes that were cheated time and again and finally displaced, if not brutally annihilated. When anthracite coal was discovered in Shamokin, Pennsylvania—just in time to power the Industrial Revolution—John McEliece became a manager of a mine. The author agonizes over the fact that an otherwise seemingly good man could countenance children as young as 10 years old working harder than any character in a Dickens’ novel. She devotes many pages to a study of the “breaker boys” and the benighted conditions that would only begin to be addressed when the courageous muckrakers exposed them. She is also intrigued by the rough and tumble politics of the day and the vitriolic attacks on the “Papist” Irish, who pushed back as the Molly Maguires and the Ancient Order of Hibernians. She devotes a lot of space to John McEliece because he also fought and was wounded in the Civil War and went on to become a prominent figure in the community, serving on many boards and councils. This makes her final discovery about the man a ghastly shock. Although Sherman protests that she is neither a historian nor a genealogist (nor a sociologist), readers get a very thoughtful panorama of 250 years of history, change, and how this “middling” family dealt with all of it. She is a formidable and patient researcher. The author says it took 10 years to write the book, and readers will believe it. Almost the last third of the volume is devoted to useful appendices (two Civil War battles and the deplorable conditions in the mines), acknowledgements, endnotes, and a detailed index.

A rigorous, absorbing family account that offers both a microcosm and a macrocosm.