Our Miller family’s history has always been interesting to me, so I was happy to be presented with a project requiring research into our farm’s history.
Besides, I’m retired, it’s the dead of winter and I’m on restrictions while recuperating from surgery. What else did I have to do?
The project was to document that our family has owned, resided upon and worked this one particular farm in Hancock County, W.Va., continuously for 100 years or more, to qualify it as a West Virginia Century Farm, an award given through the Soil Conservation Service.
This is great. We Millers are champions of staying put, and along comes an Award for Outstanding Inertia. Documentation should be easy since the Millers never threw anything away. The farmhouse has stashes of old letters, maps, wills and deeds.
I eventually found what I needed, but more important, I learned that our Miller ancestors – along with the intermarried Pittengers, Campbells, Spiveys, Mayhews, Glasses and other early Scots-Irish families – supported and cared for each other.
I love history as fervently as my wife Honey hates it, but for two weeks she has tolerated my piles of old documents on the kitchen table, and has driven me to the county courthouse to research deeds and wills. To Honey, what we do today is what matters, and whatever my – or her – ancestors did is a big yawn and irrelevant to our lives now.
I ALREADY KNEW that a great-great-great-grandfather, David Miller, had a 400-acre farm on the waters of the south fork of Tomlinson Run in Hancock County, the same valley in which our present 132-acre Miller farm is situated, in the 1700s.
David was born in County Tyrone, Ireland, in 1743, came to America as a young man, served in the Revolutionary War and married Abigail Martin, a war widow in Washington, Pa.
I knew that one of David’s grandsons, Morgan H. Miller, our great-grandfather, had bought 100 acres of the present farm in 1883, and that we Millers had owned it ever since. Proving 100 years would be a snap.
What I really hoped to prove, however, was that this farm went back in the family for 150 or 200 years.
The problem was that it was not part of David’s 400 acres, which abutted it on the east and is now owned by Allison descendants.
I looked at the Campbells, whose descendants still live up over the hill from us on the south. (They have as much inertia as the Millers.) Morgan Miller and his older brother, John Pittenger Miller, married Campbell sisters – Melissa and Margaret – making their children double cousins. The Campbells and Millers sold property to each other. In 1889 Morgan bought back 31 acres on the south from John H. Campbell, part of 127 acres sold to Campbell by Henry Pittenger; interesting, but not helpful to my goal.
THE PITTENGER CONNECTION seemed more promising.
Back in 1990 I wrote a Miller family history, leaning heavily on research done by Marie Miller McElhaney of Coraopolis, Pa., and a family tree compiled by Harry O. Miller of Pughtown and Joseph Shields Miller of Clarksburg. I knew Marie back then. She was a lively older lady who knew family history like a book and delighted in taking young family members to old cemeteries on tombstone hunts.
Anyway, in that 1990 history I had written that when Morgan H. Miller, a Civil War veteran, bought the 100-acre farm from Henry Pittenger in 1883 at a price of $5,000, a clause in the deed reserved use of the garden and “mansion house” to Henry and his wife for the rest of their lives, while Morgan raised his family in a log cabin in the pasture.
Morgan paid $2,000 and signed notes to pay off the rest at $500 a year. However, it’s unclear whether he did. After Henry died in 1901, Morgan’s older brother John Pittenger Miller, named in Pittenger’s will as executor of his estate, cleared all liens on the farm, giving Morgan clear title.
It’s not odd that Pittenger would ask a trusted neighbor farmer to be executor of his estate. However, clearing the liens is not something John likely would have done unless he knew it was Henry Pittenger’s express wish. It is equally unlikely Pittenger would have let the debts slide and eventually be forgiven unless Morgan was family.
I knew that a Margaret Pittenger married Benjamin Miller and were parents of John and Morgan. She would have been about the same age as Henry, but Margaret was a very common name. Could they have been brother and sister? Among the yellowing family documents I found two bits of circumstantial evidence: one was Henry Pittenger’s will, showing that he had one married daughter but no sons; the other was a handwritten agreement by Pittenger giving Morgan shared use of the farm at a rent of $140 a year in 1869 and 1870.
A friend’s help searching Ancestry.com, and a closer look at D.A.R. application records kept by Marie Miller McElhaney proved that Margaret and Henry indeed were sister and brother, making Henry Pittenger “Uncle Henry” to Morgan and John P. Miller, and extending family ownership of the farm back to 1858, when Henry bought the farm from Hugh Pugh. That’s 168 years, qualifying ours as a W.Va. Sesquicentennial Farm.
The research also revealed to me other lines of early ancestors – the Pittengers, Campbells and so on – whose descendants are still nearby. More glorious inertia.
OTHER AUNTS AND UNCLES played roles in keeping the farm intact and in the family.
Before Morgan died, he asked his elder son, James, a respected physician in Steubenville, if he would mind that the farm be left to his three siblings: Edgar, Belle, and our grandfather, Wm. Fred, the baby of the family. After Morgan died in 1929, Edgar and Belle accepted a buyout from Fred with money lent by Uncle Jim, who later tore up the note.
Our grandparents, Wm. Fred and Edythe Glass Miller, married in 1912 and lived their lives working the farm. They died within months of each other in the mid-1960s. Our father, Lester Campbell Miller, and mother, Lucille Adkins Miller, moved our family to Hancock County in 1955 to help care for our ill and elderly grandparents. Fred left the farm to Lester in his will, and Lester’s only sibling, Dorothy Miller Rogers, graciously accepted the arrangement.
Before they died, Lester and Lucille added our names – myself and my two sisters – to the farm deed. It’s a Last Man’s Club deed: whichever of us lives longest, owns the farm intact. It’s also an incentive for us to get along, which we do.
Aunt Dorothy Rogers, Uncle Ira and Aunt Belle Mayhew, Uncle Edgar and Aunt Nora Mayhew Miller, Uncle Jim and Aunt Nora Wilson Miller, Uncle John P. Miller and Uncle Henry Pittenger – the fact that our current generation of Millers enjoys the farm is owed to them.
That’s boring history to my wife. To me, it’s the story of a loving family through the generations.