Woods Myths and Facts
Fiona Watson on William Wallace in Ayrshire
As I consider what I compiled and how I introduced this collection of records and urged more and better research, and began to write this article, I also reflected upon what the late John Hume notably said about ‘Ireland not being just a romantic dream,’ but it is a reality of its people. Families are the same way, and nations are communities of families.
Some large extended U.S. families, whose ancestors lived in Ireland and Scotland, have developed myths and fantasies about themselves and their pasts and hold these imaginary pasts forth as ideals for the future. The most fanatic adherents get real upset when a real researcher has to tell them, sorry, ‘but sons and daughters of titled British or Irish aristocrats were rarely persons who emigrated–as they had no economic, nor socio-political need to do so.’ They also don’t like it when you say, ‘there was no castle in your family, ever, or not for at least 500 years, and even 500 years ago it was a ruin and the family had moved out to a more comfortable, roomy, two story and a loft, mansion where your dinners arrived from the kitchen hot in winter.’
Our tour of the Castle of Trim in County Meath is a classic example of this. I wish every person who dreams of glorious ancestors having lived in a castle and having had dozens of servants at their beck and call, and having to be paid nothing, could take that tour. Castle Trim is more like a prison than a home, built to keep sword wielding attackers at bay. Every aspect of its design is arranged for defense, with absolutely NO room allotted for comforts or amenities.
For a very long time, many members of the Woods and Wood families, who have millions of living descendants in the U.S., have cherished myths, dreams and fantasies of their ancestors. They imagined that, immediately prior to emigration, their ancestors were wealthy, illustrious lords and ladies and living in a castle, somewhere, in Ireland or Scotland. They were written about as such, as early as 120 years ago by reputable judges and educated reverends in the family who were not historical researchers by any means, and didn’t even apply the rules of evidence that both well understood, to what they wrote about their families. Yet, they claimed the emigrant Woods’ and their children were all born in Dunshaughlin Castle in County Meath, in Ireland.
Well, nearly every myth has a grain or two of truth. The two we found were buried beneath a mountain of hay and chaff, and if they had been real kernels of grain, would be so small as to require a magnifying glass to see them. The best that could be said at the end of 80 plus years of research by a network of people across three generations was it looks like there was someone from the family in Dunshaughlin AFTER our emigrants left–and sorry folks, there was NO castle, but a small pile of stone rubble with the footprint size of the monastic granary at Glendalough. That’s another tour into which I wish I could put everyone who imagines a granary to be a motte able to hold a knight, his family, some of his senior soldiers and a few servants, plus armor, weapons and household goods–and let’s not forget a kitchen even for times of siege when you can’t use the outdoor one.
Another small grain is that there was a Woods to Woods marriage and it was close to the time the emigrants were born. One researcher, in Ireland, looking at original parish and civil records there was correct in his belief that this had happened. He was wrong about the degree and where the marriage likely took place, given the general history of the area. There was a slight problem with the fantasy that there was a large, rather prominent Protestant family having children in Meath in the 1680’s, given how much of it was still then dominated by old Norman-Irish Catholic families who did have lard holdings, and many feudal servitors, including soldiers during the reign of James II and when this area became a war zone for several years. The period of 1685 to 1690 was no time to be Protestant outside of Ulster. It wasn’t that great for many Catholics! The existence of the Woods-Woods marriage took modern DNA to prove, the where and how are still a work in progress but strong clues exist in records found after DNA also showed where the paternal line had been in the first part of the 17th century.,
Like most good and accurate family history, it’s still a work in progress. All the records of families and individuals that were even made and still exist, are still, in the 21st century with modern digitization and uploading technologies, only slowly being made more available on-line or in inexpensive published form in either print, or on more easily stored CD’s, Several years ago, Ancestry.com and its affiliate Family Search quit renting the more than 50 year old sepia, grainy microfilms of millions of records microfilmed in Europe and older states of the U.S. They promised to have them all on line by the end of 2018. While they have made progress on this promise, they are a long way yet from delivery half way through 2020. Unfortunately, they indulged in a fantasy and romantic dream also. They imagined there were hundreds of older persons with technological skills retired with good income, and lots of will and time to just volunteer to do all the work of scanning, organizing, indexing, and uploading for no pay, like slaves or feudal serfs of old.
