Q & A
What is American Tapestry about?
The book is a story about my ‘middling’ family—I say middling because our middle class was not clearly defined until the twentieth century—whose members were involved in nearly every major event in American history from the French and Indian War through the Progressive era. They were successful people—farmers, millwrights, teachers, entrepreneurs, physicians—who were also local community leaders. They served on school boards and city councils, as county officials and justices of the peace, and in state legislatures. In short, American Tapestry tells the stories of regular Americans who, since the colonial period and continuing to this day, have continued to fill positions on the foundational democratic institutions that have the most direct effect on our daily lives.
The book is also a story about my journey of discovery through America’s past, an expedition that forced me to re-think my understanding of American history, none more profoundly than that of the relationship between Euro-Americans and Native Americans.
What inspired you to write American Tapestry?
Initially I intended to write a short narrative about my great-grandfather, John McEliece (1842-1904). As a community leader and, for much of his working life, a colliery superintendent, he was among the hundreds of obscure men who were lionized in the American county histories and the books of biographies that were published toward the end of the nineteenth century. But this Lewis Wickes Hine photograph of little boys working in a Pennsylvania colliery pointed to an ugly truth about John’s story. (Hine was the photographer for the National Child Labor Committee, a Progressive era organization dedicated to exposing and abolishing the practice of employing children in dangerous industries.)
Courtesy Library of Congress
A view of Ewen Breaker of the Pennsylvania Coal Company. Lewis Hine photographs
Compelled to come to terms with the disparity between the flattering biographical sketches and the reality of John’s life as a colliery superintendent overseeing the labor of little children, I hoped to find the answer to a simple question—“how could this be?”—by exploring my family’s past.
Why does your book include several chapters on Native American history?
I grew up in South Buffalo on land that I now know had at one time been the Buffalo Creek Reservation. Several place names in my old neighborhood—Seneca Street, Red Jacket Parkway, Indian Church Road—might have given me a clue that the area had a history that I was unaware of. But I was a kid, and the history of the Haudenosaunee people had never been taught in school. So, when Red Jacket’s name popped up when I was researching my ancestors’ involvement in the Revolutionary War, I was taken aback. What was this part of the Revolutionary War about? Something was clearly wrong with my understanding of United States’ history. As I learned more, I was haunted by the idea that something profound had happened on the place where I played my childhood games.
Today’s historians are telling even-handed stories about the clash between Euro-Americans and Native Americans. But for generations of students, American history lessons ignored the fact that Euro-Americans waged a more than four-centuries-long campaign to steal Native Americans’ lands, exterminate their families and erase their multitudinous cultures. I hope that my account of these events enhances our understanding of America’s first original sin.
What are some of the most interesting things you learned while researching your family?
Time and again I discovered how people were connected, sometimes as family and friends, other times as business associates or adversaries, and occasionally in surprising ways. In the world of my ancestors, relationships seemed to be more intimate and personal than they are today. Related to this idea, I was surprised to discover that several of my family members knew and interacted with historically prominent people. Also, although they were not without their flaws, I was proud to learn that my family had been civically engaged as unheralded local community leaders for almost two centuries.
Why is American Tapestry relevant today?
As you read through American Tapestry you may notice that several themes are recurrent in American history. The effect of war on civilian populations features prominently in several stories about fierce encounters on the Pennsylvania frontier as well as in episodes about the Civil War. Today, displacement of people due to war, poverty, violence and natural disasters figures prominently in American and worldwide calamities. The role of the press in a democratic society is a recurrent theme in American society that needs little elaboration. In my story it sometimes appears as background. But two episodes involved my family directly: the Know-Nothing attack on Simon Sallade and the anti-Catholic, anti-Irish, anti-union, anti-corruption attack on George McEliece and associates. This theme overlaps another: that of xenophobia and racism as a persistent element in American society. In the story it manifests itself in Indian-hating, anti-Irish and anti-Catholic sentiment, and, later, as isolation of eastern European immigrants. Today, of course, this theme plays a commanding role in our everyday politics. Next, the struggle between capitalism and labor during the Industrial Revolution, especially with respect to children, continues today. And most important, the traditions the family members established and the values they embraced live on today in the millions of Americans who continue to volunteer in a multitude of organizations. Thus, a unifying theme of this story—that middle-class values have endured through two centuries and countless historical transformations—offers assurance that we can overcome our present-day and future challenges as long as we remain true to those values. Finally, in a subtle way I hope American Tapestry motivates everyone to critically examine the history lessons they were taught in school.
What would you say to other people who are writing the story about their family?
Dig deep. If you find a clue, pursue it; you never know what you will find unless you look. Be honest with your readers and yourself, even if some of your discoveries knock you for a loop. Think big; try to place you family in context of their place and time in history. Have fun; consider your work as a labor of love.