I have no idea how–or why–my mother’s side of the family came to be in Oklahoma. I can only hope their excuse is as good as that of my father’s family. The story of how my family settled here is a lesson in how people often have to just play the hand they’re dealt. The oldest direct ancestor of whom I have record who bore my family name was named James, my great-great-great-great-great-grandfather.
My original surname is an Anglicized variant of a Scottish variant of the Irish Gaelic Mag Aonghusa (McGuinness), meaning “sons of Angus.” Angus was a king in that part of the world some years ago whose name came to be associated with Angus cattle, appropriate given the name means “Choice One.” Returning to James, he was born in Ireland and one story holds that he was an orphan who stowed away on a freighter from Dublin bound for what was then a fledgling United States. In any case, he arrived in the U.S. in the late 1780s or early 1790s and, after living for a time in Albany, eventually wound up living in New York City where he made a living for himself as a shoemaker. He died at sea around the age of 60 while sailing back to Ireland.
James had two children, daughter Sarah–whom I know nothing about–and son John Adams (not the president). John and especially his children became part of the pioneer movement that was pushing the frontier of the American heartland further and further west. He became a school teacher and settled with his family in Tuscarawas County in eastern Ohio.
John later died in Nebraska and his eight children fanned across the U.S. and settled in places ranging from the Oregon Territory to Missouri to New York. His second son was my great-great-great grandfather, Charles Postley. I don’t know if he fought in the Civil War, but in any case he survived it and in about 1870 he decided it was time for a change of scenery, loaded up his family in a covered wagon, and set out from their home in northwestern Missouri for Texas. As it turned out, I guess, Charles discovered–as most do–that Texas really wasn’t all it was cracked up to be and decided on a move back to Missouri a few years later.
On the return journey, just north of the Red River in what is now Marshall County, Oklahoma, the horses died and they were stranded in the middle of the Chickasaw Nation. I’m not sure how long they were there, but eventually a group of Chickasaw Indians road up on horseback and, seeing the family was a bit of a conundrum, offered to let Charles and his family settle on the land and work their horses. He agreed, leased land from them, and that’s how my family came to be in Oklahoma.
Later in life, Charles moved with his sons to the Pottawatomie lands which had been opened for settlement and he became the first postmaster in the town of Wanette. Charles’ son James Monroe (my great-great-grandfather; again, not the president) eventually settled in Atoka County, Oklahoma, where he died in 1931 at the beginning of the Depression. His son Jesse was my great-grandfather; Jesse’s son Eugene was my grandfather. The rest is history.
There’s something to be said for someone having the guts to uproot and move across a sparsely populated wilderness in a covered wagon and settle within it to start a new life. Modern Americans generally don’t have a concept of how extremely difficult and dangerous that was to do. If, on the way to wherever these pioneers were going, they managed to survive the weather, wild animals, Indians raids, robbers and outlaws, and a cadre of other hurtles and still make it alive, they then had to tame the land, build a shelter, and grow or kill their food. They also had to pray to the Lord for grace to survive in often harsh conditions and, of course, not all of them made it.
On the ranch where my family currently lives, a hundred years or more ago people attempted to settle here and farm the land. They weren’t successful. The ruins of their homesteads have all been swallowed by the woods and their memories have faded with time. Some of them are still buried here not far from my house, their tombstones gradually washing away.
It really makes me wonder: how have the expectations that modern Western humans hold concerning life been affected by the way we experience it? When you think about it, we spend essentially our entire lives in artificial, controlled, and insulated environments. Our homes are conditioned and insulated against nature; our cars, trains, and airplanes insulate us from time while we travel; our standard of living insulates us from hunger, disease, and thirst (at least for most of us). One has to consider if what we live is truly life or, at the very least, even remotely comparable to the lives lived by the people who brought us to this point. It’s not an exaggeration to say that most Americans live better than most of the men history remembers as kings.
I think that somewhere along humanity’s quest to advance, simplify, and perfect, to build bigger, stronger, and better we grew fairly proficient at evaluating things quantitatively: “Using this chemical makes the cow produce twice as much milk twice as fast,” “Using this app let’s you share your milestones with your friends in an instant,” “Using this modern machine, we can traverse hundreds of miles in a single day,” etc. Human beings began their existence in the prehistorical past as nomadic hunter-gatherers. They spent their lives in primitive and mobile societies and weren’t blessed (or encumbered, depending on your perspective) with the largess of modern life. What hasn’t been asked–at least widely–is whether or not after all the advancement and simplification that’s been achieved in the past two centuries human life is truly better. Maybe it is in some respects, but are those respects necessarily important?
Now, don’t misunderstand. I’m not suggesting some sort of technological nihilism or that society needs to return to the Middle Ages. All of human history has been a story of progress and the technological revolution of the Nineteenth and Twentieth centuries merely accelerated that progress. Efficiency, however, which is what technology is primarily intended to enhance, cannot become a quest solely unto itself. Efficiency for the sake of efficiency is anathema to human life. Our lives are messy, halting, and confusing; they’re anything but efficient. I’d also posit that attempting to impose too much efficiency on ourselves actually somehow undermines our humanity. As life and the world floats by our windows, beneath the airplane’s wings, and outside our office windows, we increasingly become spectators to it and, in a very real sense, cease to experience it. As we strive to eliminate pain and struggle from our lives, perhaps serious consideration should be given to whether or not truly experiencing what it means to be a human somehow partially lies within pain and struggle.
And, as with virtually anything, the pursuit of efficiency can become misshapen and grotesque. When used effectively, technology and modern convenience should really free us up to experience the good parts of life more often. They should free us to learn and explore the perimeters of our intellects, to know people and be known by people. Otherwise, we can easily become slaves to efficiency, dependent on it, and fearful of its absence.
I don’t know that the people who came before us lived better lives than we do or vice versa. I doubt James, John, Charles Postly, James Monroe, or Jesse spent a lot of time wondering about that sort of thing anyway; and, in all honesty, I think those kinds of comparisons are ridiculous to attempt. What I do know, however, is that we don’t spend enough time in true introspection to see if we truly know ourselves. That, I think, is the real danger lying within an idolatrous relationship to efficiency. When the perks of modernity become ends to themselves, they often anesthetize against true self-knowledge. That’s what we have to avoid. Life doesn’t require extreme asceticism any more than it requires pompous luxury; it merely requires, as Thoreau would say, a certain deliberateness.