It turns out the states who decided to put online older county records, and have copies in one place in the state archives or library had the same fantasy. They budgeted in some states the money for temporary extra staff to make hard copies or digital copies of records and send them to the state archives and then didn’t budge any money for extra staff to scan and upload everything into one system, organize it, index it, and then make it available online. A great American fantasy across many states and industries, is that people love working for no pay and somehow can survive on no pay. It isn’t just some of the Woods’ who would like to live in a fantasy realm with unpaid servants at their beck and call, because they believe it was this way in the past.
Reality is what you make it, good or bad, and that was what was true in the past as now. The reality for most Scots and Irish, as it was for the Woods is they were not lords and ladies but people who worked for what they had. The Woods were more successful than some, because they had the means to emigrate and not do so as families of indentured servants. They dreamed a dream, had the sense to plan how they would achieve it and then made it happen. By leaving before the size of the families outstripped the assets they had to support a family, they had some means to make a new future. They then had enough money to buy land immediately upon arrival, as they did–when it was available, in Pennsylvania, which is why many went on to Virginia.
All through the 17th and 18th centuries, the islands of Ireland and Britannia were 80-90% agrarian. People farmed and tended livestock for a living, put a roof over their heads, food on the table for growing families (no birth control in those days) and clothes on their backs and paid for any education, either by barter or money. Think about the climate in the places most people originated and at that time–before the current global warming. Think about the often glacier scoured land with only a few thousands of years of soil able to be built up in low places. Think about how many crops they could get a year with that combination, and how much land they might have laid fallow to allow it to recover in between plantings. Think about how food processing and storage was done in those days–before even ice-boxes and refrigeration or freezers, before canning. Now add to this the feudal system in England, Wales and that was imposed in Ireland where a small percentage of families were given huge grants of land by kings and sold only a small part, leasing most, and changing leases and rents whenever they wished. In Scotland, up to 1745, clans mostly owned the lands, but it was still clan chiefs and nobles made by the kings that did what they wanted with the lands and could move people about at will. An angry king could also dispossess an entire clan of land and force them to move elsewhere and become part of some other clan. These were also ISLANDS, with limited land for everyone one, including market and trading towns, and government centers, and limited supplies of materials for fuel. When the population and peace increased, and good land was becoming less available, especially the best farm and herding lands, the industrial revolution had not yet occurred.
Then, as now, banks, which did exist, loaned to farmers and others for business projects or home remodeling on the basis of assets that were OWNED. To get a loan to expand and buy a building, it was easier for a good craftsman with a set of tools and supply of raw materials to turn these into products, than for a tenant farmer with a growing family, or a small landowner with a growing family and no nearby good land available to buy. It was at the same time more profitable for landowners with excess land to collect annual rents, and even pieces of subleases on their lands than to sell it. You can only sell land once, but you can let it out nearly forever–as long as the land, or buildings have any value. The Woods’ actually did very well by the realities of the 17th and 18th centuries. Many others did not. Given how truly tough it was to survive and thrive, this is the Woods’ reality, and it should be an inspiration to their descendants to be celebrated as an example for their own futures.
The desire to own land is what drove people to emigrate. They were looking at the realities of their present and future, and working with that, while dreaming of a better future for themselves and their children. The Woods’ real story, real records of that real story, is the real story of Ireland and how and when it succeeds best, and likewise, it is the story of the U.S., and how and when it succeeds best.
Of the millions of Woods’ descendants, some are very definitely in California. Woodbridge, near Stockton, was founded by a branch of the Woods family that came to California from Kentucky during the Gold Rush. They found farming more profitable than chasing dreams of easy pickings of gold. In this document, I have referenced, are the so far existing records online of one large extended family. These records relate to the Woods’ families who first arrived in colonial Pennsylvania in the 1720’s and 1730’s. In these real records, see both their dreams and their realities and appreciate both.
Since records by themselves are pretty dry, we also added images to illustrate some of what the records described. Some are from our 2016 trip, and some courtesy of others in Ireland who were able to get some of the pictures we wanted and were not able to get in 2016.
If you look at the table of contents on our Documents Page, you will also see another new entry: Fiona Watson – A Report into the Association of Sir William Wallace with Ayrshire. This original article was done some years ago by Dr. Fiona Watson for the Council of East Ayrshire, Scotland, about the difference between the old myths about Sir William Wallace (‘Braveheart’) and Ellerslie, and the reality of his family in Ayrshire, and his early life, and I obtained a hard copy from the Council. Fiona’s article has been cited a number of times, with excerpts being published in more recent histories of this man and his period in Scotland but it has become harder to find the entirety of the original article and so I decided to scan and upload it and make it more available.